Why I believe in diversity in science fiction: an answer to the counter-arguments.

A number of people in the science fiction community are screaming about diversity in books and films. Either they want to bring back the good ole days, or they want to see characters that look how the world looks now. It saddens me that this argument has gotten very nasty. The 2015 Hugo Award Nominations are just the visual tip of the anger iceberg.

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I saw this on PinInterst, Originally found on yahighway.tumblr.com

Anyone who follows my blog knows how much I love StarTrek. I’m going to explain why I think diversity is important for the sci-fi community, but how there is room for all of our visions. I was a young teen with TNG and in highschool, early college with DS9. I loved those show’s wide open universe with all those planets and races. The meme is getting popular now, but I remember the first time I heard Whoopie Goldberg’s story about how she and Gene Rodenberry spoke about how before the original StarTrek there were no black people in sci-fi and how Lt. Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols during 1966 to 1969, was a trailblazing role for African-Americans.

When I heard the story, it reminded me of being a kid and watching GI Joe, Thunder Cats, or almost every other show and wanting there to be more than one token girl or woman character. That’s when I realized “the girl” was a type, just like “the black guy” or whoever. And I didn’t want to write “types,” I wanted to write characters. I want to tell their stories. I still do.

StarTrek and Ms. Goldberg’s story encouraged me to always look at my “cast” and make sure that there was a fairly even split of men and women–and if there wasn’t, it needed to make sense why. That if there were “colors” of skin in my book’s universe that they are shown–and not just in the background. That sexual diversity was shown.

The cry for diversity rings loudly. Readers want characters that look like them, that they can relate to, but I don’t think anyone is really saying, “Every protagonist needs to look like me!” Though a few vocal white, cis-gender, heterosexual males are certainly coming close to that.

I believe in listening to people, which means I also believe it is also important to answer the (sometimes-bitter) counter arguments with kindness and generosity of spirit.

Counter Argument #1: So you are saying that I shouldn’t write all white or all male books? Maybe that’s my vision!

People should write what they want to write. Just don’t be surprised when the market makes the final call. I would also add no matter what type of characters you write, you may find you end up with a different market than expected.

An example of a terrific all male cast is John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing. They are twelve guys in a small science station in Antarctica so they are cut off from the world. Sexual diversity is not mentioned. However, there is some racial diversity in the cast with Keith David as Childs and T.K. Carter as Nauls. All in all the cast did a great job.

So if for whatever reason, if a non-diverse cast works, go with it. I think your collection of work shows your heart more than a single work.

Counter Argument #2 Authors are just adding this stuff so they can be edgy.

Really, you think authors care about being edgy? I don’t speak for every author, but I care about writing characters that make readers care and I care about finding readers. That’s it.

Counter Argument #3: White people shouldn’t write/explore other cultures because either white people can’t understand it or it is cultural appropriation.

For me this one is insidious, because I want to be an ally to others. To listen and tell stories. How do I get around this? First of all, I admit I’m a white American, cisgender, and heterosexual. I’m mixed European ancestry, a large chunk of that being Italian. This means I grew up with white privilege. This means there are things that happen I will simply not understand, I own up to that.

Then I figure out what I do know. While I never feared the police would racial profile me, I know what if feels like to be afraid. While I don’t know what it is like for a homosexual young man to want to kiss a boy when all your life you are told you can only kiss girls, but I can imagine what that first kiss is like. Love, pain and isolation are part of the human condition.

By admitting my ignorance of certain aspects of culture and then using my own experiences, I can research with an open mind. We all have the Internet at our disposal and we can take the time to do interviews. So, authors, no matter what your background, don’t fear writing about other cultures, but its important to research and write from a place of respect. Don’t rush the details, don’t force teachable moments, just do the work.

Counter Argument #4: What’s the point of writing diversely, the cover artist is just going to make them white?

So far, I’ve always done my own covers, so this hasn’t been a problem for me, but authors have agents and lawyers for a reason.
Authors, make sure you have some authority in your cover. And if you don’t. Guess what we all have blogs. Use them, show your character sketch. Be proactive.
Fans, if you want diverse covers, write, tweet, email publishers.

And the Counter-Counter Sad Puppy Argument to #4.
Why can’t a book with a spaceship on the cover just be about space adventure? Why does it always have to be out race or feminism or…?

Science fiction authors have a long history about putting “second stories” into their worlds. George Orwell and Margret Atwood outwardly wrote/writes social science fiction, but Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, and Joe Halderman also delved into issues with their stories. So I don’t know when these readers thought science fiction only focused on escapism. That being said, there are escapist stories. Just look for them. I’m sure a google search of “escapist science fiction” will give you somewhere to look. In the bookstore, ask the bookseller, don’t just look at the pretty picture on the cover, flip the book over and read the blurb. Open the book and glance at the first chapter. Online, Check out the reviews. Look at the sub genres.

Authors create worlds. Sometimes the author will delve deep into the political or sociological issues of that universe, other times, not so much. I personally love to delve into issues with my writing, but not all my writing is about how I view the world.

In closing, I think there is room for all types of science fiction and all types of science fiction fans. I don’t need to like every single book to be a fan, nor do you. We can have conviction and still be respectful. Please remember, that we’re are a community and behind every avatar is a person wanting their voice to be heard.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Excellent points sweetie! Of course I’m quite happy reading a sci-fi novel without a single human in it too! I love Susan Kearsley’s books and in one of hers the main character is a computer mind – and yet still, the romance aspect was very relatable and awesome!

    Reply

  2. Been wading through the Sad Puppies controversy for the past week, and one of the funniest points is that, for the life of me, I can’t figure out what their actual beef is with the Hugos.

    Mr. Torgersen’s chief complaint seems to be that we’re lacking in good ol’fashioned sci-fi yarns, and that only in the last decade or so have the Hugo nominees been focused on social issues. Uh… wat? I’ve been slowly reading through all the Hugo winners for best novels, and even in its infancy, it’s rare to find any escapist fun in there.

    A Case of Conscience?
    A Canticle for Leibowitz?
    Stranger in a Strange Land?
    Man in the High Castle?
    Dune?

    Am I overreading these, or weren’t these explicitly focused on social themes and literary styles?

    Reply

    • Actually you aren’t the only one who doesn’t get the Sad Puppies’s actual problem either. (Except they wanted to be Hugo Nominated so badly, they were willing to game the system and align themselves with people so heinous that many who might have listened, no longer care what their beef is.) The only thing that I got out of it is there is no good ole space adventures–with white male protagonists–that weren’t nominated and the part that I pointed out that you can no longer judge a book by its cover. (I guess they don’t understand the idiom.)
      As for the rest of your comment, in my opinion, you did not “over-read” those novels. I havn’t read A Case of Conscience or Man in the High Castle, but I read the others. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Stranger in a Strange Land, and Dune all dealt with social issues that their authors cared about.

      Reply

  3. #4 is perhaps the most spurious of all the SP’s arguments. The idea that they are somehow restoring SFF to some sort of pure and simple entertainment is laughable. SFF has always dealt with social issues, right back to H.G. Wells (who wrote War of the Worlds in part as a counter-argument to jingo imperialism). Fritz Lang creation the film Metropolis as an allegory on class relations. The Puppies are also being simple-minded in supposing SFF has to be either one or the other, entertaining or socially-conscious. It obviously can be both, and examples are easy to find..

    Others, such as Damien Walters, have suggested that some of the people behind the SP campaign are mostly in it for the brownie points it allows them to score with their right-wing constituencies, not because they care about SFF.

    Personally, I’m not that wound up about the Hugos, although I understand how others are. It means a good deal to some folks, and it’s being manipulated by some rather unpleasant people (not all of them are so, but some are). For me, SFF is bigger than the Hugos, and it going to continue to diversify and grow, no matter how much the Puppies whine.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Joe Follansbee on April 19, 2015 at 1:40 am

    I struggle a bit with diversity in my writing. In my head, most of the protagonists are white and middle class, though I split them up between male and female. That’s just the way my brain works. I grew up in a world dominated by The Man. Fighting it would be inauthentic on my part. Resistance is futile.

    However, I try not to call attention or even identify the character’s race in the text, or much of their appearance at all, unless it’s germane to the story. I’m hoping the reader will project a little of themselves into the character, and see a reflection of themselves, black, white, or any other racial construct that happens to appeal to their sensibilities.

    Reply

    • Thanks for the honest comment, Joe! I think everyone struggles somewhat, but no book is written in one draft either. I sell most of my books directly to readers at conventions, and I have found readers look at the authors for who the character is. You know how many people ignored Abby’s stated racial construct? Who looked at me and saw a white girl which mean Abby must be white too? I am curious to see if it happens again with The Light Side of the Moon 😉

      Reply

  5. I nearly spat my tea out at counter argument number 3! (And I really was drinking tea) “because white people can’t understand it…” Like I suppose they understand the mechanics of space travel oh so well! Yet they can manage to write about that – ah, because they’re writers and writers either do research and speak to people or use their imaginations!

    Rant over. Tea catastrophe avoided 🙂

    Reply

  6. Totally off point, but I’d probably never argue with you! Hahaha

    Reply

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