Author Archives: Greg R. Fishbone

Every galaxy needs more than three people of color

A Wired headline caught my attention the other day. The article it linked to featured commentary from an episode of a science fiction podcast on the topic of diversity in the genre. Every galaxy needs more than three people of color. That struck me on two levels: as a child of the 70s and 80s, who grew up on science fiction with a notable lack of diversity; and as an author of today, with a literary galaxy of my own.

First that number, three people out of a galaxy. That’s not an exaggeration. For the sci-fi franchises I grew up with, it’s a generous overestimate.

Foremost among the fictional galaxies of my childhood was the one depicted in the original Star Wars film trilogy, where people who looked like humans mixed with people who looked like aliens and people who looked like robots.

The people who looked like robots were kept by the others as slaves, but that’s a separate issue.

The people who looked like aliens often endured second-class treatment, like how Han gets a medal at the end of Episode IV but Chewbacca doesn’t? What’s up with that? Wookiees don’t get equal treatment from either the Empire or the Rebellion, but that’s also a separate issue.

The main issue covered by the Wired article was how the people who looked like humans were overwhelmingly portrayed by white actors, although there’s no logical reason even within the story why this would have to be the case.

Star Wars actors of color included Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian and…and…and…yeah. If you’re feeling generous, you could give James Earl Jones half-credit for providing the voice of Darth Vader’s ventilator, but that’s about it.

After becoming a Star Wars fan, I discovered the original run of Star Trek, which had been produced a decade earlier but remained popular in syndication. The cast included Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura, George Takei as Lieutenant Sulu, and…and…and…shoot. The Internet says there was a Doctor M’Benga who popped up in sickbay from time to time, but I’m not a committed enough Trekkie to remember him. I’d score this as two-and-a-half persons of color.

There was that one alien race that was white on the left side and black on the right, and their bitter enemies who were black on the left side and white on the right, but Kirk’s Enterprise otherwise sailed its overwhelmingly white crew through a galaxy of Klingons, Romulans, Vulcans, and other aliens portrayed by overwhelmingly white actors.

Star Wars took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, with human-looking creatures who didn’t share the cultural and evolutionary history of Earth-based humans, but Star Trek represented the optimistic future of humanity in our very own galaxy. At the time it was produced, Star Trek was revolutionary for breaking barriers and pushing boundaries. This was, after all, the show that gave us television’s first interracial kiss. And yet, there were still only two-and-a-half persons of color among the cast.

Then there was Battlestar Galactica–not the remake, which had its own issues, but the original. The ship led an armada of human refugees from the twelve tribes who were related to our own human ancestors, who supposedly came to Earth from space. The show name-checked multiple ancient Earth cultures and showed a special fondness for pyramids, but its cast was overwhelmingly white. Black actors portrayed Lieutenant Boomer, Colonel Tigh, and…and…and…no, just those two.

How is it possible that the one tribe of humans who colonized Earth had so much more diversity than the twelve tribes that stayed behind?

I also got hooked on Doctor Who, which was broadcast on our local PBS station because it was a British import, and therefore culturally superior to the shows on for-profit broadcast channels. Diversity among the companions on old school Doctor Who meant that Jamie could be a Scottish highlander, Turlough could be a ginger, Tegan could be Australian, and Peri could be American, as long as all of them still sported similarly pale skin.

Doctor Who debuted in 1963 and has run since then with a single continuity, give or take the decade-plus of hiatus separating the Classic and Modern Eras. And yet, this show didn’t get its first non-white companions until Noel Clarke as Mickey Smith and Freema Agyeman as Martha Jones, in 2005 and 2006 respectively.

There has not been a non-white, non-male Doctor, even though we’ve seen other Time Lords regenerate across racial and gender lines. The Doctor’s nemesis, the Master, is now calling herself the Mistress, for example. But the Doctor has consciously or subconsciously chosen to remain white and British at least through his first thirteen incarnations.

The show has ranged through all of time and space, including the entirety of human history, but non-white secondary characters in the Classic Era were rare enough to stand out. Like the black ringmaster in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, who, if I recall correctly, spoke in rap lyrics. Or the Chinese villain in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, who was portrayed by a white actor in yellow-face.

Then there’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, which became a TV series in the late 1970s. Buck Rogers had…who? Tigerman? That’s one, I guess, and even that represented a huge step forward from its source material as a 1920s pulp novella with some jaw-dropping anti-Asian racism.

So here’s the final score:

Star Wars Original Trilogy: 1.5 Persons of Color 
Star Trek Original Series: 2.5 Persons of Color
Battlestar Galactica Original Series: 2 Persons of Color
Doctor Who Classic: 0 Persons of Color
Buck Rogers on TV: 1 Person of Color

Passing a “three people of color” test would have required each of these story worlds to introduce up to three additional main characters. Likewise, all would have also failed the “having a gay or transgender character” test, and would have done poorly in the “portrayal of women” test as well.

The franchises that are still active have become more diverse over time, but all of them failed the children of my generation. There were a total of seven characters of color in five of the most popular science fiction story worlds of the time, combined. These were: a high-tech phone operator, a helmsman, a part-time doctor, a smuggler-turned-businessman, the audible half of a villain, two military middle-managers, and a living punching-bag. Sidekicks, helpers, and villains.

The only black starship captain I ever saw on TV as a kid was Daffy Duck as “Duck Dodgers in the 24th-and-a-half Century.”

So here I am as a writer of today, with a responsibility to capture all the wonder and imagination of my favorite genre and transmit it to a new generation of readers. This can’t be done without reaching back to the beloved stories I grew up with and recognizing their flaws. And then, fixing them.

In my Galaxy Games series, Earth enters a team of kids in the greatest sports tournament in the universe. If I’d have picked this book up as a child in the 1970s or 80s, it would have starred a white boy leading a team that begrudgingly included three obligatory characters of color and exactly one girl. Otherwise, it would never have gotten published.

Thankfully, that is no longer the case.

Logic dictates that a team representing Earth has to represent all of Earth. Anything less weakens the story, waters down the characters, and impoverishes the story world.

When there three persons of color or fewer in a story galaxy, each character has to bear the weight of every person who shares a culture or skin type. Even Lando Calrissian couldn’t bear that kind of pressure without tending toward caricature or stereotype.

With more characters who are similar in one way but different in others, there can be more balance. More nuance. More characters who only have to represent themselves. More chances for a reader to see him or herself in the story.

Writing for the Generations

Well our fathers fought the Second World War
Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore
Met our mothers in the USO
Asked them to dance
Danced with them slow
And we’re living here in Allentown
–Billy Joel, “Allentown”

When World War II ended, American soldiers returned home en masse to start new families. Their children were the Baby Boomer generation–the first kids to grow up with television, the first kids to encounter rock and roll music at a high school, the ones who might have watched a live Moon landing and been inspired to careers in science.

I came along a couple decades later. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, I had Baby Boomer teachers who were the audience for my first writing assignments. The Baby Boomer authors of then-contemporary books were the models I tried to emulate. When I was first trying to break into publishing, Baby Boomers were the mentors who spoke to me about their own struggles with writing for a younger generation. Paula Danziger told me her theory that a high school generation was only four years long–which meant that eight years out of high school, I was already two generations removed from the experience!

“Wheel of Fortune”, Sally Ride, heavy metal, suicide
Foreign debts, homeless vets, AIDS, crack, Bernie Goetz
Hypodermics on the shores, China’s under martial law
Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore!
–Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”

I’d always had a vague sense that many of the books in our school library weren’t really written for me. The classics of prior decades sometimes included confusing instances of 1960s counter-culture, or references to songs, shows, and movies that my friends and I had never heard of. Even the newly-published books had moments where the styles, themes, tastes, and experiences didn’t match the needs of Generation X. We needed more books about kids with working moms or divorced parents that weren’t issue books about working moms or divorced parents. And we definitely needed more computers in our books than we were getting.

Desktop computers became a big thing in the 1980s. Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 1983 was a desktop computer–except that they weren’t yet called desktop computers because there was no other kind. Our junior high school had a computer lab of TSR-80s, and friends of mine had Apple IIs or Timex Sinclair 1000s. My first Internet experience was logging into a bulletin board with a 1200-baud modem in 1987.

But the characters in our books only had computers if the machines were big, crazy, complex things that tended to become sentient and wanted to take over the world. The Baby Boomer authors of the time clearly weren’t as comfortable with the technology as their Generation X readers.

That’s why, when I started writing, I wrote for me. For little kid me, who saw gaps in his bookshelf where there should have been Gen X adventures. My characters had computers they used for doing homework, sending email, and writing their own stories. Computers weren’t the focus of the story but they existed for my characters as they had for me.

Today, I don’t write for myself anymore. My current audience is the new generation that my children are a part of, the ones who come after the Millennials. My goal is to fill some of the gaps that exist in their bookshelves. We Need Diverse Books is a long-overdue effort to identify and fill some of those gaps to reflect the diversity of our culture, something all authors need to immerse themselves in, but there are other gaps that require us to figure out who these kids are, what they have in common, what makes them tick, and how they are different from the generations that came before them.

I was reminded of this recently when MTV took a stab at the first step in describing a new generation–tagging them with a cute nickname. Some people have been calling them Generation Z, recognizing that “Millennial” is an awful name that should be retconned into Generation Y. I once put forward Generation XII for the same reason. Others are calling them the iGeneration because of the influence of iPhones, iPads, and the Internet on their lives. MTV, after first asking the kids what they’d want to be called, is throwing out “The Founders.” Because prior generations have messed the world up so much that it needs to be rebuilt from scratch.

The Founders have never known a world without the Internet. I know kids who are so steeped in Internet culture that they identify the second in a series by the “hashtag-two” on the cover. The Founders have never known a U.S. President who wasn’t black, except in their history texts. The Founders don’t accept books that acknowledge the existence of cell phones but don’t provide characters with “enough bars” for their use. Founder activities are more heavily scheduled than mine ever were, with more sports leagues and fewer unsupervised games of stickball in the middle of the street. While we grew up with concerns about dirty water and dirty air, the Founders are growing up with the prospect of catastrophic global climate change. While we grew up with Soviet ICBMs aimed at our cities, they are growing up with terrorism.

Writing for the Founders is an honor, a privilege, and a challenge. They’re going to need some amazing books to inspire all that founding that needs to be done.


Greg R. Fishbone is the author of the Galaxy Games series of sports and sci-fi books for the Founders.

The Battle of Who Could Care Less

If you’re reading this blog, it’s because you care about words and the myriad ways they can be strung together into stories. You may even have a grammatical, idiomatic, or linguistic pet peeve or two. That vs. Which, Who vs. Whom, terminal serial commas, singular they, sentence fragments, sentences beginning with a conjunction, split infinitives, sentences ending in a preposition–you may be driven into a fine froth when someone abuses your linguistic sensibilities.

That’s perfectly fine.

In a perfect world, lessons on Standard English would include both sides of each debate and examples of rule-breaking for stylistic effect, but there’s not enough room in the textbooks or time in the curriculum, so we learn “rules” that come to us as if written in stone.

We’re on our own to learn how to relax and accept the wide range of usage that’s appropriate to any given time or place. For me, after years of effort, I’m finally beginning to make some progress.

Three examples:

X Items or Less

For a long time, I used to bristle at the “12 items or less” supermarket checkout line. Didn’t anyone at that store remember that Strunk & White admonishes us all to never use “less” in place of “fewer?”

express-lane-12-items-or-less-fewer

Some people have a copy of Strunk & White AND a Sharpie.

But even Strunk & White ignores the advice of Strunk & White, so why shouldn’t the rest of us? And when you think of it, the “less” in that sign doesn’t necessarily refer to the countable noun, “items.” It could also refer to an implied mass noun like “shopping,” as in the following hypothetical conversation:

“How much shopping are you going to do today?”

“Not much. I plan to buy twelve items, or maybe even do less shopping than that.”

“Then you should totally use the ’12 items or less [shopping]’ checkout line. It’s for people who are doing twelve items or less of shopping, so they can get out of the store faster.”

“Hey, thanks for the tip!”

The key difference is this:

“12 items or less” focuses on the shopping experience. People who are only grabbing a few urgently-needed items are looking to get in and out of the store quickly, and the checkout counters have been designed to move them ahead of shoppers who have set aside a larger block of time to stock up for the week.

“12 items or fewer” focuses on the items. Customers with fewer items to ring up can be processed faster, so they are grouped together and run through the checkout counter to minimize the total number of customers waiting at the front of the store.

I actually prefer the sentiment behind the first version, but since most people engaged in less shopping tend to purchase fewer items, the two versions are interchangeable in practice.

Say it with me, fellow recovering correcters of supermarket grammar: “The two versions are interchangeable.” No matter what Messrs. Strunk and White have to say about it.

I Could Care Less

I also used to go nuts over the words people used to place themselves at the bottom of the Caring Continuum. When someone told me, “Make all the nit-picky grammar and usage comments you want; I could care less,” they clearly intended to say that they couldn’t care less, while their words expressed the exact opposite sentiment.

Caring-continuum-couldnt-care-less-vs-could-care-less

I’d roll my eyes in wonder at people who were too ignorant or lazy to add a half-syllable “n’t” to make their expressions more accurate. However, I’ve since encountered evidence that “I could care less” started its idiomatic life as a devastating topper from the 1950s. Back then, people who didn’t care about things would brag that nobody could care less than they did.

The Setup: “Nobody could care less about that thing than I do.”

The Topper: “Oh yeah? Well I could care less. Mic-drop. You just got served!”

Or whatever the 1950s equivalent was.

Throughout the 1960s, people got tired of serving up the setup line, only to get slammed by the topper. So instead, they increasingly started with the topper. Over time people forgot that it even was a topper.

Today, what you’re really saying is implied:

“What do you think about Donald Trump?”

“I could care less [about Donald Trump than some other guy who claims that nobody could care less about Donald Trump than he does].”

Which makes perfectly acceptable grammatical, logical, and political sense.

Or think of it this way. When someone tells you they couldn’t care less about something, they have to be lying because they could always care enough less to not even bother speaking about that thing in the first place. Admitting that you could care less allows you to provide entertaining commentary about the infinitesimal amount of caring you do, as Randall Munroe presents in this episode of xkcd:

xkcd: I Could Care Less by Randall Munroe

Head over Heels

This one drove me particularly mad.

Being head-over-heels in love would seem to mean being in a completely ordinary and unremarkable position, since your head is nearly always over your heels whether you’re standing, sitting, or jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch.

Whoooooo!

Whoooooo!

The only time you’d not be “head over heels” would be when you’re horizontal–which is ironic in the context of a romantic relationship.

But here’s the actual first-known citation of “head over heels” in the English language, from Herbert Lawrence’s Contemplative Man in 1771:

“He gave [him] such a violent involuntary kick in the Face, as drove him Head over Heels.”

How could you drive someone head over heels if they weren’t head over heels already? And what does it mean that the method of driving someone head over heels is a particularly hard kick to the face?

I don’t have a copy of the source material, so I don’t know whether Contemplative Man is on the giving or receiving side of that history-making kick, but it works both ways:

Mayor: Contemplative Man, hurry! Captain Brainwave is robbing the bank!

Contemplative Man: Let me think about that. Hmmm…

Mayor: Now Captain Brainwave is robbing the art museum!

Contemplative Man: Hmmm…

Mayor: Now Captain Brainwave has kidnapped my daughter!

Contemplative Man: Hmmm…

Caption: Suddenly and without Warning, he gave him such a violent involuntary kick in the Face, as drove him Head over Heels!

Being “head over heels” probably wasn’t intended to mean that the character’s head was located just anywhere above his feet. Instead, due to a sudden blow, his neck was snapped back, his back was bent, and his legs were twisted so that head and feet, normally located at two opposite ends of the body, had come together with one resting directly on top of the other.

Take that, Captain Brainwave!

To be head-over-heels in love is to be twisted into a metaphorical pretzel, which expresses exactly how it can feel.

Human-Pretzel-15

Love hurts.

I’m a lot happier (and more fun to be around) now that I’m no longer a rage-fueled grammatical pedant at the supermarket checkout, and no longer telling people how much they could or couldn’t care. And I’m a lot more flexible now that I can position my head and heels in a wider variety of ways.

I invite you to join me in my new pet peeve: people who inflexibly insist that their usage is the only correct way to communicate, instead of thinking creatively and accepting whatever language gets the point across.

Do you have any other pet peeves you’d like to be rid of? Leave them in the comments!