Paula R. Stiles has sold a heap and a peck of stories in speculative fiction, as well as a horror novel, The Mighty Quinn (due out in 2012 from Dark Continents Publishing), and a cowritten urban fantasy novel, Fraterfamilas (from Innsmouth Free Press). She is also Editor-in-Chief of Innsmouth Free Press. You can find her at: http://thesnowleopard.net.
People often ask me, “Why bother with multiculturalism in science fiction?” and I often reply (because I’m a smartass), “Why not?” But there are, in fact, reasons for why you need to understand and use multiculturalism in your writing if you want to become a good writer.
Standard White Anglo Saxon Protestant Guy Does Not Exist
The two-fisted, upright, straight, utterly sane SWASP male writer of science fiction does not exist. In fact, he never did exist. So, why are we defending this golden age bastion from all comers?
A few facts. James Tiptree Jr. was a woman and reputedly bisexual. Samuel R. Delany is African-American and decidedly out of the closet. Thomas M. Disch was also gay and shot himself shortly after his life partner’s death. Philip K. Dick was mentally ill – possibly paranoid schizophrenic. H.P. Lovecraft’s parents both died in mental hospitals.
Isaac Asimov was Jewish and a Russian immigrant during a time when either ethnic identity could get you investigated by the government. Harlan Ellison is also Jewish and an atheist. Orson Scott Card is Mormon. William Sanders (yes, that guy from Helix SF) is Cherokee.
That’s not even getting into the fact that culture is not only based on race, gender or sexual orientation. It can also be regional, linguistic, occupational, and recreational, among others. In fact, the SWASPG myth derives from a basic American misunderstanding of European cultural differences, which are largely linguistic, right down to distinct dialects that may exist only kilometers apart (especially in England). Europeans are not at all alike, culturally, but they tell each other apart differently than people in North America do – even the ones who aren’t white. When they came to America and their children learned American English, most immigrants lost those cultural identities. Hence the “Melting Pot” myth evolved into the myth that Europeans all arrived that way.
There is no standard science fiction writer and there is no standard culture for science fiction to follow. This is hardly surprising when you consider that science fiction is rooted in Gothic literature. The great-great-great-grandmother of us all was the daughter of a hardline feminist and the jailbait mistress of a married poet. She wrote the first science fiction novel in Italy, while grieving over a lost child and suffering from postpartum depression. How does that translate into science fiction being only by and for white men who live in their parents’ basements?
Let’s stop standing up for a guy who never existed and remember those who did, in all their variations.
Write In Your Own Voice
I get it. If you’re a woman, it can be easier to write action, or distance yourself from more painful aspects of life (or situations that turn cliched with female characters), with male protagonists. Male writers write female protagonists in certain situations for the same reason. And you may not want to leap out of the closet to your readers by writing gay characters. Or you may not want to be typecast as the go-to “ethnic” writer for your area of the planet. Or you may simply not know how to write stories set in your very-different culture because you’ve never seen science fiction set in it. Or your high-octane experience (combat, EMS, etc.) may require writing a lot of crap before you can process it into something good, especially since you probably won’t have a model for it, either.
You have to get beyond this. Are there risks? Sure. But the only way you’re going to become a great and memorable writer is if you find your own voice. You won’t do that writing in tired – albeit safe – tropes derived from other people’s lives.
Don’t Think Of It As Being Politically Correct; Think Of It As Surmounting Clichés
Stereotyping is not about offending people – it’s about boring them.
Look at how stereotypes come about. We’re not just talking about inflammatory stereotypes like the Crazed Islamic Terrorist or the Scary Black Man, here. We’re talking about the Tough Gun-Toting Crypto-Lesbian, the Wisecracking Ethnic Guy Who Always Dies First, The Tragic Gay Man, The Magical Negro, The Defensive Disabled Person, The Hot-Blooded Hispanic, The Goth Girl Computer Hacker, The Autistic Genius, even The Final Girl. Once upon a time, these characters had reason and purpose. Some of them were amazing in their original works. But I can guarantee you that if you use them as plot furniture shorthand because you can’t (or won’t) do the work of turning them into living, breathing people, some reader will make fun of you for the cardboard you just churned out. That reader will be right.
If You Can’t Be Bothered To Do Your Research, I Can’t Be Bothered To Read Your Story
You say, “But it’s just silly to insist on political correctness when I’m writing in a time period when most people were white/most people in war were men/they didn’t talk about homosexuality,” etc. As an historian, I ask, “When, pray tell, was that?”
If your fictional future is the usual one-third women (51% of the population) and token non-white minorities (who are only minorities in the U.S.) we see in every sci-fi TV series, do you intend to explain where all the women and non-whites went? If not, why are you writing that way when it makes no sense?
As for historical periods, there was never a time or even a place when most people were both male and “white” (i.e. Northern European and non-aboriginal), just as there was never a time when everyone was straight (or, for that matter, right-handed). So, why stick a SWASPG Hero in an historical fantasy situation where he does not belong because, basically, you don’t want to do any research for a more realistic character?
I see people screaming about Guinevere being black in BBC’s Merlin, but if you point out Irishmen playing Romans and Englishmen playing Russians in historical shows, they shrug and insist the audience wouldn’t accept actors from the real ethnicities, or (my favorite) that directors should always pick the best actor for the role. Hey, if Ciaran Hinds can play Julius Caesar, Angel Coulby can play Guinevere. In fact, Coulby makes more sense for her role (since she has an English accent) than Hinds for his (since he sounds Irish not Italian). Medieval Welsh people might well have accepted a black Guinevere who spoke like a native, but the ancient Romans would have flipped over their greatest general being played by a Celtic barbarian from the one British island he could never conquer.
Here is the biggest reason why multiculturalism makes you a better writer – it’s realistic. The world is multicultural. It always has been. In fact, it was more so before Globalization. If you keep that in mind while writing, your voice, characters and worldbuilding will be fresher and make much more sense.