I don’t know who first said it, but there’s this idea of getting “One Big Lie” as a science-fiction/fantasy author. That Lie is generally the one speculative element in the book that distinguishes the world from ours: it can be that there are vampires amok, that some people are born mutants, that there’s an unstoppable alien virus spreading through the population, or a thousand other things.
A Lie doesn’t have to be an outright lie, of course. In this context, it’s simply an element of a story we’re asking the reader to accept, one which can be hard to take at face value. It can be a speculative element, but it can also be something else particularly implausible, like a teenager working for the CIA or a completely outrageous family.
The point is that, beyond their one Big Lie, authors need to work with what they’ve got. Adding in more Lies can make the story fall apart, requiring too much suspension of disbelief and mental gymnastics to keep track.
Of course, having multiple Lies can work wonderfully. There’s a wealth of stories out there, and we should never let arbitrary rules limit us.
That said, I do like the sentiment behind this “rule.” To me, the Lie is often the story, and the aspects beyond the Lie—keeping it true to life where possible, allowing your characters to react in realistic, human ways—are what ground that story and give it heart.
What I find fascinating (read: bizarre), however, is the implicit idea that an author writing diverse science-fiction and fantasy automatically engages in multiple Lies.
While every genre has a diversity problem, contemporary literature included, it feels particularly severe in speculative fiction. It’s as though having a protagonist who doesn’t fall into the straight-white-cis-abled-thin paradigm is automatically stretching believability and putting a burden on the reader. This is particularly the case when authors actually realistically address their characters’ marginalization rather than keeping it to surface mentions.
According to this idea, majority characters are the normal, unseen default, and a character with any other kind of background is a distraction. After all, why clog up a book with the microaggressions that a character from a marginalized group might encounter? Why deviate from the expected internal narrative by having a character consider issues that need never cross the minds of many privileged people? Why add in something so unnecessary as diversity, when we’ve got an asteroid hurtling toward Earth or an outbreak of zombie zoo animals to worry about?
As you can probably guess, I’m not a fan of this line of thinking.
For one, it assumes that majority characters really are invisible to everyone. This is true for many—marginalized or not—as a logical result of growing up in a society like ours. But for plenty of people, it’s the opposite. The more aware you are of imbalance, the more you see it in the word around you. I notice actions a character might take that only white characters would be able to get away with; I notice lines of thinking that make it clear the character has never had to worry about their mental health or disability; I notice heteronormativity and gender binarist assumptions. I notice stories that pretend I don’t exist. And so do plenty of other readers.
In other words, an attempted lack of distraction can be a noticeable and bothersome distraction to many. In particular, a lack of diversity and understanding of marginalization often results in oversights when it comes to the many complex social issues that can be tackled in speculative fiction.
For another, it’s skewed to think of it as a distraction or unnecessary element, rather than a reflection of human life. Writing stories with speculative elements doesn’t magically turn the world homogeneous, and it’s disingenuous to pretend that writing the story in any other way would be “too much” or a “distraction.” Marginalized people are not an optional add-on—we’re just as much part of the world as anyone else.
A lot of these ideas are deeply embedded into our brains, however. That means that the best way to go about countering these narratives is to be aware of them and purposefully defy them. To me, that is a large and important part of writing diverse sci-fi/fantasy.
So I take my Big Lie in Otherbound—a boy from our world seeing into the eyes of a girl from another, magical world every time he blinks—and take the rest of the world as it is. That means a Mexican-American family, physically disabled characters, bisexual characters, all having the same adventures and conflicts as any other protagonist in a fantasy novel might.
I take my Big Lie in On the Edge of Gone—a comet will hit Earth in 2035, and the wealthy are escaping the planet before it’s destroyed—and stick to the world around me for everything else. That means Surinamese-Dutch characters, autistic characters, trans characters. And, just as now, my Amsterdam of 2035 has gentrifying neighborhoods, structural inequalities, people who are racist and ableist and clueless despite their best intentions.
My other stories have their own Big Lies, and I explore those to the fullest; at the same time, I include asexual lesbians, abrasive trans boys who haven’t yet discovered they really are a boy, insecure teen girls dealing with severe anxiety … Sometimes, these identities play a significant role in the story. Other times, they’re entirely incidental.
When it comes to science-fiction and fantasy, I write precisely what I want to read; to me, none of these elements are extra Lies that confound and distract.
It’s the opposite. It’s honesty.
Fact is, even when my books aren’t set on this world, they will be read here.
I want them to resonate here, too.
A lifelong Amsterdammer, Corinne Duyvis spends her days writing speculative young adult and middle grade novels. She enjoys brutal martial arts and gets her geek on whenever possible. Otherbound, her YA fantasy debut, released from Amulet Books/ABRAMS in the summer of 2014. It’s received four starred reviews—Kirkus called it “original and compelling; a stunning debut,” while the Bulletin praised its “subtle, nuanced examinations of power dynamics and privilege.”