Race In Science Fiction: What The Big Deal Is

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Last week I had the pleasure of being a guest on the Monday Night Scribes radio show broadcasted from Ottawa, Canada. After the introductions, the host of the show jumped right into it.

“The thing that struck me about your debut novel is that it [has] an African American female protagonist.” After some discussion, he added, “so, you’re ahead of your time.”

It was the last statement that struck me. Eight years after the United States voted in the first African American president, how could I be ahead of my time simply by introducing a diverse protagonist in a science fiction story?

Then I came across a story by Jason Low, of Lee & Low Publishers, where in 2014 he researched diversity in the 100 top grossing science fiction and fantasy films. The results of that research are staggering. Only twelve had a leading female protagonist, and only eight starred a protagonist of color—and six of those were Will Smith. Precisely zero starred a woman of color. In the time since that research was completed, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” has added one more to each race and gender categories, but that one film does little to temper the impact of these statistics, and still missing is that leading lady that isn’t white. Women and people of color are dramatically under-represented in science fiction and fantasy. The big question is why?

One answer that may come up for some is that science fiction and fantasy are genres dominated by white male fans, and that is responsible for the disparity in leading roles. Yet, facts may prove otherwise. In a recent article, I showed that women readers of science fiction slightly trail, but are essentially in a numerical statistical dead heat with male readers. As it relates to race, statistics on science fiction fandom are difficult to come by, so I draw on my experience at a recent science fiction convention, Escape Velocity, in Maryland. Out of the 50 books I sold at my booth, 23 went to women, and 11 went to African Americans (which make up only just under 15 percent of the population). Granted, these numbers are a very low sample size, and far from scientific, but it does show a direction.

The darker conclusion is that, like many other facets of society, gender and racial equality have not been embraced by the world of science fiction and fantasy. And I must admit that as a white, male author, I was as guilty as anyone else in my participation in this phenomenon. It was not in any form of overt discrimination, but rather in my ignorance that any problem existed in the first place. Art mimics life. When President Obama was sworn into office, people of all colors in the country hoped that race relations were finally on the upswing. But all that happened is that some of us were lulled into a false sense that all was well in the world. We have to look no further than the tragic events of the last week to see how wrong we were.

When I introduced my African American protagonist into my manuscript, it was because her traits presented the most interesting character with the strongest background. It was not to make a political statement about science fiction. While I did write in some underlying themes around race and gender inequality in my first book, and will continue them in the second in different forms, those were in response to situations that existed outside of the literary, television, and movie realms, not as any sort of condemnation of the arts and, more specifically, the genre of science fiction.

Frankly, in the back of my mind, I knew there were relatively few diverse leading characters when I began writing, but it took the host of the radio show to bring it out front. Perhaps it’s time authors, screenwriters, and fans realize that rather than representing a forward-looking view with our futuristic and fantastic settings, we are doing little more than perpetuating the past.

Beyer received a degree in aerospace engineering in 1989 from Virginia Tech and, following graduation, was hired by NASA at Kennedy Space Center, where he worked as a Space Shuttle experiment engineer for nearly 10 years. In late 1998, Darren left NASA to become an entrepreneur, and, after more than 17 years, an author. Beyer recently self-published his first novel in his Anghazi series, Casimir Bridge, and developed an online training course: So You Want to Self Publish a Novel – From Concept to Release, the Art of Creating and Launching a Product.

Darren D. Beyer