No Science, No Sci Fi: Why Audiences Of Color are Underrepresented in Sci Fi, speculative fiction, & fantasy (SFF): A Hypothesis
© 2015 Tiffany M. Davis
I recently participated in a chat on Twitter (#DiverseSFF) about diversity in the science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy subgenres (abbreviated as SFF). The chat was well attended by both readers and writers of these subgenres, and ideas and reading recommendations were freely and eagerly exchanged. It was great.
One of the themes that came up repeatedly was the lack of a broader audience for sci fi and speculative fiction that featured characters of color. This was correlated by the posting of titles, and responses along the lines of of “I never heard of that!” and “Wow! I need to check this out.” While I noted in my recent blog post on Black Girl Nerds that there is a growing presence of authors of African descent in the sci fi genre, there is still a long way to go, especially for authors of Asian and Latino descent.
During that chat, I posited that perhaps the lack of audience connection with this genre is due to the lack of children of color in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) classes and, eventually, careers. An internet search will bring up scores of statistics and measurements regarding the lack of children of color in advanced math and science classes, and even computer-oriented classes; all of which are necessary for a career in a STEM field. Regarding computer-oriented classes, few children of color move beyond basic programming classes—if the classes are offered at all. Yet our society is becoming increasingly dependent on technology, and this will creep into the corporate sector as certain jobs are replaced by robots and other non-human technology.
Science fiction, and its subgenres, are dependent upon…well, science. Specifically, general principles and theories of science and technology are manipulated for the purposes of literary entertainment. Space travel and living (astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology), magic (chemistry, biology, physics), teleportation and time travel (physics—specifically, quantum theory)—these popular themes of science fiction and its ilk are like siren songs for those who have been exposed to them, because we understand at least the basics. But what happens to those in whom at least a healthy appreciation for the above is not fostered? They miss out on worlds that are fantastical to visit.
The relative dearth of SFF audiences of color can’t be solely relegated to a lack of STEM participation at the youth (and, perhaps, adult) levels. There must be something in the subject matter that is off-putting. To that end, I hypothesize that people read to escape reality, and SFF is, for the most part, too much like real life (especially more traditional sci fi and speculative fiction). The genre is all about the realm of possibility, and suspending the disbelief of that possibility. Fifty years ago, if someone had said that a computer will eventually fit in the palm of your hand instead of taking up an entire room (ENIAC, anyone?), they’d be laughed out of town.
Now, all that possibility has become truth. There’s nowhere to hide. Big Brother is indeed watching, microchips and holograms are being used in the military sector, there is increasing scientific proof that there is/was life on other planets within our solar system. Robots are replacing humans for more menial tasks. Cars are being programmed to drive themselves. Video calls (FaceTime, Google Hangout, Skype) are growing in popularity, allowing individuals and even businesses to connect across geographical obstacles. Smartphones are wearable on our wrists. Unlike contemporary fiction, which provides a more esoteric escape; and literary fiction, which tends to provide escape via self-examination; science fiction simply amplifies reality and for many, such a reality is too much to address in entertainment as well as the everyday. Add to this the tendency among communities of color to squash imagination in children and instead steer them toward more conservative thoughts and careers (which are deemed safer and more stable), and there is a recipe ripe for dream deferment.
So what’s the solution? Good question. The most obvious answer is steering more students of color into STEM curricula; but without constant nourishment and encouragement outside of the classroom, it’s all too easy for any progress to be undone once those children return home—especially if education is not deemed a priority. Don’t forget, there is still a stigma among persons of color that equates education with “acting white” and “selling out”. Blood is thicker than mud and at the end of the day, the students are more than likely going to side with their tribe, where they feel acceptance.
[It could be argued that Asian children—who rank among the most and better educated children in the world—would have no problems being immersed in STEM curricula, yet Asian writers of science fiction are virtually nonexistent. But I digress.]
As for garnering adult fans, well…that may prove to be a bit more difficult. It’s a lot harder for an adult mind to be flexible, and most of us like what we like, period. We also tend to gravitate toward and surround ourselves with people who like what we like; when everyone around you is reading a certain type of book (or not reading at all), the introduction of something new becomes more challenging.
A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step, and all that. The mushrooming of coding workshops, engineering camps, and writing conferences geared toward younger writers are opening up opportunities heretofore unimagined, or imagined and tucked away inside where protected hopes live. Social media has provided wondrous means by which authors can reach larger audiences, which include those who may not be aware of the rich offerings within SFF, or who may have tried it in the past and was disappointed. The increasing prevalence of SFF writers of color is showing doors to other worlds for readers of color, worlds that have the chance to be transformative and expanded. We just need to make sure they walk through those doors.
Tiffany M. Davis, who also writes under the pen name Tee Emdee, is the author of the Bastille Family Chronicles and the Sebastian Scott novels. When she is not spinning tales from the creative yet dystopian landscape that is her mind, you can find her cheering the San Antonio Spurs; reading, cooking; or playing strategy games such as mahjong and wei qi. She lives in the Atlanta, GA area with her polydactyl cat, Mr. Nibbles, and is a fan of aikido and the Oxford Comma. She has a tendency to wild out, Blerd style, on Twitter.