Doing it write: What's wrong with Science Fiction? pt. 1

Gorgon Child
Gorgon Child by Steven Barnes

                       I made my first real forays into Science Fiction when I was 14.  I remember reading “2001”,  “Rama”, at that time and really liking it.  But I wouldn’t say I was hooked.  That same year I stumbled upon “Neuromancer” by William Gibson.   Gibson’s ability to weave techno-speak into vivid imagery and descriptions of dystopian futures is ultimately what hooked me.  People were calling this “cyberpunk” and I knew I wanted more.  This was long before the internet was available for general consumption so I set about the daunting task of finding not only more of Gibson, but other writers of this “cyberpunk” sci-fi nerds were talking about.  Fortunately a woman who owned a used bookstore I frequented seemed to be in the know and was more than happy to point me in the direction of Walter John Williams’ “Voice of the Whirlwind” and “Hardwired” (25 years later she still runs that bookstore and still confuses me with someone named Mr. Whitfield.)Despite my love for Science Fiction and my newfound love for Cyberpunk, the singularity for me didn’t occur until I was unhappily ensconced in the throes of pubescence.  I was in a Crown Bookstore perusing the extremely limited Science Fiction section of the day.  Something caught my eye.  There was a cover portraying a black man with this tight fade, dark wraparound shades, and this totally cool casual outfit.  In the background was this angry red and orange skyline of some future metropolis, and he was posing in front of it has if he was too badass for the cover.  I was intrigued.  I bought the book immediately and it changed my life.  There were a few moments in my writing career that kept me writing.  This was the one that got me started.  The book was called “Gorgon Child” and to my embarrassment realized, after some time, that it was the second book in a series.  But the book, as depicted on the cover, has a black “null boxer” (like MMA today) as it’s main character.

        Was I enticed by the idea that the protagonist, Aubrey Knight, was black?  I am not ashamed to say that I was.  I was influenced by the presence of someone who looked like me not only appearing in such stories, but also leading such stories.  Some of the right leaning cabal on this subject would probably even comment on the irony of judging a book by its cover.  Regardless, it was an excellent choice.  I was beguiled by the moral, psychological, and emotional complexity of the character.  His flaws were as much on display as those characteristics that made him a hero.  In the science world they refer to a point at which function achieves infinite value a singularity.  For example, the moment in which an artificial intelligence becomes self aware is often referred to in this way.  The reading of these books was one such moment for me.  I could suddenly see myself as someone who could not only write science fiction, but science fiction that more closely represented my own experiences.

             This is the first in what will be a three part essay on some of the things I have observed (accurately or not) besieging the world of Science Fiction.  While each of these parts will deal with something specific as its central theme, they are all ultimately interconnected on some level.  To my mind there are three distinct dynamics at work racially in the Science Fiction world.  The first dynamic has to do with the intersection between class and race.  This is a legacy dynamic but until fairly recently it was still impacting the larger Science Fiction community.  The second dynamic is another legacy dynamic, and like the first it also has spawned some negative side effects in modern times.  This has more to do with the publishing side of things.  Editors during the Golden Age of Science Fiction tended to be pretty racist if our archetype, John W. Campbell, was any indication.  The final piece of this social puzzle is the audience.  The instances of backlash we are witnessing in various social media platforms and the turmoil Science Fiction has seen recently in matters of diversity. 


In order to understand these dynamics it is important for us to have some sort of understanding of some of the origins of Science Fiction; more specifically, the Golden Age of Science Fiction.  This is a period widely regarded to have begun during the “reign” of John W. Campbell.  He became the editor of “Astounding Science Fiction” in 1937 and immediately began implementing more stringent standards for what would be published in the magazine.  From then on he only wanted stories that had some basis or root in science.  Gone were they days of lazily constructed premises and fantastical attribution of events or story elements to unexplained technological phenomenon.


          Many of us would look back at these stories today and laugh at the premise from which Campbell supposedly proceeded.  But that is because many of us Science Fiction readers have a rudimentary understanding of science.  But the premise under which Campbell operated was based on science, as it was understood at the time.  And truth be told, some of it, especially that which was written by Isaac Asimov was quite good even by todays understandings by professionals.  This brings me to the point: What qualified Campbell to be the gatekeeper of Science Fiction and, for that matter, science?  Campbell was an engineer.  And while this does not qualify him to be a gatekeeper, it says something larger about the Science Fiction community of the day.  Isaac Asimov held advanced degrees in Chemistry, Robert Heinlein graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a degree in Naval Engineering, and Arthur C. Clarke attained a graduate degree in Mathematics from Kings College in London. 


           While not all of the Golden Age writers had degrees in technical fields, the most prominent ones did.  As I said before, this says something about a larger dynamic at play at the time.  How many people of color does one imagine, were accepted to, let alone graduated from, universities with technical degrees of any kind?  Again, while having an advanced degree was not a criterion for being published, having a technical background certainly would make a lot of the heavy lifting quite a bit easier.  Of the many other authors who did not have specific training in engineering or mathematics, many of them availed themselves of a DIY education via trade magazines, the libraries, and the writings of other Science Fiction writers.  The point being is that there is a socioeconomic cross section here that kept black writers out of the game for most of the Golden Age. 


        When you look at the intersection of race and socioeconomic status (class), African Americans were disproportionately economically disenfranchised.  Lack of basic education and the legacy of slavery and structural racism kept most African Americans from being in a position to entertain the idea of writing Science Fiction.  While having a technical or science degree was not a requirement, and technically, neither was being white, the bottom line is blacks could not avail themselves of the same educational opportunities that being a writer of any kind might require.  When you add in the incredibly esoteric nature of being a Science Fiction writer at the time, and the often daunting scientific understanding necessary to even conceive of a plausible premise for a story, it’s easy to see why there weren’t that many African Americans being published.  Matters of race and diversity in Science Fiction, like many other issues in the world have their origins in structural racism.  And while that topic, specifically, is not the point of this essay, one can see how it might effect something like diversity.

There have been a few people over the years that have managed to slip through the gates and get Science Fiction stories published.  A few of them were even black.  But it didn’t prevent the editors from trying.  And while I have no empirical evidence about the occurrence of racist Science Fiction editors during the Golden Age, I can present evidence of one.  And for all intents and purposes, it is the only one that matters.  Going back to our friend John W. Campbell, the usher and gatekeeper of the Golden Age of Science Fiction.  I won’t argue that the conditions in which African Americans were kept in those days was part of a conspiracy to keep us out of Science Fiction.  But I will argue that the causes were part of a larger effort to disenfranchise African Americans on the whole, the absence of us in Science Fiction was another effect of a larger societal attitude.