Matters of Identity

Mumblety-umph years ago, somewhere between the dark ages and now, I read a book that changed my life. It was a science fiction book (no real surprises in this crowd, I’m sure), and I no longer remember the title, much less the author. I think it may have been a Heinlein juvie, but I’m not entirely sure. It was a long time ago, and I didn’t keep a diary so there’s no convenient entry reading “My life was changed today by $TITLE written by $AUTHOR”.

What I do remember is that it didn’t preach at me. It was a story, one that moved reasonably fast. The characters weren’t especially memorable – or they’ve blurred a bit over the years. They weren’t supermen or uber-heroes, just ordinary decent people stuck in a mess and doing their best to muddle through it.

What stuck, and sent me careening into science fiction and fantasy, was the explosion behind my eyes of sheer possibility. Here was a story that said ordinary people could do incredible things. They didn’t have to have the right parents, or the right family connections, or oodles of money, or a whole lot of luck. In fact, you’d call them downright unlucky landing in the mess they were in (damn it, I really wish I remembered more about the thing… I wonder if it was Tunnel in the Sky? I know that was one of my early reads and it left an impact, but whether it was the read that kicked this off is another question).

I’m sure some folks are wondering how the heck something could affect me so strongly but not be remembered. If you’re me, it’s actually not that hard. You remember the old school library cards, where you had to write the name of the book you borrowed on it? By the end of each school year, mine was multiple cards stapled together, and I’d given up writing the name and abbreviated the things by a system only I could follow. I was doing the same thing with my public library card, borrowing as many books as I was allowed to take home, and returning them the next week so I could get another batch or reader-crack. And everyone in the family knew that Kate plus book meant it took an explosion to get my attention. There’s a reason my parents never went into the 70s craze for toilet paper with cutesy sayings or trivia printed on it (apart from the cost factor: with five kids, we went through a lot of the stuff) – they’d never have got me out of the bathroom until I’d finished reading the roll.

Yes, I was that much of a bookworm. I still am, just a little more jaded and more able to stop myself. Mostly.

I went through phases. There was the horsey phase where I’d read anything with a horse on the cover. Then the historical fiction – and quite a bit of actual history as well. And so on. Then I picked up this science fiction piece and something inside clicked into place and said, “More like this, please. Lots more. Don’t stop feeding me this stuff, ever.”

I can say with reasonable certainty that the main characters were nothing like me. I’m sufficiently weird that if I wrote an autobiography not only would nobody believe anyone could think like that, it would be boring as hell. And miserable. For most of my school life books were my escape from a life that I loathed, and when I started trying to write that was the rest of my escape.

As no less a person than J. R. R. Tolkien has said, escapism is not a bad thing, and those who most commonly argue against escape in any form are jailers. Reality was my prison then, and books my escape. Did I want to read about other people in situations as miserable as mine? Hell, no. I wanted to read about people who were in situations where their choices mattered to someone other than themselves. That was all. It was enough that I could hope to find myself in circumstances where my choices could matter to other people.

To be fair, I was a rather angsty teen, even by angsty teen standards. This happens when your brain has lapped your ability to socialize so many times nobody’s sure how far ahead it actually is – but even the non-weird like to feel that what they do matters to someone else (yes, I was about as socially clueless as it’s possible to be without being diagnosed with something).

The point in all this rambling is this: I didn’t need someone just like me to identify with a book’s characters. All I needed was someone doing something I could imagine myself doing in similar circumstances. I’ve identified with aliens, with characters from all cultures and with all manner of skin colors (some not achievable in nature as we know it). As long as the author was able to make them seem real (see Sarah’s much promised series starting next week for that), I could identify with them – everyone from black children growing up on slave plantations (remember that historical fiction binge) to starship captains and anything in between was someone I could identify with.

Those who claim you’ve got to have superficial (skin deep) resemblance to identify with a character are merely projecting their inability to empathize onto the rest of us. Pity them for their lack, but never let them dictate what you choose to read.

29 Comments

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29 responses to “Matters of Identity

  1. I don’t suppose you’re aware of the Libreboot / FSF blowup recently?

    Short summary: A person was fired from FSF. The Libreboot project manager, a MTF TG, blew up, and claimed it was because the person who had been fired was fired because s/he(? Unsure of the fired person’s ID) was trans.

    FSF and some other folks in the project asked for proof of the allegations. The transgender person instead refused to name the person who was fired and instead named two or three men who the TG alleges is bigoted. The transgender person proceeded to then ‘remove’ the Libreboot project from FSF, screaming all the while that those named men should be fired or leave FSF.

    The person throwing the tantrum and making allegations and demands apparently has a history of focusing more on activism and making broad claims, as well as claiming to speak for the Libreboot project, when in fact s/he is not.

    I had a read through the lists and boy that’s one huge bucket of passive aggressive and not so passive crazy there. Bad behavior, excused by political correctness!

  2. Christopher M. Chupik

    “As no less a person than J. R. R. Tolkien has said, escapism is not a bad thing, and those who most commonly argue against escape in any form are jailers.”

    Nicely dovetails with something I read yesterday: http://superversivesf.com/2016/08/30/why-joanna-russ-feared-heroic-fantasy/

  3. I’d have been twelve or thirteen when I read Andre Norton’s Last Planet. I won’t say it was my first SF, there was probably Runaway Robot or Lucky Starr in there, possibly before, could have been after. But Andre Norton started my voracious SF habit and it’s still going strong.

    I think because it’s not _just_ escape. It’s escape and have an adventure. When it stops being that, it’s book to wall time.

    • And as for identity, yeah one of the reasons I like reading is that it somehow sucks you in and you experience the story from inside the POV character. I don’t _care_ who or what that is, for the length of the book I’m him, her, it, or yes.

  4. Naturally I find the need-matching-skin-color thing curious as a “How superficial can you get?” sort of thing. Mere pigmentation? Come on, species isn’t even a real barrier here!

  5. Asko

    I’m starting A Canticle for Leibowitz again. I’m rereading it for probably the tenth time since my teens. Something about that book draws me in again and again.

    And Donald Jack’s Bandy Papers. Which you will never have heard of, but he’s the funniest, darkest Canadian author ever.

    And of course all those books are unavailable in e-format. Even though I would pay to have them on my Kindle so I don’t have to go searching for my reading glasses.

  6. Draven

    The Odd part is, Kate- The same conclusion struck me while reading the comments for Sarah’s post that preceded this one!