Both mainstream audiences and casual fans have traditionally perceived science fiction as a predominately white, Western genre. Just take a look at any of the “best of” lists out there – no matter their origin, they’re sure to be dominated by works created by white Americans and white Britons. Typically representing the visual side of science fiction are films and shows such as Doctor Who (1963-Present), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983), Bladerunner (1982), The X-Files (1993-Present), The Matrix (1999), Inception (2010) and Stranger Things (2016-2019); typically representing the written side are authors such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Philip K. Dick, Michael Moorcock, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, China Miéville and Paolo Bacigalupi. These are fantastic authors and works one-and-all; can you guess what they have in common?
In fact, science fiction began as a white, Western genre – it evolved from the “science romances” of the nineteenth century, written by white Britons and Europeans such as Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells; while the term itself was coined and popularised by the white American author Hugo Gernsback, when he founded Amazing Stories magazine in 1926. In the “Golden Age” that followed, a series of prolific white American authors dramatically expanded science fiction’s reach and potential, with those such as Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Frederick Pohl and A. E. van Vogt establishing significant reputations and strengthening the perception of the genre as one predominately white and Western.
However, although science fiction was created and codified by white Western writers, people from the wider world have been working in the genre since its inception. Czech playwright Karel Čapek gave us the term and concept robot in R.U.R. from 1920; Polish author Stanisław Lem is widely regarded as a giant of science fiction, as are the Russian Strugatsky brothers (Arkady and Boris); the films Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979) by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, based on seminal works by Lem and the Strugatsky brothers, are considered masterpieces of science fiction cinema; while black American and black Canadian authors such as Samuel R. Delany, Octavia E. Butler and Nalo Hopkinson have achieved critical and public acclaim, with their work often directly addressing the lack of diversity in the genre. And then there’s Japan, which gave us a brand new subgenre of science fiction with the release of the original Godzilla in 1954, and the art forms manga and anime.
If science fiction has actually always been a genre of the world, then why has it traditionally been perceived as a predominately white, Western one? This question is impossible to address briefly, but there are two distinct yet interrelated factors that unarguably play a part: The global domination of American culture in the wake of the Second World War; and America’s twentieth century racial politics. The first is self explanatory – American culture has and continues to shape the world, from entertainment to technology to fashion to language et al. It’s everywhere we look. It’s a fact of life (even though things are slowly changing). This brings us to the second factor.
If we take 1926 – the publication of the first issue of Amazing Stories – as the “birth” of science fiction, and America as its birthplace, then we must recognise that this birth took place a long time before the civil rights movements of the 1960s transformed American and the world. History has overwhelmingly shown that this was an incredibly dangerous and arduous era for black Americans, with the discrimination they faced applying to almost every facet of their lives, including writing and publishing. Therefore, at the same time as science fiction was emerging as an art form, in the country that was effectively setting out its terms and meanings, an entire community was almost exclusively excluded from participating in it as writers because of the “system.” In light of this, it’s perhaps unsurprising that science fiction was for a long time perceived as a predominately white, Western genre. It had existed as such for more than thirty years before anyone other than a white Westerner was allowed any real prominence; the whole time it had gained increased global popularity thanks to humanity’s inherent fascination with technology and the cultural effects of America’s incredible technological advancements (atomic power and weaponry, microchips, satellites, etc.).
The first real challenges to this perception only came during the “New Wave” movement, which began in the early 1960s and saw many of the established norms of the genre being overthrown. This was science fiction’s own version of one of the cultural revolutions sweeping the globe at that time – all around the world but particularly in the West, discriminatory barriers were coming down in many facets of life, and youth culture was driving a change to reassess the system and give a voice to the historically “voiceless.” In the case of the New Wave, part of its revolutionary agenda was to question who had claim to science fiction, and open its borders to previously marginalised and/or oppressed segments of its community. One consequence of this was that – America being America, the leader of the pack – black American voices finally achieved a place and recognition in the genre (rocky though this road still is), and kicked off a struggle in science fiction for equal rights in inclusion and representation.
But as we know, progress is slow. Not much illustrates this more than the fact that it was a big thing when Captain Kirk and Uhura kissed on Star Trek in 1968 (the first interracial kiss on television). It was a big thing, indeed – in the history of television, science fiction and the American civil rights movement. However, it can still be said that it didn’t change people’s perception of science fiction’s parameters and inclusivity, but instead merely allowed the genre representational space for more than just white Westerners, a space initially small and too-often tokenistic.
Effecting this change in the public’s perception of science fiction is something that continues to this day. But while progress is slow, it is nonetheless inexorable and ever expanding, and has recently become one of the defining issues of modern science fiction. From initially often-tokenistic space alongside the leading white Western characters to the rise of Afrofuturism and its reframing of the question of “what is science fiction?” to specific subgenres such as postcolonial science fiction that tackle these issues of underrepresented voices head-on, the undercurrents and ripple effects of previously marginalised and oppressed segments of the community finding an ever-growing place in science fiction are now so strong, that it only seems logical to redefine the genre as one that represents and includes everyone.
In effect, science fiction is slowly-but-surely being recognised as what it always has been, to a certain degree: a world genre, rather than a white, Western genre. And while this recognition initially began within the science fiction community, the wider public has increasingly been exhibiting it, something that has gained particular momentum in the last half-dozen years.
An example of this change in recognition exists in this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Awards. Firstly, the winner: Tade Thompson, a British-Yoruba author who grew up in Nigeria, with his novel Rosewater. Described by fellow author Adam Roberts as a work “at the cutting edge of the contemporary genre” in which Thompson combines “alien encounter, cyberpunk-biopunk-Afropunk thriller, zombie-shocker, an off-kilter love story and an atmospheric portrait of a futuristic Nigeria,” Rosewater is a deliberately African piece of science fiction and an alien invasion story par excellence that expertly reinterprets this tired old trope and its white, Western roots.
Rosewater winning this award is a sign of great progress in changing the public’s perception of science fiction. When we look at some of the other shortlisted works, we see that even more progress is being made – Iraqi author Ahmed Saadaw was included for his novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, as was Korean-American author Yoon Ha Lee for her novel Revenant Gun.
From the past of effectively no one but white Western characters written by white Western writers, to a present in which of six books shortlisted for one of science fiction’s most prestigious awards, three were by writers of colour including the winner – that’s a real change in what science fiction can be, and a positive step in showing that the genre does indeed represent and include everyone.
This change isn’t restricted to the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Far from it.
Chinese-American author Ted Chiang has garnered critical and commercial acclaim with his moving humanist works – his 1998 novella The Story of Your Life, adapted for the screen in 2016 as Arrival, is a supreme expression of the global nature of science fiction, and its ability to unite, represent and include all of us. With four Nebula awards to his name, as well as four Hugo and four Locus awards and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, he has acquired a reputation as one of science fiction’s most unique contemporary voices.
An ongoing debate and dialogue regarding issues of cultural appropriation and white-washing in the genre has recently been thrust into the public domain, spurred on by the casting of Western actors in roles traditionally associated with non-Western cultures – Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange (2016), Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (2017), Finn Jones in Iron Fist (2017-2018).
Earlier this year, the director of the Arthur C Clarke Award released an impassioned public statement imploring all sections of both the science fiction community and the wider publishing community, to recognise that they consist of (and exist for) a wide variety of diverse voices. He then went on to declare that the under-representation of these voices desperately needs to be addressed by everyone within science fiction’s awards community – selectors, voters, supporters and judges alike.
Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafo won Best Novella in the 2016 Hugo Awards, and the 2015 Nebula Award, with Binti; her first adult novel, Who Fears Death, won the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and was nominated for the 2010 Nebula Award; her 2014 novel Lagoon was a finalist for a British Science Fiction Association Award; and she announced in 2017 via Twitter that Who Fears Death was being picked up for development by HBO.
The runaway success of Marvel’s Black Panther (2018), a lavishly big-budget and highly-entertaining slice of Afrofuturism that attracted enviably high audience numbers around the world, has ignited new interest in Afrofuturism and expanded the public’s awareness of what science fiction can be, and is being hailed by some as the vanguard of Afrofuturism 2.0.
The literary and political/cultural rigour of what might be called New Lovecraftian Fiction has seen the rise of a perception-smashing subgenre, one that contains space for those whose voices in the wider Lovecraftian community would have historically often been marginalised. Authors such as Victor LaValle, a black American, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a Mexican-Canadian, and Maurice Broaddus, a Jamaican-American, have all used this space to combine reinterpretations and examinations of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos with a criticism of Lovecraft’s own racism and that of his era, often with an emphasis on the marginalised people of the times. More and more of contemporary science fiction’s exciting emerging voices, and many of its uniquely-innovative established voices, are hailing from traditionally non-Western backgrounds, including Ken Liu, a Chinese-American, Charles Yu, a Taiwanese-American, and N.K. Jemisin, a black American; as well as Karen Lord from Barbados, Vandana Singh from India, Deji Bryce Olukotun from Nigeria, Malinda Lo from China and Rebecca Roanhorse from Mexico. Meanwhile, a noticeable rise in science fiction produced in places as far-flung as Asia, the Pacific Islands, Latin America, the Indian Subcontinent and the Middle East, alongside a similar rise in science fiction produced by the Indigenous Peoples of the Commonwealth, has garnered the attention of the wider science fiction community.
Examples such as these cannot be dismissed as outliers indicating nothing, but instead must be accepted for what they are: evidence that science fiction is undergoing a seismic change. This change is permeating all aspects of the genre, from its meanings to its expressions, and from its breadth of representation to the reaches of its inclusivity. It is broadening the public’s perception of what and whom the genre represents and includes, and given a space to many previously marginalised and oppressed segments of the community. It is happening whether we like it or not, and is inextricably linked to a much larger broadening of perception in the wider community regarding issues of cultural appropriation and recognition, and the importance of returning a voice and place to those who have historically been rendered “voiceless” and denied a place.
Science fiction is all the better for it.
Vive la difference, as the French say.
(Originally published in Aurealis #125, October 2019)