Interview for Geek Dad/Geek Mom on Racism and Diversity in Speculative Fiction

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St. Maurice

On April 11, 2017, I was interviewed by the blog Geek Dad/Geek Mom. We talked about racism and diversity in speculative fiction, about the state of the art in historical research, and how to locate trustworthy sources when you do your own historical research when writing speculative fiction.

And of course, I recommended some books. And referenced Stargate SG-1.

You can check out the interview here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

There Is Fog in the Channel. My Thoughts on #Brexit

I am a firm believer in the European Union. That is why #Brexit is breaking my heart.

At the same time, as a citizen of the European Union member state Sweden I recognize the behavior and the thought process among those who voted for Great Britain to leave the EU. Because Sweden, too, has dipped its toe into the anti-EU referendum pond.

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The foundation for the European Union was laid in 1957 with the signing of the Treaty of Rome between Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany. This treaty expanded on the coal and steel union from 1952 by creating a customs union. Since then, the original customs union has morphed and expanded into the behemoth that today has Brussels as its capital and includes most countries in what used to be Western and Eastern Europe.

Great Britain joined what was then called the EEC in 1973.

Sweden joined in 1995. By this time, the EEC had become the EU.

The era of the European Union has been the longest period of unbroken peace between Germany, France, and England. This is important because when these three countries go to war–which they have done repeatedly throughout the past millennium and a half, the last time being between 1939 and 1945–all of Europe suffers. The integration of these three countries with each other through the Four Freedoms of the European Common Market–the free movement of people, capital, services, and goods–has enabled a peaceful collaboration unheard of in history before the middle of the 20th century.

And even though Brexit might come as a shock, looking at history the undercurrent of an anti-EU movement has been there from the start. Only after much debate did Great Britain join the EEC in 1973, after having been a member of EFTA since its inception in 1960.

The first referendum on whether or not Great Britain should remain in the EEC was held already in 1975. 66% voted in favor of remaining.

However, Great Britain continued to run its own race within the EU.

Great Britain is not part of the Schengen Area, first signed into law in 1985 and since then expanded upon to create an area of free movement across national borders between EU members states.

Great Britain is not part of the European Monetary Union, i.e. Great Britain has opted to keep the pound (£) as its currency instead of switching to the common currency of the euro (€).

And this is where I, as a Swedish citizen, recognize some of the reasoning behind the Brexit vote.

In 2003, Sweden held a referendum whether or not the country should give up its currency, the krona (SEK), and switch to the euro. The result of the referendum was 52% against the euro and 42% in favor. The Swedish government at the time, led by Social Democratic Prime Minister Göran Persson, was in favor of switching currencies and of course considered the result of the referendum a major disappointment.

In the post-referendum political analysis it was however revealed that the Swedish euro referendum was not so much a vote for or against the euro but rather a vote for or against the general policies of the Swedish government.

In other words, the Swedish voting population used this referendum as an opportunity to express their discontent with their government.

Based on the initial post-referendum analysis of Brexit, it would seem that this kind of reasoning has played a part in the decision making of some of those who decided to vote in favor of Great Britain leaving the EU. The fact that regions of Great Britain that are the most dependent on EU financial aid voted against an EU membership points towards this conclusion.

Of course, the issue is not as clear cut as that. Blended with the domestic political situation of Great Britain of the past number of years and the skepticism towards the European Common market which has been present ever since 1973 is the idea of Great Britain as an island nation that goes its own way.

Great Britain was once the center of the largest empire the world has ever seen. When the British Empire was at its height it controlled 25% of the world’s landmass. London was, without exaggeration, the capital of the world. Since then the Empire has become the Commonwealth, consisting of now-independent nations some of which still have the British monarch as their head of state. The way I see it, the Commonwealth is an ingenious strategy to keep the thought of Empire alive without having to deal with the controversies caused by actual imperialism.

During World War II,  before the United States joined the war after Pearl Harbor and before Nazi-Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Great Britain was the only country that stood against Nazi-Germany’s complete domination of Europe. The heroics of the British general population during the Blitz is still talked of today, as are the energizing speeches delivered by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and the sacrifices made by the RAF.

The result of the British referendum shows that older voters were more inclined to vote for Brexit while younger voters were more inclined to vote Bremain. This generation gap could be an expression of the changes that Europe and the global economy has gone through during the age of the EU, which also coincides with the age of decolonization and the dismantling of the British Empire.

There is an old saying that goes, “There is fog in the Channel. The Continent is isolated.” This worldview was perhaps a feasible way of looking at the world while India was still the jewel in the British crown.

Today, it is Great Britain that is isolated. And less than twenty-four hours after the referendum result was announced, the British population is already suffering the consequences.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on the Issue of the Author as Activist

American author William Faulkner famously said that fiction is a better conduit to conveying a truth than journalism. Faulkner’s adage has been confirmed time and time again through literary history where stories such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando have told us more about political and sexual oppression than any journalistic piece ever could.

Because fiction is such a powerful way of revealing the truth, the author as activist is arguably the most dangerous person to an oppressive regime. Just look at José Rizal (1861–1896) whose novel Filibusterismo was crucial to the Filipino independence struggle against Spain. Or the importance of Vaslav Havel’s (1936–2011) work to the fall of Communism in what is today the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Or the very latest example, Svetlana Aleksievich’s hybrid style of fiction and journalism that made the Lukashenko regime of Belarus label her as a non-existing individual and which earned her the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Rizal, Havel, and Aleksievich have in common that they are authors writing as activists against an oppressive society within which they themselves live their lives. Their work resonates because the experience they share is their own. This is the reason, I believe, why Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me made such an impact when it was published last year. Coates writes from personal experience and the reader feels this in the prose. There is no other option but to take him seriously and listen to him because there is no denying that—like Rizal, Havel, and Aleksievich—the experience he shares with us is his own.

But what about when the author as activist adopts the cause of a group to which he or she does not belong? When the author as activist speaks on behalf of someone else’s experience?

An example of this type of activism is the authors’ protest letter and boycott of PEN America’s decision to award French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award in 2015. The reason given for the protest and boycott was that Charlie Hebdo targets a “section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized.” This in referral to France’s Muslim population. In other words, according to the protesters, Charlie Hedbo‘s work is not reprehensible for its crude satire, but because it targets Muslims.

However, as I expressed several times on twitter while this controversy was going on, the authors that were involved in this protest made no mention of the fact that Charlie Hebdo‘s main target for their satirist cartoons is not Islam, but the Catholic Church. Neither did anyone seem to have a problem with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that targeted Jews.

I cannot speak for any of the authors involved in the protest but novelist Jennifer Coden Epstein’s request to have her name removed from the letter and the reasons stated by her for this request show the perils of becoming an activist for a cause that is not your own. In what I would refer to as a courageous statement, Epstein admits that she was misinformed and wrong about Charlie Hebdo‘s work and her assessment of the cartoons. Salman Rushdie tweeted that he hoped that other signees would follow in Epstein’s footsteps. Unfortunately, that seems not to have happened.

Making sure that you are fully informed of all the aspects and nuances is only one important aspect when you decide to fight for a cause which is not yours. Another important aspect is to be aware of the historical background of that cause and to know how to interpret a historical process in comparison to other processes.

An example of how an author undermines him- or herself as an activist when not understanding how to analyze history has been made evident in a round-table conversation published by Electric Literature. The round-table discussion concerned the anthology Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine where comparisons were made between the origins of the United States and Israel, making the argument that the two countries shared an origin as colonial settler states.

As far as the United States are concerned, there is an origin story of colonial settlement. From the first lasting settlement at Jamestown in 1607 until 1776 when the United Colonies declared independence from the British Empire, a colonial project of gigantic proportions, controlled and instigated by the British government, took place on the east coast of North America. Land was cleared for farming by European settlers, Native Americans were displaced, and Africans were brought in as slaves.

When it comes to Israel, until the end of World War I, the area that is now Israel and the PA was under the colonial rule of the Ottoman Empire. From the collapse of the Ottomans and until 1948, the region was under the colonial rule of the British Empire. During the decades leading up to 1948, this region saw an influx of Jewish immigrants. In 1947, the United Nations general assembly voted to partition the region between a Palestinian state and an Israeli state. On May 14, 1948 the British empire left the region for good and the UN resolution came into force.

When comparing origin stories, the only way for Israel to have a colonial settler origin such as the United States would be if the Jewish immigration prior to 1948 had been orchestrated by either the Ottomans or the British for their own gain. Or if a large immigration of one particular group to an area would constitute as colonization. If so, then consequently Europe is currently being colonized by Syrian refugees. Which, of course, it is not.

The author as activist is, arguably, one of the most important aspects of being an author. The author as activist has the opportunity and the ability to highlight and bring forward issues in a way that journalists and historians simply cannot. However, the fact that the author as activist is writing fiction does not give the author the liberty to disrespect facts or historical processes. When this happens, fiction no longer tells the truth better than journalism. Rather, it becomes the harbinger of untruths.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources
Karen Ordahl Kupperman The Jamestown Project (Harvard University Press, 2007).
The Guardian, “Two Dozen Writers Join Charlie Hebdo PEN Protest.”
The Guardian, “Novelist Says She was Wrong to Oppose Charle Hebdo PEN Award.”
Electric Literature, “A Conversation about American Writers and Palestine.”
Britannica Online, search term “Israel.”

 

Living Vicariously Through Ichabod Crane

That Sleepy Hollow‘s Ichabod Crane is a fish out of water with a close relationship to history is a well-known fact. For an historian with an interest in supernatural entertainment this makes Sleepy Hollow one of the most exciting shows on TV right now. Not only does Crane present a different view on the twenty-first century, but by being more than 200 years old he has the authority — and the audacity – to do something every historian at one point or another wishes to do. He calls out the inaccuracies of the historical tour guide.

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Abbey Mills (Nicole Beharie) and Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison)
Source: tvguide.com

In the episode “The Midnight Ride” (Season 1 Episode 7), Abby brings Ichabod to the Sleepy Hollow Historical Museum. When they arrive, a guide takes a group of children on a tour around the museum, telling the story of Paul Revere’s infamous ride to warn the populace of approaching enemy troops.

Listening to what the tour guide is saying, Ichabod is so upset by the amount of inaccuracies that he runs after the group and in a loud voice interrupts the tour. And corrects the guide.

Believe it or not, but so far – headless horsemen, Sin Eaters, undead police officers and walking bundles of roots to the side – this is probably my favorite moment of the show. As an historian, there have been so many occasions where I wish I had the audacity of Ichabod Crane.

Being a historical tour guide is something that can be done as a volunteer, as an extracurricular activity or for some extra money. The information the guide is supposed to convey to visitors is handed to him/her by someone at the museum and most likely hasn’t changed since it was first written.

Which is why the information the tour guide gives the group includes inaccuracies.

At the same time, tour guides do a great job. They bring history to life. They bring out the excitement in historical developments. But to do so they need to simplify and embellish. As a professional historian, I write historical research articles that would put most people to sleep. For the general public to be interested in the content of those research articles, it needs to become sexy. That’s where popular history, historical fiction and tour guides come in. However, when simplifying, embellishing and making something sexy there is always a risk of going too far.

Which is why the information the tour guide gives the group includes inaccuracies.

In my opinion, Ichabod Crane is a bit of a stickler. Yes, the tour guide was wrong in calling Paul Revere a dentist and claiming that he, as the only messenger, shouted his message all around the countryside and that the message contained the word “British” as if the British already in the 1770s was different from “Americans”. However, in regards to the general outcome of the Revolutionary War, these details matter very little. But they do make a great story to tell a group of schoolchildren.

Going all Ichabod Crane on a tour guide is justifiable (although perhaps the conversation should be done in private after the tour is over) when the guide changes information that is of importance to the understanding of the overall historical process.

Calling medieval castles built in the same region over a period of 500 years a Maginot line of military defense, is reason for a conversation.

Saying that a Queen was ousted for robbing the treasury when in fact she abdicated and converted to the religion of the enemy, is also reason for a conversation.

Saying that a king was a great warrior when in fact he lost the entire empire, is yet another reason to bring out the Ichabod Crane inside of you.

Even before the pilot aired in September, I anticipated that Sleepy Hollow would be a great show. And I was correct. For each episode the show reaches new heights.

But still, my favorite moment will always be at the Sleepy Hollow Historical Museum.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

HG Wells The Time Machine and the Issue of Race

We can all agree on the classics, right? The classics are great pieces of literature that show us the true nature of the human condition. The classics are classics because their content stand the test of time. Right? Well, actually it’s not that easy.

Many of the classic literary works of our canon were written during time periods when the ethics, morals and values differed from ours. For example, the sexism of classic literature has been discussed on numerous occasions. But what about race?

Over at Book Riot, Amanda Nelson analyzed the issue of racism in classic literature, using the example of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Nelson points out that Gone with the Wind is a novel which portrays slavery as a non-problematic institution and the KKK as an organization valiantly defending the values of the South, something that is rarely mentioned when discussing the novel.

Nelson’s post falls in line with the thoughts I’ve had since I read the science fiction classic The Time Machine by HG Wells (1866–1946). The Time Machine (1895) is a story about a man simply called The Time Traveler, who has built a time machine. He arrives back from an adventure where he has visited the far future just in time to sit down and tell his friends about it over dinner at his house.

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HG Wells (1890)
Source: Fredrick Hollyer/Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science

The Time Traveler tells his friends that he visited a future where a peaceful, docile people, called the Eloi, lived above ground, and a brutish, carniverous people, called the Morlocks, lived under ground. The Eloi lived in fear of the Morlocks who after dark would arrive on the surface to capture Eloi individuals, bring them down and devour them.

In his foreword to the Signet Classic edition of The Time Machine, Greg Bear chooses to interpret the relationship between the Eloi and the Morlocks as an expression of the Victorian class struggle:

For Victorian England, the picture of humanity divided into the diminutive, weak, and sun-dwelling Eloi and those technological dwellers in underground darkness, the Morlocks, must have seemed particularly grotesque— mirroring as it did the tottering class system: quite literally, Upstairs and Downstairs. (p. viii)

In one way, I agree with Bear that the relationship between the Eloi and the Morlocks can be interpreted as a class struggle. The idea of the time was that if the working classes are not kept in check they will rise to devour the middle and upper classes. Wells himself touches upon this theme when he lets The Time Traveler say out loud to himself that the future world he sees looks like Communism (p. 32).

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Upstairs Downstairs (BBC, 1971–1975)

However, the way Wells describes the two groups makes it evident that the relationship between them is just as much about race, as it is about class. When The Time Traveler for the first time meets an Eloi, he describes the individual as follows.

He was a slight creature—perhaps four feet high […]. He struck me as being a very beautiful and graceful creature, but indescribably frail. His flushed face reminded me of the more beautiful kind of consumptive—that hectic beauty of which we used to hear so much. (p. 25)

Meanwhile, the Morlocks are described as dull-white monsters with greyish-red eyes that either runs on all fours or with their forearms very low. The Time Traveler describes them as something between a monkey and a human spider (p. 53) and later refers to the first Morlock he spotted as a Lemur (p. 54).

Just as well as the relationship between Eloi and Morlocks can be described as a class struggle, the relationship can also be described as the fear of the inferior creature rising to take revenge on the superior creature, an idea that is ingrained in racism as an ideology as well as in slavery as an institution. Whether we’re discussing class warfare or racial warfare, the only thing that prevents it from happening according to this way of thinking is the strength of the resolute white man. What Wells lets The Time Traveler see in the future is what will happen if that strength wavers.

So what do we do with The Time Machine? Do we throw it to the side because it is archaic and racist? No, I don’t think so. The Time Machine was first published in 1895, when Imperialism was at its peak. India was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire and the agreement at Fashoda between France and Great Britian where the two nations divided Africa between them was only three years in the future.

In my opinion, The Time Machine by HG Wells can be called a classic for two reasons. First, the book is a groundbreaking work of science fiction that  in the twenty-first century still appeals to readers of the genre. Second, it is a document of the frame of mind of the Victorian Age at its height. It provides us with an opportunity to try and understand the world view of the citizens of the British Empire, a worldview that still to this day shapes the world we live in.

A Brief Explanation of the British Empire

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
HG Wells The Time Machine (Signet Classic, 2002)
Encyclopedia Britannica United Kingdom Late Victorian Britain
Book Riot Amanda Nelson Let’s Talk About Racism in the Classics

Note:
This post is featured at Suvudu Universe.

Sleepy Hollow, Starbucks and the American Revolution

In the preview for the upcoming TV-show Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane, newly awakened from a slumber lasting more than two hundred years, reacts to the number of Starbucks there are. It is clear that what surprises him isn’t Starbucks as such, but the large amount of coffee shops on each block. The historian in me immediately asked, how plausible would it be for Ichabod Crane to be familiar with the concept of Starbucks? Then I realized the stupidity of my own question. Of course Ichabod Crane would be familiar with it. It’s a coffeehouse!

The TV-series Sleepy Hollow is loosely based on the story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, written by Washington Irving (1783–1859). Irving is best known today for two of his short-stories of which Sleepy Hollow is one, the other one being Rip Van Winkle. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle were first published in the same story collection, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819–1820), and are based on themes found in German folktales.

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Portrait of Washington Irving (1809) by John Wesley Jarvis (1780–1840)

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow tells the story of the not-so likeable schoolteacher, Ichabod Crane, who moves to the small town of Sleepy Hollow. Being poor, Crane’s purpose in life is his own self-advancement. Therefore, he begins courting Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter and heiress of a local, wealthy farmer. Crane’s rival is Abraham Van Brunt. Knowing that Crane has come to believe in the local lore of ghost stories, Van Brunt decides to play tricks on Crane. One late night, on his way home from Katrina Van Tassel’s, Crane is pursued by a seemingly headless horseman. This incident is so distressing for the schoolteacher that Ichabod Crane is never seen in Sleepy Hollow again.

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The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane (1858) by John Quidor (1801–1881)

Washington Irving published The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in 1819-1820, but the story is considered to take place in the 1790s. Although not much of the original story seems to have been brought into the upcoming TV-series, the fact remains that the Ichabod Crane, who reacted to the amount of Starbucks on each block, is a man who lived during the eighteenth century. Him being able to relate to the concept of Starbucks is therefore not a surprise.

The reason for this is that in eighteenth-century North America, the coffeehouse was an integral part of the social life of free, white males. It was at the coffeehouse that such men gathered to gossip, to socialize, to debate, to do business and to receive the latest news.

The North American coffeehouse is part of a way of socializing, introduced into Europe with the introduction of coffee, which came from the Middle East and North Africa by way of Venice. Not long after coffee had been introduced in an area, coffeehouses began appearing and came to play an important part in politics and business. For example, the world’s largest insurance company, Lloyd’s, began as a coffeehouse in London.

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Roasted coffee beans
Source: GOELE

The North American coffeehouses were important during the struggle for Independence from the British Empire (1776–1784). Because of their function as arenas for politics, debate, business and socializing, it was at the coffeehouses that decrees from the British government were read to the public. And it was at the coffeehouses that the public voiced their concerns regarding these decrees. Moreover, once the Declaration of Independence had been signed, it was first read to the public at the Merchant Coffee House in Philadelphia.

Today, the continuation of the tradition of the North American coffeehouse as a public arena for business and socializing can be witnessed in places such as Starbucks. When you walk in to order your hot beverage of choice, you will see people engaged with their laptops, college textbooks or attending a business meeting. If the North American coffeehouses of the twenty-first century will become arenas for the initiation of a revolution is doubtful. However, drinking coffee is in itself a revolutionary act. The Patriots of the eighteenth-century chose coffee over tea to demonstrate their opposition to the British Empire.

I will watch Sleepy Hollow when it begins airing on September 16. The preview looked interesting enough to give it a shot. Also, John Cho is part of the cast, which of course is a bonus.

If you are interested in the role of coffeehouses as meeting places for revolutionaries, go to the blog post Lenin Never Lived in Vienna.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Benjamin L Carp Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution (Oxford, 2007)
Britannica.com Washington Irving
Britannica.com The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Britannica.com Ichabod Crane
Britannica.com Coffee
International Coffee Organization The Story of Coffee
Sleepy Hollow

Note:
The images in this blog post have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.
This blog post is featured at Suvudu Universe.