Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Brain Dump on "Diversity" in SF/F

What makes a good speculative fiction story?

I tend to judge a particular work on three different axes. Number one, I assess characterization. Do the protagonists and antagonists feel like living, breathing people -- or are they cardboard cut-outs? Can I understand their motivations -- or do they behave in ways that are strictly convenient for the plot or the message? Can I connect, human to human, with these fictional individuals even if - for me - they are Alien? If there are literal aliens, how much thought has the author put into his or her extra-terrestrial societies, and does he or she do a good job conveying that information without resorting to the infodump?

Number two, I assess the plot. Does the story move -- or does it get bogged down with extraneous description or pontification? Further, does the movement from point A to points B/C/D/etc. make sense given the characters and the setting? Is there an internal consistency that makes the story feel "realistic" despite its fantastic elements? And lastly, are the fantastic elements of the plot interesting? Even if the author is using established tropes and archetypes, are they at least remixed in ways that keep things fresh?

Number three, I assess the thematic undertones. SF/F is a "literature of ideas" and always has been, so the message does matter -- even if, as many have rightfully pointed out, it shouldn't overwhelm the other elements of storytelling described above. And yes -- to be perfectly honest, I am not a wholly apolitical reader. My personal worldview (Catholic with a heavy side-helping of reform-minded conservatism/classical liberalism/libertarianism/I don't really know how to classify myself at this point except to say I'm definitely not a woman of the left) definitely influences the sorts of themes that I find compelling. I will always favor human striving over nihilism, individualism over collectivism, and respect for religiosity over its opposite.

Notice what I didn't say? I didn't say that I consider opinions the author has expressed outside of the actual story. If I stuck to books - or movies or TV shows - written by folks who agreed with me, let's face it: I'd be limited to a pretty narrow field. True -- the alignment of the author can and does have an impact on the sorts of stories he or she pens, but even though I may think a certain writer is a reality-challenged Marxist and a hateful bigot (*ahem*), that doesn't mean I'm incapable of picking out the merits of what that author writes. The content of the story itself matters -- not the man or woman or non-binary otherkin behind the curtain.

This is one of the many reasons why I violently oppose fandom's diversity police: these folks consistently refuse to use their brains to tease out the difference between the author and the work. As a gal with a non-standard sexuality ("heteroromantic asexual" is, I think, the most accurate description of where I fall on the spectrum, as I have felt romantic attractions to men without feeling the attendant physical urges), I get the desire to see one's own life experiences validated through inclusion in the stories one reads. I also agree, in principle, that portraying a wider variety of characters will make our genre richer as a whole. But you will not accomplish this worthy goal by focusing on authors' perceived melanin deficiencies or incorrect dangly bits. Shakespeare was a white Englishman and a Christian, but in Shylock, he was still able to portray the frustrations of someone who'd been mistreated because, as a Jew, he was perceived by his Christian contemporaries as the Other. Straight white male writers do not lack imagination and empathy; the diversity police, however, assume out of hand that they do.

Furthermore, your story may feature the full rainbow of ethnicities and sexualities, but if all your characters reflect the worldview and grievances of American coastal academics, you have not achieved diversity. And really, I cannot stress this enough: There is no such thing as, say, "the female experience" because we of the distaff sex are not interchangeable widgets -- and the same goes for folks who aren't white. We are all individuals with complex, three-dimensional minds beneath the surface and should be portrayed as such in fiction.

Actually, reflecting on this now, I think this is an area in which straight white males really are privileged. They may be the boogeymen in every hard-left fairy tale, but at least no one in their "class" - well, no one who is taken seriously - is presuming to speak for them the way feminists are presuming to speak for me. I would give my left arm for that blessed freedom.

And that brings me to an excellent point Brad Torgersen made on a Facebook thread yesterday:
I hate to say it, but if we had more black writers in SF/F [name redacted]'s voice would not be the voice the white liberals fawn over. I keep saying this: one thing my interracial marriage taught me 20 years ago was that there is no such thing as The Black Opinion. There are black people with opinions, but no Black Opinion. [Name redacted] relies on stupid white liberals currying acceptance/approval ("I get to be one of the Good Guys!") from her. If we had more black writers, [name redacted] would not be so "loud" simply for being the only one in the room white liberals pay attention to. Of course, if SF/F were to have its own Allen West, I am sure the libs would hate-rage the man into oblivion for failing to be the *right* kind of black person. Anyway, [name redacted] is really just a painful symptom. White liberal guilt is the true disease.
What Brad has hit upon here is a reason why we may still have a compelling interest in promoting diversity in the fandom even if, as I argued above, the social justice warriors' project regarding same is rife with error and lazy thinking. If you widen the field, you will defang the self-styled spokeswomen (because most social justice warriors do appear to be women) and power-mad bullies and open the floor for real productive dialogue in re: how to deal with the boors, rudesters, and actual racists in our midst -- a dialogue that I genuinely believe is worth having.

But how do we promote diversity while also avoiding Marxist sand traps? That, I think, will have to be the topic of a future post.


  1. Great post. I guess I am a white male of privilege, though I have often not felt that way. And I tend to treat folks as individuals as well. I have known some black people who do not fit the stereotype; the massive man in graduate school who could quote whole sections of Shakespeare; the young woman, also in graduate school, who liked hanging with white people and listening to Led Zepellin; the coworker who sat beside me at Florida DCF who was working on her Masters in Theater; my next door neighbor from Zimbabwe, who knows more about geography and the world political scene than most Americans of any ethnic persuasion. Kind of hard to pigeonhole any of them into a convenient composite. Or the Pakistani Atheist Mathematician I have had coffee with. I have always loved speculative fiction, even to the point of writing some, and I always thought the best speculative fiction, while maybe describing some of the ethnic differences of the people involved, otherwise ignored them. I still remember the Star Trek episode, The Ultimate Computer, in which we are introduced to Dr. Richard Daystrom, a black male who is the most brilliant scientist of the multispecies Federation. The society was color blind (or face prosthetic blind) and people rose to their positions by merit alone. If I had a Universe to save, and could choose from the best minds to work on the problem, it really wouldn't matter if I had seven black females, seven Chinese males, or a complete mixture of ethnic and gender groups, as long as the job got done. But I would feel really uncomfortable if the people were selected according to some formula to make sure we had proper mixing. As to shaming, the older I get the less shaming works on me. If you want to shame me based on what my ancestors did to your ancestors, good luck, and spare yourself the effort. I don't try to shame the Norsemen who preyed on my Anglo-Saxon and French ancestors. That's history, interesting to learn, but not really relevant to my present existence. If you want to meet as equal friends, fine. But telling me I am wrong or have nothing to say because an ancestor of mine, who was a person of their time, oppressed your ancestor, will not get you anywhere.

  2. Ugh. Poor Brad.

    What he said is complete accurate, completely fair-minded, and completely open to the lynch-mobs of the social justice left. He will now be called a racist as well as a trans-phobic hate-monger...despite the fact that his stories show absolutely ZERO tendency toward either of those things.

    You can tell a lot about a person by the way that they write their characters, IMHO - the person who spends their whole narrative explaining why specific traits (like the sexual orientation or race or religious affiliation) matter more than anything else...that is a person I don't want to know in real life. Brad's characters are real people with complex histories and diverse backgrounds and compositions. Ridiculous to think that anyone would think him a bigot...but they will.

    Poor Brad.