Diversity and Science Fiction: Too Many Middle-aged White Guys?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about diversity in science fiction (and I define this narrowly, meaning English-language science fiction).  This tends to be a touchy topic in many quarters, and for a while, I thought about not writing anything here.  I decided I wanted to post something, however, because I think it’s an important topic.  I’ll be up front with two things: (1) I don’t have the answers, just some opinions, and we all know what opinions are worth; and (2) while I’m certainly open to discussing the topic, I won’t let comments degenerate into ugliness (it’s my site; if you can’t respect that, stop reading and go post on your own site).

Right or wrong, science fiction has long been considered a field lacking diversity: middle-aged white guys writing about other white guys (I can say this, right, because I’m a middle-aged, white guy?).  While I believe the genre has become more inclusive over the past 20-30 years, I still think this is a fairly accurate assessment.  How many minority science fiction writers can the average reader name?  Probably not more than small handful (and likely several of them are no longer writing or even alive).  What about woman, science fiction writers?  Here they can probably do better—I know I can.  Minority, women science fiction writers?  Probably shouldn’t even try going there.

I’m sure there are many learned articles by smarter people than me examining the reasons behind this, but I haven’t read them.  I’m also sure this is a more complex issue than I imagine, encompassing aspects of socio-economics, culture and lifestyle that are beyond my learning.  That said, I’m going to make a simple observation: it seems to me that people who write science fiction, grew up reading it.  Those who didn’t read it, don’t tend to write it.  So perhaps that’s were the key lies?  Maybe the lack of diversity in the genre is a self-perpetuating artifact of the original writers, who tended to be middle-aged, white guys writing primarily for white, male audiences.

I read science fiction as kid because something about it spoke to me.  Was it the white protagonists?  I’m not sure that’s it, but I suspect having characters and cultures to which I could easily relate helped (I recall once struggle to read a fantasy novel set in a “fantasized” middle Eastern culture, but in hindsight, I’m not sure if it was the different culture or the book’s poor writing that challenged me).  I wonder if having a greater diversity of characters and settings in science fiction would attract a more diverse readership, eventually resulting in more woman and minority writers down the line. 

Assuming this thesis is true, then we potentially have a chicken-and-egg problem: if the field lacks diversity in its writers, who writes the stories with diverse characters and cultures that will attracted diverse readers?  I know some people would disagree, but I think a lot of fine writers can write convincingly about different people and cultures.  (Of course, this is no substitute for people of diverse cultures writing about their culture.)  Science fiction writers need to embrace the diversity out there, do their home work, and most importantly not be afraid to write stories outside their cultural comfort zone.  This is no small challenge, given the perception by some that only minorities can understand and write about the minority condition (I don’t necessarily subscribe to this line of thinking).  This might be the only way to break the cycle and ultimately bring more diversity to the genre.  Like diversity in nature, diversity in science fiction would be a good thing, and it may help increase the genre’s vitality and readership.

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About D. Thomas Minton

Writer of speculative fiction
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15 Responses to Diversity and Science Fiction: Too Many Middle-aged White Guys?

  1. katkasia says:

    Well, here’s one trying to correct the balance! :)
    There are some great, strong female characters coming out in sci-fi now, so if your theory holds, hopefully we’ll start to see more women writers too.

    • Kasia, thanks for stopping by. I agree, there are more and more strong woman characters showing up in SF these days. I think that’s a direct reflection of the number of woman now reading and writing science fiction. Best of luck getting your book out there!

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  4. Joachim Boaz says:

    In case you’re curious there’s an entire blog devoted to female science fiction writers pre-2000.

    http://sfmistressworks.wordpress.com/

    Samuel Delany (late 50s-now), Octavia Butler (80s/90s), Nalo Hopkinson, are three minority African American science fiction authors I can think of off the top of my head — two are women… Two of the three are considered absolute greats in the genre….

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