Myke Cole: On Historical Diversity and Writing Fiction

photo by Karsten Moran for Myke Cole

In March of 2016, author Myke Cole wrote an article about historical diversity in the Roman Empire for Tor.com. The impetus for said article? The current struggle to diversify genre fiction, especially science-fiction and fantasy. Which, Cole points out, really shouldn’t be a thing because historically, in both human interaction and fiction, diversity has been the rule rather than the exception and it’s only relatively recently a select few have sought to whitewash, masculinize, and make monolithic the whole.

A link to said article recently popped up in my social media feed and I asked Myke if he’d be willing to talk to me a little bit more about diversity throughout history and the history of fiction, where things went wrong, and how to fix them.

He very kindly agreed.

GM: Myke, where do you think the roots of the common misconceptions about historical diversity come from? When did they become widespread? Any particular offenders readers should know about?

MC: There’s a concept called “ethnic uniform” that is used in sociology circles. Primitive societies use ethnic uniform to quickly determine who a potential threat is. If it doesn’t look like you, you fight it or flee it, and that keeps you alive. One of the greatest things about humanity is our ability to operate beyond the ethnic uniform, to be “cosmopolitan” (that word literally means steeped in a variety of cultures). Societies figured out early that this benefitted them, and they moved to accommodate.

But the ethnic uniform is still a really strong concept, for all of us. It’s driven to some extent by biology, and shaking it off is a constant challenge.

There are a lot of great modern scholars working to expand our understanding of the ancient and medieval world, but the fact remains that many fantasy and sci-fi luminaries grew up getting their history from the Shelby Foote/Theodore Ayrault Dodge/Marc Bloch generation. These historians are old dudes who were deeply affected by WWII, one of the most ethnically divisive and polarizing conflicts in history.

So we hear about Edward I expelling the Jews, but we don’t hear much about the thriving Jewish community he had to labor so hard (and so ineffectively) to dismantle. We’re getting better, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

c. Ace Books

GM: Thoughts on the significance of “humanoid” races in fantasy tending to be fair-skinned while other races, such as orcs, tend to be darker and take on subservient roles?

MC: This is a great question (ed note: thanks to GeekDad Jonathan Liu for it), and I think it rests squarely on the back of J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien gave our generation our concept of the dark-skinned orc or goblin, which is hardly surprising when we remember that he was mining Scandinavian/Germanic myth for his ideas.

Germanic culture is a northern, white culture. Sticking to their ethnic uniform, of course they made the “other” of their myth dark and different.

That conception filtered from Tolkien out into fantasy and we’re still saddled with it today. But we’re making strides.

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GM: Any indication of when spec-fic/fantasy writers began to accept and use the myths? Any thoughts on why?

MC: I think a lot of it is generational. In a way, I feel really lucky to be part of a generation of younger writers who are alive in a world that is squarely tackling race issues in the public square. Social media is responsible for much of this conversation because it allows everyone to communicate directly all the time, without high-office or academic credentials acting as a barrier.

The result is a lot of effort to make better fiction that embraces more readers. Max Gladstone, Peter V. Brett, Naomi Novik and James S.A. Corey are all great examples of people who are making a conscious and careful effort to ensure that all readers find someone in the story to reflect them, to give them ownership, to allow them that singularly transporting experience that comes from seeing yourself in a story.

As with the above question, we need more of this, but I feel like we’re really making progress. It’s turbulent and nasty (because reactionary elements are always going to be rattled by change) but I think it’s a really exciting time to be in the field.

GM: Any sources who got it right? What are some fiction and non-fiction works truth-seekers like yourself can dig up for perusal?

MC: I’ve already thrown out some fiction authors, so here are the non-fiction ideas. Of course, I always recommend people get in the primary sources, but I know that’s not for everybody. First off, everyone should be reading Lady Antonia Fraser. Her Warrior Queens is an excellent monograph on the role of women not just fighting in but leading ancient and medieval armies, and it’s a great companion to Kameron Hurley’s essay, “We Have Always Fought.”

I’d also encourage folks to read Dame C.V. Wedgewood’s The Thirty Years War. This is a book so nuanced and insightful that it’s a favorite of Ta-Nhesi Coates. He even wrote an article on it for The Atlantic.

I’d also suggest that readers try Mary Renault’s historical fiction, where she deals frankly and sensitively with homosexuality in the ancient world in a way I’ve yet to see equaled.

c. Ace Books

GM: Fiction writers make stuff up – it’s kind of our thing. Where does creative license expire? Are there areas of history which are okay to play with and some which aren’t? Where are the lines?

MC: I consider myself a champion of diversity, and I do my best to break preconceptions and to consider every perspective in my own work. However, I will admit that I really dislike the idea that there are limits to what an artist should be permitted to do.

Art, to my mind, is the one space where we should be free to do as we please. To place any limits on this risks stifling creativity and crushing hopes before they can flower. I am not saying that artists should be immune from the reactions their work provokes. This is also part of the freedom I am describing, but I strongly believe there should be no lines. Create what you want, how you want, when you want. Anyone who tells you different is wrong.

GM: How do we shake people out of their decades-long “well, that’s the way it was back then” complacency? How do we change attitudes toward women, LGBTQI+, people of color, and other characters who belong to historically marginalized groups? How can we use fiction to bridge the gap between what people think they know and historical fact?

MC: I’ve already talked about how we do that in fiction. Look at Rogue One and The Force Awakens. In TFA, there’s now a whole generation of women and African-American kids who will be able to see themselves in a Star Wars story! Chuck Wendig advanced that further in Aftermath (ed note: yeah, he did, and it was glorious). You read Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series and you get to see the dragon corps of England, then France, then China, then Turkey, then Africa, then Australia. It goes on! We keep yelling on social media. We keep talking about it at cons. The authors are listening. You can see it in our work.

For non-fiction, we have to start asking different questions. The vast majority of literature out there focuses on politico-military history. There has always been a small group of historians dedicated to exploring modern social questions in the old sources (both literary and material), but I think a lot more needs to be done there. Academia, unfortunately, tends to be a lot more conservative than genre-fiction (not politically conservative, I just mean slower to change). Again, much of this is generational.

It’s hard to feel the left won the culture war when we have Trump in office, but we really did. And that means a whole new generation of LGBTQI+ people will be freer to publicly be themselves, in society, and also in the university. I want to attract that new generation to military history (my person love) where their passion can maybe help answer some of these questions and create literature that can shine a light for those who come after.

GM: How do you execute the diversity strategy in your own books? How do you strive for the goal while avoiding the feeling of things being forced? What advice do you have for other writers who want to jump into the fray? Are there any specific pitfalls you’d urge them to avoid?

MC: I have one big advantage in that I’m a historian, so I spend a lot of time in the ancient sources. I read a ton about Greek and Roman homosexuality, and about the intersection of Armenia-Parthian culture and where/how the Greek settlement at Massalia interacted with Gallic Celts. I see the fragments of Alexander’s empire devolving (evolving?) into a distinctly “Eastern” Seleucid dynasty, a “European” Antigonoid dynasty and an “African” Ptolemic dynasty. I only chase these threads as far as about the 4th century AD, but the diversity of the ancient world is undeniable, especially in the Mediterranean which is my sweet spot.

So, when I extrapolate from history to form my fantasy (I think everyone does this. Only China Mieville is weird enough to build from whole cloth), the diversity is already built in.

I also think we make diversity much much much more complicated than it really is. At its heart, diversity is really empathy. It’s the ability to put your own bull&^%$ on hold and listen to what other people are experiencing and then do the hard work of trying to understand that experience and think about how it impacts their goals. I find that, when you’re truly being empathic, you can’t help but be kind. It’s very hard not to like someone once you’ve truly come to know them.

That’s how George R.R. Martin can write Cersei Lannister so convincingly. It’s why Peter V. Brett can make Renna Tanner really come to life. It’s how Robert Jackson Bennett brings Turyin Mulaghesh to the page. That’s what I’m trying to do. To the extent I’ve been successful, I’m grateful.

GM: Talk about the ways in which you’re using social media to augment your fiction (and non non-fiction) efforts.

MC: To keep the conversation on diversity, social media is essential to this process of listening and understanding. It’s a giant stew pot where everyone is pouring out their guts all the time. In an hour, I can hear from ACLU freedom fighters, line cops, the Sad Puppies, Red Pill Gamers, intersectional feminists, ranchers in Montana and bankers in Manhattan and on and on and on. All I have to do is be willing to listen. I have been pretty uncompromising in taking what I consider to be evil to task on Twitter (ed note: @MykeCole), but I like to think that stewing in all that perspective is dragging me, slowly and gradually, toward empathy.

c. Ace Books

GM: What are you working on now?

MC: Siege Line, the third book in my Shadow Ops prequel trilogy (ed: links below), is done (just got the cover art!) and will be coming out in October.

I have signed a 3 book deal with Tor.com to do The Sacred Throne series. It’s dark fantasy (I’ve broken out of the military sub-genre) in a medieval setting. The first book, The Armored Saint is done and will be coming out in 2018. The second book, The Queen of Crows, is around 70% into a first draft.

I have signed a non-fiction deal with Osprey (Bloomsbury) to do my first ancient military history. They’ve asked that I keep it quiet until we do a press release in August.

I have also just signed a contract to do a board-game based in my Shadow Ops universe (hope to be putting out a press release on that in the coming week).

I am in the process of pitching a comic. I want to hold off on details there until I actually sell the thing.

Hunted (link below) did well enough that it wasn’t cancelled, but not so well that it was immediately renewed, so we’re all just sitting around waiting to hear if CBS will order a second season. If they do, I’ll be super busy with that.

GM: What color is your lightsaber? What color is Ow, F&^%’s (Myke’s rescue cat) saber? How about your mom’s (she’s a social media treasure, sir, no joke)?

MC: This may surprise you, but it would be red. I’ve always been an Empire guy, not because I like evil, but because I like order. When Luke stole a T-65 from the Alliance (worth millions of credits to the taxpayer) and crashed it into a swamp so he could chase some myth about a religious guru, I checked out of the Alliance for good. You do not pull that s&*% on my watch.

Ow, F&^$ is no Jedi, and she sure as hell wouldn’t survive the Sith Rule-of-Two. If she were in the Star Wars universe, she’d probably be a Nexu (Genosian monsters that are pretty much all claws and teeth. Poggle the Lesser kept one to fight in the Petranaki arena).

Mom doesn’t even know what a lightsaber is, and she would be glad to ask you to tell her about it on my Facebook wall, to my everlasting embarrassment.

About Myke:

As a security contractor, government civilian and military officer, Myke Cole’s career has run the gamut from Counterterrorism to Cyber Warfare to Federal Law Enforcement. He’s done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  He recently joined the cast of Hunted on CBS as part of an elite team of fugitive hunters.

All that conflict can wear a guy out. Thank goodness for fantasy novels, comic books, late night games of Dungeons and Dragons and lots of angst-fueled writing.

He is the author the Shadow Ops novels (Control Point, Fortress Frontier, and Breach Zone), the Shadow Ops: Gemini Cell novels (Gemini Cell, Javelin Rain, and Siege Line [Oct, 31 2017]), the upcoming The Sacred Throne dark fantasy trilogy for Tor.com, and a forthcoming work on non-fiction for Osprey.

RN at the Department of Therapeutic Misadventures. Author of 'Hero Handlers.' Comics geek. Padawan. Stealthy Wookiee. Belter. Paladin of the Big Cat Robot. Ms. Doctor Strange. Non-compliant female. Herder of genetic descendants. Drinker of much coffee. Stepper-uponer of multitudinous Legos.