By Fonda Lee
By now, we all know that diversity in books is a big deal. We’ve seen the statistics about how the skewed demographics of protagonists in YA novels doesn’t come close to reflecting the reality of our society. We’re aware that readers are very much in need of books that present minority perspectives in both historical and current day stories.
But how does the concept of diversity come into play when you write, oh, say, action sci-fi about futuristic zero-gravity prizefighting?!
My novel Zeroboxer released last week, and amid the reviews describing it as “gripping,” “smart,” and “action-packed,” nowhere is it being hailed as advancing the cause of diversity or shining a light on underserved segments of the population. It’s just not that kind of book, nor was that my intent as the author. However, writers like me, who write commercial genre fiction, play as much a role as anyone in making sure diversity is part of the literary landscape. We all make choices in our writing that send messages to readers.
Remember the 1996 alien invasion movie Independence Day? It might as well have been sub-titled America Saves The World because in the film, the population of Earth presumably sits around waiting for the Americans to figure out how to defeat the aliens before belatedly joining in to support Bill Pullman’s heroism. Contrast that with the 2013 film Pacific Rim, which depicts a diverse cast of characters waging an international effort to combat the Kaiju monsters. Both films are big-budget commercial spectacles—but the choices the scriptwriters made regarding characters, story, and setting result in very different depictions of the future—one far more inclusive and diverse than the other.
When I was a child, I devoured fantasy and science fiction that was, to put it gently, lacking diversity in all respects. They were written in different times, but it’s still a downer to look back on works that I greatly enjoyed and realize now, as an adult, how misogynistic and euro-centric they are. When I was creating the futuristic world of Zeroboxer, I thought about what kind of future I wanted to portray. More accurately—what kind of future would be plausible. Because any plausible future that extrapolates from our society today would be a diverse one.
In Zeroboxer, humans have colonized the inner solar system, and Mars is emerging as the fast-growing, more economically and scientifically advanced planet. In many ways, the relationship between Earth and Mars has parallels to our current global state—the economic rise of Asian countries in the last several decades, and the resultant anxiety that has provoked in the West.
That’s reinforced by assumptions that I make in my world building; the early colonists of Mars would be ones motivated to leave Earth because of environmental chaos and limited economic opportunities. They would come predominantly from parts of Asia and South America disproportionately affected by climate change and overpopulation; only a minority would hail from first-world nations like America that are already at the top of the pecking order on Earth.
So in the future, Mars has cities like New Nanjing, and a space station named after the Hindu sun god. The main character in Zeroboxer, Carr Luka, has a girlfriend that is half-Martian of Asian descent, and back on Earth, mixed race lineage is so prevalent that it’s a marketing boon that Carr is an ethnic mash-up and thus representative of typical Terrans. The future is diverse—but it’s not without problems. New racial tensions emerge between Martians, who’ve embraced genetic enhancement, and Terrans, who’ve outlawed it. None of these aspects of the story ever takes center stage in my high-action sports sci-fi novel—but they’re there, subtly but deliberately painting diversity into the background.
Even so, sometimes you slip up. In one of my early drafts, I had Carr fighting a major match on Thanksgiving Day. One of my beta readers astutely pointed out, “Thanksgiving is an American holiday. Isn’t this an international city space station? Why would Thanksgiving be a big deal?” Good point, and nice catch. It saved my book from an Independence Day style gaffe.
Diversity isn’t just a cause to be advanced by authors who write “issues novels” about characters living in the Civil Rights era, or immigrant stories, or coming out as gay in small town stories. All those stories are incredibly important and will always be the ones that get spotlighted for exemplifying minority perspectives. However, just because you’re writing sci-fi thrillers, romance, or funny middle grade books about dinosaurs, doesn’t mean you aren’t part of the conversation. If anything, unsung depiction of diversity in commercial genre fiction is the subtler and truer measure of progress.
Fonda Lee writes science fiction and fantasy for teens and adults. She is the author of the high-action YA science fiction novel Zeroboxer (Flux/Llewellyn, April 2015). Fonda is a corporate strategist who has advised and worked for several Fortune 500 companies, a black belt martial artist in karate and kung fu, an action movie buff, and a fan of tasty breakfasts. Born and raised in Canada, she now lives in Portland, Oregon.
Zeroboxer is available for purchase.