N. K. Jemisin

I will never forget the first time I heard a young cousin of mine—only a little older than 12, the “golden age” as they call it in this genre—say, “Why do you write that stuff? That’s white people’s stuff.”

Science fiction and fantasy, he meant. White people’s stuff.

There are a lot of reasons why he might’ve said this. The visual landscape of SF/F has showcased the fantasies and futurism of one fairly narrow demographic cluster for a very long time. We’ve seen the predictably monochromatic, monocultural results of this in films, TV, and games, of course, but it’s also visible in SF/F fiction, even though fiction isn’t supposed to be a visual medium. Of course it is, since nearly all books have cover art, and textual description is usually meant to appeal to the inner eye. So most fantasies are set in medieval England analogues and showcase heroes described as blond and blue-eyed, or heroines with “porcelain” skin. Most science fiction takes place in futures in which everyone who isn’t physically perfect, straight as a board, and European-American has apparently been wiped out by a comet, with the exception of a token Canadian or two. And while not all books feature author photos, it’s not hard to see that the creative face of SF/F is collectively a pretty pale one: just pick up a copy of Locus sometime and peruse the photos. Or go to an SF/F con. These are colorful in many ways, but not so much on the diversity front.

But there’s another reason why my young cousin might’ve decided that SF/F is the sole province of one group of people, and that is because there’s a stunning amount of bigotry rampant within the SF/F community itself. In just the past year I’ve seen prominent, bestselling SF/F authors calling for the criminalization of homosexuality, advocating the death-through-medical-neglect of Spanish-speaking immigrants (just the illegals, note, as if that’s better), and trivializing rape and sexual objectification. The Helix incident is only the latest salvo in a long-running war by a few individuals in the SF community against several million other members of the human race.

That’s bad. But every time incidents like this occur, I’ve seen something even worse than frothing bigotry: silence in response.

Any reasonably net-savvy child—like my cousin—is going to hear about this ugly hatemongering if they spend any time in the SF/F community. But what I think they’re going to notice, more than the handful of hatemongers, is the vast audience of silent SF-folk which surrounds them. And they’re going to wonder what it means. Not the hatemongering, because that’s easy to figure out, but the silence. In neutral situations silence can have multiple meanings, positive and negative and in-between. To a member of a marginalized group, however, silence in response to bigotry can only be negative, because it connotes approval, or at best ambivalence. The golden age of 12 is also the much less shiny age at which many children of oppressed groups begin to understand bigotry, often through unpleasant personal experience. And these children are going to wonder why there’s such a disconnect between what the SF/F community says—e.g., that it’s progressive and welcomes diversity—and what it does—e.g., that so many of its members remain silent in the face of hate.

And these kids are likely to conclude, as my cousin did, that SF/F is Not For Them.

I believe, as the other Transcriptase authors believe, that SF/F is for all of us. As such, this genre cannot be ceded to those who believe it’s OK to dehumanize, objectify, assault, or exclude any group of human beings. Silence is what has allowed SF/F to develop a reputation for being un-diverse, unwelcoming to those who aren’t members of the power-wielding majority (white, Western, educated, Christian or Atheist, middle or upper class, straight, male, abled, etc.), and unwilling to question its own flaws. Silence will keep SF/F “white people’s stuff” if nothing changes.

So this is why I spoke out against William Sanders’ bigoted words when the story broke, and asked to have my work withdrawn from the Helix archives. It’s true that Mr. Sanders nominated my story “The Narcomancer” for the Nebula preliminary ballot. It’s also true that under his leadership, Helix did good things, like publishing lots of female writers, including at least two writers of color. But IMNSHO, all of this good is negated by the ethnic slurs Mr. Sanders used to describe Muslims (or terrorists, but I don’t really think that matters), his tokenism/ objectification of a writer of color, and his unprofessional behavior.

I’m angry about this, of course, but more than that, I’m sad. I was proud of being published by him, once.

But now I have to think of the future. This includes my own career, which may take a hit because I’ve made this decision; I’m fully aware of that and accept the consequences. But the future also includes my cousin, who’s older now but still young enough to change his mind about SF/F. And it includes my niece and nephew, aged 1 and 2 respectively, who I’m greedily planning to indoctrinate in SF/F as soon as they learn how to read.

I need to be able to look these kids in the eye and tell them that I’m an SF/F writer without feeling a twinge of shame as I say it. I need to see pride in their eyes, not confusion or concern, when they look back at me. Hell, I need to be able to look myself in the eye, with my self-respect intact.

So I will not let bigots bully me and mine out of this genre. I won’t let them do it to anyone else, either. I will fight back with everything I have.

Transcriptase is one of the means by which I’m doing so. A lot of people worked damn hard to get this project up and running, and I’m damn proud to be a part of it. (Thanks, guys.) These are people who have chosen not to be silent.

Will you join us?