No more lily-white futures and monochrome myths.
OK, been working up to this one for awhile now. Bear with me; it’s going to be long.
I should preface the following rant by saying that I’m fully aware it may hurt my career as a writer. I don’t want it to. But it probably will.
So. One of the most frequent questions that I get, when I tell friends and family that I’m a writer, is, “Oh? What kind of stuff do you write?” When I say speculative fiction — by which I mean science fiction, fantasy, and horror, since there are multiple definitions of that term — the next question that follows invariably comes only from my chromatic acquaintances. Usually it’s accompanied by a blank or confused look, and sometimes an outright grimace of distaste, and the words are then spoken in a tone of slight disbelief: “Why do you write that?”
There’s some history here that I should explain for the laypeople.
Speculative fiction (SF) has been, historically, one of the most racist genres in American literature. Oh, it hasn’t had as many Stepinfetchits or Uncle Toms as the mainstream, but there are few more powerful ways to wrong a people than to wipe it out of existence, and this is precisely what countless SF novels have done. If the crew of the Space Navy Vessel Whozimawhatsit is all white; if a vast medieval epic spanning several continents contains no one browner than a tan; if the scientific accomplishments of ancient nonwhite empires are dismissed as alien leftovers; if China is the only country toasted by an invading space warship; all of these is a kind of literary genocide. (Yes, genocide.) And it’s something that SF has not only done for years, but continues to do; shit like this gets published all. the. time.
And even when SF makes an attempt to be inclusive, the results are usually ham-handed and painful to witness. Star Trek, for example. The show is set several hundred years in the future. White men are in the severe minority now on this planet, destined to become far more so if current demographic trends continue. Yet the Enterprise has a crew overwhelmingly dominated by white men. Another example is the current longest-running SF show on TV, Stargate SG-1, which has pretty much relegated people of color to the role of superstitious space-primitives (carrying space-spears, no less). There’s a whole planet of ’em, or two or three. But there still aren’t many in the show’s version of the American military.
And yes, yes, yes I know Gene Roddenberry was very progressive for a man of his time, and I know that he would’ve done better if society and the TV industry had let him. Yes I know that Stargate’s Teal’c is actually a pretty interesting and likable character. But the fact remains that this is the perception of SF that most Americans rightly have: white-male-dominated and if diverse, only on the most superficial level.
So I’m not surprised when I tell my fellow brown people that I write SF and get That Look, or That Question, in response. Occasionally I get a much better response: “Oh, hey, I love Octavia Butler! Do you write stuff like her?” Yes, I say, even though I don’t. (I mostly write fantasy, for one thing.) Shamefully, Ms. Butler is often their only real point of reference to SF, so if that helps them connect to me, then so be it.
Now, to answer That Question, I usually resort to the shorter version of the following: “Why wouldn’t I write speculative fiction? What genre could be better for depicting the ways in which society can change and improve in the future? Or exploring the past through myth and folklore and the epic events of history, reworked into modern entertainment? Speculative fiction has a powerful influence on society. It depicts dreams and nightmares; it has the power to caution and inspire. I can’t think of a more challenging, exciting genre to write, and I’m always surprised that there aren’t more people of color writing in this genre, because the future is ours.” (Cue inspiring music. Usually by this point I’m striking some sort of pose, like pointing toward the distant horizon with a look of rapture on my face.)
Cheesy or not, I believe all of this. And I’ve started to see signs that others in the SF world believe it — the Wachowski brothers, for example. (No, I don’t believe Sophia Stewart came up with the Matrix. I’ve seen her writing.) The Matrix films were the first major Hollywood production that I can remember which depicted believable demographics in a future human society. White people still held the most prominent roles, but that’s actually OK. I don’t want us to take over the world. I just want them to do a better job of sharing it.
Unfortunately, I’m not seeing much interest in sharing within what is, IMNSHO, the most important part of the SF world — its literary heart. Yes, we had Octavia. Yes, we still have Nalo and Steven and Sheree’s Dark Matter anthologies. Yes, we have many allies, such as Nancy Farmer and Mike Resnick, who’ve always been inclusive. Yes, we actually have a lot more than this. But these are individual efforts, easily overlooked amid the hundreds of SF novels published and promoted every year, doing little to impact SF’s lingering image as the genre of white male power fantasy.
So this is why, as ABW lamented in her last post on the subject, the literary face of the SF genre is so incredibly white. It’s why I get That Look, and That Question. And it’s why, IMO, a genre that should be incredibly popular is in fact slowly dying. There are fewer magazines publishing SF short stories every year. Authors’ advances for publishing a novel are small compared with those of other genres, which suggests that book sales aren’t strong. When I did my agent search a couple of years ago, I was astonished by the 6 or 7 rejection letters I got back from agents who’d once represented SF authors, but no longer did because, as one blatantly told me, it was “not profitable”. When I attend SF conventions, I don’t just stand out because I’m black, but because I’m young; the core of the fandom is literally dying of old age. There’s a lot of debate in the SF literary world as to whether the genre really is in trouble or not, but AFAIC, the signs ain’t good.
And yet SF’s cousins are hotter than pancakes under a McDonalds heatlamp. Paranormal romance, with its tales of horny vampires and witches in heat and aliens who’ve come (and come) for our women, is making a bunch of money by targeting the female readers that SF has historically disdained. Alternate history has gone mainstream, thanks to Philip Roth and others like him, although big-name literary writers have been slumming it in the postapocalypse and dystopia scenes since Orwell. Magical realism has made several South American writers household names. Manga has hooked hordes of kids and teenagers with its tales of magically-powered ninjas and cyborg alchemists, and its unAmerican perspective on just how much complexity kids can handle in their entertainment. I’m seeing SFy stirrings in the African American literature scene too; L.A. Banks and Tananarive Due are big names in the bookstore circuit. And mainstream publishers are starting to poach on SF’s traditional territory by telling the tales that SF hasn’t, like epic fantasy based on African cultures. I’ve seen an awful lot of stuff like this published lately — SF with the serial numbers filed off, for lack of a better term. It looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, but wasn’t cooked by any famous duck restaurants, and isn’t being served to the usual duck connoisseurs.
To me, all of this means that SF, or at least its subject matter, is far from dead. Lots of people still want it, including people who historically haven’t wanted to touch SF with a ten-foot pole. They still don’t want to touch SF; instead, they’ve been drawing the essence of SF into spaces that feel bigger, more welcoming, and thus more respectable. They’re remaking SF in their own image, and I believe they represent a vast audience that SF could potentially tap.
If the SF literary realm chooses to tap them. But here’s the thing: they don’t wanna.
Or at least, that was the impression I got when I recently decided to ask the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) about it via their blog. Now, I realize the responses I saw were those of individual members and not the group as a whole, but I found the whole discussion disturbing nevertheless. My question was a simple one, in essence: what has SFWA done to encourage diversity? My first answer was a resounding blog silence for about 24 hours. Later, SFWA members repeatedly pointed out to me that SFWA has had a handful of black (and female, and gay, and so on) members for years. Others pointed out that SFWA doesn’t discourage anyone from joining the organization. Someone noted that SFWA donated money to another organization for a diversity scholarship, though did nothing itself. Others seemed quite incensed that I implied SFWA was racist (I hadn’t). One accused me of trying to turn SFWA into the NAACP.
Despite all the froofraw, the answer to my question quickly became clear: SFWA has done nothing to encourage diversity, either within the genre or within itself. This, frankly, astonishes me. The only reason I can think of for a predominantly-white, predominantly-male organization to ignore the issue of diversity is if that organization does not want to be diverse. But that makes no sense. Here we’ve got a writers’ organization which is dedicated to advancing the commercial interests of its members. And yet when a strategy is suggested that could help these writers tap a potentially huge audience, not only do they reject it, but they also deny its necessity?
What. The. Fuck?
Corporate America gets this. Big corporations don’t have diversity recruitment officers and special marketing campaigns to target PoCs because it makes them feel good. They definitely don’t want to be the next NAACP. They do it because, if they do it right, they can make a shitload of money by selling their products to a bigger audience. So how is it that corporate America gets something that a bunch of supposedly progressive, artistic, future-minded thinkers, don’t?
It is not enough for the SF world to have an Octavia, or even three or four. It is not enough for the SF world to passively wait for PoCs, and women, and all the other groups that currently disdain SF — because SF has disdained them — to come to it. They won’t come unless SF makes an effort to reach them and let them know that things have changed, they’re welcome now. And SF can’t do that unless SF wants to welcome them, which I’m not so sure it does. I think, unfortunately, that most of SFWA really does exemplify “the establishment” of the SF field: an elite, conservative, reactionary club whose sole purpose is to protect the status quo. They see no reason to change because the old way is how they made their money, and they don’t give a damn about changes in the market because hey, they’ll be dead soon. In truth, they have no incentive to pursue diversity, because that might force them to learn how to write more inclusively — and that might force them to confront their own unacknowledged privilege and prejudices.
The thing is, they will be dead soon, as will their old-school audience. What happens to SF when that happens?
The answer is equally clear: SF will survive. It will evolve, as art forms must. It’s just going to happen from the outside, rather than the center. And it’s going to pop out that center like a donut hole, because those SF writers who can’t adapt will someday find themselves marginalized and disdained as the adherents to a quaint literary tradition that will soon be about as relevant as writing about Martians, or cheese on the moon. Maybe the Sci-Fi Channel will make a Saturday-night miniseries out of their old lily-white future material. (But what would be the creepy-crawly monster?)
There is some hope, at least, for SFWA. Their new blog and all the discussion there is a reaction to a recent attempt by some reformers to shake things up within the organization. I hope they succeed. I hope that, if they do, the reformers start bringing SFWA into the goddamn 21st century, instead of wherever the fuck it’s going now, and I hope they start thinking about the genre’s future as well. I’ll join if that ever happens, but until then it would just be a waste of money and energy.
And to end on a positive note, a public-service message:
Though SFWA is currently on my shitlist, I’m already pretty active in some other SF orgs that are significantly more progressive. The Speculative Literature Foundation has done a lot to try and bring economically (and otherwise) disadvantaged writers into the genre, and its awards seem to target writers who bring in a new voice in some way — not necessarily writers of color (though that too), but writers whose work treads ground that SF hasn’t historically touched much. Groups like the Carl Brandon Society have formed to give writers of color a collective voice. There’s also Wiscon, a convention that started with a feminist focus on SF and has since spread to encompass pretty much every underrepresented group, just by being inclusive and welcoming. The Carl Brandon Society meets there. A newer con, Diversicon, aims to bring the issue of diversity in SF to the fore.
If any of you reading this are in the SF field, or if you just care about this issue, please join and/or donate to these organizations. Because the future is ours! (Strikes cheesy pose.)