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Invisible: Personal Essays on Representation in SF/F is a recently published (April, 2014) e-book, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and all the other usual places. The title is accurate. These essays are personal reflections on what it is like to not find oneself in fiction or to find oneself represented badly and dishonestly, and how uncomfortable—even painful—it is to not find oneself in art.

Mark Oshiro writes about growing up as a Hispanic adoptee in Idaho, with no experience of a Hispanic community and with no good images of Hispanics in the popular culture and what a revelation it was to finally find a book, The House on Mango Street by a Latina author (Sandra Cisneros) about a young girl growing up in the Chicago Latino community. Oshiro writes: “I realized I had a desert within me. . . . I let The House on Mango Street pour over me and drown me in its prose and heartbreak.”

There are two other essays about race in the collection, “The Princess Problem” by Charlotte Ashley and “I Don’t See Color” by MichiTrota; an essay by Ada Hoffmann on how autism is represented in the media (badly); and one by Gabriel Cuellar on how major mental illness is represented (badly). Nalini Haynes writes about being albino, a group which is apparently represented in the media mostly by villains. Derek Handley writes about how people in wheelchairs are represented (ignorantly). The rest of the essays—by Susan Jane Bigelow, Katheryn Ryan, Morgan Dambergs, Ilithiana, Joie Young, and Nonny Blacktorne—are about the representation of GLBT or non-gender-typical people.

Finally, there is an essay by Katherine Kerr about growing up as a girl who wants to read“boys’ books” in the 1950s and 1960s. 

While the essays deal with TV and movies as well as written SF, I am going to focus on writing. The field has grown so huge that I no longer make a serious effort to keep up with it. But my impression is, even today the usual SF hero is white, straight, sound of mind and body, and probably named something like Brad Jones. Some advances have been made since I was a kid: the hero of an SF story may be female and named Brigitte Jones.

There are honorable exceptions. Lois McMaster Bujold has consistently written about people with disabilities; and Melissa Scott has a fabulous novel, Shadow Man, about a universe where five human sexes exist, created by the drugs that enable humans to survive faster than light travel. Most human colonies accept this expansion of human sexuality. But the novel is set on a planet that only recognizes two sexes. People who are not traditionally male and female are forced into the two accepted sexes—and must hide who they really are. Does any of this sound familiar?  The novel is also about the opening stages of a revolution. If you haven’t read Shadow Man, find it.

There are an increasing number of SF writers of color, who represent their communities in their fiction, and most of the essayists in this collection are fiction writers or aspiring fiction writers, who plan to describe their experiences in their work.

All this is good, but the point of the essays in Invisible is—it isn’t enough.

I don’t remember being disturbed by not finding myself in science fiction, back when I was a kid. This was the 1950s. American society was amazingly sexist, and science fiction was overwhelmingly male. Maybe it didn’t occur to me to look for myself in stories.

What I do remember clearly is I didn’t want to be any of the things women commonly were then: wives, mothers, nurses, secretaries, grade school teachers. . . . I knew from quite young that I wanted to write, be a space cadet, and change the world. Those were all male roles. I trudged along, trying to ignore the messages society was giving me, trying to become a science fiction writer, until the SecondWave of Feminism crashed over me in the late 1960s. Then I was blazingly angry for six months, and I made a conscious decision to write about women. My first novel, The Sword Smith, was written just as the Second Wave hit and has a male title character with two female companions: one a girl disguised as a boy and the other a pubescent female dragon. After that book, my lead characters were mostly female. This is especially true of viewpoint characters.

After reading Invisible, I talked to a pair of friends about representation. One said it was (and still is) important for her to find gay and lesbian characters in science fiction. This was especially true in the period when she first began to realize she was lesbian, though she still notices and enjoys GLBT characters. They don’t have to be front and center in every story, but she is unhappy with fiction that seems written as if GLBT people didn’t exist at all. I think she has an important point here: it’s disturbing to find blank spaces where there ought to be women, people of color, GLBT people, people withdisabilities . . .

The other friend, who is Jewish, said she looked for fiction about Jewish kids when she was young. This led to her reading far too many Holocaust stories when she was nine or ten. It seemed to be the only fiction about Jewish children available. My friend said she really liked the recent (adult) fantasy novel The Golem and the Jinni, because it’s a book with Jews, and they don’t die horribly.

My friends are younger than I am, and I suspect this is important. They were looking for themselves in fiction. I wasn’t, because I knew how unlikely it was that I would find myself or anyone like me. The 1950s had a magical ability to vanish large parts of humanity, either entirely or as people worth taking seriously. If you were not a straight, white man, then you were either invisible or a shadow or a clown, in some way unreal or pathetic.

If people now look for themselves in fiction and get angry when they can’t find characters that reflect them or find themselves represented badly, this is progress.

I recommend Invisible. Some of the essays were self-evident to me. Others came as a surprise. I have never thought about the way fiction treats albinos, and I now know to never use an albino villain. Even the self-evident essays are powerful. It’s one thing to know people of color are underrepresented in popular culture. It’s another to read an essay on what it’s like to grow up without anything that mirrors the person you are and the person you hope to become.

Women of my generation did, in a sense. Women were in the media, but in such limited roles and so often unreal. It’s horrifying to realize that people much younger than me are having this experience in the twenty-first century.

I have one final reaction to Invisible, which is a question. To what extent are SF writers responsible for representing the full range of humanity?

SF is not about the existing world. You are not limited to writing what you know. You get to set the rules. You can have a star-spanning empire that is entirely white and middle American. It may seem goofy. The world now is multicultural. Why would the future be different? But you can do it.

You can also create a future where everyone is black or brown, where there are clones and genetically modified humans. Maybe the only people who can interact with the computers on starships are autistic. Maybe it makes sense to have people like Lois Bujold’s quaddies in a zero-gee environment.

SF is about examining the rules of reality. The more a story examines our current rules, the more science fictional it is. Rules about race, sex, gender, what is an acceptable human are deeply set in current cultures. The more reason to examine them.

That is one reason to write diverse SF. Another reason is self-preservation. America, the current home of genre SF, is changing. If we don’t attract new readers of every kind, we will become a community of old, withered, straight, white people.

In addition, we will isolate our fiction from the rest of the world. Do we really want to keep writing 1940s ripping tales for manly white boys, while the world changes around us? The Chinese are going into space. So are the Indians. The most futuristic cities on the planet seem to be in Asia.

I would argue that a diverse future is a more realistic future.

There is still a primitive part of me that says, “Eff you. I will write what I want to write.” That’s a valid response, typical of early twentieth-century artists. If it means you are out of touch with your era, so be it. To your own self be true.

But the artists I admire most are in touch. Think of Picasso’s painting Guernica. It’s fascism and the Spanish Civil War as a knife to the heart. I used to visit the painting every time I went to New York. Now it’s in Spain, and I haven’t seen it since it left. Art like that gives our own age back to us, full of energy and grit and pain.

In any case, buy and read Invisible, if you are interested in how SF treats people of all kinds; especially buy it if you are a writer. 

Eleanor Arnason published her first story in 1973. Since then she has published six novels, two chapbooks and over thirty short stories. Her fourth novel, A Woman of the Iron People, won the James Tiptree Jr. Award and the Mythopoeic Society Award. Her fifth novel, Ring of Swords, won a Minnesota Book Award. Her short stories have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Sidewise, and World Fantasy Awards. Her most recent book, Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens, is available from Aqueduct Press. You can find her blog here.
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