By: Kara MacKenzie
March 19th, 2023
Science fiction has always been a genre where the limitations of the present are forgotten and seemingly anything is possible. But if monsters and aliens, imaginative technology, and futuristic cities can exist, then why are the plots and main characters in these novels still lacking in diversity?
Because sci-fi includes imaginative technology and futuristic plot points there is a unique potential for new levels of diversity and inclusion. Unfortunately, the genre still consists of mainly straight, white, cisgender protagonists and often perpetuates negative stereotypes that have existed for centuries.
“Too often, the worlds we’re exposed to in fiction haven’t taken the opportunity to dream bigger and better,” says science fiction author Wren Handman for Diverse Books. “Too often, they feature straight white men in positions of power, women struggling to prove themselves in a sexist, classist society, and North America seemingly ruling the galaxy.”
This divide can be seen in all science fiction media. According to Alex Abad-Santos for Vox magazine, only 8% of top-grossing sci-fi and fantasy movies had a protagonist of color, and only 14% had a female protagonist.
For a genre that is all about possibility, it is discouraging to see this continued lack of diversity. Whether audiences realize it or not, science fiction has a special way of reflecting reality back to its audience, making it possible to view existing social problems in new ways.
“In almost all dystopian books there are the haves and the have-nots, and that’s true in real life,” says Andrea Smith, an avid reader of science fiction. “That just because of what you look like or where you were born, or the family you were born into, that can dictate a lot of outcomes of your life, through no effort of your own. And I think there’s a ton of science fiction books that continue to promote that same idea.”
For instance, most science fiction novels feature a familiar social hierarchy in which certain humans (or in many cases, other kinds of beings) are given dominion and privilege, while others are treated as less intelligent or important. Although these hierarchies may include aliens or other non-human life forms, they are often reminiscent of our own racial hierarchy in which people of color, especially Black people, face many types of marginalization.
For sci-fi stories that feature social hierarchies like those of real life, there has always been a unique opportunity to challenge the oppression that occurs in the real world. Unfortunately, they often perpetuate current power structures instead of challenging them.
For instance, scholar Jewel Davis points out in her article in her article “(De)Constructing Imagination” that popular science fiction books like “The Black Witch” and “Carve the Mark” continue to represent BIPOC characters as mysterious and aggressive, which supports racist stereotypes.
Angeline Rodrigez, associate editor for Orbit Books, believes that this can change. “Sci-fi is not inherently a non-realist category,” she says in an article for Polygon. “In a lot of ways, it’s more equipped to reckon with our injustice in a way other genres aren’t. I think sci-fi is uniquely qualified to do that work, specifically, because it’s a counterfactual genre.”
Some of the most iconic sci-fi novels, like Fahrenheit 451 and Dune, take advantage of this by challenging the injustices of their times. “The way science fiction started, outside of the pew-pew, shoot-’em-up ray-guns aspect of it, is talking about culture and society,” says Ninia Evans, Editor for Orbit/Redhook, in an article for Polygon. “I understand the escapism of science fiction, but some of our best books, our classic science fiction, still had political messages.”
John Castro also describes for The Current the ways that science fiction can reflect reality in his article “Cyberpunk is Now,” pointing out that “the pages of cyberpunk almost served as a precursor for what today’s modern technology would come to be.”
Andrea Smith points out that Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”, written in 1953, is an example of this. “To have the forethought that there would be parlors—screens on the wall, with other people—and shells that crawl in your ear and talk to you, how real is that?”
But the book doesn’t just predict today’s technology—it also predicts and challenges today’s social problems. “When we’re talking about book banning, libraries not getting funded because they are promoting all different kinds of books being available to people, that’s essentially exactly what he was writing about,” says Smith. “He wrote exactly about real life.”
Because science fiction is such a strong parallel to the systems that exist within our own universe, it is crucial that it represents marginalized groups (even fictional ones) in a complex and positive way. Unfortunately, this is not usually the case: instead, many science fiction novels portray oppressed groups in a way that perpetuates stereotypes against them.
“Mainstream science fiction … has an unrealistic (and sometimes telling) concept of race,” says Abad-Santos. ““Blade Runner” saw a slummy, undesirable world run by Asians. And “Her”, which took place in a future Los Angeles (though parts of the movie were actually shot in Shanghai), didn’t really feature any people of color.”
This misrepresentation and perpetuation of stereotypes, which contribute to further marginalization of oppressed groups, is the reason it is so important for science fiction authors to challenge the prevailing narrative with counterstories.
According to scholar Jewel Davis, counter-stories are stories that reflect inequalities in our own society by reframing them from the perspective of the persecuted group, and they are “necessary to shift the focus onto BIPOC stories and to challenge damaging misrepresentation.”
Not only are counter-stories important because they provide new ways to look at problems, challenge existing ideas and imagine new solutions—science fiction authors have the greatest responsibility to write them. These authors have the power to create infinite possibilities like they can in no other genre, giving them the unique opportunity to subvert existing power structures in their work.
“We talk about science fiction as this genre that always looks to the future, but it’s very much a genre about history,” Associate Editor Ruoxi Chen explains for TorDotCom Publishing. “So a more complicated and intense exploration of that history, which is also a story of our future, is … what I want to see more of in the future.”
Author Wren Handman agrees. “[Sci-fi] can present a world where the fights we’re fighting today have been won. It can show us that it’s possible for our future to be as bright as the fictional worlds we’re reading about.”
Smith believes that Pierce Brown’s novel “Red Rising” is a valuable example of the ways that science fiction can represent a better future. “The working class, the miners, had an uprising and I felt like that made me root for them, because they were being oppressed just because of who they were. The main character, they were smart and they were loving and they had the qualities that any human in any class system have. To me they really forced social equality in a book like that.”
Like “Red Rising”, science fiction can give readers hope for a more inclusive future. Now, authors have the responsibility to imagine a future where, truly, anything is possible.
Kara MacKenzie is currently a senior studying Professional & Public Writing and Women’s & Gender Studies. She is interested in the intersections between rhetoric and social justice, and hopes to one day use her communications skills to benefit a nonprofit organization. In her personal life, she is an intramural volleyball player, plant mom, artist, and avid reader.