A Wired headline caught my attention the other day. The article it linked to featured commentary from an episode of a science fiction podcast on the topic of diversity in the genre. Every galaxy needs more than three people of color. That struck me on two levels: as a child of the 70s and 80s, who grew up on science fiction with a notable lack of diversity; and as an author of today, with a literary galaxy of my own.
First that number, three people out of a galaxy. That’s not an exaggeration. For the sci-fi franchises I grew up with, it’s a generous overestimate.
Foremost among the fictional galaxies of my childhood was the one depicted in the original Star Wars film trilogy, where people who looked like humans mixed with people who looked like aliens and people who looked like robots.
The people who looked like robots were kept by the others as slaves, but that’s a separate issue.
The people who looked like aliens often endured second-class treatment, like how Han gets a medal at the end of Episode IV but Chewbacca doesn’t? What’s up with that? Wookiees don’t get equal treatment from either the Empire or the Rebellion, but that’s also a separate issue.
The main issue covered by the Wired article was how the people who looked like humans were overwhelmingly portrayed by white actors, although there’s no logical reason even within the story why this would have to be the case.
Star Wars actors of color included Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian and…and…and…yeah. If you’re feeling generous, you could give James Earl Jones half-credit for providing the voice of Darth Vader’s ventilator, but that’s about it.
After becoming a Star Wars fan, I discovered the original run of Star Trek, which had been produced a decade earlier but remained popular in syndication. The cast included Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura, George Takei as Lieutenant Sulu, and…and…and…shoot. The Internet says there was a Doctor M’Benga who popped up in sickbay from time to time, but I’m not a committed enough Trekkie to remember him. I’d score this as two-and-a-half persons of color.
There was that one alien race that was white on the left side and black on the right, and their bitter enemies who were black on the left side and white on the right, but Kirk’s Enterprise otherwise sailed its overwhelmingly white crew through a galaxy of Klingons, Romulans, Vulcans, and other aliens portrayed by overwhelmingly white actors.
Star Wars took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, with human-looking creatures who didn’t share the cultural and evolutionary history of Earth-based humans, but Star Trek represented the optimistic future of humanity in our very own galaxy. At the time it was produced, Star Trek was revolutionary for breaking barriers and pushing boundaries. This was, after all, the show that gave us television’s first interracial kiss. And yet, there were still only two-and-a-half persons of color among the cast.
Then there was Battlestar Galactica–not the remake, which had its own issues, but the original. The ship led an armada of human refugees from the twelve tribes who were related to our own human ancestors, who supposedly came to Earth from space. The show name-checked multiple ancient Earth cultures and showed a special fondness for pyramids, but its cast was overwhelmingly white. Black actors portrayed Lieutenant Boomer, Colonel Tigh, and…and…and…no, just those two.
How is it possible that the one tribe of humans who colonized Earth had so much more diversity than the twelve tribes that stayed behind?
I also got hooked on Doctor Who, which was broadcast on our local PBS station because it was a British import, and therefore culturally superior to the shows on for-profit broadcast channels. Diversity among the companions on old school Doctor Who meant that Jamie could be a Scottish highlander, Turlough could be a ginger, Tegan could be Australian, and Peri could be American, as long as all of them still sported similarly pale skin.
Doctor Who debuted in 1963 and has run since then with a single continuity, give or take the decade-plus of hiatus separating the Classic and Modern Eras. And yet, this show didn’t get its first non-white companions until Noel Clarke as Mickey Smith and Freema Agyeman as Martha Jones, in 2005 and 2006 respectively.
There has not been a non-white, non-male Doctor, even though we’ve seen other Time Lords regenerate across racial and gender lines. The Doctor’s nemesis, the Master, is now calling herself the Mistress, for example. But the Doctor has consciously or subconsciously chosen to remain white and British at least through his first thirteen incarnations.
The show has ranged through all of time and space, including the entirety of human history, but non-white secondary characters in the Classic Era were rare enough to stand out. Like the black ringmaster in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, who, if I recall correctly, spoke in rap lyrics. Or the Chinese villain in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, who was portrayed by a white actor in yellow-face.
Then there’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, which became a TV series in the late 1970s. Buck Rogers had…who? Tigerman? That’s one, I guess, and even that represented a huge step forward from its source material as a 1920s pulp novella with some jaw-dropping anti-Asian racism.
So here’s the final score:
Star Wars Original Trilogy: 1.5 Persons of Color
Star Trek Original Series: 2.5 Persons of Color
Battlestar Galactica Original Series: 2 Persons of Color
Doctor Who Classic: 0 Persons of Color
Buck Rogers on TV: 1 Person of Color
Passing a “three people of color” test would have required each of these story worlds to introduce up to three additional main characters. Likewise, all would have also failed the “having a gay or transgender character” test, and would have done poorly in the “portrayal of women” test as well.
The franchises that are still active have become more diverse over time, but all of them failed the children of my generation. There were a total of seven characters of color in five of the most popular science fiction story worlds of the time, combined. These were: a high-tech phone operator, a helmsman, a part-time doctor, a smuggler-turned-businessman, the audible half of a villain, two military middle-managers, and a living punching-bag. Sidekicks, helpers, and villains.
The only black starship captain I ever saw on TV as a kid was Daffy Duck as “Duck Dodgers in the 24th-and-a-half Century.”
So here I am as a writer of today, with a responsibility to capture all the wonder and imagination of my favorite genre and transmit it to a new generation of readers. This can’t be done without reaching back to the beloved stories I grew up with and recognizing their flaws. And then, fixing them.
In my Galaxy Games series, Earth enters a team of kids in the greatest sports tournament in the universe. If I’d have picked this book up as a child in the 1970s or 80s, it would have starred a white boy leading a team that begrudgingly included three obligatory characters of color and exactly one girl. Otherwise, it would never have gotten published.
Thankfully, that is no longer the case.
Logic dictates that a team representing Earth has to represent all of Earth. Anything less weakens the story, waters down the characters, and impoverishes the story world.
When there three persons of color or fewer in a story galaxy, each character has to bear the weight of every person who shares a culture or skin type. Even Lando Calrissian couldn’t bear that kind of pressure without tending toward caricature or stereotype.
With more characters who are similar in one way but different in others, there can be more balance. More nuance. More characters who only have to represent themselves. More chances for a reader to see him or herself in the story.