From Genly Ai to Louis Proof: Are People of Color Well Represented in Science Fiction and Fantasy?
It’s time for a futuristic genre to stop living in the past.
By Lezlie Kinyon, Ph.D.
Originally published in The Internet Review of Science Fiction, November, 2009. Edited and updated here for Coreopsis.
“Beware, all too often we say what we hear others say. We think what we are told that we think. We see what we are permitted to see. Worse, we see what we are told that we see. Repetition and pride are the keys to this. To hear and to see even an obvious lie again and again and again, maybe to say it almost by reflex, and then to defend it because we have said it, and at last to embrace it because we’ve defended it.” (Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents.)
Some years ago I worked with a primarily African American non-profit literacy program for K-12 students. During my tenure, we discussed what kinds of literature to introduce our students to at weekly staff meetings. Being a long time fan of science fiction and fantasy I recommended some titles well-loved from my youthful library prowlings. During a staff meeting, one of my co-workers startled me by saying, “African Americans and other people of color don’t read Science Fiction.” I inquired further and discovered that it was generally accepted both among my co-workers and at the schools where I had been assigned that this was both true and the reason for it was because of a generally held belief that “There are no people of color in science fiction. The case is worse for fantasy.” I could only wonder. Then, I began to wonder, is this really true? I decided to do some research. No doubt many old favorites and groundbreaking new authors have been left out of this analysis. To you I say: this paper represents a beginning, a starting place for more discussion. There are, unfortunately (and, one sincerely wishes that this were not true) only so many novels one can read in a lifetime.
The popular conception is that people of color are “sidekicks” or absent more often than not in science fiction. The other definition I will elaborate on herein is that of “color”. At first glance, it is characters who are not Caucasian. Therein lays a Gordian Knot of considerable proportions and complexity. While it may be generally held that light-skinned people of European descent are originally from the Caucasus Mountains around the region of the Black Sea in Central Europe, there are many detractors of this theory, and it is far too large a subject for this essay. Suffice it to say that while there are as many different kinds of people in the world living on this Earth, many of whom would – by looking at skin color – would be identified as one color, or one “race” while they, themselves would virulently disagree. There must be SF/F tales featuring the people of Pacifica, Siberia, or the mountains of Armenia, however, I only (alas) fluently read English, and am most familiar with the works publishing in that language and this paper will focus on people who are of certain underrepresented ethnicities published in English without discussing the larger questions of what makes up a broad definition of race or ethnicity.
I knew of course, and loved, the classic works by Samuel Delaney, Octavia Butler, and UK Le Guin who had – together – breached the literary “color wall” in genre literature in the 1960s and 70s with Kindred, Dalghren, Babel 17, and in “youth” fantasy, A Wizard of Earthsea. Beyond that I had read UK Le Giun’s classic “Hainish” works where her protagonist, “The Envoy” in The Left Hand of Darkness ( published in 1969) is black – although this fact is often overlooked standing beside, as it does, the probing questions of gender identity and sexuality LeGuin tackled in “Left Hand …” .
This essay will be somewhat of a literature review based upon that research over a period of about two years covering works both classic in the genre and new. It is generally held that people of color, when they appear in F/SF are “sidekicks”, or the antagonist, and not main characters. While this appears, on the surface to be true, it is also true that over the years since Delany’s Dalghren made waves in the late 1970s, writers of all colors have stepped up to the challenge (SF&F writers do love a challenge). My prime criteria for the books discussed here are that the people created in them are not “sidekicks,” or non-human with dark skin (as in R. A. Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden), but humans featured as the primary protagonist of a novel or a series. My second primary criterion is that these novels are also a good read. By a good read, I mean written well, with occasional leaps into truly lyrical prose, a plot with unexpected moments within a well crafted story, well rounded characters (even the alien ones) and a satisfying ending. Good cover art doesn’t hurt, either.
It was both easier and more difficult than I had anticipated. Difficult in that I honestly could not tell whether a protagonist was a person of color from the cover art or the back cover blurbs on most of the books found in bookstores and while this practice may aid in selling books, it did make the search a little more complicated than a scan through the “books in print” listings. Although, I will insert here, with only a very few exceptions, the cover art will not reveal what is inside a book, or whether the protagonists are any particular ethnicity. While much of the art found in SF/F is remarkable for its artistic merit, it trails behind in presenting people of color on the covers of books, even when the chief protagonist is Native American, Asian, or African, or a blue-hued, yellow-eyed alien! One can only blame “marketing” for this lack. It seems, also, that it is still true that talking about race is something that people in the genre are nervous about doing, worried that it will impact negatively on them professionally or even personally. As blogger, author, and critic, K. Tempest Bradford, states:
A few things changed that for me. Partly it was realizing just how few faces like my own I saw at conventions, how few black and other POC authors I saw published in magazines or bookstores, and how POC were portrayed in SF shows (when they existed at all) … (Bradford, K., 2009)
While this essay is primarily concerned with protagonists, it is important to also remember the experience of the writers of the genre who broke through the barriers during the 1960s and ‘70s. Samuel Delany recounts an experience with one of the “giants” of the genre, John W. Campbell, Jr: a gatekeeper of legendary influence over what was and was not published during his tenure as the editor of Analog and Astounding Science Fiction in his essay, “Racism and Science Fiction”
On February 10, a month and a half before the March awards, in its partially completed state Nova had been purchased by Doubleday & Co. Three months after the awards banquet, in June, when it was done, with that first Nebula under my belt, I submitted Nova for serialization to the famous sf editor of Analog Magazine, John W. Campbell, Jr. Campbell rejected it, with a note and phone call to my agent explaining that he didn’t feel his readership would be able to relate to a Black main character. That was one of my first direct encounters, as a professional writer, with the slippery and always commercialized form of liberal American prejudice: Campbell had nothing against my being Black, you understand. (There reputedly exists a letter from him to horror writer Dean Koontz, from only a year or two later, in which Campbell argues in all seriousness that a technologically advanced Black civilization is a social and a biological impossibility. . . .). No, perish the thought! Surely there was not a prejudiced bone in his body! It’s just that I had, by pure happenstance, chosen to write about someone whose mother was from Senegal (and whose father was from Norway), and it was the poor benighted readers, out there in America’s heartland, who, in 1967, would be too upset. . . . (New York Review)
Isaac Asimov (1979) called Campbell “The most powerful force in science fiction ever, and for the first ten years of his editorship he dominated the field completely.” (p. 73). Delany’s anger is both understandable. With the demise of the pulp ‘zine market and, with it, the power of this kind of gatekeeper, one may hope to see this blatant prejudice erased.
Yet, The Search was also easier than a decade ago because, with a little questioning, there are some really “good reads” to be found fairly readily at the local library or bookseller. Consulting with my local reference librarian and the proprietor of the famous SF&F bookseller, Dark Carnival Books in Berkeley, Ca, I was able to compile a fairly respectable list of titles both classic in the genre and more recent. Asian Cyberpunk is by and large the most accessible and has a plethora of characters from all parts of the world, but, it is also a sub-genre that requires an inquiry unto itself and won’t be covered herein. Neither will I cover “fan-fic”, while not always “polished” work, is in many ways, free of many of the boundaries and conventions that hamper conventionally published authors.
Urban and modern fantasists have made a respectable showing in the portrayals of Native Plains and Southwest Cultures including Charles de Lint’s Newford books and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough’s Godmother series, especially The Godmother’s Web (1998) which weaves a web of its own through the folk and fairy tales of several cultures including that of the Hopi and Navajo figures of Spider Woman and Kokopeli.
The collaboration of Anne McCaffery and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough have made a fair stab at presenting Inuit culture in The Twins of Petaybee (2005-2008), albeit as an unlikely mix of Irish and Inuit colonists. Faring less well were African Americans and Romani – in approximately equal measure, for different reasons. McCaffery, as example, who does so well in many other ways, attempted to show “Tinker” families in a positive light in her Dragonriders of Pern (1976-2003) series, but – as so many have before her, the picture she paints is that of the popular, romanticized, happy “wandering clan”. Other minorities seem to be absent or, again, in the “sidekick” realm in her tales. Likewise, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time saga borrows freely from “Gypsy” lore to create his pacifist wanderers, Tuatha’an. Another recent example are the “Water Gypsies” in The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials (2001) by Philip Pullman – who borrows the figure of Johnny Faa from British ballad lore, but, nonetheless, misses the mark in presenting Romani culture.
Other recent titles with strong characters-of-color include Troy Tompkins’ The Marvelous World series under the nom di plume, Troy Cle, an exuberant youthful mixture of hip-hop culture and classic adventure fiction. The Marvelous World follows the adventures of Louis Proof, an African-American hero. The Darker Mask by Gary Philips and Christopher Chambers, a collection of original prose expanding the “hero” tales of George R.R. Martin’s Wild Card series. The continuation of the exploration of speculative fiction in Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (Aspect; 2000) is well worth the cover price. The (2004) anthology, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones edited by Sheree R. Thomas is a spectacular collection of short stories by authors from Charles R. Sanders to Samuel R. Delaney.
Some works are also worth exploring in greater depth:
Starting with Judith Tarr’s Egyptian-inspired fantasy series, contained in collections Avaryan Rising (1977) and Avaryan Resplendent (2003), Tarr sets her epic fantasy in a world resembling ancient Egypt’s first kingdom. Avaryan is the son of the Sun and a princess-turned-priestess: a fiery, energetic youth who becomes a general, then King of Ianon, and finally, an emperor who founds a dynasty. Avaryan is a dynamic fantasy written by a recognized master of the genre that stretches over several generations; all of the main characters are black, bronze, or golden – as when Estarion, the heir to Avaryan, travels to the ancient adversary of Ianon to marry a princess – a harem in fact – and cement relations between the two countries. Judith Tarr, herself, is a courageous writer who has gone on to write several award winning historically-based novels.
Octavia Butler, mentioned earlier, since she passed on in 2006 has had a scholarship and an award named for her. On her own work and science fiction in particular, she said, “People tend to think of science fiction as, oh, Star Wars or Star Trek, and the truth is there are no closed doors, and there are no required formulas. You can go anywhere with it.” (interview, Democracy Now.) A writer of exceptional power, she is perhaps best known for her novel, Kindred, published in 1979 to good reviews and honored with several awards. She is also a rare woman in all literature, a successful African American woman author. Kindred describes the journey of a young woman who inexplicably travels in time to a slave plantation. Her bibliography lists 15 titles, including Fledgling, published posthumously in 2007. Fledgling is a truly riveting and unique vampire novel with a frank, if disturbing, exploration of sexuality – welcomed in a sometimes overwrought sub-genre. Fledgling also continues Butler’s discourse on symbiotic relationships begun in her Xenogenesis trilogy: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989). Described by Jennifer S. Nelson in her paper, “Agonist Symbiosis in Xenogenesis: Past as Prelude in Octavia Butler’s Post-Colonial Science-Fiction Utopias” (2006) thus:
Butler’s trope refuses to validate the conqueror-victim paradigm for post-colonial readings of power’s exercise in colonial contexts; instead, it projects humanity’s enmeshment in kaleidoscopic patterns whose complexity we cannot grasp with our familiar, polarizing terms. Xenogenesis offers symbiosis as a cluster of conceptual alternatives for thinking, speaking, writing, and living human transcultural relationship in a global society.
Butler’s body of work is thought provoking, pushing the boundaries of discourse, as science fiction, in its very best iteration, should.
Neil Gaimon’s beautifully lyrical Anansi Boys (2006) stands as a classic tale of magic and self discovery. Returning to the mythical landscape he explored in his earlier work, American Gods (2001), Anansi Boys tells the tale of Spider and Fat Charlie Nancy, sons of Anansi the Spider: the Trickster God of African origin who “owns all the tales”. The plot follows twists and turns from London to a karaoke stage in south Florida to the Caribbean and, on, into the “otherworld” of myth and magic where dwell Gods known and unknown. Gaimon is a lyrical story teller who’s use of the language of the “everyday” and depth of character development places him in the top novelists of the 21st century, in and out of f/sf.
Kalpa Imperial (2003) by Angélica Gorodischer translated from Spanish by U. K. LeGuin is a small volume containing the interlocking tales of “the greatest empire that never was”. Set in a world resembling the ancient empires of South America, Kalpa’s stories span a thousand years of life under “The Golden Throne”. Under promoted and rare, Kapla Imperial tackles the difficult task of following a theme across several centuries of societal development. Gorodischer is an Argentinean native living in Buenos Aries. She is best known for her collections of short stories, Kalpa is her first novel to be translated into English. Gorodischer is best known for her evocative prose:
The wise say everything has its season, and each stage in a man’s life has its sign, and it must be so, since the wise know what they’re talking about and if sometimes we don’t understand them it’s not their fault but ours. What I say, and this is something I thought myself and never read or heard, is that in the ferret prince’s life the years of sorrow had ended and the years of anger had begun. The worst thing about sorrow is that it’s blind, and the worst thing about anger is that it sees too much. (The End of a Dynasty or The Natural History of Ferrets)
Charles de Lint in Forests of the Heart (2000) introduces us to his protagonist Bettina San Miguel, “dark haired, darker eyed, part Indio, part Mexican, part something older still…” a young woman who’s abilities to walk into “other worlds” is at the heart of this tale. Interweaving the mythos of SW Native and Spanish peoples and that of Celtic Europe, de Lint moves easily between cultures and between worlds to explore the human heart. In Forests of the Heart, de Lint returns to Newford, a place-that-never-was to create urban fantasy on a grand scale. “Forests of the Heart” follows several novels that explore First Nations mythical figures such as “Coyote,” “Crow,” and “Raven,” asking questions that, once again, emerge from broken hearts and lives that have been shattered by real world hurts. In de Lint’s latest offering, he again visits SW Latina lore with The Mystery of Grace a woman of power and … grace.
Ursula K. Le Guin is a recognized master of science fiction. Le Guin utilizes her knowledge of culture through anthropology and ethnography to create landscapes where cultures clash. Not an author to pussyfoot around the “big questions,” she once said (1973/1979),
When art shows now and what, it is trivial entertainment, whether optimistic or despairing. When it asks why, it rises from emotional response to real statement, and to intelligent ethical choice. It becomes, not a passive reflection, but an act. … And that is when all the censors, of governments and of the marketplace, become afraid of it. (pp. 211-221)
Le Guin tackles warfare, conquest, imperialism, and exploitation (The Word for World is Forest, 1976), imprisonment and slavery (Eye of the Heron, 1983; Four Ways to Forgiveness, 1995; “Old Music and the Slave Women,” 2001; Powers, 2008;), the more personal questions of gender identity (Left Hand of Darkness, 1976) and, personal liberation (The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, 1974). Her short, “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas” remains the classic example of ritualized scapegoating, and is read in sociology courses. Retuning to the universe of her “Hainish” novels, of special interest is The Telling (2000). Sutty, an Indo-Canadian woman sent by the Ekumen to Aka as an Observer, Sutty learns that the people of Aka are not what they seem, and under the tutelage the maz, she learns “the telling”. Through her experiences, Sutty comes to understand how the people of Terra and the larger entity of the Ekumen have interfered in and exploited the civilization of Aka through the sharing and withholding of knowledge. Before leaving LeGuin, a small treasure found its way into my collection in a book of short stories, The Birthday of the World (1995). Published some 30 years after the release of The Left Hand of Darkness, a story set on Gethan where we, at last, are given a glimpse inside the kemmer houses in “Coming of Age in Karhide” and again, we are challenged by our assumptions concerning gender and identity: inspiration, perhaps for another article.
Lesser known (in the US) minorities are represented in several titles concerning the Roma peoples. The Romani are often romanticized beyond recognition in speculative literature as “Gypsies” and Tinkers who roam about a fantastic landscape wielding magic or merely dancing. While it is true that Romani music has shaped the cultural audioscape from flamenco, to Django Reinhardt’s “Gypsy swing” to the complex compositions of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry, it is also true that Roma culture is both complex and relatively unknown to “Gadjos” – the outside world. The Silken Magic (2003) series by ElizaBeth Gilligan attempts to place Roma culture in context of an alternate world inspired by late Renaissance Sicily called Tyrrhia. A landscape as gorgeous as the much sought after silk that creates the heart of this tale, Silken Magic is first and foremost a murder mystery that revolves around the death of Romani Princess Alessandra and her sister Luciana’s attempts to solve this crime. Replete with court intrigue both Byzantine and Machiavellian rivaling that of the historical Medicis, fairy interference, madmen, magic herbal lore, and fanatical Jesuits, Silken Magic is a good read.
Another title that tackles Roma culture is Mulengro, by Charles de Lint. Mulengro was published in 1985 and recently reissued, although still rare. One of the few writers to present Roma culture in a contemporary setting, the Romani of Ontario have traded vardos for cars and are being hunted by a dark evil. The plot revolves around a series of grizzly murders that sets this work apart in tone and in story telling style from his later novels, more “Stephen King” horror than urban fantasy, de Lint takes us into other realms that resemble nightmares.
One cannot leave this subject without mentioning Robert Silverberg’s Star of Gypsies originally published in 1986, this novel is lyrical, a romp through the stars in the best space operatic style. While Silverberg is a writer always worth reading and Star of Gypsies is possibly one of his very best, this yarn concerning Yakoub Nirano, Rom baro, King of the Gypsies in a future a thousand years ahead of us is Zorba the Greek in Space – great fun – but the novel bears little resemblance to Romani culture.
Finally, this subject cannot be left without some mention of the recent spate of Samuri-inspired fantasy worlds. Most recent to make its way onto my desk is Richard Lopoff’s Sword of the Demon originally published in 1978 and re-issued in 2008. This small but well crafted fantasy takes place in an alternate “Middle Kingdom” where a magic sword and a woman warrior take center stage. Although very different books, Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s later offering, Tomoe Gozen (1981) series resembles Sword of the Demon in both tone and in the themes presented. This is not “anime”, it is high fantasy set in alternate worlds where magic and warriors fight for honor. These early Samurai tales inspired an entire sub-genre within fantasy and too many works have followed to be named here. Some are as well researched, as are Salmonson’s; some are better left on the shelf.
What do we take away from this research? A richer picture of the works of some splendid authors, of course, but also an appreciation for how difficult and twisting the road has been for authors, and will continue to be, who approach the knotty subject of race and ethnicity. Finally, perhaps both writers and reader will walk away with a greater – larger idea – of what is possible in a genre where the impossible is a regular trope within plots exploring hard questions and the marvelous. With this understanding, to evoke the old cliché of f/sf pulp fiction: The Golden Age of the genre is yet to come.
References and Further Reading:
Asinmov, I. (1979). In Memory Yet Green: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1920–1954. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Bradford, K. T. (2009) “Taking One for the Team: K. Tempest Bradford” Interview for “Whatever” blog site. Retrieved: July 22, 2009: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2009/03/16/taking-one-for-the-team-k-tempest-bradford/
Butler, O. (2000). Parable of the Talents. Grand Central Publishing.
Delany, S. R., (1998, 2000) “Racism and Science Fiction”. NYRSF Issue 120, August 1998.
NOTE: “Racism in SF” first appeared in volume form in Darkmatter, edited by Sheree R. Thomas, Warner Books: New York, 2000.
Posted by Permission of Samuel R. Delany. Copyright © 1998 by Samuel R.Delany: http://www.nyrsf.com/racism-and-science-fiction-.html Retrieved 8/29, 2015
Le Guin, U. K. (1979/1973). The Stalin in the soul. In S. Wood, (Ed.). The language of the night: Essays on fantasy and science fiction. (pp. 211-221). New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Nelson, J.S., (2006). “Agonist Symbiosis in Xenogenesis: Past as Prelude in Octavia Butler’s Post-Colonial Science-Fiction Utopias”. In Proceedings: Fourth International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities, University of Carthage, Tunis, Tunisia.