The Critics’ Corner
When East Isn’t East
by Don Webb
Like people, characters are identified by who and what they are; they are characterized by what they do. — a Bewildering Stories motto
One of our Review Editors points out two references of a kind that occurs with some frequency in submissions we receive:
The slim Oriental woman
The young and capable-looking Oriental man
The context suggests strongly that space exploration becomes truly international in scope in the not very distant future.
But aside from the descriptive adjectives “slim,” “young” and “capable-looking,” why are these incidental characters “Oriental”? Is it a catch-all term meaning “east Asian but of no particular nationality”? Is it, in a way, a counterpart of “Occidental” in the sense of “western European but of no particular nationality”?
Racial and national stereotypes are a real problem in science fiction, especially in stories where they presumably don’t apply. The Star Trek franchise, which practically defined science fiction in television in the second half of the 20th century, addressed the problem forthrightly but with occasionally peculiar results, for example:
In Star Trek: the Next Generation, Patrick Stewart plays the role of the captain of the starship Enterprise. One would expect him to have a famous name from history, like Nelson, or one from literature, like Horatio Hornblower. But no, he’s Jean-Luc Picard. A very few episodes are set in France, but the feeble effort to make the eminent British actor French is comical at best, painful at worst.
In STNG and Deep Space 9, the actress Rosalind Chao plays the role of Keiko O’Brien. Her character’s name is Japanese. Thankfully, no one attempted to make Colm Meaney, who plays Miles O’Brien, anything other than Irish. In both cases, the ethnicity is incidental, not a stereotype.
In Star Trek: Voyager, Garrett Wang plays the role of Ensign Harry Kim, who is presumably Korean, although nothing is ever made of it.
The general editorial policy of Star Trek, then, seems to be that most actors and actresses — with Patrick Stewart as a rare exception — retain their own ethnicity while East Asians do not.
Let’s carry Star Trek’s premise to its logical conclusion. What if a role had to portray an ethnic Chinese for some reason? Would the casting department feel obliged to reserve the part for actors who had, say, Vietnamese or Mongolian or Korean names?
The term “Oriental” is absurd. Literally it means “easterner.” East of what? It’s very hard to say. The term is entirely Eurocentric, and even in Europe it doesn’t make sense. If “east” is the earlier-morning hemisphere between the zero meridian and the International Date Line, then characters would not qualify as Occidental or “westerners” if they were from, say, Paris or Rome. And what about Australians and New Zealanders: are they Orientals or Occidentals? Why should anyone care?
Or perhaps “Oriental” means that a character type is present by exception to a tacitly understood cultural expectation. In the littérature d’anticipation — the formal French term for science fiction — it’s very risky to extrapolate a future that is only slightly different from the present.
A counter-example can bring the point home. In one of Peter F. Hamilton’s novels, the author refers to a planet inhabited by “ethnic Californians.” The very notion is hilarious, because, as everyone knows, California has one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the world, surely as diverse as that of Asia. But Mr. Hamilton probably knew that and was just having some fun by pulling his readers’ collective leg.
The world’s primary diplomatic language was French in the 18th and 19th centuries but has been superseded in some respects by English. Will English be the language of Solar System exploration? Nothing guarantees it. Why not Chinese, Japanese or Hindi? And never forget: the Russians were the first in space.
Back here on planet Earth, we need to keep in mind that all language carries hidden assumptions. We ought to be wary of them, lest we say things we don’t really mean.
Copyright © 2011 by Don Webb