I am pleased to present Sci-Fi & Scary’s first book blogger guest post! I approached Whitney from Brown Books and Green Tea about doing a post on diversity for Sci-Fi & Scary a while back, and she agreed. Eloquent as she is, I knew whatever she’d give to me would be well written. I was right. This piece caused me to think hard on science fiction pieces that I’ve read that have included diverse characters – and caused me to question the true diversity I see. One of the questions I asked my partner after reading this (and thinking about a book I’d recently read) was “If a character’s culture, skin color, or other difference isn’t really referred to at all other than a descriptor, does it really make them an example of diversity?” Our answers on this differed a bit. Okay, so that was a bit of a ramble, but hopefully it was an interesting intro to Whitney’s piece! Feel free to join in the discussion!
Diversity in Speculative Fiction
by Whitney from Brown Books & Green Tea
For a genre known for it’s inventiveness, speculative fiction has been distressingly unimaginative in issues of diversity. It’s conspicuous in its absence, mainly because of the heavy emphasis that the genre places on the concept of the other. Readers love to meet this other, conquer the other, work alongside the other, and even triumph over those who have labeled them the other. As a woman reader of color, the comparisons are obvious.
Where’s the diversity? Not the Black sidekick or the Asian programmer— especially not the person whose differences are stated in the itemized description between “brown hair” and “rakish grin.” It’s a question with answers addressing supply and demand. Diverse characters are created alongside diverse authors. Author Nalo Hopkinson says is better than I ever could, labeling science fiction as a “genre which speaks so much about the experience of being alienated, but contains so little written by alienated people themselves.” The problem is as deep as the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America itself, which has previously been forced to address problems surrounding diversity. It’s a reflection of publishing as a whole, where diverse authors are still not the norm. As a book blogger, perhaps this is where the importance of indie and self-publishing should be emphasized.
There’s also the ugly truth that few genres— film and literature— have been more resistant to change than speculative fiction. Pan to the backlash against John Boyega’s casting in Star Trek or the 2015 Hugo Awards. In his 1998 article, author and mentor to Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany reflects on being outright denied by a publisher out of fear the populace wouldn’t be able to relate to a black character. There hoards interested in diversifying speculative fiction, but sometimes it feels like just as many screaming “reverse racism” or that they’re #SoWeary of hearing about race. It’s cute, considering that even books like Okoafor’s Binti fall short of being as overt a discussion of race as say… “The Comet” by W.E.B. Dubois.
There’s been improvement: Octavia Butler may have been one of the most well known, but the effort to diversify speculative fiction surely did not die with her. Authors like N. K Jemison, D.J. Older and Nnedi Okofor, and others show that all types of diversity are blossoming. For these authors, writing inclusively seems effortless because it’s tied to their understanding of the world. With that said, perhaps heterosexual cis-gendered white men fail to do so because they too write their monochromatic realities.
In contrast, diverse authors have one foot grounded in the world they live in– a world with Fergusons, Flints and Baltimores— and the other rooted in the worlds they create. The first informs the other, and is better as a result. As N. K. Jemison said on her web page:
“How plausible will my fantasy worlds be, if they don’t demonstrate the power dynamics and cognitive fallacies which shape our own societies — i.e., what readers will expect to see, given their own likely experiences? Apart from the fact that the stuff I retweet and comment upon affects me personally — e.g. race and gender issues, gaming, Amazon vs Hachette — these things are also story material.”
And that’s the difference, isn’t it? So while I can read speculative fiction and still recognize the intricacy of a new language, land, and people found in a wonder bread-white series, I can also make the conscious decision to read and support those who write inclusively. To me diversity in speculative fiction is just as important as in nonfiction: while one overtly encourages the exploration of real world differences, the other encourages much more subversively. As scholar Dr. Andre Carrington said in an interview:
“If we don’t prioritize considerations of equity and inclusion when it comes to who tells our stories and what we all imagine and dream about, then we become closed off to important ways of understanding ourselves and one another.”
He’s right. The more we seamlessly integrate speculative fiction, the better the genre will be. People seem to fear that this will result in injecting critical race theory into The Hobbit, when it’s really so much simpler than that. All it involves is widening the net of authors and stories that people choose to celebrate—that shouldn’t be so hard for a genre so inherently open to originality and genius.
Find Whitney @ Brown Books & Green Tea!
Worthwhile discussion. Delaney is an interesting case, in that his work usually (at least from what I remember of his books) didn’t emphasize his race — at least compared to Okorafor or Butler.
I need to do some reading. Butler has been on my list for a while, but I’d not even heard of the other two before Whitney’s post.
Coincidentally, I just finished my first Butler book, “Parable of the Sower,” which I picked up a) because people kept telling me Butler was one of the few black writers in the field, and b) because she was writing about how religions develop, a theme dear to my curious heart. Which reason mattered more? Darned if I know.
The current paperback edition of “Sower” includes an interview with Butler at the end which aspiring writers should read as an inspiring example, by the way.
As for the story itself, let’s split my comments into the same two issues. First, yes, one can see how race affects the characters in the story, and note that Butler has a mixed race of characters on this odyssey, including mixed race characters. Butler didn’t slam readers on the head with racial issues: the race of her protagonist isn’t even identified until several chapters in. Still, it’s there, and it does affect the story significantly in several places, though not quite as many as one might think.
As for religion, Butler was working from the idea that religions begin with simple ideas and become more elaborate over time, to the point where the original lessons are all but lost. This novel only covers the initial formulation; a sequel covers some subsequent developments. It’s only modestly convincing on that count, partly because conditions have changed so much from the era in which the major religions formed, and partly because all we are seeing is the start, which by definition is a powerful but unadorned message.