And now, Scary-Crayon reviews...
Walter Mosley's FUTURELAND
by: Wes

We've touched on the subject of race before on Scary-Crayon. For example, we criticized Black History Month in Dusty Plastic HELL #5, asserting that the holiday itself is ultimately racist and serves as a marketing ploy to hock anything "black". (In the comic, Morpheus sarcastically remarks, "Hell, I bet even charcoal fucking flies off the shelves during February.") When we attacked the Harry Potter series, we noted that Rowling's description of the token "black" character -- and apparently, as reader Lara noted, the token Asian character as well -- was painfully Dusty Plastic HELL #5: Whack History Month!sparse when compared to that of the so-called "white" characters. But while the subject has come up several times, we've never discussed it in a more comprehensive capacity outside the realm of harsh criticism. That's because Scary-Crayon is a humor site (book reviews notwithstanding!) and while it's apparent that a great number of people find humor that draws upon racial stereotypes to be funny, I don't.

I've advanced the idea elsewhere that almost all references to a person's "race" are inherently racist in that, when we mention them, we mean to indicate more than just the color of the person's skin or purported ethnic background -- or that, even if we don't mean to, such terms necessarily carry a descriptive component that assumes certain things about a person over and above appearances and ancestry. For example, when a person refers to someone as "black", that person not only communicates that the person has brown skin, etc., but also that the person probably dresses in baggy clothing, listens to hip-hop music, loves eating fried chicken, and so forth. At the very least, I've argued that if we didn't view the terms as holding some sort of descriptive value over and above what they suggest on the surface, we wouldn't use them with the widespread and unfailing reliance that we do. Consider that in and of themselves, racial terms are fairly weak descriptors. Unless we supply additional assumptions, they don't tell us how tall a person is, the type of clothing a person wears, the way a person speaks, and certainly not what a person believes or how a person behaves. Hell, they don't even tell us the one thing they do overtly purport to tell us -- the color of a person's skin! And yet almost daily I'll read or overhear an account of some event in which persons are described as "black" and "white" to no apparent effect whatsoever -- that is, unless the speaker intends to indicate something else by these utterances.

The above has always seemed like an obvious point to me, but a surprising few people have been willing to grant it when I've raised the issue in discussion. I think that it's because, while such shows as "Avenue Q" and "Family Guy" have popularized the idea that "everyone's a little bit racist" to comedic effect, nobody wants to believe that he/she participates in racism on a daily basis in decidedly unfunny and even pointless ways. Instead, they'll immediately become defensive, arguing that they're not the only ones to rely on such racial descriptors. They may even attempt to justify their use of the terms -- and the assumptions I've argued that they inherently imply -- by making reference to statistics, the apparent truth of stereotypes, and what have you. And it strikes me as a rather sad reaction, especially when the better solution would be to either say what one means -- if one means to describe a person, describe the person! (unless all one sees is "race", which would certainly problematic, wouldn't it?) -- or say nothing at all.

The preceding discussion, I believe, is necessary to introduce my review of Walter Mosley's Futureland -- or at least to begin to describe my experience of reading it. Whereas in other books one could argue that the authors' descriptive biases are unconscious, or at least doesn't necessarily imply any racist beliefs or adherence to stereotypical portrayals, it is often so clear that Mosley does mean to assert certain things about his characters Futureland: Nine Stories of an Imminent Worldwhen he flatly describes them as "black" and "white" men and women -- which, save an additional descriptive term, he does with unnerving regularity in his writing -- that one would be tempted to view this as an overtly racist book. Despite being a work of science fiction, a genre in which the subject of race usually plays a marginal role if it is mentioned at all, in the nine stories of Futureland, race and racism are emphasized and underscored at almost every turn.

That said, this is not a book lacking in creativity. The future depicted in Futureland -- albeit a near future; the book begins around 2024 and spans the 2060s -- contains a number of imaginative developments. In this future, unemployed Americans are relegated to an underground haven known as "Common Ground", a sort of welfare system where people are provided with the bare essentials (a sleep tube and daily rations of rice and beans). Naturally, while advertisements depict Common Ground as a relaxing free ride, in reality it is a cesspool rife with violence and gang warfare. Due to population growth, New York City has been divided into three levels, with businesses and the wealthy occupying sunny Upper Manhattan and the middle-class and working poor relegated to the natural light-deprived depths of Middle and Lower Manhattan. The drug Pulse, created by CalTech students who wanted to cram months of research and study into a single evening, allows users to live out vivid and complex fantasies that seem to last a lifetime -- but after four uses of Pulse, a user must continue to use the drug or else his/her brain will collapse. And there's the world's first male-female heavyweight boxing championship bout.

But despite these societal changes and the vast opportunities for social commentary that they provide, everything seems to come back to race. Although images depicting racial profiling have, in the book, been outlawed since the 2010s -- which would at least suggest, I think, a broader cultural shift regarding attitudes towards race -- every "black" character seems to view "the white man" with the distrust and anger of, well, a modern-day 50 year old "black" man who grew up during the Civil Rights era, suffered overt, institutionalized racism, and attentively watched its transformation through the present day. As noted earlier, this viewpoint is written into the very language of omniscient narrator of the stories, with "white" almost always signifying "sinister" and "authoritatian" and "black" somehow denoting "victim of the system". And then there are the race-centric developments of the stories. Towards the end of the book, for example, the International Socialists -- the future Nazis -- develop a virus that somehow only attacks persons with a certain percentage of "African DNA" in their genes. (Never mind that, given my admittedly limited but not entirely destitute knowledge of genetics, this would be all but impossible.)

And yet exchanges like the one below cast the book's apparently racist message into doubt. In the following excerpt, Leon Jones, father of the former boxing champion and now congresswoman "Ferocious" Fera Jones, converses with a little girl named Tracie in New York City's Morningside Park:

"I was surprised," he said, "because when I was a boy and lived here there were no little white girls in Harlem."

"Am I a white girl?"

The question stunned Leon. He didn't know what to answer.

"Your hair is almost white," he said lamely.

"But you didn't mean my hair, huh?" the girl said. "You meant my skin."

"Yeah. I guess so."

"And if I'm white then what are you?"

"Black," Leon said instantly.

"But your skin is just brown," the girl said. "And my skin has some brown and some pink and some yellow, too." She rubbed her arm and peered at the skin as she did so.

"I think we're all the same color, just more of some colors and not so many of others." She held out her arm and looked at Leon as if to get his opinion on her theory.

Leon suppressed the urge to hug the child. He clasped his hands and pressed them against his lips. (p.176)

Though the notion that we're all the same color is a common and simple concept (that sadly few people take seriously), its appearance in a book so concerned with drawing color lines -- and the apparent gladness that Leon feels upon hearing the child's words -- is jarring and confusing, to say the least. Moreover, following this story, Mosley abandons his apparent descriptive limitations. Where before he would simply have described the prison guard in the next story as being "a small white man," he now writes:

The human guard was five feet three inches tall, wearing light blue trousers with dark blue stripes down the outer seam of each pant leg. He wore a blue jacket, the same color as the stripes, and a black cap with a golden disk above the brim. Thick curly hair twisted out from the sides of the cap and a dark gray shadow covered his chin and upper lip. Other than this threat of facial hair, Otis Brill, as his name tag plainly read, had skin as pale as a blind newt's eye. (p.205)

This fullness of description continues through to the end of the book, with all characters suddenly receiving thorough depictions -- to the point where Mosley rarely stoops to describe his characters as being simply "black" or "white" at all unless he actually means it to be a direct physical description. For example, he later refers to the second woman in the passage below as "the black woman," but now it is clear that he is referring to the particular hue of her skin (the lack of "European DNA" notwithstanding):

There sat two women. These were both of African heritage but they looked quite different from each other. One was smallish and honey-colored. Her hair had what seemed to be natural blond highlights and her eyes were the color of gold. The other woman was larger, though not fat, and very black. Her features were generous and sculpted. Neil doubted if she had even one knot of European DNA in her cells. (p.236)

Additionally, for the first time in Futureland, "white" characters are introduced who are actually friendly, decent individuals and don't somehow represent the sinister and oppressive hand of the establishment. After the "Final Solution" conflict is resolved, one character sadly remarks that all of his friends are dead. And more to the point, once the "genetic cleansing" has been carried out, nothing seems to have been resolved. People still discriminate against each other based on skin color; political leaders still attempt to exploit the ethnic background of their audiences towards various ends; violence still takes place in the streets. The radical solution to the race problem turns out to be no solution at all.

So it's a difficult book to make out, and its message -- if it has one -- is apparently contradictory. On the one hand, we've got the message that racial conflict solves nothing, and yet the book is written with such emphasis on race that it's hard for me to believe that that's actually what Mosley is suggesting -- especially when, if the subject matter and excerpts from his other books are any indication, the topic of race dominates his writing. Of course, one could read him as saying that the subject is important now, but that hopefully in the future, when the problems that still pervade our society are resolved, it would become a non-issue -- except, of course, for the fact that Futureland takes place in the future and has been deliberately set in a future America that has seen very little social improvement. Is he saying that the situation is hopeless? I don't know, but I suspect that this is one of those titles that says more about its author than it does about its own world. Even there -- or perhaps especially there -- I'm not sure what to make of these "nine stories of an imminent world."

That said, Futureland is an interesting read, though an ultimately confusing one. This future is filled with a number of creative and unique developments, but the emphasis on race as a focal point, while not without its merits, becomes both tiresome and even ridiculous at points. Still, if the subject matter discussed here at all interests you, I certainly recommend borrowing the book from the library and peering into Mosley's crystal ball.

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