Writing about Oppressed/Marginalized Peoples in SF&F

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In this latest installment of Notes From the Slush Pile, I’d like to take a moment to talk about racial bigotry, class divides, gender inequality, and religious intolerance. Maybe it’s just what’s been in my personal slush pile lately, or maybe I’ve been watching too much coverage of the US election. Either way, it’s been on my mind.

These tensions listed above are tragic but important parts of the day-to-day life of many of us. Literature allows us to examine these issues in contexts relevant to our own lives, while at the same time removing us from and involving us with, by varying degrees, the harsh realities we see every day.

Speculative fiction takes this a step further. Looking into possible futures and alternate, fantastic realms, each offering a peek at a society and a spectrum of behavior hitherto unseen, but still relatable and relevant to this issues of our own world. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood gave us a look at an America devastated by disease and theocratic civil wars in which fertile women were stripped of their names and rights, and held as property by a ruling military and religious elite. Frank Herbert’s Dune flung us thousands of years into the future, but featured a marginalized society of desert dwellers, oppressed for centuries by an uncaring and technologically superior Imperium heavily dependent on the resources of their home. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World offered a look a consumer society at it’s extreme, in which sex, emotion, and individuality itself were willingly surrendered by a populace content to have a central authority regulate them by means of drugs, technology, material comfort, and entertaining diversions. Those who did not conform were exiled from the World State. At their best, such stories are more than just entertainment, they are an analytical lens through which we can examine the issues of our own society and, hopefully, become wiser for it.

I’m writing this now because it’s my hope that authors crafting speculative fiction stories involving such issues will attempt to look deeper. I’ve encountered too many works in which oppression is simply a device, poorly used, to engender support for the character, and to encourage the reader to root for the underdog. There’s nothing wrong with feeling sympathy for a marginalized people, in fiction or reality, but simplifying the issues does a disservice to any actual oppressed peoples one’s work may be trying to parallel . It’s also just lazy writing.

When I come across a story in which the protagonist claims to be part of an oppressed race, persecuted religion, or social underclass, I look for depth. It’s not enough for the author to simply say that character X is part of group Y struggling for freedom from evil oppressor Z. In attempting to tackle socially complex subject matter, its necessary to paint at least a slightly more vivid picture. Offer background and context. What is the difference between oppressors and oppressed? Why has there been this othering in this fictional society? Believe it or not, I’ve read quite a few stories that have neglected this elementary step.

Of course, dealing with speculative fiction, such issues don’t always arise just been humans. Clones, robots, aliens, mystical fantasy races, I’ve read stories in which all of these are both subservient to or possessing power over the human characters, who are almost always the protagonists. Again, the hows and whys can easily fall by the wayside, explained away quickly by bad tropes to make room for action sequences. I’m not asking every author to focus their efforts exclusively on these themes, but I would argue that a compelling story containing these elements needs to offer more than a token nod to the context of the issues contained in the society and/or scenario depicted.

Make your readers think. Show them something with dimensions they haven’t seen before. Bring relevant issues to the forefront with characters that care about them, learn from them, and suffer because of them. They will be all the more compelling for it, and so will your work..

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