The specter of Gratuitous Diversity and other fictions

When I was 3 apples high, I went to my mostly white school’s library, and chanced upon a book with a title that intrigued me, Andre Norton’s Lavender-Green Magic. I read it in 2 gulps, not only because it had witches (a perennial favorite subject of mine), but because it featured African-American (or in the parlance of 70s, Afro-American) kids living in a mostly white town. My mind: blown. Up until then, all the fantasy book I’d read either had pseudo European characters or talking animals. I loved the idea that someone who had an experience similar to mine could have magical adventures like those kids in Edward Eager books or the Narnian adventures.

lavender-green magic

A few years later, in the full swing of adolescent angst, I can upon my older brother’s copy of Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany. (The iconic paperback version, the one with the engorged sun showing through a destroyed cityscape). Thumbing through it, I read about characters who had unique and somewhat underground sexual appetites—and their sexual identities were integral parts of themselves. Again, my mind was blown. Gays and other sexual minorities were just people….in a science fiction novel!

I bring these examples up not only to talk about the importance of diversity in speculative fiction, and also, to challenge a common strawman argument against it. A little background: the author Alex Dally MacFarlane wrote a provocative article entitled Post-Binary Gender in SF:Introduction on Tor.com, an inaugural post of a series which promises to examine SF that studies that issue. I read the piece, enjoyed it, and moved on. Then I saw, much later (via Jim C. Hines’ blog), that MacFarlane’s article (predictably) rattled the nerves of certain quarters of the SF community.

The chief complaint (once you wade through the de rigueur cries of PC Fascists/ GroupThink/Thought Police) is the concern about Gratuitous Diversity.

It’s the idea that having a cast of characters that reflects the diversity of humanity will automatically result in Aesop fiction full of Sally (or Simon) Soapboxes. I have yet to read a piece of fiction where giving a character an idiosyncratic and unique background (ethnic or sexual orientation or, in MacFarlane’s essay, a non-binary gender orientation) actually destroys the work. Including ‘popcorn’ fiction. One of my Clarion instructors, Pat Cadigan, stressed the importance avoiding ‘default’ mode protagonists: Joe/Jane Q. Public and his/her various incarnations as Mary Sue or Gary Stu. (It wasn’t a commandment, either—rather, Cadigan meant it as one more tool in the authorial kit). If a character is a Sally (or Simon) Soapbox, and the fiction has the quality of an Afterschool Special, that’s a failure of execution. The spectre of Gratiuitous Diversity is mostly just a strawman. (I’d love to see examples of a work of fiction that’s improved by flat characters). I say “mostly,” because I think that certain tropes and stock characters—the Noble Savage, the Magical Negro, for instance–arise from deformed Aesops and well-intentioned fiction. And there’s the case of a certain wizard (we’ll call him ‘Rumblesnore’) in famous series posthumously (and post-serialization) outed as gay, which was arguably shoehorned in. (I remember the articles/blog posts amongst a certain cohort that claimed the author was courting the politically correct crowd). But even then, Rumblesnore being off-screen gay doesn’t hurt the his character or the story; it was the execution that was lacking.

There is no such thing as Gratuitous Diversity. There’s just poorly executed fiction.

#BOOKREVIEW: The Serpent Sea by #MarthaWells.

When I was in my teens, I was obsessed with the work of Andre Norton. Her science fiction/fantasy books were muscular with action, full of strange, slightly trippy imagery and featured outcasts and misfits as their lead characters. Martha Wells’ THE SERPENT SEA, the second in her Books of the Raksura series, is imbued with the spirit those Norton books.

Wells’ Raksura novels take place in on an alien science-fantasy world called the Three Worlds. The Raksura are shape-shifters: one of their forms is as ‘groundlings’ and the other, as scaled, winged beings. They are rare in a world full of groundlings (earth dwellers) and waterlings (water dwellers). The main character is Moon, a foundling Raksura, and follows his initiation into the complex customs of the struggling Raksura court, Indigo Cloud. Picking up just after the end of THE CLOUD ROADS, Indigo Cloud moves into their long abandoned ancestral mountain-tree, and find that the tree is missing one vital component—the seed that magically guarantees the continued life of the tree. Moon and his friends start a quest to find the missing seed.

serpentseafull

The quest, full of adventure and derring-do, is also a chance to explore the flora and fauna of Wells’ imaginative land. Full of monsters and magic, the book is both a throwback to the Planetary Romances of Norton and nods to the New Weird creations of China Mieville. While Wells has an ear for crisp dialogue and her characters are nicely delineated, the world-building is the real star here.

I look forward to the next and final installment of Raksura novels: THE SIREN DEPTHS.