Updated: Jan 26
Unfortunately, racism and sexism are a constant in early works of literature, no matter the genre. Hell, one can make a good case pointing out that it is still the case! But we can recognize that we, as a society, have come a long way in this matter, even though the path ahead remains endless. Yet, it is striking that most futuristic science fiction of the 20th Century failed to predict the lessening of those prejudices.
This is the (social) Science of Fiction.
Last month I talked about a particular trope of class disparity in science fiction. Although class issues are often addressed in SFF, the particular trope I mentioned is rare enough for its use to be interesting still. However, when we talk about race or gender, the scene of the cover above is so common that it is beyond cliché. The white male protagonist saving the gorgeous, weak woman against the evil of other races is depressing.
The popularity of the sci-fi genre grew with the peak of the pulp magazines in the first half of the last Century (around 1920-1950). Amazing Stories, Startling Stories, Planet Stories, and many others were the cribs of many of the most renowned sci-fi authors. The image below is an overview of the gallery of pulpmag covers that you can find here. Although every genre has its fair share of stereotypes, the covers for sci-fi issues alone are a great example of the kinds I will refer to here. (And I purposefully avoided the one displaying a man with a white robe and a cross.)
Earlier this year, an old interview of Carl Sagan resurfaced on the web where he talked about the lack of diversity in Star Wars. It was the inspiration for this blog post. Have you seen it?
The interview was held in 1978, and Mr. Sagan’s opinion greatly departed from the norm. Most of last century’s science fiction is notoriously tales of white, male humans—no matter how far in the future or how distant a planet it is set. Other-worldly stories of strong, white, human-like aliens rescuing a beautiful damsel in distress set an unfair standard for both males and females while ignoring non-binary people. Not to mention that other alien races were generally portrayed as a threat, or corrupt in some way, or less intelligent.
But the issue was not limited to the pulpmags, which is generally not regarded as prime literature. Fahrenheit 451 is often cited as the origin of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, where a young woman is introduced only to move the male protagonist’s plot forward. (Not to mention her fridging, that Bradbury himself expressed regret years later). If you want to check it out, I once compared the MPDG to the Prince-Charming type of character.
There is also the case of Robert A. Heinlein, accused of being extremely sexist and racist. He wrote, among other things, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Starship Troopers and was named the first-ever Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1975. I personally never read one of his books, but here is a glimpse into the accusations.
We can look at it now and recognize the racism and sexism and all kinds of phobias in these old stories, and once you've noticed it, it is in the least cringy. In many cases, plainly revolting. But, should we hold those stories and their authors to today’s standards?
Although it’s tempting, we can learn more about ourselves and our society if we answer no. The best way to think of history is as case studies since, unfortunately, we cannot change the past. Yet. So, instead of judging, we can recognize the mistakes made and try to understand why they happened to not repeat them.
On an individual level, it is harder to forgive an author. They should have known better! But, again, it can be tough to recognize a systemic issue. We are a product of our society and, if history teaches us something, it’s challenging to self-assess our actions within our culture. And even if one succeeds in recognizing errors, they may be restrained from taking action. Can you blame Galileu for retracting his statement that the Earth revolves around the Sun?
Naturally, some broke free from the cycle of bigotry of the time. And I cannot talk about the subject without mentioning the amazing Octavia E. Butler and Ursula K. LeGuin. Their works have discussed race and gender norms in an impactful way since the sixties.
“So,” you may ask, “should I overlook the racism and sexism of classics?”
Also no. It goes without saying, but you are allowed not to like racist or sexist content. And I encourage you not to like it. It is not because it was written in the past, and we shall not judge history by our standards, that you have to force yourself to consume this shit. I myself disliked some classics in which I could not overlook its sexism (I’m looking at you Flowers to Algernon).
But it is also ok if a person can admit that something in the story did not age well, acknowledge the troublesome parts, and still enjoy the overall story (that being said, I get why Flowers to Algernon is loved by many).
For me, I am totally discouraged to give Heinlein a try, for example. But, for those who like his stories, I hope you can notice the troublesome parts as something that we should, as a society, reject and get over.
It is less forgiving, however, if a story is downright racist and sexist today. We cannot change or judge the past, but we can change our future by taking action in the present.
See you next post,
Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night.
You can check out her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.