DIFFERENT VOICES, DIFFERENT TRUTHS

Quite a few of the creative projects I take on are science fiction in some form. The comic Dadtown takes place on a space colony, a setting I'm inordinately fond of and is the environment for an animated project I'm developing and can soon discuss, and a lunar colony features in another comic story I'm cooking up at this point. 

I'm not very plugged into the science fiction scene generally, but am aware of controversies surrounding the influence of a group of right wing fans who are angry about the state of the field. They see the greater diversity of people expressing themselves through science fiction as a threat to what they perceive as authentic sf, by which they mean the sort of books I was reared on and have a lot of fondness for.

If those women and non-white authors writing in the genre now described spaceships and aliens with engineering knowhow wheeled on to save the day then maybe the protesters wouldn't be upset. Instead, this new generation of writers often brings to tales of futuristic and alien settings reminders of social and cultural and class issues on the planet we're living on here and now, which spoils the good clean fun of ion engines, blasters, and bug eyed monsters. All I know is I'm reading Lagoon, a tale of extraterrestrial contact in Nigeria by Nnedi Okorafor, and it's all the more interesting for the Nigerian-American author bringing such a story to her family's home country, than seeing such a tale unfold in America yet again. 

You see much the same happening in comics. Muslim writer G. Willow Wilson brings a fresh feel to the adventures of Ms. Marvel, a teenager called Kamala Khan who in her own way is continuing the tradition of Spider-Man - a youngster whose difficulties with family and friends are only complicated by superpowers. What Donald Trump would make of this I can only guess, let alone the fact that the comic Black Panther is now scripted by Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African-American writer on social, political, and cultural issues bringing a sophisticated take to a character whose adventures have been chronicled by a number of fascinating black writers.  

Let's not get too excited - it's still unusual for a writer to be other than white, male, and straight at Marvel or DC. Fortunately those publishers are not the only games in town, even if their output defines the medium in the eyes of many, whether they read comics or not. 

What we're seeing here is poverty of imagination on the part of readers who don't like the emergence of diverse voices in their reading matter of choice. What many people think of as science fiction, means hard sciences like physics and biology. The idea that social or cognitive sciences could be involved is unsettling, suggesting as it does a connection to things they'd rather not think about regarding the here and now.

We've seen this before. Back in the sixties Michael Moorcock took the helm of New Worlds magazine. It had been a traditional sf mag since the forties, and what he brought to it was an injection of his own era - both its politics, and a sense of wider currents in literature as represented by William Burroughs. The fans of have spaceship, will travel were deeply upset and said so but the work of authors including J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss and Thomas Disch published by Moorcock was and is regarded as groundbreaking despite their tweedy indignation.

As a straight white older dude, I welcome experiencing new voices. A book that made a profound impact on me decades ago was The Motion Of Light On Water by Samuel Delaney. This autobiographical account of life in sixties New York by a queer folk-singing black science fiction writer in an open marriage with Jewish poet Marilyn Hacker opened up my eyes more than pretty much all of the science fiction I've read, and in ways that gave me a sense of wonder about the world just like you'd hope good sf would.

What's at the base of all this, I suspect, is anything that challenges the belief that the straight white male perspective is somehow 'natural'. It's the default setting of much of the media, for sure, and it seems to me that experiencing a different perspective unsettles some audiences. It raises questions about their own assumptions and perceptions, and that's a road not many people like to go down.

For me, that experience of difference is one of the most valuable journeys that can be undertaken. My understanding is not and cannot be that of a Catholic seamstress born in Sri Lanka, a bisexual footballer in Dublin, a Sikh physicist in Calgary. How come changes of perspective of that small degree are feared where tales of hermaphrodite triple-brained extraterrestrials are enjoyed? Perhaps because there's no danger of meeting the latter, while we may encounter any of the former and risk our own beliefs being undermined. 

I'm totally up for adventurous tales that rattle along with conflict and glory. Fiction doesn't have to be demanding, after all. But if the range of fictions we encounter in our media of choice let in some of the light of the world we live in, they can be all the more rewarding. I just enjoyed the first Game of Thrones book without wanting to take a sword to my enemies or dunk a family member's head in molten gold. I'm pretty sure that the worldviews writers of varied backgrounds bring to their work are as relevant for the stories they tell as it was that Ian Fleming's background in naval intelligence contributed to his James Bond books. It's as simple as that.