Or the Three Questions Underpinning Everything I Write Ever
I am sometimes asked why I have queer characters in every single one of my novels – sometimes as mains, sometimes as secondaries, but always present and always important.
That’s funny for…you see…when writing, I always asking myself a few questions too. Sometimes, those questions are transitory and intimately related to the novel I’m writing at the time – for example, can there be ninjas added to this wedding party? If not, how can I bring ninjas into the story faster? Can there be a sex scene? No is usually the answer, but it’s still worth considering. Can something explode? Are there enough lasers for the laser starved audiences of the world?
But there are always three questions that lurk, far at the bottom of my mind. They are there, underpinning every single writing decision I make to one degree or another. And what are those questions?
1) Does my writing do no harm?
2) If it does harm, is the harm required?
3) Does it do good?
Words hurt. They can cut a person’s heart out and stomp on it like it was made of play-dough. If you don’t believe me, you should have seen me after reading the last book of the Hunger Games series where I laid in bed sobbing for an hour and a half. Just a week before writing this, a friend of mine told me that their soul had been ‘slightly crushed’ by a webcomic that had made a joke about a gender-queer character scaring their lover off for having less than standard equipment between their legs. Words hurt and as an author, it’s my job to do as little harm as possible.
Before anyone starts complaining about ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ and those dastardly ‘social justice warriors’ (because, you know, nothing could possibly be worse than fighting for justice I…guess?), lets move on to question two: If you do harm, is the harm required?
Using myself as an example – for I am nothing if not egotistical – in my novel Debris Dreams (which is out at the time of the publication of this blog post you are reading right now), the main character Drusilla Xao is pretty bigoted against people with mental health issues. It is an ingrained part of her culture: If you can’t handle the stress of surviving in space surrounded only by a thin tin can and sustained by a carefully modulated environmental system, then you are a weak person. It’s your fault.
Bollocks, of course.
But someone reading this first person narrative may be reminded of bigotry against their own mental health issues – and it will hurt. But I ask myself: Is this harm required?
Well, as the second novel in the Lunar Cycle series is about Dru dealing with PTSD, yes. This harm is required for a number of narrative and artistic principles – I can even lay them out. I want to illuminate how even good people can be blinded by prejudice until they get smacked with the absurdity of their ingrained assumptions. I want to give Dru an emotionally involving character arc for the second book. I need a reason for her to not take her meds because in the distant world of 2068, I dare to dream that we might have figured out how to treat this stuff better than we do today and if Dru just took her meds, she’d be fine (which I chose to write because it was an entertaining subversion on the all too common Hollywood take on mental health.)
There was reason for the harm.
And finally, the third question: Does this do good? Because it is not enough simply to do no harm – because novels without harm and without good are pretty stale and bland pieces. But what is doing good? Lets focus the issue down to queer issues specifically, because that is what this blog post is supposed to be about! For me, doing good in the queer realm (especially in the specific category of speculative fiction and fantasy) is broken into two equally important realms: Exploration and Escapism.
Escapism is easy.
Every day, we as queer people and queer allies, are exposed to a blistering mass of hatred. It can be subtle, it can be overt. In America, especially, we still have a deluge of politicians tripping over one another to push some new anti-queer law through the bill in the name of ‘family values.’ I firmly believe they’re going to lose – the way of the future is here. But the past is going to die, as the past does, with a lot of screaming and clawing and kicking. Those kicks are going to hurt people – whether they’re the massive number of gay and lesbian kids who are kicked out of their homes (family values, huh?) or the transfolk who are outright murdered for not looking right.
People living under that smog cloud of bile need a chance to escape. I sure know I do.
Sci-fi and fantasy provide amazing avenues to escape. Sometimes, it is wonderful to simply immerse yourself in a world where you won’t be hated just for being who you are. A good friend of mine loves novels and stories about shapeshifting and gender-flipping because they’re things they dearly wish to attain one day: To be free of the body they were born in and to soar into an endless possibility of space of form and function.
A lot of my fiction falls under the ‘escapist’ realm. Debris Dreams may not be set in a perfect world, but at least no one cares who you sleep with anymore. Other novels I have written (and have yet to publish) take place in worlds where magic makes transitioning from gender to gender as easy as visiting a corner drug store, or where advanced technology has freed us from only having to date people living nearby.
…wait, that’s not a story, that’s just right now. Stupid reality, stealing my ideas before I can get them published!
But what about exploration? Exploration, in a way, is even simpler than escapism. Since we first put pen to parchment and dreamed of a better, different world through technology – way back to the heyday of the genre, when Jules Verne and H.G Wells were telling tales of flying machines and Martian invasions…all sci-fi has been doing is taking ideas that aren’t here yet and seeing how they impact the world. Sometimes, the author also combines this exploration with a point about something. For example, H.G Wells considered the overwhelming military power of the British Empire and wondered what kind of military would do the same to his own people and – in doing so – invented lasers, blitzkriegs, chemical weapons and tanks.
He also made a serious, scathing point about the assumption of moral superiority that had come with technological sophistication. Basically, he asked the Britons of the time: “How does it feel now, sucker?”
So, exploring queer issues in sci-fi is as easy as writing sci-fi.
And thus, you have my answers to the first question posed at the beginning of this blogpost – and with that answer, you have the answer to the other questions posed here: To see what is there and to do some good while getting there.
About Debris Dreams
The year: 2067
The place: Sun-Earth Lagrange Point L1, 1.5 million kilometers above the surface of the Earth.
The objective: Survive.
Sixteen-year-old Drusilla Zhao lives in the Hub, a space station used by the Chinese-American Alliance as a base to exploit Luna’s resources. Desperate to break free of the Alliance, a terrorist group from the Moon destroys the space elevator, space’s highway to Earth. In a flash, Dru’s parents are dead and she is cut off from her girlfriend Sarah on Earth.
The Alliance declares war against the Moon, conscripting Dru and all the youth of the Hub. Dru is forced to become a soldier fighting in the lethal vacuum of space. Can Dru survive lunar terrorist attacks and find her way home to Sarah?
About the Author
David Colby was born and grew up in a household and family so nice and wonderful that his early life was completely and utterly bereft of interesting drama beyond a single incident in high school when he slipped on some grass and damaged a very valuable sousaphone while trying to please his marching band instructor. To correct this, he took up writing and kept writing until he got halfway decent at it.
Currently laboring on works spanning science fiction, fantasy and all the bizarre fusions in between, David is publishing novels and short stories through Thinking Ink Press and Fiction Silicon Valley.