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Friday, September 25, 2015

THREE REASONS WHY THE UNEXPECTED SHOULD BE SFR’S STOCK-IN-TRADE—AND DIVERSITY ITS LINGUA FRANCA


Not just any ship--the unexpected

Greta’s thought-provoking post earlier this week on the subject of diversity, and the enlightening response from blogger and SFR advocate Heather Massey of THE GALAXY EXPRESS, woke me up a bit. 

I’ve long admired Heather’s efforts to bring more attention to the need for more diversity in SFR (both in terms of the writers we read and the characters we read about). And I’ve done what I can to make sure my writing reflects both the reality of our current world, and the complexity of the universe I believe we’ll be part of in the future. 

My favorite “character of color,” Rescue agent Rayna Carver, is of African-American heritage, but grew up in the polyglot returned-slave colony of Terrene in the universe of my Interstellar Rescue series. Rayna started out as an important secondary character in the first book in the series, Unchained Memory. Her own story is told in Book Three, Fools Rush In, due out next year.

Rayna’s story is interesting, and I’m sure I’ll tell it as we get closer to the pub date for Fools Rush In. But in the world I have created for my Interstellar Rescue series—her character is not unique. She is part of a galaxy full of diverse beings, both human and nonhuman, representative of as many cultures as you can imagine.

And that is the point. In science fiction romance, we can imagine any kind of universe we want. Why limit ourselves? We should be imagining the unexpected as much as possible.

The unexpected is the normal in SF and SFR for three reasons:

--To escape this world. Many readers choose SF and, by extension SFR, to leave Earth (and its conventions) altogether. They want to fly among the stars, visit other worlds, to bravely go where no one, etc., etc. It’s not as easy to do this as it once was—just look at the differences in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Princess of Mars and Andy Weir’s The Martian—but it’s still a worthy goal. So, instead of the rocketships of old, we have sentient spaceships (The Ship Who Sang), spaceships that require drug addicted pilots (Dune) or ones that court insanity (Grimspace). Or spaceships for which their pilots are integral--or is it the other way around (Inherit the Stars)? 

All of these are unexpected twists on old tropes. They take us to new places, not only in our minds, but in the SF/R world. We don’t need to carry old prejudices with us when we go, either. We can imagine the crews of those starships in any shape, color, species, gender or sexual orientation.

The first SF novel, penned by a woman
--To shine a new light on this world. The very first true science fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written in 1818, examined the questions raised by the new Industrial Revolution. In the earliest days of science fiction, Jules Verne took us to new worlds, but H.G. Wells took us to the future of our own world, whether it was the lost far-future of The Time Machine, or the fearful tomorrow of The War of the Worlds. In his stories, his readers saw a reflection of their own fears in a time of near-constant war and economic uncertainty at the end of the Nineteenth Century. Later, Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), George Orwell (1984), Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451) and Phillip K. Dick (“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” among other titles) did the same for their times.

The creation of an alternate “Earth,” be it a full dystopia or simply a peek behind a curtain she never knew was there, provides an unexpected jolt for the reader, prompting her to re-examine the world she lives in. An exotic setting isn’t needed for this kind of SF/R novel; just an exotic viewpoint. In fact, the more “alien” the viewpoint, the greater the sense of the unexpected and the bigger the reader’s delight.

-- To examine what it means to be “human.” For most of the history of science fiction, from Frankenstein on, SF/R writers have wrestled with this central question. What is it to be sentient? Is that the same as “being human?” Do all sentient beings have a “soul?” The answers writers have found to these questions can be the most unexpected of all. Starships, computers, androids, aliens of all descriptions, humans of all shapes, colors, sizes, physical and mental capabilities—all have been declared fully functioning, fully worthy of respect (and love), fully “human.” Sometimes that declaration comes with understanding within the world created in the story, sometimes with tragedy.

But as long as we keep asking the questions, we can keep surprising ourselves—and our readers—with the answers. That is our job, as writers in a genre that trades in the unexpected. We can no more settle for a white-bread cast of characters than we can set our stories in a sunny suburb with no dark underbelly or creepy neighbors. Diversity is our lingua franca, the common language we must speak to reflect both the present and the future that is rapidly encompassing more rather than less

Cheers, Donna

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