Monday, April 28, 2008

new lows in race relations

Title: The Crack In Space
Author: Philip K. Dick

Bookmark: A card with the name of the last woman who cut my hair. She charged me less than she should, which was great, but she stuck some buzzing blades in my ears, which was weird.

I've only read one other Philip Dick novel, but I've seen a couple movies that were based on his stuff. Granted, most of those weren't huge successes, but his work apparently translates well to film.

This is not one of those books. This will never be a movie. I hope.

Often in sci-fi, the author introduces some new technology that we're ages away from developing. Usually, it's extremely obvious what that technology is by its name (faster-than-light or "FTL" drives, phaser rifles, light sabers, coffee mugs, etc.), but occasionally the author decides to not just create a new technology, but refer to it solely by a brand name or a slang colloquial to the book. You may read about these technologies and the opportunities and problems they present for several chapters before you have any idea what they are. Let me break it down for you: "bibs" are people (usually extremely poor people) who get placed in stasis chambers filling huge government warehouses, and "jiffi-scuttlers" are some sort of personal transporter device that you walk into like a tunnel in your living room, and come out in New York, or Chicago, or the donut shop.

Bibs usually volunteer for stasis because Earth has become extremely overcrowded, colonizing efforts on Mars and Venus are turning out to be colossally difficult and harsh, and there simply aren't enough jobs for everyone. There were at least two couples in the book who tried to volunteer because they had gotten pregnant, and that sort of thing is a really bad idea in a world where most people don't remember what grass looks like (by the way, people are now living close to 200 years, and working for most of that time, further complicating both the overcrowding AND employment situations). Instead, they are chased away to abort-consultants. I was amazed that brothel satellites, transporters, and laser pistols were commonplace, but nobody knew how to work a damn condom. In fact, many men went to the brothel satellite to get their rocks off without the risk of impregnating their wives, and the wives seemed to be ok with this.

After a series of short scenes introducing the various important characters, one of them is killed off just after discovering that a defective 'scuttler has a hidden portal into another world. This has apparently happened before, when someone found a rent that led back in time to pre-biblical days, and in communicating with the natives he saw there, accidentally wrote the bible. At first, everyone is convinced that this newly-discovered world is some other point in the past, or maybe the future, but they eventually decide that it's a parallel world (this term is never actually used, but it's what they mean).

Meanwhile, there's a presidential race going on between the incumbent and his challenger, Barack Obama Jim Briskin. Did I mention that the incumbent and most of the employed people are "whites" and Briskin and most of the bibs are "cols"? Did I mention how irritating it is when sci-fi writers who lived in a time of rampant racism and social injustice can see their way to fantastic new worlds and technologies, but apparently believe that we'll never never see racial harmony and equality? But wait, there may be a way!

Briskin immediately decides that we can colonize the parallel Earth with bibs and anyone else who wants to go. One population + two planets = no overcrowding! Easy! Until they meet the native population, an early species of human (Called "Pekes" for Peking man, or "dawn-men" by the characters), and all hell breaks loose. What perspective! What are the problems between whites and "cols" when compared to potential annihilation by low-browed grunting simians?

The story on its own was weak. I saw a shelf half-full of Dick's books at my library, and despite being a beautiful building, my library is not well-stocked. I took this to mean that he cranked the suckers out, and occasionally had some misses (Blade Runner was kind of goofy, but it had its own charm in that goofiness). Aside from that, there were really only two things that bugged me, and one of them wasn't even Dick's fault. First, I kept reading "Jim Briskin" and thinking "Barack Obama." Even when I wasn't actively reading, just mulling the book over in my head between flight connections, I always got Obama's name before Briskin's. They're both icons, in a way--the first viable African-American presidential candidate of their version of America--but Obama managed to do it a hundred years or so before Briskin. Which brings us to the second problem.

I'm a cracker. I have been for as long as I can remember. But I think that even as a cracker, I can say that racially, we're doing pretty well these days. It's not perfect, no, but let's consider some things:
  1. The current candidates for the top job in the country are a black man, a woman, and a old dude. No matter who we choose, we're showing that we've moved far enough past racial, sexual, and age discrimination to at least consider any of those people.
  2. Each of those types is currently represented in both congress and the supreme court.
  3. Everybody gets the same vote.
  4. Everybody is allowed anywhere.
If this were a site that more than a dozen people ever read, I'm sure we would soon get flooded by comments about racial violence, racial profiling, statistics of who's in prison and who's getting the chair, and all of the other standard arguments. Do those things happen? I'm sure they do, but I'm also sure it doesn't happen to the extent people like to believe. I think it's often used as an excuse. When Jeremiah Wright recently said that reports about some of the more offensive things he said were not attacks against him or Obama, but against black churches, it pissed me off. If you're going to say something stupid, at least own up to it when somebody calls you on it. Don't make everything a race issue. That's not a defense. That's an excuse.

...maybe Dick was right.

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posted by reyn at 11:51 PM


Blogger Elizabeth said...

Although it's fantasy, not sci-fi, A Wizard of Earthsea is an example of a book that depicts a multicultural society without "racial" tension. The hero himself, Ged, is non-white. But Le Guin never makes a big deal of it in the text. In fact, she makes so little a deal of it that some mistaken publishers depict Ged on the cover as a white man. It's pretty impressive for a book written at a time when the fantasy landcape was lily-white (e.g., Tolkien).

4/29/2008 8:37 PM  

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