Why non-white sci-fi matters

Guardians of the Galaxy has one of the more diverse casts in sci-fi, but its non-white actors depict alien races. (Marvel)

If science fiction is about depicting the future, and that future features only white people, then it sends a message to non-white audiences that there's no place for them in the future.

"It must seem to kids that 'I have no place in this future,'" Latham told me.

In a sense, this large, non-white audience for sci-fi has shown that the allure of the genre and its possibilities can outweigh its exclusionary history. Further, there are non-white writers who are pursuing filmmaking, producing, and writing careers in the genre, which is the most important solution to getting more non-white representation on screen. Having more non-white people making decisions — a theme that is true for any industry, really — means more opportunities for non-white characters on screen and non-white stories being told.

The team at UCR points to themes of  colonialism and racial struggle — something seen in author Octavia Butler's work and in pieces of Afrofuturism. Conquering or exploring a new world is a running theme in science fiction. Someone who is Native American or black, or someone who grew up in any country affected by waves of colonialism might have a different view than someone who has white, European descendants might.

"To the writers of the '30s and '40s, conquering a new world was a doctrine of manifest destiny," Latham said. "Conquering a new world means something different to people who were brought to the country in chains or were displaced or subject to genocide."

That's why Latham's study could prove so important. Examining non-white sci-fi writers and female writers opens up the possibility of new perspectives and adding depth to well-trodden stories. This also could inspire future writers of color and women to write themselves into the future.

Latham and his colleagues are hoping to study more of these voices when the grant goes into effect next fall.

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