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.
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!
Thank you! It feels like it’s been very close for a while now. Just doing final formatting.
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In case you’re curious there’s an entire blog devoted to female science fiction writers pre-2000.
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….
What an excellent looking site; I’ll need to spend a little more time digging through it. I’ve read very little Butler (I know, a real oversight) and I’m not familiar with Hopkinson, but Delany is one of my favorite SF writers. Other women SF writers who have published some very good work: CJ Cherryh, Lois McMaster Bujold, and another of my favorites, Connie Willis.
Of course, I’ve read all of the one’s you’ve listed besides Bujold — not a fan of military sci-fi. hehe… My personal favorites are Le Guin, Russ, Piserchia, Norton (yes, sometimes I like juvenile sci-fi), MacLean (The Missing Man is one of my favorite sci-fi novels), Kavan, Elgin, etc….
How could I forget Le Guin?!? Left Hand of Darkness and the Dispossessed are both fantastic. As for Cherryh, I liked her series containing Downbelow Station—the other titles escape me right now. I’ve also read several of her shorter “literary” SF novels, which are different but also quite good (not sure of the time period on these, however). I never cared for Bujold’s military fiction, but her Chalion books (fantasy) were well done and interesting. I will need to look into some of the other authors you mention because I know most of them only by name.
I have a book review of Missing Man (1975) if you’re curious…
And my favorite Norton….
And others, but I feel bad pasting my own links….
I’ll need to track down MacLean’s Missing Man. It’s sounds like a good read, and I have soft spot for late 60s early 70s SF, especailly New Wave stuff.
But yes, The Left Hand of Darkness is one of my favorite 60s sci-fi novels…
…Saxton, Cherryh (she’s great — but I generally stay away from the 80s), Merril and More are fun pulp writers as well… The list is endless 😉
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