The Minimization of the Unobvious

With all the conflict during “Hugo season” about diversity, multi-culturalism, social justice and their relation to story-telling, I thought a little perspective might be useful, particularly with what I see as an underlying and incorrect assumption that F&SF was a white man’s province bereft of diversity and multi-culturalism until recently, say, perhaps the last twenty years or so.

To begin with, multi-culturalism and diversity in science fiction and fantasy didn’t start in the 1980s or 1990s. Andre Norton [aka Alice Mary Norton] was writing about full-blooded Navajos in the 1950s. Leigh Brackett featured Eric John Stark, with skin almost as dark as his black hair. The Left Hand of Darkness, the acclaimed novel by Ursula Le Guin featuring a biologically hermaphroditic alien human society, was published in 1969, and those are just a small smattering of the F&SF novels featuring diverse racial and gender settings and themes published long before the current “diversity” movement. Ironically, of course, a good many of those novels were written by women and published under male or gender-neutral pseudonyms. And yes, such novels were not in the majority. They were a definite minority, and often such efforts were overlooked when they were plainly there.

Ursula Le Guin has noted more than once that the dark skin of the protagonist of A Wizard of Earthsea has been continually overlooked by readers and cover artists [or perhaps that artist was instructed to overlook it for marketing purposes]. Heinlein’s main character in Starship Troopers was a young man of Philippine heritage who spoke Tagalog, something that still gets glossed over in critiques of the novel.

By the 1ate 1980s, more than twenty-five years ago, F&SF novels with culture, race, and gender issues were certainly prominent, and the works (and death) of James Tiptree, Jr. [Alice Hastings Bradley Sheldon] had inspired even greater discussion of gender and diversity in F&SF. Octavia Butler began publishing short stories in the early 1970s and went on to become a major voice for black themes and writers by the 1980s.

A number of other writers have quietly incorporated multi-culturalism, gender and gender issues, and other forms of diversity in their books as well, even if they have not been recognized as “standard bearers.” I’ve written eight books strictly from the female point of view and another three with multiple POVS, one of which is female in each of those three books. I’m also known for strong female characters. I’ve written two books from the “minority” POV, one a black male officer in a predominantly white space force, the other a blond Anglo in a predominantly Asian/Shinto culture, both of whom face quiet discrimination. I’ve also had strong minor characters [and not villains!] who have been gay, lesbian, and transgendered. I didn’t do any of this in service to any ideology. Those were the stories I was telling, and they were based on the kinds and types of people I know. I’m not claiming any honors or demanding praise, but I am saying that too many authors who quietly include what might be called multicultural societies and diversity in their worlds and who write a good story often have that diversity ignored or dismissed because it isn’t blatant enough, or because diversity itself isn’t the story. This often amounts to the minimization of non-obvious excellence and the elevation of often less-excellent message stories.

I’ll also admit that, at times, diversity can and should play a larger part. The Left Hand of Darkness is an amazing novel, and was especially so when it was written and published, particularly because it featured a straight protagonist facing politically and physically life-threatening situations sparked by the interplay of his very presence and two cultures whose hermaphroditic nature created a far more ambiguous and indirect weave of societal pressures than the protagonist could ever have anticipated. The story and the culture cannot be separated, and that’s the way it should be.

That doesn’t mean that every good or excellent F&SF story needs to be about diversity, or gender, or multi-culturalism, although not including a diverse cast of characters, given the makeup of our world today, strikes me a highly unrealistic. Nor should a novel be elevated unduly or praised merely because it features diversity, but a novel that has a good plot, and good characters, with diversity as well, should rate higher, in terms of literary value, than one that is simply a rip-roaring adventure story.

All of which underscores what I’ve been trying to point out for months – it should be the totality of the story or book, not the current flavor du jour [or decade] of what’s on readers’ social agendas, that determines the value of a book.

3 thoughts on “The Minimization of the Unobvious”

  1. JakeB says:

    Nicely said.

    Another particularly strong example, I think, is Richard Lupoff’s _Space War Blues_, where several of the main characters are Australian Aborigines.

    I also particularly like Terry Dowling’s cycle of stories about Tom Tyson, in which many of the characters are native Australians (and in which I think it is made clear that the black-skinned A’bos (as they are called) are frequently considered the best-looking people, in part because they are the most powerful people in the society).

  2. Grey says:

    They singled out Ann Leckie’s ‘Ancillary Justice’* as a book that won simply because its ‘thing’ was that persons of importance were given female pronouns (she, her, etc), regardless of gender. Give me a break – did they even read the book? It was fantastic, with a good plot and good characters, and the pronoun thing was more or less background flavor that played little to no role.

    This reinforced my prejudices that the puppies (or whatever) movement was just sore losers making excuses for why the competition was unfair.

    *Which I picked up after a commenter on this blog recommended it, way before it became cool (it was $1 on Amazon for the Kindle; now it’s $9.99), which, by extension, makes me very cool.

  3. Jim S says:

    One of the things I like about your characters, and those of several other authors, is that they may well represent some “diversity heritage” — but it’s not there as a gimmick or to make earn some sort of points. It’s just a part of the character. I do think sometimes you are making a point, like the subtle discrimination you mention above, but you rarely do it with a bludgeon. Too often, when an author writes with some sort of diversity as a focus, the story is forced to suffer to meet the needs of the agenda…

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