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.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,