Monthly Archives: October 2009

Science fiction, sci-fi horror, and race

Subject line=big topics.  I’m not going to explore them too deeply right here, but I am reading around this a bit right now and I’m dredging up an old hobbyhorse of mine to sit on while I read.  The hobbyhorse goes something like this:  why do science fiction and sci-fi horror movies feature multiracial casts (i.e. casts with more than token numbers of non-white folks) so much more than mainstream features?  And…do they?  Really?  Or is that just my vague, anecdotal perception?

Probably a little from Column A, a little from Column B.

If they do, then one possible reason that springs to mind is that sci-fi (and related genres like sci-fi horror–for now I’ll just use that shorthand) often have ensemble casts.  Sci fi loves an ensemble cast–it’s a built-in engine for character conflict and development, as well as plot movement.  There’s nothing like the formula of “the world’s most elite team of cave divers/hard rock drillers/alien exterminators/pastry chefs” to make a trailer sing and an audience perk up for the 10 minutes the movie devotes to showing off the wacky byplay and action-figure characteristics of each member of the team.  And then of course, once the monster wakes up, the plot gets to jump the lily pads of the characters’ messy deaths all the way to the big explosion at the end.  That’s interesting from a craft point of view (and worth a whole nother post) but…why does sci-fi seem so easily inclined to make its teams multiracial?

I don’t know yet, but I’m curious to look at a few of my favorite sci-fi movies to see how what they reflect back, race-wise.  I have a few hypotheses I want to test out.

Hypothesis 1:  It’s a pragmatic feature of the genre.  Sci-fi films are faster to accept, reflect, and predict changing race demographics in the US than mainstream films are.  Logically speaking, we know the country’s getting progressively less white, and sci-fi is often set in the future, so fewer white people, more brown people just makes sense.

Hypothesis 2:  It’s political.  Maybe it’s a utopian vision of racial equity.  Or it’s political naivete:  a statement that race doesn’t matter in the future/on the moon/in space where no one can hear you scream.  Alternately, it’s exoticism.  (Crazy tribal/jacked-in/hybrid/alien people of the future are more exotic and foreign to white audiences  if they’re brown.)

Hypothesis 3:  It’s marketing.  Maybe sci-fi movies make more money if there’s a racially diverse cast.  Sci-fi fans are loyal to the genre, and probably many of them don’t much care if the characters acting out the genre story are white, brown, or green.  They’re there for the genre hit, and knowing that, it makes sense to toss in a mixed bag of protagonists, so you can market it to people of all ethnicities.  Whereas if you’re filming The Bridges of Madison County or Weekend at Bernie’s you’re going to get a little kick-back for making the main characters Puerto Rican.

Other hypotheses abound.  In the next few postts I’ll be tossing up some trailers, and chewing over some ideas about race in my beloved-est sci-fi movies.  Anacondas!  Event Horizon!  The Matrix!  Sunshine!  28 Days Later! The list goes on…

To read: essays

A terrific list of essays (with links for many) in Matthew Cheney’s blog.

Reading and (re)reading…

The Chrysalids, by John Wyndham

I just picked this one up again–it’s a New York Review of Books edition, which makes my heart sing.  I love that series, and would happily spend a year reading through every book in it, if someone were willing to cook, clean, and work for me while I did it.  I read this in high school (Canadian curriculum) and am enjoying a re-read now.  This, combined with On the Beach and My Side of the Mountain, are somehow inextricably linked, in my mind, with growing up in the 1980s.

Rex Libris: I, Librarian, by James Turner

A stylish, dense graphic novel with a sense of humor about library and comic book conventions.  A little heavy on the narrative chit-chat, with a tendency to get bogged down in its own world-creation in this first book.  And it needed another pair of sharp eyes to copyedit it before it went to press.  But overall, a great, fun read with great potential for a series.  How can you not love a book that starts out with Ranganathan’s Laws?

In other news, WordPress seems to have done strange things to its image uploader, at least for Mac.