Science Fiction, Writing, and the Race Gap


I have recently been reading a unique book called Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia in Space by De Witt Douglas Kilgore (that name is a mouthful). One of the unique points he tries to make is that science fiction is, in some respects, racist; Kilgore does not argue that the fiction of writers like Clarke, or other more recent authors, supports racism, but that the very absence of people of color suggests, as he puts it, the extinction of non-white, non-European people. To put it differently, Kilgore makes the argument that science fiction in the past, and this is, I would argue, still true today, imagined the white European state as the continued dominant cultural pattern (think Star Trek, Star Wars, et al.). Plenty of other arguments are made in the introduction to Kilgore’s book, but this one is what struck me most. Kilgore’s take on race and how it has been perceived interests me because I have to lodge a disagreement.

If RaceFail has taught us anything, it is that writing outside of one’s comfort zone is difficult, if not impossible, and that attempting to do so can lead you into a lot of trouble. One can attempt to write from a black perspective as a white male, but there have been few writers who have pulled off such a feat to the satisfaction of those most vehemently concerned with this issue. RaceFail pointed out the futility of writing PoC.

But Kilgore takes all this a step further and hints at an intentional or unintentional extinction of non-white races by the fact that they are, for the most part, practically nonexistent (and when they are present, they rarely have good roles, and are, more or less, there to act as furniture, as if to say “see, we still exist”). This seems too simple.

For example, to make such a claim, one must know the psychological conditions that produce these sorts of white-dominated works of fiction (some assumption is made on Kilgore’s part that all the things he has read have all been predominately about white people; for clarification, there is no assumption on Kilgore’s part that any particular author is racist, though some may be). How might where someone is raised influence one’s writing? Could we say that an author living in a predominately white area might automatically be inclined to write about white characters? And on the inverse, could we say that an author living in a more mixed place may be more inclined to write about characters of various races?

They say “write what you know,” and I have to be honest in saying that I only just recently began to understand what it is like to live in a place where white is not the dominant color. Coming from California, my exposure to people of other races was limited, particularly in Santa Cruz. There were Hispanics and blacks and Japanese and Chinese, and a few Indians too. Mostly, however, Santa Cruz and all the places I had visited in California were populated mostly by white people.

But here, in Gainesville, the story is different. I only realized how different when I actually came here and saw it with my own eyes. In looking back at my writing, this absence of exposure does show up in my fiction. It was never intentional, but the world that I had lived in did not make easy the process of writing about people considered different by skin color (I don’t agree with this, but dominant society does; I think race is a stupid concept anyway). Now, however, I imagine myself becoming more comfortable with the prospect of writing about characters of different colors. It’s not that I did not want to write such characters, but that I never knew how. You can’t tell someone “write a Chinese character now, and it has to be authentic” if that person is not comfortable with doing such things. We write in our comfort zones because those are the spaces we know well enough to remain close enough to reality to be accurate.

But there is a lot of fear, too; after all, if you fail to properly portray a character of a certain race, you will have effectively committed career suicide. Once the mob knows you exist, it’s game over. Similar things happen if you don’t write PoC.

Maybe this is isolated to myself, though. I can’t say. I know little about the biographical histories of science fiction writers, but I do know my own history. I write in my comfort zone because it’s what I know. I don’t presume to know the “black experience” or the “Japanese experience” or the “Irish experience.” I know my experience. That’s where I write from. And since that is true, then Kilgore would say that my futures are tinged with the extinction of people of other races. That seems unfair.

Now it’s time for you all to chime in, because I like hearing your thoughts on things like this. Have at it!

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

8 thoughts on “Science Fiction, Writing, and the Race Gap

  1. It is hard to write about what you do not know. It can alienate your readers and make them not want to read anything you write and actually come to not like you as a person. Science fiction deals in a lot of unknowns. Genetic purity, is one of the things that came to mind when I read your article. We have heard about this for years and see that only the best things are chosen. The idea being that what we perceive to be the best qualities will make the human race go on and on.

    Race as a tool is not used very much in a lot of genres unless it plays a big part. Serial killer novels come to mind, as the profiles play a big part of the plot. Race can be the center of plots as well. I have read some novels and serials that do very well with different ideals, even religion. Having differences not just race is hard to write about if you don't face it in real life.

  2. Jodi: Exactly. This is why I wonder if so many of the great SF writers didn't write PoC characters precisely because they did not have exposure and did not feel comfortable dealing with what they didn't know, and probably couldn't know.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Another problem is that raising awareness of this issue can lead to people become semiotically aroused, to the point that they will start to see racism everywhere, even in the most innocuous situations.

  4. Anonymous: Yes, I agree, and that is a point that I have been hard pressed to avoid, particularly here. My writing would be perceived as racist precisely because I have very few, if any, characters of color. Granted, I don't know if I ever talk about skin color in my stories, but because of my background, it would be assumed that I envision the extinction of PoC in my fiction…I don't…I just write characters…

  5. I don't believe I have ever thought about this, but then again, I am at the beginning of my writing career.
    Perhaps this is also an American issue, although I don't want to insinuate that we here in Europe don't need to be racially sensitive.

  6. Lisa: I think race issues are a bit different in Europe, which may account for your lack of awareness of it. I don't know why that is, but it seems to be fairly true.

  7. I too can understand this idea. I am about to have my first ebook published — this month they say –and its main religion is a mingling of Buddhism and Islam. Heresy, I could easily see people saying, so I'm a bit nervous about "well did I do it right, did I research enough…" even though I did TONS.

    Writing about other things than that which you are familiar with is extremely difficult, hence the extensive research in this case. Because I too believe there's too much of writing about one race or another in SF — and fantasy too! So I keep trying to tiptoe out of that comfort zone.

    But man, it's difficult.

  8. hyberbard: Absolutely. Very difficult, but I think it's rewarding. I'm currently working on a story in which the main character is a lesbian. Never done that before (I did do one with a homosexual couple, but that was a little easier for me, being male). I don't know if it will be any good, but I'm hoping so.

    That's also something I brought up during a debate with someone some time back over a different issue. She brought up that men typically only write from one viewpoint and I saw that as a failure of many male writers to broaden their horizons. There was a disagreement that followed, but the point was still made: we need diverse views in SF.

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