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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

To Go Boldly Where We’ve Gone Before: Is Sci-Fi Truly Egalitarian?

Hello hello!

Sorry this one took so long; I slept through a bunch of the weekend.

I know I've been laying on the somewhat negative and critical posts lately, and yes, this is going to be another. There's a good reason for this: I love science fiction. Deeply. It's been an adventure and an escape, a set of connected worlds I can play with. I love urban fantasy just as much. These are my worlds; and you, reader, if you enjoy these genres, you are one of 'my people'. There is darkness here, and struggle, and there are wondrous things.

However, I love these things too much not to examine them honestly. Much as a good relationship means improving yourself and helping your partner continue to be a better person, genres necessarily need to be criticized in order to keep developing. When they stagnate, they die. When they change...we find new and amazing things.


Source. This is a marvellous example of feminist sci fi with a damn cool setting, dreamy prose, great characters, and non-traditional partnerships. It even inspired some of my own work. 

I've praised 'my' field before for its generally progressive approach and open-mindedness. Sci fi is where you go to read about transhumanism, inter-species tolerance and multiculturalism, environmentally conscious dystopias, and a plethora of political approaches to interplanetary government and domination. If you can think of an idea, it's been done in sci fi: liberal and conservative ideas alike are featured here, sometimes mixed together. Science fiction is driven by fantastic elements and factual ones, and it's a big, broad, wonderful genre to play in.

However, it also has its downsides. A lot of sci fi tends to be geared towards white and western people, and particularly men--however, female cast members and minorities are generally visible, at least; a lot of sci fi is set in a post-national world. Think of Star Trek, which was definitely trail blazing in this area. Diversity is a given. Women shoulder guns and lead commands alongside their male comrades and no-one gives it a second thought. Representation of LGBTQ people could use some work, but for a starting point in a genre, I'd still argue that sci fi is mostly ahead of the game.


Source. This is on my 'TBR' (To Be Read) list. 

So where's the problem?

What I want to know is, why is a genre that's known for forward-thinking attitudes and powerful, strong female characters so reluctant to let the romantic side of things out? Sure, I can think of several television shows offhand that featured strong romantic plots--my favorites being Farscape, Futurama, and Doctor Who--but writing about love is another matter. Search for 'sci fi romance' and you'll have a tough time scraping up listings. It's 'not cool' and 'not allowed' for men to indulge in their romantic sides, and I don't really need to reiterate the complaints of female authors who fail to get recognition from publishers and advertisers. Anything that's just a bit too far off mainstream appeal doesn't really get the press, and readers who really might enjoy hearing about it often miss out as a result. 

Source. This one is one of the only true science fiction romances I've ever heard of. 

Why do you care? You're not exactly a squishy romance type. 

Well, it's true, I'm not. BUT--that doesn't mean that it shouldn't exist, or that romance and intellect necessarily have to be polar opposites. There is a lot of room for a human interest story that explores cultural clashing or transhumanism or a myriad of wonderful topics. However, the lack of romance suggests that the field's traditional distrust of women and quiet rejection of us hasn't been ameliorated yet. The way publishers and marketers are uncomfortable with 'ethnic' books or 'queer' books speaks for itself, too: sci fi can push boundaries, but only so far as society's comfortable in handling those pushes.

That deserves to be fixed. Women (a majority of the population, I might add) have a lot to contribute to sci fi; not to mention the amazingly different and wonderful perspectives that genderqueer people also bring. The field is already tantalizingly open to non-mainstream groups, but when it comes to advertising their publications, minority groups just fall off the map. A quick glance through bestselling names on Amazon's sci fi list reveals page after page of decidedly Anglo-Saxon and masculine names. However, what if things go the other way? What if it's completely (or at least balanced) with a lot more minority voices and female perspectives?

Source. I absolutely love this author's style. It completely stunned me: I had no idea Afrocentric stories were a thing, and in spite of lacking the cultural perspective and 'ins'--I love them!

Is there an 'overload' point for feminism and other types of activism?

To put it bluntly:  no, but yes. It's quite possible to go overboard in the correction zone and make an exaggerated attempt to balance everything that compromises the quality of the book. The message and characters may be good, but overemphasis and lack of humour can really kill the efficacy. It's a bit like some of the posts I've seen on Tumblr about the subject of activism: minority complains about mainstream, sometimes makes jokes about death and murder of mainstream, complains more and is unfriendly, and then wonders why mainstream is not listening to them. Since I do belong to a couple of minority groups and I interface with a lot more, but also belong to several mainstream categories, I've seen both sides of this divide and it's rarely pretty. So, I'll grant that a story with the wrong tone could be incredibly grating to read.

However, the number of cases where overcorrection has been a problem that I've seen so far has been exactly one. That's right, one; and the only interesting part of the moody, pretentious book was the alt-sexuality angle--which, by the way, was basically irrelevant to the pseudointellectual plot. Fortunately for you, dear readers, I can't remember the title of the damned thing, and I'm quite positive it was donated to a second-hand bookstore some years ago. (Hilariously, I recall the author being white and male. It's not always the activists you'd expect...)

Individual writers sometimes comment obnoxiously, but I've never seen a story really suffer for a lack of white people or hetero sorts or other societally conventional types. Ever. For one thing, they're so incredibly rare that the market is far from flooded, and for another, there are so many 'traditional' stories already weighing that scale down, I can't see oversupply ever being an issue. Being someone who tends to write on the light end of that scale, of course, I'm obviously a bit coloured in perspective. Point is, we would need many years' worth of writing to compensate for even half of a quarter of the mainstream hero stories. 


Source. This one was a recommendation from a friend.


The fix for this is simple: stop reading my post and go read some books by 'non mainstream' authors. Expand your boundaries a bit and edge outside your comfort zone. That's all it will take to change things. I'm not saying that we need to burn every book by a white, straight male: I have a whole bunch of books that are dearly beloved and fall into the 'mainstream author' category. All that really needs to happen is a little more openness and some experimentation.

This is sci fi. This is a speculation on our future. Let's make it inclusive, multicultural, and vibrant: it can only make the world more awesome. 

And, I'd be a bit of an arse if I didn't include a link to my own attempts to write 'better' science fiction.


Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find me on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr. More interviews and witty commentaries are coming. Keep checking back to see those surprise posts, too. This is your darling SciFiMagpie, over and out! 


  1. I really liked George Alec Effinger's "Fire in the Sun," set in a futuristic cyberpunk Middle East. It really felt different from scifi set in the US with its Muslim ideology and culture.

    1. Cool! I'll have a look! Are you on GoodReads?

  2. I would like to point anyone interested in SF Romance to thegalaxyexpress.net where there are a plethora of SFR titles listed. Thank you for this post!

    1. My pleasure! Sorry I didn't get back to you sooner. The Sci Fi Romance Brigade is also a fantastic source.

  3. Definitely fantasy opposed to sci-fi, but I strongly recommend both Aliette de Bodard's "Obsidian and Blood" trilogy (Aztec fantasy), and Barry Hughart's "Master Li" novels (Chinese fantasy).




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