Yesterday I kicked off an analysis of the Wired article “Who Won Science Fiction’s Hugo Awards, and Why It Matters” with a word frequency analysis. It’s ironic that an article covering a struggle over diversity in science fiction would focus so heavily on men. Here are a few of the findings:
- The pronoun “he” was used 74 times, and the pronoun “she” only 16.
- The nouns that were mentioned 20 or more times were, in order of frequency, Puppies, people, Beale, and Hugo.
- Mentions of male authors greatly outnumbered mentions of female authors.
- Mentions of white authors greatly outnumbered mentions of people of color.
- The list of people who had won Hugos that appeared at the beginning of the article included only white men. Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Connie Willis–women and people of color who have also won Hugos–had to wait until the very end, after the leaders of the Sad and Rabid Puppies, people who gave up Hugo nominations, Pancho Villa, MC Escher, Darth Vader, Churchill, FDR, and Stalin.
This isn’t unusual. This is same-old, same-old, an everyday erasure of diverse voices. It’s the sort of thing that happens when a journalist goes with the flow in the midst of a backlash. Worth pointing out, but let’s move on. I have two more interesting erasures to look at.
Here’s an obvious one that I bet most everybody missed.
[T]he balloting had become a referendum on the future of the genre. Would sci-fi focus, as it has for much of its history, largely on brave white male engineers with ray guns fighting either a) hideous aliens or b) hideous governments who don’t want them to mine asteroids in space? Or would it continue its embrace of a broader sci-fi: stories about non-traditionally gendered explorers and post-singularity, post-ethnic characters who are sometimes not men and often even have feelings?
There’s a word missing here, and that word is fantasy. The Hugo awards are for science fiction and fantasy. So this article that is supposedly about the future of the genre has left out half.
What else has been left out? Well, let’s look at the choice given in the paragraph I just quoted. It’s between white men with ray guns fighting aliens and mean governments and stories about diverse characters with feelings.
This is really just a fancy rephrasing of the Sad and Rabid Puppies claims that anything with diversity is just about identity politics.
No way, nohow.
Believe it or not, authors who include diverse characters also include diverse plots and new ideas. Feelings are only one aspect of a genre that is constantly pushing boundaries, always going bravely “where no one has gone before.”
Just off the top of my head . . .
- Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein asks us: what happens when human beings use science to play God?
- Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower gives us a possible vision of life-after-apocalypse, and her trilogy Lilith’s Brood explores not only the complexities of interspecies mating but also the way they’re affected by a differential of power.
- Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed shows us a vision of a post-capitalist world and then questions her own utopia.
- Amy Thompson’s The Color of Distance dives into the hard science of ecosystems.
- Nnedi Okorafor’s book of short stories Kabu-Kabu invites us to jump into a taxicab driven by a magical madman and then cheats us of the kind of endings we have been conditioned to expect.
- Molly Gloss’ Dazzle of Day gives us a spaceship with plausible physics — one that didn’t break the speed of light.
- Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren presents an apocalypse that breaks time and space, with a book that breaks the genre.
I would suggest that anybody who reads books like these and sees only identity politics is missing out. These books represent an ever broadening horizon of new life, new civilizations, and new ideas.(1) They help us understand the world in a different way, see possible consequences of new technologies, look at different options for the running of human society. In short, they’re the future of science fiction and fantasy.
Which is what the Wired article was supposed to be about, after all.
1. You might be asking, “But what about the menz? Are you saying they can’t have diverse plots and fresh ideas?” On the contrary: white male authors moved beyond ray guns decades ago. I just finished rereading Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber and gorged myself on the setting, which was so vivid it turned into one of the most compelling protagonists I’ve ever met. Short of Robert Holdstock’s worlds, that is. Meanwhile, China Mieville gets an A+ for the antihero in UnLunDun. And I will never look at parasites the same way again, after devouring Scott Westerfeld’s Peeps. Don’t even get me started on what Steven Moffat and Neil Gaiman did for Doctor Who. And then there’s George Orwell, whose dystopia 1984 is one of my three favorites.