Science Fiction Fandom: The Biggest Tent of All

This article originally appeared on the Kickstarter page for People of Color Destroy Science Fiction!, a special issue of the Hugo-winning magazine Lightspeed, 100% written—and edited—by POC creators.

I’ve been a fan of science fiction since the age of ten. For years, I was relatively isolated in my passion. Multiple factors played into that: my gender, immigrant culture, and being an only child all contributed. My favorite books and movies were experiences for me alone. I knew that fans must exist. Star Wars, Dune, Lord of the Rings—fame doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but I had no idea how to connect with others who loved these strange and intricate worlds. One benefit of my isolation, however, was that no one said, “Science fiction isn’t for you, for someone who doesn’t look like the light-skinned, male authors of these stories.”

When I joined Caltech as an undergraduate, I found my people at last. Nerd nirvana: I had arrived! Many of my classmates loved genre fiction as much I did. They, too, had re-read the classics until the spines fell apart. They, too, had memorized every line of the movies. Where had they been all my life? Scattered around the USA and beyond, that’s where. We didn’t care where we came from or what we looked like. All that mattered was our shared passion.

Then came the internet. Starting with, moving on to the Tad Williams message board, and then to Boing Boing and io9, the world shrank. I discovered just how large this tribe was. The lovers of science fiction—the ones who had been ostracized and ridiculed by pop culture—were the foundation of the new technocracy. The geeks had inherited the earth, and we rejoiced that we no longer had to be ashamed of living in imaginary worlds.

But the internet is a fickle place. Trolls lurk under the bridges it’s built, and they recently vented some ugly thoughts about fandom.

For the first time in my experience, my sex and my brown skin meant—to some people—that I didn’t belong in the world of science fiction.

For the first time in all my decades of loving this genre, I heard that women don’t like hard science fiction; that non-white people shouldn’t be main characters; that gays don’t have a place in the wider universe.

Then I became an author, and I heard even worse: that the only reason to write characters who are Filipino or Ethiopian or Colombian is to satisfy some arbitrary liberal/politically correct standard of fiction. (It couldn’t possibly be because these are people who make up daily life in a metropolitan U.S. city.) I heard bitter rumors that editors were biased toward stories by authors who weren’t white American men. That writers like me were ruining the genre by shoving our unrelatable characters down fans’ throats. How could I parse these accusations?

Here’s the rub: I don’t experience science fiction through a lens colored by my physical appearance. I don’t need characters to resemble me in order to appreciate their struggles.

The great beauty of genre fiction is in how it pushes the boundaries of what’s possible, and that means getting into the minds of all kinds of life—elves, insects, robots, dragons, Wookiees. How anyone can say with a straight face that women, queers, and people of color don’t have a place in these stories is mind-boggling.

Hari Seldon has an Indian first name. Hiro Protagonist is part-Japanese and part-African. Pyanfar Chanur is an intelligent leonine starship captain. Stilgar and his Fremen tribes are derived from desert Arabs. Ged is a dark-skinned wizard. Are any of these characters less readable or relatable because of their phenotypes?

Science fiction is where we break new ground. This is where we push the boundaries of what is possible, stretch our imaginations to their limits. This is not a genre that belongs to any one subset of human beings. Let’s not forget our roots. Let’s not forget that even today, certain elements of the world look askance at our favorite books and movies. We don’t need petty in-fighting. Our tent is the multiverse, and it’s big enough for everyone.

S.B. Divya is a lover of science, math, fiction, and the Oxford comma. When she isn’t designing high-speed communications systems, raising her daughter, scratching the cats, or enjoying dinner with her husband, she writes. She also enjoys subverting expectations and breaking stereotypes whenever she can. In her past, she’s used a telescope to find Orion’s nebula, scuba dived with manta rays, and climbed to the top of a thousand-year-old stupa. She holds degrees in Computational Neuroscience and Signal Processing. Her stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Nature, and her near-future science fiction novella Runtime will be available in summer of 2016 from Publishing.


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