Sci-fi, Speculative Fiction and the Problem When Imagination Erases Race

When authors are more likely to show aliens than people of colour, and creators of colour rarely get platforms, speculative fiction is failing its audience – and its potential.

Speculative fiction is a genre of wonder and possibilities. Within it, fantasy, supernatural stories, and sci-fi flourish. It has brought infinite joy (and almost as much cash). Whether it’s Twilight, Harry Potter, Mass Effect, Overwatch, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Walking DeadLost – the list of popular titles that have dominated pop-culture are endless. Yet, a genre that is determined by its creativity must be considered failing when only some creators are given opportunities, and only the same people are represented.

At least in film, the universe of speculative fiction appears to be changing. Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time are finally offering some diversity in a genre that is often dominated by white, cis, able bodied men. It’s an issue that is galling; within speculative fiction, any universe at all could be created and yet all people tend to look the same, and the vast majority of published works are focused upon white men. In fact, aliens are often given fuller stories or huge examination of prejudice, whereas people of colour are ignored.

Elisabeth Anne Leonard’s research paper even stated, “by far the majority of sf [speculative fiction] deals with racial tension by ignoring it”.

Behind the stories, the creators also tend to lack diversity. Fireside Fiction’s 2016 report found that in the year previously, less than 2% of over 2000 speculative-fiction stories were by black writers, while only 38 of 2039 stories published in 63 magazines in the same year were by black writers.

Nisi Shawl is a writer of speculative fiction and non-fiction. She co-wrote Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction, as well as the essays Expanded Course on the History of Black Science Fiction which are all available on Shawl believes that the exclusion of authors of colour is due to systematic factors.

“I think to a large extent this ‘shutting out’ is unintentional and systemic” Shawl said. “Joanna Russ wrote about a similar problem facing women writers; adhering to certain familiar standards as to what is ‘good’ means that good writing that falls outside those standards goes unrecognised.  That’s why blind reading is no remedy to bias. Realising the bias is a first step to ridding oneself of it.  A further step is revising the standards based on input from those more in touch with the shunned materials.”

“Realising the bias is a first step to ridding oneself of it”

Shawl argues too that it’s difficult for audiences to demand something that they just aren’t offered. People of colour are whitewashed from stories, and people grow up with the genre, not even realising the devastating impact lack of representation can have. One study found that TV’s representation led to an esteem boost for white boys, but everyone else, particularly girls of colour, were left with lower self-esteem. There is a clear need then for representation across the field, but in editing that requires publishers to gamble and invest in new authors. The industry though is reluctant to embrace change. There are even fears that the UK publishing industry is slipping backwards with its diversity.

“Taking deliberate risks with supporting the presence of underrepresented voices can pay off,” Shawl said. “But that’s not likely to happen when publishers are pushed to avoid risks, when editors and agents are focused on false ideas of what’s wanted, and when audiences are an apathetic incubator of unrecognized or stifled desires.

“Then there are all the social and economic obstacles to writing and publication non-dominant group members face, such as interrupted education, exhaustion and overwork, lack of models – it’s a wonder really there are any minority voices in the genre at all!  Steps that could be taken range from upping inclusivity behind the scenes to reaching out to new audiences to really insistent, one-on-one, proactive recruitment of minority content-providers.”

Shawl however, is determined that audiences can push for change. If we share works by authors of colour, praise writers and celebrate those delivering representative content then publishers will have to pay attention.

“That kind of publicity will attract the positive attention of those with the power to increase it,” Shawl said.

One fan trying to make a difference and show that the world of sci-fi, fantasy and speculative fiction have diverse fans is Hilton George, the founder and convention chair for Blerdcon, a comic-con established for people of colour. Blerd is a blend of “black nerd” and the event is the biggest of its kind, taking part in Washington DC.

Blerdcon was a major project. It took Hilton 18 months until he could promote it due to needing to establish the brand and get the best team around him, but for Hilton, such a project was needed.

“One day I found myself looking out onto a large convention crowd noticing how amazingly diverse the attendees were,” Hilton said. “Every race, age, gender, orientation, size, shape and circumstance was in view. I loved how the connection in the geek community centered around the fandoms and the mutual enthusiasm for the genres. So I began asking if there were any cons that highlighted some, or all of these diverse groups since the guestlist and the programming never seemed to reflect the diversity of the attendance. Initially, I was asking for myself as a black cosplayer looking for more cons to attend. But the more I asked, the more I heard the answer, ‘NO’, at least not on the large-scale format of anime or comic cons.”

Like publishers being reluctant to take on writers of colour, comic cons are reluctant to centre people of colour within their guest lists despite the diversity of the audience. Research by Manuel Andres Ramirez found that comic cons are focused upon appealing to a white hetero-masculine audience, but the make up of attendees rarely matched that demographic.

Hilton then established a space for black nerds, but he was committed to ensuring representation throughout Blerdcon in every way possible.

“We would need to go beyond our thematic base to recognise the intersections between the blerd community and other underrepresented groups. One could be a black nerd as well as other things, so it was crucial to allow for the programming and mission to represent the larger people of colour community, LGBTQ issues, persons with disabilities and others who could be ‘blerd and…’. We will keep our core mission and welcome all to come and experience something new, unique and different.”

Tasked with bringing a comic con to fans, Hilton knows well what’s going on in the world of media and believes there is not enough being done to deliver reflective representation.

“While progress has been made in bringing more people of colour characters to the big and small screen, there is still a huge deficit of black men and women writers, producers and directors given the opportunity to tell black stories and flesh out three dimensional characters,” Hilton said.

“While progress has been made in bringing more people of colour characters to the big and small screen, there is still a huge deficit of black men and women writers, producers and directors given the opportunity to tell black stories and flesh out three dimensional characters”

“Inclusion is just one step in the larger mission of representation. Seeing black and brown faces in sci-fi is great, but representation comes from authentic storytelling that can only come from tapping real experiences of the character’s background.

“Inasmuch as systemic racism has excluded minorities from the boardrooms of major movie and television studios, and the editors desk at top book publishers. Yes [racism is prevalent within speculative fiction]. The trickle-down effect over decades has resulted in the misrepresentation, or outright exclusion of black characters and narratives across the board. People of colour can quickly discern instances where our voices were not in the room when characters that look like us do not represent us.”

Hilton states that in most genres, the writing of and around people of colour usually goes awry. He picks out how Ridley Scott claimed that he wouldn’t be able to sell Exodus Gods and Kings as an idea if it has an African cast and an African lead. Hilton also points to Hollywood’s obsession with casting a white saviour, such as Daniel Day Lewis being cast as the Last of the Mohicans, Tom Cruise as The Last Samurai and Matt Damon saving China in The Great Wall.

The examples don’t stop there though. Marvel has repeatedly come under criticism for whitewashing, even if it is behind Black Panther. Game of Thrones may be the most popular show on TV but it has a dire lack of representation. So too do two of the most popular franchises ever – Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. If representation is present, it is usually minimal while white people become the heroes of the stories.

Hilton though agrees with Shawl that fans can take action to try to push everyone in the genre to deliver better. Through social media, the voices of fans are louder than ever. Hilton urges people to talk with each other, but also push to create grassroots movements to demand change.

“It’s how Blerdcon was able to connect underrepresented artists, actors, writers and directors with an underserved audience to bring about a successful first year event this past June!” Hilton said.

Speculative fiction is failing. It may deliver entertaining stories, but these are all limited without true representation. If the genre wants to really deliver creativity and surpass expectations then it must show representation that is reflective, and doesn’t just tell the stories of white people. Fans can bring change though, and put pressure on the industry to start delivering. If we care remotely about engaging stories, we should all be willing for better.

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