On Loving Problematic Things

I’m not sure quite when I realized that my favorite, most formative sf author, Roger Zelazny, was both a problematic person and a writer whose characters are frequently less than the gold standard of gender representation. Squint hard, and you can find a woman in his works whose power is not defined by her beauty or her sexuality. Squint harder, and a few of those you just spotted won’t also be harpies or shrews, vicious down to their marrow. I came to this realization long after I first started reading his work, but long before I ended up naming children after characters from his Chronicles of Amber

Sometimes my son, Corwin, asks when he’ll get to read the books from which he gets his name. He’s twelve now, and more than a good enough reader to tackle Zelazny’s prose. 

I’m honestly not sure how to answer him.

I’ve read plenty of problematic sff. Racist characterizations, thoughtless ‘fridgings, homophobic slurs, xenophobic generalizations, gross objectifications. Sometimes, I’ve found ways to laugh through it, such as Jime Hines’ photo series calling attention to the frankly silly use of the female form in many sff covers. Other times, it’s not so easy. I recall screaming — actually, wordlessly howling — at the dashboard of my car when my Rendezvous with Rama audiobook hit the bit about buxom women in space being dangerously distracting to their fellow crew-mates in zero G. 

I had the presence of mind to pull the car over, but it was a near thing.

But those moments — the “throw the book away in disgust” or “scream in incandescent rage” moments — are easy, because they draw the line between what I’m willing to endure in a story and what I absolutely cannot accept. The problematic things found in plain sight (or, sometimes, the plainness of hindsight), and which aren’t enough by themselves to break my love of a book or its author, are much harder.

I have a lot of questions about what’s happening here.

Perhaps loving problematic things comes down to personal power. It’s hard to love something that feels like a slight against you personally, especially if you’re a person whose position in life makes you more vulnerable than most. When something goes from being just another interesting story to just another entry in the long list of indignities heaped upon you or people like you, it’s harder to forgive. And why should you? Looking at a publication date and accepting that things were “just that way back then” is no comfort, especially when people today might still be praising that work, despite being armed with the supposed enlightenment of the here and now.

Maybe I would be bothered less by these things if I were a man. But for all my pearl clutching, I’m still a white, cis woman in a heterosexual marriage, well-educated and by most reasonable measures fairly affluent. My privileges aren’t all that different than a white man’s. So of course I’m less threatened when a character I otherwise adore refers to a trans character in a Zelazny novel as “a lizzie.” I know that character isn’t talking about me. 

But he’s talking about someone — a type of someone who was maybe only theoretical to Zelazny, a type of person he might never have known. But a type of person who is, in fact, very real, even if the circumstances that surround their physical and social transformation aren’t at all like those in Lord of Light.

Concept art by Jack Kirby for “Argo” the unmade film version of Lord of Light

So, here’s a question to consider about the problematic things you love, and why you still feel free to love them:

Is it because you’re powerful enough to afford to be hurt, or even powerful enough that you can avoid the pain altogether? Are you powerful enough that the joke is never on you?

Loving problematic things also comes down to knowing the things you love in that work and recognizing the chasm where the problems start. Can you articulate why this portrayal is a problem? Why this plot is exploitative? Do you know where the hurt lies? Are you strong enough to accept that things you love can also be terribly, painfully bad?

Until I can sit down with my son and really explain to him what’s there in Prince Corwin of Amber to love — what made me know that was a name I wanted to speak for him — and what’s there that is wrong, that is fraught and worthy of critique — until then, I’ll keep shrugging when he asks if he’s old enough to read those books.

He’s a young white male, after all. He was born with armor. He needs to understand how it was built, and what it shelters him from. And he needs that understanding so that he won’t go forth to replicate the problems of his namesake.

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