Friday, February 28, 2014

Diversity in Sci-Fi

I like sci-fi. On a Buzzfeed list of "Top Ten Kinds of Media Copil Consumes!" sci-fi is number two, ahead of Fantasy and Non-Fiction, and just behind Mos Eisley Eroge (that's a kind of video game set in the Star Wars Universe, where patrons at the cantina are paired. . .erm. . .erotically).

So imagine my surprise when I discovered there's a roiling gyre within the sci-fi ocean consisting almost entirely of douchebags. Actually, I'm being unkind. . .to douchebags.

I guess I was too busy, oh, I dunno, IMAGINING A FRIENDLY UTOPIAN FUTURE to see how awful some of my fellow enthusiasts are. When you're brought up on a steady diet of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who, you can be forgiven for thinking that sci-fi authors, filmmakers, and consumers are an enlightened, progressive bunch. And many of them truly are, no question.

I met a lot of them at sci-fi conventions where we'd 
gossip like Ferengi at a Tongo table, tell lies about the complete 1977 Topps Star Wars Trading Card Set we had back home, quote our favorite movie lines, and watch slack-jawed as our heroes walked on stage and let us pretend, for a moment, that we all lived in the same, really cool universe.

Long before college, and, later, the West Hollywood Halloween Parade, introduced me to the vast diversity of the human condition, I was already cool with people of all races, creeds, and colors co-existing in one place. Because sci-fi. That's a pretty powerful lesson. One I feel is lost on some fans and creators.

I've talked about this before, but, for some reason, bad behavior seems to be on the rise. Perhaps it's because big names like John Scalzi have brought this to the fore in reaction to creeper convention attendees. He now asks cons that invite him as a guest if they have a "No Harassment Policy" in place. If they don't? Good luck with CreeperCon, but Mr. Scalzi is unavailable.

I'm a glass-half-full-of-Romulan-Ale kinda guy. So I'm hopeful the fact that we're seeing lots of bad behavior recently means we're more attentive to it, and people feel more comfortable reporting it, knowing their concerns won't be mocked or dismissed. It's darkest before the dawn, and all that.

The issue erupted again recently when the latest episode of Authors Behaving Badly hit the Internet. In this installment, a group of writers at the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America discussed their butthurt at women, people of color, and all those other damn people who won't get off their lawns, for having the audacity to call them on misogynistic, homophobic, and racist behavior.

For a good review of what started it all and how it developed, check out SL Huang's timeline here. Predictably, the SFFWA authors tossed around words like "censorship," and "Stalinist," and "thought control." Not so predictably, they didn't seem to know what any of those words meant.

Just a reminder, if you feel the need to wrap yourself in the US Constitution and claim you have a right to free speech, don't confuse a right to be free from censorship for a right to be free from criticism.

N.K. Jemisin has a far better response to the situation than I do. You can find it here.

One thing I noticed after reading as much of the SFFWA thread as I could stomach, was that a number of participants mentioned young and/or self-published authors as being the masterminds behind this groundswell of opposition to their authority over sci-fi.

Uh, whut?

All I could think of was this quote I just totally made up:

"You know what? That next generation is looking pretty sharp."
- Said No Generation, Ever

Maybe, and I'm being charitable here, these guys aren't really afraid of women and minorities, they're afraid of change. It can be pretty daunting to see the energy of youth running rings around your logic, and no manner of swatting at it or telling it it's time for bed seems to have any affect.

We need women and minorities in sci-fi. We need diversity of creed and gender. We need Native American sci-fi, and Mexican sci-fi, and transgender sci-fi. Not to satisfy some Politically Correct movement (another tired bogeyman trotted out on the SFFWA thread), but to fulfill the promise that makes sci-fi so appealing. The universe is big. There's room enough for everyone.

It also forces us to face our prejudices and bigotries.

A few years ago, the cover of Catwoman Zero was criticized for its depiction of the female form.

As a comic book reader, I am well aware that sexed-up covers have long been used to sell issues. But I am embarrassed to say that until women spoke up about what, exactly, was wrong with this cover, I hadn't REALLY thought about it. The way her body bends in an unnatural effort to present disproportionate front and back? The depiction is anatomically impossible. It's one thing to depict a character as sexy. It's another to completely remove her humanity to do so. You're going to tell me that doesn't affect how guys see girls? Or how girls see themselves? C',mon, man. Absent women in comics, would that image ever be contested? They called shenanigans, the cover was changed, and we're all the better for it.

But you can't have that kind of discussion if you don't have a diversity of creators and consumers.

Notice I'm not even saying people have to read sci-fi by minorities or women. Read what you want. But as more of them enter the fray, their presence and contributions can't help but change the dialogue. Some people won't like that, but sci-fi has always struck me as being about change, and how we deal with it.

I should take a moment to apologize to all the women and people of color who DO write sci-fi. I don't mean to marginalize your presence by implying you're not there at all. You are, of course (anyone who reads lots of YA happily knows this). My point is that I hope more women and minorities will follow your example. You show us parallel worlds with characters who look like a broader cross-section of the general population. As readers identify with characters who look and think like them, it inspires them to participate.

More stories, more variety, more visions, more worlds. That greater diversity is better for  the genre and everyone who enjoys it.

It's also probably scary to some people.

If only there was some way to dramatize what's happening. A storytelling vehicle that would allow us to show the average everyman or everywoman coming in contact with The Other. A sort of narrative analogue for the fears of today, but set in a time and place that only appears different from the here and now. By removing our filters, this fantastical art form would lay bare our prejudices and help us see we're more similar than we are different.

Damn, that would be awesome, wouldn't it? Is it possible?

Is it science fiction?

Copil is currently working on some YA sci-fi that, strangely, does NOT include Han-Chewbacca Erotica. His Twitter feed, on the other hand, is full of it (@Copil).


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