"The thing that I always wondered is: what did you all do with the rest of us?" At the 2013 EasterCon panel on future representation and depictions of diversity in future settings, Stephanie Saulter was in a provocative mood when asking that question of her fellow panellists and audience members, though her point hit home. "Sometimes you have these moments where you have metaphorically given someone a clip around the ear and they get it."
The lack of diversity in the futuristic and fantastical worlds of SFF has led to breaks in Stephanie's reading habits. "Having read golden age SF as a young person, I then didn't read as much when I was older. I think in retrospect it was because I got really, really bored and somewhat suspicious of this far future universe that was populated by people from the American Midwest. In a subconscious way I stopped reading it, and it wasn't because I wasn't seeing myself in a mirror reflection. It was because it was so narrow."
Lucy talks to the author of Gemsigns and Binary about her career, books, and diversity in SFF.
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Image courtesy of Frederique Rapier
Born in Jamaica, Stephanie grew up reading everything she could get her hands on – although she wasn't particularly aware of reading Jamaican or Caribbean writers, as they weren't prioritized: "I don't remember particularly seeking them out. If you're not aware of something missing then you don't go looking for it." The books that do stick in her mind are Uncle Tom's Cabin, Roots, Lord of the Rings and Dune. Dune, in particular is a book she's read many times: "Apart from the fact that they are brilliantly written and have complex, subtle themes and worldbuilding, they actually have lots and lots and lots of different ethnicities – for lack of a better term. Physically different but also culturally different. I'm not saying he's perfect by any stretch of the imagination – there's rather too much homophobia in there – but at least there was variety."
There is definitely variety in Stephanie's books Gemsigns and Binary. If you haven't read them, get hold of both of them now. The plots are thrilling but also profound, considered, and thought-provoking. After the Syndrome wiped out an entire generation, gems (genetically-modified humans) were created to fill the gaps in the labour force. After a century, the decline levelled out and the gems, many of whom had been developed with great intelligence, began to speak out. Once their situation became fully realised, there was a public outcry, but still great uncertainty about how they would integrate into society, whether they ff
should, and what role the Gemtech organisations should have in all this. This is where the book starts, a few weeks before a conference to decide the gems' place in the human race is held in London. It centres on a community of gems living together who work together and respect one another's different abilities and disabilities.
"They're the stuff of my life," Stephanie says of the books. Having originally planned to be a biologist, genetics is in there. Having minored in Anthropology, the development of societies and their divisions and prejudices are there. Her previous work in Miami and London with regeneration and marginalised communities is evident too. Stephanie has stated that although the theme of disability politics that runs through the books (in regard to the different gems), was not a deliberate choice for her, it is one that has been present throughout her life, as one of her brothers has cerebral palsy.
The theme of integration is the key one, and how the people with the power majority and privilege, the Norms, and the people with the power minority and disabilities, the Gems, react to the integration. Stephanie says she wanted to try and capture this period, and to "try and capture it in a way that wasn't as boring as a social sciences paper. I wanted without writing a polemic to try to get a sense of commitment and passion but also confusion that the people in charge of making these kinds of determinations have."
"They're the stuff of my life."
As well as all the complex themes, I loved getting to know the various gems; it was refreshing to see a wide range of people in a book, from characters like Herran, an autistic gem who was modified to work closely with computers and so finds it hard to interact with other people, to characters like Mikal, whose giant form and double thumbs mean Norms often don't see beyond his appearance. I don't think that atypical people and disabled people are non-existent in SFF, but it is good to see them being represented in this way, where they are seen living the same full lives as any other character, with friendships, romance and childcare problems – all the normal, everyday stuff that everyone deals with at the same time that they're also dealing with the bigger issues in life.
Having worked with marginalised communities, and in her own words, "having the whole weight of the legacy of the Caribbean on me", Stephanie's eyes were already more open than many people's in terms of the need for representation of a diverse range of people in the media that we consume, and she doesn't think it's surprising that diversity in SFF is an issue. "Look at all the online conversations where someone's response is, 'but I don't care about someone's gender or someone's race; I just want to read a good book'. They're not being facetious; they do actually believe that." The problem is, she believes, systemic. "They aren't examining what's conditioned to have them think what a good book is…they are under subtle influences." But systemic, institutionalised sexism and racism take a long time to change. "Are there loads of writers of colour and loads of women writers who are writing as much as white male writers – or are they not writing as much? I think it's problematic either way – are people submitting and writing and not getting picked up?" She doesn't feel this is likely. "I've never met anyone on the decision end for whom that would ever be a factor." But back to the systemic nature of the problem – "if they think it might not be something they could sell, that might be a factor. It wouldn't be a sense of dislike – I think it would be because they think they can't sell it."
The current discussions about diversity in SFF are heartening but one thing that Stephanie finds problematic about the conversation around women and feminism in general is the assumptions that it makes. "The language around gender and balance, and around underrepresentation and balance, tends to assume that all women have the same experience and that gender is approached in the same way in any culture that appears to be similar. And that is not the case. It can make it quite uncomfortable sometimes to be part of a sisterhood that defines itself in ways that you struggle to identify with." This is one of the very good reasons that we need to see a range of voices published and read – so that the entire range of female experience is known of, and so white feminism isn't the dominant voice.
Although Stephanie is mixed race, "to the casual observer, I'm white…I will never know what it's like to walk into a room and have everyone know I'm Black." She's wary of assuming the title of 'writer of colour' as she believes she comes from a place of privilege due to her appearance. Her ethnicity and background still became part of the conversation, even though these themes are not obvious in her books. She found it interesting when back in Jamaica for the launch of Gemsigns she was asked multiple times why this was the kind of book she wanted to write. "Why science fiction, why speculative fiction? Not necessarily in a disapproving way, but with real bewilderment. Because the presumption is that if you're a writer, and this is where you're from, it's going to be literary fiction and it's going to be about your experience. Memoir. Autobiography. A tale of the diaspora. I basically said if I was a white person from New York or London, would you be surprised? They said no, and I said, well, there you go then."
Challenging these assumptions made, in general, by the people who do hold more privilege, is important – whether it's the assumption that in the future, everyone is white, whether it's the assumption that our sisterhood shares the same experience or whether it's the assumption that writers of colour or Caribbean writers should only write about those particular topics. Every time these assumptions are challenged leads to more diverse media for us to consume and that is a good thing. Regarding the latter, Stephanie has made it somewhat of a mission to try and overturn the presumption that she and other Caribbean writers should only want to discuss the diaspora of slavery. "When you're in the stage of integration where you're trying to break through, the first generation of breakthroughs will be the ones that point at their own cultural experience and display it to the dominant culture so the dominant culture gets to say, oh look! Look at the experience of these people! They're people like us! Those books become celebrated books. I sound snarky but I'm not – it's a natural, logical part of that evolution. But as it continues, its logical end point when you are completely normalised is the point where there is no longer a constraint on the breadth of your interest or ambition, and in fact I suspect there never was. It's just that you're no longer only going to get a publishing contract by writing a heartwarming story about pulling yourself out of the ghettoes of Trench Town."
And long may this evolution continue. When musing upon her favourite books, Stephanie said, "I think the best books have a speculative element to them", and, in my view, Stephanie's novels have taken their place amongst them.
Stephanie is currently working on book 3 of the ®Evolution trilogy 'Regeneration', which will be out in April 2015.
This is an edited version of the full-length interview with Stephanie that will appear in the 2013-2014 Holdfast Magazine Anthology.