SFF in Conversation is a new monthly feature on The Book Smugglers in which we invite guests to talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF. Anyone can participate and we are welcoming emailed topic submissions from authors, bloggers, readers, and fans of all categories, age ranges, and subgenres beneath the speculative fiction umbrella.
Today, we continue our ongoing new series of posts “SFF in Conversation” with a post from R.J. Anderson, author of wonderful middle grade and young adult speculative fiction. Thea read and loved Ultraviolet and companion novel Quicksilver. The latter novel features an asexual heroine, which sparked our interest in having R.J. Anderson over for a guest post, to talk about sexuality and diversity in YA SFF.
Please give a warm welcome to R.J., everyone!
WRITING DIVERSITY (AND WHY IT MATTERS)
Science Fiction and Fantasy — my two favourite genres, both to read and to write — aren’t mere escapism, as readers unfamiliar with the genre sometimes think. The best examples of speculative fiction don’t just whisk us off to some fanciful realm full of strange inhuman beings, or take us on an adventure which bears no resemblance to events or issues in the real world; rather, they feature characters we can understand and sympathize with, plots that resonate with our own experiences, and ideas that linger in the mind long after the last page is turned. And often, these books introduce us to realities that have been part of our universe all along, but we were too caught up in our own narrow perceptions and experiences to notice them.
Good SF & F is not content to leave our existing assumptions, preferences and prejudices unchallenged. Instead, it invites us to stretch our minds in new directions, to view life from a different perspective, and to consider social, philosophical and moral issues in a fresh context. Even when a SF story takes place on our own world and in the present day — as in my own YA novels Ultraviolet (2011) and Quicksilver (2013) — there are plenty of opportunities for authors to explore concepts that the reader might not have considered before. To me, that’s one of the most exciting things about the genre — and one of the main reasons that I write science fiction and fantasy myself.
Like all authors I’m frequently asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” In my case, my stories often come out of asking myself one or both of the following questions:
1. What I am I sick of seeing in stories, either because it’s been done so many times that it’s become cliche, or because I thought it was a bad idea in the first place?
2. What am I NOT seeing in stories that I would like to see more of?
When I started writing Quicksilver, the companion to my 2011 Andre Norton award-nominated Ultraviolet, I had only the vaguest answers to those two questions. I knew that the narrator of this particular book was going to be Tori, a girl who’d played an important but mostly off-stage role in Ultraviolet, and that the plot would deal with the repercussions of the things that had happened to her in that book. My determination to avoid or subvert the seeming cliche of Tori’s being beautiful, blonde, wealthy, popular and the heroine’s seeming nemesis — the shopworn “Mean Girl” trope — had led me to develop her character in some unusual ways in Ultraviolet. But I knew there was still more to Tori that we hadn’t seen yet, and that it was time she got the chance to tell her own story.
There was just one problem: she wouldn’t cooperate with my plans for her. I’d planned to have a strong romantic subplot in the book, with a swoon-worthy boy or two to keep her company. But the minute I tried to write her a meet-cute scene, she dug in her heels and refused. Once I realized that I couldn’t imagine Tori falling in love with anyone, I stopped trying to push her in that direction and started asking myself why. How did her apparent lack of interest in romance fit with the previous book, where she’d had a boyfriend? Granted, she’d only dated the guy because she felt sorry for him, and she’d broken up with him because he’d kept pressuring her to have sex, but…
Finally, the truth hit me. A possibility I’d never thought of before in so many words, but which fit perfectly with Tori’s character and actions in Ultraviolet, and explained everything I’d been struggling to understand about her.
Tori was asexual.
The challenge of writing a likeable, sympathetic, emotionally engaged character who did not experience sexual attraction, who felt no desire or urge to have sex despite all the external pressures and expectations that she should, was immediately exciting to me. I’d encountered a few — a very few — characters in SF & F who had sworn themselves to celibacy for religious or magical reasons, or who were too consumed by their intellectual goals and ambitions to think about sex. But I’d never seen a story set in modern times with a protagonist who identified as asexual, especially not in YA. And that seemed wrong to me, because I knew teenagers like Tori existed.
Mind, I didn’t know a lot about asexuality before I started writing Quicksilver. I’d read a couple of articles by or about people identifying as asexual, enough to prove to me that asexuality didn’t mean frigidity or fear of intimacy or an inability to relate to other people, but I needed to know more. What kinds of challenges did asexual teens face in our modern sex-obsessed culture? What myths and misunderstandings about asexuality frustrated them most? What mistakes had other writers made in portraying asexual characters that I would do well to avoid?
I started reading all the articles about asexuality I could find, and tracking a number of relevant tags on Tumblr so I could see what asexual people were writing about their experiences. This gave me a good idea of what cliches to reject — or subvert — in developing Tori’s character and telling her story in Quicksilver. I also read several biographies of the asexual genius inventor Nikola Tesla, who served as a rough template for what I wanted to do with Tori (and gave me plenty of fun Tesla in-jokes I could sneak into the book). I didn’t want Tori’s asexuality to take over the novel: I had far too many other things to talk about, and it was supposed to be a contemporary SF thriller rather than a straight contemporary anyway. But I made asexuality an important part of my research, along with all the other scientific, technical and sociological information I needed to make Tori and her experiences believable.
When it came to writing the character of Tori’s friend Milo, the second most important character in the book, I had another epiphany. I’d originally imagined Milo as Tori’s love interest in the traditional sense, and pictured him vaguely as a good-looking white boy who worked in her local electronics store. But his character eluded me until I realized that he was Korean-Canadian — and that he actually didn’t know or care anything about electronics at all. That forced me to add Korean culture to my list of topics for research, but the effort was more than worthwhile: it gave me all kinds of ideas for how to flesh out Milo as a character, supply him with personal challenges and conflicts that would keep him from being merely Tori’s sidekick, and poke holes in some of the stereotypes about Koreans at the same time. And once I’d let go of my original, superficial ideas about who Tori and Milo were and how they should relate to each other, they ended up having one of the most satisfying relationships I’ve ever written — and one that turned out to be many reviewers’ favourite aspect of the whole book.
To me one of the best things about SF & F is the way it constantly reminds us that we are part of a wider universe, and invites us to look at ourselves and our society from a different angle. There’s so much scope for imagination in science fiction and fantasy, so few constraints on the worlds we can create and the characters we put into them, that diversity ought to be one of the biggest hallmarks of the genre. Yet as all too many books and movies show, it’s easy for writers to fall into the trap of writing the same kinds of characters and settings over and over again, and imagine worlds that are actually less diverse and multifaceted than our own.
Yes, writing different kinds of characters than ourselves, different stories than we’re used to seeing, can be scary. There’s a fear — a healthy fear, I think — of getting it wrong; there’s also the dread that writing diversity will mean a whole lot of tedious work. Well yes, it does take time and effort to educate yourself about something that’s not already part of your experience. And no matter how diligently you do your homework, you probably will make one or two mistakes along the way. But the reward of stretching our imaginations, both as writers and as readers, to embrace more diverse characters is far greater than the false security that comes from hiding in our comfort zones and ignoring them. Especially when you hear from readers who tell you your book brought tears to their eyes, that they’ve been waiting all their lives to read about a character like themselves, and this is the first time they’ve ever had that opportunity.
And that’s why I believe in diversity in science fiction.
Thank you, R.J.! And now we turn it over to you — what are your thoughts on the importance of diversity in SFF?
BibliotropicJuly 25, 2013 at 12:21 pm
I remember loving Ultraviolet when I read it, and being really pleased that the story didn’t go in ways that were easily predictable. I kept making little mental predictions of things throughout, and at the end, I realized that just about none of them actually happened. And that was awesome, because it meant that the author wasn’t falling into some really obvious story traps and making things a cliche.
And then I heard about Quicksilver, and how Tori was asexual, and I decided then and there that I had to read it too, no matter what. (Still hasn’t happened yet, but mostly due to a lack of money since health problems and surgery kept me out of work for so long…) Portrayals of asexuality are uncommon in fiction at all, let alone YA fiction. Positive portrayals, where it’s not a side effect or trauma or religion and instead is just presented as another facet of the sexuality spectrum, are downright impossible to find. And as someone who identifies as asexual, that’s somewhat disheartening. So hearing that Anderson not only wrote an asexual character but also did her homework and did it well pleased me to no end! Kudos to you, R J Anderson, and I still very much look forward to being able to eventually buy this book and be a total fandrogyne over it!
LivianiaJuly 25, 2013 at 5:04 pm
Great guest post! I love that she brings it all back to being true to the characters and their story.
Sarah Rees BrennanJuly 25, 2013 at 10:11 pm
SandyJuly 26, 2013 at 6:45 pm
I love RJ Anderson’s books, you can clearly see the diverse characters in each of them and I really appreciate getting to see that in a fantasy or scifi book. I’ve only read her Faery Rebel series so far but Ultraviolet is on my to-read list and I am even more eager to read Quicksilver now that I know a little bit about the character’s sexuality.
Sarah IzhilzhaJuly 28, 2013 at 4:52 pm
I just finished Quicksilver last week, and it blew me away. I’d loved Ultraviolet (I identify pretty hard with the heroine of that story), and looked forward to a sequel in the same continuity.
And I have to say, RJ’s hard work paid off beautifully. I am not much like Tori, and less like Milo, and yet I fell hard for both of them, and for their awkward, beautiful, lovely friendship. Especially the emphasis that friendship is no less wondrou, and awesome than romance, which is a difficult truth to embody in our current culture. Proof, I think, that stories of particular and specific characters can also be the most universal ones.
de PizanJuly 29, 2013 at 12:40 am
I’m looking forward to reading this; the only other YA book that I can think of with an asexual character is Guardian of the Dead, and I had major issues with the way the asexuality was handled in that book.