Monday Muse: Sci-Fi/Fantasy…We Need to Talk

So. It’s Monday. The second day of the week and the first of the work week for those of you who have jobs that follow the basic M-F thing. (A and I certainly don’t.) It is also Leap Day! Is it…Ten Lords a’Leaping? Or is that something completely different?

(Don’t worry; I know it’s completely different.)

First off, congrats to Leonardo DiCaprio for FINALLY WINNING THAT OSCAR. You deserved it, man. And what a wonderful acceptance speech.

Now, people of the internet…this means a lot of jokes are going to have to be retired. It’s up to us to bring the population up to safe levels. I promise to contribute to the effort as best I can, but I’m not that funny. Oh, people laugh, but I’m reasonably sure it’s more a chortle of discomfort than a genuine expression of humor. Anyway…

Leap Day. Monday Muse. I want to get serious.

It’s been a while since I really hunkered down and got super serial with the Muse, mostly because I didn’t want to talk about writing and editing when I had so much writing and editing to do myself. If I have to do one more word search for “seem”, I think I’m going to throw something. I am officially over editing. And, for a little while at least, I’m not actively writing anything (Bill and Ben is still in the outlining stage, though we’re really close to actually writing it now, and all my solo stuff is in the research and getting-to-know-you stages.) So I did what any good writer does in that situation:

I read.

I turned to my beautiful shelves and pulled out all my favorites. Blew through 5-6 books in a week, all the most comforting of good fantasy. Thursday NextPeter GrantNeverwhere, books I haven’t yet paired (NK Jemisin, Seanan McGuire, Guy Gavriel Kay), books I will probably never pair because I’m ashamed I like them, etc. I really went back and forth, jumping between series. Just enjoying myself immensely. Sinking into the books that make me happy (and sad and angry and terrified and proud and uncomfortable, etc) and giving my parched writer’s mind an o’erflowing cup of inspiration and comfort.

But I realized something as I was reading. Something I knew–something I’ve known for a long time, if I’m honest–and yet something I haven’t really thought about in depth until I really started feeling like I had a responsibility to do something about it. But, as bad as I knew the problem was, I don’t think I ever realized just HOW BAD it is.

There are too many white people in fantasy and science-fiction.

Now, I’ll be the first to say sci-fi isn’t as bad. Why? Because sci-fi isn’t as human-based as fantasy often is. You’ve got Kirk boning green women all the way back in the 60s (not to mention kissing Uhura). But…seriously…wander the shelves at the bookstore. The fantasy/sci-fi section. You’ll see what I mean.

Of course, there are amazing POC to be found in the world of fantasy. (Note: I will be focusing on fantasy as I know more about it, personally, but the argument–as I understand from those of my friends who’re sci-fi devotees–stands for both genres.) Even in the list I gave above, there are POC. NK Jemisin is a black woman writing fantasy, and a number of her characters are POC. Peter Grant’s mother is from Sierra Leone (his father is white, but that’s just for the sake of disclosure rather than meaning anything). Guy Gavriel Kay has stories based on the Middle East, Asia, all over the world. Strictly speaking, the Marquis de Carabas is black, but I always pictured him as…black…like the paint color, not the person color. (Did I type myself into a hole there? If so, I apologize.) And fantasy, like sci-fi, often has other species (elves, dwarves, orcs, etc). But…

Tolkien. Tolkien, man. All his damn characters (except, of course, the bad guys, but I don’t think that was particularly intentional in his part…or, at least, I’d like to hope it wasn’t because I need my image of Tolkien to remain intact) are white. Now, this is for a good reason: his stories are all based on Northern/Western European myth. It took a while for population migration to bring dark-skinned people to that part of the world (and, no, I’m not talking about slavery). But Tolkien is such a formative part of fantasy (along with CS Lewis, but I have already mentioned my contentious relationship with Narnia and its talking lion Jesus allegory), for a long time most fantasy writers basically sought to emulate him. Elves are white, dwarves are white…centaurs are whatever color their horse is, but also white. Hell, even unicorns! WHY, UNICORNS?!

We need more fantasy in the world. Good, well-written fantasy that isn’t a Tolkien derivative (though, to be honest, we seem to be in a period where the deliberate refutation of Tolkien–grimdark–seems to be de rigeur ((NO ONE MENTION I USED THE WORD SEEMS RIGHT THERE! I KNOW!)) for works of high fantasy). Hell, I’d really like to undo what I call the Supernatural Effect, too. You know, the “hunter” brand of urban fantasy which seems to exist for the author’s half-mermaid M.C. to have a forbidden romance with the Clan Chief of the local Were-panther pack while simultaneously striving to remain neutral in the contentious politics of the secret supernatural factions that her “normal” friends can’t know about? Yeah…let’s all get away from that, please. But that’s really a brief, very personal, aside…so let’s move on. And, yes, it’s OK to write about white people. But I don’t think we should be able to list the number of good series featuring POC on our fingers and toes. And I’m not saying we need to deliberately go back and turn beloved comic book characters black (*cough* Wally West *cough*) for the sake of diversification because that feels more like pandering than a truly diverse POV.

But, the thing is…we shouldn’t have to do that. Fantasy can be anything. It can be deserts and taigas and wetlands and, hell, worlds where the laws of physics are completely different. Why is so much of it medieval? Why, when a character isn’t specifically described, do we assume they’re white? (Why, even when a character is described, do so many picture him as white? I ran into this particularly problem when talking about the casting for American Gods. Did you know a lot of people still picture Shadow as white even though he’s clearly not? WTF, people?) This is probably a topic for a thesis more than a blog, so I’ll move on from the whys and get to the point where I exhort you to do something about it.

Write diverse.

It’s as simple as that, really. Create worlds where people of all kinds are walking around. Write heroes who are deliberately not white. Get out of the castles and dragons mentality. (Note: castles and dragons are fine, of course…they’re a staple of fantasy for a reason…but try something different. Or, at least, put POC in there.) Now…I’m white. I’m whiter-n-white. OK, actually…I’m part Turkish, and A is the whiter-n-white one, but I’m still mostly Western European, so…white. And I refuse the notion–refuse–that I only want to read about people like me. If I wanted to read about people like me, I’d write about people like me. I want my characters to be cooler than I am, and braver, and smarter, and more cunning. They’re like my children, and parents ALWAYS want their children to be better than they are. So I don’t just want white girls with social anxiety and a tendency to memorize the Kings and Queens of Britain from 1066 onward for fun. *cough*

I want diversity. So…here I am, pledging to write diverse stories. Because stories are for the world, not just the part of it that looks like me.

That is all. I’ll be back on Friday to talk about NK Jemisin because, when I get on a subject, I make it a theme.




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