Worldbuilding: representative sexualities

One of the questions I got from my beta readers when editing the manuscript of Ryswyck, and one which I expect to get from readers from time to time now the book is in the wild, is a theme with variations: what are the sexualities of the characters, and how are they understood in the ‘verse? Are the questionable choices of — well, Barklay in particular — a function of sexuality, or of something else? Where does Douglas land on the spectrum, if there is one? Where does Speir? Just how friendly is your worldbuilding to non-het points of view?

Since it’s Pride month, I might as well address the topic now. And comment, incidentally, on the reactionary situation that has developed since I first conceived Ryswyck about seven years ago. And if I’m going to talk about the worldbuilding of my ‘verse, I’ll want to talk about the backstory of our own. (Those of you who don’t need the history lesson, bear with me for a couple paragraphs.)

Until 150 years ago, we didn’t have any descriptive words for what it meant to have non-heterosexual desires and experiences. We had a handful of extremely ethnically specific words, and we had a host of pejoratives. Western society, for hundreds of years, had nothing but a reified concept of human sexuality that excluded all but a certain range of heterosexual points of view. Anything in reality outside that range fell short of being human: it was bent, twisted, wicked, sick, or broken.

Then in 1869 the word homosexual was coined. It was intended to be a scientific/medical description of a certain pathology. But this had consequences. The word and concept of heterosexuality then needed to be invented. With that duality it was possible to talk about sexualities on academic terms and in public forums. People who identified themselves as homosexual began to have a way to talk about themselves without mirroring a reflex of disgust. They started reclaiming the pejoratives for their own use; more and more experiences and identities came into the light and were named, so that by the end of the 20th century we had what we call alphabet soup, and more descriptive terms for sexual and gender identity are coined and put into circulation all the time.

Some people have started to scoff at this. “This is ridiculous, we have L, G, B, T, Q, A, I, WTF, BBQ — where is this going to end?” I’m glad you asked that question, Imaginary Scoffer. It seems to me that the most reasonable and moral trajectory of this process would be to re-reify the concept of “human” sexuality, this time to include the increasingly obvious multiplicity of ways to experience love and desire. People could use descriptive terms for themselves without also having to press those terms into service as polemic, to defend themselves against the backlash of the heteronormative point of view.

But what’s happening instead right now is something I think very sad and short-sighted. There are some non-het groups who can’t or won’t conceive of a reunified human sexuality, and have turned on those whose identities resist definite labels. “You Bs, you Ts, you Is, whatever you are — you aces and aros, take your queer umbrella and get out! You belong with the enemy: the straights!”

None of this was on my radar when I was worldbuilding for Ryswyck. All I wanted, as Kameron Hurley saw, was to write a story without having to say, “Well, as you know, Bob, Douglas is pansexual and homoromantic!” So I invented context for him, and for Speir, and for Barklay and Stevens and Cameron and Rose and Corda and Darnel and Orla: context in which my characters were free of the pressure to see their identities as essentially polemic. The society they live in isn’t perfect, but it has advanced in this one area in part because the communities are small and everyone needs each other; needs to be able to trust one another, whatever their identity might be. The people who get to know Douglas come to know that he might like to go to bed with a wide variety of people, but the person he falls in love with is overwhelmingly likely to be male. Nothing else is needed. Everyone gets to say who they are. Everyone gets to rest.

But our interaction with such a story is unfortunately not simple. There are some authors and showrunners and creators who resist using labels for the reasons I sketch above, because they want to upgrade the whole context in which characters relate to one another. And then there are the authors and showrunners and creators who resist using labels because they want plausible deniability in case straight people get…het up about “forced” representation.

Nobody forced me to write from a non-het-centric point of view; I just did. I have enough age and experience now that I don’t feel my own identity as inherently polemic. I’ve done myself the same courtesy I deeply believe in doing others: letting them say who they are. Even if I think they’re wrong, or problematic (a word that covers a host of sins), or merely tiresome.

Everything doesn’t have to be a fucking polemic.

I know, I know: the battle lines being drawn right now are not imaginary. The Nazis have crawled out from under their rocks, and brazen cruelties march across every television chiron, and it’s hotter in Alaska right now than it is in Kansas City, and I-29 opened for five minutes before going under again.

But what is speculative fiction for if not for featuring to ourselves a way of being that is recontextualized, recentered, reimagined — while still being ourselves? All this noise may cover it up from time to time. But people are always people. And courtesy is still a thing.

And it’s time our context got an upgrade.

Full, perfect, and sufficient

It’s funny how you read something referencing a particular text or situation, and then lo and behold, you run into another reference to that thing soon after. There’s a word for this, a Greek one, I think, which basically says that the only thing funny about it is that you noticed it. But never mind that.

So last month I picked up Fleming Rutledge’s massive book on the Crucifixion — which includes a whole section devoted to rehabilitating Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo? — and yesterday I ran across a link to this article by Elizabeth A. Johnson, a theologian I greatly admire, dismissing both Anselm and the whole theory of substitutionary atonement, root and branch.

Now, I’m not sure I really want to get in the middle of this. I like both Rutledge and Johnson, and I agree with much of what each has to say, and enjoy engaging with the rest, and if they were guest speakers on a panel together I would happily sit in my seat and not trouble myself to go to the audience mic with a question.

But this is my blog, and it’s Holy Week, and not only have I been thinking about the exigencies of forgiveness for a long, long time, it’s baked into the original story I told myself that then eventually became Ryswyck. So I guess we’re doing this. If theology is not your thing, feel free to jump back onto the platform before this train pulls out.

One of the arguments that Fleming Rutledge made so powerfully was that when we talk about sin in this context, we’re not talking about an aggregate of discrete and somewhat arbitrary infractions, to which God’s wrathful response is equally arbitrary. No, what we’re talking about is the Power that moves us to gloat over others’ misfortunes, to torture, dehumanize, and deface — in defiance, seemingly, of social and mental health — both collectively and in the secret of our own hearts. I could pull ten headlines at random from today’s news in illustration of this, so I won’t belabor the point. Today and every day, things are being made horribly, infuriatingly wrong: and on more than one level we are helpless to put them right.

I doubt Johnson has a serious disagreement with this. But Johnson isn’t the only one to find the narrative theme of substitution-as-atonement dissatisfying, arbitrary, and facile. It’s made worse by contemporary evangelistic churches who insist that this narrative theme is the only theme of the cross that has any theological meaning. If you don’t acknowledge that Jesus died for your sins…well, you know what awaits you.

So far so obvious. But one of the problems I wound up having with Rutledge’s book is her dismissal of “forgiveness” as an ineffective response to the gravity of the evil we are wreaking on this world and on one another. And “forgiveness” as generally understood really isn’t adequate: but even before reading Rutledge’s book I have long thought that the general understanding of “forgiveness” leaves people not knowing what forgiveness really is.

So for this here blog I am going to outline the narrative theme of forgiveness as I’ve worked over in my mind for twenty years.

It started with a reread of Hannah Hurnard’s allegory Hinds’ Feet on High Places. In this story, Much-Afraid is brought by the Shepherd’s path to the Precipice Injury. At first she refuses in panic to try to climb it, but eventually she obeys and toils her way upward. Halfway up the cliff she rests in a cleft, where she meets a small flower growing from a tiny crack in the rock. When she asks the flower its name, it says, “My name is ‘Bearing the Cost,’ but some call me Forgiveness.”

That name stuck with me, more than anything else in that story did. I hadn’t really thought of forgiveness as bearing the cost before, but I could see that it was true, that when someone wrongs another, it’s the hurt one who has to pay the damages. Even on the grossest monetary level, if you empty my bank account, you may be sorry and give the money back later, but in the meantime I still have to figure out how to pay my rent and buy my groceries. And if you do harm to my soul with physical or psychological abuse, it might make things easier if you were sorry, but it would still have to be me who cleans up the inner mess.

Forgiveness isn’t anything to do with repairing a relationship with the wronger, or finding a sense of compassion for them, or even acknowledging the wronger in any way; it isn’t about devising a comfortable way to think about the situation, or superficially dismissing the charges, or contorting oneself into believing it’s one’s own fault after all. No, it’s definitely the wronger’s fault. To forgive is to say, “I am not going to wait for an apology; I’m going to own this mess and get on with cleaning it up.” It is entirely possible to forgive a wrong and still be angry at the person who did it. And sometimes the hurts we do to one another are so great that we just don’t have the wherewithal to repair the damages. We seek for help wherever we can find it, with varying success.

We can’t hurt God in the same way we can hurt one another. But sin is damage that God cares about and has to fix. So then, narratively speaking, it makes complete sense to understand the cross, “an instrument of shameful death” that takes to an extreme all the public degradation, dehumanizing, humiliating, torturous abuse we humans can devise, as God’s way of “bearing the cost” of not just our “sins,” our discrete and piddling infractions and dishonesties, but the power of evil that has roots in every one of us.

So why doesn’t Anselm discuss the resurrection in his treatise? I don’t know, maybe because it’s implied? How many thousands of people were tortured to death on crosses? To take all that cost upon oneself and then rise victorious — that is what the Christian draws upon for hope. Not just hope for the wrongs they have done, but for the wrongs done against them, that they are too poor to pay the damages of. Our insurance policies are a mockery of this divine subsidy; there are no premiums, no deductibles, no schedules of benefits. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. It’s all one thing.

So I don’t subscribe to crude notions of arbitrary sacrifice, no. But anyone who’s ever had something to forgive knows that it is a labor and a struggle, even without the question of reconciliation. This is how the story goes.

It’s a story that has fascinated me for as long as I can remember, and it’s the kernel of the story that Ryswyck is now. When I first conceived this story, I sketched the character of General Barklay as a simple monster, and the story as being about the struggle of various characters to forgive his wrongs. But as I wrote, Barklay himself refused to be that simple. He insisted on being a mix of decency and selfishness, honesty and mendacity. He wanted both to repent and to hold out for justification. His wrongs are both personal and systemic, not his fault and entirely his fault. No mere substitutionary sacrifice could address his situation. Yet the costs are really there, and have to be borne.

There are endless stories to be written on this theme. Because it’s written on the walls of the world itself.