As an aspiring author and a science fiction and fantasy (SFF) fan, I follow a lot of authors and science fiction and fantasy fans on twitter. Twitter is a great way to feel connected to the fandom community and to well-known authors. And despite its reputation, twitter is also a place where, from time to time, really important conversations happen.
Last week, the SFF twitterverse exploded with the hashtag #DiversityinSFF, and it was great. The stereotypical SFF fan is a socially inept straight white male, but in reality all sorts of people enjoy science fiction and fantasy. That’s because… are you ready for this? All sorts of people enjoy good stories!
Lots of others have opined about this, and done it far more eloquently than I can. I encourage you to go take a look at the #DiversityinSFF hashtag and start reading. But the conversations on twitter made me think a bit about my own writing and that’s what I’d like to unpack a bit here.
With the help of the Magic Spreadsheet, I recently (finally) started writing a first draft of the novel I’ve been thinking about for a long time. So far it is terrible, of course. I am out of practice as a writer, and it’s a first draft, so the most important thing right now is to get the words on the page. But despite its many flaws, I am happy to say my novel is doing pretty well on the diversity front.
This is intentional, but it has nothing to do with the recent #Diversityin SFF tweetsplosion. I have had the seed of this novel idea for years, and it goes back to the realization that the overwhelming majority of fantasy novels are based on an extremely narrow range of time and place. That is: western Europe in the late middle ages. When I started to think about what I liked in fiction, the common denominator was “something different”. I like novels where cultures clash, where I get to experience new ideas, new cultures, and new places. It would be easy to write yet another Tolkien rip-off fantasy, but they say to write the book you want to read. I love me some Tolkien, but I want to read something different, so that’s what I’m trying to write.
My novel is based loosely on the Spanish conquest of the Inca empire, but is set in an alternate world, which gives me flexibility that true historical fiction doesn’t allow. Although I had the vague notion of an Inca-inspired historical fantasy for years, the idea was kicked into high gear when I visited Peru earlier this year.
On the flight down, and while we were there, I read the book “The Last Days of the Incas” by Kim MacQuarrie. It’s a very readable historical account of the end of the Inca empire, and I was fascinated by one detail in particular: When the Spanish conquistadors first arrived, they took two young boys with them back to Spain. Those boys learned to speak Spanish, and when Pizarro and his men came back to Peru, these two Inca boys served as the only translators between the Spanish and the Inca emperor. Can you imagine being put in that position? The fate of two empires depending on how well you translate a language you’ve barely learned?
One of my main characters is based on those two translators. The other main character is his twin sister, who remains behind and sees the ravages of smallpox and civil war on the empire while the conquistadors are preparing to return.
With the #DiversityinSFF tweetsplosion last week, I paused and took stock of my novel. The main characters are not white. The main setting is not medieval Europe. It passes the Bechdel test by the second chapter (this was completely inadvertent, it just tends to happen when you have real female characters). So yeah, while it is the steaming pile of suck that all proper first drafts must be, it at least has a bit of diversity going for it,
I should say that I am well aware that I am playing through life on easy mode and have benefited greatly from doing so. I have never experienced the inability to see myself in the characters in fiction that I read because straight while males are vastly over-represented in fiction. For my first novel, it would be easy to write about someone like me, in a familiar setting. They say write what you know, but you know what? That novel would be boring. As Charles Stross said on twitter:
“The biggest argument for #diversityinSFF —monocultures are BORING. (Even if the monoculture is your culture: still tediously unchallenging.)”
I agree, except I would amend that to say especially if the monoculture is your culture.
I am going into this novel-writing thing with my eyes open. Of course I dream that someday the novel will be really good and I will sell it and it will be read by millions. But in reality the most likely outcome is that I will write it and it will not be as good as I want it to be and it will not be published. Even if that happens, I will learn something, and I’ll learn more by challenging myself. I’m well aware of the challenges and possible pitfalls of writing the other and cultural appropriation. But for now, the important thing is to try something different and learn as much as I can in the process.