Slavery, Sex, Surveillance, and Science Fiction

A recent article by a long-time X-Files fan was fascinating for its insights into the fan mentality and how it seems to remain the same even though TV has changed drastically since her pre-teen days of immersion. TV was a very minor part of my adolescence because it had barely become something available to the average family. Programming was limited, and books had already established themselves as the major consumer of my free time. All the big fandoms came into being when I was several decades into adulthood, so I didn’t have the same emotional impetus to become a fan of any show.

I was never a big TV watcher even when TV had become the dominant form of home entertainment, and the choices had become overwhelming. My taste ran to science fiction, just as it did in reading, but SF series that I really enjoyed watching usually hit the networks’ cutting room floors after a season or two. The ones that survived because they’d found financially lucrative audiences rarely engaged me. In fact, the rest of TV didn’t engage me. So it’s interesting to look back at a series that not only absorbed me completely, but led me to buy the entire DVD collection when it became available.

The original La Femme Nikita series was just as much a fantasy world as X-Files or Doctor Who, but it had a gritty sort of reality that moved me toward thinking more concretely about coercion, oppression, and powerlessness. The two co-stars were a great romantic match, and that seemed to be the pull for most of the fans. For me, the fascination was the many abuses of power and how it affected the protagonists. In fact, for a while, I contemplated writing a nonfiction book about the ways in which La Femme Nikita reflected the real world.

My hand slaves world is also a fantasy, which is why I recently trashed A Perfect Slave, the last completed novel in that world. When I began writing about the hand slaves world, it was with the intention of subverting the standard slavefic tropes. Most slavefic, and especially fanfic, concentrated on sexual relations between slave and owner. The harsh reality of slavery, if it was dealt with at all, was submerged into a distorted form of romance.

When I wrote Hidden Boundaries, the ”romance” was far from most readers’ expectations, and and what little sex there was, occurred at the end and was of the “fade to black” variety. Crossing Boundaries had even less, and concentrated more fully on the reality of slavery. Hidden Boundaries sold quite well for a book that got very little promotion, and the comments mostly focused on the romance rather than the slavery. Crossing Boundaries apparently strayed too far in the direction of submerging romance and has never sold particularly well.

But the world I’d created kept its hold on me, so I wrote A Perfect Slave, which has no sex or romance at all, and delves deeper into the psychology of someone who has been enslaved since childhood. By the time I’d finished it and was preparing it for publication, I had written several short stories about prison life, including Bentham’s Dream, which is science fiction, and has morphed into a novella.

During NaNo ’15, I wrote Camp Expendable, another science fiction novel based on the real world of mass incarceration and climate change. I’d been making notes for it for two or three years, so these subjects had been on my mind even while I was still dabbling into the fantasy world of slavery. Somewhere along NaNo, I realized that this was the direction I’d been heading in for quite a while and that I didn’t want to put any further time and effort into fantasy slavery. Perfect Slave went into the trash, along with all the notes and fragments intended for another hand slaves book.

The conclusion I had come to, but didn’t want to accept for some time, was that reader expectations can override whatever good intentions the author may have had in writing a book. Hidden Boundaries provoked sympathy for its protagonist, and the desire to see the romance reach a happy ending. The problems of slavery and the ethics of ownership were seldom mentioned in comments. The very fact of the novel taking place in an alternate world contributed to the problem. There was no grounding in anything readers might perceive as relevant to their own world.

We live in a rapidly changing world that will be much more difficult for our children and grandchildren. Americans live in a decaying empire that still imagines itself the source of all that is good. The daily news, if you read widely enough, provides inspiration for near-future science fiction solidly ground in reality. That’s where I’m headed.

A last note — I’m currently in the middle of a book in a genre that I normally don’t read: political suspense. The God’s Eye View, by Barry Eisler, is about surveillance. It’s a look at the hidden means by which the government is able to keep an eye on each of us, without our being aware that we’re spied on. It’s so solidly based on reality that the first chapter is concerned with Edward Snowdon’s release of top secret government documents and the effect that it’s had on the public and on government officials. Eisler has the background to make the book authoritative even though it’s fiction, and the writing is mainly very good. My only criticism so far is that he resorts to some info dumps. They’re fairly short, though, so aren’t a huge obstacle.

In a bit of serendipity, the Google page for Snowden has an article about the film that will be made about him, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Gordon-Levitt will be donating his salary to furthering public education about surveillance, and will be working with the ACLU as part of that effort.

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2 thoughts on “Slavery, Sex, Surveillance, and Science Fiction

  1. Having a subject important to your heart in your books is something we couldn’t get away with in the traditional publishing world (unless that subject was the Jersey Shore). It means that the writers taking that risk get published – even if they don’t manage to do the level of education they wish they could achieve, along with the entertainment.

    I’m on a similar tack, only my subject is disability, Hollywood, and the expectations the world places on who is good enough for whom. ‘Normals’ pretend disabled people are basically a separate species, like pets.

    Maybe I’ll make a dent in it. I made a serious effort to learn to write well – and I’m pleased with the results. We’ll see.

    1. What’s dear to our hearts may not sell well, but that isn’t always the important criteria of whether or not to spend the time and effort. As for disability, my husband was blind, so I know exactly what you’re talking about.

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