From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Diversity in Speculative Fiction

It seems like a common trope that diversity and quality in speculative fiction are mutually exclusive. Or, at least not a double necessity. Whenever an internet discussion blows up over this issue (notably, the Eclipse 2 anthology and Helix Magazine debates just this past year), I see it frequently stated that quality is more important than diversity, to the point where you would think quality and diversity couldn’t live in the same story. And nobody ever questions this.

This feels like an intentional non sequitur. Quality isn’t something that you can judge universally; it’s highly subjective. One person’s gold is another person’s fool’s gold. But more to the point, quality as a criterion really has nothing to do with the health of the speculative fiction field. “Quality” may give us a little more prestige with the literary folks, but it doesn’t stretch the boundaries of what we consider “speculative fiction”. It doesn’t get us thinking new ideas, seeing new horizons. Diversity does.

Two fairly recent anthologies: Dark Matter: Reading the Bones (2005), edited by Sheree R. Thomas, and Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain (2003), edited by Andrea L. Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavilán, showcase African-American and (mostly) Spanish-speaking spec-fic writers respectively. Both, as Silvia Moreno-Garcia remarked to me a few months ago, have stories that are far more likely to appear in literary publications than any spec-fic market. Now there’s an irony for you–quality according to literary terms is used as an excuse for not aggressively pursuing diversity in spec-fic, yet all the ethnically diverse spec-fic is in the Literary section of the bookstore.

This brings us to the central irony of downgrading the importance of diversity in speculative fiction. The term is “speculative fiction”. It’s not just about shiny, phallic rocket ships populated by deep-in-the-closet Aryan brethren conquering the Final Frontier, people. It’s about different futures, alternate realities, dangerous fantasies. You’d think such places, where dragons dwell, would be heavily populated with equally unusual people, but nope. Looks like everybody important there is white, male, anglophone and straight. Not to mention perfectly healthy physically and mentally.

Excuse me, but how is that “speculative”?

The two anthologies, in and of themselves, are deliberately non-diverse in that they are limited to specific subgenres. Every story in Dark Matter is written by African-American or Caribbean writers for an African-American audience. Every story in Cosmos Latinos is written by Spanish, Catalan or Basque speakers from Latin America and Spain.

But each anthology showcases a speculative tradition with visions not usually seen in mainstream specific because these traditions have been neglected by that mainstream.

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