me with Delany, Diaz, and Liu

Discussions About Diversity In Science Fiction

me with Delany, Diaz, and Liu

NPR Books and Code Switch ran several great pieces for Black History Month this year, including the Hidden Black History one I talked about the other day and this one on letters and black history that I also wrote. My bud Alaya Dawn Johnson also put together a fantastic post wherein she interviewed some great Black science fiction writers about their impact on the genre and on shaping the future.

To the extent that science fiction is the literature of ideas, of plausible futurism, of extrapolation from social trends that can help us locate ourselves better in the present, we have helped to make science fiction more relevant than ever. Afrofuturism was a hugely important phenomenon in the black community, but George Clinton or Sun Ra never got invited to a World Science Fiction Convention. Last year, the groundbreaking musical artist Janelle Monae, whose work is strongly inspired by afrofuturism, received an honorable mention for the prestigious Tiptree Award for her album The Electric Lady. The lines are converging; we are rewriting our futures.

Please read the whole thing, it is well worth it.

And if you’re interested in such things, last week I was on the Marc Steiner Show talking about Octavia Butler (it was the anniversary of her death) and the state of Black science fiction. My fellow panelists, Ytasha L. Womack, adrienne maree brown, and Jason T. Harris, were a delight to converse with and big props to the host for keeping the conversation lively. When you have an hour listen to the podcast.

You’re Excluding Stories By Straight, White, Cis Men? J’accuse! J’accuse!

You're Excluding Stories By Straight, White, Cis Men? J'accuse! J'accuse!

A year or so ago some dude (whose name I’ve forgotten) who writes reviews of SF/F books noticed that in the year or two (or longer) previous he had not read or reviewed any books by women. This caused him to pause and go: “Huh….” and noodle on in some surface way about how he really should make an effort to read more women.

I suggested that, since he was now aware of the issue, he should do something more “radical” and spend an entire year reading books by nothing but women.

“But I can’t do that!” book review dude exclaimed. “That would be tipping the scale too far. That would be BIAS. That would be excluding men for arbitrary reasons! That would be wrong![1]

I knew, of course, when I made the suggestion he wouldn’t accept it. Because it’s just too much of a hardship to read only women. He even said some shit about how he’d miss out on too many good books by limiting himself that way. There was not enough side-eye in the universe for that conversation.

If you’ve spent most of your adult life reading mostly men without consciously thinking about the fact that you mostly choose books written by men or mostly have books written by men recommended to you or shoved at you as Good, then a year of reading only women is not even enough to balance the scales.

Reading only women for a year takes some thought and effort. And if you do that, people hardly ever assume that it happened Just Because or On Accident or because you were Just Reading The Best Books Regardless Of The Identity Of The Author.

Unlike if you just happen to read only men for 10 years at a stretch.

Funny that.

I told you that story to tell you this one.

The first comment on my latest io9 post pointed out that all the stories I featured are by women, and asked if that was a coincidence. I’ve been running this column regularly since July 2014. It took until February 2015 for someone to notice that. Or, I should probably say, it took until now for someone to ask me about it.

A few hours later another dude came by to confront me about this in more detail. His comment is still “pending,” so it’s not initially visible when you look at the page.

In all seriousness, not trying to be a dick here, but you do seem to be purposefully excluding white men from these roundups, correct? I mean you post almost entirely women writers, and the small handful of male authors you do include are either AOC or queer authors. If you have a criteria other than quality to select or filter authors, then shouldn’t you state so somewhere in these posts? I mean at least be straight up about it. At this point there seem to be far more opportunities, in the short fiction marketplace at least, for authors of color/LGBT authors, since there are magazines who won’t accept submissions from white men altogether. And then you have magazines like Lightspeed who were recently only accepting submissions from LGBT authors for the “Queers Destroy Science Fiction” anthology. I guess I’m seeing a lot of editors/magazines making an effort to increase their magazine’s diversity, when it actually seems like there isn’t a bias against minority authors at all? If I’m wrong then please tell me how so. But if only certain types of people are eligible for these “Best Stories” posts, and if many magazines are refusing submissions from white or straight or male authors, while many others explicitly state they’re looking for diverse voices (Shimmer, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Lightspeed, et al), then where exactly is the bias? Is it possible this preoccupation with identity politics has gone too far? I guess I’m just saying, if these “Best Stories” posts really mean “Best Stories By Women, LGBT, or AOC” then shouldn’t you say so?

I am certain that this person is not such a regular reader of my column that they know off the top of their heads the makeup of the authors featured. This person went back through all my posts and tallied this info up before coming back with his observations. And in the process assumed not that I just happen to like stories by women, people of color, and LGBT folks better than that of straight, white, cis men, but that I am actively excluding that last category and should be up front about it.

Funny that.

Sunil Patel, who reviews books for Lightspeed, recently tweeted:

Promoting diversity is about boosting underrepresented voices. It is about leveling the playing field. It is no coincidence that my book review column features no white male authors. They can have EVERYWHERE ELSE. Do I feel like I’m discriminating against white male authors? I kind of do. But I also know that women and POC are reviewed less. Those with privilege are getting by just fine on their own. We need to use what privilege we have to boost marginalized voices.

What I do in my column isn’t precisely reviewing. It’s more signal-boosting of the fiction I read that I liked or loved. That’s why it’s called “The Best Stories from…” and not “Stories out this week” or whatever. When I did this on my own I called it Favorite Fiction. It’s a link, an excerpt, and a short paragraph, maybe two, about what struck me about the story, why I liked or loved it, what elements I appreciated. I rarely do anything that looks like a full-on critical analysis–that’s not what the column is for. I also don’t include stories I don’t like in order to explain why I don’t like them.

Still though, I am very aware that my signal-boosting carries meaning. I’m also aware of which kinds of authors often get more boosts in what venues. That kind of thing matters to me.

I will say this plainly: If I read a story and I like it a lot, I would never not include it in my column based on the identity and background of the writer. Because the whole basis of this is what I read and liked.

I’ll also say this plainly: A reviewer who makes the choice to focus exclusively on marginalized voices is making a good choice. There are plenty of places for the privileged to get and gain attention. Making a space for everyone else is not bias, it’s a step towards balance.

Footnotes

  1. I am paraphrasing.[]

Steampunk without POC is so 1899

Saw the other day that Hullaballoo, a new steampunk animation project by former Disney animators, reached it’s funding goal on IndieGoGo. Good for the project. It looks like a worthy one. The animators involved want to prove that hand-drawn, 2D animation is still where it’s at. I’m down. The story takes place in a cool steampunk world and has two female leads. More down. The animators themselves are not all white dudes. Very down.

But then we come to the characters. All of them are white.

hullabaloo poster
Seriously??

When I pointed this out to Mary Robinette Kowal, one of the voice actors, she pinged the producer to bring up this point. The answer she got was that the team didn’t have time to make changes to the trailer and concept art before the IndieGoGo campaign, but that there would be a “diverse cast.” Mary also suggested that raising this question in the comments on the IndieGoGo page would not be a bad idea.

I agree. But that shouldn’t be the limit to where we raise that question. It needs to go on the Facebook page, mentioned in YouTube comments, brought up via the contact form on the website, and raised wherever you see someone posting about this project.

Because while I do really want to see this succeed, it would be ridiculous to make a steampunk film with only white characters. There’s no justifiable reason for this cast not to be racially diverse. Even if we’re sticking with Victoriana, it would not break the world to make one of the protagonists Indian, Black, or Asian, just to name three obvious choices among many. And let’s not stop there–diversity among secondary and background characters is just as important as it is for the leads. Hullabaloo could be a great opportunity to show what a racially and culturally diverse steampunk world could be like.

So my challenge to you is this: make that happen. Tweet, post on Facebook, leave a comment on the IndieGoGo page, write blog posts about this. Advocate for positive change. The time to do so is now when the project is still in a nascent form.