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November, 2009 : Essay:

From Genly AI to Louis Proof

Cultural Diversity in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Beware, all too often we say what we hear others say. We think what we are told that we think. We see what we are permitted to see. Worse, we see what we are told that we see. Repetition and pride are the keys to this. To hear and to see even an obvious lie again and again and again, maybe to say it almost by reflex, and then to defend it because we have said it, and at last to embrace it because we've defended it.
(Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents.)

Some years ago I worked with a primarily African-American nonprofit literacy program for K-12 students. At weekly staff meetings during my tenure, we discussed what kinds of literature to introduce to our students. Being a longtime fan of science fiction and fantasy, I recommended some titles well-loved from my youthful library prowlings. One of my co-workers startled me by saying, "African-Americans and other people of color don't read science fiction." I inquired further and discovered that it was generally accepted both among my co-workers and at the schools where I had been assigned that this was true, and that the reason for it was a generally held belief that "There are no people of color in science fiction. The case is worse for fantasy." I could only wonder, is this really true? I decided to do some research. I knew of course, and loved, the classic works by Samuel Delaney, Octavia Butler, and Ursula K. Le Guin, who had—together—breached the literary "color wall" in genre literature in the 1960s and 70s with Kindred, Dalghren, Babel 17, and in "youth" fantasy, A Wizard of Earthsea. Beyond that I'd read Le Guin's classic "Hainish" works where her protagonist, "The Envoy," Genly Ai in The Left Hand of Darkness, is black—although this fact is often overlooked standing beside, as it does, the probing questions of gender identity and sexuality LeGuin tackled in Left Hand. This essay will be somewhat of a literature review based upon research completed over a period of about two years covering works both classic in the genre and some new works. My prime criteria for the books discussed here are that the people created in them are not "sidekicks," or non-human with dark skin (as in R. A. Salvatore's Drizzt Do'Urden), but humans featured as the primary protagonist of a novel or a series. My second primary criterion is that these novels are also a good read. By a good read, I mean written well, with occasional leaps into truly lyrical prose, a plot with unexpected moments within a well crafted story, well rounded characters (even the alien ones) and a satisfying ending. Good cover art doesn't hurt, either.

The popular conception is that people of color are "sidekicks" or absent more often than not in science fiction and fantasy literature. While this appears on the surface to be true, it is also true that over the years since Delany's Dalghren made waves in the 1960s, writers of all colors have stepped up to the challenge (SF&F writers do love a challenge). It was both easier and more difficult than I had anticipated. Difficult in that I honestly could not tell whether a protagonist was a person of color from the cover art or the back cover blurbs on most of the books found in bookstores, and while this practice may aid in selling books, it did make the search a little more complicated than a scan through the "books in print" listings. With only a very few exceptions, the cover art will not reveal what is inside a book, or whether the protagonists are of any particular ethnicity. While much of the art found in SF/F is remarkable for its artistic merit, it trails behind in presenting people of color on the covers of books, even when the chief protagonist is Native American, Asian, or African, or a blue-hued, yellow-eyed alien! One can only blame "marketing" for this lack. It seems, also, that it is still true that talking about race is something that people in the genre are nervous about doing, worried that it will have a negative impact on them professionally or even personally. As blogger, author, and critic K. Tempest Bradford states:

A few things changed that for me. Partly it was realizing just how few faces like my own I saw at conventions, how few black and other POC authors I saw published in magazines or bookstores, and how POC were portrayed in SF shows (when they existed at all) ...
(2009, Whatever)

Yet, The Search was also easier than a decade ago because, with a little questioning, there are some really "good reads" to be found fairly readily at the local library or bookseller. Consulting with my local reference librarian and the proprietor of the famous SF&F bookseller, Dark Carnival Books in Berkeley, CA, I was able to compile a fairly respectable list of titles both classic in the genre and more recent. Asian Cyberpunk is by and large the most accessible and has a plethora of characters from all parts of the world, but, it is also a sub-genre that requires an inquiry unto itself and won't be covered herein. Neither will I cover "fan-fic," which while not always "polished" work, is in many ways, free of many of the boundaries and conventions that hamper conventionally published authors.

Urban and modern fantasists have made a respectable showing in the portrayals of Native Plains and Southwest Cultures including Charles de Lint's Newford books and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough's Godmother series, especially The Godmother's Web (1998) which weaves a web of its own through the folk and fairy tales of several cultures including that of the Hopi and Navajo figures of Spider Woman and Kokopeli.

The collaboration of Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough has made a fair stab at presenting Inuit culture in The Twins of Petaybee (2005-2008), albeit as an unlikely mix of Irish and Inuit colonists. Faring less well were African Americans and Romani, in approximately equal measure, for different reasons. McCaffrey, as example, who does so well in many other ways, attempted to show "Traveller" families in a positive light in her Dragonrider series, but as so many have before her, she paints a picture of the popular, romanticized, happy "wandering clan." Other minorities seem to be absent or, again, in the "sidekick" realm in her tales. Likewise, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time saga borrows freely from "Gypsy" lore to create his pacifist wanderers, Tuatha'an. Another recent example are the "Water Gypsies" in The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials (2001) by Philip Pullman—who borrows the figure of Johnny Faa from British ballad lore, but nonetheless misses the mark in presenting Romani culture.

Recent titles with strong characters of color include Troy Tompkins' The Marvelous World series, an exuberant, youthful mixture of hip-hop culture and classic adventure fiction written under the nom de plume Troy Cle. The Marvelous World follows the adventures of Louis Proof, an African-American hero. Also of note is The Darker Mask by Gary Philips and Christopher Chambers, a collection of original prose expanding the "hero" tales of George R.R. Martin's Wild Card series. The continuation of the exploration of speculative fiction in Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000) is well worth the cover price. The sequel anthology, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones (2004), edited by Sheree R. Thomas, is a spectacular collection of short stories by authors from Charles R. Sanders to Samuel R. Delaney.

Some longer works are worth exploring in greater depth:

Judith Tarr's Egyptian-inspired fantasy series, contained in the collections Avaryan Rising (1977) and Avaryan Resplendent (2003), is an epic fantasy set in a world resembling ancient Egypt's first kingdom. Avaryan is the son of the Sun and a princess-turned-priestess: a fiery, energetic youth who becomes a general, then King of Ianon, and finally, an emperor who founds a dynasty. Avaryan is a dynamic multigenerational fantasy written by a recognized master of the genre; all of the main characters are black, bronze, or golden, as when Estarion, the heir to Avaryan, travels to the ancient adversary of Ianon to marry a princess—a harem in fact—and cement relations between the two countries. Judith Tarr, herself, is a courageous writer who has gone on to write several award winning historically-based novels.

Octavia Butler, mentioned earlier, since she passed on in 2006 has had a scholarship and an award named for her. On her own work and science fiction in particular, she said, "People tend to think of science fiction as, oh, Star Wars or Star Trek, and the truth is there are no closed doors, and there are no required formulas. You can go anywhere with it" (interview, Democracy Now). A writer of exceptional power, she is perhaps best known for her novel, Kindred, published in 1979 to good reviews and honored with several awards. She is also a rare woman in all literature, a successful African-American woman author. Kindred describes the journey of a young woman who inexplicably travels in time to a slave plantation. Her bibliography lists 15 titles, including Fledgling, published posthumously in 2007. Fledgling is a truly riveting and unique vampire novel with a frank, if disturbing, exploration of sexuality—welcomed in a sometimes overwrought sub-genre. Fledgling also continues Butler's discourse on symbiotic relationships begun in her Xenogenesis trilogy: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989). Described by Jennifer S. Nelson in her paper, "Agonist Symbiosis in Xenogenesis: Past as Prelude in Octavia Butler's Post-Colonial Science-Fiction Utopias" (2006) thus:

Butler's trope refuses to validate the conqueror-victim paradigm for post-colonial readings of power's exercise in colonial contexts; instead, it projects humanity's enmeshment in kaleidoscopic patterns whose complexity we cannot grasp with our familiar, polarizing terms. Xenogenesis offers symbiosis as a cluster of conceptual alternatives for thinking, speaking, writing, and living human transcultural relationship in a global society.

Butler's body of work is thought-provoking, pushing the boundaries of discourse, as science fiction in its very best iteration should.

Kalpa Imperial (2003) by Angélica Gorodischer is translated from Spanish by Ursula K. LeGuin and is a small volume containing the interlocking tales of "the greatest empire that never was." Set in a world resembling the ancient empires of South America, Kalpa's stories span a thousand years of life under "The Golden Throne." Underpromoted and rare, Kapla Imperial tackles the difficult task of following a theme across several centuries of societal development. Gorodischer is an Argentinean native living in Buenos Aires. She is known for her collections of short stories; Kalpa is her first novel to be translated into English. Gorodischer is best known for her evocative prose:

The wise say everything has its season, and each stage in a man's life has its sign, and it must be so, since the wise know what they're talking about and if sometimes we don't understand them it's not their fault but ours. What I say, and this is something I thought myself and never read or heard, is that in the ferret prince's life the years of sorrow had ended and the years of anger had begun. The worst thing about sorrow is that it's blind, and the worst thing about anger is that it sees too much.
(The End of a Dynasty or The Natural History of Ferrets)

Charles de Lint, in Forests of the Heart (2000), introduces us to his protagonist Bettina San Miguel, "dark haired, darker eyed, part Indio, part Mexican, part something older still..." a young woman whose abilities to walk into "other worlds" is at the heart of this tale. Interweaving the mythos of Southwest Native and Spanish peoples and that of Celtic Europe, de Lint moves easily between cultures and between worlds to explore the human heart. In Forests of the Heart, de Lint returns to Newford, a place-that-never-was, to create urban fantasy on a grand scale. Forests follows several novels that explore First Nations mythical figures such as "Coyote," "Crow," and "Raven," asking questions that, once again, emerge from broken hearts and lives that have been shattered by real world hurts. In de Lint's latest offering, he again visits Southwest Latina lore with The Mystery of Grace, about a woman of power and...grace.

Ursula K. Le Guin is a recognized master of science fiction. Le Guin utilizes her knowledge of culture through anthropology and ethnography to create landscapes where cultures clash. Not an author to pussyfoot around the "big questions," she once said,

When art shows only how and what, it is trivial entertainment, whether optimistic or despairing. When it asks why, it rises from emotional response to real statement, and to intelligent ethical choice. It becomes, not a passive reflection, but an act. [...] And that is when all the censors, of governments and of the marketplace, become afraid of it.
("The Stalin in the Soul," in S. Wood, (Ed.), The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction 1973/1979)

Le Guin tackles warfare, conquest, imperialism, and exploitation (The Word for World is Forest, 1976), imprisonment and slavery (Eye of the Heron, 1983; Four Ways to Forgiveness, 1995; "Old Music and the Slave Women," 2001; Powers, 2008;), the more personal questions of gender identity (Left Hand of Darkness, 1976) and, personal liberation (The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, 1974). Her short "Those Who Walk Away from Omelas" remains the classic example of ritualized scapegoating, and is read in sociology courses. Returning to the universe of her "Hainish" novels, of special interest is The Telling (2000). Sutty, an Indo-Canadian woman sent by the Ekumen to Aka as an Observer, learns that the people of Aka are not what they seem, and under the tutelage of the maz, she learns "the telling." Through her experiences, Sutty comes to understand how the people of Terra and the larger entity of the Ekumen have interfered in and exploited the civilization of Aka through the sharing and withholding of knowledge. Before leaving LeGuin: a small treasure found its was into my collection in a book of short stories, The Birthday of the World (1995). Published some 30 years after the release of The Left Hand of Darkness, it contains the short "Coming of Age in Karhide," set on Gethan where we at last are given a glimpse inside the kemmer houses. Again, Le Guin challenges our assumptions concerning gender and identity.

Lesser known (in the US) minorities are represented in several titles concerning the Roma peoples. The Romany are often romanticized beyond recognition in speculative literature as "gypsies" and tinkers who roam about a fantastic landscape wielding magic or merely dancing. While it is true that Romani music has shaped the cultural audioscape from flamenco to Django Reinhardt's "gypsy swing" to the complex compositions of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry, it is also true that Roma culture is both complex and relatively unknown to "Gadjos"—the outside world. The Silken Magic (2003) series by ElizaBeth Gilligan attempts to place Roma culture in context of an alternate world inspired by late Renaissance Sicily called Tyrrhia. A landscape as gorgeous as the much sought after silk that creates the heart of this tale, Silken Magic is first and foremost a murder mystery that revolves around the death of Romani Princess Alessandra and her sister Luciana's attempts to solve this crime. Replete with fairy interference, madmen, magic herbal lore, fanatical Jesuits, and court intrigue both Byzantine and Machiavellian that rivals that of the historical Medici, Silken Magic is a good read.

Another title that tackles Roma culture is Mulengro, by Charles de Lint. Mulengro was published in 1985 and recently reissued, although still rare, and de Lint is one of the few writers to present Roma culture in a contemporary setting. In Mulengro, the Romani of Ontario have traded vardos for cars and are being hunted by a dark evil. The plot revolves around a series of grisly murders that sets this work apart in tone and in storytelling style from his later novels. Writing more "Stephen King" horror than urban fantasy, de Lint takes us into other realms that resemble nightmares.

One cannot leave this subject without mentioning Robert Silverberg's Star of Gypsies. Originally published in 1986, this novel is lyrical, a romp through the stars in the best space operatic style. While Silverberg is a writer always worth reading and Star of Gypsies is possibly one of his very best, this yarn concerning Yakoub Nirano, Rom baro, King of the Gypsies, in a future still a thousand years ahead of us, is Zorba the Greek in Space—great fun—but the novel bears little resemblance to Romani culture.

Finally, this subject cannot be left without some mention of the recent spate of samurai-inspired fantasy worlds. Most recent to make its way onto my desk is Richard Lopoff's Sword of the Demon, originally published in 1978 and re-issued in 2008. This small but well-crafted fantasy takes place in an alternate "Middle Kingdom" where a magic sword and a woman warrior take center stage. Although very different books, Jessica Amanda Salmonson's later offerings, the Tomoe Gozen (1981) series, resemble Sword of the Demon in both tone and in the themes presented. This is not "anime;" it is high fantasy set in alternate worlds where magic and warriors fight for honor. These early samurai tales inspired an entire sub-genre within fantasy, and too many works have followed to be named here. Some are as well researched as are Salmonson's; some are better left on the shelf.

What do we take away from this research? A richer picture of the works of some splendid authors, of course, but also an appreciation for how difficult and twisting the road has been for authors, and will continue to be, who approach the knotty subject of race and ethnicity.

References and Further Reading:

Bradford, K. T. (2009) "Taking One for the Team: K. Tempest Bradford" Interview for "Whatever" blog site. Retrieved: July 22, 2009:

Butler, O. (2000). Parable of the Talents. Grand Central Publishing

Le Guin, U. K. (1973/1979). "The Stalin in the Soul", in S. Wood, (Ed.), The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Putnam.

Nelson, J.S., (2006). "Agonist Symbiosis in Xenogenesis: Past as Prelude in Octavia Butler's Post-Colonial Science-Fiction Utopias" In Proceedings: Fourth International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities, University of Carthage, Tunis, Tunisia.

Copyright © 2009, Lezlie Kinyon. All Rights Reserved.

About Lezlie Kinyon

Poet, artist, writer.


Nov 8, 00:54 by IROSF
Comment below!
Nov 12, 05:01 by Juliette Wade
Having read and enjoyed this article, I must direct people the work of Nnedi Okorafor - she's terrific. I just read "The Shadow Speaker" (2007) recently and she does an amazing job with storytelling and cultural material both in her African post-apocalyptic setting. As a side note, my own most recent story in Analog, "Cold Words" (Oct. 2009) had no non-minority characters.
Nov 12, 21:02 by Nancy Beck
Very interesting article. I'll have to look into the Romani books you referenced, as they sound fascinating.

As to minorities in fantasy, what about C. E. Murphy? Her first series, The Walker Papers, featured a main character who was part Celtic (Irish), part Native American, with, I thought, the Native American parts of the book coming off really well.

Then there's her next series, The Negotiator, featuring an African American main character, Margrit Knight, a Legal Aid lawyer. She defends those of the Old Race - gargoyles, selkies, etc. I haven't yet read it so I can't comment on it, but it sounds good to my ears (I just have to go and get it, when I have the money and the chance!).

Nov 14, 21:12 by Gordon Van Gelder
Good article. Note that Judy Tarr's AVARYAN RISING trilogy was originally published in the mid-1980s and rereleased in one volume in 1997, not 1977.

---Gordon V.G.
Nov 15, 09:55 by Michael Burianyk
Thank you. You discuss a very important question of North American SF and Fantasy. It's interesting, though, that you didn't discuss Charles de Lint's fellow Canadian, Nalo Hopkinson?
Nov 18, 20:35 by Janine Stinson
I was wondering the same thing, MB. I read Brown Girl in the Ring recently and was very impressed by it; I've read some of NH's short fiction as well, and found it equally impressive. I also missed mention of Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due. Barnes has written SF and fantasy, and his alternate America novel Lion's Blood and its sequel, Zulu Heart, are well-written and worth more than one read, imo. Due's novels have more in common with horror but are also fantasy-based (often with paranormal elements).

That's just the first three writers off the top of my head when considering those not mentioned here, and none of the three are unknowns. Not meaning to nitpick the article, truly; just a fangirl rooting for her faves. :)
Nov 19, 14:47 by LaShawn Wanak
Very good article! I truly enjoyed it. I also would like to point out that N.K. Jemisen will be coming out with her fantasy novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in 2010. She's rapidly becoming one of my favorite black writers with Nnedi Okorafor and Nisi Shawl.
Nov 21, 00:45 by Geoffrey Dow
Nit-picking, but still.

I confess that, thus far, I've only read as far as a little into your second paragraph, but your assertion that "Dhalgren made waves in the 1960s" is one of those basic errors of fact that tends to make me distrust any and everything else you might say.

Although I believe Delany featured protagonists of colour (good grief, is that a mouthful!) in earlier novels, Dhalgren was first published in 1975.

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