When will science fiction truly embrace diversity?

When will science fiction truly embrace diversity?
22 Jun

This week, Marlon James showed off the cover of his next big novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first in his fantasy Dark Star series. In a quiet corner of the Himalayas, watching for real leopard tracks, I sent up two prayers of thanks.

The first was gratitude that the Man Booker Prize-winning writer of A Brief History of Seven Killings would openly acknowledge his deep love of science fiction and fantasy. They are still seen as lesser genres by too many literary critics, despite their outsize influence and reach. It makes a difference to have established writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro and James take speculative fiction as seriously as literary fiction, knocking down the artificial fences between the two.

Many writers and fans of speculative fiction and fantasy had rejoiced when James announced the project in 2015, after an argument with a friend over the possibility or impossibility of having black hobbits in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. He told Entertainment Weekly in 2017: “I remember saying, ‘You know, if an Asian or a black hobbit came out of the Shire, nobody would have cared. We would have just moved on.’ ” His remark to his friend turned into an argument over diversity and inclusion, and James, contemplating the Celtic mythology that inspired Tolkien, said that it made him realise that there was “this huge universe of African history and mythology and crazy stories” to be explored by writers like him.

The second prayer of thanks was for young readers, who will grow up imagining worlds of magic, sorcery and aliens set in African countries, or Iran or China or India that will be as real to them as JK Rowling’s Hogwarts or JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth was to a previous generation. James, who was born in Jamaica, has been researching African epics such as The Epic of Son-Jara and The Epic of Askia Muhammad for years, and mentions in interviews that he’s likely to draw on that rich well of mythology to tell his story of a slave trader who hires mercenaries to track down a nine-year-old boy.

Another recent star in the field, Tomi Adeyemi, sold the manuscript of Children of Blood and Bone when she was just 23. In March it debuted at number 1 on the New York Times bestseller list and is a worldwide blockbuster, in publishing terms. Inspired by her west African heritage, Children of Blood and Bone follows the young heroine Zélie on a quest to restore her birthright of magic, in a perilous magical kingdom.

Adeyemi often says in interviews that she didn’t begin to write black characters until she was 18. “I spent 12 years of my life writing stories without black people,” she told the online magazine Vulture recently. “That’s insane to me. It’s insane that I could have believed in magical portals and dragons and all that stuff, but to believe a black person could be experiencing those things was unimaginable.” This is a common experience — the speculative fiction writer NK Jemisin was 30 before she attempted to write a black character, Indrapramit Das initially wrote white characters because that was what he was familiar with from classic SF, before claiming his own territory.

Growing up in India, I read fantasy and SF classics by the dozen, “translating” as I devoured The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings, 2001 and other books. It was easy enough to imagine Tolkien’s orcs as similar to Indian rakshasas, or to mentally shift Dorothy to an Indian jungle where lions and monkeys travelled the Yellow Brick Road. But rural Kansas was exotic to me. And it was impossible to imagine writing a novel that might be read in the US or the UK where the hobbits were Indian, the Shire a version of the Punjab countryside.

I’m guessing this experience is something readers across the world have in common. Chinese SF fans must have felt this gap, the strangeness of not seeing your own lives reflected in these imaginary worlds you love, before Ken Liu, Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang changed the landscape, just as Indian writers such as Samit Basu, Manjula Padmanabhan and Das opened up possibilities in SF at a time when realist literary fiction dominated English writing in India. Much has changed since the 1970s and 1980s, when SF and fantasy anthologies featured almost no writers of colour, but the gates need to open much wider.

Speculative fiction is, by definition, about casting wide the net of the imagination. The excitement that James, Adeyemi, Liu Cixin and others have generated is also an index of how much richer SF could be in the future; opening up to “diversity” simply means creating more, and richer, fictional worlds to explore. Somewhere on this planet, I hope there’s a teenager who dreams of becoming an SF writer — the next Rowling or Tolkien, yes, but also the next Adeyemi, the next Jemisin.

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