Beyond ‘Game of Thrones’: Exploring diversity in speculative fiction

June 09, 2013 | 8:08 a.m.

This book cover image released by Del Rey shows "The Best of All Possible Worlds, " by Karen Lord. (Del Rey / /Associated Press)

Science Fiction writer Octavia Butler near some of her novels at University Book Store in Seattle in 2004. Butler, considered the first black woman to gain national prominence as a science fiction writer, died in 2006 (Joshua Trujillo / Seattle Post–Intelligencer)

Last August, Weird Tales magazine, long a fixture on the speculative fiction landscape, got hit with a heavy dose of online fury.

The publication had made plans to publish an excerpt from an ecologically themed dystopian novel in which whites are the oppressed minority and their oppressors are referred to as “coals.”

Those who attacked the work were upset by a number of elements seen as racially problematic, up to and including the title, “Saving the Pearls,’’ “pearls” being the book’s term for white people and a word read as charged with an altogether different tenor than the notion of “coals.” In response to the outcry, the magazine pulled the excerpt.

Online protests and allegations of racial weirdness in science fiction and fantasy are hardly new, but they began to seriously come to a head with the still contentious Internet debate dubbed “Race Fail 2009,” sparked when authors and readers clashed over ideas about culturally insensitive depictions in fantastic literature.

That conversation has helped galvanize writers and fans of color in the science fiction and fantasy (SFF) community; their voices could be heard loudly in the swirl of protest over the Weird Tales excerpt.

For many, one larger objective is pushing back against the notion that readers of color don’t read SFF. “I think the effect is forcing editors, publishers and marketers to reassess their assumptions as to what is acceptable and what will be noticed,” said K. Tempest Bradford, a writer and critic who serves on the board of the Carl Brandon Society, an organization devoted to exploring race and ethnicity in speculative fiction.

Fantasy writer N. K. Jemisin. (Courtesy of N.K. Jemisin)

Fantasy writer N. K. Jemisin. (Courtesy of N.K. Jemisin)

“Really, what’s happened [is] not so much [that] the fandom has changed, but that the fandom is less afraid to reveal itself for what it is,” added fantasy writer N. K. Jemisin.

That Jemisin is currently one of the genre’s rising stars speaks to both her talent as a writer and a craving by readers and critics for some aesthetic diversity.

Her epic page-turners — collectively known as the “Inheritance Trilogy” and the “Dreamblood” series — are filled with myth and magic, meticulous world-building, nuanced characters and sophisticated thinking about good vs. evil.

A couple of things you won’t find: orcs or much that resembles medieval white Europe.

“I’m not drawing the George R.R. Martin fans, I’m not drawing the Brandon Sanderson fans, but I am drawing people who say in their Goodreads or Amazon reviews that ‘I had stopped reading fantasy and then somebody gave me this,’” said Jemisin, whose most recent effort, “The Killing Moon,” was nominated for a Nebula Award for best novel.

Of course, there is nothing new or even relatively new about such writers operating within the genre, even if their numbers were small. In 1857, Martin Delany serialized “Blake, or the Huts of America,” an “alternative history” centered on a successful slave revolt. A 1920 short story by W.E.B. Dubois shows up in the influential “Dark Matter” anthologies edited by Sheree Renée Thomas, and Indian writer Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s 1905 story “Sultana’s Dream” made an early contribution to the world of feminist utopias.

American writers Samuel R. Delany (no relation, according to Martin) and Octavia Butler, who emerged in the ’60s and ’70s, have become firmly established in the canon.

Fantasy writer N. K. Jemisin's books

The last 15 years or so, however, have seen the growing prominence of strong SFF writers of color—so many you could almost start throwing out names at random: Nnedi Okorafor, Samit Basu, Hiromi Goto, Nisi Shawl, Vandana Singh, Karen Lord or the particularly beloved Nalo Hopkinson, who has become a popular speaker at science-fiction conventions and helped found the Carl Brandon Society, an organization devoted to exploring race and ethnicity in speculative fiction.

Also amid those ranks are the numerous authors featured in last year’s well-received anthology of indigenous SFF, “Walking the Clouds.”

“You don’t have to be Eurocentric to make it to the future,” said Andrea Hairston, a professor of theater and Afro-American studies at Smith College in Massachusetts, whose side gig happens to be writing award-winning science fiction. “We have to figure out how to be different together. [And t]hat is what storytelling is all about, particularly the mythological storytelling that we do.”

Hairston and Bradford put smaller presses like Aqueduct, Small Beer and Angry Robot, on the vanguard here, but imprints within the main houses “are doing some interesting things,” Bradford noted, citing Tor and Orbit as two that recently have fostered more diverse catalogs.

In fact, authors say they’re receiving increasingly welcoming treatment throughout the industry — not only in terms of getting published, but also in receiving serious review attention and the kind of marketing that respects their work.

"Throne of the Crescent Moon (Book I of "The Crescent Moon Kingdoms"). (DAW Books) "

“Throne of the Crescent Moon.” (DAW Books)

Such was the case for Saladin Ahmed, whose debut, “Throne of the Crescent Moon,” was released last year.

“My editor and another editor who made an offer on the book explicitly committed to not whitewashing the cover,” said Ahmed of the industry’s practice of slapping white people on the cover of books that don’t feature white protagonists. “That to me is a clear example that the protest on the Internet got through to at least a certain level of editors.”

Ahmed ended up signing on with venerable Penguin imprint DAW. Betsy Wollheim, DAW’s president and publisher, said for her the idea of wrapping Ahmed’s book in a misleading design was never under consideration.

“I’m in a fortunate and privileged position, because I own my own company,” she said. “I can make my own decisions.”

Readers have had some success weighing in on those types of decisions. In 2009, after significant backlash, Bloomsbury Publishing backtracked on a design, rejacketing popular SFF young adult author Justine Larbalestier’s book “Liar” in the U.S. with a non-white woman on the cover.

In general, Wollheim puts whitewashing on the same evolutionary track as the genre’s eye-rollingly sexist covers, which became prominent in the 1960s. It took decades, but the industry has made a noticeable shift away from churning out covers laden with passive ladies in states of scandalous undress, even if the work there is still very much in progress.

DAW also served as publisher for Okorafor’s acclaimed “Who Fears Death?” which heads into the post-apocalyptic future from an African vantage point.

Ahmed’s novel — which was also up for a Nebula and which NPR called “ ‘Lord of the Rings’ meets the Arab Spring” — is a gracefully written “Arabian Nights”-flavored high fantasy located in a faux Middle East beset by evil ghuls (a sort-of zombie). It stars a would-be retired ghul hunter named Adoulla (and his diminutive young sidekick) because Ahmed is interested in expanding paradigms beyond just multicultural casting or varied geographical settings.

“My hero is 60-plus years old,” the author said of the protagonist of “Throne,” book one in his “Crescent Moon Kingdoms” series. “That comes from the focus on age, and the wisdom that comes with age, in Arab culture. Maybe a 15-year-old is not who we need to follow around the whole time.”

At the same time, “my class background is at least as important to me,” he added. “I write working-class heroes.”

For a genre predicated on the mind-altering, making a space for alternative philosophies ought to be a no-brainer, Hairston said.

“Whatever concerns us, whatever excites us, whatever makes us nervous,” Hairston said, “all those things I think we can really work through in a primal way in fantasy or science fiction.”

– Mindy Farabee

Mindy Farabee is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Daily Beast, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times.

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex

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Comments


23 Responses to Beyond ‘Game of Thrones’: Exploring diversity in speculative fiction

  1. julez says:

    In a reality where 1/2 + the population is chinese, I can't help but see the irony and ignorance of anyone calling themselves a "dominant" race that isn't chinese a bit of a farce, don't you? It won't matter, computer models are already showing in the the 300 – 500 more years, our decendants will all look chinese anyways. Shame we can still seem to be bickering about race and religion. I find it tiresome.

    • Brad in Oakland says:

      "reality" has multiple dimensions. In the one where I live, the United States, inequalities of wealth, education, health, incarceration and the ways people are represented break down starkly on race. It is hardly bickering to point out that these facts powerfully shape one's life chances. Being a member of the dominant race is not the same thing as being the numerical majority but having unequal access to power and resources (material and symbolic). Whites are dominant in this sense in many parts of the world. In apartheid South Africa, whites were dominant and a minority. To characterize people of color's struggles for justice as "bickering" and "tiresome" (for you) demonstrates a lack of human empathy.

  2. Gene in L.A. says:

    As a man of Eurocentric descent I would point out that pearls have no potential other than to remain pearls and perhaps be used as jewelry, whereas coal has the potential to burn and power our way of life, and also the potential to become diamonds. If those two terms were the extent of controversy causing Weird Tales to withdraw the story in question, then I would say they don't have the courage of their convictions and we all might be the poorer for missing what they decided to withhold. Censorship for any reason whatsoever is a worse prescription than the disease it purports to protect us from.

    • lexdiamonz says:

      I LOVE THIS!!! YOU SIR ARE A GENIUS

    • TSW says:

      Please read the excerpt and try again. Criticism is not censorship, and that was racist tripe.

    • Alex says:

      Censorship "for any reason whatsoever"? Well, that explains this comment, because apparently you don't bother to think about the drivel that comes to your mind, you just have to spew it uncensored.

      If those two terms were the point, then yeah, it would be stupid to get that worked up about it. But they're clearly not the point of the argument. Writing a story, in the US in 2009, about white people overthrowing black oppressors obviously has a little bit of subtext. No amount of word games about which of the names used for the races is "better" is going to be more important than that.

    • vaiyt says:

      Read the novel, and disabuse yourself of such notions. A few points:
      The naming of "Pearls" and "Coals", if ranked by usefulness, is contradicted by the logic of the in-universe scale, that has "Cottons" near the bottom while both classes above them ("Ambers" and "Tiger's Eyes") are named after gems.
      The black guy that Eden wants to "mate" in the story is called "beastly" or "bestial" a whole bunch of times, and then turns into an actual beast. In fact, the description and characterization of black people in the book follow racist stereotypes painfully straight.
      With all the black people around, the smartest person around is Eden's white father, who's such a genius he gets to command all the black scientists despite his status. He also gets to invent a world-saving technology, which can only be completed by… his white daughter!
      I could keep with this all day.

      But the biggest problem is that the whole distopism where black people dominate or replace white people is a standard racist trope and not subversive at all. "Save The Pearls" is blatantly, clownishly racist. It's the apocalyptic YA version of Birth of a Nation, if Griffith were a mealy-mouthed "colorblind" liberal bozo.

  3. beafuckinggenius says:

    So, basically, building a future on the sacrifice of coals?

    Even with that thinly veiled analogy to slavery, pearls will always be seen as more valuable and precious, whereas coal is utilitarian, dirty, and ugly.

  4. exothorpe says:

    color, not Color

  5. @tinytempest says:

    Gene, censorship doesn't apply here. Save The Pearls is available for you to read if you want to. No one has ripped it from your hands and told you that you can't read it. None involved are entities of the government. Do some research on what Censorship means.

  6. Will Shetterly says:

    The strangest thing about the Saving the Pearls controversy is that it's apparently the story of a white woman who falls in love with a black man. Are stories of interracial romance now considered racist? I confess, I haven't read the book, so maybe there's a message at the end that interracial love is wrong–but I haven't heard any of the book's critics say that. It seems most of them only read a little out of context.

  7. Raijin says:

    Shorter Gene: I don’t know what the full controversy over that book is, or what the definition of “censorship” is, but I’m going to opine about them both!

  8. Mike Stone says:

    There is some very good fantasy that isn’t centered around white males; for instance, most of Le Guin’s work is of characters of color, and all of it is feminist.

    The problem is that this later generation of writers (including the writer of this article) can’t figure out that skin color and gender is second to character and plot.

    Jemesin in particular reminds one of Melanie Rawn, where the only thing that comes across in her writing is her strong dislike of those not like her heroines.

    Aesthetic diversity is fantastic. Writing without a chip on your shoulder, or at least justifying the chip on your shoulder, is far better.

  9. Knetzes says:

    Uhm, while I understand that people of color may feel disenfranchised by fantasy – because fantasy was created by Europeans and made primarily for a European audience for essentially a hundred years until now – I still feel if you can't enjoy a book because of it's cultural origins you're a racist.

    If I read an Asian manga book about long lost kings from, say, Korea, it's a given that even if the story is made-up, if the author comes from a Korean background I should expect Korean protagonists. If I can't handle that without immediately demanding to see white characters then I would be a racist, too.

    Finally, a word about 'whitewashing'. If there's a story that has non-white characters, then it makes no sense to make them white on the cover. We can agree on that much.

    But Hollywood does blackwashing, too. Just take the first Thor movie where a black guy was cast a Norse God. The Norse mythology is a Northern European cultural treasure, to insert a black dude from nowhere is an insult, just like letting a white guy play a God from a Japanese mythology would be.

    So don't forget: this goes both ways(even if only one of them get acknowledged).

    • Dorfl says:

      As an actual Scandinavian, I'm much more annoyed that they've made Thor blonde than I am about Heimdall's skin colour.

    • teemtwo says:

      Agreed.

    • Brad in Oakland says:

      We are talking about fantasy, a genre in which authors imagine worlds both similar and alien to their own. In the past 100 years whites dominated people of color through colonialism and people of color waged campaigns for freedom and independence from this domination and also immigrated to the homelands of the colonial powers. Some white authors whitewashed their worlds by imagining racially pure societies, others depicted race in ways that celebrated whites as heroes and people of color as villains, essentially serving as cheerleaders for colonialism (e.g. CS Lewis, A Horse and His Boy) and yet others turned race on its head, depicting fair skinned barbarians and dark skinned protagonists/heroes in resistance to dominant assumptions of white superiority (e.g. Ursula LeGuin). So there's nothing historical or inevitable about whitewashing and so-called "blackwashing" is hardly equivalent. Moreover, European folklore and epic lit. (that frequently inspires fantasy literature) depicted racial others for at least the past thousand years, generally negatively as in the Blood Libel legend and most depictions of the Moor, sometimes ambiguously as with Black Peter who accompanies St Nicolas at Christmas in Central Europe, or even positively as with the mixed-race Moorish prince in Kudrun. In societies in which whites hold a disproportionate share of power, wealth and prestige, prejudice may go both ways but racism, which is prejudice plus power, is still a one-sided effort to maintain white privilege. So no, it does not go both ways.

  10. 4jkb4ia says:

    "I'm not drawing the Brandon Sanderson fans"
    :-D. Brandon Sanderson's instant and unasked-for fame is something out of a fantasy novel itself.

    The more cultures that can be honored in the writing of fantasy, the more fantasy can be about myth and imagination and not metafantasy from 50 years ago.

  11. Anonymous Coward says:

    No such list can ever be complete without mentioning the Moribito series. It's kind of pseudo medieval Japanese setting manages to show a world that is at once unique and full of fantasy but that also feels complete and believable. The story contains nice action but focusses on personal transformation and rejection of dogma in favour to reasoning your way through problems, with persistence and courage.
    Another book I found quite readable was Im Zeichen der roten Sonne which is also set in Japan but before it actually was Japan. Unfortunately it claims to be a historical novel, but it has many inaccuracies and errors. Still, that didn't ruin the story for me and I do recommend it.

  12. Anonymous says:

    No such list can ever be complete without mentioning the Moribito series. It's kind of pseudo medieval Japanese setting manages to show a world that is at once unique and full of fantasy but that also feels complete and believable. The story contains nice action but focusses on personal transformation and rejection of dogma in favour to reasoning your way through problems, with persistence and courage.
    Another book I found quite readable was Im Zeichen der roten Sonne which is also set in Japan but before it actually was Japan. Unfortunately it claims to be a historical novel, but it has many inaccuracies and errors. Still, that didn't ruin the story for me and I do recommend it.

  13. Dawn says:

    I am a fan of both Jemisin and Sanderson… What I am a fan of is a good story. Both of the authors write good stories. I don't care if the hero is black, white, or some other race, a man or woman, old or young, male or female, gay or straight. Hell, I've read fantasy starring rabbits and deer! Just tell me a good story and I'll read it. I think the publishing industry is vastly underestimating the SF and Fantasy readership. And Jemisin sort of did, too, with her comment that Sanderson & Martin readers would not read her work… I'd love more variety, new and different stories and perspectives, but I love the traditional fantasy as well. There is room for both and readers eager for both.

  14. Gregg Chamberlain says:

    interesting summary piece.

    ghul or ghoul is not a zombie but a necrophage in arabic folklore and myth.

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