Genres are never static, this is a basic truth of literary theory. They may appear at a given time, no matter how hard it usually is to pinpoint exactly when, and fade away as readers become less interested. Each genre has its history, whether this is the larger narrative arc of a genre as gigantic as the novel or of a specific literary manifestation, such as absurdist theatre.

I am thinking of these matters after spending five days attending the international conference of the Science Fiction Research Association, organized this time by the CoFutures collective of Oslo. The conference, titled ‘Futures from the Margins’, called for papers that would consider how “the issues of those from the margins, including Indigenous groups, ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities, and any people whose stakes in the global order of envisioning futures are generally constrained due to the mechanics of our contemporary world”. This also called for considering how SF is changing because of the arrival of new authors different from those who shaped the central canon many decades ago. SF, of course, can no longer be the same in the 21st century and this needs to be understood and studied.

For me, the cfp was a challenge because I do not belong to any of these marginal groups whose sense of their future is ‘constrained’ by external Western values. Add to this that I usually write (critically) about white men, the demographic category implicitly excluded by the cfp. I ended up submitting a paper on a stimulating short story collection in Catalan, Barcelona 2059: Ciutat de posthumans (MaiMes 2021), edited by Judith Tarradelles and Sergi López, with contributions by Roser Cabré-Verdiel, Ivan Ledesma, Salvador Macip, Jordi Nopca, Bel Olid, Ricard Ruiz Garzón, Laura Tomàs Mora, Carme Torras, and Susana Vallejo. The editors, who also run the publishing house, had the happy idea of inviting the authors back in 2019 to consider what Barcelona could be like 40 years into the future, taking as a departure point the existence of an artificial island called Nova Icària off the coast of the city.

This island, the authors explain in their stories, is a utopia which the citizens of the future Barcelona (a degraded place beset by climate change, recurring pandemics, and terrorism) can enjoy in exchange for full access to their bodies and minds, (ab)used in ruthless posthumanist experimentation developed for capitalistic gain. My thesis was that even though Barcelona might seem right now a privileged place, part of the Western world and universally known because of its tourist attractions, no city is safe from suddenly becoming marginal. Besides, we are all subjected to the whims of the handful of male billionaires (mostly white, but not all) currently running the world, West, East and the rest. I designed the paper to provoke a debate about what this entity we call the West amounts to, and whether white, European communities and citizens can also be marginal(ized), but nobody challenged me.

With three sessions running simultaneously, I must admit that I have only attended one third of the SFRA conference. What I have seen, however, was quite homogeneous and worrying because of the uniformity of the discourse and, I insist, the lack of debate. Nobody has challenged anyone else, which should be part of ongoing discussion. Or everyone was quietly avoiding confrontation. The conference organizers did a very good job of inviting keynote speakers representing planetary diversity (Sami author from Norway Sigbjørn Skåden, Chinese scholar Dai Jinhua, authors Indrapramit Das from India, Chinelo Onwualu from Nigeria, Laura Ponce from Argentina, and ‘chameleon’ artist from Egypy Ganzeer) but this diversity was not as visible among the participants, mostly white scholars. In a session about what the SFRA should take into account for the future, I mentioned that I had seen too many white scholars discuss non-white cultures, a comment greeted with what at first I assumed to be sniggers. In fact, everyone had the same impression but dared not voice it; I was thanked for raising the issue and was told that the SFRA would make an effort to promote SF among young non-white scholars. That was not quite my point, but thank you, this is very important.

As I have noted, I write about men despite not being one and I do think that scholars should never limit their field of action to the demographic category they belong to. What worries me is the lack of reciprocity. Today many white, Western scholars do research on non-white, non-Western authors in an effort to lessen racism. The number of non-white, non-Western scholars is growing, too. They, however, choose to discuss authors of their own demographic category, so that we don’t have (or have very few) discussions of white authors that, besides, might go beyond the issue of race.

You might think that this is fine because non-white scholars should put all their energy into promoting the authors so far ignored by white prejudice. Yet, at the same time, as more and more white scholars choose to ignore the whiteness of white authors, and since this is an issue also mostly ignored in current research by non-white scholars, the result is a heavily racialized academic environment that, while trying to avoid racism, practises a strange kind of illustrated racism by supposing that only non-white authors and scholars are conditioned by race. To be plain: if you are going to discuss how Indigenous writers produce SF today, you need to explore how whiteness conditions the SF produced by mainstream writers. I am not speaking here about what Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein did in the past, which shaped the SF canon whether we like it or not, but what white authors John Scalzi or Ann Leckie are doing today.

I worry about the lack of reciprocity because as a woman writing about SF I am annoyed about the expectations built around what issues interest me. Recently, I have been invited to participate in a series of six lectures on SF for a general audience and I been asked specifically to address the issue of women in SF (I’m the only woman). The organizer told me this is because I have been writing about women and SF, which is true, but I must also explain that although I am more interested in robotics and artificial intelligence, I keep on writing about gender in SF because I am a woman, and the male scholars are not interested in these issues. That is to say: if more men wrote about gender, I would not feel compelled as a woman scholar to write about these issues. I worry, therefore, that many non-white scholars are writing about race not because this is what they really prefer but because this is what they feel needs to be done and because this is expected of them. If race was not an issue (or gender), then more time and energy could be invested in exploring the central theme of SF: how science and technology are shaping our world.

A major problem, of course, is that the technophilia which Golden Age SF used to celebrate is gone, though I must emphasize that the genre was started by Mary Shelley’s technophobic Frankenstein (1818) two hundred years ago. Whereas Mary already claimed that the science developed by men would ruin the world of Homo Sapiens, today the claim is more nuanced and the ‘mad’ scientist is described as white, Western, heterosexual, cis-gender and, in a nutshell, patriarchal, even though many persons who are not in these categories participate in science and technology. My impression of the conference was that, in the face of rampant climate change and other man-made disasters such as war, fascism and capitalism, there are high hopes that SF from the margins can offer healing narratives that point the way forward by looking at the Indigenous past. In a way, this goes back to Ursula K. Le Guin’s complex text Always Coming Home (1985), in which she built “an entire ethnography of a future society, the Kesh, living in a post-apocalyptic Napa Valley”. Today, Le Guin’s efforts might be read as cultural appropriation, and what would be expected is for Indigenous authors to renovate SF in culturally authentic ways, though this smacks in my view of a worrying worship of pre-modern primitivism, which is implicitly racist. There you go.

My doubt is whether this approach is not curtailing the right of Indigenous authors to write as they want, just as feminism has been telling women authors that their first allegiance should be, precisely, to feminism. I am saying this as a feminist woman who does think that all women should contribute to the cause of feminism (if more women had voted for Hillary Clinton, the USA would not be the patriarchal dystopia it is fast becoming). Grace L. Dillons’s edited short story collection Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction (Arizona UP, 2012) has had an enormous impact, so that it is now common to find lists of Indigenous SF online, or more specific books such as Love after the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction (edited by Joshua Whitehead, 2020, Arsenal Pulp Press). The phenomenon is by no means new, and it is indeed a descendant of collections such as Pamela Sargent’s Women of Wonder series (1975-1996). The idea is that if you call attention to a specific category of writers, then readers and academics become curious about their presence and the whole field blooms. This is fine, but, I insist, it still categorizes authors within marginal groups and since there are no equivalent collections that emphasize the category ‘white, male, cis-gender, heterosexual, Western, etc.’ this category still constitutes the hidden norm against which the rest of groups are measured.

This is why I like much more what Judith Tarradelles and Sergi López have done in Barcelona 2059: Ciutat de Posthumans. Here what matters is the use of a common language and the exploration of a common situation, with no allusion to identity politics (or not as a main theme). If I were to edit a SF short story collection, I would propose a theme and invite a selection of representative writers, including those white men nobody likes in academia but that still sell plenty. My view is that the future is being destroyed by a minority of patriarchal individuals that need to be outed as monstrous villains, and we need to hear as many voices as possible to find alternatives, and hear them together, not compartmentalized in increasingly smaller categories. The way forward, I think, should be comparative and cross-cultural but, for that, as the SFRA conference implicitly showed, the main obstacle is not racism but linguistic diversity. As happens, despite the many allusions to Indigenous writing and so on, most papers dealt with Anglophone SF and, secondarily, Chinese. My paper was one of the very few dealing with SF written in a language spoken by just a few millions. So much for margins…

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