Dear Mr. Scalzi,
I’m in the midst of your book Redshirts. Being a classic Trek fan, I am, so far, quite entertained. I am also an avid follower of your blog and there find you to be an erudite, articulate, and humorous person; thus, I truly wanted to like your fiction wholeheartedly and in all ways. I say all this so you know I am not setting out to attack you.
But I am angry.
Although I have some quibbles with Redshirts, most of them I can put up to personal taste, and so far the book has been an amusing and diverting romp. I did, however, just come across one issue that has outraged me deeply, and that I must speak up about, namely: Your book fails completely in its human diversity. Which is tragically ironic, because classic Trek was known for striving, within its time, to be inclusive of races and cultures and women in ways that nobody else in that era was, and your book’s failure to do so stands in stark contrast to its source material.
I never would have expected to be writing a letter like this to you. In fact, your past writing on race and gender connected with me; I thought, in high spirits, “Here is someone who Gets It.” Perhaps my expectations of you were too high, and that has contributed to how viscerally disappointed I feel. In any case, those expectations just crashed miserably, here in Chapter Nine.
You see, as I’m sure you intended, the bridge crew of your Intrepid, to the advantage of the satire, is very clearly based on the bridge crew of the original starship Enterprise. Yet here is your cast of main officers:
Captain Abernathy (clearly based on Kirk)
Commander Q’eeng (clearly based on Spock)
Chief Engineer West
They are all men. They are all—unless I missed a descriptor somewhere—white. In contrast, here is the main crew of the original Starship Enterprise:
Chief Engineer “Scotty” Scott
(Plus Christine Chapel and Janice Rand are sometimes listed as main crew members.)
Now, we could argue about the problematic portrayals of some of these crew members on the show. I can’t deny that Yeoman Rand’s scripted purpose was probably to be fanservice for the young men watching. Lieutenant Uhura didn’t even get a first name and was a glorified telephone operator—and she got such wonderful lines as, “Captain, I’m frightened.” (It was so bad Nichelle Nichols almost quit the show.) But Star Trek absolutely gets points for trying. It was the sixties. It was the sixties, and they had a black woman on the bridge, working alongside men and the superior officer to men. An Asian-American man was the ship’s pilot, and no matter how small or sidelined his role was sometimes, that is awesome. And let’s not forget Chekov—though he was a white man, his inclusion was at least partly to show that Russia was not the evil demon the U.S. was making it out to be and that we would all just get along eventually.
And this didn’t happen accidentally. Gene Roddenberry didn’t do “colorblind casting” and come up with this lineup randomly—that never would have happened in that era. This was conscious inclusion. This was someone making the decision to include minorities at a time when nobody would have blinked an eye if it wasn’t done. This was a vision of a better future. Hikaru Sulu stood for all of Asia—forty years later, an Asian man of different heritage would play him in the same spirit. Nichelle Nichols ended up agreeing to stay on the show because Martin Luther King, Jr. himself convinced her how important Uhura’s role was. Star Trek became so known for inclusion, and for actively striving for diversity, that it came under fire later for never having an openly LGBT character, when other franchises never would have come under the same scrutiny. The first interracial kiss on network television happened on Star Trek. And both the original series and the 2009 reboot (oh, I wish we would have come so far that this isn’t the case, but it is) helped launch the careers of minority actors in a Hollywood that to this day still wants white men in its starring roles. George Takei went on to become an activist for Asian-American relations and gay rights. Nichelle Nichols has used her role to help recruit and inspire young women into becoming astronauts (including Sally Ride). In recent years, we’ve seen roles that probably never would have gone to minorities otherwise being played by John Cho and Zoe Saldana, because Star Trek gave them the star power and clout to demand those roles. My point is, Star Trek didn’t exist, and has never existed, in a vacuum. The conscious diversity—the diversity that a few stubborn people living in a racist, sexist, decades-past era probably had to fight for even for it to make it onto the show—has had a tangible impact on our world and on pushing back against the institutional racism and sexism that still exist today. Sulu and Uhura are important.
(And you erased them. How could you fail to notice this? And if you did notice what you did, why didn’t you think it was important to fix it?)
Speaking personally for a moment, the fact that even today we have so few nonstereotypical characters of color and female characters in media is the number one symptom of institutional racism/sexism that angers me. Number one. I have started having a very short temper with books and movies that trot out all white men, with maybe a token woman of color, because my world does not look like that, and it has started actively angering me when my fiction insists upon it, when my space operas erase my race entirely, when visions of the future show a spread of humanity that is somehow absurdly pale and male given the current, unequivocal diversity in our global reality.
Mr. Scalzi, it was with great hope that I originally picked up your fiction, because, from your blog, I was secure in my assumption that you were someone who understood all this, and who would realize your power as a contributor to media. I thought, “How wonderful to see a writer, someone who impacts culture, who is aware of this larger picture! Here is someone who is active in the stream of ideas whom we will not have to worry about educating on this!”
And it was with this mindset that I began reading Redshirts. Even your setup did not dissuade me: the fact that your protagonist was a generic white man, the fact that his friends were mostly generic white men with one token woman who seemed set up from the beginning to be a love interest—I noticed but excused these things, as I thought, “Oh, he’s writing a satire of Star Trek. It’s the sixties. Of course he felt he had to write it that way for the redshirts, because that’s what’s on the show.” Perhaps you could have done better than that, but I was willing to excuse it.
But then we got to your bridge crew. All men. All with names that sound generically Western. You don’t seem to put in descriptions of your characters in general, but you seem to be a smart enough man on this subject to realize that with generically Western names, your characters will default to white in most readers’ heads. I did note one minor character (who died very fast) with a last name that implied to me that she was black—if you have some extreme personal distaste for physical descriptions in your fiction writing, why not have named a couple of your bridge officers Hassan or Singh or Gonzales or Fujimoto? Why West and Hartnell and Abernathy? All these surnames originate not only in Europe, but in the British Isles; “Kerensky” sounds Russian or Eastern European, which also defaults to “white man.” (And he doesn’t have any of Chekov’s endearing Russian-isms anyway; his interactions are a cultural blank slate—not to mention that in the present day, the Cold War and its relevance in Gene Roddenberry’s inclusion of Chekov as a “diversity” character are long past.) In fact, it strikes me that given Kerensky’s Russian surname and Hartnell’s and West’s positions on the ship, you made close copies of exactly the five white men in Star Trek’s main cast—and only them, because for some reason the two crew members you chose to excise were the black woman and the Asian-American man.
How could you possibly think this was okay?
You were writing a parody of classic Star Trek, yet in reproducing its main crew, you whitewashed and made male its entire cast. (While still including, I cannot fail to note, a faithful expy of the token extraterrestrial.) Mr. Scalzi, I’m sorry to say this, but you did worse than a show that was written in the sixties.
And I would expect that a book that was written in 2012, even a book that is a satire of a sixties show, to do better than its source material. You probably could have made Captain Abernathy a Cuban woman without disrupting your narrative in the slightest. But if you felt that would be too shocking to Trek fans, if you felt you couldn’t gender- or race-flip Captain Kirk without throwing your readers out of the story, then why did you do it to Sulu and Uhura? Because that threw me out of the story, Mr. Scalzi. When I got to the point where Jenkins lists the five main bridge crew and it was five men, four with Western names and the remaining one Spock’s alien stand-in, I had to stop reading, had to put the book aside. I had to stew. I felt disgruntled and resentful. I felt angry (I still feel angry). And furthermore, I felt betrayed. Because I thought you understood, Mr. Scalzi. I thought of you as an ally in raising cultural awareness of bias against gender and race, as a comrade-in-arms in this fight against systemic and institutional -isms. To find that your own contribution to popular culture not only seemed to ignore your own words on the matter by not including women and people of color, but went to the other extreme in doing worse than its half-century-old source material—it has made me profoundly heartsick.
To those of us who delight in every rare appearance of “someone who looks like me!” in media, to those of us who treasure the impact of Uhura and Sulu on the greater cultural consciousness and who consider them vital parts of classic Trek, it’s a slap in the face when a parody reproduction of the crew not only completely ignores their existence but blithely fails to include any woman or person of color in a group of people that is supposed to be representative of Star Trek.
I believe you can do better, Mr. Scalzi. And as someone who enjoys your work, I hope you do.
p.s. — And if one argues that the redshirts are the true main characters, their diversity is no better. Like the other characters, they are not described, and going by their names we have five white people: Dahl (Germanic name), Hanson (Danish-Norwegian), Duvall (French), Hester (English), and Finn (Irish). Duvall is the only woman, and so far is solidly in the role of the Smurfette (her defining characteristic being her femaleness).
p.p.s. — And as a side note, think of what great satire a diverse cast could have afforded you! “The Narrative can’t kill me; I’m the only black main character!” “Are you kidding?! The black guy ALWAYS dies! Besides, they have an Asian woman at tactical; that’s good enough! You’re not any safer than the rest of us!” You not only hurt at least one reader, Mr. Scalzi, you missed a fantastic parody opportunity.