The Path to the Beach

Steep beach path

The Path to the Beach

Just as I got the bottom of the steep trail, almost down to the water, I head a pattering sound above me, like rain on a roof. It was gravel, a trickle of rock tumbling down from the concave cliff face over my head.

The headlands are familiar with erosion, which will come as no surprise to anyone; still it’s not what you want to hear when you’ve just walked down the steep narrow trail to the peace beach.

Cliff face. Right from up there.

Yes, right from up there.

Every time I come to Mendocino, which has been about twice a year since 2007, I’ve walked on the headlands. This was the first trip I’d made my way down the path to this beach.

For the first couple of years I hadn’t realized there was a path. It’s pretty hard to miss those steps though, especially if you want to stand at the top and take a picture of the arch, which I always do.

Ice plant growing out of eroded cliff face.

It’s not like I don’t understand the concept of erosion.

When I saw the path, a few years ago, I considered going down to the beach. Mostly, I thought I’d get a different perspective on the arch. I never did, for several reasons.

I was afraid it would hurt, that I would get to the bottom with pain.  I was afraid that I would fall and scrape skin, bruise myself, or worse. I was afraid I’d tumble off the trail and someone would have to come get me and cart me off on a gurney, and I’d be embarrassed at my own physical incompetence. That was the worst fear actually, that I couldn’t made it down, and back up, the trail. That I couldn’t do it.

All of those reasons started with the same three words.  I was afraid.

Curve of beach looking toward Big River

The beach looking toward Big River.

A few things were different this time. A week before I left for Mendocino, I bought new walking shoes. One day in them had made we realize how badly worn by comfortable old shoes had been, how thin they’d become. And I’d been walking more in general, again; mostly on level ground, not hikes, and mostly with an idea of getting in slightly better shape before I go to WorldCon. But still, walking, stretching out those muscles and letting the joints work, especially the achy knees that get locked when I spend hours in front of a screen, had done me good.

The day before, I walked about four miles in total, with short drives in between; a mile on the beach and along the river; three miles at the botanical garden and a one-mile loop to the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse. So this morning as a strolled the headlands, I didn’t feel stiff, I didn’t feel weak. Muscles felt firm and limber, joints swung smoothly.

I decided I could make it, and if I changed my mind, I would just turn around and come back.

Of course, my list of reasons why I didn’t want to go down the trail had never included, “Because erosion might bring the entire cliff down on my head.” It was a concern.

The cliff remained intact and I walked on the Peace Beach, as it’s now called, or as the locals call it, the beach.

I’ve never been a fan of the word “fearless.” If you’re truly fearless, then you have a brain deficit. Your amygdala isn’t working properly. However, fear and risk are on a continuum, and I don’t want to be ruled by fear, either. So, while I admire this spaniel puppy, reacting to her first view of the ocean with something that does look a lot of fearlessness, I don’t want to emulate her. I don’t want to be the person who, faced with a huge, awesome and complete unknown, plunges in without a thought. I do want to wade in, though. I do want to explore.

King Charles spaniel puppy at the edge of the surf.

Oh boy oh boy! The ocean!

King Charles spaniel swimming

First swim

Happy dog running on beach.

Happy dog

I can think of three times in my life when heeding my fear and turning back kept me from a serious injury. I can think of five other times when it probably did. Fear can be a friend.

Fear can be a bossy friend.

I never would have met this joyful pup if I hadn’t come down the trail. I never would have gotten these shots of the arch.

Arch rock with sunlight reflecting on water.

The Arch

Arch rock with wave rolling in.

And I very nearly did slip and fall on the log platform when I was climbing back up, but I caught myself, and it was all right.

Log platform on trail.

I nearly did fall, right back there.

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Both/ And

I saw this drawn on a driftwood log on the beach at the mouth of Big River, in Mendocino, California. I thought it was beautiful and intriguing and I took a picture of it.

Drawing on driftwood of longhaired person with wide eyes, beard around mouth and chin

And then I discovered that I was trying to decide if the portrait was male or female.

Male or female.

I went from zero to binary in about 1.5 seconds.

I have spent nearly sixty years in a system that used a binary model, and through my childhood and youth, a strictly binary model, to force people into a gender designation, so it isn’t too strange that my mind shunts over to that equation automatically. Noticing that, I could have dragged my thought process consciously back to looking at the face as it is, rather than pigeon-holing it as either/or.

I could have. Instead I did this.

Detail of drawing just shows eyes and hair

Why? Well, I liked the eyes. I still do. And, by taking this photo, I made a decision about how I chose to see the sex of the character portrayed, because the eyes and hair registered to me as female.

As a photographer, I’m a hobbyist. If I lean in any direction, it’s toward art/scenic rather than photojournalism. The artist left their art out in the wild, which means they have relinquished control, to some extent, over how people (other artists?) interact with it. I don’t think there is any ethical concern about me editing the image in an image of my own in a completely different medium. It’s interesting to me that I chose to, and that I actually stood in front of this for several seconds thinking, “Male? Female?” as if it mattered, and then chose a way to interact with it that limited the work to one sex.

But Marion, it’s just a bearded lady.

“Bearded lady,” from the old carnie and sideshow days, identifies the figure as both Female and Other (hey, a bonus!) and is also a holdover that that old, old system. She’s a “lady” (female) but not a real one because she has a beard (male) so she is Something Else. (I wonder which public restroom a Bearded Lady would be allowed to use.)

It’s possible that the lines around the lips, the jaw and the chin aren’t meant to represent a beard at all; it’s just the artist’s style. But I don’t think so.
Same driftwood portrait, full face

I think the artist of this portrait might be pleased that people like me stand in front of this downed tree, scoured by water, and wonder, “Male? Female?” Do many of us walk away with the decision that this face is both?

I did, but like most recoveries, I almost immediately faced backsliding. When I wrote this post, my first impulse was to title it Either/Or.


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The Blue Knife

Blue Knife with Cheese and Crackers

Blue Knife with Cheese and Crackers

The blue knife is a Joyce Chen kitchen knife. It has a blue handle, a painted blue blade and a blue sheath of hard plastic. To be honest, it may be a Joyce Chen knock-off. I don’t remember. I bought it when I was on a trip in Oregon, so I would have a knife in my hotel room to slice cheese and cut up nectarines.

The knife goes on trips with me. I take it out of the drawer and put it in the red Trader Joe’s insulated bag. Or, if it’s a day trip or a long walk, in the little bag with an apple, maybe, a peanut butter sandwich and a water bottle.

I don’t take the knife when I take plane trips. Clearly it’s not going into my carry-on, and if I have checked luggage it’s jammed so full I usually don’t have room for utensils. But on road trips, oh yes, on road trips the blue knife is king.

Sometimes the knife never makes it out of the bag. Some trips I eat out all the time, or the place I’m staying (like this one) provides breakfast and utensils… or I’m lying on the bed watching HBO and eating a bag of chips. You don’ t need a blue knife for that.

Sometimes the knife is vital for a piece of fruit or an impulse buy like a salami or a wedge of firm cheese. Sometimes, the knife just spreads hummus or cream cheese. More often, the knife splits open a lime or a lemon to add to my glass of ice and fizzy water. This is very important. What would I do without the blue knife in those situations?

Right now the blue knife sits on my table next to a melamine snack plate with an octopus painted on it. There is a wedge of cheese from my guest basket, and some crackers. How handy that I have the blue knife!

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Orphan Black Season Four: A Serious Complaint

I have a complaint to make about BBC America’s innovative science fiction- feminist-clone-conspiracy-mystery-thriller-comedy Orphan Black, Season Four. This is a big complaint, people! So listen up: not enough chocolate mousse in the dish, you guys!

Seriously, Season Four has only ten episodes and next Thursday is the finale. I am devastated.

If you like science fiction, thrillers, dark comedies, excellent writing, quirky characters and characters whose boundaries of acceptable behavior are far beyond yours (or, at least, I hope they are), fine acting and a degree of acting that exceeds any superlative and moves into the category of “stunt,” meant with complete admiration, then you must watch Orphan Black. If you haven’t seen it, find a way to watch all the way through from Season One. Really. This is not a show where you can come in from the middle and pick things up.

Every time I watch the credits for Orphan Black I have a moment when I fume silently that there aren’t enough women in the credits. How can that be? And then I remember and laugh. Most of the characters are women. They’re played by one actor, and she is certainly in the credits. Tatiana Maslany deserves an Emmy or a Golden Globe or something, but, really, those awards don’t deserve her. There should be a new award designed for the degree of acting Maslany demonstrates on this show, playing six more or less “regular” characters and up to five or six others who appear now and then. Maslany’s characters are clones, part of secret project called Project Leda. In Season Four they tell us that as far as the “sisters” know, there are twenty-two of them in existence.

Maslany, however, is surrounded by actors like Kevin Hanchard, who plays police detective Art Bell, Jordan Geravis as Felix, the brother of the first clone we met, Sarah (they grew up in foster care together); Kristian Bruun as the husband of uptight-surburbanite clone Alison; Maria Doyle Kennedy as Siobhan, known usually as Mrs S or S, a quiet, protective and deeply scary person. Remember in an earlier paragraph I talked about characters whose boundaries of acceptable behavior go way beyond yours? S sprang to mind. Maslany is some kind of brilliant, but without these gifted actors grounding her the show would be more of a mere stunt.

After wandering pretty far afield in Season Three, Orphan Black came back to its roots in Season Four; thematically and literally, returning to ask and answer (and refuse to answer) key questions about the origins of the Leda Project, and the motives of the project’s creators. Whether it’s the grim comedy of the twisted surburban life of Alison and Donnie, parents, community leaders (Alison is on the school board), murderers (or as Alison puts it, “We’re manslaughters,”) and former drug dealers — because one has to fund one’s school-board campaign somehow–; the scene of Felix and Donnie playing a couple as they go undercover at a sinister fertility clinic; any moment where the new clone Crystal is onscreen, Orphan Black gives us over-the-top drama, laugh-out-loud comedy, science that is frighteningly plausible even as it’s totally science-fictional, and characters, as bizarre as they are, that we care about.

Next week this season finishes up and I’ll have to wait until 2017 to find out what happens. Not fair! More chocolate mousse please. Now.

Posted in Movies | 2 Comments

The New Small Camera

My Nikon Coolpix is dying, and I am going a few places this summer (including Kansas City for WorldCon) where I want to take pictures. Hauling my beloved Canon DSLR seems cumbersome and feels a bit like making myself a target. I am taking more pictures with my phone, and getting better at it, but I still like the small cameras. I did a little bit of research and decided to get the Canon ELPH Powershot.

Last Sunday I took it out for a spin. One of my favorite places to take photos is the farmers market, and there are scores of flowers in bloom along the way.

The auto-focus is more persnickety than the Nikon and I’m going to have to adjust to that (or use my phone as a back-up), but I can’t fault the resolution.

Flower Against Sky

Flower Against Sky

Downtown, sparrows have built their nests between the WestAmerica Bank lettering and the wall, creating a very safe space for their youngsters. Here, the zoom worked well.

Bringing Home the Bacon; sparrow perched on WestAmerica Bank Sign.

Bringing Home the Bacon

Bird on large letter attached to wall.

The Powershot is slimmer than the Nikon and about 2/3 the weight. This also makes it attractive for traveling.

Tall cups of blueberries on a yellow checked oilcloth.


I don’t know if that fisheye effect is something I did or something the camera did. I don’t know if I like it.

Broccoli and Cauliflower

Broccoli and Cauliflower



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The Case of the Missing Em-Dash

This month my writers group commented on a substantive revision of a short story they’d seen earlier. I composed much of the revision on my little laptop, an Aeus two-in-one. I like that device a lot, but sometimes the keyboard is so sensitive that if I barely touch the trac-pad, the device bounces the cursor up into who-knows-where, or  highlights whole bunches of text and then deletes them when I start to type my next word. It’s maddening and it affects how I approach the machine. I make many more mistakes on that keyboard.

This meant that while the story version my friends had was pretty clean, it had some weird punctuation typos. In at least two places, periods were missing, although the first letter of the next sentence was capitalized, and clearly I thought I’d put a period there. In one passage, both the closing comma and the closing quotation marks were gone, leading to a confusing bit of dialogue. And at the end of one section, just before a point of view shift, a character’s thought ends in mid-word, and there is no double-dash (em-dash) to show that.

The thing was, though, the absence of the em-dash was intentional.


I grew up calling the single-space horizontal mark, like the one I just used in single-space, a hyphen. It separates two words that are connected in some way, like single-space, or director-producer. The words have a relationship but aren’t quite close enough to be a compound word. In the Olden Times, before word processing, people used the hyphen to show that the word at the end of the line was going to continue on the next line. Don’t worry, boys and girls, that was long ago and you don’t really have to understand it.

I called two hyphens in a row a dash. A dash can be used like a comma, a semicolon or a colon to separate a clause from other clauses. Usually –not always –it creates a different tone, an emphasis or a sense of breathlessness or intentional choppiness in the text. It can also be used to show that a sentence has been cut short before coming to a natural ending. It can be used in dialogue to show characters interrupting–

–not even listening t–

–each other.

It’s called an em-dash, by the way, because it is the same length as a lower-case M. A hyphen is called an en-dash because it is the length of a lower-case N.

When a writer has chosen to tell a story in close third person, and something happens to that character to abruptly stop their POV (unconsciousness? death? ascension?) an em-dash is one way to show that the termination is abrupt and probably not voluntary. Say, for instance, the character is trapped and about to be shunted magically into another realm. You could abruptly end that character’s thoughts in mid-sentence–

–with an em-dash.

Or you could chose not to.


Who in their right mind would chose not to? Well, that would be me.


Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of writing, and trying my hand at more short fiction. I’m reading more short fiction, and I’m sending out a lot of short fiction, and getting it back with nice rejection letters. Here’s what I’ve learned from this, I think: 1) my prose is decent; 2) my characterization is pretty good; 3) I can craft a story; and 4) my stories are conventional. #4 is probably close to a kiss of death. On the other hand, my brain just doesn’t function well in an experimental manner. I enjoy reading experimental prose, but I can’t craft it. To make my work stand out, I have to do something different with my conventional stories, and one option seems to be, tell a conventional story with a slightly less conventional voice.

The story in question starts with an evil minion. She’s virtually a stereotype (intentionally) except that she doesn’t believe she’s a minion. She sees herself as an Evil Overlordess. (I had to do that. Just to see what it looks like.) The disconnect between the things she thinks and the things that happen is supposed to be horrifying and funny at the same time.

I wanted to play with the conventional storytelling language, and write a sentence that is truly chopped off mid-thought, you know, the way David Mitchell, who wrote Black Swan Green, Slade House, and Cloud Atlas, does. This is not to imply that I think I’m anywhere near the category of David Mitchell, only that he does things like this and makes them work.

It sounds like I strained my brain and struggled, and the wildest, most innovative, non-conventional thing I could think to do in my story was leave out one punctuation mark. It sounds that way because it is that way.

My friends had been primed to see this as a typo, not a choice, but it was, and is, a choice. We’ll see what happens. I doubt very much that any editor is going to reject the story saying, “We would have purchased this, but it was missing an em-dash, so…”

And by the way, no one’s having any trouble rejecting it. It’s had two rejections so far, one encouraging, with no em-dash comments, so I guess I’ll keep playing, keep taking baby-steps, and see where, if anywhere, they lead me. And I’ll leave out the em-dash–at least for now.

Posted in Thoughts about Writing | 9 Comments

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson


Book One of the saga of Malazan, Book of the Fallen is Gardens of the Moon. Erikson’s epic fantasy currently spans 11 volumes, and I don’t think a single one of them is fewer than 650 pages. I’m only one third of the way through Gardens of the Moon, which is a mosaic novel introducing an empire and its attempt at continental conquest. Along the way I’ve met some gods, some demi-gods, sorcerers, wizards, thieves, assassins, soldiers and a few others.

The book’s pacing is ponderous, and the first several chapters seemed to be little more than soldiers talking, or soldiers riding through the aftermath of a slaughter talking, or soldiers thinking about talking.  Along about page 150, though, Tattersail showed up. She is a sorcerer and an engaging character. A little while after that, Paran, who had been as stiff as a dressmaker’s form and absolutely yawn-inducing, got killed and then he got really interesting.

I like what I think I understand of the magic system. Yes, that is what I wanted that sentence to say.

Every once in a while I come across a tasty tidbit, like a dried cranberry in a salad, and so far here are two I’ve really enjoyed; the animated magical puppet, who may not be an evil puppet but is certainly an ill-tempered one, and Crone, the giant, magical talking raven. How could I not love a giant magical talking raven?

I’m on page 275. I don’t love it, but there is plenty to admire and I have it from a respected source that this book is not the best of the series. Certainly it’s worth reading to get the background and understand how the gods and the Ascendants fit together, who is warring with whom (short answer, everybody), and so on. We met the Empress of Malazan briefly at the beginning. She is not a good person, but I kind of liked her, and I think that’s the author’s intent.

So, while there was a point where I nearly put the book down, I think I will go on. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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The Role of the Broker

Over at Fanlit, we frequently do giveaways. Most review sites do this. Often we work with publishers to give away new books, which the publishers like because it juices up the buzz about the book.

This means working with publicists and winners.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, the Giveaways of books from publishers go very smoothly. Basically, I send an email with the winner’s contact info or address to the publicist, and we’re done.

Right now I am dealing with someone who didn’t get a book from the publisher. In this situation, the publisher approached us, and we did a 20-book giveaway. Two winners have contacted me to say they haven’t gotten theirs, and the books were supposedly mailed the first week of April, 2016.

It isn’t going very well. The first person contacted me three weeks ago. I let the publicist know, and confirmed the address I’ve given him was correct. I asked him to check. Four work days later I got a response that “those books have all gone out.”

I followed up. Have any come back? Can I get the tracking number? No response.

Fortunately, I had a second copy of the book in question at home, and I ended up sending that to the winner.

Now, this week, I have a second person contacting me and I am going through the same drill. UPDATE: Now I have a third and still no response from the publicist.

I’m frustrated, and part of the reason I’m frustrated is because I’m not sure what I can do to fix this.

I know what I shouldn’t do; I should not buy the winner a book with my own money. That’s what I want to do. This problem is not of my making, nor is it my responsibility. Also, this isn’t about Marion, this is about FanLit, and while I can probably afford to buy a copy (or copies, as it’s turning out) of this particular book, it wouldn’t be fair to set that kind of a precedent for the site.

And the publisher offered a book and they damn well should provide the winner his book.

As a “broker,” I don’t really have any leverage over the publisher. That’s the other problem.

Anyway, it’s an interesting dilemma.

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The Night Manager on AMC

AMC adapted John LeCarre’s novel The Night Manager into a six-hour miniseries. It airs on Tuesday nights at 10:00.  I am commenting on it now having seen four of the six hours, but unlike shows I’ve seen on other networks (and I’m looking at you, Syfy) I have no trepidation or anxiety that they are going to completely screw up the ending. I am in the hands of master storytellers here, and I am completely confident.

I had not read the book, but the quality of the performances and the storytelling made me go buy it. Of course the book is more complex and may very well have a different ending, but Le Carre has a writer’s credit on the show, and I can already see that some familiar LeCarre themes (corruption, accountability, the danger of cynicism) are addressed.

A lot of the show involves Tom Hiddleston, the hotel night manager of the title, interacting with Hugh Laurie, a conscienceless billionaire arms dealer. These scenes hum with intensity. Olivia Coleman, who plays intelligence operative Angela Burr, does not get anywhere near enough scenes with Hiddleston, but she matches the two men stroke for stroke when it comes to acting chops. After an uneven opening hour devoted mostly to backstory (and beautifully done) the series hit its stride, if that’s the right term, with a feeling of a spring-loaded apparatus getting, slowly, wound tighter, tighter, and still tighter, until the metal quivers and begins to creak. And then, still tighter.

Jonathan Pine, an ex-soldier, is the night manager of a five-star hotel in Cairo during the Arab Spring uprising. Pine is approached by a woman guest, the mistress of a prominent Cairo family, with evidence of an arms deal, with British mogul Richard Roper as the broker of the deal. The “arms deal” includes hardware and things like Sarin gas. Pine approaches a friend from his military days who works for the home office. They pass on the information to Angela Burr, lead analyst in a criminally underfunded enforcement agency in London. Jonathan Pine promises the woman, Sophia, that Britain will protect her, but it turns out he can’t keep that promise. Sophia is not protected, and Pine can’t save her.

Four years later Pine has an opportunity, with Angela’s help, to take revenge on Roper. This is where the cat-and-mouse game begins. When Burr first meets with Pine and asks him why he passed on the original information, he gives a Queen-and-country answer. He says when he saw someone British selling those weapons, “Something stirred, I suppose.” It seems like he means outrage or moral indignation, and that his desire for revenge is also, at least slightly, also about justice. Once Angela plants him inside Roper’s tight, secretive and complex group, though, a different aspect of Pine emerges.

Hugh Laurie plays Richard Roper (“I’m Dickie Roper”) with a hooded-eyed distance; a calculation, humor and coolness that only emphasizes his dangerousness. He is ruthless; he is witty and genial. He is loving in an absent-minded, career-driven-dad way to his young son Danny. He is a master criminal who is, as another character puts it, “completely faithful” to his girlfriend. He is a monster and knows it, and isn’t particularly bothered by it.

Hiddleston and Laurie are awesome whenever they are on the screen together. Hiddleston can deliver intensity and vulnerability, sometimes in the same moment; Laurie can deliver menace, and also, strangely, vulnerability, and when then two of them are interacting… I should have some great descriptor there, but the term that comes to mind is, “Whoa.”

Pine is a risk-taker, a man in control who seeks intensity. In the fourth episode, Roper grills him, humorously, about what he wants; hashish? Alcohol? Girls, boys, young, old? Pine politely declines each and Roper says, only half-joking, “I don’t know if I can trust a man with no appetites.” He overlooks Pine’s appetite for danger, and that will bring problems to both of them. That earlier line, “Something stirred, I suppose,” takes on a different meaning. So does the very opening scene of the show, which starts with Pine walking through the crowds of demonstrators in Cairo. That scene was baffling when we first saw it; watching Pine up through Episode Four, that scene suddenly plays differently too. Pine does lust for something. It isn’t revenge. It’s danger; a chance to test himself with no safety net.

Meanwhile, with her shabby old coat, her half-brushed hair and a wardrobe that brings new dimension to the word “frumpy,” Angela Burr is an even bigger badass than Pine. She’s a risk-taker too, gambling her career while several months pregnant, horse-trading with her CIA counterpart,  playing Mother Confessor to a former partner of Roper’s, out-maneuvering corrupt and arrogant adversaries at MI6, facing down tainted colleagues. Coleman is a treasure in this role.

The series is directed by Suzanne Bier, a Danish film-maker who has a great eye, and uses a lot of hand-held camera work here. It creates the tense, frightening intimacy; it’s also overdone just enough that it becomes noticeable at times, intruding on the story. (In a different way, Hiddleston’s good looks intrude on the story at certain moments, too.) This is a flaw, and it’s a tiny one that does no lasting damage to the series. Bier is brilliant.

The entire cast is pitch perfect, but these three are the main characters, and this show is a work of art. I can’t wait to find out how it ends… and then read the book. And then, probably, watch it again.

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White hand painting white paint on a tree.

Just a little whitewash

There’s been a lot of internet talk lately about whitewashing. In this context, it means taking a character, story, trope or hero from a culture and recasting it as a white character or a white story. Here is a definition from the blog sociological cinema. Like cultural appropriation, which I admit I still don’t completely understand, whitewashing makes people of color disappear from history and from stories. (Not just people of color, but this column will deal mostly with people of color as an example.)

A big, and shocking, example in the SFF world is  Walt Disney Studios, which decided to remake the classic Japanese anime film Ghost in the Shell as a live action film. ( Whaaaat? Nooooo! Why?) That’s the first problem right there, but in case they hadn’t already gone wrong, they decided to cast well-known American-Japanese actor Scarlett Johannson as the lead character of Motoko Kusinagi. What? You didn’t know that Johansson is of Japanese origin? Neither did anybody else. It’s because she’s not.

I didn’t know enough about Dr Strange to be upset by the casting of the awesome Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in the upcoming movie, because I didn’t know the Ancient One was Asian. Frankly, I didn’t know the Ancient One was terrestrial. I love Tilda Swinton, but again, there are plenty of American-Asian and Asian actors who would have melded to the role perfectly.

Studios can make money-based arguments for both of these cases. These are name actors who bring an audience, or that’s what the studios probably think. And after all, Scarlett Johannson deserves a vehicle as an action-hero, doesn’t she? And it isn’t like she’s associated in anyone’s mind with an existing action-hero character, perhaps from an American comic book. Wouldn’t it be great if she were?

Anyway, in both these high-profile missteps, studios can mount an economic argument, and when Ghost in the Shell fails they can blame Johannson –women superhero movies don’t work– and the perfectly balanced closed system will chug merrily along. Sometimes, though, whitewashing isn’t done in gallons, with an economic rationalization. It’s done for no reason whatsoever, and it’s just baffling… or worse, it’s not baffling at all, it’s proof of unconscious bias, and a system that makes sure we never see too many people of color (for an in-determinant value of “too many”) in any piece of entertainment media.

An example of this is Syfy’s series The Expanse.

I loved The Expanse, and I watched it before I had read any of the books. It made me want to read the books, which makes it a success by my reckoning. The casting is excellent mostly and these actors own their characters. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it; I reviewed it at FanLit and you can read the review.

About that casting. The major roles are perfect. There is a minor role that is confusing though. She’s only in two episodes, and in one of them she is having low-gravity sex, which required the actor to do wire-work, so, you know, “Good Work!”. The character’s name is Ade, and she is the girlfriend of James Holden, one of the two main characters. Spoiler alert; a bad thing happens and that’s why she is only in two episodes.

Ade had blond hair, white skin and looked rather Scandinavian (the actor who plays her is named Kristen Hager). I didn’t think much about it, because I wasn’t familiar with the name Ade, which did sound like it could be Scandinavian or at least futurist-Scandinavian. Then I read Leviathan Wakes. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Ade is Nigerian. Nigerian. Ade is a name of African origin. And I don’t think that the Ade of the book was part of that tiny enclave of Swedes, or Finns, or Danes who settled in Nigeria in 1362, and which I’ve just made up. No, I think James S.A. Corey imagined Holden’s onboard squeeze as a gorgeous dark-skinned woman.

Why in the world would you bleach Nigerian Ade into white Ade, even giving her a Scandinavian last name (Nygaard, according to the credits)? Who thought this was necessary? I’m pushed into a position of actually hoping it was patronage and corruption, and that Hager got the job because she is someone’s girlfriend. Because there is no other reason. None.

Or, there might be. There is another stunning dark-skinned woman in the series, Naomi, and she and James will become a couple at some point. Did casting people think we’d be confused if James had two dark-skinned girlfriends? (It’s easy to tell them apart in the show. Ade’s gone. The one who’s left, that’s Naomi. See? Easy.)

Did they just reach a point, without reflection, without decision, without thought and without discussion, that somehow some threshold had been met; there were “enough” dark-skinned people in the series, so they’d bleach one? Did that unspoken gauge of “too many” tick over into the red zone?

Or, Hager tested really well in an audition for some other role and they liked her, so they bleached Ade and gave it to her. Okay, that might be fair. I could be persuaded it was fair if I believed they would do the same thing for a dark-skinned actor who they really liked, without talking about whether it was right to “change” a white character. And I don’t believe, for a minute, they would do that.

Idris Elba

Dude, it’s Idris Elba

(I know, I know, Heimdahl in Marvel’s Thor movies. You think casting Idris Elba makes an argument that they would do that. I can refute that argument in three words; it’s Idris Elba.)

I’m choosing the example of Ade because it is tiny and insidious. Ade is part of a background; part of a futuristic world where, still, there aren’t many dark faces. And there’s no story-based reason why not; in fact, the books have all kinds of people, with all kinds of skin color, hair color, cultures, habits and lives. Blond Ade doesn’t reflect the future world of The Expanse; she reflects the white inner world of studio executives.

Ade is less than a cup of whitewash, but that’s too much. Studios and casting directors, you try hard to rationalize away the big plum roles when you bleach them to whiteness. What excuse do you have for the Ades? Stop whitewashing the small roles first, to give yourselves some practice. Maybe, eventually, you will build up the courage to cast the bigger roles right as well.

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