A gathering of past, present, and future WorldCon chairs. Some people have noted some issues with this picture.
A gathering of past, present, and future WorldCon chairs. Some people have noted some issues with this picture.

The recent flurry of activity around the #DiversityinSFF hashtag has involved discussions about the current state of the science fiction/fantasy genre, where it’s deficient in making space for diverse (non-white, non-straight, non-western, non-male, non-cisgendered, non-ablebodied) voices to be heard, where those voices can be found, and what should be done in the future to make the genre more inclusive and welcoming, and less tolerant of some of the amazing bigotry that’s popped up a number of times recently.

But this is a conversation with a much longer history and with ties to long historical processes of sexism/racism/ableism/classism/heteronormativity. It’s all been a problem for SFF for a long time now. And I believe one particular flavor of it actually has ties to elements of digital dualist thinking, albeit working in a different direction than most of the other settings in which it can be observed. Or rather, the cultural conventions that have helped to produce digital dualism and which help it persist.

Digital dualism, as we’ve defined it, simply draws sharp, binary distinctions between the digital and the physical (which are themselves somewhat problematic categories). How we usually see it manifesting is in things like the “IRL fetish”, and associated assumptions about the unreality of the digital and the reality of the physical, assumptions that carry with them massively powerful value judgments regarding what’s desirable and legitimate.

We’ve also established that digital dualism isn’t merely a problematic approach to an understanding of lived reality and human experience but is also one that helps to prop up existing social inequalities, making positive change more difficult.

Moving back to SFF.

One of the primary ways in which we can see conservative, anti-diversity voices explicitly speaking out against increased inclusiveness in the genre – in science fiction in particular – is in the pronouncements that women can’t write good SF because they’re bad at science and technology and they get all their messy ladyfeelings in it. People – not small names, either – have claimed that women are “feminizing” and therefore degrading the quality of science fiction by introducing emotional and romantic elements, regardless of how rigorous their science is (the pro SFF magazine Lightspeed has recently announced an (ironic) “Women Destroying Science Fiction” special issue).

One of the things that’s going on here is sexist cultural conventions being produced and reproduced regarding women being bad at science, the devaluing of “feminine” things like emotion and relationships, which are being bolstered and which are bolstering our assumptions about technology as somehow disconnected from the reality of those things. Relationships begun and maintained via social media aren’t “real”. Emotion elicited and transferred via digital technology isn’t “real”. There are feelings and relationships and humanity and interiority, and then there’s technology.

The difference is that in sexist claims about what SF should be, it’s the emotions and the relationships that are being devalued, that are being called less real, less legitimate, less desirable. However, all spring from the same sources: humans are humans, technology is technology, and never the twain shall meet.

As participants in the #DiversityinSFF conversation noted repeatedly, this isn’t just about injustice in and of itself, but also – by extension – the health of the genre. Writers and publishers trapped in false dualisms will necessarily suffer from poverty of the imagination. Stories will become stale and unchallenging. A greater diversity in writers and characters means a greater diversity in the kinds of stories that can be told, something that can only make a genre healthier and more vital.

The same is true of what digital dualist thinking does for how we as imaginative beings approach reality in general. Binaries and dualisms restrict not only fiction that we write and publish but also narratives that we construct as part of our daily lives. They not only help to maintain harmful social processes but also preclude imaginings of what change might look like and how it might be attained.

One of the things I love most about SFF – in large part why I assign it in my introductory sociology courses – is the intrinsically revolutionary power of speculation. When we imagine new worlds, those worlds begin to seem possible, even if only remotely. But that only works if we’re willing to truly imagine differently. And that can only happen when we allow different stories to be told.