Diversity and Science Fiction

Silhouetted figure amid a swirl of stars.

Literature of the Human Species, Change, and the Other

SF is the literature of the human species, change, and the Other, providing alternate points of view on familiar topics in order to give us a clearer perspective. It is philosophical, idea-centered, even subversive or transgressive. It explores possibilities and pushes boundaries. It asks the next question, and then the one after that, and then the one after that.

The Ad Astra Center for Science Fiction & the Speculative Imagination welcomes students, volunteers, employees, and visiting authors from all backgrounds. We actively encourage people to join us, including (but not limited to) people of every age, culture, ethnicity, gender identity or expression, nationality or immigrant status, physical ability status, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, and marital, parental, and veteran status. Everyone has equal opportunity for admission to our educational programs, and equal access to and opportunities to receive our awards, scholarships, and activities. We work to be a safe space for those who come to our events and educational programs.

To help ensure this, we do not tolerate discrimination of any kind. However, we are not ignorant of intolerant groups within the genre, as everywhere else. We do not tolerate harassment of any kind. If you feel harassed or discriminated against, or if you notice someone behaving inappropriately, and cannot resolve the issue with this person, we want you to feel safe coming to any of our directors or Mission Control team to report the situation immediately. If you feel we need to do better ourselves, please let us know personally or anonymously, or via any of our email addresses or social-network pages. We are actively striving to bring diverse perspectives to our awards and scholarships, educational programs, events, and resources, and strive to do better whenever we can.

At its core, SF is a community, and we want everyone to feel welcome and able to attend our programs, and free and safe to express yourself in the truest ways possible.

Exploring What It Means to Be Human

As the literature of alienation, speculative fiction provides other perspectives on life. One way explores what it means to be human is through stories about aliens as well as using alien perspectives to examine our own species. SF explores alien worlds, times, and ideas, suggesting that our ways of thinking are not the only ways, and that our morals and values and cultural norms are arbitrary or environmental. Showing species evolved on other planets and shaped by their unique environments reinforces the notion that we also evolved and change, and that resisting change or other perspectives leads to stagnation.

The aliens entry of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction discusses SF's history of rejecting the status-quo approach toward the Other:

Sexual prejudices are questioned in Theodore Sturgeon's "The World Well Lost" (June 1953 Universe), wherein a secretly homosexual human spacer saves a pair of aliens who've been condemned by their people for their same-sex liaison. (This was a particularly radical position to espouse; the British mathematician and codebreaking war hero Alan Turing had been tried and convicted on homosexuality charges in the UK just the year before.)

Racism (Race in SF) and sexism come under fire in "Dumb Martian" by John Wyndham (July 1952 Galaxy; vt "Out of This World" in Space Movies II, anth 1996, ed Peter Haining), in which a man bound for lonely asteroid work buys a female "Mart" as a servant and companion who's not nearly as dumb as he thinks; Leigh Brackett's "All the Colors of the Rainbow" (November 1957 Venture) is a tale of green-skinned humanoid aliens humiliated and brutalized by rural white townsfolk on Earth; Heinlein – a vigorous opponent of racial prejudice – likewise uses the "Venerians" (Venusians) of his Space Cadet (1948) as proxies for mistreated minority groups, and in Double Star (1956) he translates the era's casual racism to a colonized Mars, where his bigoted hero sheds his prejudice so completely as to be proclaimed an honorary Martian.

The politics of human Imperialism and colonialism (Colonization of Other Worlds) receive a stinging critique in "The Helping Hand" (May 1950 Astounding) by Poul Anderson, which depicts the corrosive effects on native society and culture of the Marshall Plan-style aid provided by the interstellar human Commonwealth. A similar case for local self-determination appears in Asimov's "Blind Alley" (March 1945 Astounding), in which an alien population languishes, failing even to reproduce, when relocated to a reservation on a different world.

Lester del Rey had been among the earliest critics of rapacious Imperialism in "The Wings of Night" (March 1942 Astounding), the story of a human trader who saves the last survivor of ancient lunar civilization from enslavement at the hands of his avaricious partner; Simak's "Tools" (cited above) imagines a ruthless mining company which transforms radon-based Venusian lifeforms into robotic control mechanisms for its excavating equipment. Critiques of imperialistic exploitation – particularly as practiced by profit-mad corporations - continued in Invaders From Earth (1958) by Robert Silverberg and Little Fuzzy (1962) by H Beam Piper, whose plot turns on a human court's willingness to recognize the alien "fuzzies" as sentient.

How That World Might Be

In an interview for The Paris Review, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah posits Octavia Butler's question: "What good is science fiction to black people? What good is its tendency to warn or to consider alternative ways of thinking and doing? Samuel R. Delany responds excitedly, "Science fiction isn't just thinking about the world out there. It's also thinking about how that world might be - a particularly important exercise for those who are oppressed, because if they're going to change the world we live in, they - and all of us - have to be able to think about a world that works differently."

For many, Star Trek serves as the standard-bearer of diversity in SF, leading the charge well before mainstream society began to accept such concepts as interracial love (Trek showed the first interracial kiss on TV in "Plato's Stepchildren"), non-interference into others' affairs (see the Federation's "Prime Directive"), and acceptance of the Other. As evidence for the latter, consider that Vulcans in Trek honor "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations" (IDIC, or Kol-Ut-Shan in Vulcan) with both a philosophy and an award of merit, celebrating the vast variations of life in the universe.

Star Trek writer David Mack wrote a fantastic blog entry about diversity in science fiction. Check it out here. He was responding to a homophobic attack against something he had written. An excerpt:

Although the various television series could have done more in their respective times to portray ethnic and gender diversity, those of us who write the licensed Trek fiction continue to do our best to depict a more progressive, enlightened, open, and harmonious future, not just for humanity but for all sentient beings. One in which love, equality, and compassion are the touchstones of civilized society. To that end, we've tried to make our literary dramatis personae more closely resemble the people of Earth. We've tried to include more people of African, Asian, and Southeast Asian ancestry than were seen in the televised and feature-film stories.

We've tried to incorporate characters who hail from many cultures and viewpoints. We've tried to imagine a future in which people of all faiths have learned to live in harmony with people of other creeds as well as those who prefer to lead purely secular lives. We've tried to depict a future in which people's gender identities are no longer limited to some arbitrary binary social construct, but rather reflect a more fluid sense of personal identity. I will never be made to feel shame for doing this. I am proud that we've been able to do this. I know we've still got more work to do, and we can do better at integrating more diverse viewpoints and characters into the ever-expanding universe of Star Trek.

Fan and comics professional melannen writes:

"Because for all that Trek was supposedly about New Worlds and New Civilization, when it was at its best it was always about understanding yourself by seeing yourself through new eyes. IDIC isn't about notching some kind of cosmic bedpost, it's about the way that listening to a thousand different viewpoints is still not enough to tell the whole story - but that doesn't mean you stop asking."

This is not to say that SF perfectly reflects these ideals. No, like every other human endeavor, SF adheres to "Sturgeon's Law," which says that "ninety percent of everything is crud." Despite what is widely acknowledged as the first true SF novel (Mary Wollstonecraft [Godwin] Shelley's Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus), SF as a genre was founded, edited, and largely written by Anglo-American men, so much of our history reflects that narrow vision.

Because the Ad Astra Center strives to be part of the solution instead of part the problem, we are in the process of actively working to reflect diversity and create a safe space for all to learn and share, and will continue to do our best to reflect the true diversity of SF as it is today - and help it become all we hope it can be.

- Chris McKitterick