An Open Letter to John Scalzi

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)
Doctor Hartnell
Lieutenant Kerensky
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:

Captain Kirk
Commander Spock
Doctor McCoy
Lieutenant Sulu
Lieutenant Uhura
Ensign Chekov
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.

SL Huang

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.

7 thoughts on “An Open Letter to John Scalzi

  1. John Scalzi

    As a warning to anyone who reads this: This response will have spoilers in it for the book, so beware.

    SL Huang, as you’re in Chapter Nine, I’ll note that one of the critical lines in the book is in that particular chapter. In the chapter, you’ll note, Jenkins springs on the characters that they’re characters on a television show, and then says “But that’s not the worst thing.” When they ask him what the worst thing is, he says “It’s not actually a very good show.”

    What this means is that the show they are on, while intentionally a knock-off of Star Trek, also does what Star Trek does in an inferior manner. What does this mean for the show? Well, most obviously for the characters in the book , it means the writing of individual episodes is kind of crappy, and that’s an engine that runs the story. Less obviously, however it means that the show missed the point of some of what Star Trek did. For example, the producers of the show-within-a-book would not have gone out of their way to make a diverse above-the-credits cast, because they wouldn’t see the point of what Roddenberry was doing in the 60s, intentionally building a cast of diverse faces — they would look at the function of the roles (we need a Kirk, and a Spock, and a Chekov, etc) without understanding why Chekov was there to make a subtle commentary on the Cold War, or how Uhura’s name was symbolic in itself.

    Which is to say that the reason the Bridge Officer characters of the Intrepid are all male and are (you surmised correctly) all white is because in the book, that’s part of how bad the show is.

    Once you get away from the bridge crew, the producers aren’t paying as much attention to the casting, or alternately are using the casting of minor characters to deflect criticism regarding the bridge crew being white males, which is why, as an example, the Xenobiology lab crew features two women, one of whom (Fiona Mbeke) is non-white, as well as a non-white male (Lt. Trin, who has Vietnamese ancestry). Other non-white characters mentioned include the doomed Ensign Lee (Chinese female), an equally doomed Ensign Lopez (hispanic, sex not noted but I imagined the Ensign as female) a colony doctor named Fouad Ali (Muslim male), and let’s not forget Ensign Chen (Asian male), who had a memorable run in with the Borgovian landworms.

    All of these characters are relatively minor ones in terms of the show, and you would be correct to point that out, because again, that’s the sort of crap show it is.

    So this part of your criticism, pointing out the white maleness of the bridge crew of the Intrepid, is entirely on point and valid. Glad you picked up on it.

    Moving away from the bridge crew of the Intrepid to the main characters of Redshirts, this is actually kind of an interesting thing. The primary character’s names are Dahl, Duvall, Hanson, Hester and Finn. Now, one of the things you’re generally not supposed to do when writing characters in your books is to name them similarly; this is called the “One David” rule, as in, you only get one character named David in your book to keep from confusing your readers. This extends to last names as well; you want to avoid your main characters having names too similar to each other, up to including the first letters of last names. As part of the “meta”-ness of the book, which is among other things a meditation on what is good writing and what is bad writing, I put in several intentional “bad writing” Easter Eggs, one of which is giving my main characters similar names.

    “Dahl” is named so because his name sounds like “doll,” representing that he may not be entirely in control of his own fate. I needed a name that sounded similar to Dahl, and as often happens with me when I need a name, I plucked one from a musician. Thus Maia Duvall is named after William DuVall, current lead singer of Alice in Chains (if the musician name connection sounds sketchy to you, consider that Hester and Finn are named for two members of the band Crowded House). If you follow the link there to the picture of Mr. DuVall, you’ll understand when I say that my own image of Maia Duvall isn’t necessarily of her being white.

    That said, given my general lack of description of characters — something which is consistent across most of my books — it’s entirely fair to assume that Maia defaults to white, since I gave her a name that is not specifically tied to a non-white ethnic group.

    In any event, the upshot of all of the above is that Redshirts is interesting to discuss from a diversity point of view in part because of “meta” nature of what’s going on in the book, and how it reflects me writing a book about people living in the future, being part of a not very good television show here in 2012. I’m not going to try to dissuade you from holding any opinion of the book other than you have, but context is always useful, so here it is.

    In a general sense I do think it’s worth it to make an effort toward having a diverse cast of characters in one’s novels, and I do try to have my novels do that. For example(s), one of the primary characters of my novel Fuzzy Nation is Isabel Wangai, who is explicitly noted to be of African ancestry; so is Ambassador Ode Abumwe, a primary character in my upcoming novel The Human Division. I make it easy to identify them (and other characters in recent novels) as not being all white, all the time because I tend not to heavily describe characters, and whether or not I intend for characters to be white, the fact of the matter is that this is where our defaults are as a culture.

    Hope this is useful to you in your thinking about Redshirts and other works of mine.

  2. slhuang Post author

    Hi John,

    Wow. Thank you so much for responding so wonderfully and thoroughly. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your time and the fact that you considered what I said so thoughtfully.

    I actually did finish the book before I posted, just in case the narrative was going to address this, and I have to admit that I didn’t draw the connection you intended between the show being a bad show and the lack of diversity (perhaps because, sadly, so many pieces of media that purport to be “good” still have a lack of diversity, so it didn’t occur to me that such a thing would be taken for granted as a sign of a “bad” show — but more on that in a moment). To be honest, I thought the “it’s not actually a very good show” commentary was supposed to be poking friendly fun at the fact that ST: TOS was not always the best-written television show ever, not that the show in Redshirts was meant to be actively worse than ST: TOS. I really, really wish you had given the lack of diversity a dialogue check somewhere or otherwise lampshaded it, because even knowing what you intended, it still reads to me like a parody of TOS in which you completely forgot about the iconic nonwhite characters.

    I did notice and applaud your diversity in background characters, which made me doubly confused and unhappy that I didn’t see the same mix among the bridge officers or the leads. And again, if one of your characters had pointed out how diverse the “background” characters were compared to the “main” characters and said what you just did about why it was that way in terms of the Narrative, I would have been absolutely ecstatic. The problem is that so many pieces of media do exactly that (white leads / minor characters of color who are inconsequential or die) WITHOUT it being commentary. It’s frustratingly, infuriatingly common, and being a person of color, I notice it every time it happens, which is ALL THE TIME, EVERYWHERE. It’s not even something that’s unique to bad shows. In fact, it happens so often, and so across the board, that it’s not even worth complaining about. So I had no reason to think that your book was trying to do social commentary instead of falling itself into this very common mold, which was disappointing but not worthy of much thought. And I was also willing to go along with it on a meta level, because it was clear from the second chapter some of what you were going for with the “badly written”-ness, and like I said, I was along for the ride on that, because sure, ST: TOS lacked diversity in its redshirts too, and if you wanted to be as “bad” as TOS, I was with you. Where you lost me was that glaring excision of Uhura and Sulu — because I didn’t think, and still don’t think, that there was any clear indication that this show was supposed to be WORSE-written than Star Trek. In fact, a huge part of your satire depends on it being *exactly as bad* as Star Trek (with perhaps some slight hyperbole).

    But even though I usually lean towards Death of the Author, it does help to know that you intended the lack of diversity as a commentary (it may sound stupid, but I’ve been spending a lot of spare brain cycles this week depressed that one of my favorite bloggers disappointed me so badly in his fiction, and trying to reconcile in my head what I saw as a grave omission in Redshirts with all your other writing on race and gender). Even though your execution didn’t work for me, the fact that you were trying for social commentary in erasing Sulu and Uhura — well — I still don’t think it was the right decision, and I don’t think I’ll come around on Redshirts, but I feel a lot better about you as an author and I won’t prejudge your other fiction. ‘Cause, I mean, I know you were so worried about what one person you don’t know thinks of you. ;) But seriously, thank you so much for taking the time to respond, and I do feel much better knowing what you were trying for, even if it didn’t work for me.

    You know, I think if Redshirts were written in the twenty-third century, and a lack of diversity *was* immediately associated socially with bad writing, maybe it would have been clear what your casting was trying to accomplish. But as it stands, the casting in the book is a carbon copy of plenty of other contemporary media, good and bad, well-written and not, that’s all lily white and that doesn’t have any self-awareness at all. And the deletion of Star Trek’s nonwhite leads feels no different from current Hollywood trends in racebending and whitewashing that consistently infuriate me. Even worse, just like most white Americans don’t notice that same awful racebending and whitewashing until it’s pointed out to them, a lot of people I’ve talked to about Redshirts didn’t even notice that Sulu and Uhura were missing. (It’s scary to think about, but maybe the failure mode of satirizing race issues is contributing to institutional racism oneself, however unintentionally . . .) It’s possible that your own mindset about racial issues is so far ahead of where society is ;) that you’ve assumed we’re all there with you on thinking that of course diversity should be the default and anything else must be satire. But speaking as someone who spends way more time analyzing media on this stuff than is good for my psyche, I don’t think our society is even close to being there yet. Unfortunately.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful response. You are a gentleman and a scholar.

    p.s. — And yes, I did notice your repetitive character names; I’m terrible with names anyway and it drove me nuts! :) Since I’m aware of it as a writing rule, by a few chapters in I figured you must have been doing it intentionally.

  3. InMyBook

    Wow. John Scalzi is indeed a gentleman and a scholar. He has another fan. I am very impressed with his answer and this dialogue in general.

    The other day I watched a film set in early 1960’s corporate America. That is the time period in which I was a child. Just 50 years ago, the culture in America was markedly racist and sexist compared to today. It made me upset to see it again and think back to how it was in my youth. We have come a long way, but have so much further to go. I applaud your efforts.

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  5. sylviamcivers livejournal com

    When I read Redshirts, i missed Lt. Uhura’s equivalent. She was always so poised, and this bridge crew was so dumb :(

  6. slhuang Post author

    I agree! And thank you — one of the things that depressed me the most about this is that nobody else I talked to about this even realized she was missing. :( It’s good to know I wasn’t the only one!

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