Cultural Diversity in Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Image By Rebecca Angel

I belong to a fantasy/science fiction book club. It’s a little group and we meet in a tea shop. Our book selections bring about a variety of discussions, but none were as deep and challenging as Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred. It is a historical fiction novel about slavery, with time travel. The main character is an African-American woman married to a white man in 1976. She is suddenly, and without explanation, wrenched back in time to antebellum Maryland, where she saves the life of a young white boy. She returns to her own time, but this happens again and again, with her husband even coming back with her. It’s an intense novel describing the horrors and complicated relationships of slavery through the eyes of a twentieth-century black woman.

Image By Abrams

Our discussion was plenty about the book itself, but then trailed into a heartfelt discussion about slavery in America and race issues today, which then brought us to the literary topic of cultural diversity in our favorite genres. Octavia E. Butler is a well-known and lauded science-fiction author. She happens to be African-American and a woman—a standout for awards and notoriety in speculative fiction. Kindred was written forty years ago (although there is a new graphic novel version). I wondered about now. Although it’s important to have authors from a variety of nationalities, I was really looking for main characters in a story. I assumed there were more books with protagonists from diverse backgrounds in race and culture than there were decades ago. Or were there?

There are more, I’m happy to say. Just looking at my ‘To-Read” bookshelf brought up several to share with you with main characters of Bangladeshi Muslim-American, Taiwanese, and Chiricahua Native American. Kindred is an upper YA to Adult. Want and Arrow of Lightning are YA, and The Gauntlet is grade school. Adventure, romance, dystopian futures, and magic abound in these novels. When it’s a good story, it doesn’t matter what the main character looks like; the reader is brought along for a fun ride.

The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi takes readers on a action-packed gaming adventure. Farah Mirzah is from a family of gamers, so when she and her two friends see a board game on her bed, she assumes it’s a birthday present from her aunt. Unfortunately it is a trick by the board game The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand itself to find new players, sucking them into a strange life-size mechanical Middle-Eastern world of puzzles and games and trapped former players. Farah’s younger brother jumps into the game before they can close the box, and the only way to save him is to jump in themselves, playing against the Architect, who cheats at his own games! It’s steampunk Jumanji  with a plucky Muslim American girl leading the way.  

There is one part where she judges someone by their looks and is immediately ashamed, “‘Practical’ didn’t mean ‘suspicious.’ “Pragmatic’ didn’t mean looking at someone and assuming that they were a foe before they were a friend. That was what had happened to her, back home, back where her scarf and her skin weren’t so common, and her name was decidedly not an English one.” I don’t want a book where the differences in the characters are the plot. That one section is a rare break from the action of the book, but an important point for our heroine. Most of the plot is about escaping the game and trusting your friends and instincts. Yes, Farah wears a hijab (the scarf many Muslim women wear around the heads), but besides having to adjust it when there’s a storm, it’s not a big deal. That said, I didn’t mind the description of Bagladeshi sweets: “….bright yellow laddoos, both the grainy kind made of chickpea flour and the crunchy ones made of friend boondi bites. Pretty pink chumchum sandwiches with their sugar and coconut coatings enveloping a thick, luscious cream center…” These descriptions aren’t just world-building, but come in handy for one of the puzzles later in the tense game. Even though it is targeted for a younger audience, junior high readers will enjoy The Gauntlet too.

Want by Cindy Pon caught my attention with its strong cover-art of a beautiful and serious Asian boy in an astronaut helmet. Turns out the helmet is not for outer space travel but to protect the wearer from the pollution on Earth. The story is set in a dystopian, but all-too-real future of such terrible toxins in the air, ground, and water that complete body protection is needed to survive past adulthood. The Jin Corporation in Taipei has created special suits for only the wealthiest of the world’s inhabitants, leaving the rest to rot.

Jason Zhou is not wealthy. He became an orphan at an early age when his mother succumbed to a disease that should have been easy to treat in a fairer world. Learning to live on the streets of Taipei, he met and became part of a family of friends also struggling to survive. Now an older teen, he and his friends are frustrated with the all-too-short lives of the people around them, and figure out a way to take down the Jin Corporation. If the wealthiest have to live without their special suits, maybe they will open their eyes to the destruction of the Earth around them.

Zhou transforms himself and infiltrates the upperclass world. Unfortunately, the deeper he goes in, the more his black and white opinions become grey, and he can’t stop himself from caring about the daughter of the bad guy. His friends, his beloved city and suffering people, and the whole world are counting on him to stick to the plan. How will he be true to everything, including himself? You’ll have to read it to find out.

Zhou is a great character. He is real and struggling. He makes mistakes, but always tries his best. The devotion to his street family is real, but so are his feelings for Daiyu, the next in line for the Jin Corporation. Cindy Pon obviously loves the city of Taipei, which comes alive as another character in this book. The environmental message is obvious without being blatant. There are intense action sequences in this novel, but a fine balance with introspective thoughts by the main character dealing with an unfair world. Highly recommend.

Arrow of Lightning by Joseph Bruchac is the final installment of the Killer of Enemies series. I reviewed the first two books here and here. This is the story of teenage Lozen, a super talented fighter in a strange and crazy future where electricity is gone and giant mutant creatures prowl, fly, and explode from the healing Earth. The trilogy started with Lozen and her remaining family in a fortress where four insane overlords kept the other inhabitants prisoners. In exchange for her family not being tortured, Lozen is sent out to kill the mutant creatures that live near the fortress. She is alone in protecting her family. As the series progressed, she met and created allies, friends, and finally opened herself to accepting help from others. She learned that killing takes its toll, no matter how bad the person was or if they deserved it. At the start of this third book, she has taken a vow not to murder another human; it is not worth the cost to her soul.

What I truly like this series is how it doesn’t stick to the same old story. This is especially interesting since a good portion of the books are retellings of native stories. Let me list them here: She is a Native American, and that’s not the main plot point. Her mother is alive and a strong older female influence. Lozen is a kick-ass heroine, and yes, she has super-powers, but she is not the only female fighter. She finds love, and he is a devout Muslim and strong fighter, but has no problem being second in command. And my favorite difference from so many novels: Trusting your community is more important than being a hero.

The ending is satisfying without compromising the important themes. Bruchac throws in some plot twists that I enjoyed, and although Lozen certainly has major character growth, she retains her amusingly prickly personality that is easily teased by other people in the book. I recommend the entire series. 

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KindredWantArrow of Lightning, and The Gauntlet are fantasy and science fiction stories that happen to have characters of non-European-descent. I enjoyed all the books and encourage you to check them out, bringing diversity and fun into your reading life.

GeekMom received copies for review purposes.

Rebecca Angel was one of those kids that put the dragon book on top of her pile in the hopes that someone would say, "Hey, I'm into that stuff too!" Alas, she had to wait until she was an adult to find fellow geeks. Luckily, she married one and their kids are too. A music teacher by day, Rebecca is also a lover of tea, science literacy, funky tights, RPGs, anime, manga, comics, fantasy books and movies.