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Writing the Other cover

In a recent review for the e-zine Emerald City, Cheryl Morgan predicted a sea change in speculative fiction. In contrast to that of the 20th century, she argued, 21st-century science fiction will not be U.S.-centric, nor will it assume the dominance of an American-style society, government, economy, or culture.

Of course, neither did all 20th-century speculative fiction, but a number of recent novels seem to bear out Morgan's observation: she mentions Ian McDonald's ambitious River of Gods, and then there's Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu's Zahrah the Windseeker (which I recently reviewed) and the novels of Nancy Farmer. The 21st century is not going to be a Caucasian monoculture, and neither should its science fiction be.

This makes Writing the Other a timely book. Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, two Seattle-based science fiction authors, have developed a useful, nuts-and-bolts approach to creating fully realized, well-rounded characters substantially different from oneself. They also have advice on avoiding stereotypes and differentiating between a character's point of view and an author's. An outgrowth of their workshop of the same name, the book explores conventional ways of thinking about difference, and how a writer may transcend them. It is specifically addressed to writers who want to write characters different from themselves, but are afraid of "getting it wrong": of unintentionally creating a character or situation that readers will find offensive.

The most obvious difference to address is that of race, but Shawl and Ward look at other differences too, summarised in the ROAARS acronym: race/orientation/age/ability/religion/sex. The subsequent chapters discuss how (and how not) to write characters who differ from the author in one or more of these characteristics. They provide both positive and negative examples, as well as exercises for the reader to do alone, with a partner, or in a workshop. The "Don't Do This!" chapter, for example, is a quick primer on themes or character relationships that are both hackneyed and guaranteed to offend someone, while the chapter titled "Parallax" discusses how to differentiate between a character's point of view and one's own.

In addition to the workshop chapters, Writing the Other also contains two well-regarded essays by Shawl: "Beautiful Strangers: Transracial Writing for the Sincere" and "Appropriate Cultural Appropriation." These two short pieces discuss some of the concepts laid out in the earlier chapters in greater contextual depth; the second is particularly useful in its description of how to acquire familiarity with a culture not one's own when one is not a cultural anthropologist.

The practices advocated and concepts presented in Writing the Other may seem PC to some, but following them will help to ensure that an author gives more than lip service to diversity and is thoughtful about the creation and development of societies, cultures, and characters (which we all should be anyway). Much of what Shawl and Ward advocate is, quite simply, good practice: the avoidance of cliches, flat characters, unintended effects, and other hallmarks of lazy writing. Not every writer will be as hesitant as some of those in the examples presented to explore races, genders, cultures, religions, and so forth that are not their own in their fiction, but the dominant message of Writing the Other is that none of us should hesitate. While the world has always been a richly diverse place, modern mobility and communication have helped to ensure that we are more likely to engage with difference now than ever before. Science fiction, typically about the future, arguably reflects the present. Perceptive authors need to know how to talk about the world around them through their fiction, and to do so in a thoughtful way. At the very least, if one is going to cause offense through fiction, best to do so on purpose.

Genevieve Williams is a freelance writer, an academic librarian, and a Clarion West graduate. She lives in Seattle.

Genevieve Williams is a freelance writer, an academic librarian, and a Clarion West graduate. She lives in Seattle. For more about her and her work, see her website. To contact her, send her email at
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18 Sep 2023

Ama’s arm rested protectively around the girl’s shoulder as the giant bird glided above, its head angling right to left. Violet-black wings soared across a cloudless sky, blocking the sun’s midday rays and swathing sections of the village in deep shadow. Given its size, this argentavis was one of her first, but too far above for her to differentiate by name. Even across the distance, Ama could feel its heartbeat synced to hers, their lives intertwined until death.
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