A few months ago, I reread “The Future Is Female!: 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women, From Pulp Pioneers to Ursula K. Le Guin“, edited by Lisa Yaszek (2018, The Library of America). It’s a great anthology, which I strongly recommend.
I checked it out of the library to research which version of “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” by Ursula K. Le Guin was included in “The Future is Female!” I was not planning on rereading the anthology, but the stories are good enough that I could not resist.
Two adjacent stories in ‘The Future is Female!” were “Mr. Sakrison’s Halt”, a 1956 short story by Mildred Clingerman, and “All the Colors of the Rainbow”, a 1957 novelette by Leigh Brackett. These were both very good stories that were new to me, although I am familiar with the authors.
On “Mr. Sakrison’s Halt”, my thoughts were, “Another great story by Clingerman, told by a preteen who is friends with an aging and rather traumatized relative, Miss Mattie. Set in the South, decades ago, Miss Mattie’s Yankee intended husband got off the “Katy local” at a mystery station (“halt”) and disappeared from our world. We find out that this mystery station was a place where black and white could be friends in the South. Miss Mattie had hesitated, and missed being able to be with her intended. Finally, the Katy local stops there again, and Miss Mattie is reunited with her man. A fantasy, but a good one.”
For “All the Colors of the Rainbow”, my comments were, “A very good, rather late career work in Leigh Brackett’s oeuvre. The Galactic Federation has found the Earth, and help and assistance is starting to come to a backward world. A journeyman weather technician and his new wife come to Earth. Encouraged by their chief Earth contact, they are driving around and find out they have stopped in a ‘no-black’ town (Grand Falls) where the very racist populace considers them ‘green niggers’. During a heated exchange, he tells the locals that there are whites out among the stars, but they are just one minor hue present among many. They barely survive the experience, but are traumatized. Before leaving Earth for advanced psychiatric treatment, the weather worker sets equipment in place to wipe Grand Falls off the face of the Earth with unprecedented local rainfall. The only weakness in the story is Brackett starting at the end and only flash backing most of the story, which telegraphs the ending.”
These two adjacent stories really got me to thinking about racism and speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror, and related genres, see my post on reading them, which will help with basic vocabulary and concepts if need). While letting the subject percolate a bit, I was further energized to write about this by a post shared by my friend Chris Barkley at the Science Fiction/ Fantasy Group (sans racism and misogyny) on Facebook, “Jim Crow, Science Fiction, and Worldcon” by greyirish.
At the same time, to be honest, I am a white, straight, privileged male American who is rather daunted about writing about racism. I like to think I am a good person and that I am liberal and believe in equal rights and fair treatment of all, but I know my lived experience is very privileged and different from that of Black, Indigenous and persons of color (BIPOC). I know I have biases and assumptions; we all do. I would not be that surprised if writing about this exposes me to learning things that are true that I had not realized about myself and others and the United States of America. There might be things that make me uncomfortable or that I would rather not have learned. So, this makes me a bit uncomfortable, but at the same time I hope to learn things and be a better ally to those that need it, in speculative fiction fandom and outside.
I am writing about a number of important aspects of racism in speculative fiction as I see them. I am not claiming that this essay is comprehensive or authoritative. That would take a book, by someone more qualified than me.
I believe we encounter race and racism in fiction (and in speculative fiction) in a number of basic ways.
First, external to the field of speculative fiction and the associated fandoms, we do (mostly) live in the real world. While I can write about race and racism within speculative fiction, we all encounter evidence of systemic racism in the United States. While those of us that are privileged white people can simply not see this or deny the fact, BIPOC are consistently faced with this on a daily basis that I cannot envision. So, the real world and the systemic racism there affects speculative fiction and it’s fandoms, even if we choose to deny it.
Second, we encounter race and racism in speculative fiction through the actions or inactions of fans, authors, editors and others we encounter, whether in person or otherwise, at conventions, online, in other settings, etc. This has certainly been the case historically, as noted in the “Jim Crow, Science Fiction, and Worldcon” post above. Some things about this have gotten better since then, but this has not gone away. There has been several recent incidents in the speculative fiction world that touch this area, such as noted in this recent File770 post.
Third, we encounter race and racism through the conscious or unconscious biases, worldviews and assumptions of authors and editors as they write, edit and publish fiction, and similarly with those involved in the production of movies, TV shows, radio shows, video games, and other media. These are all embedded in the works, whether the authors intended them to be there or not, or are even aware of their presence. Many authors attempt to be aware of these issues and deal with them today, to varying success. However, they can be much more jarring when we go back decades, especially in the 1950s and before. This and similar issues such as LGBTQ hating, misogyny, ableism, colonialism, etc. can impact our ability to enjoy certain works and authors, or even to continue to read or watch them. One aspect of this is that it’s not uncommon to see depictions of alien races in ways that are either direct copies of or analogies to ethnicities with embedded racism here on Earth, especially if we go back a few decades. This was kind of a lazy way of moving the action to outer space while keeping it accessible to people.
Fourth, as found in the two stories discussed above, the authors can use science fiction (especially) and fantasy to discuss or illuminate points and thoughts on race and racism or other potentially challenging issues. It is not at all uncommon to read a story of SF (especially) or fantasy, and finish it while coming to the realization that the author is really talking about us today, and not some far off location on another planet some time in the future. In a similar vein, writers in the Soviet Union were able to use SF to discuss and comment on things that would have had them in the gulag or shot in less fantastic fiction. Two recent TV miniseries that utilized and dealt with this head on were the 2019 “Watchmen” and the 2020 “Lovecraft Country“. It’s worth noting that the “sun down” towns in “Lovecraft Country” are still with us, and I believe there is now a reborn “Green Book” out there to help BIPOC travelers. I guess I should not be surprised, but I am saddened this is still needed.
Finally, over the last 20 years or so, fiction has become familiar with and often concerned about cultural appropriation. This is even more of an issue in speculative fiction, where different settings can be desirable. In my non-expert perspective, cultural appropriation is not the same thing as racism but the Venn diagrams do overlap a lot. I have read a number of works, and more not written within the last 20 years, where my reaction is that there is cultural appropriation going on and that it would have to be written differently today.
I don’t have any big solutions or a master plan on how to deal with these weighty issues that keep us from being the best that we can be in the field of speculative fiction. I do feel that being aware of these issues, thinking about them, writing about them and discussing them is part of how we can work do better. I believe that being aware of these things will make me a better ally, and that is where I am starting.