Alyssa Wong, Alice Sola Kim, Cat Valente, and Seth Dickinson Discuss Diversity in Science Fiction

The Brooklyn Book Festival hosted some fantastic authors on Sunday, but possibly the most literal application of the term could be applied to “Not So Generic: Diversity in Science Fiction”, which featured authors Alyssa Wong, Alice Sola Kim, Cat Valente, and Seth Dickinson. Despite being held late in a packed day of programming, the room was filled with an enthusiastic crowd.

The moderator, The Center for Fiction’s Rosie Clarke, opened the panel with a quote from N.K. Jemisin’s Hugo Acceptance speech: “What makes a story good is skill, and audacity, and the ability to consider the future clearly rather than through the foggy lenses of nostalgia and privilege.” This set the stage for a fascinating conversation about SFF’s unique ability to explore complicated social issues.

Asked “What roles can SFF play in a cultural conversation about gender?” Dickinson pointed out that with SFF, you can deliberately “step outside of the constructs” of the society you live in. Valente added that “it’s easier to take these things apart” in SF. Wong looked to her own past, saying, “When I was growing up, what I read was strictly controlled. But I was allowed to read SFF, because no one expected those stories to have anything too controversial. You can explore gender and sex but it flies under the radar.” And Kim talked about gender exploration as being one of the infinite possibilities inherent to the genre: “SFF is interested in good, generous space for all kinds of people. It’s interested in the “what if?” question. And now, writers who are queer or trans are getting more and more recognition, and writing from in-body experience…despite people being dickheads.”

Clarke’s next question built on the idea of gender exploration, asking why it was important to each of the writers.

Wong began, “Well, I’m queer, but it was difficult to put it in my writing. I didn’t see [queerness] growing up, so now I write it for me, but also for the readers like me.”

Dickinson continued, “SFF creates spaces where people can be anything. Usually, those story arcs are usually telling the reader, “it gets better”, so they can be very encouraging. But in my writing, I’m interested in looking at how things got so fucked up in the first place. There were so many different cultures, who did things differently than we do now, and they are literally unimaginable to us—I want to look at how the big gears of the world are crushing people into these shapes. And in SFF, we have a chance to sort of poke at how things turned out, and imagine different ways of being.”

Kim explained, “I often write about young Asian American women. It’s important to me, in an intersectional sense, to grapple with the harm that’s been done to me, and to women like me.”

And Valente discussed the importance of SFF growing up as a queer woman: “The point of stories is they tell us how we might live. From those stories a human is formed. It’s terrifying to think how shaped we are by what’s on our parents’ bookshelves. I remember being deeply hurt by books I read. So many told me it was bad to be who I am. You should be able to see yourself. I was raised in a religious household, and the way that I learned gay men existed, when I was about 9, was from an Orson Scott Card book.” [Ed. note: Valente later clarified that she is referring to Songmaster.]

Given the current controversies in the lit world about cultural appropriation and “PC culture”, Clarke asked the panel to weigh in on the negative reaction to “diverse SFF” ?

Valente took a broad view, saying, “Literature can be a kind of mirror, and many people have looked into the mirror of fiction and seen only one kind of person—the intrepid white man being intrepid at the universe. This community has been a source of comfort, and it’s used to being small and niche. But “geek culture” is mainstream culture now—it’s huge! And that’s a difficult sea change for people to handle.”

Dickinson, drawing on his background studying social psychology, pointed out that people are often driven by basic cognitive biases that they’re not even aware of. “There was never a time when women weren’t writing, when race and gender weren’t dealt with in SFF. This controversy is being conjured up. But in mainstream culture the model for “normal” is drastically skewed. No one’s going to analyze their own perceptions enough to say, ‘My statistical model of the default person is made up of every commercial I’ve ever seen on TV’…but that’s true for most people.”

Kim added, “You have to think about what we want literature to do. If you want your words to have power, then you have to also realize that they have power to hurt.” And Wong returned to Valente’s point, but from a different angle, saying that reading all of those “intrepid white man” stories skewed her own voice when she began writing: “I was 14 before I first read a book with an Asian-American protagonist. And I was 16 the first time I read a queer protagonist. So, for years when I was young, all of my stories were about white dudes, because if you wanted to have an adventure, you had to be a white dude.”

And Valente made a point that often gets lost in these debates: “Stories aren’t only about race and gender if the author is queer, or a race other than white. The idea that Heinlein and Asimov weren’t writing about gender and race…it’s ridiculous.”

Clarke then asked each writer to speak to a specific aspect of their own writing. Cat Valente talked about the types of technology that crop up in SFF: “If you’re writing about future technology, or steampunk tech, you write about the technology you would like to use, right? If you personally don’t have to worry about birth control, and you aren’t the one doing the laundry, you won’t write about how revolutionary birth control can be, or how much a beautiful brass steampunk washing machine can change someone’s whole life. But people forget that washing used to take a woman’s entire week. So the idea of that as revolutionary technology doesn’t occur to them, and so we get story after story about weapons and rockets. If you look at war stories—most of them aren’t about the supply trains, or the prostitutes who follow the battalions, or the women who are left at home to run society—it’s all about men hitting men with things. But that’s not the only way to talk about war. It all depends on where you want to point the camera in your story.”

When asked why he was so concerned with the intersections of race, class, and sexuality in The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson said, “I think the catastrophic mistake would be to take them on separately. We went through a flattening in this world where a small part of the world imposed its idea of normal on most of the rest of the population, and then wrote all the histories. So if you look at the colonization process, that’s going to change depending on religion, on the colonizers’ view of race, and gender. You have to look at all of it together.”

Alyssa Wong spoke to her commitment to exploring queer identity in her work, saying, “People in my community had very strict ideas about gender and sexuality. I try to untangle what happened to me. If they see themselves, maybe they’ll be able to think about their own preconceptions a little better.”

And Alice Sola Kim spoke about why her stories tend to shade into SFF rather than remaining squarely in the literary fiction camp: “My family are immigrants, and we were deported and that experience… Junot Diaz says that ‘the time travel narrative is the closest thing there is to being an immigrant.’ So it’s a better way to get at the reality. I can exaggerate. I can twist, and reflect how twisted reality is.”

Rosie ended the panel with a question that’s always a hit: “What’s a recent work you think is interesting?”

Seth Dickinson recommended everything by N.K. Jemisin, and then extolled the greatness of The Devourers by Indra Das, saying it contained “more piss than I’ve ever seen in a book!” (He meant that in a good way.)

Cat Valente is loving 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson’s look at a future society where most people are intersex, and live in complicated, multi-faceted polyamorous relationships.

Alyssa Wong is teaching a short story class, and wanted to throw a spotlight on a shorter work. She talked about Sam Miller’s “Angel Monster Man”, which is a fantasy about a possibly magical response to the 1980s AIDs crisis in New York City.

And Alice Kim, having just moderated a panel called “The Art of Survival in Imaginary Worlds” with Robert Jackson Bennett, Sarah Beth Durst, and N. K. Jemisin had read City of Blades, The Queen of Blood, and The Obelisk Gate in quick succession, and recommended all of them enthusiastically. In fact, her exact words were: “What a time to be alive!”

Leah Schnelbach‘s favorite writing advice ever came from Alice Kim: “Write like your parents are dead. Actually? Write like everyone‘s dead.” If you can top that, come tell her on Twitter!

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