Diversity and SFF

I regularly see variations on this quote on my social media:

“In a world where (Thor walks around / James Bond has a tuxedo under his wetsuit / people fly on broomsticks), why do you idiots find a (black James Bond / Asian waitress in 1940s America / female prime minister in 1880) unbelievable?”

This argument leaves me very conflicted.

Diverse representation in stories is an important goal. No reader should have to struggle to find a protagonist whom they can identify with; our local/current group in majority/power does not need to be the “default setting.” Stories influence our norms, and we should strive for norms that include everyone as actors (as opposed to setpieces) and represent everyone with depth and respect. Furthermore, underrepresented groups tend to be underrepresented for all the wrong reasons (undeserved opprobrium, lack of power, etc), which we authors should strive to undo. I could go on and on here.

There are innumerable good reasons to create diverse stories. But the quote above isn’t one of those reasons. It’s just a new deployment of the argument, “if it’s fantasy, you can do anything.”

This is the argument that totally dismisses the genres. The argument that says “once it’s science fiction/fantasy, it’s all equally unbelievable anyways.”

Our fictional alternate worlds have their own rules, but those rules must follow their own internal structure and logic. If Severus Snape conjured up a machine gun, we would throw the book across the room. If Indiana Jones’ archaeological relics turned out to be alien technology, that would be was infuriating.

The speculative fiction writer builds a world different from our daily life, but the burdens of “believability” and “realism” do not just vanish once you introduce fantastic elements.

We need diverse books. But that doesn’t mean authors get to ignore worldbuilding. Rather, we need to do the hard good work of showing that a diverse world is a believable one.

[Edited Wed. 2/4 to clarify the opening quotation]

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7 thoughts on “Diversity and SFF

  1. Melissa

    I think the validity of that comment depends on how you look at it. If you see it as “once you introduce fantasy, anything can be believable,” then I agree with you. But I think it often gets used in a much more applicable way—as a counterargument to people who say dumb things like “my fantasy world is based on medieval Europe so of course there’s sexism/no POC/etc” as an excuse to not write diversely. We can choose to build our worlds however we want, and as you say, I think the burden is on us to build them in a way that doesn’t thoughtlessly perpetuate real-world injustice.

    I agree the type of statement you’re talking about is really comparing apples and oranges. Whether you’ve succeeded in suspending disbelief about fantastic elements doesn’t really have anything to do with whether bigots can get over prejudices preventing them from accpeting the idea of a black superspy or a female prime minister. But I don’t think any special worldbuilding is or should be required to support the idea that diverse people can fulfill key roles in a story. (Which I know is not what you were saying… but I wanted to call out the distinction nonetheless.) And that kind of statement, for all that it contains a fallacy, can also serve well in pointing out the fallacy of those who claim diversity is not “believable.”

    But yeah, sure, there are better ways to make the argument. And “a wizard did it” is not, in fact, enough justification for anything you want to plonk down in a speculative story. A diverse cast, however, requires no justification in the vast majority of settings.

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  2. Melissa

    Just after posting this, I realized I could sum up much more concisely where I disagree with you by giving an example:

    I’m currently revising a novel set in an alternate 17th century Venice. It has women in leadership positions and the military, a black man with a high noble title, and an openly bisexual major character. During the worldbuilding phase, I pretty much literally thought “If I can create a Venice with magic, dammit, I can create a Venice without stupid prejudices.”

    Which is essentially a paraphrase of the comment you’re so conflicted about. 🙂 And I stand by it!

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    1. bckinney Post author

      Absolutely true that the argument is being made toward good purposes, and that you can (and should!) create a Venice without stupid prejudices. But what you’ve done is different from “if magic, then anything.” Here’s my demonstration counterexample: you can introduce a diverse cast of powerful people, but you couldn’t introduce a Native American.

      Assuming this story takes place before the end of the 1400s, the geographical concerns are just too great to put a Native American in Venice. It would entail changing the timing of navigational technology, the Spanish Reconquista, the expulsion of Jews from Spain. Which you COULD write about, but jamming that all into a story in 1400 Venice (or just ignoring it all) would damage the story’s believability.

      We can — and should — add diversity, but in the process we can’t just stop concerning ourselves about believable worlds. One alternate-world element does not make all alternate-world elements possible.

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      1. Melissa

        Hmm, the examples you gave in the post being all entirely possible/plausible things may be undermining your point. 🙂 Big difference between “female prime minister” and “Native American in Europe before contact between the 2 continents without the worldbuilding changes to back it up.”

        I don’t think there are actually a ton of cases out there where there are genuinely worldbuilding concerns when people are pleading believability. I do agree that the “If fantasy, then anything” mentality is completely maddening, though. I just think “the worldbuilding would be too hard”– or worse, statements like “there weren’t any POC in Europe during the Renaissance” which just aren’t true–are not valid excuses for writing without diversity, and they do get trotted out far more often than they should.

        The “if there’s magic/speculative elements, anything goes” idea SHOULD drive you nuts, because it shows complete ignorance of the work that goes into good worldbuilding… but I think it’s a very separate issue from diversity in speculative fiction. The number of settings where it wouldn’t be plausible for all the major/cool characters to not be white, straight guys is incredibly tiny.

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  3. Melissa

    Ha! I hadn’t seen that link!

    See, I think it does a great job making the point that the James Bond movies HAVE no continuity, consistent worldbuilding, or faithfulness to the original books that would be wrecked by casting a black man as Bond. It’s not equating a black Bond with a fantastic element like a flying car (which would be insulting, because there is nothing fantastic about a black superspy)… it’s saying dude, look at the horrific incoherent mess that is Bond “continuity” and you’re worried about casting a black guy? (I particularly like the little dig reminding people that no one objected to a Scottish Bond…)

    I think if you made the same kind of argument about a series that had done careful worldbuilding work that WOULD be wrecked by randomly throwing in someone for sake of diversity who disrupted that world building, then that would be a dumb argument. Sadly, all the examples I can think of at the moment stepped away from diversity rather than toward it, like casting white actors in the Avatar: TLA movie. I don’t think throwing diverse characters into settings where you really actually only would have straight white dudes is a problem we actually have. (Not to mention that if you are a speculative author with all the power of imagination at your disposal, why the heck would you choose to create a universe full of only straight white dudes?)

    All that said, I do agree that equating diversity with fantastic elements can be misleading and harmful. Because diversity is realism, not fantasy. So I do get your point… I just think it’s important to state that while comments that imply you can throw believability concerns out the window the second you introduce fantasy are blatantly wrong and show a gross lack of understanding of the importance of consistent worldbuilding, comments that decry diversity as “not believable” are equally wrong and bigoted to boot.

    Reply
    1. bckinney Post author

      >I just think it’s important to state that while comments that imply you can throw believability concerns out the window the second you introduce fantasy are blatantly wrong and show a gross lack of understanding of the importance of consistent worldbuilding, comments that decry diversity as “not believable” are equally wrong and bigoted to boot.

      Precisely! Believability is in the eye of the beholder (or the belief of the believer, natch) — which means it’s our job to make that diversity believable, by making it a real part of our worldbuilding.

      >Not to mention that if you are a speculative author with all the power of imagination at your disposal, why the heck would you choose to create a universe full of only straight white dudes?

      Yessssss. You can create a setting where there aren’t many believable “minorities”… but then you have to ask: why write in that setting in the first place? Why construct another world ruled by straight white dudes?

      I think the only plausible excuse for that king of thing is to create injustices for the story to confront. But even that should be done only sparingly and delicately, or else you get a lot of White Man Savior (or White Author Savior) stories.

      (As a totally minor aside, I don’t read the Bond link as talking about ‘continuity’, but about unrealism – and thus making the dread argument “once one thing is fantastic, there are no more realism concerns.”)

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