Writing Global Sci-Fi: White Bread, Brown Toast

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.

The first sci-fi short story I ever wrote—an overwrought love-child of tattered 2000 AD comics, William Gibson, repeat listens of Erasure and Europe (not ashamed) MP3s, and an adolescent confusion of bloodlust and anti-war sentiment—took place in an irradiated, war-torn North America. Its protagonist was a white man, a soldier trying to escape The Man’s telepathic control. The first novel I wrote, also in my late teens, had at its epic fantasy center a strapping white lad with, ahem, braids, unconsciously modeled on the features of Christopher Lambert’s stoic Highlander Connor McLeod. While I was writing these white boys on my Windows 98 PC, I never left Kolkata, India, where I’d spent every year of my life. The fingers dancing on that chunky yellow-gray keyboard were and are brown as (light) toast.

Why the white boys? I’d say living in the aftermath of centuries of invasive European colonialism might’ve had something to do with it. Hence my typing these words in English, instead of my native Bengali. Hence the often white writers and protagonists I grew up reading, watching, emulating, and ultimately recreating, when I decided to insert my obtrusively brown self into the life cycle of pop art.

Sci-fi was always a thing distinctly familiar yet foreign. Mainstream Indian writers or film-makers didn’t do sci-fi, despite the elephant-headed gods and giant monsters and flying monkeys in our legends. But Anglophone Indians were and are a sizable consumer of foreign sci-fi. I’d grown up absorbing it from wrinkled VHS tapes, cathode ray tubes and pre-multiplex “cinema halls,” from Star Wars to Star Trek (why choose one; I loved both), E.T. to Jurassic Park. My brother and I huddled by the static tickle of our TV set late at night when my parents went out, thrilled at the illicit red stamp of the 18+ rating before movies like RoboCop, Predator, and Alien unspooled uncut on cable (before the Indian government realized people were getting away with swear words and boobs on fucking television). And as I saw, I read too—the prose versions of the same. The first sci-fi novels I read were Crichton books and novelizations of movies (often by Alan Dean Foster), or extended franchise universes.

I gravitated to the unabridged make-believe of science fiction (and fantasy) partly because of diversity. Like a manic priest with a rosary I flicked through the necklace of infinite worlds that genre offered, and yearned to add my own to the string. I wanted to write stories for everyone in the world, not just India, and the limitless scope of non-realism seemed the best way to do that. I wanted to help create a mythology of tomorrow, suitable for the entire planet. In the hyper-dense humanity of Chiba City and Mega City One, the variegated bazaars of Mos Eisley, the hundreds of planets of the Federation, populated by thousands of cultures and species and races, I saw the overpopulated chaos of the world as seen from an urban Indian viewpoint. Even at its darkest, science fiction and fantasy were freedom from the smallness of Earth.

Growing up with these imaginative riches curiously absent from Indian contemporary art and media, I didn’t even notice all the white protagonists, writers, directors, and actors in this boundary-less creative multiverse I so admired and wanted to be a part of. Or I didn’t mind this prevailing whiteness, because I was taught not to. That, of course, is the quiet hold of cultural white supremacy.

It wasn’t until I was on a campus in the middle of Pennsylvanian Amish country, surrounded by young white undergrad creative writing students in a workshop class taught by a white professor, that I realized I mostly wrote white protagonists. I’d never felt less white, which made the repeated pallor of my protagonists blaze like a thousand suns.

It’s a ponderous realization familiar to many POC writers—that you, brown-faced and full of pluck, are yourself propagating that post-colonial, global capitalist notion of the white person as the moral, cultural, and physical default human being (and thus consumer) of planet Earth (and the universe, in sci-fi). The rest is “other,” including you, a notion you might even have taught yourself to like (maybe the marketability of pandering, of exoticism, might just give you a bump up in the capitalist meritocracy?).

That mostly white undergrad workshop class, the first I attended, was where I stopped blindly writing white protagonists.

I’m not apologizing for growing up inspired by so much science fiction made by white people primarily for white people. Hell, I think white creators should be proud that their work found fans across the planet, and acquired some shade of the universality that sci-fi is supposed to espouse in its futurist openness. Just as languages spread and mutate on the vector of history (I see no need for gratitude, explanations, or shame for the words I use just because they were introduced to India by colonizers—Indian English is no different than American English or Quebecois French), so too do genres and art, and it’s time to recognize that sci-fi and fantasy are so dominant in pop culture now because fans the world over helped make it so. But if international sci-fi is to change, instead of stagnate into a homogenous product for the algorithm-derived generic consumer, it needs to foreground the profuse collective imagination of the entire world, instead of using it as background color for largely white stories.

We were there. We were geeks too, before geek culture became a high value, red-hot element of “globalization.” Not just South Asians, but readers and viewers all over the world—we were there beyond the West, buying, watching, playing, reading, spreading the word about all the books, movies, comics, video games, and TV that convinced Our Capitalist Overlords to divert science fiction and fantasy into mainstream ubiquity (for better and worse) and, increasingly, respect. We deserve our share in science fiction’s continued creation, not just as the other voices, the special and exotic exceptions, the diversity quota, but as fellow voices of a polyphonic planet.

Top image by artist Joshua Mays.

Indrapramit Das (aka Indra Das) is a writer from Kolkata, India. His debut novel The Devourers (Penguin Books India) was nominated for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize in India, and is slated for a summer 2016 release in North America from Ballantine Del Rey. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of publications and anthologies, including ClarkesworldAsimov’s, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction. He is a 2012 Octavia E. Butler Scholar, and a grateful graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. Follow him on Twitter @IndrapramitDas.


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