Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Don't Sit Next to Me, or They'll Say We're Taking Over

I'm reading The Long Mars, the third collaboration by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter.  (I just realized that I forgot to read the second, The Long War; that explains why there seemed like such a big jump between the first one and this one.)  The premise is that people have discovered how to 'step' between parallel universes, of which there are vast, perhaps infinite numbers; some do so by innate talent, while most need a device invented by one of the characters.  The Long Mars follows two missions, one going boldly through millions of parallel Earths to see what is there, and the other stepping through an equally long series of parallel Marses.  It's an interesting premise, and the book is well written.  Maybe the collaboration has put a leash on Pratchett's growing tendency to preach; The Long Mars reminds me of Heinlein's better fiction, where intriguing concepts and expert storytelling carry one pleasurably forward.  I'm enjoying it, so what I have to say here is not really meant as a complaint, just as an observation.

About two thirds of the way through, I realized that there were no characters who weren't heterosexual.  One of the characters is recounting how some bad guys (high-IQ types who believe themselves to be smarter, wiser, an evolutionary advance over Homo Sapiens, took over another ship that had been exploring the Earths.
"And the damnedest thing is that some of us, the crew, were helping them," Sam Allen said.  "You wouldn't believe it if you saw it, Captain.  They can read you like a book -- hell, before they rose up I once tried playing poker with 'em and they cleaned me out.  Their men preyed on our women, and the women on our men.  It was like they could read your mind ..."
Maybe I should be grateful that the bad guys are apparently straight as a die?  After all, there've been enough stories of sinister pansexual seducers.  But that could have been corrected for by having non-heterosexual characters who weren't villains.  And there aren't any of them, either.

I suppose it took me so long to notice this partly because, as a longtime reader, I'm used to fiction whose characters are all exclusively heterosexual, and partly because (to their limited credit, I suppose) Pratchett and Baxter don't say anything negative about non-heterosexuals.  This won't stop me from finishing The Long Mars and reading the rest of the books these two produce, provided they remain as engaging as this one, but it does make me wonder why these two men have such impoverished imaginations.  Gay people are a minority, but we're part of the world, and surely both Pratchett and Baxter know some of us.  Other straight writers have found us in their imaginations, for better and for worse.

(I noticed a similar lacuna in Kim Stanley Robinson's The Memory of Whiteness: A Scientific Romance, which was an ostensibly science-fiction novel about a spaceship full of classical musicians traveling through the solar system, all of them heterosexual.  Ostensibly sf, but fantasy on that basis alone.)

This might be a good place to mention the recent announcement that the new Life with Archie series, which has its own parallel worlds premise (in one world, Archie marries Betty; in the other, he marries Veronica) will climax with the death of Archie Andrews as he saves the life of his gay friend Kevin Keller from an assassin's bullet.  Rod Dreher, as the blogger Ampersand put it, 
upon finding out that a couple of minor supporting Archie characters are lesbian, commented “Seems like everybody is gay in pop culture today.” Yeah, because it’s so hard to find depictions of heterosexuality in Archie Comics.
It's amusing to see Dreher fall on his face like that, but he's just reacting the way most people react when they encounter a phenomenon they don't like.  The way a writer at Slate complained that "so many vampire movies [are] essays 'on the tension between a young woman's desire to mate and her partner's terror that doing so will unleash demonic forces'" (quoting David Edelstein), a generalization based solely on the Twilight movies as far as I can tell.  Or the way some critics claimed that Alice Walker's The Color Purple depicted all black men as violent abusers; later, other critics claimed that Thelma and Louise had no positive male characters.  Or the way a distinguished movie critic (Andrew Sarris, as I recall) in 1976 celebrated Woody Allen's Annie Hall as at long last a return to heterosexual romance for Hollywood.  Sarah Schulman summed up this tendency in Stage Struck, her book on gay people in commercial entertainment:  "Historically, dominant people have always been comfortable with the idea of oppressed people as secretly powerful.  The easiest example, of course, is how for almost two thousand years, dominant groups of various stripes have convinced themselves that they were ruled over by a secret cabal of Jews" (124).

But as I say, I don't mean to lump Pratchett and Baxter in with such people.  They avoid the normal tendency to cast minorities as villains; there's no queer-bashing in The Long Mars, or anywhere else in Pratchett's work that I've seen.  I know from my own experience that writers or other artists make the art they can, not necessarily the art they wish.  And I'd rather they depicted no gay characters than that they did it badly; Heinlein, for example, tried valiantly but never got them right -- I could always tell he was fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea of gay men.  At that, he did better than some other  well-intentioned entertainers did.  Nor am I accusing Pratchett and Baxter of deliberately excluding non-heterosexuals from their saga.  That's my point: I presume it just never occurred to them.