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

Nalo Hopkinson, novelist and a professor at UC Riverside. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

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)

“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.

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.” (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.

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