This amazing image is by Jim Burns. I first saw it in the Harry harrison-authored art book, Mechanismo. I have no idea why it’s come out so tiny – click on it for the real version.
When I wrote about Nancy Kress’s story Trinity, I began by pointing out that this was the first story by a woman that I’d read in this whole, long series. That’s over sixty stories, with just one by a woman, and published almost sixty years after the first story I read in the series. In The Best of the Best, there are seven stories by women out of thirty-six, so about a fifth.
That’s a better ratio than the classic era anthologies, but not the fifty-fifty parity we might expect to see, all other things being equal. In fact, in general, I think it’s fair enough to go further than this and say that science fiction has been and is dominated by straight, white, Anglo Saxon males.
It’s a popular sport to challenge this these days. We had the Jonathan Ross kerfuffle recently, and last year’s Hugos were greeted by great gnashing of teeth after the wrong books found their way onto the list (even the guardian got in on the action). Many blame the pale male and stale fan and creator base for this. Many call for greater diversity in the genre – Mistress Works and World SF Blog projects are among the better examples of people putting this into practice but there’s a great deal of posturing and hand wringing at the side lines.
However, being somewhat of a curmudgeon I wonder whether rather than being circumstantial, could the overwhelmingly ‘pale, male and stale’ domination of the audience and creative voice be definitive of science fiction?
Now, this not to say that other voices aren’t present at all. Individual woman writers have achieved great critical and commercial success – Ursula le Guin, Lauren Beukes, Connie Willis, Lois McMaster Bujold, Anne McCaffery, Margaret Atwood, C L Moore, James Tiptree Jr, Pat Cadigan and Lauren Beukes to name a few.
Different ethnicities can be harder spot, without even considering the use of pseudonyms. I can think of Octavia Butler and Spider Robinson, Samuel R Delaney and N K Jemsin who are, I believe African American writers, and Charles Yu and Ted Chiang who are Chinese Americans. You can probably name some more.
Different gender identities are even more difficult to spot. I suspect, though, that if an individual only ever expresses themselves through their preferred gender, then maybe it makes no difference, at the end of the day. Very few people saw through James Tiptree Jr’s pseudonym after all. Her sexuality makes hers an interesting life story, but her writing stands on its own merits and was generally assumed, during her lifetime at least, to have been written by a man.
But even considering recent efforts, the middle class straight white man still occupies the central genre demographic and his preferences tend to drive its focus of interest. There are, however, understandable reasons why science fiction audience has evolved this way, and it seems extremely silly to ignore these. It is still today very much a product of the circumstances and cultural influences that obtained for the first generation of writers in the first half of the twentieth century.
The male bias reflects the genre’s roots in technical magazines aimed at literate and curious – if not, by our standards, highly educated – men. Gernsback’s successful commercial formula casts a long shadow over the whole genre. He set the tone that carried through right to the end of the golden age and is evident in even the cyberpunks, the new hard SF and whatever the latest faddish movements, I guarantee it: racy thriller plots, a dash of sex, and some furrowed-brow ruminations on the threats and opportunities facing mankind in a rational and materialistic world. Look at all those sexy aliens and chainmail bikinis that grace the classic pulp covers – it’s pretty clear who the original audience was.
It was also a time of enormous ambient sexism, if not actual misogyny. Women’s lives were constrained by social norms that in turn had their roots in generations before. Not only were the technical and political questions raised by science fiction generally considered ‘manly’ topics, the economic status of women, comparative to men, gave them less access to the type of education and support networks that supported the idea of being a writer, let alone a science fiction writer.
Science fiction’s overwhelming whiteness reflects the cultural mix of the writers that populated the golden age. The early writers were either recent immigrants or descendants of Northern or Central Europeans – Scots and English, Germans, Scandinavians, Dutch, Hungarians, Austrians and from some of the more westerly reaches of Russia. The roster of early names at the forefront of science fiction is significant: Gernsback, Heinlein, Kuttner, Sturgeon, Pohl and Asimov as well as Campbell, Bradbury, Matheson and Clarke.
Their cultural background included a particular type of fiction with its roots in the western philosophy. It’s a European rationalist tradition of utopia and satire that goes back to writers like Voltaire, Swift, Thomas More, Erasmus and Roger Bacon, and back into the classical age. It presents a realist vision of alternative societies based on the protestant idea of a remote – at best – god and a whiggish political instinct against kings and divine right in favour of rational government for the best of the majority.
It’s incredibly short-sighted to ignore how closely tied science fiction is to this protestant Anglo Saxon intellectual milieu. It’s a type of thinking, of course, that has spread all over the world, for better or worse and as it’s done so, it’s taken science fiction with it. In his review of the ‘Best of’ volumes of short fiction in 2011, The Widening Gyre (yes, that again!) Paul Kincaid says:
It is, perhaps, not entirely coincidental that Lee and Tidhar, along with Aliette de Bodard, are among an emerging generation of writers of the fantastic (their work tends more towards fantasy than science fiction) who mostly are or have been resident in America or brought up in Britain, but whose background is not straightforwardly Anglo-American. Other examples include Shweta Narayan (“Pishaach” in the Nebula collection) and Amal El-Mohtar (“The Green Book,” also in the Nebula collection). Without wishing to exoticize what they do, it is notable that their somewhat tangential approach to the traditions of Anglophone SF and fantasy can, at its best, produce some of the livelier examples of the genre today.
I haven’t read all these writers, but I’ve read plenty of stories by Lavie Tidhar and some by Aliette de Badard. They are both fine storytellers, but whatever their backgrounds they have entirely bought in to that same essential tradition of thought-experiment writing that was laid down as the genre took shape. Science fiction is shaped by the technocratic ideology that’s at the heart of westernised civilization – free market economics, the principle of civil liberties, and the scientific method.
Even books that critique these philosophical approaches – and there have always been science fiction books that have – are based on a view that they are in some sense essential to the operation of society. Their embededness in the prevailing social mechanism is what makes them such powerful tools for prying it open.
Given that science fiction is so intimately bound up with western cultural traditions, I’m not sure why we’re all that keen for writers from other cultures to adopt the science fiction mode? Why should people from other cultures necessarily be interested in science fiction? Maybe, as readers, instead of asking people from other cultures to speak our language, it would be better learn theirs?
So much of the recent controversy around ‘diversity’ in the genre focuses on blaming the audience, which is to say the paying readership and the mechanisms that support them. Critics blame the publishing industry for not encouraging enough diverse or daring fiction, and the publishing industry blame readers for not buying it.
While there’s may be something to be said for the idea that some of the big publishers to do more to reach out to a bigger pool of creators, I suspect they do a pretty decent job given what they’re offered. In addition I think it’s surely inarguable that they must be driven by what their established audiences will buy – people spending money to read novels and stories is ultimately what finances the whole enterprise. If the established audience doesn’t want to buy this sort of writing, then what do you do about it?
Well, I don’t think you necessarily can do anything about it. I mentioned a couple of projects that surely have the greatest to foment change, but the real problem is perhaps that the largely male and adolescent obsessions of the established audience lie deep in the roots of popular science fiction – dreamlike secondary worlds, with exciting high tech decoration and a hint of danger. These geek dreams of super-heroism depend on a rationally argued and materialistic world that reacts in a predictable way to the actions of the protagonists. Even if things don’t go their way it’s not just the vicissitudes of fate but a result of their own actions calculated against those of their antagonists. These are worlds that the classic Heinleinian capable man – or indeed Vancian rogue – can manipulate according to their own intent, for good or ill, based on a shrewd understanding of its natural processes.
There is a more literary science fiction culture – the ‘speculative fiction’ crowd if I may be so bold – that wants to see science fiction as a more academic type of literary fiction. I enjoy this sort of writing, too, but I enjoy a lot of different types of writing (although you may struggle to believe that from this blog which – to paraphrase The Blues Brothers – deals with both types of story, science fiction and fantasy). However, Kingsely Amis has this to say about that tendency.
[Edmund Crispin] said to me once, about newspaper reviewing, but the point holds, ‘I don’t think there should be any criticism; any effect it might have on the writer is bound to be bad’ … literary self-consciousness means that your purpose ceases to be, say, telling your story as effectively as you can; it comes to include doing what other people have decided you should be doing. A close and intricate relationship between novelists and academics means that the novelists are writing for academics, not for anything as vulgar as fans.
There are plenty of writers writing for fans, of course, but the genre seems polarised between the mil scific, media tie-ins and never ending series on the one hand and the highly literary approach aimed at critics, the sort of thing that gets short-listed for the Arthur C Clarke Award.
Maybe what we’ve lost is the mid-list, writers like the Asimov and Clarke with clever ideas and a talent for expressing those through stories. You can see it in The Best of The Best; while a few real science fiction stories sneak through, many have a more literary than science fictional character. Rather than simple stories about gewgaws and whatnots (a gross simplification but let’s go with it for a second) you have people arguing that science fiction itself is just a mode and it’s gewgaws and whatnots just another way to explore the same old ground, what Sam Goldwyn might refer to as fucking and fighting.
In the end we’re left with a genre that’s defined entirely by categorical and social elements: science fiction is what gets marketed as science fiction and what the fan community decides to embrace. The idea of science fiction being a matter of content seems to have been pushed aside and it’s become instead a style tribe. It’s a place to find a community rather than knowledge, wisdom or enlightenment.
Which of course brings back to the bell I keep ringing: science fiction is dead. The generation of science fiction writers are as dead as the beats, the modernists, dada, the romantics and the Augustan poets. All that’s left to argue about is who owns the corpse.