I struggled for hours on how to respond to Jetse de Vries’ post on whether science fiction should die. Part of the problem with the post is that it’s just another re-hash of several tired, inaccurate, and as-yet-properly-researched arguments we’ve all heard before. How do you respond to something that is saying the same thing over and over while simultaneously ignoring dozens of counter arguments that are not illegitimate or capable of being reduced to “part of the problem?”
But, having thought about this, I think I know what it is that bothers me so much about his arguments about SF: they lack the ingenuity and strength that have made science fiction as a literary genre (and now a visual medium) so important and groundbreaking in the history of literature. It’s precisely because he is re-hashing tired arguments and pontificating about things that would be downright devastating to a genre he claims is having so many problems that I have an issue with de Vries’ arguments (SF is not actually having that many problems, but hey, if we say it is over and over, maybe it will become true, right? He also thinks that SF is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Forget all those bestselling Star Wars novels and Alastair Reynolds and what not; totally meaningless, the whole lot). That’s how I’m going to respond: by de-constructing de Vries’ arguments to point out what exactly is wrong with what he is saying and how it will do nothing but irreparable damage to the genre.
(This will be broken up into three parts, because there’s a lot to be said, and I wouldn’t want to put you through reading 4,000 words of rant in one go.)
Point One – SF should be the literature of change
One of the things de Vries proposes is that SF should stop calling itself the literature of ideas (I disagree) and should instead become the literature of change, an concept that has no business being applied to SF as a genre. Changing SF from being about ideas to being about change is ridiculous on two levels:
1. His reference to addressing the supposed racism and general non-inclusive nature of SF is true of almost every single genre of written literature being produced today, regardless of the number of awards won by people of color and women within other genres. Hell, it’s true of every single entertainment medium. I’ll mention this later, but the simplistic route everyone takes to proclaim SF racist works for romance, mystery, general fiction (literary or what have you), movies, television, etc. Trying to say that SF should change its mission statement because of this is not saying anything new, and it’s not saying anything revolutionary either.Point Two – SF is racist (sorta)
2. The idea that SF should be about change internally (i.e. in what it’s talking about) is like saying that SF should become the liberal scientist version of a preacher. Readers are not interested in being told “this is how we fix the world, yippee” anymore than they are interested in having their pastor come unannounced into their homes to tell them how to repent for their sins. If that’s not what this whole optimistic SF manifesto bologna is calling for, then they need to rework how they present their little movement; right now, it sounds like they want SF to become exactly what nobody wants (and I’ll talk about that some more later, too).
Well, we’ve heard this argument before, and it wasn’t (necessarily) any more true back then than it is now. Is there a problem of under-representation of people of color (and women) both as characters and authors in SF? Of course. Is this somehow indicative of institutionalized racism in SF? Nope. In fact, what de Vries and everyone else who has claimed that SF is racist miss are the real questions we should be asking:
How many SF books are written by people of color and how many have people of color (or women) as significant characters?There’s a lot of talk over at de Vries’ post about the Nobel Prize and the Man Booker Prize, both of which are irrelevant without appropriate correlating data. Has anyone actually bothered to understand the social and statistical conditions of the SF genre? No. This is why I’m tired of seeing this argument. If you think SF is racist, fine, but I’m less inclined to believe you if you’re unwilling to actually do the work necessary to actually prove that. Perhaps the problem with SF is precisely that everyone says it’s racist, and so people of color and women typically avoid it. After all, if people kept saying “that genre is racist,” would you continue writing fiction in that genre and submitting? Taken another way, if everyone told me that SF wasn't for men, and that no men ever get published in SF, etc., I think I'd have a harder time justifying writing in that genre (I'd then write fantasy).
How many women and people of color submit SF manuscripts to publishers? (Nobody has an answer for this, and any time you ask you either get silence or someone blames you for contributing to the problem; honestly, if you’re going to talk about institutionalized racism in SF publishing, you have to have all of the data to support it.)
What is the ratio of submissions and publications by people of color and women in the various publishing industries?
I get the frustration, but it’s far more frustrating to want to actually affect change when nobody is a) providing the answers to do so (de Vries does not; he just says the same things that everyone else has said, without actual solutions, ironically enough); and b) actually understanding the larger picture (again, de Vries is not doing that either, but is instead saying the same things we’ve heard all year, all of which have done nothing to actually change the industry, and all of which will never do anything so long as everyone who holds these opinions is so shortsighted).
The problem with all the shorthanded ways people go about proclaiming racism in SF is that they are inherently racist notions. Nobody bothers to ask the questions above because they are tough questions, ones without immediate answers. It’s so much simpler to say “well, there are no African American authors in SF this year, so the industry is racist.” It doesn’t matter if a) there were only three African Americans who submitted to SF publishers in 2009; or b) there were no good manuscripts by African Americans submitted to SF publishers in 2009. It also doesn’t seem to matter that it is incredibly difficult to know whether someone is a particular race based on the information given in a query (nobody can magically assume that one’s name is a “Black name” any more than someone can assume a name is a “White name”—there are people of all colors who are named John Smith, for example), and unless someone is suggesting that publishers are secretly in collusion about collecting racial data on every submission just so they can reject people of color outright, then there’s not a lot in the way of evidence of institutionalized racism in SF.
That said, I am not denying that there is a problem. On the contrary, I’m only suggesting that it’s easy to say “SF is racist” from a shortsighted standpoint than it is to actually get the necessary data to make well-educated claims. There are plenty of instances where publishers do things that boggle the mind because they are quite obviously racist (things like Whitewashing—i.e. creating book covers with White characters, when the characters are actually Black or Purple, or whatever), but those are not necessarily connected to a grand publishing conspiracy. Taking a step back and trying to figure out all of the hidden details of the publishing industry will give us the information we need to make an accurate claim of institutionalized racism.
I'm going to end this post here, because the next section is quite large. Any thoughts thus far?