The Whiteness of Ashel 5

Beautiful Gun Cover Ideas 3 (1)

I have just finished a punishing second draft of Beautiful Gun following edits, and the book has now gone off to beta readers to prepare for draft three. Draft two is pretty much a digital remastering already, with a whole new third, although the story spine is the same. It’s so much better, with the central ideas and – most importantly – characters really opened up with both the hard SF and also thriller structure.

However, given the political situation we find ourselves in, particularly with regard to Black Lives Matter, I wanted to talk briefly about the theme of forced otherness that informs the heroine’s predicament. Her skin is white, but she is not white in the sense of white privilege as we (or more specifically I) enjoy now. Future races will evolve out of technology, and Ashel 5 is a Blank, so called because she has no navel. The Blanks are treated as an underclass – at one point she runs for her life, and not only does no one help her but people in rich enclaves throw things at her.

My fictional scenario in no way minimises the experience of people of colour in our own society. Rather, it looks at how this kind of entrenched dead-headed viciousness is very useful to establishment and corporate interests, who carry on their evil work as everyone else waves flags and picks on those they have been conditioned to view as different or, worse, inferior. My heroine’s skin tone makes the point that these distinctions are meaningless constructs that thrive on ignorance, and serve only to keep people divided.

Racism directed at different people comes from different roots – not everyone on the receiving end of it had ancestors who were slaves, for example. But racism is a fast-moving, insidious, protean monster. This week black people are in the firing line (again) for protesting over Black Lives Matter. Last week it was not only Chinese people but anyone of South East Asian heritage being spat at in the street and being blamed for COVID-19. Before that it was Muslims. After the 2016 referendum it was Eastern Europeans. The arbitrary nature of racism makes it hard to predict when an intensification will take place; we only know that at some point it will. The only people who aren’t likely to be targeted are whites.

In science fiction, we can change that. This is why science fiction is so powerful; it allows us to explore these themes in a fictional setting that still feels real.

However, I want to emphasise that if Beautiful Gun was ever made into a film or other dramatic presentation, and a black actress or actress of colour was cast as Ashel 5 I would have no problem with that. Given how Beautiful Gun explores the themes of reconciliation through honest and deep understanding of identity, it would be wrong of me to insist that all interpretations have to be done ‘my way’. Identity is a complex, nuanced business, and understanding it is a life’s work. Part of identity is a person’s essential self, but just as much – I would say more – involves how they relate to other people. Very few sane people want to be racist, and most of us don’t want racism to exist at all (in which case, why does it?). Racism prevents a true understanding of identity; it serves only to divide people from each other and from themselves. I would deplore a performer of colour who had interpreted my work getting the same level of abuse as Noma Dumezweni, who played the adult Hermione in a Harry Potter stage play, or Lesley Jones in Ghostbusters, or Idris Elba at the mere proposal that he play James Bond (which he should, although I wouldn’t blame him for not wanting to).

It’s unlikely my books will see that level of success, but I write them to be enjoyed by as many people as possible, and am an optimist underneath it all (or I wouldn’t write at all in the face of vast competition). I certainly don’t want any kind of purism to apply, because I loathe the way aspects of fandom feel sufficiently entitled to bully interpreters of fictional works because those interpretations have gone in a different direction to the one these people want. The level of bigotry indulged in by people in the name of liberal stories and characters makes me sick. Their notions of fandom mean more to them than the works they purport to be fans of. They are cultists, and if you want my feelings about how shit cults are, then read Sons of the Crystal Mind.


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