Race and Science Fiction continues: the standard FAQ

Now, I’ve noticed a trend when this topic come s up of a set of basic excuses/rationalizations that always get rolled out when this topic comes up. Just to save time here’s a quick FAQ naming them and explaining why they don’t work.
*note: if I missed any of the standard excuses, let me know and I’ll put them up*

(a) Why do you even see race in this? whats wrong with you?

This I already covered here. I doubt if there is a need to update it yet

(b) This isn’t about race, its about the quality of writing

I immediately assume that means the person speaking has read little if any of the material whose quality they are commenting on. Either that or they really should not be ever put in the position to judge writing quality. That aside I tend to read this as meaning

The real problem is that only straight white males have what it takes to write intelligently in this genre

In which case please don’t bother to try and couch this idea in pseudo-reasonable terms. I can read. And I take as much offense at the idea that I’m too dumb to notice the subtext of the statement than I do at the statement itself.

Again, the quality of the work out there my minority voices in the genre speaks for itself in my opinion. I’m not saying all of it is good, but in terms of average quality they come out well above regular science fiction writing. Granted, this is an opinion and it could be wrong, but it is my experience that most of the bashing of these works tends to be done by people who have never looked beyond their covers. And maybe page 1.

(c) The publishers have books to sell and a predominantly white audience can only relate to white people

i.e. “Our audience happen to be the ones with the problem not us. We just appear to be as unenlightened as them because we must pander to their prejudices and we care more about money than we do about principles

You know, I wouldn’t really have a problem with this if they would come out and say it directly. I wouldn’t necessarily like the person saying it, but I could at least respect an attempt at honesty.

Its still an indictment of the general science fiction reading public and the open mindedness they claim to have inherited from/brought to the genre though. If they are as free of prejudice as they claim and this is really me being too sensitive then where could publishers have possibly gotten this idea from?

(d) Its hard for us to write about people who don’t look like us

So….. You are a science fiction writer who expects me to believe that you are capable of building entirely new universes with new alien cultures or maybe projecting into the future or past of humanity etc..
And at the same time you expect me to believe that you are incapable of writing with any kind of empathy or sensitivity about the people in the world around you based on differences in skin colour/gender/sexual orientation?

Either that’s a cop out or you aren’t a good enough writer for me to be paying attention to anyway. It isn’t as though there aren’t writers who are capable of pulling it off either(Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis spring immediately to mind but there are others). Hence I have a very hard time believing that this isn’t more about you than it is about some intrinsic inability of any writer to do this sensibly.

(e) That’s not true. The genre is VERY diverse in terms of writers. Look at ……….

Tobias Bucknell beat me to this one. In summary, its a silly statement. Stop making it and actually address the issue.

(f) What are you talking about? The genre does include lots of diversity. Just in the form of robots/little green men/elves etc.

Oh, yes, the old ‘the other as the alien’ bit. Now this has been used brilliantly in the past(Isaac Asimov and Octavia Butler come to mind) it also tends to be used as one hell of a cop out by some writers.

For the record. Telling me that you view me as so alien that the only way you could address me was to make me something totally not human(and usually still a caricature, just with different biology) is really not something you should be trumpeting from the trees as some sign of how open minded you are.

If I were to write a story where I represented race relations by creating an all black universe and had white people represented as an evil rapacious alien species that smell bad and are totally devoid of rhythm I expect you might not necessarily see that as a sign of the diversity of my thinking process.

Well, that is the FAQ for now. Please feel free to remind me of any common arguments I forgot and they will probably be added to the list in time.


23 Comments on “Race and Science Fiction continues: the standard FAQ”

  1. Uchenna says:

    you know, the past couple of day i’ve been wanting to challenge you on this (because that’s the way this contrarian do) but i really can’t think of too many reasonably valid points. could the argument be that airtight?

    i’ll keep trying!

    btw, have you seen this? http://youtube.com/watch?v=b5cwJbqmqM0

  2. kwasi says:

    I think there are some cases you could come up with where the FAQ fails, but they would be fairly serious exceptions to the general rule. Let me know what you come up with though man.

    As for Casanegra, I will probably be picking that up when it hits paperback form. I’ve always had a thing for pulp writing and this looks like it might be high quality pulp. You?

  3. Uchenna says:

    yeah, i didn’t even know about Casanegra until i stumbled upon that clip (i’ve totally been out of the loop in terms of SF & fantasy… come to think of it, i’ve been slipping on fiction-reading in general). but i’ve got a lot of respect for both Barnes and Due (not so much for Underwood! hehehe) so i think i’ll be giving it a look.

  4. Nell says:

    I copied these two posts and sent them to the librarians in the library system where I work in the US. I got a couple of heartfelt thanks from staff members. The librarian in charge of purchasing books and materials for children wrote back and I thought you might be interested in her comment:

    This ties in very nicely to what a speaker said at the Children’s Book Guild meeting yesterday. She mentioned the need for more people of color in children’s books; people of color from all walks of life. She said, however, that even when a book has a main character who is not white, many publishers are reluctant to show that on the cover because they perceive white readers as their biggest audience and believe white readers do not relate to characters who are not white.

    This might seem like an unfair estimation of publishers, but I saw this premise in action myself very recently. One of the latest Diana Wynne Jones books I have bought for the system, The Game, features a main character who is specifically described as bi-racial (although that term is not used) yet you’d never know it from looking at her on the cover. I got to the description of the character in the book, flipped back to the cover, then back to the text, and said, “Huh?” She would have looked beautiful as is without tampering and I certainly would have still read the book.

    Annette C. Klause

  5. kwasi says:

    Its an interesting issue Annette, because the publishers are definitely speaking from experience in this. While it might not be true any more(and I have my doubts there) they definitely still see it that way. And I’m sure their own biases might play into it too.

    It will take a number of titles clearly showing nonwhite faces selling really well before this issue will cease to exist

  6. umbrarchist says:

    As a science fiction fan since before Star Trek I am urged to point out that this is about Race, Science Fiction and SCIENCE.

    Although many people do it talking about science fiction without SCIENCE makes no sense. Many people treat science fiction like fantasy for the reason Arthur C. Clarke said.

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    People use computers but have no idea how they work. I have worked with people who had degrees in computer science but didn’t understand electricity. They were off in the abstract never never land of software.

    But this relates to race as as technology relates to history. The last 500 years have been a record of what people with technology can do to people without technology and the people without technology couldn’t do a damn thing about it. The Native Americans may have been able to obtain guns but they couldn’t manufacture ammunition.


    The first SF book I read happened to be about racism and it is now free on the web.

    Star Surgeon (1961) by Alan E. Nourse


  7. Befley says:

    stumbled upon your blog.

    Kindly let me which are the publishing houses that accept african science fiction novels(if indeed they are any). I am an African Science Fiction writer and since you seem bent on defending us, maybe you can help me out.

  8. umbrarchist says:

    Suppose you look for racism in the relationships of characters in the sci-fi stories rather than look for characters of African descent in the literature.

    A friend of mine says the Narn in Babylon 5 are like Black people on Earth and the Centauri are Whites.

    The first SF book I ever read, Star Surgeon, was about racism though this supposedly future story mentioned that racial variations existed among humans but implied that racism had disappeared among humans. So some SF has criticised racism via subtrefuge.


  9. umbrarchist says:

    Here is a curious science fiction review.

    Little Fuzzy


  10. Dash says:

    May I reprint this FAQ in my magazine? I have a few additions, too: “Maybe people of color (and women) just aren’t as interested in science fiction because of cultural and gender differences,” “Do Black kids in the inner city even have access to computers to read a webzine on?” and “So what if I want to write about Black people [when I have zero cultural competency/sensitivity], that’s my ‘creative license,’ and this is speculative fiction, after all, I’m SUPPOSED to be making stuff up. If you have that high a standard for authenticity, you’ll get very few submissions, and how is ANYONE EVER supposed to write ANYTHING which is not literally their personal experience?” (Variation on (d))

    I think the sad truth is that there ARE white readers who will see Black people on the cover and skip the book for that reason. As “open-minded” as SF is supposed to be. This does NOT mean publishers should appease them and contribute to/maintain the problem.

  11. umbrarchist says:

    Is Race in science fiction more important than SCIENCE in science fiction?

    The sci-fi seems to have gotten progressively more dumbed since Star Wars.

    What if DUMB science fiction isn’t worth reading by anybody regardless of how race is presented in the stories. What if I would rather read a racist SF story with good science than some egalitarian pablum. In the REAL WORLD of today it is knowledge of science and technology that affects how the power games are played out.

    Do we want Black people to know a lot or FEEL GOOD?


  12. Andy says:

    I found your blog while searching for something else . . . An excellent FAQ!

  13. umbrarchist says:

    I just finished an SF book that might be of interest with this subject.

    Crown of Slaves

  14. umbrarchist says:

    Now here is some relevant sci-fi with a difference.

    The North Africa Trilogy by Mack Reynolds

    Blackman’s Burden
    Border, Breed, Nor Birth
    The Best Ye Breed

    {{{ Reynolds’ African novels are fascinating reads, well ahead of their time and quite unjustly forgotten. I will definitely be seeking out more of his books soon, and I hope they offer some similarly pleasant surprises. }}}

  15. Someday Writer says:

    Thanks for the ‘rant.’ OK, so I’ve thought of this passively before, and in response to what I see as a whole world of ‘white’ story-telling out there I made up a sci-fi story whose main character is a Native American (specifically Ojibway) girl who gets plucked out of her former life and sent on a wild space adventure. It’s not grand or original, but it is a fun story that I hope to get written some day. Some other major characters are a Korean scientist, a Zulu high school teacher of Literature, and a Scottish-Canadian teenager. In my experience, people’s unique history and ethnic heritage make them much more 3-dimensional as I get to know them, and I want to incorporate that real-life diversity in the books I write eventually. Problem: I am white, and a rather boring white person at that. I recognize that this will be an obstacle in writing believable characters from cultures not my own, but its a risk I think I’m willing to take just so that we as a literary culture don’t keep fooling ourselves into thinking that only white people can have exciting adventures. And research is the key. Anyone have any thoughts on this? Am I delusional or impractical? I would love to hear.

  16. umbrarchist says:

    {{{ Problem: I am white, and a rather boring white person at that. }}}

    Mack Reynolds was White but he wrote the Blackman’s Burden Trilogy. But I saw one website that said Reynold’s was one of the most widely traveled of any sci-fi writers. I presume getting to know a lot of people helps.


  17. This is a pretty interesting blog. I am, like many other African Americans, a burgeoning science fiction writer. I am convinced that I have written a highly dramatic and emotionally powerful story. This is not a sales pitch. I understand that for many people, science fiction means mono-cultural.

    Simply put, my advice to black and other minority writers is to keep writing and keep putting out good works. Regardless of what many main stream publishers think, CHANGE is coming.

  18. […] the search turned up a few ‘classic’ African novels but not much else. GhanaGeek wrote on the very subject a few years ago, wondering aloud why it’s the case that Africa […]

  19. […] the search turned up a few ‘classic’ African novels but not much else. GhanaGeek wrote on the very subject a few years ago, wondering aloud why it’s the case that Africa […]

  20. phantom says:

    James Cameron’s AVATAR will be out in a couple of weeks.

    It looks like is could be a parable of the last 500 years of history.


  21. […] the search turned up a few ‘classic’ African novels but not much else. GhanaGeek wrote on the very subject a few years ago, wondering aloud why it’s the case that Africa […]

  22. Race. The Final Frontier. In essence, the race problem will not go away, at least no time in the foreseeable future. Racial conflict has been one of the founding notions of this country. As an African American writer or if you prefer, black science fiction writer, I have had my share of the negative comments and looks. Regardless, it is my intention, like so many other science fiction authors, to make a success of my writing career. The Internet is a boon to aspiring science fiction writers from all nationalities and ethnic races of mankind. Maybe the realization will hit one day that one’s skin color is no indication of one’s intellect and abilities. Peace.

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