“Somewhat Diverse?”: Remarks to the Science Fiction Research Association Conference

Earlier this summer, I was presented with the Pilgrim Award for “lifetime contributions to SF/FS” by the Science Fiction Researchers Association. I learned of this honor too late to attend but I sent them the following remarks, which speak to their conference’s key themes about recovering marginal voices in science fiction and fandom. My first response was “not dead yet,” in my best Monty Python impersonation, but beyond that, I was deeply honored.  These remarks were published in the organization’s summer newsletter, but I wanted to share them here, especially since this blog and the community it attracts was specifically singled out in their presentation of the award. What follows are some of my own reflections about where we are at and where we still need to go as a field as we engage with the politics of diversity as they relate to scholarship on fandom and genre entertainment.

I was deeply honored to learn that your organization, the Science Fiction Research Association, had bestowed on me your 2014 Pioneer Award. I am so sorry that I am not able to be there to accept the award in person. I am scheduled to leave in the next few days for an extended trip to India and Indonesia. The trip has been in planning for some time, and it wasn’t possible to adjust my plans accordingly. But I hope that I may be able to attend a future conference and perhaps share some time with many of you so that I can learn more about the research you are doing. So, first, let me say thanks. But, second, let me offer a short provocation — one intended to build on the themes you have outlined for this year’s conference.

Science fiction in particular; genre fiction more generally; and fandom above all have been key influences on my thinking since childhood. They remain sources of ongoing inspiration to me, as I am sure they are for those of you attending this conference. I grew up in the segregated South. I went to segregated schools, and I attended a segregated church. Insofar as I encountered racial and cultural difference, I encountered it on Star Trek, with its multi-cultural and multi-planetary crew. I encountered it through alien life forms in the pages of science fiction novels. And I encountered it through Lt. Jeff Long, the black astronaut that Mattel controversially included in its Major Matt Mason toy line.

 

The narratives of that period, we might say now, were painfully flawed, unable to imagine a world not dominated by white men; unable to imagine a galaxy where being human was not the best possible thing we could be and being American was the highest form of being human. Yet, despite—or, perhaps, because of—those limits…because science fiction raised expectations it could not itself satisfy…my experiences as a science fiction fan were central to opening my eyes to the experiences of others. Star Trek’s Prime Directive was perhaps most powerful because it gave us a vocabulary to critique all of those many times when Kirk sought to disrupt or overthrow other cultures because they did not confirm to his own deeply entrenched norms and values. Talking about and critiquing the show with fellow fans sharpened my own sense of social justice and forced me to question things I was observing in the world around me.

 

From the start, science fiction was designed to be a provocation, an incitement for reflection and dialogue about the nature of change, whether understood in technological or cultural terms. At each step along the way, science fiction writers have encouraged readers to ask some fundamental questions about who we are and what kind of world we want to live in—questions which have inspired political movements and informed academic research across many disciplines. I have been struck recently by Michael Saler’s discussion in AS IF of early science fiction fandom as a “public sphere of the imagination,”—that is, a space where fans could speculate and ask questions just removed enough from the realm of their lived experience that participants were free to consider and debate alternatives that might be unspeakable and unthinkable under other circumstances. Science fiction narratives and art provided resources for thinking through those other possibilities, and fandom provided a social space where people from somewhat diverse backgrounds might trade insights and experiences with each other.

 

My phrase “somewhat diverse” is meant to acknowledge what I take to be a central theme of this year’s convention—the attempt to reclaim science fiction’s suppressed and marginalized histories, to come to terms with the exclusions as well as inclusions that have shaped the history of science fiction as a genre and fandom as a social/cultural phenomenon. The histories of science fiction culture, which have been handed down to us from First Fandom, have stressed the roles played by white men who belonged to certain educational and technological elites, while they also remind us of the roles ethnic minorities and especially youth who were first or second-generation immigrants—people with names like Schwartz and Asimov—played in shaping science fiction cultures. Samuel R. Delany has written about the “liberal-Jewish” traditions that shaped this early fan culture. And, yet, we also know that these were not the only people engaging with speculative fictions.

 

If SF fandom constituted a public sphere of the imagination, we can only assume that there were multiple counter-publics where these same ideas were being discussed by those who would not have been welcomed at the World Science Fiction Conventions of the 1950s and 1960s. Where were science fiction’s “hush harbors”? Recent work on Afro-futurism has helped us to identify resources from science fiction that have found their way into other kinds of representation and become tools for survival of the black community, but we need to know much more about what these same processes have meant for Asian-American, Latino, first nation, and American Muslim communities across the 20th century. And we need to remember that science fiction has been a global discourse, one which has repeatedly addressed the process of globalization and colonial exploitation and one which has had an active role to perform in fostering post-colonial identities.

 

We are starting to piece together some fragmented histories of the roles science fiction fandom has played for female fans (and the conflicts they faced as they sought entry into the once almost-exclusively male clubhouse and continued to face once they got there). For me, this history has gained new poignancy as we have watched how some corners of fandom (such as Sad Puppies or Gamergate) are continuing to react aggressively against efforts to diversify and include others whose stories and perspectives matter. When we see the intensity of some of today’s fights, we gain a new appreciation of what that first generation of feminist fans must have confronted. Fandom studies was, in many ways, born from those gender wars and, from the start, has been inspired by feminist scholarship (whether the work of cultural theorists such as Janice Radway and Angela McRobbie or the work of science fiction practitioners such as Johanna Russ). Fan fiction was understood as a form of women’s writing, and these stories were often read as counter-narratives which poached the genre conventions of science fiction or other genres to tell stories from the margins. And fandom studies was quick to embrace new insights from queer theory and to engage with what fandom’s alternative forms of production and reception meant for the LGBT community. We still have much to learn by digging deeper into early fanzines which included some of the first essays advocating gay rights in America, by seeing how fans responded to James Tiptree’s transgender identifications, by looking at how organizations such as the Gaylaxians advocated for queer characters on board the Enterprise, and by examining how slash fans were drawn by their fantasies into participation in struggles around “don’t ask, don’t tell” and marriage equality.

 

But the original sin of fandom studies was its silence about race. Those of us who pioneered fandom studies too often bracketed race and class in order to focus on gender, sexuality, and generation. As we sought to validate forms of cultural production and experience that were meaningful to us, we neglected the fact that our own ranks were still too narrowly constituted and that there was more we should have done to validate forms of culture that were meaningful to a more diverse population. However much we might have sometimes felt like outcasts in our own lives, we were still in a privileged position to help inform what kinds of cultural production and reception mattered in an academic context. We pioneers have much to answer for, but we cannot afford to wallow in liberal guilt.

 

Today, work on race and fandom takes on new urgency as we confront the grim, even deadly, political realities of our times (as represented by events in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and perhaps some other city by the time you read these remarks). In the process, we have seen the power of social media to coalesce communities and spread critiques of the police and the news media’s responses to racialized violence in America. In the forthcoming book from our USC Media, Activism, & Participatory Politics project team, entitled By Any Media Necessary: The New Activism of American Youth, we talk about the civic imagination. Before we can change the world, we need to be able to imagine what alternatives might look like. We need to understand ourselves as civic and political agents. We need to be able to grasp the experiences and perspectives of people different from ourselves. And we need to be able to imagine concrete steps we could take to change the world. We are finding that American youth are rejecting traditional political rhetoric as insular and partisan and seeking inspiration from popular culture, including science fiction and fantasy texts, as they make appeals to their collective civic imagination.

 

We have seen genre entertainment become yet again a space where vital conversations can take place—one where we can imagine alternative futures of race in America, where we can rewrite the scripts with their embedded racial and gender hierarchies, and where we can reimagine who gets to be depicted as a hero and how they get depicted in popular narratives. We have seen signs that fandom can be as intolerant as any other sector of our society, despite a historic embrace of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” (as Star Trek fans of the 1960s might have put it). But we have also seen fandom as a place where alternative representations might emerge and where different kinds of dialogues might take place, grounded in shared passions and interests.

 

Just as we critique the failures of science fiction to achieve those ideals, we need to advocate for those practices that have proven productive in generating new visions for future race relations. As researchers, we need to be there as feminist fans redraw the covers of superhero comics to challenge their hypersexualized depictions of female protagonists as part of the Hawkeye Project. We need to be there as fans embrace a Pakistani-American girl as Ms. Marvel or when they debate whether they can accept a black Spider-Man or Human Torch. We need to be there as fan activists attach their civic imaginations to stories such as Harry Potter, Man of Steel, or the Hunger Games as vehicles for fighting for human rights, immigration reform, or fair wages. We need to be there when Racebending challenges a history of white-casting in the entertainment industry, as minority characters often change their colors when their narratives are brought to the screen, or when women at San Diego Comic-Con insist that Cosplay is Not Consent. And we need to be looking more closely at the ways fan fiction has experimented, sometimes in ways that are painful to observe and sometimes in ways that give us hope, with other kinds of stories we can be telling. As we observe and document these more recent developments in science fiction and genre narrative, we need to place them into a larger historical context. That will require us to go back and reclaim histories and revisit texts that were neglected by earlier generations of fans and researchers.

 

As science fiction fans, we know that technology will not be our savior in these struggles, that what matters are the human choices we make in response to the affordances of new media platforms. A crucial theme running through my own work has been the ways that a growing number of people around the world who are experiencing an expansion of their communicative capacities are using those platforms and tools to assert a much more active role in shaping cultural production and circulation. I used to talk about these shifts in terms of participatory culture, but it is increasingly clear that these opportunities are unevenly distributed and that many are being left behind…so it makes more sense to not only describe but to advocate a more participatory culture.

 

Studying fandom gives us a window into understanding how grassroots power might change the world. Science fiction fandom has a long history of networked communications, and of communities coming together and conducting long-distance exchanges around shared interests. Studying science fiction fandom has thus been an important entry point into larger conversations about how cultural agendas get shaped, how communities get formed, and how publics get mobilized in the age of Web 2.0. Much of the pressure for more diverse representations in commercial entertainment right now is being driven by fans. Fans are also driving many of the critiques of the mechanisms by which digital companies exploit the creative labor of their participants.

 

Critics of this work on participatory cultures and new media have sometimes dismissed us as engaging in pure speculation, describing our accounts as “mere science fiction.” However, the people in this room know fully the power that comes from tapping into both the utopian and dystopian imagination. The best science fiction dystopias often include within them representations of what forms resistance to power might take. And the best science fiction utopias often include some hint of the current realities against which they are being framed. As we think through what a more democratic and inclusive culture might look like, the theoretical turns we use need to do what science fiction has always done best. Go beyond what is known. Trace forward implications of current trends. Warn against dangers. Advocate for opportunities. And, above all, help us to think through the nature of change itself.

 

Some of this work is already being done, no doubt by those attending this conference—many of them graduate students and recently hired junior faculty members who are seeking to insert their voices into the scholarly conversation. Those of us who are more established need to be insuring that those emerging voices get heard. We need to be supporting their research and insuring that it gets published. And we need to be bringing these insights into our teaching and our own research.

 

I am encouraged to see your organization identify some of these topics as your central concern for this year’s event. I wish I were able to be there in person to more fully engage in these crucial conversations. I hope that we will hear of much more such research in the future. In short, science fiction researchers need to boldly go where no one has gone before.

 

Once again, thank you for this honor.