When it comes to the subject of race, science fiction has something of a split personality. At its core, it’s a genre that’s all about challenging accepted social orders. Subjects such as racism and prejudice were common place in sci-fi long before the mainstream managed to cough up the guts to address these issues. Yet at the same time, this very same genre has been plagued for decades with self-imposed whitewashing. Put simply, publishers don’t trust that educated, intelligent readers will buy a book featuring a person of color on the cover.
Recently, this was brought to the forefront by author Elaine Cunningham when a post on her blog went viral. As Cunningham tells it, she had been reading Heart of Stone, “…a well written, entertaining urban fantasy novel with a gorgeous cover. The protagonist is depicted on this cover, but I was several chapters in before I realized she was black.” One good look at this book (pictured above), and it becomes exceedingly clear why Cunningham assumed the hero was anything but black. You can read the full article here: [LINK]
Sure, Cunningham’s article was specifically about the fantasy genre, but it got me thinking. Over the decades has science fictions faired any better?
In terms of actual content there’s no argument. Sci-fi has been railing against race and class discrimination as far back as H.G. Wells—maybe even Mary Shelley, if you agree with certain interpretations of Frankenstein. Ever since the New Wave of the 1960’s showcasing a wide array of cultures and heritages is something of a norm for much of sci-fi. A quick glance at my own library—Harlan Ellison, Jeff Noon, Octavia Butler, William Gibson, Samuel R. Delany, Neal Stephenson, Richard Morgan—my shelves are brimming with futurist tales alive with a vivid palette of characters. Except there’s a problem…
Not one of these titles actually shows a person of color on the cover.
That’s right. Twenty some years of reading science fiction and I don’t own a single book with a person of color on the cover. Sure, Johnny Rico, the hero of Robert Heinlein’s classic Starship Troopers, may be Filipino. But take a good look at how he’s portrayed on the cover. Yeah…yeah…sure, this can be blamed on being a film tie-in. Yeah, you know, the 1997 Starship Troopers film where Hollywood decided to cast a blue-eye, blond guy in the role of a pacific islander. But even the book’s cover prior to the film’s release was race-ambiguous at best.
Then of course, there’s the biggest offender of my collection—Emily Devenport’s Larissa, published by RoC Books. In the novel our hero is described as a well-muscled black woman with large breasts and a shaved head. Oh, and by the way, she’s a professional knife fighter living in the slums of a high-tech alien city. And the cover art?
Yeah. A Victoria Secrets model sporting discount Conan gear. The racism here is obvious, sure. But it’s the deeper implications that trouble me. RoC Books didn’t choose this cover because they’re a pack of ignorant racists. No, Larissa got this cover because RoC assumed we, the book buying public, are a pack of ignorant racists.
When W.E.B. Dubois’ The Comet was first published in 1920, this assumption made perfect sense. An apocalyptic tale about a black man and white woman forced together by circumstance and eventually falling in love? Pretty heady stuff considering slavery had been abolished only fifty-five years prior. Yet here we are in 2013 and the current edition of The Comet still does not feature Jim Davis (the story’s black protagonist) on its cover. Yes, nearly a century has come and gone and publishers still think we wouldn’t read The Comet if we know it’s about a black guy.
The question is: Are they right?
In terms of The Hunger Games, maybe so. Suzanne Collins’ YA novel about a society that forces its children into gladiatorial combat is, without a doubt, the biggest success story in sci-fi lit of last the decade. But with this success has come two ugly realizations, the first being that a lot of Americans have the reading comprehension skills of a brain dead jellyfish. The second? Those same people are also a bunch of racist assholes. And no, I don’t believe that’s a coincidence.
In The Hunger Games the character of Rue is described as having “dark brown skin and eyes” and is from a district specified as being predominantly black. Yet, when this was accurately portrayed in The Hunger Games film, fans across the country flooded twitter with comments such as:
“Why is Rue a little black girl? Stick to the book dude!”
“…why Rue is going to be a little black girl in the movie I pictured her white.”
“Kk call me racist but when I found out Rue was black her death wasn’t as sad.”
“Rue shouldn’t be black, like a younger version of the girl from the hungry bones.”
“Some ugly little black girl with nappy add hair. Pissed me off. She was supposed to be cute.”
The truly disturbing part is that these comments were made by people who had read the book. By way of prejudice and poor reading skills, these readers whitewashed the author’s own words. As a published author myself I’ve encountered similar situations. It never fails to amazing me how often readers will look right past what’s printed on the page and imagine a narrative that’s more agreeable to them. Which begs the question: would The Hunger Games have been a hit if its cover had been something akin to the one pictured right?
Ultimately, we don’t know.
Amazingly, for all the claims made by publishers that colored faces hurt book sales, none of them have bothered to collect hard data on the subject. To this day, all the evidence is purely anecdotal. And unfortunately, since so few sci-fi novels actually have people of color gracing the cover art, even if the research was done, it would hardly be conclusive.
Despite the ugliness surrounding the The Hunger Games, in recent years there has been progress made. For instance, prominently featuring black characters on the cover of Lauren Beukes’ cyberpunk novel, Zoo City, did not deter the book from receiving critical acclaim, or achieving bestseller status. Likewise, many publishers now are choosing to abandon whitewashed cover art when an older titles go into reprints. So even though my copy of Octavia Butler’s Dawn presents the hero as looking like Ripley from Alien, anyone who buys the novel now won’t enter the story with an erroneous image of Sigourney Weaver in their minds. Click here to take a look for yourself.
I wish I could say I’ve always been aware of the whitewashing issue, and that this article was born out of a life long disgust for the way non-whites are portrayed in sci-fi cover art. The truth is, though, the issue had to hit close to home for me to take notice. Then again, isn’t that the point of whitewashing? Out of sight, out of mind. Keeping people of color invisible to the American consciousness. Unless you’re truly sensitive to the issues, are you really going to notice the artwork for Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash is tailored to ensure readers have no idea the protagonist is actually Japanese? That is until they crack open the book, of course. And there are countless examples like Snow Crash. For this article, though, I primarily focused on the most grievous offenses—artwork that intentionally misrepresents non-white characters as being fair skinned Caucasians.
So how did whitewashing hit close to home? Later this year I have a novella coming out. Entitled OBJECTIVE: Terminus, it’s a futurist tale about Walter Titus, a Baltimore teen whose world is torn apart when American descends into second civil war. Through the story we follow Titus as he goes from a being a corner kid, to a refugee, to a commando fighting behind enemy lines. Naturally, I wanted our hero to appear in the cover art (pictured below), and as you can see, he is. And guess what? Soon as drafts of the cover began to circulate I started to hear rumblings about how the art might hamper the book’s overall sales. Then I posted a preview shot of Terminus on Facebook. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but a number of my hardcore fans went silent. Strange, considering fans tend to go nuts over preview art. Then I read Cunningham’s article and everything clicked.
Will OBJECTIVE: Terminus lose some sales due to the cover I chose? Probably. But fuck it. The cover stays. I’m the author. It’s how I want my story represented. And more to the point, the only way were going to move beyond this racist double standard garbage is to normalize the idea of non-whites appearing on book covers. When Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek back in 1966 he knew the studio would limit to what degree he could portray minorities on the show. But he didn’t let it stop him. He pushed the issue as far as he could, knowing that just by continually showing a future where ANYONE could be a Star Fleet officer, it would normalize the idea of minorities in positions of authority. And twenty-seven years later Roddenberry’s efforts paid off when Ben Sisco, a black man, helmed Deep Space Nine.
Sometimes it’s not about money or selling an extra thousand copies or two. Sometimes it’s about doing what’s right.