We have always been here, part 3

Look at this African-American girl gleefully reading comic books in the 1940s...

Look at this African-American girl gleefully reading comic books in the 1940s… (click to embiggen)

So, this third installment in a series about misperceptions of what diversity means and how it has occured in science fiction/fantasy has been sitting in the draft queue for a long time, in part because I needed to do some more research to shore it up. But now, thanks to Cora Buhlert, I can leverage this excellent review: The Golden Age Was More Diverse Than You Think of this year’s Retro Hugo ballot. The whole post (and her many links) are worth the read, but I’m going to steal quote an important bit:

Survivorship bias can be found doubly in the Retro Hugos, because not only do people (and the Retro Hugo nominator base is small compared to the current year Hugos) tend to nominate the famous stories, the ones that endured, they also tend to nominate and vote for writers (and editors and artists) whose names the recognise. This is why unremarkable debut stories by future stars tend to get nominated for the Retro Hugos, while better but lesser known works and authors tend to get overlooked…

But even taking the known problems with the Retro Hugos into consideration, the breadth and variety of stories on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot is astounding (pun fully intended), as is the fact that quite a few of them don’t really fit into the prevailing image image of what Golden Age science fiction was like. And this doesn’t just apply to left-field finalists such as Das Glasperlenspiel by Hermann Hesse in the novel category or Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and The Magic Bed-Knob by Mary Norton in the novella category, neither of whom I would have expected to make the Hugo ballot in 1944, if only because US science fiction fans wouldn’t have been familiar with them. No, there also is a lot of variety in the stories which originated in US science fiction magazines.

As I said, go read her entire post, it’s worth your time.

Among the claims that is constantly put forward from some quarters are that:

  • until very recently, virtually all sf/f was written by straight white men,
  • until very recently, the vast majority of readers of sf/f were straight white men and boys,
  • for most of fandom’s history, the vast majority of people organizing clubs and conventions were straight white men (young and old),
  • even now, the vast majority of “real fans” are straight white men and boys,

…therefore any sf/f that features protagonists other than straight white men, and talks about any issues not of interest to straight white men, isn’t real science fiction or fantasy, but it is so-called message fiction.

But the truth is that all four of those claims are false. And that isn’t a matter of opinion. Go look at the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot. More than a single token woman author. And even more intriguing, a rather large number of protagonists and major characters in the works are women and people of color.

In a previous blog post, I linked to some of 1930s, 40s, and 50s sf/f fan publications, showing that some of the most prominent founders of U.S. science fiction fan clubs during the Golden Age were queer men and women (who also became active in the gay/lesbian rights movement).

Go to the staff meeting of any medium-to-large sized fan-led sf/f convention today, and take a look at just how many of the people in that room are not male. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a disproportionate number who are queer. And that has been the case for at least three decades that I know of (I didn’t attend my first convention until the late 1970s, and didn’t start paying attention to how they were run until the late 80s, so I can’t offer personal testimony beyond that).

Look around any big convention at how many girls and women are doing cosplay, or staffing booths in the dealer’s dens, or are panelists. It’s harder to find how many are queer, but next time you’re at a convention, look for some panels whose titles mention queer topics, then go stick your head in the door of a couple and see how full the rooms are.

Listen, I’m an old literally white-bearded white guy. I grew up reading Heinlein and Clarke and Asimov in the 1960s. But I’m also gay. And I was also just as fervently a fan of Ursula Le Guin, Andre Norton, and Madeleine L’Engle back then. But more importantly, one reason I was a fan from such an early age was because my mother was one of the biggest fans of Robert Heinlein and similar sci fi of the 50s and 60s you will ever meet. I am a second generation fan, but it wasn’t my dad who was reading sci fi (he preferred spy novels and westerns), it was my mom.

I’ve written before in a different context how my mom’s old, worn copy of Dune (which she told me I had to wait until I was older before I could read it) often tantalized me on the book shelf when I was a kid. A couple of things I should add to that story: she bought the Ace paperback brand new when it first came out in 1965, and it was looking very worn around 1969 when she decided to move it to a less tempting location. It looked that way after only 4 years because she re-read it frequently.

I know that’s only one anecdotal sample, but I also remember that when we went on our regular visits to used book stores when I was a kid, my mom was never the only woman browsing the sci fi/fantasy shelves.

People of all genders read, create, watch, and love sci fi and fantasy (and comic books and horror and thrillers and weird fiction and all the other sub-genres). People of all sexual orientations read, create, watch, and love sf/f. People of all races read, create, watch, and love sf/f. People of color, queer people, women, and nonbinary people all exist, and together, they outnumber straight white men in world population (and also U.S. population, if you’re one of those people who think that the phrase “Third World Country” is objective terminology). If you’re trying to exclude people of color, queer people, women, and non-binary people, you are the one focusing on a niche market.

If you are a writer excluding any or all of those categories of people from your cast of characters, whether you mean to or not, you are serving a misogynist, racist, homophobic agenda. And that’s definitely not a non-political stance. Those stories are not non-political fun.

Science fiction was arguably created by a young woman/teen-age girl (Mary Shelley), for goodness’ sake!

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. For more than 18 years I edited and published an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

3 responses to “We have always been here, part 3”

  1. Margaret Dean says :

    Not to mention the LARGE proportion of the SF writing and fandom community, then and now, that’s Jewish! Granted, I first connected with SF fandom in a major way while going to college in New York City, but no way was that an isolated phenomenon.

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