On July 4, 2016, the New York Times published an interview with author Ben Winters entitled “In His New Novel, Ben Winters Dares to Mix Slavery and Sci-Fi” and the internet saw red. I also saw red. I imagine many of you are seeing red right now – don’t worry, I’ll wait! I’m not going to lie and say I read the article before I got angry either. Instead, I read the article today in preparation for writing this blog post.
Ben Winters is white. The article makes a point of telling us this over and over and over again. “It would be better if you were black,” his wife apparently told him. And yet with a “fearless” (I believed better of you, Lev Grossman) and “controversial” approach to American history, he tells the story of a world in which the United States never abolished slavery. His main character is former slave turned U.S. Marshal who hunts down escaped slaves. It’s actually an interesting premise, and a potentially provocative and compelling way to engage with current racial tension in speculative sci-fi style.
Anyone who calls it “brave,” however, is delusional.
It doesn’t take much to be a white writer. There is bravery to committing words to paper, to creating worlds and putting them out there, but it’s a small bravery for us. We only have ourselves to overcome. But to be a writer of color is to deal with marginalization, erasure, discrimination, and alienation. To be a writer of color grappling with slavery is to grapple with a nation built on your backs and your broken bones. To be a white writer grappling with slavery is not to grapple, it’s to confess.
Author Daniel Jose Older says it much more succinctly (Twitter not withstanding): “Being a writer of color is risky and requires fearlessness. Writing characters of color when you’re white means you get called brave.”
When I first got angry about this article, however, I have to admit it wasn’t about the content, but the sheer idiocy of the headline. Dares to combine sci-fi and slavery? Dares? As if this hasn’t been done before in so many ways, yes, by white writers like Robert Heinlein, but more to my point, by writers of color like Octavia E. Butler and Samuel Delaney who see no mention in this article. The article, however, does see fit to mention Philip Roth and Philip K. Dick – there isn’t even a diversity of names that the writer of this article referenced. It’s possible that she has never read a sci-fi novel.
So if you want to read Ben Winters’ new book, get it from the library. It’s probably fascinating, but he doesn’t need to know that. If you want to buy one, I’m going to go ahead and recommend Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand by Samuel Delaney even though it’s strange and polarizing and, frankly, discomfiting. (All the best books are.) I’m not going to describe it to you because it wouldn’t mean anything to most of you and I’d end up leaving out all the best parts for fear of spoilers. Suffice to say it’s an epic bit of world building, its tragic and innovative, and it’s immensely wonderful. And perhaps the most romantic of all possible love stories.
I haven’t read Ben Winters’ book. I can’t comment on its quality. All I can say is this – it stands on a tradition he would do well to acknowledge, and he and the New York Times owe science fiction, writers of color, and readers everywhere more recognition of his privilege. And quite a bit less self-congratulation, if you please.