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Is this too problematic?

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Morgan_R

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Edit: Based on feedback received, I'm making some changes. Original post for context:

So my current WIP is "The Emancipated Swan." The Swan in question is a sentient spaceship, essentially a yacht for a well-to-do owner... whom the Swan is programmed to love. But then her owner dies, and frees her in her will. The Swan ultimately solves her owner's murder and restores her from backup, but chooses not to belong to her again, because her owner won't admit that she loves her. That's the end in the short story version, but I'm also considering trying to expand it into a novel, in which case the Swan would eventually run a patch to fall in love with her former owner without giving up her freedom. In this version the former owner does in fact love the Swan, and lied so she'd choose freedom.

So. I've got something like slavery... of AIs that are programmed to like it. My protagonist ultimately chooses freedom, but she spends most of the story trying to get her owner back. There's also the question of coloration: The Swan's ship-skin and her humanoid body are both white. As in the color of swan feathers, not pale peachy pink. Her (former) owner is spacer-black, as in the color of space, not any shade of brown. But yeah, we've got a black person owning a white person, and them ending up in love with each other. It isn't my intention to comment on real-world slavery or racism or anything else, but I'm afraid that's what's going to be inferred.

Can this concept be salvaged? Or should I set it aside in favor of something less problematic?
 
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Woollybear

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My first thought as a white gal whose ancestors came to the US in the late 19th century but who grew up in a racist part of the midwest is ditch the black/white. Silver, gold, gray--pick other colors. Use colors to emphasize your theme. Even the expression "black and white" offends me to a degree--it means contrast and I get that, but there's too much baggage with black=bad and white=good. (Don't go to the dark side. Go to the light. Etc.) Ditch it.

AI's as property is a common theme, no? We all use our computers, daily. We joke about being addicted to SM. I think this is less problematic only because it has this other element of current ... whatifism? What if we learn that computers are sentient?

I think your ideas are salvageable if you want to salvage them. FWIW, swan always brings up Ugly Duckling to me. Also, there are black swans, and there are examples of swans who believe they are ugly. A little wordplay can bring those out?
 
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ChaseJxyz

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Honestly, I do not find it racist/problematic, but everyone is going to have different reactions to it. There is going to be at least 1 person in the world who will think this is super horrible and you should be burned at the stake, but that's the case with everything; you can never make something that will make everyone happy and everyone say it's okay.

It would be problematic if you draw attention to it and try to make it a "thing," like how Zootopia tried to discuss racism by using predator/prey dynamics. Using that as a metaphor falls apart if you put any modicum of thought into it ("Well, the rabbit has every reason to be afraid of a fox. Foxes used to eat them all the time." "People used to say God created black people to be our slaves, and the ship is happy to be slave, so..."). So don't try to include anything like that. What I think would be more interesting is focusing the (presumably romantic) love being "forced" onto her and how that is different from the love that she develops organically later. How the AI thinks, in some logical way, about an experience that is ultimately "human" and emotional and illogical would do better as the theme/focus.

Having sensitivity beta readers will help a lot with this, but it'll never be perfect, but nothing can be. If you magically had a submission-read manuscript tomorrow and started sending it out there's a chance you'll have less success because of the current awareness about PoC issues, but things are always changing and that might not be the case when your story is finally ready.
 

Roxxsmom

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I don't think the AI enslavement angle is something I would necessarily take as a commentary on human slavery, especially not a specific historical instance of it. There are many ethical issues raised by the potential development and human control of truly self-aware, sentient and sapient AI distinct from the issue of humans owning humans, imo. Yours wouldn't be the first story to address them.

I don't know if the color of the ship would in any way register with me as a stand in for white human skin color, especially with the swan name. I'm not clear why the human spacer would be the black color of space, however. Or are they an alien species?
 

jennontheisland

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I'm white and not American, and any kind of enslavement story that includes the colours black and white will ring bells of the US south for me. The fact that you've reversed the colours will come off as intentional inversion and the fact that one entity is an AI is irrelevant. Also, the word emancipation. It's a social commentary on slavery.

Not necessarily "problematic" but those curtains will never just be blue for some people.
 

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Thank you all for your feedback. I think I may take inspiration from what Woollybear said and make the ship a black swan. And then drop the "spacer-black" humans. My idea there was that they were genetically engineered to handle radiation better, but I'm honestly not sure if that's plausible anyway. And I'd prefer to avoid the black owner / white slave inversion. I feel like it says things I don't want to say.


Thank you all again, I really appreciate your feedback.
 

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For pigments/materials, black is all* light absorbed, while white is all light reflected; this is why if you wear a black shirt in the summer you're going to feel way hotter than if you wear a white shirt. For light itself (like what is coming out of your computer monitor), white is all light and black is no light, and we think a lot about how a prism can split a "white"/clear beam of light into all the colors of the rainbow. Color science is really funky. Anyways, something that is black is going to be absorbing light, and that can include ultraviolet, X-ray and gamma radiation**, which is the opposite of what you want. If anything, the spacers should be super white!

But this is also a far-future SF story. Your spacers could be genetically engineered to have super-thyroids or their DNA has a special coating to make it more resistant to radiation or something. Or there's some sort of rejuvenation process they can do to repair the damage. There's a bunch of things it could be, and you don't need to go into the nitty-gritty of it.


*Generally this means the visible light spectrum, but if someone/thing can see in a wider spectrum than us and all of it is still being reflected/absorbed, they'd be seeing the same thing we do

**I'm only going to talk about EM radiation here. There's other forms of ionizing radiation (alpha/beta/neutron) but generally as long as you're not naked or have open wounds you're pretty safe from it just because of the size of the particles involved. I assume your spacers wear clothes and are living in ships/structures and wear some sort of space suit when they're out in open space, since things like the vacuum of space and the temperature will kill them way faster than the radiation.
 

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I am not sure that making the ship black improves the resonance with slavery. My concerns would more be that some-one who deliberately bought and owned a sentient being programmed to love them would need a lot of redeeming, and that relationship would have more baggage than a freight train. If the swan is positioned as female, feminist alarm bells.
 
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Morgan_R

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Thank you, Chase! I think I'd had the vague idea that absorbing radiation into the skin (rather than the flesh) would be more effective than trying to reflect it. But I think I'll just stick with human-standard colorations and ignore the question of radiation entirely. Space opera FTW!

veinglory, I see your points. Thank you for your feedback. I think I'm probably going to leave this as a short story rather than expanding it into a novel. So I don't need to redeem the former owner. And the ship could just be human-skin-tone white, with black feathers for hair, rather than being solid black. And I think "white person owns white person" is probably the least problematic of the possible combinations. It does mean I now have a story exclusively about white people... but I think I'll have to settle for that.

I'm also planning to have a scene at the end where the Swan changes her/their appearance, from female to neutral, so maybe they could change their coloration to solid black then... the idea is that they're going back to their factory defaults, rather than keeping the customizations of their former owner. So, they'd only be black at the point when they claim their freedom...

...maybe?
 
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Roxxsmom

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For pigments/materials, black is all* light absorbed, while white is all light reflected; this is why if you wear a black shirt in the summer you're going to feel way hotter than if you wear a white shirt. For light itself (like what is coming out of your computer monitor), white is all light and black is no light, and we think a lot about how a prism can split a "white"/clear beam of light into all the colors of the rainbow. Color science is really funky. Anyways, something that is black is going to be absorbing light, and that can include ultraviolet, X-ray and gamma radiation**, which is the opposite of what you want. If anything, the spacers should be super white!

But this is also a far-future SF story. Your spacers could be genetically engineered to have super-thyroids or their DNA has a special coating to make it more resistant to radiation or something. Or there's some sort of rejuvenation process they can do to repair the damage. There's a bunch of things it could be, and you don't need to go into the nitty-gritty of it.


*Generally this means the visible light spectrum, but if someone/thing can see in a wider spectrum than us and all of it is still being reflected/absorbed, they'd be seeing the same thing we do

**I'm only going to talk about EM radiation here. There's other forms of ionizing radiation (alpha/beta/neutron) but generally as long as you're not naked or have open wounds you're pretty safe from it just because of the size of the particles involved. I assume your spacers wear clothes and are living in ships/structures and wear some sort of space suit when they're out in open space, since things like the vacuum of space and the temperature will kill them way faster than the radiation.

It's complex, because some dark pigments will absorb radiation and prevent it from penetrating into deeper layers. Melanin protects us from UV light, and lighter skinned people are more vulnerable to uv damage, even though lighter colors reflect more light. The fungi that live in the reactor core at the Chernobyl plant have a s**t ton of melanin. It seems to be related to their actually being able to use ionizing radiation to generate their own food, much as plants absorb visible light wavelengths to perform photosynthesis.

https://www.realclearscience.com/bl...lls_of_chernobyls_ruined_nuclear_reactor.html

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070522210932.htm

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2677413/

So it's not completely implausible to posit a genetic change that produces very, very dark skin that also is involved in absorbing radiation in a way that is protective, even useful.

In a story that has this premise, I wouldn't personally think the black skin of the spacers would be meant as a parallel to the different skin colors that exist on Earth. Having the ship be black too (maybe even for similar reasons, harvesting radiation for powering life support and what not while in deep space) would make sense.

The big ethical issue, imo, centers around the creation of and subjugation of artificial sentience/self awareness and the whole issue of coerced affection and loyalty. This doesn't really have a parallel in human history, as slaves could not be coerced into loving their masters via simple programming (though of course forms of psychological manipulation and abuse could impose Stockholm syndrome).

I suppose this is not super different from fantasy stories revolving around artificially created or magically controlled beings, like golems (The book the Golem and the Jinni come to mind, which I thought explored the issue rather well), or even fantasy tropes involving love potions or spells. I personally find the latter problematic, and it bugs me when they are treated as innocent fun or plot devices devoid of lasting consequence instead of the magical "rape drugs" they would be if they existed.

There is also the whole issue with expectations and norms. Throughout much of history, women were essentially property of their husbands with few legal rights. Yet affection, even deeply passionate love, did often exist between spouses, and some husbands may well have treated their wives fairly and respected their agency and humanity.

Was all marriage prior to full female emancipation and legal autonomy a form of rape? Were all men living in these societies rapists, even if they loved their wives and allowed them the right to refuse sex and to stand up to their spouses in other respects? A common theme is period romances are men realizing that the woman they love is a being in her own right who has dreams and ambitions of her own and that he should respect that. The redemption arc there seems to fly, though it's a different type of story catering to a different type of audience.

But the fact that the husband could, if he chose, abuse his spouse and coerce her without her having any right to say "no," with her possibly being socially programmed and conditioned to not even resent or question it, would certainly be a constant cloud over the relationship, would it not? Or do people generally not question, not stress, not suffer from vulnerabilities they take for granted? It would be interesting to see more novels that explored that complex and uncomfortable question too.

My point is the analogy in the OP's story could ostensibly not be chattel slavery but old-fashioned marriage.
 
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Morgan_R

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Thank you for your thoughts, Roxxsmom!

It's good to know that "spacer-black" is not completely implausible. I may use it in some future project.

I can see the analogy to old-fashioned marriage. I don't read romance except in SF/F trappings, so I don't know much about the genre. I guess in general I'm not much interested in deliberately writing [thing] that is actually about [other thing]... if people are likely to read [other thing] into [thing], I do want to be sure I'm not saying something I wouldn't want to say, but that's about it. Nothing against anyone whose work is intended to be an analogy... it's just not how I work.
 

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The question of Artificial Intelligence is one of which race is a parallel subset. What does it mean, within the context of a given society, to be fully human? It's the difference between a sea, water only so deep and waves only so steep, and the mountainous rollers and bottomless depths of the Mid-Atlantic. One traverses it one propeller's beat, one sail's filling, at a time. At voyage's end, one looks back over the distance and the events passed.

Chronologically, then. Arguably, the prototype in fiction of the paradigm is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, in which technology is used to imbue a construct with sense and autonomy. It was a work of its time, treating with the premise that only God may bestow life, and the corollary -- that life not bestowed by God is inhuman. To this day, every work of fiction that deals with AI treats it as less than fully human, as "other". To the extent that any non-human intelligence possesses any capability that is apparently greater than that of a natural human, that other is liable to fear and its products -- jealousy, bigotry, hatred. The basis of racism is that perceiving of an individual as other.

I don't have it in me to write the book. We'll jump ahead.

Over time, I have come to find it more and more odd that Star Trek never treated with AI within Starfleet, barring the exception-as-proof of The Ultimate Computer and the isolated case of Cmdr. Data. This is inherent to the whole canon of five television series (I discount ST:D) and twelve movies. AI in Star Trek has always been at least a source of problems, usually an active adversary. The other of machine was only once imbued with a human-relatable personality.

Star Wars limited AI to droids, cyphers written seriocomic, even within the tragic-heroic oeuvre of Rogue One.

Conclusion? From the back of my own horse, popular entertainment has not cycled through enough iterations of AI to provide for discussion in terms more sophisticated than as a plot device.

Literature, even in genre, has done much better. For all of their rigid simplification, the "Robot" stories of Isaac Asimov built the epistemology of AI to the scale of humanity. Asimov's rulebound continuum provides the garden bedding from which different, even contradictory, treatments of AI may grow like ash by maple by oak, each striving for its full share of sunlight. Damned fine entertainment, too.

The current apotheosis of the AI is to be found in cinema. In 1982, Ridley Scott's Bladerunner asked, "What is murder?" Then it changed context and asked again. Then again. The change in context? The place of the line drawn between human and other. In a couple of instances, the movie murmurs, "If that is not murder, how can this be love?"

i object to your use of "patching" and "reformatting". These are equivalent to brainwashing and sheer destruction of the identity. Relationship is founded in compromise and mutual adaptation, not service procedures. Is your protagonist a whole person, or a mere emulation on an electronic chassis?

Against all of these considerations, race only muddles the question. It should be taken en passant.

I have found your dilemma to provoke fresh thought, and I thank you. I feel as though I should prop a velveteen rabbit on the shelf above my desk.