What a fun, pulpy mash-up.
Thank you! I enjoyed writing it, too.
At the same time, it tackles serious topics, such as blatant racism. Interestingly, racism is often used to dehumanize its targets, and the story utilizes narrative to humanize partially human victims of racism. Are these the kind of topics that you often address in fiction: not only racism, but perhaps what it means to be human?
Yes. This was a deliberate choice. Not only in this story, but in everything I write. I have a pinned tweet on my Twitter page which reads: “If you can live without writing a story, don’t write it. Find one you can’t live without. Write that one.” Apart from a few exceptions, almost everything I’ve written has served to express something I felt passionately, or was passionately against. As a child of mixed race (and when I say “mixed,” hoo boy, am I mixed: Irish-Portugese-Sri Lankan-Indian, with some Dutch and Scots in there, too, married to an Indian Hindu-Jain hybrid, with two grown kids, one of whom, our son, is married to a Belgian, so imagine their kids!) raised without any compulsion to follow any religion, and with zero awareness of caste, I endured discrimination daily. People who are born into privilege like to say they don’t “see” color, or race, or religion, or whatever. That’s because they aren’t affected by it directly. People of Color, of mixed race, parentage, iconoclasts, individualists are affected by it every day in every way; our lives are suffused by bias, we’re drenched in the judgment of society, constantly measured not by our actions or words, but by the perception and bias of others who allot their meanings and interpretations to our actions and words—and always find us wanting.
Or, to put it another way: I thought it would be fun to turn the “Cowboys and Indians” racist trope on its head, and what better genre to do it in than the most racist of all, SF. I grew up reading SF (among other genres and literature in general), thousands of books, all the great and late masters. And the thing that always struck me was how narrow-minded, regressive, and unrealistic science fiction has been. Sure, it’s imaginative, fun, provocative, even mind-blowing at its best. But thousands upon thousands of SF novels, even the classics, portray entirely white-dominated worlds, mostly white male dominated at that, entire galactic empires of them. The few PoC in those worlds, or the few women, are either cast in negative roles, marginalized, roughly treated, or without any agency at all. This is absurd, given even a glance at our world. White people are and have always been in a minority in human history. All the great events of anthropological, historical, philosophical, or religious development were by Persons of Color in flourishing civilizations and cultures that predated modern White Supremacy-driven societies like America, Britain, and Northern Europe by centuries and millennia. Literally no major world religion was founded by white people. Even the word Caucasian is a misnomer. The “Aryan myth” is just that: a myth. The major “Aryan” gods of the Hindu pantheon were not just black-skinned, their names literally mean “Black-skinned”: Rama, Shiva, Vishnu, Kali . . .
To extrapolate a future society or world in which only white men dominated—where even white women had little or no agency other than serving sexual-romantic roles—is not only unrealistic, it is unscientific! Classic science fiction is the most racist, unscientific genre of all, similar to the white-washed Westerns that I also saw hundreds of while growing up. They would have you believe that were no PoC with agency, no women with agency, nobody except white men doing everything of importance.
Well, here’s the one thing white men have been great at and have done better than anyone else since the beginning of human history: Killing. White men are awesome at killing, murder, genocide, racial violence, hate crimes, the attempted extinction of entire species of animals, humans, races, nationalities, tribes. There were people on this continent before there was America. The First Nations are not just sidekicks or villains, they are the true great heroes of this land. That’s why Western movies and fiction are fantasies, white men’s fantasies of a world they wish had existed. Well, wishing won’t make it so.
My intent was to show that other writers can dream just as powerfully. We can fantasize about other worlds, other timelines, other futures, which are more likely, more science fictional than most science fiction of the past. To write a story that uses all the fun, excitement, action, and thrills of the Western story, but without the racism of white Western writers.
We need to reclaim SF from those dead or old white guys. We need to tell them, “Dude, chill, we got this.” We’ll tell it like it really is. And the best way to do it is by reclaiming the genre piece by piece, story by story, book by book.
Some might take this piece to be a biting polemic against (Christian) religion. Do you believe that religion encourages racism or other forms of prejudice and bigotry?
Religion is the porn of the twenty-first century. It’s addictive, convenient, neat, and tidy. Believe this and you don’t need the reading, learning, understanding, figuring out, analyzing all the new scientific data and information constantly being mined every day. It’s a simple nipple: Suck on this and be nourished, thou faithful. Every religion insists that you follow only that religion, forsaking all others. It’s a basic tenet.
I grew up in a Christian household. With a picture of a white Jesus ripping open his sacred heart to show us how much he cared. I went to church, I even sang in a Christian gospel choir (full bass). I grew up between an American Methodist Church and an American Baptist Church in Byculla, Bombay (as it was called then), and woke up to the sound of hymns being sung by the American congregation every matin. I lived in a neighborhood named Byculla with a population of over 300,000 Jewish people, as well as Christians and Muslims, the most cosmopolitan part of the city that ever existed. I studied in Christian schools first, then in a Jewish school. One of my best friends was the son of the rabbi of the biggest temple in the city, Magen David Synagogue. Another good friend was an Iranian dissident who had fled from his country and had radical Islamist ideas. Yet another friend was a Parsi, another a Sikh. I grew up exposed to multiple cultures, religions, belief systems. But because religion was never imposed on me, I was free to believe what I pleased.
One of my first SF stories was about a future Bombay where people could mix and match religions to follow what they wished: Muslim-Buddhist-Jews, or Jain-Sikh-Christians, or whatever you chose. It was a noir SF detective story, with a detective who had no religion at all, but was not an atheist because, like myself, he didn’t feel the need for religion or belief at all. (My attitude to God, by the way, is that it’s irrelevant, like religion itself. Never been troubled or challenged by questions of faith, never interested me. I see the whole shebang as beside the point of life itself.) The story was called “Embryoglio” and was about an abducted embryo, stolen from the parent’s womb (it was also a non-binary world), for unknown reasons. That was in 1976, when I was twelve, so as you can see, I was this way from an early age!
Anyway, my point is that belief in any religion compels you to be biased against all other people. It forces you to judge those of your own religion, and to abjure those not of your faith. Even if you are Christian, you have to ask: Are you Protestant or Catholic? If you’re Protestant, then are you Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian . . . If you’re Muslim, are you Shia or Sunni?
If you’re Hindu, are you North Indian or South Indian or East Indian? If you’re Jain, are you Digambar or Shwetambar? There are endless variations. For instance, Indian Muslims don’t eat beef out of respect for their Hindu compatriots, while Muslims everywhere else eat beef. It’s like a family tree with infinite branches and sub-branches. No matter if you’re from the same country, race, religion, ethnicity, community, etc., you will still differ in some way. If nothing else, it’ll come down to whether you interpret this verse in the Bible as being pro-life or pro-choice! For all the propaganda pushing religion onto us as a unifying force, the fact is, it’s the deadliest divider in all human history.
It’s not Islam that’s responsible for terrorism today: It’s religion. The Troubles in Ireland, the atrocities by the British in the Boer Wars, the genocide of the Armenian people by Turkey, the slaughter of countless anonymous tens of millions of low castes in India over time, the madness sweeping the world today as the white right wing minority in the global population suffers excruciating racial insecurity at being outnumbered and outmatched by those not of their race, nationality, sexual orientation, or just not wearing the same brand of jeans, it all takes it root in religion. Religion is the first place we’re taught to believe we’re different, we’re unique, we’re special—and others are not. The true believers who will be saved at the end of days that the LDS believe in. The faithful who will be taken to heaven and given virgins to enjoy. Religion feeds us this fantasy, this unscientific science fiction, and it’s at the root of it all. Why do you think almost all Classic SF is suffused with Christianity, has an almost Catholic obsession with it? Because at its heart, White SF springs from an attempt to write one’s own future religious history. It’s the white man’s fantasy of the world he feels he should have, will have, must have. At any cost.
And let’s not even get started on fantasy!
Indians (from India) rarely—if ever—appear as the hero figure in Westerns. They are usually completely invisible; that is, they are usually forgotten, if not intentionally left out. Why is it important that the hero in this piece be Indian; and does making the protagonist Indian create extra challenges?
The word Indian. It comes from the word India. Columbus, like other European travellers, set out to discover the “new world,” by which was meant India, the fabled land of milk and honey in the East. Like most white men of history, not only was he not able to find it, he went in the opposite direction! And when he found land, it didn’t even occur to him that it could be anyplace but India. So he named the people Indians. This was beyond stupidity, it was pure European fantasy again. India had a flourishing merchant trade with European and other nations since the earliest times. There are Greek amphora, coins, statuary, found in the sub-continent, with ample anecdotal and archaeological proof of European presence here, as well as vice versa. Herodotus tells us about Indian mercenaries who fought for Greeks in the Greek wars. Indians fought in every major European conflict, as did Africans and other races. Even in the World Wars, Indians fought and died by the millions. Yet the erasure has been so effective, so extensive, that you could read or watch and never know these facts.
The point I’m making is that Columbus and the Europeans came not to “discover” India, but to try to conquer, as the British, Dutch, French, and Portuguese later did attempt, unsuccessfully, all of them. The genocide visited upon the First Nation indigenous people of the North and South American continents would have been the fate of the peoples of the sub-continent. Thanks to the poor navigational and even poorer cognitive abilities of the Europeans, India escaped this wonderful gift of colonial genocide! But the fact they tried and failed then, and tried and tried again later, links India forever to European imperialism. They tried over and over to invade us, conquer us, enslave us, exterminate us. The way they did in Africa, America, and elsewhere.
You don’t forget people who tried to kill, enslave, wipe out your ancestors! You don’t let them erase you from history. You write over them. Write stories that reinstate your people into those missing pages from history. You write SF stories, Western stories, that postulate a world where Indian means what it really ought to mean, a person from India, not an indigenous First Nation person who was mistakenly called Indian by a stupid, vicious European and continues to be called Indian even today by the equally uninformed descendants of that stupid European. You write a kickass cowboy story where the cowboy is an Indian, the real kind of Indian, and a woman at that, and she’s the hero of the piece. That’s how you write yourself back into the genre, into the gaps that they tried to erase.
Is there anything you would like your readers to know about this piece?
Every one of my stories is different, in style, content, and genre or sub-genre. But they all have one thing in common: Me. My attitude. My intent. I can promise you one thing when you read anything by me: It will make you expect the expected but deliver the unexpected. Because real SF is diverse, non-binary, scientifically realistic, and it’s as awesome and kickass as we are. Take note: We are here to kick white old dude ass and replace your ass. Move over.
Thanks very much for the Western, and for your time! What are you working on now that people can look forward to?
Apart from multiple series ongoing in India, all of which are available via my own website at akbebooks.com and in some cases, on Amazon, I’ve just finished City of Elephants, the first book in a seven-part epic fantasy series called The Five. And I’m working on an as-yet untitled YA fantasy series about a team of differently-abled PoC Ladybros heist gang that become the champions of a resistance movement. Happy reading!
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