Why Don’t You Bastards Cut That Out?

Or why the Big Idea pitch for Betsy Dornbusch’s Exile did the opposite of convince me to want to read the book.

I started with the Twitter pitch. A half-breed, ex-slave bastard falsely accused of murdering his wife is exiled to the arse-end of the world. And I came up with lots of ideas, but I kept getting distracted by the fun parts of the book. There’s prejudice. (Epic fantasy!) A crisis of faith. (Swords!) Slavery. Crushing grief. (A quest!) Guilt. Suicidal tendencies. (Magic!) Revenge

Look, people. Words mean things. Having either half-breed or bastard in your elevator pitch? That’s a great way to alienate people who a) fall between cultures or b) don’t actually know their paternal gene-donor.

Aliette de Bodard’s already taken on mixed-race people in SFF. (In short: it’s a piece of short-hand characterisation frequently really badly, lazily, used.)

I’m here to add a minor little caveat to the use of the word “bastard.”

I’m the child of an unwed mother, born when that was much, much less socially acceptable than it is today. Ireland took much longer than our imperial neighbour to repeal the medieval Merton Statutes (13th century): not until 1965, with the Succession Act, was special bastardy formally repealed, along with dower and tenancy by the curtesy, escheat to the State and escheat to a mesne lord for want of heirs. For me, born in the eighties, bastard was a word without legal meaning, but its moral force remained as a shadow over my early years: it wasn’t until after I reached college that I could own the word – admit to not having a father – without feelings of shame.

Yeah, I’m a bastard. Screw you.

Bastard is a very specific word. In ancient Athens, children of citizens with non-citizen women were known as νόθοι, a word that means variously baseborn, crossbred (of animals), or counterfeit. The Latin equivalent is, I believe, spurius or nothus, as opposed to legitimus, lawful, according to the law. Bastard denotes a specific legal standing: to be precise, one who has no standing in the eyes of the state. Before the 1960s, in Britain and Ireland, a bastard possessed no automatic rights of inheritance; in the 17th and 18th centuries, bastard children had little recourse to what little assistance for indigency existed, in the form of the Poor Laws and parish assistance. To speak of bastardy is to speak of an ingrained set of social assumptions, all nested within each other: it speaks to the role of marriage (the primacy of such a role), the place of property and inheritance, the legitimacy and social legibility of certain relationships, roles, bodies. (It also points up that the society wherein “bastardy” is a thing is not kind to the sexual freedom of its women.)

So, yes, bastardy is a historical concept and can be usefully explored, in terms of social power dynamics, in SFF. But your “half-breed bastard”? That’s an insult used against real people. And using it as a fun hook makes me doubt in your ability to treat issues of power and oppression with seriousness or sensitivity.

The fact that there’s no legal disability attached to that anymore doesn’t mean that it’s a word that can’t be used to shame. Because let’s not make any mistake here: certain kinds of relationships, certain configurations of families, are still more socially legible, more legitimate, than others.

Half-breed. Half-caste. Bastard. Whoreson. Whore. Faggot. Dyke. Lazy feckless jobless. Single mother. I reserve the right to be bloody fucking sensitive about how these words are deployed. A half-breed, ex-slave bastard falsely accused of murdering his wife is exiled to the arse-end of the world. That elevator pitch doesn’t hook me, it repels me.

And I haven’t even mentioned the fridging implied by falsely accused of murdering his wife.

Perhaps I wrong the book. And I mean no offence to Dornbusch, who is most likely less insensitive than her elevator pitch makes her sound. I’m using her pitch as an example of a trend, because it’s the latest to cross my path.

But words mean things. And half-breed (aside from its racist overtones) is not shorthand for alienated with angst about place in the world, anymore than bastard is shorthand for unloved and rejected – but so very often they seem to be used that way.

And that has an effect in the real world. It affects real people.

So why don’t you bastards cut that out, huh? Think more deeply about what your words imply.