One Reason Why Science Fiction Was Traditionally Racist — Maybe

Science fiction has a reputation for being a field that has traditionally been entirely dominated by white heterosexual cisgender men, both in terms of its writers and its protagonists.  It’s a reputation that the whole field has been working very hard to leave behind.  One often wonders (at least, I do,) how it got that way in the first place.  Well, I’m reading Isaac Asimov’s Gold right now, which is a collection of short stories he wrote nearer to the end of his life, and also the introductions he did for a variety of anthologies and magazines that, overall, present an effective analysis of science fiction.  And I came across this:

Since I began publishing in 1939, when Edward E. Smith was at the very height of his success (though John Campbell had just retired to the job of editing Astounding), I naturally tried my hand at the “many-intelligence” galaxy myself.

For instance, there was my eighth published story, “Homo Sol,” which appeared in the September 1940 Astounding.  It dealt with a galactic empire consisting of the civilized beings from many, many planetary systems — each planetary system containing a different type of intelligent being.  Each bore the name of the native star in the species name, so that there would be “Homo Arcturus,” “Homo Canopus” and so on.  The plot dealt with Earth’s coming of technological age and the possible entry of Earthmen (“Homo Sol,” you see) into the empire.

And now there came a struggle between John Campbell and myself.  John could not help but feel that people of northwest European descent (like himself) were in the forefront of human civilization and that all other people lagged behind.  Expanding this view to a galactic scale, he viewed Earthmen as the “northwest Europeans” of the galaxy.  He did not like to see Earthmen lose out to aliens, or to have Earthmen pictured as in any way inferior.  Even if Earthmen were behind technologically, they should win anyway because they invariably were smarter, or braver, or had a superior sense of humor, or something.

I, however, was not of northwest European stock, and, as a matter of fact (this was 1940, remember, and the Nazis were in the process of wiping out the European Jews), I was no great admirer of them.  I felt that Earthmen, if they symbolized these northwest Europeans according to the Campbellian outlook, might well prove inferior in many vital ways to other civilized races; that Earthmen might lose out to the aliens; that they might even deserve to lose out.

However, John Campbell won out.  He was a charismatic and overwhelming person, and I was barely twenty years old, very much in awe of him, and very anxious to sell stories to him.  So I gave in, adjusted the story to suit his prejudices, and have been ashamed of that ever since.

Nevertheless, I didn’t plan to have that happen again, ever.  I wrote a sequel to “Homo Sol,” which I called “The Imaginary,” in which I evaded the issue by having Earthmen not appear (and Campbell rejected it).  I wrote another story in which Earthmen fought villainous extraterrestrial overlords, and felt that would be all right, for the overlords were transparent symbols of the Nazis (and, as it happened, Campbell rejected that, too).

When you consider that the early science fiction market was primarily in magazines (pulp fiction was just starting to come into its own, and there weren’t a lot of publishers of those either) and that there weren’t a whole host of magazine publishers, and when you consider how respected Campbell’s opinion was in the field, this preference for European-descended men leading the way into the stars suddenly begins to make a lot more sense.

Is it fair to say that sci-fi was racist because John Campbell was a racist?  Of course not.  Campbell was a product of his time.  All white men felt that way at that time, and all of Hollywood and literature reinforced that belief.  Any editor at the time would have had to get along with the existing corporate structure, and so it’s hard to imagine that anyone in that position wouldn’t have shared his subconscious belief that humanity, “properly dominated” by northwestern European society, would clearly dominate any aliens they might have come in contact with.  So should we blame him, or the social constructs of the time?

In many ways it’s no different today.  For example, an American writer simply can’t imagine a universe without America.  The way to the stars is still always led by Americans in American literature, even though right at this moment in time, it seems likely to me that China or India will beat them there (if we’re still competing in a Space Race).  And if they do imagine a future without the United States, American writers are constantly writing about how the true American spirit will win out in the end.  Even dystopian futures (like say, the Deadlands series) have American descendants dominating the world, even when there is no America; even when, after a global thermonuclear war, it’s pretty clear that the United States would be primarily a field of poison and black glass.  Failing that, American values always seem to dominate the social structure of the world(s) of the future.  And if they don’t, then the nation or civilization who has taken their place become a horrid enemy that must be defeated (like V for Vendetta, for a particularly egregious example).

I have also noticed that most action heroes are still white men, even and especially in science fiction (though we can have the occasional black man every once in a while).  But women must constantly play sidekick to the lead male action hero (take Valerian and the City of the Thousand Planets, for the latest example,) and when they don’t, they often are acted upon, rather than acting of their own volition.  And no Hispanic men or women are allowed to be the lead (look what they did to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers in the most recent incarnation!  Didn’t anyone else notice that they picked white people to play Carmen Ibanez and Juan Rico, who were from Buenos-freakin’-Aires?)  No black women are allowed to take the lead either, and I’ve noticed that there seems to be a real dearth of LGBTQ people and brown people of any religion or nationality in the future.  Asian people can take the lead as long as spirituality or martial arts are involved, apparently.  Unless it’s manga, of course.

I don’t think it’s intentional.  It’s not deliberate.  It’s just unconscious prejudice guiding assumptions; like how we only have one token girl in The Avengers, and gods forbid she should have any history that might imply that she might have some girl problems.  Or like how Hollywood insists upon re-casting a classic comedy-action movie (Ghostbusters) with an all-female cast, and then claims when it doesn’t do well that people apparently don’t want to watch women in action or in comedy; without considering that maybe people just didn’t want to see the same movie twice, and without considering how successful The Hunger Games movies were at the box office (regardless of critical opinion).  Ladies, I’m begging you, please go see Wonder Woman, even if it’s crap, because if you don’t, Hollywood is going to wait another twenty years before allowing a female superhero to lead in a major blockbuster, on the grounds that “women heroes just aren’t commercial,” regardless of the script quality (and if it’s as bad as Batman vs. Superman, we’re all going to have to hold our noses and take one for the team).

How do we change this?  We keep writing inclusive stories; stories in which humanity’s future in the stars includes everybody.  Like how Star Trek managed to do in every incarnation except the first and the last one, despite a humanocentric view of the universe (and let’s be fair; the first one also included the first black woman on a bridge crew and the first interracial kiss ever shown on Western television).  And like how The Expanse, for example, is trying to do now  Some of this is even beginning to creep in to the DC and Marvel superhero TV shows we’ve seen lately.

But the truth is, the change is well underway in print media, and those who sit in judgment on modern sci-fi awards are also trying to adjust a pendulum they know has been heavily weighted for far too long.  It’s just Hollywood that hasn’t caught up yet.  Hollywood, it seems, is determined never to grow beyond the 60s when they produce science fiction, which is a damned shame.  Wouldn’t you love to see The Forever War on film?  Or Frederik Pohl’s Gateway?  Hollywood would pat those filmmakers on the back for how “original” they were because at least those stories were written in the 1970s!

I will know we’ve finally succeeded in creating a level playing field in science fiction when a transgender pansexual action hero of Middle Eastern descent is the star of a dramatic space opera, and people take it seriously.

4 thoughts on “One Reason Why Science Fiction Was Traditionally Racist — Maybe

    1. That’s right too. Yeah, the whitewashing is absolutely disgusting, isn’t it? Heinlein often quietly slipped in non-white and sexually ambiguous and strong female characters, and nobody ever seemed to notice. Still don’t I guess, because when people make his books into movies, they turn them into crazy white supremacist fascist masturbation fantasies. *sigh*


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