On Representation, Writing, and Reading

I'm taking a break from "F" words to tackle another that seems awfully popular lately: Diversity. Yup, that word is everywhere in the USA. You know how a word starts looking weird when you've seen it too many times? In this case, I feel like the meaning and usage have drifted so far from its origin that I can't make sense of it anymore.

I find myself appearing on lists of "diverse authors," which leave me scratching my head. If I saw "diverse author" a few years ago, I would think, "Oh, that person writes about all kinds of topics." Today, it's code for someone who doesn't fit the mainstream American, white male author profile. And while I appreciate appearing on a recommended reading list (as would any new writer who needs to prove their worth, I suspect!), I cringe inside at people reading my fiction because of some check boxes I fill. I'd rather they be interested in what I write about.

I get that this is well-intentioned. After all, if the big mainstream authors get all the press, how are those of us in the margins going to find our readership? That said, I would much rather someone put me on a list because my work reminds them of Famous Author's in terms of prose style or thematic content. That way, the reader expects to like my work going in. I don't want my stories to be judged by labels about me, the author.

Octavia Butler said, "I don't recall ever having wanted desperately to be a black woman fiction writer. I wanted to be a writer." (From an interview with Charlie Rose in 2000.) How did the D word get us from that sentiment to today? Maybe because people like shortcuts. Using more nuanced explanations takes too long, i.e., that what most of us are looking for is better representation of the great variety of human culture in our genre fiction.

Does that sometimes come naturally from authors who are outside the mainstream? Absolutely. Can it also come from the traditional white, male, American author? Absolutely. Has the US publishing industry been biased toward authors they think will make them money (and against people writing from the margins)? Absolutely. All of these factors have shaped the push toward Diversity that we're witnessing right now, and the change is a good thing, in my opinion.

This brings me to a related topic: writing the so-called "other" and how to treat that with respect and maturity. In fiction, and especially genre fiction, authors rely on imagination to craft a well-told setting with believable characters. It's incumbent upon a writer to do their research. It's also important to treat their subject matter with care and dignity, regardless of whether they're writing outside of their experiences or within them. If anything, we authors will be judged most harshly by readers with similar backgrounds because they expect us to do justice to our sub-cultures.

Equally valuable is for readers to keep in mind that authors are not gods (even if some of them might think so). We're human. We're fallible (and yes, we should admit this instead of getting defensive). We can fail to correctly communicate our ideas, or we can flat out get things wrong. Similarly, as readers, we bring our unconscious biases to every story. We can misconstrue an author's intentions. The internet shame-brigade loves to jump on a writer's mistakes, but when did putting a dunce cap on someone and sticking them in a corner help them learn to do better? Instead, try to have a conversation. Listen - this applies equally to authors and readers - and learn! A writer can strive to do better, and a reader can strive to forgive.

Is this hard work? Yes. But if we truly want to move forward and encompass all the complexity that "Diversity" tries to represent, this is work that we need to do. Talk about what you liked and disliked in a story (be it a book or a short) before you talk about the author. If they have multiple works with problematic themes, call them out, but try to do so in a constructive manner, especially if they are already in the margins of the mainstream US publishing world. If they reliably do something you enjoy reading, say that, too. Carrots work better than sticks for most of us.

I've been on the giving and receiving sides of this recently. In one case, I read a story by an author of Indian origin that I found deeply troublesome in its representation of that culture (which is also mine). Part of me wants to loudly proclaim Not All Indians, and another part wants to sit down with this author and ask why they chose to be so one-sided. I hope I get a chance to have that conversation, and I also hope that they do something different with their next work to better represent the variety of Indian attitudes.

On the flip side, one of my stories came under criticism for its representation of non-binary people. In this case, I had the opportunity to sit down with my critic and discuss the root of the problem, what mistakes I made in my writing & editing decisions, and how I can do better next time. Was it easy? No, but it was valuable. Luckily, we came to the table with open minds, and we left it as (I think) friends. And I will absolutely strive to do better next time because these are my people, too, and I hate that my carelessness led to misunderstanding or pain.

Some people are strongly rooted in identity and culture, but others - like me - don't fit well into the standard check boxes. I exist on the margins. I probably always will, and I've made my peace with that, but when someone tries to stuff me into their pigeon-holes, I can't help but struggle. (I wrote a poem about this.)

When you assume you know an author by their country of origin or their economic class or their gender or sexual orientation, you are as likely to be wrong as right. We're all complex and different and to pre-judge, good or bad, is to apply your biases to someone else. Keep reading widely, keep recommending books and authors if you like them, but try to remember: foremost, we are writers. Read us for our stories.

Human to Robot Symbiosis

Here's a bit of interesting news regarding a human-machine interface from MIT: Brain-controlled Robots.

 A new system from MIT CSAIL uses EEG brain signals to detect if a person notices robots making a mistake.

A new system from MIT CSAIL uses EEG brain signals to detect if a person notices robots making a mistake.

They're a long way from a symbiotic relationship between humans and machines, but this is a good start down that path. This technology strikes me as a clever way to train your robot without the need to sort your dataset up front. The EEG methodology is crude and requires its own customization (a major impediment to general purpose application), but it's easy to imagine a future where we have implants that will give us better information about our thoughts.

Most adults will instinctively correct the behavior of babies and toddlers, and children have an equally native response that cues them to our sentiments. The type of technology that MIT is working on will let us do the same for our future not-so-human helpers. The next question in my mind: how do we make sure our robot toddler doesn't go through a "No!" phase?

 

Intersections: "Ex Machina" and #iLookLikeAnEngineer

'EX MACHINA' SPOILERS AHEAD: YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED

 

I had a couple of spare hours the other night and decided to indulge by watching "Ex Machina" for the first time (yes, I'm behind on movies). Critical acclaim for this was through the roof, and I hoped for the next Gattaca. Instead, I got badly stereotyped characters, exploitative female nudity, sexual moralizing, and a throwback "evil A.I." plot.

I want my spare hours back.

When the #iLookLikeAnEngineer meme took the internet by firestorm, it provided the perfect real-life counterfactual for "Ex Machina."

If you are writing fiction - especially science fiction! - you have a wealth of possibilities to play with. That reclusive internet billionaire genius? Doesn't have to be a hipster-beard-sporting dudebro. The awkward and sweet software engineer? Doesn't have to look like he lives deprived of sunshine and nutrition.

Gag me with a spoon, Silicon Valley people, because this casting lacks in imagination AND reality. As the #iLookLikeAnEngineer tag demonstrates, waifish pixie girls are also brilliant engineers. So are people who aren't white or thin or young or straight or able-bodied.

The double whammy is a bunch of naked lady sex robots and how they stick it to the horn-dog man at the end. So, basically, we know the bad guy's evil because he's turned his AI robots into sex slaves. This insults men, sex, and AIs. They make the point earlier in the movie that he's coded pleasure into the robots' sexual organs. Methinks they forgot about Pavlov: people die for cocaine. Pleasure is one of the strongest motivators around. WHY would his robots hate him for that?

Also, was it necessary to slow-pan over Every. Single. Naked. Robot? All female, of course. Hello, Hollywood double standards!

Last but not least, we have the plot. Oh me, oh my, why are the Hollywood A.I. robots such assholes? To be fair, there is an exception: kids' movies. Did you see "Big Hero 6?" Now that is a great example of imaginative characterization, a clever science-fiction plot, and - oh, wow! - a reasonably "intelligent" robot that isn't a sociopath.

The real tragedy illustrated by "Ex Machina" and #iLookLikeAnEngineer is lack of imagination. Critics of this movie seemed were so overwhelmed by style that they failed to notice the boring substance. Meanwhile, in reality, people were calling out Isis Wegner (the source of #iLookLikeAnEngineer) for being a recruiting-tool actress rather than a programmer. "Ex Machina" had an opportunity to change the narrative, to challenge people's assumptions, but they squandered it in the worst way.

Forget artificial intelligence. Let's work on improving our natural version first!