Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The fault in our stars

with one comment

Earlier this week, the writer Eric Vilas-Boas wrote an emotional essay for TV Guide about a personal crisis that was recently catalyzed by an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In “Far Beyond the Stars,” Commander Benjamin Sisko—played, as always, by Avery Brooks, who also directs—hallucinates that he’s really Benny Russell, a black science writer living in New York in the fifties. The story aired for the first time on February 11, 1998, but even after over twenty years, its themes are still uncomfortably close to home, as Vilas-Boas observes: “The halls of magazines and newspapers remain difficult to break into without (white, often male) contacts or mentors. Just from my experience alone, that’s often meant policing my own behavior to appear more ‘white’ and less threatening: straightening my hair, cutting my hair, or holding my tongue in meetings when I’ve heard something unquestionably offensive.” And after quoting the extraordinary speech that Russell delivers toward the end, in a single unbroken take that amounts to some of the best work of Brooks’s career, Vilas-Boas writes:

I can’t think about that last line [“You can pulp a story but you cannot destroy an idea. Don’t you understand? That’s ancient knowledge.”] without crying. I can’t think about it without thinking about what ancient knowledge has been destroyed in the systemic abuse of marginalized peoples. I can’t watch that episode without thinking about the times I felt most worthless and undeserving of my jobs as a writer and editor in white-dominant workplaces. I can’t watch Russell’s plaintive bargaining with his editor over his stories without thinking about times I’ve policed myself in the process to appear less aggressive, less brown, less assertive, and less likely to cause problems, because of what I perceived as a clear power imbalance…That’s not an uncommon story, if you care to pay attention, but for people of color or other marginalized groups, it’s unavoidable.

Until yesterday, I had never seen “Far Beyond the Stars.” What prompted me to check it out last night, apart from the power of Vilas-Boas’s article, was a screen shot of René Auberjonois as Douglas Pabst, the editor of the fictional magazine Incredible Tales. The episode’s supporting characters are played by members of the show’s regular cast, many of whom are allowed to wear their real faces on camera for the first time—but Auberjonois is clearly made up and costumed to resemble John W. Campbell, down to the browline glasses. And the teleplay by Ira Steven Behr and Hans Beimler, based on a story by Marc Scott Zicree, is filled with affectionate nods to the pulps, along with a few forgivable inaccuracies. (Incredible is implausibly depicted as occupying a spacious, beautiful newsroom, with writers on salary typing up stories at their own desks. In reality, Campbell spent most of his career sharing a single tiny office with his assistant editor, Kay Tarrant, and there was little more than a spare chair for visitors. But it’s Sisko’s dream, after all, and it certainly looks great on television.) But Pabst’s response to Russell’s desire to write a story with a black protagonist rings all too true:

Look, Benny, I’m a magazine editor, I am not a crusader. I am not here to change the world, I’m here to put out a magazine. Now, that’s my job. That means I have to answer to the publisher, the national distributors, the wholesalers and none of them are going to want to put this story on the newsstand. For all we know, it could cause a race riot…The way I see it, you can either burn it or you can stick it in a drawer for fifty years or however long it takes the human race to become color-blind.

Earlier in the episode, Pabst expresses himself even more bluntly: “The average reader’s not going to spend his hard-earned cash on stories written by Negroes.”

And unfortunately, this isn’t much of an exaggeration. Russell inevitably reminds many viewers of Samuel R. Delany, and remarkably enough, the episode aired six months before the publication of Delany’s landmark essay “Racism and Science Fiction,” in which he shared a very similar anecdote from 1967:

I submitted Nova for serialization to the famous SF editor of Analog magazine, John W. Campbell, Jr. Campbell rejected it, with a note and phone call to my agent explaining that he didn’t feel his readership would be able to relate to a black main character. That was one of my first direct encounters, as a professional writer, with the slippery and always commercialized form of liberal American prejudice: Campbell had nothing against my being black, you understand…In the phone call Campbell made it fairly clear that this was his only reason for rejecting the book. Otherwise, he rather liked it.

In fact, Campbell was willing to print stories with black protagonists, notably Mack Reynolds’s “Black Man’s Burden” and its sequels—as long as all of its characters sounded just like John W. Campbell. Otherwise, he had minimal interest in diversifying the magazine. On May 1, 1969, he wrote to the fan Ron Stoloff: “If Negro authors are extremely few—it’s solely because extremely few Negroes both wish to, and can, write in open competition.” In the same letter, Campbell extended his views to the characters as well: “Think about it a bit, and you’ll realize why there is so little mention of blacks in science fiction; we see no reason to go saying ‘Lookee lookee lookee! We’re using blacks in our stories! See the Black Man! See him in a spaceship!’ It is my strongly held opinion that any Black should be thrown out of any story, spaceship, or any other place—unless he’s a black man. That he’s got no business there just because he’s black, but every right there if he’s a man.”

As I’ve noted here before, there are two implications here. The first is that all protagonists should be white males by default, a stance that Campbell might not even have seen as problematic—and even if race wasn’t made explicit, the magazine’s illustrations overwhelmingly depicted its characters as white. There’s also a clear sense that black heroes have to “earn” their presence in the magazine, which, given the hundreds of cardboard “competent men” that Campbell cheerfully featured over the years, is laughable in itself. In fiction, as in life, if you’re black, you’ve evidently got to be twice as good to justify yourself. Science fiction has come a long way in the last half century, but it still has room to grow, and you could even argue that the discussion about race within fan culture has degenerated since the first airing of “Far Beyond the Stars.” (The ongoing debate over programming at the upcoming World Science Fiction Convention only points to how fraught such issues remain.) Sisko’s closing monologue, in which he wonders if his entire world might exist only in Benny Russell’s imagination, is a little on the nose, but it’s a reminder that all of these stories emerged in response to similar hopes and fears. And at its best, science fiction can provide solace—or outrage—that we can put to use in our own lives. As Vilas-Boas concludes:

Six months later, I see a therapist regularly, largely to talk about my feelings, something that sounds like a cliché but is really a product of how much I’ve bottled up and held in every day of my life. I’ve had panic attacks since then, but I handle them better. In its own way, “Far Beyond the Stars” helped me set a rubric for them, to know that they have a prior trigger in my life, to recognize the world’s problems are not inextricably linked to my reactions to them. No matter how big or small, it would be Captain Sisko’s job to keep his cool and get his crew out of danger…And in the end, there’s no hiding. There’s only one thing I can do, in the words of Sisko: “Stay here and finish the job I started.”

One Response

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  1. I remember seeing the episode air at the time, but I only remember vague shadows of the episode. What I do remember was feeling uncomfortable and a little smug that we’re ‘better than that now.’

    I wish the world worked the way I thought it did when I was younger.

    Morgan Hazelwood

    July 26, 2018 at 10:01 am


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