Diversity in Speculative Fiction

in Musings

This article is about science fiction on TV and in movies and basically ignores others media, which irritates me, since most of the fans I know consume more novels than movies or TV shows (also I’m a jerk and if you tell me you’re an SF fan but you don’t read books I will roll my eyes at you), but the novels do have the same problems, and it get definitely gets talked about. So many people have written really well about all this, I hardly know where to start linking. Well, an excellent essay by Samuel R. Delany could hardly go wrong. And then there was Racefail 09, which, at this point, there are so many posts just summarizing and linking to all the major posts in the chain, that I just picked the top result on Google. If you’ve got a couple of hours, it’s worth working through the major points.

More broadly, this post is one of my favorites explaining a big part of why I care about who is writing the books I read, rather than just claiming to “judge a book on its own merits” or trying to be (ugh) “color-blind.” And a few months ago I read this great blog post that I have been trying and trying to track down again, but I can’t find it. It was about cultural appropriation, and why it matters, and under what circumstances it becomes harmful. The problems happen when members of a majority culture, or a powerful minority, depict aspects of some other culture, and the people who belong to that culture don’t have equivalent opportunities to create their own media representations. That is the potential for harm: the appropriation by the powerful overwhelms the stories the people would tell about themselves. And it is the cause of real harm when those dominant stories are based on stereotypes or misinformation, and don’t align with the stories the minority members actually would tell about themselves. It’s not that members of one culture can never enjoy or borrow or re-imagine aspects of other cultures, it’s that when all that happens in the media is borrowing and re-imagining by a different group, then the lives of the actual people who participate in those cultures get erased. So, I care that the white people whose books I read write about a diverse cast of characters and cultures, but I also care that I’m not just reading books by white people.

I really wish I could credit that post, because it was the best explanation I’ve seen about why appropriation is a problem.

So, this genre I love, has a problem, that in the past I’ve thought a lot about but not really acted on. Then this summer I found myself with more free time than I’ve had in years, and an amazon gift card I’d been directed to spend only on kindle books, and I decided it was time to put my money where my mouth was, and start consciously buying books by people of color. And checking them out of the library, too, but the financial commitment is vital.

But then I had a problem. As of June of this year, my offhand knowledge of non-white authors of SF consisted of Octavia Butler, Walter Mosley, and Samuel Delaney. I’d seen a few more names while following the Racefail business, but I didn’t follow it too closely, and most of the writers were posting on livejournal or dreamwidth using handles, not their names. I forgot them, basically, since at the time I wasn’t looking for new authors to read.

Naturally, I turned to Google to solve my problem. And there I found a few lists of names I could then investigate on Amazon, but then I had another problem. On a list like this one, there are so many names. And some of the ones I did recognize were not names I’d put anywhere near the word “mindblowing,” or otherwise recommend to others (for example, I loved Anne McCaffrey when I was in middle school, but early this summer I reread some of the Dragonrider books, and, well, middle school is where she is going to stay). I didn’t just want to just grab the first books I found. This is my entertainment. I want to, you know, read books I’ll like. The Carl Brandon Society helps, but they’ve only actually presented three years’ worth of awards so far. The Tiptree awards are a bit more established, but they focus on gender rather than race.

Basically I had to, like, do some work. To follow through on my commitment. Life is tough, right? But I realized another thing I can do is help make it easier for other people like me find books they’d like that are written by a diversity of authors. So I’m going to review the ones I’ve read so far. I’m not going to try to do critical analysis, I just want to talk about books I like, and describe the books in a way that will help other people figure out if they’d like them too. I use “speculative fiction” (and that’s what I mean when I abbreviate it SF) in a broad sense. I’m not interested in arguing over genre definitions, and I don’t really care whether a book gets labeled and shelved in the sci-fi section. If the story does things I look for in my SF, and if it does them well, I’ll post about it.

And I’ll try to keep them short, but this post is over 900 words post-editing, so, no promises.