Growing Diversity in Fantasy Genres Gives Us Hints of Eternity

Science fiction and fantasy are growing up and embracing the stories of traditionally marginalized people groups.
on Dec 7, 2018 · 29 comments

By definition, science fiction and fantasy are unique among literary genres because of the presence of a wide range of diverse characters and people groups.

Certainly, many groups are fictional (as far as we know), such as Vulcans, Calormenes, and sentient droids.

Certainly, many portrayals, such as that of female characters and Native Americans, have been fetishized and over-troped.

But, like much of the world, science fiction and fantasy are growing up, growing wiser, and embracing the stories of traditionally marginalized people groups. Some might say science fiction and fantasy (SFF) are ahead of the curve.

The ever-widening tent of modern science fiction and fantasy was evidenced at this year’s Hugo Awards, where female writers and artists swept the prize in all major categories.

N. K. Jemisin, the African-American author of the Broken Earth series, had already made history in 2016 by becoming the first black writer to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel. This year she made history again by becoming the first person ever to take the top prize three years in a row.

Many of the other winners were also reflective of the growing diversity in SFF publishing:

  • Rebecca Roanhorse won Best Short Story for Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience.
  • Suzanne Palmer’s The Secret Life of Bots won Best Novelette.
  • Martha Wells won Best Novella for All Systems Red.
  • The late Ursula K. Le Guin won Best Related Work for her book of essays, No Time to Spare.

We could go on.

This trend—although I hope it’s more than a trend—makes sense, especially since, in my opinion (and in the opinion of V.E. Schwab), the best speculative stories grow from trees planted with seeds from the real world.

It’s often uncomfortable talking about the marginalization experienced by women and various races and ethnic groups. There still is (and probably always will be) a small but loud strain of individuals who don’t like black actresses playing traditionally white comic book characters on TV, or the growing recognition that women writers and people of color are receiving in SFF publishing, or minority characters being introduced to Star Wars.

But the embrace of diversity in speculative genres ought to remind us that, one day, people of every nation, ethnicity, and language will live, work, and love together in the New Heaven and New Earth. John, the apostle and end times seer, wrote:

“I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”1

The arc of the universe bends toward diversity. It bends toward a re-imagined Eden where the things that have divided for so long—the differences of race, gender, ethnicity, culture, and economic standing—become the elements God uses to paint a new mosaic. In this mosaic, the beauty comes not just from unity despite our differences, but unity made more glorious because it embraces our differences. To paraphrase from Helen Lee’s article at Christ and Pop Culture, God is the ultimate diversity activist.

Jesus’s example shows us that we should cheer the growing diversity in SFF genres. Although he came to bring the good news of the kingdom first to the Jews, he often went out of his way to minister to those who were marginalized. He took time out to hear from Greeks who were seen as outsiders (John 12: 20–22). He ministered to the hated, half-breed Samaritans (John 4: 1–42), and, in one of his most famous stories, he made a Samaritan the main character and the hero.

Jesus grabbed people who stood on the margins of His society—tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor, the lepers, the African—and thrust them into the main narrative of the Great Story of God’s Love. You belong here, he told them. There is room for you.

And then, he told his disciples, and us, to do the same. The glorious climax of every people, every nation, every tongue gathered around the throne at the end of time only comes about because the plot can be summed up in the Great Commission where Jesus commands us to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28: 16–20).

We have a hand in the making of God’s diverse kingdom—in Heaven and here on Earth. And we should rejoice when any arena, like modern science fiction and fantasy publishing, moves closer to that divine ideal.

  1. Revelation 7:9.
Daniel Whyte IV is a writer and former web designer and podcast producer. His essays on culture, story-telling, and faith have been published in RelevantFathom MagazineArc Digital,, A Pilgrim in Narnia, and Mere Orthodoxy. He holds a bachelor's degree in Information Technology and is currently a Mass Communication grad student. More of his writing can be found on his website, his Substack, or on Twitter @dmarkwiv.
  1. Dona says:

    Are the women writers winning because they’re women or because their writing is better? Are the books submitted without knowledge of who the writer is? Because, as a woman, I’m tired of the gender affirmative action people are instituting among themselves. Women don’t need handouts and God doesn’t like favoritism. So if a judge of literature or a school or an employer or Hollywood or anyone picks a woman or a person of color just because they are of that color or gender, that is a slap in the face. Excellence is excellence no matter who you are. The BEST should win on it’s merits. People don’t mind losing when it’s to a superior. It pushes all of us on to do better ourselves. If we lower the bar and say inferior work is superior, work quality suffers. God does not want someone to get preferential treatment for any reason. We can’t suddenly take whites and replace them with others or men with women. In one example, don’t take traditionally white characters and replace them with minorities. No one wants to see beloved characters replaced to fit a social justice agenda, such as The Ghostbusters movie remake. Write! Use the talents God has given us to write new stories with new characters who happen to be minorities or women. It also makes me angry when social justice activists demoted classical music greats and wanted to put an equal number of minorities and women in the lineup. Add to, don’t demote all the way back throughout history. As a woman I happen to love men and minorities, and is it really necessary to say women too, but I’m getting tired of seeing women everywhere. It feels like my own sex is being shoved down my throat. There is an agenda here and it’s not a Godly one.

    • notleia says:

      From my experience, the women and minorities winning this stuff actually DO have fresher ideas and perspectives, with better writing, than the troves of white dudes who go into sci-fi or fantasy with the same old schlock. Because yes, they DO have to do twice the work to get half the attention, half of which from people “just asking” if they really did the work.

      • notleia says:

        Snarky addendum: The sad truth is that many, many (MANY) white dudes aren’t nearly as interesting as they think they are.

        • Substitute this sentence’s object with any other classification and see how it sounds.

          The sad truth is that many, many (MANY) brunette women aren’t nearly as interesting as they think they are.

          The sad truth is that many, many (MANY) community organizers aren’t nearly as interesting as they think they are.

          The sad truth is that many, many (MANY) “gay rights” activists aren’t nearly as interesting as they think they are.

          The sad truth is that many, many (MANY) physically disabled persons aren’t nearly as interesting as they think they are.

          Now, how does this observation sound?

          • notleia says:

            I suppose I could explain the concept of “punching up,” but that sounds like too much work.

            I had mostly dudes of the butthurt-puppy variety in mind, but it’s still not very relatable situation to you because you probably don’t have a face stamped with “please tell me all your passing thoughts” in magical invisible letters readable to 70% of old and middle-aged white men, 40% of little old ladies, and this one mutual acquaintance who talked at me (not TO me, AT me) for 20 largely uninterrupted minutes about her autistic kid the first time she ever met me. (I think she hadn’t seen another adult in quite some time, but while that makes it more understandable, it doesn’t actually make it any more comfortable.)

            • Unfortunately, notleia, you’re only (accidentally) reinforcing a great and powerful stereotype I have about folks who go about complaining about “white” this-or-that. In some cases, they’re merely using this as a language to express “people who get on my nerves and who I cannot stand.” It’s a gross and dehumanizing perspective that dishonors human beings made in God’s image. I do not read rational complaint in your comment. I read the early seeds of something that can only be described as hatred. Taken to its logical conclusion, it will lead a soul right back into racism.

              • notleia says:

                I think I’ve brought up the concept of “emotional labor” before. It does take effort and it is exhausting to engage with people who expect it, but I’m still not going to turn into a sociopath anytime soon.

                Lordy, I hope no new moms ever come to vent to you, if this is the type of response you have for people who express frustration. I’ll have you know I made marvelous conversational sounds to that mutual acquaintance and only expressed my WTF to my dude later, because I am a sufficiently socialized adult.

                (Sorrynotsorry white dudes are still the worst re: emotional labor.)

              • As long as those new moms aren’t being racist or otherwise prejudiced, they’ll be fine. To use your phrase, you’re being pretty “butthurt.”

              • notleia says:

                Rhetorical question for you: Would he be so intent on policing me if it were anyone but mostly white dudes I was poking at?

              • notleia says:

                Tho I tend to forget that most of y’all view racism as an individual failing rather than a systemic failing. With a systemic view, individual discrimination against white dudes is functionally meaningless, as it’s just one or two windows closed in an opportunity wall filled with open doors. Most of white dude discrimination (that is actual discrimination and not probable misplaced entitlement) is more specifically classist discrimination against poor people in general, and most of poor people are, well what do you know, women and minorities.
                Thank you for coming to my mini TED talk.

              • For us, the point is to treat everyone fairly and decently, as well as to point out hypocrisy. If making negative comments about someone based on their race or gender is bad when it comes to women or minorities, it’s bad when it comes to white men as well. If you’re going to attack a group based off your prejudices/anger/whatever, and think that’s perfectly fine, that reduces your credibility as someone that claims to be against racism.

                Then again, I dunno, I’m an interracial child, and neither of my parents ever saw fit to sit around and insult each other’s race like you do. They just treat each other like normal and thus race is irrelevant between them. People practicing that kind of behavior are probably making more progress toward racial reconciliation than you are, since they are actually showing how people of two different races can live together without making constant insulting jabs like that.

                When it comes to this, it doesn’t even really matter if racism, etc is a systematic failing or not. If I met your parents and decided I didn’t like them, I wouldn’t start disliking you based off of a ‘systematic failure’ in your family.

                For the record, I get upset when people say bad things about women and minorities, too, and will often say something. Sometimes I don’t, because I’ve sometimes found listening to be more productive than getting in someone’s face, or maybe because what the person says is obviously stupid enough that it would feel redundant to point it out. But that’s the thing with racism towards whites. People will say that it’s wrong to judge someone based on gender or skin color, yet they judge white men based on those things. The hypocrisy of that isn’t obvious to them, or they don’t care. That’s why a lot of people feel motivated to speak up about it.

              • notleia says:

                I’m not really finding this convincing, because we’re talking about me making a brief, hyperbolic quip about white dudes (phrased in passingly #NotAllWhiteDudes fashion), and most of the reaction is more like I accused someone of punching old ladies while jaywalking.

                The reaction doesn’t fit the purported offense.

              • I think it’s sort of the fact that you do that a lot and talk like you actually think it’s good/ok to be prejudiced toward white men(not just in this situation). Like…deep down it looks like you mean it. Maybe you don’t and it’s just playful rhetoric, I dunno, but if so you might be miscommunicating how you feel. So I guess it might be more about the habit than this one statement.

                I wasn’t really replying to you because of that joke, though(I kinda mentioned it, but more so as an example or something). I thought the joke was slightly rude and hypocritical, but I was only a little irritated and wasn’t going to comment on it, and often enough I enjoy the quips you make whether I agree with them or not. But further on into the conversation you kind of basically said ‘who cares if I’m prejudiced toward whites? It doesn’t matter because it doesn’t hurt them.’ So I kinda wanted to bring up some reasons why it does matter at least a bit and maybe clarify a little more on why people find it irritating.

              • Notleia, you’re the most racist person I’ve seen in this forum. And no, we’re not talking about you making a brief, hyperbolic quip about white dudes. We’re talking about you justifying your own bigotry then slamming others for bigotry they’re not even guilty of. People aren’t statistics. Just because Steven and I are white and point out your hypocrisy doesn’t mean we’re racist (we’re not, by the way). And if you made a comment about Latinos (like Trump), I would have jumped down your throat faster than you can say “butthurt.” Steven wouldn’t have had to have jumped down your throat because so many would have slammed you. Yet you think you can get away with sexism and racism toward white males because you think systemic issues are separate from individual sins. But guess what, they’re not. Systemic issues are made up of individual sins (YOURS). Honestly, your rhetorical question just turns back on you in a way-too-ironic way. I think that if you had it your way, you would invert the recipients of racism and sexism from minority females to majority males. You talk like you want to BECOME the oppressor, not do away with oppression.

                Tell me I’m wrong.

            • As a great saint, himself clearly afflicted with having to “tolerate” such horrors as people who won’t shut up about all their passing thoughts, once wrote (in the satirical voice of a senior devil advising his demonic apprentice) (emphasis added):

              You have here a delicate task. The assumption which you want him to go on making is so absurd that, if once it is questioned, even we cannot find a shred of argument in its defence. The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon his chattels. He is also, in theory, committed a total service of the Enemy; and if the Enemy appeared to him in bodily form and demanded that total service for even one day, he would not refuse. He would be greatly relieved if that one day involved nothing harder than listening to the conversation of a foolish woman; and he would be relieved almost to the pitch of disappointment if for one half-hour in that day the Enemy said “Now you may go and amuse yourself”. Now if he thinks about his assumption for a moment, even he is bound to realise that he is actually in this situation every day. When I speak of preserving this assumption in his mind, therefore, the last thing I mean you to do is to furnish him with arguments in its defence.

              There aren’t any. Your task is purely negative. Don’t let his thoughts come anywhere near it. Wrap a darkness about it, and in the centre of that darkness let his sense of ownership-in-Time lie silent, uninspected, and operative.

      • Part of the reason those questions get asked is the affirmative action attitudes/behaviors that surround these things sometimes. Sometimes people care more about having stories written by women, etc. than the stories themselves, and that leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. People would be ‘just asking’ a lot less if affirmative action didn’t give them a reason to.

    • I agree, Dona. Jemisin (one of the main authors mentioned above) is a fantastic writer, but I stopped reading her book The Fifth Season because it felt like it was shoving LGBTQ, sexual immorality, and racial agendas down my throat. In my opinion, her books are very well written, but morally bankrupt and largely worthless to the human race. Ursula K. Le Guin, on the other hand, is a grand master whose books have actually unique and innovative content that also is morally (life) affirming. Le Guin is vastly superior. She deserves wins (sad she passed away). By my estimation, the female writing population far outnumbers the male writing population. I’ve never seen proof that men are better writers than women. Both just tend to focus on different types of themes, and to use words in slightly different ways. I think we’re in an era now that is more open-minded than before. I think book awards have always been, to a certain extent, arbitrary and stupid. As glad as I am that women and “minorities” are finally better represented, I’m certainly sick of feminist and “racial” agendas. Why not affirm the true value of both genders and all ethnicities (as Le Guin did)? We don’t need to bash males or suppress males. We don’t need to bash whites or suppress whites. Doing that is repaying evil with evil. It’s just plain immature and idiotic. It perpetuates and proliferates bigotry and oppression. Also, we need to stop using the word “race.” It’s BS. There’s one race: human beings. Many ethnicities. That’s why I like Daniel’s article, here. It affirms the diversity of the Kingdom! Great job, Daniel. Blessings.

    • Dona, I completely agree with you regarding the “affirmative action” part of this. No award should affirm or celebrate stories simply because the writer is of a certain gender or ethnicity. Awards, accolades, good reviews, and bestseller status should come as a result of quality work.

      There appear to be some people (on the extreme) who celebrate “diversity” for diversity’s sake. But, that’s not the point. The point is that the world as it should be is organically diverse. It ought to be our prayer and hope that one day we won’t be having this discussion — that it won’t be an anomaly or “historical” for a black writer or a woman to win the Hugo Award.

      That said, we also can’t overlook the fact that deep-seated bias against women and minorities is present in many arenas of art and life. For example, up until recent decades, women scifi writers were not taken seriously because it was thought that only men could be real scientists.

      Regarding your concern about gender-swapped and race-swapped roles: I don’t like a lot of it — and I certainly don’t like swapping just for the sake of race or gender — but I have a simple measure that helps me decide whether I’m okay with a certain role being swapped.

      – If the swapped role involves a mantle (title or position), it’s okay.
      – If the swapped role involves a person, it’s not okay.

      That’s why I’m okay with a young black woman being “Iron Man” (Ironheart) in a recent comics series — because what makes Tony Stark “Iron Man” is his suit. Anyone can wear the suit. (And anyone smart enough can develop the suit.)

      And that’s why I’m not okay with the female Thor comics. Thor isn’t a mantle that can be passed on. Thor isn’t a position or title. Thor is a (fictional) person whom the original creators (whether comic creators or Norse people) decided was male.

      I don’t know what that says for Ghostbusters though, as I’ve never seen either of them.

      • I don’t necessarily mind the swapping when it involves the person or character, but only if it’s cool/well written and something the writer genuinely wanted to do for fun/whatever, rather than doing it to push a social agenda.

        Gender or race swapping can be awesome as a writing exercise or a fun AU of an existing story, (I’ve considered writing a Mulan fanfic with a guy version of Mulan and a girl version of General Shang.). And there’s nothing wrong with using such a story to talk about social issues, but it should feel organic, rather than preachy.

        One gender swapped char I really like is Arthur from Fate Zero. At first I didn’t really like that King Arthur(also called Arturia in this story) was a girl, but as I got to know her character, I thought she was pretty cool and well written. Having Arthur being depicted as a girl in her late teens gives the char a huge sense of someone that has a lot on their shoulders, yet is still strong in personality and character in order to carry that burden of leadership. If she was there for diversity’s sake only, it’s pretty hard to tell.

  2. Olivia Butler hasn’t won any Hugo awards? Or Nnidi Okorafor? Huh.

    • Kristin Janz says:

      Not for best novel. African American SF author Samuel Delany won for short story in 1970, and I think that was the first time an author who wasn’t white won a fiction Hugo Award. Octavia Butler won Hugo awards for short fiction in 1984 and 1985. Ted Chiang in 2002, 2008, 2009, and 2011. Ken Liu in 2012 and 2013. John Chu in 2014. And … I think that’s it for non-white authors winning fiction Hugos until 2015, the year of the Great Stupid Hugo Drama. Cixin Liu was the first non-white author to win for best novel, in 2015. (Nnedi Okorafor won for best novella in 2016.)

      Hugo Awards aren’t everything, but they do provide some indication of what people who pay a lot of attention to science fiction and fantasy publishing (i.e., opinion leaders) are currently finding most interesting. And if you’re an indie author or publisher who doesn’t consider that to be useful information, you should probably hire yourself some marketing help. 🙂

  3. Jay DiNitto says:

    Thank goodness post-Enlightenment, affluent Westerners have correctly interpreted scripture. I was wondering when the correct meaning was going to be released.

  4. Travis Perry says:

    What I find fascinating about myself as I’m reading the comments below is how little I really care about who does and does not win awards in science fiction. I suppose that’s because as a Christian writer I see myself as part of a counter-culture that is largely ignored by mainstream science fiction writers. I don’t see myself as being in the same boat with “white dudes” in general but rather on my own team as it were.

    I don’t see me winning any awards anytime soon (nor any of my fine Christian writer friends) and it doesn’t matter to me so much who does win. Maybe that’s a bad attitude on my part…maybe I should care, but diversity of race or gender seems less significant to me than diversity of thought or opinion. My thoughts are mostly not welcome in the modern way of thinking. And I’m mostly OK with that.

    • Maybe you are correct.

      I think awards have their place, but at the end of the day, they are still just opinion polls. A group of people (“experts” is what they call themselves) get together and vote for the stories they like best. I’m sure some vote with an agenda, but I hope most try to be objective. Still, biases will come through. If you or I were there, we’d probably vote differently.

      That said, as far as diversity goes and in light of what I wrote above, I’d be interested in exploring a bit what the Christian SFF publishing space looks like. Are we ahead of the curve, behind it, or on par?

      • Travis Perry says:

        Yeah, it might be fascinating to do an in-depth analysis and see how overtly Christian works of speculative fiction compare with what’s winning Hugos and Nebulas.

        My guess would be Christian writers exhibit a level of racial balance that those who see us as identical with social conservatism would not expect. I think you’d also find a high degree of gender equality, though perhaps not as much as current Hugo winners demonstrate.

        But in regard to being LBGTQ-friendly, I would guess Christian writers would be looked down on as backward by the Hugo-winning-crowd. With reason–Christian writers genuinely DO prefer heterosexual monogamy over all other sexual roles/identities.

        Of course, I think we’re right about that.

        In fact, my own break with some of the acclaimed writers of the past (who happened to be white males), including Larry Niven, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke, amounts to me sharply disagreeing with their overtly libertine attitudes towards human sexuality…

    • Earlier this year I grabbed The Fifth Season on audiobook so I could learn what all the hype was about. I don’t think at the time I knew much about N.K Jemisin other than that she was very popular in SFF circles these days. I found the writing just fine (frankly, derivative of Brandon Sanderson) and some of the premises were kind of neat. But I knew without doubt that her worldview of sexuality was very different than my own. It’s a worldview that the post-modern world values greatly, so I can see why her books would be appealing to many and do well in an awards competition that does feel more like a highschool popularity contest. Nice that she won, but not a contest I think I’d want to be part of.

      Mweh, there are plenty of awesome books out there to read, I don’t think I’m missing much by leaving a series incomplete. Glad some others feel the same

      • I don’t think it’s fair to say she’s derivative of Sanderson. Actually, I think Jemisin is a better writer than Sanderson. I haven’t read a ton of Sanderson, but Jemisin is a more polished, more capable wordsmith, and every bit as capable with plotting and character development, along with world development. But I agree with you. I don’t feel I’m really missing out by leaving the series incomplete, either.

        • Jo Michelle says:

          I’m sticking my head into this convo to say that while I became a life-long fan of the Stormlight Archive books this fall, I’d never give Sanderson an award for top wordsmith. I mean, I almost didn’t finish Way of Kings because I was too annoyed by his sentences and dialogue.

          But that book’s climax. Man, I forgave him every stilted, awkward thing ever spoken by one of his characters in that epic finale. ?

What do you think?