Harry Potter and the Wizarding World of Systemic Racism

Pride Month is here, which means J.K. Rowling is on the internet being a bigot. I’m only kidding. She does it year round, it’s just that more people take note during June. Once more, I see friends and acquaintances on social media debating whether or not she is, in fact, a bigoted TERF piece of shit. Spoiler: yup, she is. Further spoiler: don’t read the rest of this if you don’t want me to ruin Harry Potter.

So here’s the thing, I loved the Harry Potter books. The craft of their construction is one of the more impressive literary feats I’ve ever seen. The way each book is a bit longer, the prose a bit more mature. These are books that grow up with you. As a series, it was best taken as it was released rather than in a month- or two month-long binge. Best of all if you were the same age or just slightly younger than the characters.

I liked the stories, too. The schoolyear-long mystery plots, the ways in which each of the three main characters were fully essential to the resolutions, and the way Harry and his friends stood up against the rise of Magic Fascism. There’s an issue, though. More on that in a sec.

Separating art from artist is a conversation we keep having. We had it about Michael Jackson, and look: I fucking love Thriller. We had it about Orson Scott Card, and look: Ender’s Game is brilliant, but also problematic in a number of ways. Witness also Dan Simmons, who created one of science fiction’s greatest works in Hyperion, but in real life is a toxic jerk who regularly erupts with severely bad takes.

And now, on to Rowling.

I’m not writing this to excoriate her unwavering TERF status or her repeated attempts to lock down a narrow and biologically inaccurate definition of “woman.”

I’m writing this because you probably misunderstood Harry Potter. We all did.

Look at this thing I came across the other day. It briefly and concisely sums up numerous ways in which Rowling’s personal prejudice expressed itself in the Wizarding World. The books are drawn with the tools of antisemitism and anti-abolitionism. There’s a pretty strong anti-trans message. And much more.

You might be forgiven for missing much of this. Particularly if you came to the story from a place of privilege, of never having directly experienced this particular bigotry or that. You might roll your eyes at names like “Cho Chang” and “Seamus Finnegan” while missing what should be blindingly obvious about a family of redheads with seven children living on modest means, even when the text comes out and explicitly says this:

My father told me all the Weasleys have red hair, freckles, and more children than they can afford.

Draco Malfoy, who presumably holidays in Ireland but never leaves the resort.

The French girls manage double-duty as coquettish Continental sex-pots and helpless damsels and I’ll bet you only remember one of their names. Do not Google it – what’s Fleur’s last name??

Viktor Krum is the most swarthy-Easterner-come-to-seduce-innocent-English-girls since goddamn Dracula.

But the Message of Harry Potter! Voldemort’s followers are racists and they’re the bad guys so obviously this is a story about anti-fascists and anti-racists overcoming the looming specter of Magic Hitler.

Except it just doesn’t fly like that.

You know that old canard about how a computer makes no mistakes, but can only carry out its programming and if it “malfunctions” that was just a failure of the programmer? Yeah, guess what.

Rowling’s various bigotries are baked into the world-building. The goblins are bad enough, but the house elves who don’t want to be free? Because really they like servitude, it’s just the beatings that are an issue. It’s oh so frustrating for Hermione, isn’t it. Isn’t it fucking just.

Take another look at Voldemort’s followers. Just the important ones, the ones who play large roles in the story. The Malfoys, Bellatrix, Crouch Jr… scions of old money families. The only Death Eaters who play important roles and aren’t the magic equivalent of Old Money are Useful Idiots or magically controlled.

Harry himself comes from that old money, as does Sirius Black. But Sirius grew up in it – and rejected its company. Harry grew up oblivious to it, only discovering that aspect of his heritage when he first went to Diagon Alley. See, he didn’t grow up with the money. He didn’t grow up in that society.

Neither, of course, did Voldemort. Tom Riddle was an orphan. More importantly, he’s half Muggle. His followers probably don’t know that, right? The Dark Lord despises his Muggle father and his own “mudblood” status.

Remember how it’s widely believed Hitler had at least some Jewish blood?

And how a large part of Hitler’s early biography revolves on his attempts at social climbing?

Harry Potter is about class. How very British.

Its hero, just like its author, did not grow up with wealth but attained it later (though Harry gets his much earlier than Rowling got hers). Its hero is upper class but grew up in a weird lower-class situation within a middle class family. Hermione and the Weasleys likewise represent the lower social strata.

Sirius grew up in the House of Black but rejected his family’s decadent, aristocratic bigotry. He, even moreso than Harry, is that time-honored British version of the White Savior: the Good Aristocrat.

Or, for the Americans in the room, the Good Master. You know, like the O’Haras of Gone With the Wind. That novel makes a lot out of Scarlett’s family not “mistreating” the human beings they bought and sold like cattle.

The central conflict of the entire series, in every single book, is Voldemort trying to kill Harry Potter. The rich, white, pureblood Boy Who Lived.

All the other stuff is secondary. It’s backdrop. It’s world building. Yes, the subtle and then blatant rise of fascism is very, very bad you know. But what matters, from the very first page, is the threat to Harry Potter.

All the bigotry – and I’m still talking about the prejudice built into the world itself, most of which does end up being espoused by the villains but which is undeniably hard-coded into the setting – is really just fine, thank you very much, right up until the rise of fascism threatens Harry.

It’s all fine until then.

Rowling must see the real world something like this. She doesn’t like people who aren’t like her, but the only way she’d ever stand up for them is if somebody threatened her along with them. She is the one there will be nobody left to speak up for when they finally come for her.

Harry goes on to become a cop, naturally. And you know he’s a good cop. He won’t do those evil things the Death Eaters did, and he won’t allow evil to stand unopposed as did the Ministry under Crouch.

But he also won’t free the house elves, because they were better off in servitude.

Future Police

In 2014, Ursula K. Le Guin called on science fiction and fantasy writers to envision alternatives to capitalism. To depict through fiction possible ways future societies might build better worlds, rather than endlessly retreading the same old cyberpunk corporate dystopias. To use works of speculative fiction to propose a way forward.

In 2004’s The Libertine, John Malkovich’s Charles II tells Johnny Depp’s Rochester, “It’s fun to be against things, but there comes a time when you have to start being for things as well.”

The United States of America has a police problem. You may have noticed this week.

You may have seen lines of law enforcement officers kitted out like they’re about to take Baghdad, facing down American citizens who had the galling audacity to believe the Constitution enshrines their right to peaceably assemble and petition their government. (It does, by the way.)

The militarization of our country’s police departments has been going on for a while now. It’s been pointed out before. The current crisis turns on other factors, as well, and if you don’t understand about systemic racism and its continual expression through acts of police brutality and murder … I can’t help you.

That these issues must be discussed is unquestionable. More than protests will be necessary, though these protests are an essential step in the process. Getting the attention of legislators and other policy makers isn’t easy.

But what next? What’s the way forward? What alternatives can we envision? While we are against the excesses of a racist police state, what shall we be for?

(I’m a white guy. I’m about to share some ideas and suggestions that are not mine. I strongly recommend reading and considering them, but I far more strongly recommend giving our attention to the voices of Americans of color, those who are the continual victims of our nation’s shortfalls.)

Doing away with qualified immunity protections for cops who abuse their authority would be a step toward accountability. Removing that civil protection would allow victim’s families to sue unjustifiably violent officers. The counter-argument that no one would want to be a cop if they could get sued for civil rights violations is as absurd as it is telling. If you subscribe to it, I suspect you may also have uttered the following platitude which I recommend to you now: you’ve nothing to fear if you’ve nothing to hide. And if you fear innocent officers will suffer at the hands of the courts … do you fucking hear yourself?

The abolition of police unions, such as the Fraternal Order of Police, would remove another protection for overzealous cops. When Minneapolis police union president Lt. Bob Kroll laments the lack of even more cops with even more military equipment for his city’s troubles, while promising to lobby for the officers fired in connection to their participation in George Floyd’s murder to be reinstated, you see what police unions are about: protect the cops, no matter what.

In order to curb the relentless militarization of our police forces – which, in itself, contributes to the culture of violent policing while enabling that violence to attain shocking levels – it may prove necessary to reduce police funding to prevent their stockpiling of military weaponry and equipment and to slow down the growth of these little would-be municipal armies.

I would not argue to abolish policing altogether, but there are indications doing so might actually reduce crime rather than increase it.

Edit: the majority of emergency calls do not indicate armed response. Police have shown up for medical emergency calls and ended up shooting epileptics, for example. While I would not abolish policing, I would absolutely favor reducing uniformed policing and the universal 911 response of sending a cop. More social workers, more properly trained EMTs, keep some of the detectives, eradicate “patrolmen.”

Having defunded the police, these tax dollars might be more wisely used in our communities to address the actual problems those communities face when they aren’t being terrorized by thugs with badges.

The ideas I’ve mentioned are all on the table. They are things we can do, right now, this year. They are steps on a path forward that may lead to an America where law enforcement isn’t responsible for hundreds of unnecessary and unjustifiable killings every single year. We can and should let our representatives know that we support measures which curtail both the ability of police to abuse their power and the protections against consequences which, once having done so, they shield behind.

These are steps, but not the only ones available to us as a society. In order to build a more just society – that most American of idealisms – it behooves us to come up with solutions. Not palliatives, not distractions, and not the negligent, out-of-sight-out-of-mind ambivalence that will surely be the easiest and most widespread attitude when the rioting stops and the embers cool.

We must imagine an alternative, and having imagined a more just society we must work to bring that vision to fruition.

Much as Le Guin urged SF/F writers to envision alternatives to capitalism, those of us who entertain speculative thoughts should continue to offer new ideas and solutions. HBO’s recent Watchmen series opens by showing us a police officer physically incapable of drawing their weapon without independent authorization.

Similarly, Alastair Reynolds’ Prefect Dreyfus novels depict a future police force disallowed from the use of force or weapons without a civilian vote to authorize such … and, as is fitting when we seek to constrain bad actors, an examination of some of the ways officers might skirt those restrictions or even sneak around them.

I urge you, when the riots die down and there are no more violent clashes in the streets of our cities, to face these questions and join the effort to fix the underlying problems that led us here. Do not forget. There are too many of us who can’t.

Further Reading



Life Is More Important than Property

Typically I avoid discussing real-world stuff on this blog. This is a science fiction (and some fantasy) blog, an author blog, etc; … The world is coming apart at the seams, though, and I need to get some thoughts out. Fuck you if you don’t like it.

Almost thirty years ago, my father had a conversation with me about police. We were in the car. He was driving me to school. We passed by another car which had been pulled over. We lived in a quiet town with a crime rate more than 80% lower than the national average. This is a southern town with only three churches – you know from that it’s a small town. More cops per capita, at the time, than nearby Chattanooga. In gentler words given my tender years, he explained that All Cops Are Bastards.

My dad came of age in the Sixties. He graduated high school at a time when everything seemed to be coming apart. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Vietnam took personal friends. An uncle came back with severe and permanent mental damage. Kurt Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse Five, which ends with what might be the best anti-violence essay ever. And three American men shot into space and danced with the Moon. It was a weird time.

It’s a weird time now. Two Americans went to space yesterday, launching from US soil for the first time in 9 years, launching in a privately built spacecraft for the first time ever. We’ve got these unpopular wars and we’ve got people clashing in the streets with cops and it kinda feels like we haven’t made any progress at all.

California had a little problem a few months after my Dad told me the cops were the bullies who peaked in high school and never amounted to anything. In the spring of 1992, I was nine years old watching news coverage of riots. I didn’t fully understand it. Seems like I wasn’t alone in not understanding it, because a lot of people this week still don’t seem to get it.

They didn’t get it in 1968. They didn’t get it in 1992. They didn’t get it in 2014. They don’t get it now. And so it goes.

The mechanisms of state are not infallible. That was kind of a big deal to a group of fellas about 244 years ago. Some of them had a bit of a riot. Some property was destroyed and later they had a whole damn war over it. All my childhood years, teachers told me these men were heroes. The lionization of these men in American history is absolute. Of course, they were white dudes.

These guys had some good ideas, though. I think we can agree on that, yes? One of the big ones was that of governmental power deriving from the “consent of the governed.” They didn’t like that the government sent armed men into their communities, armed men who abused the citizenry without consequence. Indeed, standing up to that abuse could get you killed.

“We hold thse truths to be self-evident,” they wrote in a fancy letter to the King of England, “that all men are created equal.” That was a pretty good idea, too. But T.S. Eliot had it right when he wrote, “Between the idea/ And the reality/ … Falls the Shadow.”

All right, but surely not every Law Enforcement Officer in the United States is a wannabe fascist thug and white supremacist. Surely not, right? I mean, there have been warnings for years about white supremacists “infiltrating” police departments across the country, but there must be good cops right?

And there are. The Chattanooga police chief tweeted the other day that any officer who didn’t have a problem with the video of George Floyd’s death should turn in their badge. Other high ranking cops across the country expressed similar feelings. Atlanta’s police chief went out amongst the protestors and spoke with them, listened to them. There are good cops, men and women who wear a badge because they believe in the words on the side of their cars: protect and serve the community.

My experiences with cops – and I’ve had a lot of them, actually – have generally been pretty all right. I’m a white dude, after all. I very drunkenly called a cop the R-word one time and nothing happened. I got in my friend’s car, flipped him the middle finger, and we left. And that was that. I have run from the cops and not ended up in cuffs.

Meanwhile, a person of color I knew when we were kids got his car searched once. This was that same small town outside Chattanooga, in the parking lot of the brand new McDonald’s (our first fast food joint). They ripped the upholstery out, smashed through the dash and door panels, determined to find the drugs. His car was literally totalled by a police search. They found his Bible.

I’ve also personally known a lot of cops. I went to a cop’s birthday party one time. It was a great party, lots of fun. I’ve worked with off-duty cops, moonlighting as private security. I know a guy right now, one of the best people I know, who wears a badge every day. I am always happy to see him.

But the thing is, my personal relationships with LEOs do not equate to what they do on the clock. Because I know them as people. On-duty, they’re not the same. They cannot be. That doesn’t mean they are automatically bad cops, far from it. But here’s another thing: cops are like apples. And that thin blue line? It means they won’t throw out the bad ones, but rather allow them to ruin the bunch. And so it goes.

The police chiefs speaking out this week – the cops who are joining protesters rather than senselessly attacking them – are an amazing ray of hope. That they are willing to hold their own to a standard of accountability we simply have never fucking seen before.

The fact that the latest murderer has actually been arrested and charged – all within days! – is simply incredible, because this is not how it normally goes.

The others – those who arrested journalists, blinding one in one case; those who drove their cars through peaceful crowds; those spraying tear gas indiscriminately; those kicking and beating civilians even when they are down on the ground – these images, these videos are ghastly, horrific, and the only thing remarkable about this is that we are seeing it this time. Live, as it happens, all over the country. And so it goes.

Sure, it’s not all cops. But it’s some cops, and they are brutalizing the citizens they are “sworn to protect” because those citizens are angry that cops are brutalizing the citizens…. And on, and on, and so it goes.

This must be stopped. Unfortunately, too many people are focused on the property damage. They focus on people out after curfew, well they should have followed the rules, well they should have listened.. These fucking people won’t see, when it’s right before their eyes. And they keep saying the same fucking bullshit they said every time an innocent Black man has been killed for the past twenty years, thirty years, sixty years… And on, and on, and so it goes.

And they keep refusing to understand that when the machines of state fail to serve the citizenry, the citizenry gets angry. That a rising police state which continually guns down unarmed people of a specific group will not be accepted by any sane populace, and that the legitimacy of the police – as an arm of the state – is dependent on the communities they serve, on the consent of the governed.

The rest of us, the ones who see what is happening and care more about human life than a fucking Target? We never consented to this shit.

And so, it needs to go.

source: NPR. List is far from comprehensize.

Density of Prose

I have about a hundred pages left on my Dune re-read, and I keep thinking about the writing itself. Herbert knew how to imbue his prose with density.

Reading Dune, one is introduced to an entire universe which seems wholly unfamiliar at first blush. Something to the tune of at least twenty thousand years separates the reader from this incredibly detailed world. And yet, by novel’s end, you are well acquainted with it.

The novel’s plot unwinds over the course of a few years, yet depicts the end-state of more than ten millennia of politics, religious doctrine, breeding schemes, and trade monopolism. Herbert never asks you to understand these things, he simply plants them in your brain over the course of 180,000-odd words.

One method Herbert employed is generally advised against: point-of-view hopping. In a single scene, the reader may be privy to the internal monologues of two or three or more characters. This is typically frowned upon for its tendency to yank one out of a story, ruining immersion. Even in third-omniscient, it’s a very difficult trick to employ. Yet Herbert managed to hop back and forth, often from one paragraph to the next and back again by the third.

That alone is an impressive feat, but it feeds into a far greater one. There is an early scene between the Lady Jessica and the traitor Doctor Yueh. It is a typical Herbert scene in which two characters converse and each leaves with a wholly different view of the exchange from the other. This particular scene shows us Yueh’s motivations, much of his personal history, and his effort to hide his betrayal from Lady Jessica. Jessica leaves the exchange pitying the Suk doctor, wholly taken in by his dissemination.

Through each of their inner thoughts during the conversation, we learn about the water requirements of palm trees and the mentality of the common man of Arrakis. We are given hints to the Bene Gesserit scheme, further hints to the sandworm-spice cycle of Dune. We gain insight into the relationship between Duke Leto and his concubine, its history, the strength of its love, the reasons they never married, and the doubts Jessica allows herself regarding it. We see a bit of the management of a Great House of the Imperium, and the ways in which those Houses compete, and the genealogical relationship of the Atreides to the imperial family is mentioned in relation to the Harkonnen title having been bought through CHOAM profits… Oh, yes, by now you should have a pretty good idea of what all that means. We also discover more about the spice itself, learn what it tastes like, how it smells, its addictive qualities, its life-extending properties. I haven’t even gotten to what the scene is ostensibly about, which is Jessica exploring their new home’s residential wing in preparation to assign the family quarters, meanwhile looking in on her sleeping son Paul.

All this in a handful of pages (less than ten in the old paperback on my shelf, 14 in the Kindle edition) less than a sixth of the way into the novel.

In another scene, we are presented with the 10,000 year history of the Fremen while learning what makes a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother while learning about Fremen ritual and the origin of their ritual drug, while a major character is being introduced, while Jessica is worrying about her son’s future, while Paul is worrying about his mother becoming his enemy.

Yet another gives us a gladiator battle in the Harkonnen arena while describing the sweeping interstellar politics of the Imperium, the internal politics of a single House, detailing the schemes of two members of that House as well as two outsiders representing the Emperor, and also hints about the origins of the Sardaukar and the implications Salusa Secundus has for Arrakis and the Fremen.

The scenes are dense.

It’s something Herbert’s son and writing partner Kevin Anderson completely failed to replicate. They seemed to equate this density of prose with a density of events. As a result, their prequel and sequel novels are sprawling epics that read like children’s books. A single one of their novels could not be adapted faithfully in less than a dozen hours, but there is no density such as I’ve described – which doubles the apparent effect of their stories’ ridiculously jam-packed plots. Each one is just a never-ending string of disjointed scenes coming at you rapid fire, with no overriding sense of connection.

That sounds harsh, but look: I can’t write like Frank Herbert either.

I do still try to take lessons from his work. That desnity of prose is one of these. I like to put as much information into each scene as possible – until I reach the climax of a story, and then I peel that density away to frame the action in the most spare and economical of prose.

It has been said that parts of my writing are “overloaded.” Its a criticism I can easily understand. The desired effect is not easy to accomplish.

However – and especially when dealing with science fiction or fantasy, works that require solid and intricate world-building – I believe it is an important skill for the author to master. This density of prose lets you construct your world before the reader’s eyes, slipping in the infinitesimal detail here, the suggestive implication there, the cultural reference just so.

There’s another writer who comes to mind, though his prose was never elevated to the level of Frank Herert’s. Nevertheless, having read the entirety of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, the attentive reader finds they could be dropped without warning or explanation to practically any corner of Randland … and soon know exactly where they were by observing the people, their attire, their buildings, their speech…

Yes, Jordan (and Sanderson at the end) had over four million words to work with. You could subtract the word count of Dune and WoT would still surpass 4 million. Jordan’s style was more about a density of repetition. Extensive descriptions are reinforced by little moments and asides throughout subsequent scenes.

Another similarity: Jordan was perhaps even more skilled at depicting how an apparently straightforward conversation might be perceived in wholly different ways by its participants, using this as a springboard to develop his characters in contrasting detail.

These methods of craft help bring the imagined world into reality, solidifying the world-building in addition to the characters themselves. They are valuable tools, and any writer – not just the SFF scrivener – would do well to learn from these examples.

Why Genderswapping DUNE’s Liet-Kynes Is Actually Perfect

This post is adapted and expanded from a Twitter thread, and may look familiar to some of you.

I needed to blow off a little steam last night, and Facebook is great for that because – I may have mentioned this before – the internet and Facebook in particular are full of science fiction “fans” frothing at the mouth to spew their bad opinions at you. I found what I needed immediately:

Those – and a couple dozen other, similar comments – are in response to someone posting one of the Vanity Pair photos from the upcoming Dune adaptation, in particular this one:

“There is precedent for this: Liet serves two masters.” – Dune by Frank Herbert

“No man can serve two masters.” Matthew 6.24

photo by Chiabella James for Vanity Fair

I’ve read DUNE sixteen times since 1999, and I’m planning to re-read it again in a couple weeks. I consider the original to be one of the greatest literary achievements in human history. Were I a professor teaching a literature course, my syllabus would be Dune and nothing else. So if you want to come at me about Dune, you’d better be teaching a graduate level course on the Fall of the Padishah Emperors.

Let me tell you about the feminist message you absolutely missed in Dune, and why Sharon Duncan-Brewster is perfect to play Liet-Kynes.

The three screen-grabbed comments above are fairly bottom of the barrel (safe for work??? hur hur hur), but others laid out a detailed and plausible rationalization for their kneejerk reactionary misogyny: the imperium is a regressive, feudal society with rigid patriarchy built right in.

[edit: the more I look at that SFW??? comment, the more I wonder if the intended meaning was “so fucking what,” in which case I misjudged that guy]

“Don’t blame me, a (hypotehtical) WOMAN said it!”

First of all, the position of Imperial Planetologist on Arrakis is a fucking joke. The fact that the imperium at large gives exactly zero shits about planetology is one of the harder points to miss, I would have thought. It’s a pretty major plot point, without which the whole thing falls apart.

Disrespect toward Kynes’ field of study as well as his official position are explicit in the text. And the fact that Baron Harkonnen desperately avoids responsibility for his death has nothing to do with Kynes’ importance. Rather, for the same reasons pertaining to Paul and Jessica: because he’s just slaughtered an entire noble house and stolen a fucking planet. There will be scrutiny.

On top of this, it was Kynes’ position as Judge of the Change which made his disappearance/death a likely subject of inquiry – not his position as Imperial Planetologist.

As Judge of the Change, Kynes is charged with supervising the changeover in planetary stewardship. For the most important planet in the universe. Now that is an important imperial commission which certainly would have been assigned to a man (or at least a genetic eunuch such as Hasimir Fenring…)

Or perhaps it went to the only Imperial official on the planet not already aligned with one of the two noble houses. His position as planetologist is a joke, but it is a legitimate position. No one else on Arrakis holds an official position in the Imperium without also being a Harkonnen stooge or Atreides spy.

Importantly, Dr. Kynes was not appointed to be Imperial Planetologist in the truly proper way. His father, Pardot Kynes, was. But Liet-Kynes inherited the position. He inherited a position which was previously held by appointment. Weird, right, expecially in the universe that gave us “The Forms must be obeyed.”

Enter the Spacing Guild, those fucking mutants. The Guild are the only group in the universe who might actually know what’s going on in re Arrakis and the spice melange. But do they do anything to stave off the impending cataclysm, besides some vague and ominous mutterings about how the spice must flow? Not in the text. They don’t even show up til the climax, unlike in the two previous adaptations.

The Guild, in case you missed this, are selfish fucking assholes.

They don’t share their knowledge – knowledge which could have prevented Shaddam IV’s fall. More to the point, they have been milking their monopoly on interstellar travel for all it’s fucking worth. It is expensive getting to Arrakis.

And House Corrino is tight-fisted. You think the Emperor paid passage for those Harkonnen-disguised Sardaukar? Doubt it. So why would he have paid a Guild Heighliner to ferry a single individual – one considered irrelevant and useless – from Kaitain to Arrakis when the now-deceased incumbent has a child who’s already there?

Imagine the following exchange:

Count Fenring: “Pardot Kynes is dead, your majesty.”
Shadam IV: “Who the fuck is Pardot Kynes?”
“Imperial Planetologist on Arrakis.”
“The imperial what?”
“Another word for it is ecologist.”
Shaddam, still not getting it: “And?”
“You must appoint a successor.”
“What does this imperial Planetologist do, exactly?”

“Fuck all, your majesty.”
“You mean this person has no impact on the continued flow of the spice melange?”
“None at all.”*
“Then I don’t care. Find someone. Preferably someone already on Arrakis. Handle it for me, I’m busy with the Landsraad and CHOAM and the Guild is making those vague, ominous threats again.”

*they had no idea where spice came from, remember?

So Fenring thinks to himself, Hey! Kynes had a son (daughter) who is already on the planet! And it’s such a bullshit posting anyway!

Fenring has no idea Arrakis even has an ecology to study. It’s just a few rocks, endless sand, and terrifyingly humongous monsters that eat anything that moves. Right?

This is why I said earlier the point was hard to miss: large swaths of the text are dedicated to teaching you about the biome of Arrakis, from sandtrout to Shai-Hulud, from melange to the Water of Life.

The Fremen we spend two thirds of the book with understand this already. As does their not-exactly-leader, the at-first mysterious Liet who inspires them in their efforts to make Arrakis wet and green.

The Fremen are not like the imperium. They are not a rigid patriarchal society teetering on an untenable political tripod and an even more untenable civilization-wide addiction to something they don’t begin to understand. They are not a Consumer culture, willing to wage war to maintain the supply of spice. They are a culture that understands their world and their place in it and work to make a better world – one which will, consequently, have less spice and fewer sandworms confined to a far smaller area of desert.

Fremen culture seems harsh and rigid to an outsider, just as firmly bound by ritualized traditions. Which is where Chani comes in…

Chani provides incredibly stark contrast to the Princess Irulan. Unlike the princess, Chani is not chained by the rigid traditions of the Padishah court. Chani is Liet’s daughter, Irulan is Shaddam’s. Chani and Irulan are catastrophically important to understanding parts of Dune, as evidenced by the final lines of the novel.

The Fremen will accept an independent woman. The Fremen will accept a woman in authority. They treat their Sayyadina far differently than how the universe at large treats the Bene Gesserit “witches.” The respect given to Chani illustrates this, as does Jessica’s arc in the sietch up to Alia’s birth. The mere fact the Fremen don’t give Alia to the desert immediately is also telling. Note the reaction when Reverand Mother Mohiam first realizes what Alia is.

Dune is chock-full of points like these which highlight the attitude toward women which prevails in these two opposing cultures.

Liet serves two masters. Only one of those masters would care if Kynes had a dick, and the Emperor wouldn’t care enough to send someone else when Kynes was already on Arrakis.

Liet-Kynes can be a woman without damaging the source material or internal logic in the slightest. In fact, updates such as this are stupendously appropriate. Progressive thought (and feminist theory) have evolved a long way since 1965.

Still don’t believe Herbert drew from feminism (as it existed at the time) in crafting this masterpiece? Then consider the final lines of the novel, which I’ve alluded to already:

“See that princess standing there, so haughty and confident. They say she has pretensions of a literary nature. Let us hope she finds solace in such things; she’ll have little else.” A bitter laugh escaped Jessica. “Think on it, Chani: that princess will have the name, yet she’ll live as less than a concubine–never to know a moment of tenderness from the man to whom she’s bound. While we, Chani, we who carry the name of concubine–history will call us wives.”

Jessica’s speech closes out the novel by comparing the fates of Chani and Irulan, whose fathers were both succeeded by Paul Muad’dib as leader of their respective cultures. This can also be read allegorically, as a comparison of those two cultures.

It is, in effect, Frank Herbert telling you straight out that the patriarchal empire which defines Irulan’s place is not on the side of history.

Representation Difficulty

I’ve got a character I’m not entirely happy with, and this post is largely me working through my disappointment but also might possibly be helpful to some other (white cis male) writer. It’s going to be long and rambling, I’m sorry.

I’m writing a science fiction universe. What I’m going for is popcorn space opera, the old rockets and rayguns, excitement on every page, plot driven, big stakes and big villains, you know. Lensman, Flash Gordon, Star Wars. But I want to work in more character, more nuance and depth than the old pulp stuff. I am who I am, and that’s what I want.

So in Banks’ Culture series, one of the many things that stuck out at me (in a good way) was the Culture’s handling of gender transition. Culture citizens have all sorts of implants – artificial glands to produce narcotics for example – and they basically live in a bitchin post-scarcity socialist utopia run by AI. (Side note, if interested, definitely check out the Culture and for an intriguing counterpoint follow that up with Neal Asher’s Polity novels.) Anyway, how a person transitions in the Culture is they simply change the way they see themselves. Their implants take this cue and make the physical body match the mental picture. By changing their self image, a person changes their physical self.

I love that, because I think (and I’m an outsider, so grain of salt) it gets it. The point of transitioning (as I, again an outsider, understand it) is to fulfill the understandable desire of making your physical body match your internal self.

Anyway. My science fiction universe. It ain’t the Culture. Human tech is nowhere near as advanced. Voidstrider is much closer to The Expanse than The Hydrogen Sonata.

But it’s important to me to depict a future that has seen actual social progress, not just fancy gizmo progress. Some asshats will decry this choice, but look.

I’m pretty sure prejudiced attitudes and unfounded biases will always be an unfortunate aspect of the human condition. But I just don’t believe those things remain static over centuries.

And I might be optimistic and naive here, but guess what? It’s my fucking fictional universe. Go play in your own if you don’t like mine.

In short: I believe that, should humans actually survive that long, then 500 years from now the big cultural sticking points will be different ones from today. Islamaphobia? Dude, Mars has nukes. You’re worried about abortion in a solar system with illegal clone banks on the moons of Saturn? Can’t wrap your head around trans people in a world where furries aren’t wearing costumes, that’s their literal body now?

All right, so I know that in my imagined future people aren’t fighting over the same things we are today. But I need to show that. In this particular example, I want to show that there is no longer any culture clash or social stigma of any kind on trans folk.

But! I’m a white cis male. I must tread carefully, even with the best intentions. This I know for certain: I cannot tell a trans person’s story for them. (For one thing, I don’t know that story.)

Representation without appropriation. (Appropriated stories are always terrible, just sayin.)

Okay, but say: here’s this woman. I can tell you everything about her taste in music or film, her political beliefs, point out who she’s attracted to … and there’s nothing there to indicate she is anything but a cisgendered woman.

Which, really, is ideal – in the real world.

Trans women are women, trans men are men. Done. But as far as representation in fiction goes? Ah.

(Side note 2: I’ve promised myself to never pull a Rowling and, ten to twenty years later, be all like “oh, that one character? Trans the whole time!”)

I want my story to include visible representation. This is good for readers who want to see themselves in stories. This is good for realism, as humanity is a diverse tapestry of majestic variety. It’s also good for just maybe expanding a reader’s viewpoint if I’m really really lucky.

So the crux is this: I can’t have truly visible representation of trans folk without (at least in passing) mentioning their transition. Which (I’ll get to this in a second) is actually really missing the point.

Look, I want to show readers that my future society has accepted the idea of transitioning. I’d also like to offer an optimistic view that the actual experience of transitioning has improved by then. Not to the godlike level of Banks’ Culture novels, but at least … something.

So I know that in Voidstrider there have been major advances in the medical science involved in transitioning. And that sociocultural attitudes are accepting, non-judgmental, etc. And what I want to show in the text is this advancement, not the trans-specific life experience of a character. It’s not exactly visible representation, but maybe it’s actually better?

In that, once again, trans women are women and trans men are men and if the future really has accepted and internalized this then explicit visible representation would actually look regressive.

The style for these books is very plot-driven. I try to layer character beats into the constant movement and action. Reactions to the environment and events help sketch the characters. Relationships with other characters let me work in memories and backstory.

So: I have a character encountering an old acquaintance who, in the interim, has transitioned.

It was the best I could come up with, but I don’t think I nailed it by a long shot. For one thing, I may have gone too far in avoiding a properly-ownvoices plot beat. My transitioned character is not someone who was misgendered, not someone who experienced any dysmorphia.

She’s trying it out for a few years to see if she likes it. I went with this in part to demonstrate how easy and socially accepted transitioning is in this future, but I’m worried that it serves to invalidate the real experiences of trans individuals.

I probably should have gone with an “oh, you finally transitioned, wonderful” and moved on with the scene, but… I wanted it to be an easy and affordable thing that a character in their forties wouldn’t just be getting around to. I didn’t want to have a trans character who dealt with that shit years back effectively outed by clumsy narrative, either.

I’m stuck between wanting to be inclusive for trans readers who do not live in a world that accepts them and makes their path an easy one versus not wanting to perpetuate the idea that a trans person is somehow Other than the gender they are.

As of this writing, I don’t have a fully satisfactory conclusion.