This week, I bring you author, artist, and “yet another woman owned by two dogs” (I think there’s a secret plot by canines!).
LJ Cohen (pictured left) is another of my infamous sisters from Broad Universe, a non-profit organization that supports women writers of fantasy, science, fiction, and horror.
Take it away, LJ!
Diversity in Halcyone Space
by LJ Cohen
I didn’t plan to create a book that checked off boxes in some kind of diversity bingo. Somehow, I seem to have written a series with:
– a female computer engineer,
– brothers (the sons of the space station’s two physicians) who are of mixed race,
– a lesbian relationship,
– a privileged son of a disgraced diplomat who grows drugs (and is one of the protagonists!),
– women of color in prominent positions of authority,
– and characters with various disabilities that are neither miraculously healed or that render them ‘noble’ in their ‘suffering’
The characters of the Halcyone Space series (DERELICT and ITHAKA RISING) grew organically from the first idea of the story – that a group of teens inadvertently resurrect a long-derelict space ship. I have long enjoyed ensemble-based science fiction and in my brain,; this story mixed elements of Firefly, Farscape, and Lost in Space. What mattered to me, as a writer, was that the characters reflect the world at least as diverse as my current world is. In fact, I couldn’t imagine a future space-faring culture that would be LESS diverse than our current day existence. (Can you tell that I was raised on Star Trek?) So I looked around at the people in my personal community and created a cast of characters that reflected its messy individualism in all its glory.
There is a spectrum of cultural, social, economic, disability, gender, and sexual preference boundaries (this is not an exclusive list of our potential human diversity). I occupy my own space on that ‘map’, as do my friends, neighbors, and family members. The challenge I face in writing is how to honor both the shared humanity of each of my characters as well as their distinctiveness. Ultimately, each of the characters stepped up to the challenge of their unique personhood, and the story that takes place around them is richer for it.
I’ve had several readers ask (both in personal contacts and in reviews) why I stuck a relationship between two women into a science fiction book. (This implication being that I ‘ruined’ a perfectly good SF story.)
I could reply with reasons from my personal life, but that’s not really the important answer. In fact, the reason why this 50-something heterosexual cis-gendered woman wrote about an emotional attachment between Ro and Nomi was because those questions are still being asked. If the relationship had been between Ro and any of the male characters, it would have been viewed as the default and no one would have questioned it. Someday, I hope that we will be there with same-sex couples.
And still, I didn’t plan this out at the start. I created Ro and Nomi and after working through their initial scenes, it was clear that their characters would create a strong emotional bond. It served the needs of the story and was consistent with the needs/arc of the characters.
Jem Durbin – one of the brothers – sustains a head injury in DERELICT and must deal with the consequences of his injury in ITHAKA RISING. He struggles with his disability, and the choices he makes because of it drive the story. Another character, Lieutenant Commander Gutierrez, is a woman who is career military. She was injured in the war that takes place 40 years prior to the events of both stories, and has a prosthetic arm. It is consistent with her character that she would choose an arm for function rather than aesthetics, and this is something that becomes part of the plot. It helps the verisimilitude of the story that I worked as a physical therapist for almost 25 years.
When we write fiction, we are almost always exploring ‘the other’. Certainly all the characters I create have some aspect of myself or my experience, but that is only a small part of who they are. It is my hope that each member of the cast of the Halcyone Space novels is fully themselves and that I have handled the specific aspects of their diversity, particularly the ones that I personally do not share, with sensitivity and honesty.
Excerpt From ITHAKA RISING
After a restless sleep, Ro grabbed a quick shower and rummaged through the pile of clothes on the floor of her quarters for the least dirty set. She wrinkled her nose. Now that she was official again, everything needed to be sent through the cleanser on Daedalus.
At least Halcyone wouldn’t get kicked out of her docking space. But Ro would be so much busier now. She’d already cut down her sleep to four hours with the liberal use of caffeine and stimulant pills. There was a limit to how long her body would tolerate the abuse.
She worked her hair into a tight braid. A memory of Nomi unbraiding it made her hands tremble, and she dropped the wire she was using to tie it off. “Damn it.” Ro knew she owed Nomi an apology. And not just Nomi.
Her hair rebraided, Ro stepped into Halcyone’s main corridor and nearly tripped over a trundle loaded with musical instruments. Barre emerged from his quarters across the hallway and stopped short, staring between the cart and her.
“I have nowhere else to go,” he said, his dark eyes staring directly at her. “And despite your belief to the contrary, you do need me here. Unless you can play one of these for Halcyone.”
“Look. I’m not—” Ro was going to say she wasn’t good at this. At this friendship thing. Or the communications thing, but Barre cut her off.
“I’ll do what I can to get the ship working. I know I’m not my brother.” A frown narrowed his eyes for a moment. “But I owe at least that much to you.”
He didn’t understand, she could tell. It was so much the other way around. She just couldn’t find a way to say it. Barre pulled several stringed instruments from the cart. Her micro beeped with a list of tasks Mendez had prioritized for her. Ro waved her hand over it to silence the alert. “Can I help you?”
Barre shrugged. “Knock yourself out.”
They emptied the cart into the tight confines of his room without speaking. It felt comfortable to just be doing something. It was what she was best at. The words were so much harder. “I can take the trundle back.” Ro sighed, thinking of all the time she would have to spend away from Halcyone. “Mendez put me back on staff. I have to head to the depot anyway.”
“As of yesterday. But we get to keep Halcyone here as long as we need to and have access to the resources to fix her.” If they could fix her. Ro squashed that particular fear and looked up at Barre. She hoped he got her use of ‘we’ and heard the apology in it. “It means I have to spend time at the station. Do you think … are you willing to keep working on her? Can you get Jem to help?”
He was scowling at her, his expression just like his mother’s. She hoped he didn’t think she just insulted his abilities. But Jem was better at troubleshooting. Even Barre knew that.
“You haven’t even asked about him once since we got back here. Now you want to use him?”
It was hard not to look away. Yes, she was going to use him. The same way she used and drove herself. If Jem was anything like her, that’s what he’d want, too. Something in Barre’s eyes made her bite back her sharp reply. She took a deep breath and replayed what he’d said. She hadn’t asked about him … Shit. “What’s wrong?”
“He has a head injury, that’s what’s wrong.” Barre’s face darkened.
“But the surgery—that was supposed to fix it, right?”
“He’s broken. Like Halcyone. And I don’t think anyone can fix him.”
“Oh, crap. I’m sorry.”
“Sorry that he can’t help anymore? Or sorry that he got dragged into your mess?”
Heat rose up through her chest and burned across her face. Ro turned, nearly tripping on an upended drum at her feet. She wanted to kick it, to leave it in pieces strewn across the floor. Instead, she compacted the anger into a tiny black hole and added it to all the rest. Someday, it would eat its way through her, leaving emptiness behind.
“Shit. I’m sorry,” Barre said. “That was out of line.”
She slammed her hand down on the trundle, paired it to her micro, and turned to go.
Why wouldn’t he leave her be? “What?”
“It wasn’t your fault. What happened to Jem.”
The pain in his voice was as unsettling as her own anger.“
He wouldn’t even have been there, except for me screwing up.”
Ro closed her eyes, wishing for the clean problems of code and machine. “I’m sorry,” she repeated, not sure what else to say.
“I know. Me too.”
Her micro buzzed again. “I’ve got to go.” She turned around. He was leaning against the doorway, his head bowed, dreads falling forward to cover his face. His large hands circled the neck of some kind of flute, his grip so tight Ro was sure the instrument would snap. In the silence, she could only hear the pulse pounding in her ears.
With shaking hands, she stepped forward and reached for the flute. Barre jerked his head up and for an instant, his knuckles tightened even further, turning gray against the shiny silver metal, before his hands loosened and his shoulders slumped.
Ro set it down on the bare steel desk and left, the empty trundle following her out of the ship and into the station.
LJ Cohen is the writing persona of Lisa Janice Cohen, poet, novelist, blogger, ceramics artist, local food enthusiast, Doctor Who fan, and relentless optimist. Lisa lives just outside of Boston with her family, two dogs (only one of which actually ever listens to her) and the occasional international student. When not doing battle with a stubborn Jack Russell Terrier mix, Lisa can be found working on the next novel, which often looks a lot like daydreaming. ITHAKA RISING is her 5th published novel.
email LJ: firstname.lastname@example.org