Jump to content

Hard Science Fiction Is Still Overwhelmingly White—But It’s Getting Better

Recommended Posts


I was in seventh grade when I picked up The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, and my strongest memory of the book is showing my classmate some inventive swear words in the dialog and giggling about it. I’d been reading science fiction for over two years at that point, but Crichton was my introduction to the sci-fi thriller subgenre. I discovered a love for stories with suspense and high action. Fast forward about three decades, and my first novel fits that same profile. While looking for comp titles (i.e. books with a similar style and theme), I noticed something that’s followed me for much of my life: the best known authors of science fiction thrillers are white men.

I didn’t start my adult life as a writer. First, I wanted to be a scientist. I went to Caltech to major in astrophysics, got sideswiped by computational neuroscience, and ended up working in electrical and computer engineering. From the moment I set foot on the Caltech campus, to the most recent tech job I held, I found myself and my fellow female engineers vastly outnumbered by our male cohort. Over almost 25 years in the industry, I have not seen these ratios improve. If anything, they’re getting worse.

The same phenomenon appears in so-called “hard science fiction,” which is another label that people attach to Michael Crichton’s novels. This subgenre encompasses stories whose speculative science and technology elements do not put a strain on credibility. (In contrast, see any fiction involving faster-than-light spacecraft, anti-gravity, or time travel.) Here, too, is a domain whose bestsellers are dominated by white men.

We live in the year 2021, and yet we persist in associating certain jobs—and certain types of stories—with specific groups of people. Engineers are Asian; startup CEOs are white. School teachers are women, and academics are men. Unfortunately, many times the statistics bear these out in reality, too. Why do we struggle to break free of these narratives and associations? Because we have so few counterexamples that are publicized. It’s not that they don’t exist, but they do not permeate our popular consciousness. It takes effort to overcome these associations, whether you fit in the stereotyped demographic or not. Without that struggle, the associations become self-fulling prophecies.

I will pause here to note that in all three of these fields—thrillers, hard SF, and engineering—I can list numerous counter examples of excellence. When I say “dominant,” what I really mean are the name that are most commonly associated with these fields. For example, if I Google “science fiction thriller novels,” the first books that come up are The Martian by Andy Weir, The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan, and then Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. If I search for “techno thriller novels,” I get Michael Crichton (he’s inescapable), Tom Clancy, and Dan Brown. Considering that the original modern science fiction novel—a thriller no less!—was written by Mary Shelley, what happened in the intervening two hundred years such that you cannot find a single female-authored book in the recent popular works of this subgenre?

I have some theories, and they tie back to my experience as an engineer. As a society (especially in the USA) we have broadcast a message that science, technology, action, and detective work—the bread and butter of a science fiction thriller—are best handled by the males of our species. Even the venerable Dr. Frankenstein, although written by a woman, was himself a man. Women have been excluded from or had their contributions erased from STEM fields, the military, and law enforcement. The same can be said of Black, Indigeneous, and other people of color. Great contributions of the past have been swept under the rug of selective memory. When it comes to the thrillers we write, they are often categorized as something else—literary fiction, mysteries, or social commentary. We have to bloody our knuckles as we smash assumptions about the skills we have and the stories we can tell.

Back in August of 2015, there was brief movement on social media tagged with #ILookLikeAnEngineer. It happened as a reaction to a recruiting ad that featured a photo of an attractive young female engineer. Her legitimacy was questioned by people who didn’t think she looked like the kind of person who wrote code (spoiler: she wrote a lot of code). If you see a book written by someone named Linda, Malka, Annalee, or S. L. Huang, you might not expect to see a hard science fiction thriller between the covers, but that’s exactly what you’d find: The Bohr Maker by Linda Nagata, Infomocracy by Malka Older, Autonomous by Annalee Newitz, and Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang.

So what can we do to address this? For starters, if you’re a consumer and a fan of science fiction thrillers, you can seek out new authors, especially those who might not fit the profile of your old favorites. I would also ask you to consider novels described as “suspenseful”, “exciting”, “thrilling”, or “adventurous,” even if they aren’t specifically categorized as thrillers. In addition to the books mentioned above, here are some other recommendations: Red Dust by Yoss, The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson, and Rosewater and by Tade Thompson.

The USA has started to make an effort to bring more girls, BIPOC, and others outside the cis-white-male category into math, science, law enforcement, and the military. Mounting evidence shows that diversifying our workforce leads to improved outcomes. We’re starting to see better representation of action heroes (the new 007) and tech geeks (Hidden Figures) in popular fiction, too, but we have a ways to go before we overcome that instinctive assumption of who does what. As the tide turns, I hope that one day, we’ll see authors from these demographics, as well as those who are nonbinary, multiracial, disabled, and queer, break into the ranks of bestselling thrillers. I hope that one day, a kid in seventh grade will pick up a well-known book by someone like me and snicker at the swear words in it.



View the full article

Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Replies 0
  • Created
  • Last Reply

Top Posters In This Topic

Popular Days

Top Posters In This Topic

Popular Days

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.



WTF is Wrong With Stephen King?

  • Create New...