Last week, George R.R. Martin revealed that the Syfy channel picked up an adaptation of his 1980 novella Nightflyers for a 10-episode first season, and said that if all goes well, the show should premiere in summer 2018. In a new post on his LiveJournal, he commends the production for correcting a longstanding complaint he had with the art for his novella, and the story’s 1987 film adaptation — whitewashing.
In his post, Martin outlines a bit of Nightflyers history. His original story is about a group of scientists who hire a starship — the Nightflyer — to transport them to an alien starship they hope to study. The three main characters are Karoly d'Branin, the expedition’s leader; Royd Eris, Nightflyer’s captain; and Melantha Jhirl, a genetically enhanced human, who’s described as “a head taller than anyone on board, a large-framed, large-breasted, long-legged, strong, muscles moving fluidly beneath shiny coal-black skin.” Martin later expanded the story, which appeared in a paperback collection in 1985, where for the first time, a cover artist depicted Melantha Jhirl — as a white woman.
Martin says he argued with his publisher: “Melantha was black, I pointed out. My publisher acknowledged as much, but declined to make a change. ‘Do you want your book to sell?’ he asked me. Of course I did, I replied. ‘Well, if we put a black woman on the cover, no one will buy it.’” Later, when the story was adapted as a film, the character was played by a white actor, Catherine Mary Stewart.
When Martin learned that Syfy was producing a new adaptation of the story, he reached out to the project’s producers and writers, and recounted his frustrations with the various depictions of the character. Most authors don’t have much direct say in the adaptations of their work, and Martin isn’t directly involved in this production, but he writes that the producers seem to have listened, casting Jodie Turner-Smith (True Blood, The Last Ship) for the role. “Maybe it took thirty years,” Martin writes, “but at long last I can say: now, that's Melantha Jhirl.”
The casting falls in line with Syfy’s growing emphasis on multi-racial casts. The channel’s series Killjoys, Dark Matter, and The Magicians feature actors of color in prominent roles. And the creators of The Expanse made a concerted effort to ensure the multi-racial future that is depicted in the novels translated into their adaptations. With Turner-Smith’s casting, Nightflyers joins this movement, adapting the story as originally envisioned.
This representation is important. Syfy has recognized that it needs to appeal to a wide audience, and far too many science fiction and fantasy stories outright ignore or erase people of color from the worlds they envision. But there are pitfalls to avoid here: Martin’s original story has its own issues. His depiction of Melantha is a common stereotype of hyper-sexualization that comes with complicated implications:
She ate twice as much as any of her colleagues, drank heavily without ever seeming drunk, exercised for hours every day on equipment she had brought with her and set up in one of the cargo holds. By the third week out she had sexed with all four of the men on board and two of the other women. Even in bed she was always active, exhausting most of her partners.
While Martin’s story did include a black character in the 1980s, and while it’s commendable that he’s working to raise the issue of erasure, the adaptation is working off of some shaky footing. The original story depicted Melantha as a sort of inhuman, outsexed caricature rather than a relatable person. And in the rush to pat himself on the back, Martin and the writers could certainly paint themselves into a corner with an equally problematic depiction. Here’s hoping the Syfy adaptation can update the character with some nuance and positively add to Syfy’s efforts to depict a realistic, diverse future human society.