The Diversity Post

Fantasy and science fiction could use some diversity, both in its creators and its stories.  I’m not the first person to say that.  I won’t be the last.  But it’s still worth talking about.

More ethnic diversity would certainly be welcome.  It is a sad state of affairs when the most ethnically diverse cast in mainstream science fiction is found in Star Trek movies, all based on a TV show from the 60′s.  It’s why, for all of the reboot’s flaws (and there are many, many, many flaws) it still stands out as progressive in its casting and portrayal of the diverse pool of humanity.  There is something wrong about that.

Yet even the movies and TV shows I love suffer quite a bit from a lack of ethnic diversity among their casts.  I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer but its central cast was always full of Caucasians.  To be fair, the show at least had plenty of women, a few lesbians, and, yes, even a black guy eventually!  (Hooray?)  And as much as I enjoyed The Avengers, this was a lily white cast save for Samuel Jackson, who is basically able to get over the color barrier because people love his Bad Ass Motherf@@@er schtick.  The Marvel movies are a mixed bag, but one thing they’re not very mixed about is the number of non-white people who show up in important roles.  At least Thor had Idris Elba as Heimdall, who is a supporting character but basically one who helps save the day.  And the Iron Man has Rhodey, who gets his own power armor even if he doesn’t do much with it.  Although it’s annoying that no serious attempt has been made to give any of Marvel’s many female or non-white superheroes their own movie.  The Marvel movies are an ambitious project, but they aren’t ambitious enough for that.

I get that some people seem to have a negative reaction to unrealistically diverse casts, though I’ve never understood why.  Fantasy and science fiction, by its very nature, is unrealistic.  Why someone would be completely fine with vampires and aliens, but uncomfortable with a diverse cast of characters always strikes me as nothing more than presumed privilege.  But anytime you try to talk about privilege, someone is going to start arguing with you about specifics without discussing the obvious truth that it exists.

But it’s not just about privilege.  It’s about media that subconsciously (and consciously) limits itself to a very Eurocentric view of culture.  And a very limited Eurocentric view at that.  Though fantasy and science fiction has a wealth of culture to draw from, that pool tends to be pretty damned small.

As a writer, I try to change that when I can.  In my novel Divine Misfortune, I deliberately sought out gods you didn’t normally see.  Not just the usual Greek, Norse, and Egyptian varieties.  In Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest, I incorporated nods to Asian and Indian myth.  Monster doesn’t just only feature the standard chimeras and hydras we associate with fantasy but also an Inuit walrus dog monster and a Scottish goat man creature.  None of these are meant as versions of fantastic affirmative action, but simply as an acknowledgement that there’s a heck of a lot of cool cultural traditions to draw upon.  Heck, Ogbunabali, African god of death, has a very small part in Divine Misfortune and became one of my favorite characters.  So much so, I’m currently writing a short story with him in it.

But diversity is even more than this.  It’s a choice by the storyteller and the audience to broaden horizons.  My latest novel, Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest, features what I consider to be a diverse cast, most notably in their stage of life.  Helen and Troy are young adults while Nigel Skullgnasher and The Wild Hunt are a group of orcs in their mid-life crisis.  All the characters have interesting stories to tell, and I think that they can tell those stories in the same tale.  But this is why I have a hard time classifying Epic Road Quest as YA.  It prominently features forty year old characters who are struggling with the problems of being forty years old.

And I simply don’t have time to point out that there’s an appalling lack of archetype diversity.  Part of the reason I believe I get labeled as a funny writer (other than the fact that I do write some funny stuff) is that I deliberately choose not to write about orphans, kings, orphaned kings, Jedi masters, superwizards, etc.  Monster is considered a comedy because it’s about a guy who hunts monsters who is not particularly great at his job.  Neither is he that bad at it though.  And when he exits the story pretty much the same guy he entered it as (with no big reveal about how he’s secretly the reincarnation of Zeus or something like that), a lot of people seem genuinely confused by that.  I can’t honestly blame them.  It’s just not the way it’s supposed to be.

It’s great that urban fantasy has introduced so many fantasy heroines, but do they all need to kick butt in the exact same way, have the same conflicted love interests, have the same too-strong-for-their-own-good attitudes?  Where are the gentle souls (male and female) who fight demons and vampires with their wits, not their superpowers?  Where are the happily married vampire hunters or the alien-human hybrid who isn’t continually conflicted?  Shouldn’t there be room in fantasy for that kind of thing too?  There is, and if you look hard enough, you can probably find them.  But you shouldn’t have to look nearly as hard as that.

There should be more diversity in science fiction and fantasy.  More hopping vampires.  More flying head monsters based on Iroquois tradition.  More regular folks battling dragons.  More non-white people.  Heck, more non-people.  Less grand destinies.  Less angry loners.  Less fantasy kingdoms built on European tradition with a fantasy sheen slapped over it.  Less fantasy heroes capable of slaughtering hordes of orcs but incapable of forming a stable relationship or family life.

We can do better.  Fantasy and science fiction should dare to dream.  It should take chances and break rules, even its own.  Otherwise, what is it for?  Otherwise, I fear that in another twenty years when Star Trek gets its next reboot, it’ll still be the most diverse cast in fantasy.  And that would just be embarrassing.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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9 Comments

  1. Posted September 12, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    The most disgusting thing is when they take non-white roles like in The Lone Ranger or Last Airbender and then give them to white actors. But Thor is the one exception to that. I don’t think there should be Africans and Asians in the Norse afterlife because obviously the Norse had no knowledge of those people. Just like if you were depicting an ancient African or Asian afterlife it shouldn’t be populated by white people because in a historical context it makes no sense. You can call me a racist for that if you want but I think it’s an example of PC-ism run amok. If you really wanted to work other races into the movie why not have the blacks and Asians be the modern day characters like his girlfriend or that scientist guy? And really if Thor’s coming down from Aryan heaven and hooking up with a black chick that would make a much stronger statement, don’t you think?

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted September 12, 2013 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      Boy, I could NOT disagree more with you on this.

      The gods of the Marvel universe have always been extremely powerful aliens, not actual deities. As such, their portrayal is completely plausible in having a diverse set of characters. The gods of the Marvel universe diverge quite a bit from their original counterparts. After all, Thor had flaming red hair and nobody seems to mind they cast a blond for the role. And there’s absolutely no mention of quantum transportation in the original myths, so if you’re going to nitpick, there’s a hell of a lot of stuff to be nitpicky about.

      Plus, magic aliens. Completely different thing than being the actual Norse gods. Even in the Marvel universe it is explicitly stated that the myths we all know are merely the half-remembered legends of ancient peoples, so just because the Norse never mentioned any non-white gods doesn’t mean they don’t exist in this reality.

      Furthermore, I’ve grown to detest the term Politically Correct, which now is used too often as a weapon against diversity and inclusiveness.

      Sorry, PT. I just can’t agree with your comment, and have a hard time seeing it as reasonable. But thanks for commenting anyway.

      • Posted September 13, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

        If they’re really aliens then why not make them have green skin with antennae and three arms? If you’re going to go that route, why not go whole hog?

        • Charlie
          Posted September 13, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

          PT, it sounds like your gripe is with Marvel Comics’ handling of the Norse Gods rather than the Thor film’s handling of the character Heimdall. And as to all aliens having green skin… you’ve heard of Superman, right?

        • A. Lee Martinez
          Posted September 13, 2013 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

          I don’t understand the question, PT. I didn’t create the characters. Nor did I built the world that they inhabit. I’m just giving you the version of the characters Marvel comics created. Arguing that they could be different is true, but seems irrelevant.

          The Marvel comics gods are all magical aliens who share many similarities and also many differences with the original mythic versions. That’s just how they’re portrayed in the Marvel universe.

          More importantly, I guess I would ask why this actually bothers you? Thor, the comic book character and the movie version, are 99 percent white in their cast and universe. Is it really PC to give one prominent role to a black guy and another to an Asian? Or is it just more inclusive. Heck, I wrote a blog post about this very idea a while back and it basically boiled down to if we don’t change these older characters and ideas to be more inclusive then we’re not “staying true”. We’re guilty of cultural stagnation.

          But whether you agree with my reasoning or not, the Marvel versions of the gods are magical aliens who resemble humans and mythic characters in some regards and not in others. That’s just the way it works and the way it was always intended to work in Marvel comics.

  2. Charlie
    Posted September 12, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    I loved the way you waited to reveal that Troy was Asian. You introduce him as the perfect guy, ridiculously hot and with a great body and then later reveal he is also Asian. I got to take a good hard look at my own racial biases because of the stark contrast between how I pictured him initially.

  3. Mark
    Posted September 13, 2013 at 1:38 am | Permalink

    Thanks as always, Lee, for being willing to speak your mind for what’s right. I’m always amazed at how much more diverse my real life is than what I see on TV, even in the boring Texas suburb where I currently live. People always think that Hollywood is pushing a liberal agenda, but it’s pretty conservative when it comes to casting diversity.

    I don’t tend to visualize the characters as I read, so I rarely think about racial diversity or the lack of it in books, although I know that it’s a problem too.

    Diversity of ideas seems to be actually going in a negative direction, since everything needs to be a franchise now. I known there is a lot of diversity out there with less famous authors, but sometimes you really have to dig for it.

    It’s also not enough to just change a randomly white male human character to a dark skinned, female half-elf; you have to actually change the character’s perspective and personality to make it meaningful. I think that challenge is what scares a lot of authors away. If we had more author diversity, we’d have a much better variety of characters and stories.

  4. Posted September 19, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    It’s great you raise this question, Martinez. Last month, WorldCon in San Antonio took it on with “Spanish strand” panels, especially about diversity, Chicano Sci-Fi and cultural appropriation. I sat on several panels and wrote up my take on the Con, including what the publishing industry could do to diversify American spec lit. It’s at the link below and I’d love to get feedback from you and your readers. Your dialogue here is much needed.
    Gracias, RudyG
    http://labloga.blogspot.com/2013/09/a-strange-chicano-in-stranger-con-parte.html

  5. Posted September 21, 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    You made a great point, Martinez, about Star Trek having the most diverse cast in science fiction even after all these years. After decades of trying to sell my novels to New York publishers, I must admit, there does seem to be a resistance. Non-white characters are still whitewashed on book covers in the name of “commercialism.” I’m glad that we’re seeing postcolonial, Afrofuturists, and other rumblings out in the fringe/underground — they are the future, and are publishing me. Now to work on my own post about this subject . . .

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