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Jane Irwin recently considered ending Clockwork Game, a comic that follows the exploits of the mechanical Turk and its inventor. Here’s what I wrote to her:
Thank you for creating art that I, for one, find lovely and fascinating. Thank you for thinking about how your work fits into a social context. And thank you (so much) for being courageous enough to recognize the ways in which you weren’t telling the story you wanted to, and make what had to be a hard decision.
It makes me think even more highly of you as an artist and an ally.
But the reality is that I cannot create and analyze Clockwork Game at the same time: they’re two different processes. I have to stop what I’m doing, do some more reading, and decide then if this is something that I can pick back up, or if it’s best left behind.
This is a lot to ask, but I think it would be really valuable if you exposed this process in some way. I know that analysis of your own work in particular can be really intimate, but I think this kind of dialogue can be a hopeful result of the otherwise basically shitty Great White Fail.
“The Great White Fail” is my term for the most recent explosion of SF/F fandom, in which readers of color critiqued problematic subtext in some works by white authors, and those authors responded by utterly freaking the fuck out. It’s more commonly known as RaceFail ‘09, but I didn’t realize how embedded that title was when I commented—goodness, there should be t-shirts.
Jane has since decided to post the rest of chapter one, along with notes about not just the geeky chess / mechanical trivia, but also notes on historical context that’s missing from the text—like, say, the fact that the Austrian empire was at war with the Ottoman empire at the time, which undoubtedly influenced Kempelen’s decision to dress the automaton as he did. I have to say, when I came across the comic a few months ago, I wasn’t abjectly shocked by its racism—nor, in fact, did I think of the text as problematic. Which makes me even more grateful for Jane’s willingness to come out and critique her own work, not just as an ally, but as an author interested in telling brilliant stories.
After our Dogs game on Tuesday, Ann and I talked about racism in the game. Obviously, the game’s text (at least, the setting material therein) is written from the stance of someone within the Faith, with all the prejudices that implies. In a divergence from Mormonism of the time, the Faith is not officially racist. But neither are they particularly interested in or aware of the people who they, y’know, took the land from. The native tribes are referred to, collectively, as “Mountain People,” with no particular distinction beyond that. That bit might actually be okay, as the book’s setting information is quite coarse, overall.
Where it gets to be a problem is that in a game which is so centered on society and family and, well, sin, there’s very little information about the Mountain Peoples’ societal and family structure, nor their beliefs, not even just a statement on how those beliefs relate to the Faith. Or even the shape of their names, which when you’re spinning characters up really fast, can definitely be a problem.
And, of course, Ann and K are both playing native people, and at various points in the game, I’ve felt distinctly uncomfortable manufacturing bits of their characters’ culture from what amounts to a mishmash of probably-inaccurate stories and stereotypes.
And all of this makes me realize: this is hard. A while ago, on a pretty unconnected topic, Brand Robbins commented,
When you play a historical game where you mostly just make it up as you go, or oracle it, or simple sentence it, then what you get is a pastiche of history, a shallow collection of everyone’s highschool history tropes. That they tend to be full of imperialistic, colonial, racist bullshit is just an added layer of not-fun.
But wait, I thought, surely if you’re aware of that potential, you can work against it? And yes, I think we’ve avoided, in our play, the most obviously problematic ways of dealing with indigenous people in fiction—substantially because the ancestry and gender of the characters marks our narrative as transgressive. But I can’t promise we’ve never re-hashed a racist trope, or a problematic story, because those things? They’re under our skin. However much we might wish them not to be.