The Paradox of Sci-Fi

A recent post shared on Patty Jansen’s excellent blog “Must Use Bigger Elephants” via the recent Weekend Redirect via got me thinking…

Great Sci-Fi is about the present. Whether addressing general inequality, sexuality, norms, political conflict, terrorism, the nature of power, or whatever other bees angrily circle out bonnets, it places contemporary problems in the future. There, characters can hash it out using fantastic technologies and hide behind applicability or metaphor.

Because of this Sci-Fi authors and audiences tend to be dreamers. Many have suffered from some kind of persecution themselves, or at the very least feel like square pegs. There is something egalitarian about Sci-Fi… something that lauds the individual.

So why is there so much sexism and racism in the Sci-Fi genre?

Okay, let’s stop and take a breath.

I am certainly not saying “all” or “most” readers or writers. But the problem has existed in Sci-Fi for a long time.

I’m not even going to get into H.P. Lovecraft, who belongs as much in Sci-Fi as he does in Horror. He was so racist that even other racists went “damn!”

But it’s a contemporary problem.

A recent issue that comes to mind is the attempted “Sad Puppies” takeover of the Hugo Awards. Spearheaded by a man who apparently wants to take up H.P. Lovecraft’s’ racism and take it to the next level (Vox Day, nee Theodore Beale), they tried to stuff the Hugo votes with like-minded writers who thought that Sci-Fi was favoring “social justice warriors” rather than “entertainment.” The complaint is that SJWs were abandoning the good, old-fashioned ideals of story-telling in favor of messaging.

Said social justice involved LGBT rights, women’s rights, and any general “message fiction.” You know… contemporary issues. And I don’t know why the SPs get to decide what is general entertainment for everyone. I find reading stories I have to think about entertaining. I find stories about big booms and big boobs to be boring. It’s that simple.


Social justice: all things being equal, I’d rather have it than not.


But as the Grammys teach us year after year, awards are not necessarily accurate indicators of what is really going on in the genre. Let’s look at other things.

Sexism, For Instance

According to surveys compiled by VIDA – Women in Literary Arts, male writers still clearly dominate the field. This, despite the fact that on the whole women read more books than men.

The story of Catherine Nichols is illustrative. She submitted her manuscript to fifty separate publishers and received two replies. As an experiment, she submitted the same manuscript under a man’s name and received seventeen replies.

Even better! The critiques from the publishers when she was a woman complained that her main character wasn’t “spunky” enough. She received no such complaints when submitting as a man.

The problem is even worse in Sci-Fi. Here’s an anecdotal example.

I have a friend whom I’ll rename “Susan.” Susan is a fantastic editor and has been at the game for over fifteen years. The problem of sexism is huge. Women face far more challenges in writing Sci-Fi. For instance, women are expected to present themselves with humility and meekness. No bragging! The very second you stand up for yourself, you’re labeled “bitchy” and no one wants to work with you.

Is it the same for men? No. There are peacocks galore when it comes to men. Men are encouraged to brag, strut, make unreasonable demands, and generally “alpha dog” as much as possible. These are positive boons in their career.

The worst of sexual stereotypes appear to be enforced in the world of Sci-Fi. In some pockets, the culture hasn’t left the 50s.

The cover of the SFWA magazine. From the 1950s? Nope. From 2013. Plus, the issue has praises for Barbie and “lady editors.” Nice.

In general, when a female writer of Sci-Fi tells other people she is an author, people immediately assume “romance.” This is because, obviously, women cannot write Sci-Fi. Right?

There was an article in The Mary Sue that discussed exactly this. A reviewer of a collection of Sci-Fi written by women wrote that the book was underwhelming because Sci-Fi is best when written by men. This attitude is far more widespread than it should be.

Sci-Fi written by women does certainly sell less, but it has nothing to do with the quality of the story.

But if white women get the short shrift here, female minorities get it double.


In 1967, Samuel Delany won a Nebula for his amazing short story “Aye, and Gomorrah.” Delany tells the story in an article for the New York Review of Science Fiction. It’s important to note that De          lany is a gay, black man – although in the 60s he was closeted because he wasn’t ready to add that extra kind of persecution in his life.

The very night he won the award in March 1968, a member of the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) made a speech complaining that the organization was letting itself get taken in by “pretentious literary nonsense” and abandoning the good, old-fashioned ideals of story-telling in favor of messaging. Sound familiar? The “Sad Puppies” are dragging out the same bullshit, and for many of the same reasons.

This was on the night that a Nebula was awarded to a black author. Delany and Robert Zelazny (author of “The Chronicles of Amber” series, which if you haven’t read then WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?!) were obviously the targets of that idiotic message from the speaker.

Later that same evening, Isaac Asimov, who was not in the least racist (seriously), jokingly told Delany that “we only voted for you because you’re a negro.” Acceptable parlance in 1968, but still… not at all funny. It’s telling that a statement like that could be said, even as a joke, without someone calling it out as racist. And that Delany had to take it politely instead of saying “what the hell?!”

Another example: John W. Campbell is justly regarded as the primary shaper of the golden age of Sci-Fi. He was the editor of “Astounding Science Fiction) from 1937 until his death in 1971. His influence on the genre of Sci-Fi cannot be measured.

He told Delany that the public would not be able to accept a black protagonist. Furthermore, the horror author Dean Koontz has a letter from Campbell who argued that an advanced black civilization is socially and biologically impossible due to the inherent deficiencies of the black race.

I wish it could be said that the Sci-Fi industry has changed its tune since then. It has gotten a lot better in as much as the racism isn’t nearly as explicit as Campbell’s letter. Instead, there is the refusal to publish for unspoken reasons and the decision to hide representation.

WorldCon, the World Science Fiction Convention, could tally the minority author attendees on two hands. White men, however, were countless. All of the past, present, and future chairs of WorldCon were white men as of 2013., at least, adjusted their guidelines, calling for stories to represent the full diversity of speculative fiction, and urging submissions by writers from underrepresented populations. It’s a start, but not nearly enough.


Wouldn’t it be great to say that things have changed? Well, they have… but not as much as they should. Not at a time when one of the best-selling Sci-Fi movies of all time stars a woman and a black man as the leads.

The publishing industry has yet to catch up. And since we, the readers, are the ones the publishers are selling to, we are the ones who can send the message. We care about the stories and not the color of the skin or the lack of dangly bits between the legs.

2 thoughts on “The Paradox of Sci-Fi

  1. I have to agree with you on the fact that sci-fi should have a better industry. It would be wonderful if such a great genre could be from creators with better characters (their personal attributes, not the people they create).

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  2. I have hope that things are *slightly* changing, although the industry really seems to be resisting that change.

    The whole “Sad Puppy” thing is actually heartening. A reaction means that things have progressed to the point that the more caveman-like writers and publishers are beginning to take the change seriously, even if they are against it.

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