The Weird and Wonderful World of Digger

If you had asked me what my favorite genres were eight years ago, chances are I would not have put Epic Anthropomorphic Fantasy at the top of the list. It wasn’t until my sister (somewhat relentlessly) insisted that I read the first volume of Ursula Vernon’s Digger that everything changed. It introduced me to strange new world that challenged my every notion of what comics and characters could be. I could go on about its clever use of footnotes, or its beautiful black and white artwork. I could talk about how it inspired me to take on the daunting task of writing my own indie comic. What I will do instead is take a close look at the way it challenged and subverted gender norms and the tropes of the genre.

When your principal cast consists almost entirely of non-humans, the lines with which we typically define gender become blurred. Yes, they’re anthropomorphic and have humanistic attributes, but our notions of human gender don’t line up when it comes to wombats or oracular slugs. What becomes important here is that you find yourselves relating to the character regardless of their gender (if they even have one). Some of us do this naturally, but we’re often going against the grain of what’s expected of us when we do. The world Ursula Vernon creates in Digger is so far removed from that paradigm, that it’s refreshing. You can be yourself here. The old rules need not apply.

Digger is the narrator and titular character. Her name is short for Digger of Unnecessarily Convoluted Tunnels. She is a wombat who likes engineering and is not at all a fan of gods or magic. She is also our steady voice of reason guiding us through a bizarre and irrational world. Her gender is not immediately apparent (in no small part due to her being a wombat) but it’s also not especially relevant. Digger’s androgynous nature ultimately makes her more easy to relate to.

At the center of the story is a matriarchal tribe of hyenas that Digger becomes entangled with. Creating a matriarchal tribe of hunters (which my spell check just tried to change to patriarchal) is no simple task. It’s not just “what applies to males in human society now applies to females here.” Vernon does this meticulously through mythology and ritual (and probably lots of research on spotted hyenas actual matriarchal society). We learn that female hunter in the hyena tribe will typically lose her first born child, and surviving first born children are considered special because of this. They also have a custom of excommunicating shamed members of their tribe. This and much of the hyena lore is revealed through Ed, an excommunicated male hyena that Digger befriends. Eventually Digger also becomes acquainted with the hunter Grim Eyes, who at first wants to eat her before they become reluctant allies. The way Grim Eyes is presented as a bit of a meathead, and is obliviously patronizing to their male guide Herne, leads to some thoroughly enjoyable banter.

Lastly there are the two actual human characters. First we have Murai, a faithful servant of Ganesh and a member of The Veiled. Subverting the typical fantasy quest of a protagonist fulfilling a glorious destiny, Mauri is neither the protagonist nor is her destiny glorious. It’s more like a curse than anything else. Her encounter with a god has left her broken, but her condition resembles the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While she is a true believer and follower of Ganesh, her story becomes one of finding her own voice. There is also leader of the Veiled, Captain Jhalm. In many ways, his place in the story is a perfect example of using toxic masculinity as a villain. While he is not the chief antagonist, his misplaced commitment to serve all of the gods consistently causes harm and creates unnecessary obstacles. This comes to a head when he faces off with hyena clan leader Boneclaw Mother. As he is about to kill one of his own soldiers in order to save a dying god, he’s met with her biting wisdom: “a god that demands the life of a child is not a god worth saving.”

It wasn’t until after I sat down to write this article that I realized how difficult it is to articulate exactly what I love about the gender subversion and obscurities in this story. This is in no small part because it casts a wide net. I didn’t even get to touch on Shadowchild (a genderless feral demon child who asks lots of questions) or Ganesh (the avatar of a male god whose voice I always find myself reading as female). There’s so much detail in every culture encountered in this epic. It’s so densely packed with nuanced characters and blurred gender lines that it’s hard to focus on just one. It isn’t just one character or one central theme, it’s a whole world. But here is the best part: you don’t have to take my word for it. It’s still free to read on the original webcomic site, or you can pick up the new omnibus edition.

Null Space: LGBT Representation in the Final Frontier

From the very beginning, Star Trek has garnered a reputation for being a trailblazer on minority representation. Each of its series has featured a diverse cast and strong female characters that stood out from it’s contemporaries. Whoopi Goldberg is perhaps one of the more prominent Star Trek fans to have been inspired by Nichelle Nichols role as Lieutenant Uhura in The Original Series. The same role has inspired a few actual astronauts as well. It is for this reason that the lack of LGBT representation across nearly two decades of Star Trek television (1987-2005) was such a disappointment.

The one honest attempt to take on LGBT issues came in the form of the 1992 Next Generation episode “The Outcast.” While it has some truly great moments that clearly depict the writer’s intentions, it ultimately falls short of having any true representation. I’m not the first person to do a present day analysis of this episode, and I doubt I will be the last. The fact that it is the one episode out of roughly 700 (and 12 movies) to honestly tackle LGBT issues head on, it stands out. With a new series set to launch in 2017, it’s worth taking a closer look at one of the franchise’s more unfortunate shortcomings.

“The Outcast” opens with the USS Enterprise assisting the J’naii (an androgynous race) with locating one of their missing shuttle craft. In their search they come across what appears to be a pocket of null space–a theoretical concept which had never been encountered before this discovery. Null space is described in Memory Alpha as “a pocket of space filled with the bright light of condensed turbulent magnetic and gravitational fields, absorbing all electromagnetic energy from anything that enters the phenomenon. The fields also bend all outside energy around the pocket, making it essentially invisible.”

After the crew is briefed on the abnormality they are dealing with, Commander Riker teams up with the J’naii pilot Soren in order to attempt a rescue mission. In doing so, the two begin to talk about their respective culture’s views on gender. Here we learn the J’naii once had two genders like humans, but they evolved to a higher form and now share a single gender. When Soren asks Riker about what attracts males to females, he gives a coy response filled with his winning Riker charm, but fails to mention the existence of homosexuality among humans. This is repeated later on when Soren questions Dr. Crusher about the female perspective. On both occasions the conversations lent themselves perfectly to both Riker and Crusher including the alternatives to heterosexual relationships in their answers to Soren. It is as though same sex attraction is something neither character has ever heard of.

I stress this point because I believe it is the most telling flaw in the entire episode. Even in a story that uses an allegory to represent modern day LGBT issues, there is no acknowledgement of queer humans ever existing. Even in our own episode we are invisible. Null space feels like an an unfortunate and unintentionally fitting metaphor.

All of this undercuts the episode’s stronger moments. When Soren “comes out” to Riker as being different and professes her attraction to him as a male, it is a powerful scene. She touches on the bullying she’s seen her peers go through and the constant fear of being discovered. She minces no words describing the evil and abusive practice of forced “curing” those who are outed are forced to go through. The scene can easily resonate with anyone who’s ever dealt with any of those things. In Soren’s particular case, she identifies as female (hence the use of the she/her pronouns). This is considered a perversion in J’naii society.

Soren’s character is nothing if not brave, and not just for “coming out” as female. “Commander, tell me about your sexual organs” might be the best pickup line ever used in the history of Star Trek. It certainly worked for Soren, as it wasn’t long before she and Riker were kissing. This too has been a point of criticism (the kiss, not the pickup line). Jonathan Frakes (the actor who plays Riker) said himself that he thought the scene (and episode) would have been more powerful if Soren were played by a man. If that had been the case, it could have born parallels to the Original Series episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” which featured the first interracial kiss ever aired on television. Instead, like numerous other parts of the episode, it fell short.

The episode ends with Picard asking Riker if his business with the J’naii is done before moving on to their next mission. Riker confirms that it is, and Picard gives the command to go to warp speed. The one criticism I have here is not that it was an unhappy ending. It rightly portrayed the “curing” of Soren’s so-called perversions in a negative light. What is unfortunate is that the “cure” worked, and it set in quickly. It a difficult thing to stomach when science has shown us repeatedly that so-called conversion therapy does not work. I don’t know how sound or well-researched the science was on this in the early 90’s, so I would give them a pass here. They at least did the part of portraying it as abusive and unjust.

All in all, “The Outcast” is a mixed bag. There are reviews that have praised it, and others that have torn it apart. I don’t think it would be this heavily scrutinized if it weren’t the only real offering of queer issues in the franchise’s long history. The criticism on this front is valid because Star Trek had established itself as a progressive, forward thinking series right from the very beginning. We know it could have done better because it had done better. With a new series coming in 2017, fifty years after the first Star Trek episode aired, should we have hope that the show will once again embrace its progressive roots? Only time will tell.

Further Reading
Homosexuality in Star Trek – a really in depth look at homosexuality in the franchise on the Star Trek fan site Ex Astris Scientia.
Gay “Trek” – a nice detailed article written before the debut of Enterprise for Salon.
Scrapbook Enterprise – my own super geeky documentation on my journey through the Universe of Star Trek.

Follow me on twitter @danielstalter and check out my comic series on dreamcrashercomic.com.

Sci-Fi Alien(ation): Diversity and Bigotry in Sci-Fi Fantasy

The need for diversity in Science Fiction, otherwise known as Speculative Fiction, has been getting a lot of media attention as of late. Racist fanboys tried (and failed) to boycott Star Wars Episode VII for featuring a diverse primary cast. The World Fantasy Awards finally removed the face of avowed racist H.P. Lovecraft from their trophy. Most recently, the Sad/Rabid Puppies tarnished the Hugo Awards for a second straight year. Traditionally marginalized groups are becoming more visible, while the subsequent backlash is growing louder and more absurd.

It is for these reasons and more that Dr. Philip Kadish organized a panel to facilitate a much needed discussion on the growing attacks on diversity in Speculative Fiction. Gathered at the CUNY Graduate Center were panelists Andre Carrington (Speculative Blackness), Craig Laurance Gidney (Skin Deep Magic), and Jennifer Marie Brissette (Elysium).

Racism in Speculative Fiction is nothing new–it has been there since the beginning. Gene Roddenberry may have opened minds when he envisioned a future of inclusion, but there have always been the likes of Jerome B. Holgate in the midst. Moderator Phil Kadish opened the evening’s discussion with a plot synopsis from Holgate’s A Sojourn in the City of Amalgamation, one of the first Speculative Fiction books ever published. Written in 1835, it was critical of the Abolitionist movement and painted a dystopic future where slavery was no longer legal and race mixing was mandatory. In this future society, people had to build special devices to make their interracial society work; namely a sheep dip for the black partners so that their white counterparts could “stand the smell.”

Expanding on Speculative Fiction’s often problematic history, Andre Carrington talked about the paradox of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. “He was a man ahead of his time, but he was also very much a man of his own time,” Carrington remarked. While Star Trek is well known for breaking new ground by featuring a black female lead as a ranking officer and having TV’s first interracial kiss, it also had episodes that displayed gross misogyny and was very much a product of its time. Yesterday’s progressive entertainment looks very different to today’s audience, and likewise today’s progressive fiction is likely to look very different in the future.

Another paradox in the genre that he spoke about was how Speculative Fiction today is “simultaneously popular and marginal at the same time.” He explained this by contrasting the massive success of superhero and franchise films like Star Wars, with the diminished respect that genre writers receive in favor of more traditional ones. Prestigious awards like the National Book Award have historically shunned genre fiction, and that is one of the reasons we have the Hugos and World Fantasy Awards in the first place. We can see things splinter further as the Hugos and it’s contemporaries have historically favored straight, white, cis-male writers. This precedent has lead to the creation of organizations like the Carl Brandon Society (a group focused on awarding writers of color) and the James Tiptree Jr Awards (an award encouraging the exploration and expansion of gender).

Keeping the topic of literary awards going, Craig Laurance Gidney took the first deep dive into the 2015 Hugo Controversy. He opened his remarks by reading an excerpt from Sad Puppies leader Brad R. Torgersen, in which Torgersen admonishes today’s Science Fiction for containing too much subtext. He glamorizes the days when books with spaceships on the cover were just books about space adventure, and not allegories for slavery or other things he’d rather not think about. Gidney then tore into this short-sighted logic for its fundamental flaw: there has always been subtext in Speculative Fiction. He specifically cited Andre Norton’s Witchworld series as a series he read as a child that was layered in subtext. A more mainstream example might be The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, which is widely known for it’s Christian subtext.

One of the stories believed to have triggered the Sad Puppies backlash was the 2014 Short Story Hugo winner “The Water that falls from Nowhere,” a magical realism story in which a young man comes out to his traditional Chinese family. The Sad Puppies claim they felt that conservative authors were being blacklisted, and so they gamed the system with their ballot list. Gidney’s theory is that the Sad Puppies are less about principle, and more about selling books by appealing to a targeted audience. He argues that they are trying to appeal to the Glen Beck listeners, Trump voters, and Fox News watchers. The demographic that loathes “politically correct” language and has the money to buy books. If it were about principle, he argues, they would have focused on actually nominating good conservative writers. Instead they nominated some of the most inflammatory writers they could find, namely three works by John C. Wright who is best known for his homophobic views. More of Gidney’s thoughts and writing on the Sad Puppies can be found on his website.

Jennifer Brissett then took the conversation in a different direction, choosing to focus on the issues with the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA). SFWA is supposed to represent Science Fiction Writers. In 2009, then SFWA President John Scalzi stated “any market not paying pro rates shouldn’t even be publishing.” In reality, a lot of small presses that pay below the pro rate (which is $0.05 per word) are the only ones publishing minorities and women. When SFWA uses primarily mainstream publishers to decide their criteria for membership, you have a system that shuts out historically unrepresented writers on a systemic level.

One root of this problem is the lack of diversity on editorial boards. Brissette laid out a hypothetical example of a present day editor starting out as an unpaid intern, as many of them do. Only those who have family to support them living in a place as expensive as New York City without a paying job are able to get their foot in the door. This in turn perpetuates only the status quo getting published. The real issues are systemic and embedded in the foundation of the structures that writers rely on. It’s not just that the Sad Puppies gamed the system; it’s that no changes were made to prevent it from happening for a second year.

Taking it back to her frustrations with SFWA, Brissette brought up the 2013 incident when Theodore Beale went on a racist Twitter rant about author N.K. Jemisin and had it posted to the SFWA Twitter feed. In spite of the immediate backlash, it still took the organization two months to expel him over the incident. Jemison wrote extensively about the frustration of the experience on the day his expulsion was finally delivered. People want to dismiss examples like this as outliers, but they are really just scratching the surface of the systemic issues beneath.

Left unchecked, these issues are going to lead to a great split in the Speculative Fiction community. Groups representing the LGBT Community and People of Color are successfully launching their own conventions and awards. George R. R. Martin organized The Alfie Awards in protest of the tainted 2015 Hugos. Alternative conventions are beginning to make strong impacts, such as FlameCon and the Afrofuturism Conference. To paraphrase the point Jennifer Brissette made: the future is in creating the support structures we need through alternative means instead of just relying on existing organizations.

In summary of the night, Andre Carrington remarked ” we are living in a golden age and a bronze age at the same time.” Brissette added: “It’s a reflection of this country. From the outside we look like a hot mess. We are in the age of Obama and the age of Trump.”

You can view a full video of the panel discussion here: http://videostreaming.gc.cuny.edu/videos/video/4298/

Follow me on Twitter @danielstalter.