Aliens Don’t Count as Representation

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By Malia Disney

Narration: Recently I enrolled in a Sci-Fi and Fantasy Lit course at my school. The syllabus was exciting: I was able to read novels from Ursula LeGuin, Orson Scott Card, and other big names in the genre. But, as I moved through the course I noticed that there weren’t that many queer characters or authors. This shocked me, especially because I always regarded sci-fi as a genre that often experimented with the “normal” perceptions and representations of gender and sexuality even though, mainstream Sci-Fi is a mostly made up of straight white men. I assumed this because much of sci-fi has political undertones that challenge society. Due to this indifference of the mainstream culture, I expected more queer characters.

In downtown Oakland, I asked a few folks if they knew of any queer characters. Here’s what they had to say:

  • You know, off the top of my head I don’t.
  • Was somebody in Catcher in the Rye gay?
  • I can’t think of one of the top of my head


Narration: Representation is important because it increases visibility and awareness of issues. It also helps young people to find characters that they identify with. But, as I began reading more and more of the genre, I noticed that there was a serious lack of representation among mainstream sci-fi novels. There were very few character that were women, people of color, or queer. In fact, some popular novels, like Dune, and Ender’s Game, were actually homophobic. Dune painted gayness as a negative attribute of the villain. And, the author of Ender’s Game has had a long history of homophobia. As a matter of fact, he once argued that sodomy laws should not be repealed. However, I knew that there was a vast selection of sci-fi books outside of my curriculum. So I went to a local bookstore called Walden Pond Books, and talked to their sci-fi curator, Bob. I asked him what he thought about representation.

Bob: Do I think representation of what? I think that representation of talent is important. That’s all I look for, Is it a great read, that the final criteria. That’s my litmus test. Is this a great read do I have customers who will like this kind of book?

Narration: I recognize that Bob was stating that representation of talent is important, not the representation of minorities. But his comment made me curious about how visible queer people  are in sci-fi and if it’s something that other people think about. Bob had one perspective-

Bob: I don’t know, I’m probably not aware of it if it is cause I’m not gay, so I don’t think in those terms um, I would imagine that maybe it is for some people.

Narration: Maybe Bob wasn’t conscious about issues of representation because he was constantly represented in literature as a straight white male. But, I was disappointed in this response. This bookstore has been representative of a community of book lovers who are knowledgeable and respectful towards the queer community and other minority groups. This bookstore has a very wide queer and trans section so I assumed they were intentional about the books they choose and maybe even that they prioritize finding queer and trans authors. Even though Bob said he doesn’t prioritize queer authors, I asked him about how he thinks sci-fi compares to other genres.

 

Bob: I’d say better, I remember lots of authors especially back in the 60s there were a couple of stories in an anthology called dangerous visions by Harlan Ellison that really started to break the boundaries of sexual identity and as you say queer representation. Philip Jose Farmer’s, the lovers, is another that really started to break the boundaries. these are all books, a lot of these books that are out of print, you can only find them in sci fi bookstores.

Narration: Sci-fi stands out to Bob as a genre that breaks boundaries often, even though didn’t pay attention to the amount of queer characters.This made me wonder about how much an influence that books have. Bob said that that books like this influence everybody, including him. However, when I asked if books influence him on the perception of gender and sexism he said that-

Bob: Books don’t really have that much influence I think when it comes to gender perception.

Narration: Bob’s response as a straight white male made me want to get a see the issue the perspective as a queer person. I asked my queer sci-fi and fantasy lit teacher what they thought about the issues of representation in sci-fi and why it’s so important to have representation to so many people.

Teacher: I think that because so much of sci fi involves a kind of departing from an understood reality, a lot of it is so what if this was different from the way it is. and depending on where the author goes with that, the what is different about the world could be any number of things including culture standards around gender and sexualtity, which is one of the reasons I think why many marginalized groups use sci fi to dream about what if things were better.

Narration: My teacher, B, is an avid sci-fi reader. They are also very conscious about the issues that face not only the the queer community, but other minority groups as well. I can definitely feel what B is saying. When I was younger there were very few characters in books that I could relate to. As a tomboy who loved to read, I found it difficult to find characters that were like me. Charley Parkhurst in Riding Freedom was the first character I found that I could relate to. She was everything I aspired to be. She was living as a male in California, on a ranch where she cared for many animals. I read the book least 6 times. It helped me become more comfortable with myself. It’s unfortunate that so many people can go without representation.

Teacher: I think that there’s a lot of things that people will use as an excuse to not have representation, and one of those is like “ oh we’ve got a lot of great metaphorical representation, we’ve got aliens” I think that kinda hamstrings it sometimes, it’s a bit of a dodge.

Narration: I can totally see how this works. How does sci-fi compared to other genres?

Teacher: I think its lagged behind in a lot of notable ways, behind capital L literature although it’s the whole world has problems and issues so maybe it’s not entirely fair to compare, every genre has issues.

Narration: Bob felt that sci-fi was better than other genres in terms of representation, B felt that it was worse. I think that is because Bob and B have different backgrounds and different and experiences within the sci-fi and queer communities. There are sects within the sci-fi community that write stories with queer characters and that have other forms of representation that the mainstream sci-fi community lacks. The mainstream community seems to be filled with writers who only have straight white dudes as the heroes of the story. To be completely honest, I love sci-fi, it has always been one of my favorite genres, and it always will be. However, I hope that sci-fi will be as boundary breaking that it claims to be and give more queer characters. I want these characters not only for me but also for younger queer and trans youth who need somebody that they can identify with.

 

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