Why we must strive for diversity in SF/F
I get a handful of emails from fans each week. Most of them are laudatory; a few are critical. I try to limit my responses to either a perfunctory “Thank you,” or a “Sorry that story didn’t work for you,” depending upon which seems most appropriate.
Every now and then, I receive an angry e-mail from some self-righteous, aggrieved fan who simply must let me know why he or she plans to never read my work again. One of those arrived in my e-mail today. Here is the unedited and uncorrected content of the message, with the sender’s personal information redacted to protect the sender’s privacy:
Subject: I will not be reading any of your books.
David Mack will probable never read this email but I am writing it anyway.
I purchased and started reading your book, Harbinger and stopped when I got to the part where the Vulcan was having a homosexual affair with the Klingon spy. I deleted the book from my E-reader and will never purchase another volume authored by David Mack. You can call me a homophobe or use any other excuse you choose to write me off but the truth is homosexually is not universally accepted and I get to decided what I read and I choose not to read any more of your work. And on top of that no Vulcan would consider the situation “logical”. You can’t just remold the Vulcan persona to suit yourself.
I am just letting you know that you have lost at least one reader I am not looking for a reply.
Well, the author of that e-mail might not have been looking for a reply, but he’s going to get one.
If he thinks the fear of alienating a few closed-minded readers is going to stop me from writing stories that feature and promote characters of diverse backgrounds—including LGBTQ characters, persons of color, and people who belong to ideological or philosophical minorities—he must be out of his mind. I’m a fucking Star Trek writer. Hasn’t he ever heard of IDIC—“Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations”?
Most of my writing work to date has been for Star Trek. Although the various television series could have done more in their respective times to portray ethnic and gender diversity, those of us who write the licensed Trek fiction continue to do our best to depict a more progressive, enlightened, open, and harmonious future, not just for humanity but for all sentient beings. One in which love, equality, and compassion are the touchstones of civilized society.
To that end, we’ve tried to make our literary dramatis personae more closely resemble the people of Earth. We’ve tried to include more people of African, Asian, and Southeast Asian ancestry than were seen in the televised and feature-film stories. We’ve tried to incorporate characters who hail from many cultures and viewpoints. We’ve tried to imagine a future in which people of all faiths have learned to live in harmony with people of other creeds as well as those who prefer to lead purely secular lives. We’ve tried to depict a future in which people’s gender identities are no longer limited to some arbitrary binary social construct, but rather reflect a more fluid sense of personal identity.
I will never be made to feel shame for doing this. I am proud that we’ve been able to do this. I know we’ve still got more work to do, and we can do better at integrating more diverse viewpoints and characters into the ever-expanding universe of Star Trek.
The author of the quoted e-mail tries to justify his screed by declaring that “homosexually (sic) is not universally accepted”. So what? Neither are human rights of a fundamental nature. In fact, I can’t think of any notion of justice or equality that is universally accepted. Why should that limit our vision of a more open, egalitarian, meritocratic future? I reject this aspect of the author’s rant as fundamentally illogical.
As for the author’s subsequent assertion that “no Vulcan would consider the situation ‘logical’,” I would rebut that Spock himself told Valeris in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, “Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.” What Spock had learned that the author of this morning’s e-mail apparently has not is that there are many ingredients to wisdom — including, but not limited to, compassion and empathy.
Another reason today’s e-mail strikes me as ironic is that I consider the doomed romance between the characters he cited — T’Prynn and Lurqal — to be one of the best story and character arcs I’ve written to date. Writing T’Prynn’s tale of agony, conflict, and heartbreak, followed by her forlorn journey toward self-forgiveness and quest for redemption, was one of the most creatively rewarding efforts of my career so far. And this guy thinks I’m going to feel bad because his world view is too small to see the truth in it? All I can say, to paraphrase Neil de Grasse Tyson, is: I prefer my universe big.
Whenever someone asks, Why do we need to keep talking about embracing diversity in stories, and seeking out diversity in the authors and creators and portrayers of speculative fiction?, I will say it’s because too many authors and artists and filmmakers still get letters like this one. We need to work toward a better future in which no one would even *think* of writing an e-mail like this.
I’m not so starry-eyed as to think that day will ever come, at least not in my lifetime. I suspect that humanity will always have to contend with prejudice in one form or another. But that doesn’t give us license to stop struggling against it. It is exactly the reason we must press on and continue to do better, to demand better, to show that it’s possible.
The effort is its own reward.