Science Fiction and Diversity …

May 10, 2007

Tobias Buckell has commentary on a subject that frequently arises about whether there is diversity in science fiction, noting that whatever the protestations that it is (usually taking the names of the four authors he lists), science fiction is not as diverse as it should be, period.

… online I keep seeing the same repetition. Someone says SF/F isn’t diverse, people respond by chanting “Hopkinson, Butler, Delany, Barnes” like it’s a magical phrase that dispels the +10 diversity attack spell.

I won’t disagree with that. But you can’t force people to read science fiction, and especially you can’t make them write it. But Tobias isn’t arguing that point. He’s telling us to use simple math to accept that the field is not diverse.

So out of 1500-2000 or so writers who’ve sold at least 3 professional stories by SFWA’s standards (let’s say there are 500 or so not in SFWA who might be eligible) people only can realistically name 2 working current writers of color in the comments section off the top of their head.

12% of the US is African American. By simple math you can take our figure of 2,000 writers who’ve sold 3 or more pro level short stories and we should expect to have 150-200 SF writers of color active in that grouping. We don’t. Even accounting for statistical variations, that ratio is wildly uneven. Is the cadre of writers in the field diverse? No.

Whatever conclusions or actions you wish to draw next, the mathematical fact remains that we don’t even have a healthy fraction of even 100 writers of color.

This could be a larger societal issue, an issue of fandom, the technical nature of SF/F, or that readers don’t see their faces in SF/F and don’t read it and therefore don’t write it, whatever your theory is (and I’m making no accusations or forwarding theories of my own here, that isn’t the point of this particular entry), it still doesn’t change the fundamental fact that is not a racially diverse field.

In a somewhat similar vein, when I got to conventions there have been panels on — and I’ve seen for myself — the lack of young readers of science fiction. With a few exceptions, sometimes the youngest fans or readers I see are in their early 20s, and there aren’t very many of those. I’m not talking about the anime fans that are frequently younger, or the fantasy fans, but the folks that sit in on the SF panel discussions and wander around the con. The majority of these fans, me included, are older, sometimes much older.

I’ve seen Tobias at various conventions and he’s a very enthusiastic proponent on the virtues of both writing and reading science fiction. I love science fiction, as to many others. But a lot of people don’t, and I suspect that it’s not because they’ve read it and dislike it (unless it was required reading in school), but because of the geeky, still pulp magazine-like reputation it has, or that people think science fiction is Lord of the Rings.  Unfortunately, it can sometimes come off as elitist, where fans and readers consider themselves part of a special club because they do like science fiction, and frown on the “mundanes” in the real world, who do not.

It may also be that, living in this very science fiction-like world, that literary science fiction is simply not thought to be as interesting as it once was, whether you are young, African-American, mixed race, Asian, or Hispanic. That’s a shame, because the subject matter is culturally and racially diverse, aliens excluded. Tobias Buckell’s own writing is a good example.

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6 Responses to “Science Fiction and Diversity …”

  1. Nora Says:

    That’s a shame, because the subject matter is culturally and racially diverse, aliens excluded. Tobias Buckell’s own writing is a good example.

    Unfortunately, you’re perpetuating the same problem, with this statement, that Buckell is speaking against. You’re just adding “Buckell” to the “Hopkinson, Butler, Delaney, Barnes” chant.

    The presence of a handful of writers of color, or a handful of white writers doing characters of color, really isn’t the issue. As Buckell noted, this handful in no way represents the numbers that SF should have, if it truly wanted to claim the title of “diverse”. Diversity goes beyond the presence of a few tokens; it’s really about realistic representation.

    And although you say we can’t make people of color write or read SF, that’s also not what Buckell and the other bloggers he’s linked to are advocating. The way I read it, Buckell’s basically saying “If you build it, they will come.” i.e., Readers who would be interested in diverse SF are out there, but SF needs to first make an effort to attract them.

    At the moment, SF is *not* attracting them, because it has allowed itself to develop an unwelcoming reputation. The lack of visible diversity is a big contributor to this. It’s all well and good to *say* that SF is diverse, but anyone who’s attended a gathering of SF writers can see that this isn’t the case. Anyone who buys one of the Big Three magazines and reads the stories — which overwhelmingly feature characters of unspecified (default white) race or who are specifically white — can read that it isn’t the case. So until SF does something about this reputation, many writers — not just people of color but also white writers who are repelled by SF’s backwards reputation — will continue to avoid the genre. Many potential SF writers of color already do this, developing thriving careers outside of SF’s traditional publishers and market (LA Banks, Tananarive Due, Walter Moseley, and others have been cited in TB’s and other articles). And many of these writers have a large base of readers of color who love their stuff — yet wouldn’t be caught dead calling themselves “SF fans”. It’s not just that SF is perceived as geeky or pulpy; it’s that it’s perceived as *backwards*, precisely because of things like this.

  2. Khozyain Says:

    I am not arguing that lack of diversity is not a problem. I’m not arguing anything, in fact. I’m merely pointing out a fine post by Tobias Buckell, and also mention the lack of youth in current readers of science fiction.

    How am I perpetuating the same problem when saying that the subject matter — science fiction literature — can be diverse, as illustrated by Buckell’s own writing (of his Carribean-style SF)? I thought this was a compliment to Tobias, whom I have met several times and admire a great deal.

    “And although you say we can’t make people of color write or read SF, that’s not what Buckell and other bloggers he’s linked to are advocating.” That’s true, that is not what Buckell and the others are advocating — but my next line *also* said: “But Tobias isn’t arguing that point. He’s telling us to use simple math to accept that the field is not diverse,” and then I quote his reasons for that. I may be wrong but my take on his post is that, heh folks, there is NOT diversity in SF, here’s the math, so let’s stop arguing about that point and find a solution.

    You may very well be correct that “it’s not just that SF is perceived as geeky or pulpy, but that it’s perceived as backwards precisely because of things like this.” That’s a very perceptive point. The issue of diversity has been being discussed in the science fiction field for some time now, so at least the field is aware of it. It’s the solution which escapes. There is no magic solution, but it should be noted that the door opens both ways. If those in the field know the door is broken and are trying to hold it open, what welcome do we have to present to get a person of color to enter? It’s ultimately up to that person to enter of their own accord. If you want to read SF, or write it, you can, no matter what your color or sex.

  3. Nora Says:

    How am I perpetuating the same problem when saying that the subject matter — science fiction literature — can be diverse, as illustrated by Buckell’s own writing (of his Carribean-style SF)? I thought this was a compliment to Tobias, whom I have met several times and admire a great deal.

    Because pointing out the handful of writers who are doing diversity right is a red herring. It’s a pat on the back to the genre, a sop to our collective feelings, to say that hey, at least we’ve got that one. And that one over there. And that one too. Yeah! Things aren’t so bad. We don’t need to talk about [pick an]-ism right now. Let’s go bake cookies.

    I understand that you wanted to compliment Buckell, and it’s a deserved compliment, but it’s also the kind of digression that frequently pops up in discussions of race, gender, and other underrepresentations, and helps to derail those discussions. This is precisely what Buckell was complaining about.

    The issue of diversity has been being discussed in the science fiction field for some time now, so at least the field is aware of it. It’s the solution which escapes. There is no magic solution, but it should be noted that the door opens both ways. If those in the field know the door is broken and are trying to hold it open, what welcome do we have to present to get a person of color to enter?

    Actually, I don’t think those in the field are aware of it. I tried to bring up the issue on the SFWA blog a few weeks ago — asking what SFWA had done to promote diversity in the field — and people acted like I’d accused them of molesting children. So much denial, I could’ve resurrected ancient Egypt. And the end result was that not only was it clear SFWA had done nothing, but a lot of SFWA members felt there was no reason to do anything… because of Butler and Delaney and Hopkinson and Barnes. And Buckell.

    So if those in the field won’t even admit that the door exists, much less that it’s broken, how welcoming do you think the field really seems, to those on the outside?

    It’s ultimately up to that person to enter of their own accord. If you want to read SF, or write it, you can, no matter what your color or sex.

    I disagree. You can read it, and you can write it, yes. But getting it published is the hard part. I’m a writer myself, and I know the secret is not just to be good, but to be persistent — to keep sending out those stories even after they’ve accumulated one, ten, a hundred rejections. To start a new novel even though that first novel hasn’t sold. But doing that requires a Herculean level of determination, which most writers don’t have, period. How much harder is it when you’re a woman and you notice that most of the tables of contents of the Big Three SF magazines are awfully male? Or when you’re a person of color and you read SF stories about future after future in which people who look like you have mysteriously vanished? Or fantasies in which the scientific achievements of your culture are speculated to be the work of aliens, or elves, because God knows those people couldn’t have come up with complex math and science on their own.

    To read and write SF, when one is not white and male, is to constantly stifle a little voice inside that whispers, “They say they want you, but look at this stuff. If they wanted more women, they’d publish more women. If they wanted more fantasy that wasn’t set in medieval Europe, they’d publish more fantasy like that. They don’t realllly want you. So why are you reading this stuff? Why are you writing it? There are other genres out there which actually do want you, so why don’t you go there?” And a lot of women and people of color do exactly that.

    It just isn’t enough for SF to say the door is open. Theoretically the boardrooms of any Fortune 500 company have open doors, but you don’t see 50% women in them, do you? Because simply opening the door and saying hey, the sexism is gone, come on in! is a damned dirty lie. Likewise, any idiot who actually reads some SF will be able to see that its “openness” is a damned dirty lie. Most readers/writers judge by what’s there to read, not by what’s said in the rarefied halls of SFWA and other places that the general public isn’t likely to see — or care about. And what’s there to read is mostly white male power fantasy, not very inclusive or welcoming at all.

    And you want a solution? Here’s one. (This is what Buckell was alluding to in his post.)

  4. Khozyain Says:

    I’ll leave this comment as it stands. I invite people to look at the original post from The Angry Black Woman site, Tobias Buckell’s entry that I mentioned, and then follow the various links provided (including the postings at the SFWA LiveJournal) and the solution above in the previous comment.

    Please also read the comments to the posts involved. They’re very interesting.

    Blogs are personal expressions and podiums for one’s beliefs and opinions. In this particular case, while a point of view and solution is offered, it strikes me that no other point of view or solution seems to be acceptable.

  5. Nora Says:

    It strikes me that no other solution seems to have been offered. I would dearly love to see other solutions put forward; that’s what I asked SFWA for. Unfortunately their solution was, “No solution is needed.” And you’re right; I find that unacceptable.

    However, it seems like you’d rather not discuss this further, and this isn’t my house, so I’ll gracefully bow out now.


  6. On much of this, I do agree on one thing. There is no simple answer to the issue of racial or ethnic diversity, or the lack of such in science fiction and fantasy. However, I do believe that there are steps that minorities can take to improve the situation, even if it means taking more time. To write a science fiction or fantasy novel, you have to develop and nurture a genuine interest in the basics: Science. By the way, I am an emerging and determined African American science fiction writer. I am determined to be a successful science fiction author.

    Develop and nurture an interest in the science field. Whether it is astronomy, chemistry, physics or whatever. Start off by reading, with a view to understanding, little snippets of science. Let your knowledge and comprehension of science grow. If you already possess a proficiency in scientific matters, use it. Write that book! Science fiction is an enormous field and no person or select group of persons could ever hope to master every facet of this field. Science fiction gives you, the author, the incredible power to “rewrite” history, create diverse worlds and go boldly where no minority has gone before.

    In essence, the greater number of ethnic people who write and publish a novel, the more they will get noticed. Traditional publishing is not the only way to get noticed. Waiting years and years for a traditional publisher to notice your work can be an exercise in frustration. Enter short story writing contest or use various self-publishing avenues. There are so many ways to get your work noticed. Ask Nalo Hopkinson about her first book: Brown Girl in the Ring. It began as a short story before she entered it into a writing contest.

    Forget the nagging inner voices and the negative outer voices. Be determined to write your book and be a published author. It will not be easy. It will require hard work and sheer determination on your part. The only thing that comes easy is giving up.


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