This has been percolating in my head for a while, like most of my bigger blog posts tend to do. I don’t remember any specific thing that spurred me on to this thought train. The aging old guard that hates any sort of change is an ugly thing in the SF community, and it’s all too often that they rear up and stomp around like dinosaurs. One of their many airing of grievances probably set this off.
I grew up reading the Old Guard. That’s what my parents read back in the day because they weren’t the Old Guard then, they were the Newbies. They were the Old Guard though when I started reading their books at ten. A lot of the Old Guard have written amazing things. The cornerstones of science fiction and fantasy came about because of them. That’s past tense. It’s a fact. Even if they’ve turned into curmudgeonly old guys, their past impact on the genre can’t be changed. Prime example: Ender’s Game and Orson Scott Card. Today’s version of OSC is not someone I would ever get along with, to put it in nice words that aren’t swearing. However, the book he wrote back in the 80s is profound.
Thanks to this nebulous mass of the Old Guard, there is an image that the Average White Guy who reads in our genre only wants to read about Average White Guys and put their foot down to squash diversity. Eh, that might be a bit dramatic, but the image is one of indifference at best.
I want to put it out there that it is a complete misnomer that people only want to read about people exactly like them. I think this is doubly so within SF circles. If we weren’t all fans of the different on some level, we’d all be reading “regular” literature instead.
Just from a practical point of view, think that I’ve been reading SF for twenty years now. No one can read everything, but I consider myself fairly well read in both the sci fi and fantasy sides of the genre from the 70s stuff my parents were buying in high school on up to the new stuff today. I couldn’t even tell you how many times I’ve read about the Average White Guy Chosen One who must save the universe/kingdom.
Been there, done that. That’s not to say it couldn’t still make for a good book, but it’s a very tired trope. I want something new. We’re fortunate that we live in a day where it is a hell of a lot easier to find that shiny new story. Amazon may be the 900 pound gorilla in the room, but you can buy anything from them, not just what is confined to the shelves at the local big box. Finding something different than the bleached out vision of sci fi or the Anglo based fantasy is a lot easier than it used to be.
Examples galore are out there. Some of the ones I love to recommend (and frequently do) are Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell, Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed and a new one I recently read, Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi.
In none of these books, or the myriad of others I read, being different was not the end all be all of the book. Having a different cast of characters and a different cultural basis were defiantly points in favor for the books. None of that would have mattered though if they weren’t written well. How’s the plot? How’s the prose? Drop the ball on that and you’re novel could be about the UN and it wouldn’t matter one wit to me.
I’m going to use Ascension again as an example since it’s new so therefore hasn’t been talked about around these parts before. The protag, Alana, is black and gay. The relationships in the book are polyamorous. That’s quite possibly the polar opposite of the Average White Guy. Ok. That’s all well and good, how’s all the other stuff going on in the book? Plot? Prose? It happens to all be fantastic. Alana is a bad ass engineer who stows away in a cargo ship on a desperate mission. The engineer on a civilian ship is a point of view that’s refreshing in itself instead of the typical guns-blazing space marine. But that’s a tangent for another blog post. The point is, Alana is doing badassery independent of how she identifies herself. Her differences add more layers to a novel that already had a compelling base.
That is the best way to go about adding more diversity into the SF scene.
Because character diversity isn’t the end all be all of a good novel, it doesn’t always work out. I read an urban fantasy with a gay protag that spent more time sitting around moping “Does she love me? Do I love her?” It was book one of a series so the plot never felt any need to move about with urgency and the novel ended up being half relationship, high school type drama, dealing with intolerant family kind of stuff. If that’s your bag, great, fantastic, I’ll let you know where the used bookstore I sent it off to is. It’s not my bag at all because the plot took a back seat to all the introspection. There should be balance between the two.
There was another time I read a steampunk book that made a huge to do and reveal of a transgender character right at the start of Act Three. Ok cool. People are people. And? And nothing. The book went out of its way to make it into a Thing, I expected some sort of plot point out of it. When there wasn’t one, I felt the whole thing was distracting. The drama was distracting, not the character herself. I think it would have been more effective storytelling if it had been brought up earlier in the normal course of business and without the drama of a reveal. But then again, I don’t know anyone else who’s read the same book to solicit other opinions. Maybe other people liked the drama of it.
Having a diverse cast in SF become a non issue is a noble and proper goal. A multicultural, multiracial, multi(insert any adjective that describes people) landscape should be accepted as the norm. I think that treating it as normal is the best way to get people around you to also start treating it as normal. Lead by example kind of thing. Letting the storytelling take a back seat to creating a diverse cast does a disservice to the very cause they want to champion. Maybe disservice isn’t the right word choice. It’s more like a lateral move, not hurtful but not really helpful in the end.
I feel like writing diversity as normal is harder to accomplish as an Average White Guy writer though. I don’t want to deal with questions of “Is this guy pandering for sales?” or “You’re not X, you can’t write about X without authenticity.”
Whatever. Screw that noise. In the end, I’m going to write the stories I want to write. That will frequently be about characters that aren’t like me because otherwise life would be boring as hell. I’ve got a short story about a scientist that happens to be a black woman with genetically engineered pink hair and six fingers. Why? Fun. Also, the character design was inspired by one of my kid’s Nick Jr cartoons (so many points to whoever can call that one). The punk band in my in-progress novel has a Hispanic brother and sister and a Chinese drummer. Why? Well, originally it was set in my hometown which has large Puerto Rican and Chinese communities. There’s no reason the band should be nothing but white guys. That’s just things plucked out of my daily life plunked into my writing.
I might not write different people right. In fact, I’m sure I’ll screw it up once in a while. And if people want to respectfully talk shop about how to improve writing a certain POV, fantastic, I love talking shop and I always want to get better as my writing. The same goes for my reading lists. New points of view from diverse characters will always be another positive selling point in the laundry list of things I look for in a new book. I like to think that the genre community is getting better in that regard. We can drown out the haters by treating differences as a regular part of everyday life. That goes for the real world too.