When I wrote Worldfarm One, I expected parts of it would be controversial. I was writing about a time in the not-so-far future when the United States was no longer the superpower it once was; and its population was emigrating to other lands for better lives and jobs, only to be looked down upon by the nations they emigrated to. It should not only sound familiar, but it should set off whatever irony alarms the reader has at their disposal. I expected that some people—well, let’s be clear, U.S. citizens—would not be thrilled with the demotion of the United States on the world stage, and that I’d hear about it fairly quickly.
But owing to the incredible vagaries of life, what I got was almost completely different. And it boggles my mind, to this day.
I was writing about a main character, Keith Maryland, who not only had had problems in his past life in the United States, but who was trying to start over and turn his life around in Brasil, working for the United Nations in their attempt to run Worldfarms to feed the world. Unfortunately, he finds himself being looked down upon by his new bosses, co-workers and the locals in the nearest town of Manaus, Brasil, because of his being Estados (from the United States). He is treated like a third-class citizen, even to being suspected as colluding with an ex-Estados band of criminals by virtue of sharing their nationality. His boss, a power-hungry woman who thinks nothing of taking advantage of the men who work under her (in every sense of the word), unilaterally adds him to her harem of guys-on-call; and of course, all the ladies with whom he works immediately think less of him for submitting to her attentions, willingly or not. This is a man between a rock and a hard place, trying desperately to dig himself out of the hole others dropped him into.
But did I see any comments about that? No; I saw comments about the fact that he slept with his boss almost immediately upon arriving at Worldfarm One, and slept with a working girl at a town bordello not long afterward. Since I made reference to his being African-American, relatively young, good-looking and well-built, my character was described as a “Black Brad Pitt” by one reviewer.
The irony of this—on many levels—didn’t escape me. Besides the fact that no one seemed to be concerned about the obvious nationalistic prejudice directed at Keith, no one commented on the sexual situation in which he found himself, an obvious turnabout from the much more common scenario of a female being sexually harassed a male boss. It’s been shown in studies that males cannot seem to comprehend the idea of males being sexually harassed, even, sometimes, when that harassment is happening to them; the very idea of a woman in a sexually dominating position seems to blow the needle off the Ego gauge, and the men seek to find a reason that is less damaging to their psyche. Perhaps this is why reviewers and commenters assumed my character was happily jumping from bed to bed like James Bond on a layover, despite the evidence that he was being coerced by his new boss, and taking refuge in the bordello to escape the prejudiced eyes of his fellow employees.
There was even another character in the story to provide a mirror to the main character’s plight: Another ex-Estados, Linda Mazaña, known as “Manzanas” to her co-workers due to her own natural endowments and an unfortunate choice of a “Spanish-sounding” last name given her by her parents; and watched avidly, followed around and pestered constantly by the male staff. Despite putting up with the looks and comments, and probably the regular attentions of her superiors as well, Linda was a smart and capable technician, and had earned the respect of at least some of her colleagues. Apparently not one reader noticed the reflection on Keith’s situation in that mirror.
Nor did anyone say anything about the idea of a person from a particular nationality being automatically associated with a group of criminals from that same nationality, a revelation to our main character when it happened to him. The criminals were even drug dealers. They are in South America. Irony alert… anybody?
And finally, as opposed to challenging the idea that the United States could lose its position of greatness in the world… readers complained about the idea of the United Nations finally ascending to the position of dominant world government that it was supposed to have been when it was formed. Most of the comments had to do with present-day U.N. corruption or ineptitude, and their supposed lack of ability to do anything substantial in the world, as an indicator of how bad a world government they’d be in the future. in other words, assuming that the U.N. could never improve.
This attitude assumes that the U.N. is not a capable body, which is not true; the U.N. is unfortunately hamstrung by the wills of the world’s present superpowers, The U.S., Russia, China, etc, who have a habit of ignoring U.N. edicts, especially when it is not advantageous to them, and not providing the unilateral support that a global government needs to function. And it assumes that the current state of world power will not change, something we have no reason to assume will be true. Already the United States has lost much of its power and cachet with the rest of the world, and other countries like Russia and China are suffering their own growing pains. As the superpowers wane, it makes sense that the lesser countries may decide to throw their full support into the U.N. and finally build it into the world authority it wants to be. In other words, the U.N. can improve, if the correct political climate prevails… and that climate seems to be building, right now.
Still, with this abounding political and social commentary, how is it that readers only saw the “Black Brad Pitt”? Why were the bed-hopping and the idea of an effective U.N. the only things that registered?
I suspect that Americans still have a lot of blind spots when it comes to national issues, in and outside of their country. There’s a reason why other countries refer to us as “ugly Americans,” as some of us present a very superior and intolerant face towards foreigners… and seemingly forgetting that most of us were born to ancestors who were foreigners to American shores at one time. Many Americans look down upon those who sneak across our borders from the south—and even those who enter our country legally—and take on jobs that Americans don’t want, or don’t qualify for. But they can’t imagine the shoe being on the other foot, and being the one others look down upon.
Amazingly, Americans continue to be “shocked” when they hear news reports of girls being brought to the U.S., ostensibly to work and eventually gain citizenship… only to be literally locked in the homes of their rich employers and forced to work like slaves, often including forcing them into sex and outright prostitution, said exploitation going on for years before the girls escape or someone on the outside realizes something is going on. Today, it is said that more people are subjected to forced slavery, including sexual slavery, than at any time in the world’s history. But in some matters, Americans’ mirrors seem to be permanently and even intentionally obscured, a tacit approval of the unofficial American motto: “Do what you want, just don’t get caught.”
Americans especially can’t imagine the United States being anything other than Great. Our national consciousness has been one of perceived superiority for so long that we essentially teach it as a given to our children. Despite global strife, it is assumed by Americans that, now that we’re on top, we’ll stay there. And we generally avert our eyes from the east, and that nation on the other side of the Atlantic that once thought as we did (hint: “The Sun never sets on…”).
And so; ignoring the possibility of the United States’ ever falling from grace, or that its citizens will ever be the darlings of the world, readers settled on picking on the main character’s sex life.
Well, sometimes stories just work out that way, taking on a life that the writer never expected. Certainly the story is not as powerful as the themes in which I framed them, and maybe that’s the problem: Without a strong enough story, there was no reason to dwell on the deeper meanings surrounding it. Or maybe I just needed to be less subtle about what was going on, and put up nice, big signs for readers to lock onto. So, maybe my mistake.
Or maybe it was just the “thriller on a farm” thing. Even if it was a Worldfarm. I don’t know.