For a super-genre known for its imagination of radically different worlds and futurescapes, speculative fiction has always been considerably conservative. Spec-fic—an umbrella term encompassing science-fiction, fantasy, horror, alternate history, and some in-between works—has often contrasted fantastic worlds of elves, hobbits, clones, robots, or aliens with a singular binding truth: the genre has mostly exited through the eyes of white men.
But things are changing. Following in Octavia Butler’s and Samuel R. Delany’s footsteps is a modern guild of hundreds of writers of color, women writers, and LGBTQ writers. This growing cohort has not only flourished creatively; they’ve advanced critically. Diversity in spec-fic has steadily infiltrated the big three annual showcases: the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards (albeit very slowly; white men still make up 60 percent of all Hugo writing winners from the past five years). Many titles from this new diverse body feature characters from marginalized groups or themes not traditionally explored in mainstream science fiction and fantasy.
To some, that shift is bothersome. Sad Puppies and the wider community of well-chronicled spec-fic grumblers have objected to what they deem an increasingly political nature of works nominated for the Hugos; cries of “affirmative action” have also been hurled at recent award winners. But what of the actual community of diverse writers themselves?
This week, Gawker Review of Books will feature interviews with three stars in the genre about their work and their place in the evolving world of spec-fic. First up is Alaya Dawn Johnson, author of YA novels Love is the Drug and The Summer Prince, which was long-listed for the National Book Award. Johnson, who lives in New York City, has done a great deal to break down genre tropes, especially in regard to the common dystopian milieu. I recently spoke with the author to discuss her works and how they reflect real cultural issues.
What influences you when you write? What made you decide to write The Summer Prince?
Johnson: So, back then, dystopian fiction had become this huge thing in writing, this huge new market for science fiction and speculative fiction. I [had] been reading a ton of it and I just wanted to participate.
Any specific literary or real-life influences?
Definitely. Octavia Butler was a huge influence on me. Especially Kindred. Very early on in the process of trying to sell The Summer Prince I was told, ‘Slavery seems to be very important to this society—is that on purpose?’ Well, duh. That calls back to Octavia. There was really something, like an important place to envision what the black diaspora will do when bad things go down. That version of science fiction—the dystopia—it resonates with the black diaspora.
That theme of dystopia is often heavy in urban fantasy, and a lot of your work could be considered part of that tradition. How do you see urban fantasy evolving?
In the publishing sense, urban fantasy does not mean black, and that’s pretty ironic considering that it’s a euphemism everywhere else. It would be great to get that back. But so much of black life is urban. The trajectory of a lot of black lives in the 20th century was people moving into cities. A lot of the issue with modern urban fantasy is that it’s un-diverse, and that’s crazy with what we know the history of cities here to be. You may get a wise old black woman, but that’s about it. So, for me, many of the best fantasy and science fiction novels will play around with that stuff and give you something brand new.
Do you think your work would be considered ‘political?’ Do you think it can be ‘fun’ too?
There are people with an explicit political bent complaining about people having political agendas while nominating stories with political agendas. Is it political to try to be diverse? Is it political to try to imagine a non-heteronormative society? Yes, because it involves politics. But how do they expect us to not write about our lives? I think what they mean is that it’s uncomfortable. That they want to go back to some ideal. But to me—I watch 2001: A Space Odyssey right—how is it the future and it’s just all white people? That’s not my world, and that’s not how I envision my future. 2001 is political. All I hear is: ‘Why do you have to put all this diversity stuff in my fiction? Why not just make it fun?’ and people don’t realize that all speculative fiction futures are political.
Let’s shift gears a little. I think about Afrofuturism with Butler, and I think about musicians and artists as well as writers. Is there anyone out there that you think is doing the work in other genres?
Definitely Janelle Monae. I love that there’s a lot of people in science-fiction writing land noticing her. But I’m also interested in people taking the music and using it for writing. If there are people strongly doing [a hybrid of] music/fiction Afrofuturism, I’d like to meet them. Maybe a group of women writing an anthology based on her work and image. [Laughs] Get me her agent.
Has social media and the rising voice of marginalized people online impacted your work or how it’s consumed?
I’m kind of by choice a relative abstainer from social media. I’m more of a lurker than a poster. [But] what it brings to our society is undeniable. I wouldn’t even call it democratic, I’d say some form of anarchy, a good kind. Like what’s going on in Baltimore, there’s a minute to minute telling of the truth. The facts would be in isolated independent outlets nobody took seriously before. If you’re writing about the future at all, that’s something you have to account for. It changes the way we deal with state violence [and] something about the dynamic of things is shifting. There’s more chance for people who are not in traditional forms of power to have power.
Are you hopeful?
I feel optimistic about the amazing things that have been happening in science fiction in terms of diversity. The more of us there are, the more place younger people will feel they have in the genre. I think that what we’re seeing now is this really nasty backlash, but I think [the Sad Puppies] people are part of our community, too. Hopefully they’ll get used to it. In the long run, as long as certain elements don’t get too much power, people on the margins are going to come in more.
[Image via Flickr]