Monday, August 17, 2015

*Great Responsibility Not Included

Genre writers wield godlike power, but whose stories do they tell? I did an eight-month study of the depictions of race, gender, and sexuality in Clarkesworld, Analog, & Asimov’s to find out.

Voltaire and Stan Lee got it wrong. Great power doesn’t come with great responsibility; it comes with great potential. Speculative fiction writers certainly have the power. In their hands, the laws of reality are malleable things, and apotheosis is only about as a rare as empty notebooks and blank Word documents. My question was this: are these contemporary gods wielding their great power responsibly, or does their pantheon favor a chosen few?

To answer that question, I catalogued every short story, novella, and novelette published in three prestigious speculative fiction magazines (Asimov’s, Analog, and Clarkesworld) over an eight-month period that ended in May, 2015—163 stories, in all. Before I get into that, let’s make sure that we’re all on the same page. We can start by situating my perspective: I’m a 39-year-old, college educated, straight, white male. I’ve tried to be as accurate and objective as possible, but my methodology was improvised, and I’m only human—and this human is still a work in progress. Your mileage may vary.

Next, it’s important to note that I’ve focused exclusively on literal instances of real-world race, gender, and queer identities, and that means I’ve had to intentionally overlook much of the figurative artistry that defines the speculative genre. I had no choice.

Wait – I can explain.

Speculative fiction has a long history of serving as an instrument of ideology. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and Orwell’s 1984: these works, and others like them, changed minds, inspired movements, and directly influenced our national discourse. On the other hand, some speculative fiction is simply entertainment, tales of derring-do featuring intrepid heroes who overcome long odds and unequivocal evil with a winning combination of grit, guile, and one-liners. The zombies they slay aren’t metaphors; the invading aliens never read Edward Said. Back in the day, so I’m told, you could differentiate between the deep stuff and face-value fiction just by looking at the book covers. Things are apparently more complicated now.

Stahp spoiling my derring-do!!!
Case in point: A student of mine once claimed that Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is a pro-Western, pro-imperialist allegory in which the aliens represent certain people of color. Other students disagreed, and a debate ensued:

“You’re reading way too much into it.” 
“The bugs were Nazis.” 
“No. The humans were fascists.” 
“But in the movie…”
“The bugs aren’t symbols. They’re bad guys.”

I’d never read the book, so I didn’t have an opinion, and sadly, glancing at the cover didn’t help with that, but over the course of the discussion, I entertained reasonable arguments for several drastically different interpretations—and that’s the problem. Subjective opinions make for unstable soapboxes, so instead of debating whether or not Mr. Spock figuratively qualifies as a person of color, I formulated my conclusions around Uhura & Sulu.

Here’s the abbreviated version of my methodology:
Read a story
Record notes in a spreadsheet
Repeat 163 times
Crunch all the data!

A few data points had dedicated columns which received a 1 (positive/present) or a 0 (negative/absent) based on the contents of a story. For the sake of objectivity, all human characters were considered straight, white men unless the narrative clearly indicated otherwise, usually by overt description, but occasionally by cultural indicators such as name and geographic location (which is, admittedly, subjective).

[Edit: 8/26/15 – Let me clarify the “for the sake of objectivity” line. Because I was counting the instances of queer identities, people of color, and female protagonists, each story began with a score of 0 (“no”) in each of those categories. As a consequence, all characters began as not queer, not persons of color, and not female—hence “all straight, white men.” It was not my intention to suggest that it is objective to assume all literary characters default to straight, white men.]

Okay, let’s talk numbers.

Of the 163 stories, 63 (38%) received a positive score for people of color (POC). Given that the magazines that published these stories are based in nation that was 72% white according to the 2010 census, you may be thinking that 38% doesn’t sound all that bad, so let me clarify the scoring process a little bit: positive scores were assigned with no regard for the narrative significance of the characters or circumstances involved. In other words, to receive a positive score in the POC column, a story merely needed to acknowledge that people of color exist.

Here are a few examples of things that earned stories a positive score:

  • The only two POC, a “black woman” and “the Chinese guy,” appear in the same scene. They never spoke, were never named, and occupied a total of 6 sentences in an 8,000 word story.
  • A white man is easily located in the opening scene because the fellow stands out among the local POC (who are only ever spoken of) in the story’s African setting.
  • A passive, minor character with a Hispanic surname, who exists primarily to be inferior to the male paragon (and later, his implied prize), is a “dark-gold” skinned beauty.
  • A white man goes to Chinatown and overhears people speaking Chinese (which he doesn’t understand).

When 62% of the sample neglects to acknowledge the existence of POC, it should come as no surprise that people of color seldom enjoyed the spotlight. While nearly a fourth of the writers told stories with people of color, very few told stories about them: only 29 stories featured a protagonist of color (18%). By way of comparison, female protagonists were featured in 68 stories (42%), making heroines more common than people of color (of any gender, in any role), and more than twice as common as protagonists of color (also of any gender).

So, how do you feel about that 38%, now?

Before you answer, let’s consider another demographic category: Queer. Once again, the bar for earning a positive score was set at “acknowledge they exist,” and of the 163 works in question, 23 (14%) successfully met that lofty standard. Included among them are stories that received a positive score for:

  • A partner introduced on the final pages of an 8000 word story whose presence is limited to holding the narrator’s hand, touching the narrator’s hair, and a speaking single line (six words) of generic dialogue.
  • A partner who does not appear in the story and is mentioned once in passing.
  • A partner introduced on the last page whose primary function is be told things by the protagonist and set up a homophobic joke in the story’s final line.

For a little perspective, consider this: people of color were the protagonists of fewer than 2 out of every 10 stories. A story was more likely to have a protagonist of color than to even mention the existence of a queer individual.

In the stories that did acknowledge the existence of queer characters, however, those characters were significantly more likely than people of color to land leading roles.  Of the 23 stories with a positive score in the queer column, 70% included at least one queer protagonist—a percentage that drops to 46% for people of color. Despite this penchant for commanding the stage, however, queer protagonists were only featured 16 stories, affording them a meager 10% share of the total spotlight.

Having the very existence of queer characters overlooked 86% of the time might seem like a bummer, but a closer look at the queer demographic makes that 86% seem downright cordial. Lesbians are perched at the top of this downward spiral. They dominated the queer demographic, appearing in 15 stories—which allows them to bask in the validating glory of only being completely disregarded 91% of the time. Gay men appeared in only 8 stories, a 95% shut out. As for characters representative of the rest the queer spectrum, they graced a total of 3 stories, racking up a 98% omission rate that would’ve plummeted to 99.993% if I’d counted bisexuals separately.

Getting back to my original question: are speculative fiction writers wielding their power responsibly, or do they favor a chosen few? Like my student’s debate about symbolism in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, there are different ways to interpret the data. I believe that genre provides us with the opportunity to remake the world in the image that best suits the stories that we want to tell. I believe that we reveal ourselves through those stories, through the ideologies we choose to lionize or vilify. I believe that the principles we tell stories about reveal what we care about. I believe that the same holds true for who we tell stories about.

We don’t tell many stories with queer people of color, just 8 out of 163 (5%).

We tell even fewer stories about them: 5 (3%).

So, what does that say about speculative fiction writers? Subjectively, I think it says that we could do better, but your mileage may vary. Objectively, I know what it says about me. It says that I’m afraid of getting it wrong. It says that, by allowing fear to influence who I write about, I have favored a select demographic: my own. It says that I have a lot to learn about great responsibility.

But I’m still a work in progress.


  1. As much as I welcome more white people writing about characters of colour, I think it's the wrong focus. We should be looking to expand the number of queer writers and writers of colour in the genre and in doing so we'll get fewer instances where well-meaning striaght or white people are "getting it wrong" trying to write outside their knowledge base and a wider variety of stories overall.

    1. You make a good point. I didn’t actually look at the authors whose works were included in the study. Maybe I should have catalogued and considered their demographics, too. What I was hoping to highlight were the glaring absences in the stories themselves.

      When it comes to getting more people of color and queer writers into speculative fiction, I agree: we need more. I’m not really sure how to go about it, though. I don’t think people should be confined to writing inside their knowledge base, especially people writing in genres defined by stretching the imagination. The part of me that wants to be brave (but doesn’t always trump my insecurity) thinks that “getting it wrong” is an opportunity to learn how & why (and then do better).

  2. "For the sake of objectivity, all human characters were considered straight, white men unless the narrative clearly indicated otherwise, usually by overt description, but occasionally by cultural indicators such as name and geographic location (which is, admittedly, subjective)."

    As I was discussing this on Twitter, I found this paragraph's assertions troubling. I'm guessing by "objective" you're aiming to reflect kyriarchical assumptions about the cis het white male as the "default" human, rather than implying that cis het white men are objective or what-have-you.

  3. Because I was counting instances of queer identities, people of color, and female characters, every story began with a score of 0 (no) in each of those categories, which means starting from straight, white, male.

  4. Per a Twitter request, here are the positive scores each magazine received in the POC, female protagonist, and queer categories.

    Total Stories: 51
    POC: 22 (43%)
    FPR: 23 (45%)
    QUE: 11 (21%)

    Total Stories: 45
    POC: 15 (33%)
    FPR: 22 (48%)
    QUE: 5 (11%)

    Total Stories: 59
    POC: 26 (44%)
    FPR: 23 (38%)
    QUE: 7 (11%)