Posts Tagged ‘diversity’

As well as hosting a guest post from Austin Dragon earlier this week, I also wrote a post for his blog on the same theme – diversity in science fiction. Here’s how it starts…

Diversity in science fiction

Diversity is a hot topic in science fiction. There’s increasing acknowledgement that the genre has long been dominated by straight white men, and that it would be good to diversify both the creators and the characters.

This is a trend that, as a straight white man, I’m in favour of. So why is diversity important to me?

Aesthetic variety

I’m a fan and writer of science fiction and fantasy. A large part of their appeal for me is the range and variety of things they contain. The potential to read about something new, whether it’s a new place, a new culture, a new technology, a new point of view…

 

You can read the full article over on Austin’s site.

As well as having a ridiculously awesome name, Austin Dragon is a fellow member of the Google+ Diversity in Science Fiction and Fantasy community. So when we decided to exchange guest posts, it seemed only natural that we’d focus on that topic and why it matters to us. So without further ado, here’s Austin’s take on diversity in science fiction…

Diversity In Science Fiction And Why It Matters

What is Diversity to Me? I learned a long time ago from my stint in political activism that it is very important to define words and terms from the start. It’s the reason that most political debates are pointless and real solutions are rare. Different groups respond differently to the same words whether it’s liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans in America, or two different groups of Labor and Conservatives in England, respectively.

As a Black man born in one of the most diverse cities in the world, New York city, living in another overseas for a year, when I began college—Paris France, and upon my return to the States moved to even more diverse one—Los Angeles, CA, I am obviously at home in diversity.

Unfortunately much of the diversity as defined by many elite has simply devolved into the arbitrary color of a person’s skin. That is not diversity. Diversity is not just race; it is culture, class, language, upbringing, nationality, politics, education, occupation, religion (if applicable), and more. It is a rich tapestry of the story and experiences that make you who you really are. Diversity that is just a game of musical chairs based on skin color is boring.

Also for all this “diversity talk,” people are rightly justified in being annoyed at the “talk with no end” about the subject or a “token” character thrown into a story in a feeble attempt to placate them. Virtually everyone will be Asian in a novel set in Japan or overwhelmingly White if set Sweden, but that’s not what we’re talking about. In the diverse or global societies often reflected in science fiction, demographic reality is not being reflected. Yes, fiction is fiction, but…

Three Reasons Why Diversity in Science Fiction Matters

  1. It Gives Us a Unique Window on a Problem. One of the brilliant things about science fiction is that it allows the reader to see an intractable problem from other points of view. Often that unique perspective can do more to highlight the issue or strengthen the drama than the same stereotypical characters we keep seeing over and over again.
  2. It Introduces Us to the New. Over six billion people, hundreds of countries, thousands of religions, tens of thousands of cultures, millennia of recorded human history. Science fiction spends a lot of energy creating new worlds to amaze us when the reality is that there already exists “new worlds” in our own to engage us that we never even knew existed.
  3. More Diversity Equals Less Tokenism. If we see “real” diversity with meaningful stories, substantive characters, and well-thought out backgrounds, the more the public will expect and demand it. I love Star Trek and always will but even as a child I thought it peculiar that there wasn’t far more diversity in the series knowing what the racial and ethnic make-up of the planet was (and is). Tokenism acts like people are just skin-color and genitalia. Diversity acknowledges and showcases so much more.

Science fiction writers, through this genre, we are in probably the best possible position to reflect the great big, wide universe of…humanity.

About the Author

Austin DragonAustin’s books currently include his science fiction and international After Eden thriller series. Next year he releases new novels in science fiction, fantasy, mystery, YA and horror. He is a native New Yorker, but has called Los Angeles, California home for the last twenty years. Words to describe him, in no particular order: U.S. Army, English teacher, one-time resident of Paris, political junkie, movie buff, campaign manager and staffer of presidential and gubernatorial campaigns, Fortune 500 corporate recruiter, renaissance man, and dreamer. Find him and all his writing madness at www.austindragon.com

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the ‘Building the same old world’ panel at FantasyCon. Based on the panel description it could have gone two different ways – focusing on the mechanics of world building in fantasy fiction, or focusing on diversifying the worlds we build. In the end it was an interesting mix of the two, thanks to the excellent panellists. These were….

One of the results of all this world building

  • Camille Lofters – the panel moderator  and a PhD student who is dealing with world building in her thesis – how cool is that as a subject to study?
  • Foz Meadows – a YA fantasy writer and one of the people who most impressed me over the weekend.
  • Tiffani Angus – a creative writing PhD student who writes in many genres
  • Peter Higgins – writes epic fantasy based on 20th century Europe.
  • Kate Elliott – a guest of honour at the con and writer of all sorts of speculative fiction.

Camille did a great job of moderating a panel for the first time, keeping the conversation flowing without intruding too much with her own views.

The tension of world building

‘Our preconceptions are the hardest thing to push through.’ – Kate Elliott

One theme that came out early on was the tension in world building between presenting the familiar to draw people in and the unfamiliar to interest them and make a fantasy world. As Camille pointed out, deviating from accepted reality risks confusing and alienating readers, and so you have to be careful how you do it. It’s important not to try to change everything, but to give readers things they understand.

All the panellists found exploring imaginary worlds useful in writing, whether to create a lens for exploring contemporary issues as Foz does, or to tell stories Kate couldn’t read when she was young.

Challenging assumptions

‘It’s so sad because speculative fiction is about all this cool shit and there’s this one thing that people can’t get past.’ – Tiffani Angus

Discussion turned onto the concept of presenting more diverse and unusual worlds, combining conversations about world building with ongoing debates about representation in fantasy.

It’s hard to argue with the fact that the majority of fantasy is built from a male Euro-centric perspective. It doesn’t take long for debates about this to get angry, and that was something Camille directly raised. As Foz pointed out, people who are used to seeing themselves constantly represented get confused and angry when this changes, as their expected representation has been taken away – this reminded me of Sue Archer’s guest post here on the lack of women in genre blockbusters.

Kate gave some great insight into how to approach this sensitively. We should like what we like and be courteous about what we read, because other people will like it even if we don’t. What’s comfortable to read varies from one person to another, and it’s useful to think about whose comfort is being defined in any story.

But for all the maturity of Kate’s point, a line from Peter gave me a certain dark satisfaction – ‘One of the things that comforts me all the time is that most people hate most things.’

Fantasy and fantasising

‘If you can get away with it then it works.’ – Kate Elliott

Peter also drew a distinction that we easily forget but that’s important when talking about fantasy – the difference between fantasy and fantasizing.

Fantasy is things like a dragon, an imaginative creation empty of defined reality, that the author can shape and readers will believe in.

Fantasizing is transforming the real into something unreal, like making a hitman pleasant. It upsets readers’ expectations, and so can be harder to believe.

My own thought on this is that what’s fantasy and what’s fantasizing may vary from one person to another, but it’s a very important distinction to make in trying to create your combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Of course there was more

I sadly don’t have time to write up everything that was said in the panel, or even everything that interested me. This particular discussion brought together two different but related subjects and made something interesting out of them. I hope that I’ve given you a taste of that.

It’s not uncommon for proponents of steampunk to call for more diversity in the genre. Whether it’s Steampunk magazine‘s stated desire for fiction that reflects diverse backgrounds, or Ann VanderMeer’s mission to show different takes on steampunk in Steampunk Revolution, it’s a familiar mission. Despite this, the steampunk I see is at least as centred on white western countries, especially Britain and the USA, as sci-fi and fantasy. For all its revolutionary cries, this is fiction dominated by first world white male characters.

Many of the reasons are probably the same as for science fiction and fantasy. The majority of influential writers and publishers, especially of English language work, are white guys, and this is self-perpetuating. There’s also an expectation, rightly or not, that the core of the readers fit this type and want to see characters like them. And there’s an element of cultural default, to which I’m as prone as any writer. In Britain, our ‘average person’ in any given piece of culture is white, male, and fairly well to do. Any deviation from this is a distinct characteristic, while these are used to represent the neutral. Of course they’re far from neutral, but we’re so used to this that it takes a conscious effort to depict someone different, and when concentrating on other aspects of writing we’ll often default to this for characters both great and small.

But I think there’s also something specific to steampunk. While fantasy literature as we currently see it was strongly influenced by European mythology, there are other mythologies to be drawn on when creating fantasy. For steampunk, this is harder. It’s a genre based on a nineteenth century experience of industrialisation and progress through steam-powered technology. That’s something that was experienced most accutely in Europe and north America, with privileged white guys as the main agents of change. Other parts of the world experienced that particular form of industrialisation in a more limited way, both technologically and geographically, and by the time industrialisation became a global norm it was already moving out of the era of gaslight and steam, into one of electricity and diesel.

This isn’t to say that we can’t explore steampunk from a myriad other perspectives. Whether it’s the role of women, children and the poor; shining a light on parts of the world that experienced that more limited, externally inspired industrialisation; or reimagining the industrial revolution as created by another culture. But there are less existing images and models to inspire and shape our work.

We should always aim for more diversity in what we write. It makes it more interesting, and expands the potential audience. But that’s harder work in some genres than others.

Anyway, if you know some good examples of more diverse steampunk, whether in literature or elsewhere, leave a message below. I could do with some inspiration to help me practise what I preach!