Science fiction and fantasy is a genre that effectively shows the difference between ourselves and the Other. From the alien slums in District 9 to the critique of colonialism within an HG Wells novel, the genre's disregard for reality allows cultural thought experiments to run wild. This is particularly noticeable in films such as Children of Men, where the extremities of far-right politics with regard to immigration are brought to brutal conclusions. In revealing these unusual settings to a reader or viewer, the genre is well-suited to showing displays of acceptance, too. It's perfectly placed to help us question our attitudes to minorities, or communities who face discrimination, in a way that realism can't always achieve.
Like so many parts of our culture, the genre was - decades ago - dominated by straight white males. Audiences are now comfortable with characters such as Captain Jack Harkness, in Torchwood, who I think it's safe to say doesn't fit into the straight male category. Likewise, black characters and women now feature equally on film posters; we have balance. We've come a long way in representing certain communities, and this may be as much the influence of culture on science fiction as it is the other way around.
Now, online communities are becoming acutely sensitive to writers who populate their novels solely with straight white males, or novels where women exist simply as plot devices to further the aims of said straight white males (usually to give them someone to rescue). There was a recent controversy when a SF fan poll only included a small percentage of women writers. Related to this, SF novelist and critic John Scalzi points out that many films still fail the Bechdel test on whether or not films do right by their female characters. The quick-fire culture of science fiction and fantasy fandom has seen that such debates will be aired, and that blindness to equality will not go unpunished. Even publishers do not escape the issues: for example when they're caught whitewashing novel covers.These discussions force those who create art and entertainment to think actively about what they're doing, and that can only be a good thing for everyone.
But what about issues such as transgenderism? This issue appears to be one of the last taboos in genre culture - indeed, in any kind of fiction. It's the Other that all genres continue to ignore. As an author of SF and Fantasy fiction, I'm aware of the gap on bookshelves with respect to transgender characters. Recently I thought I'd attempt to address this by writing about a transgender character. I started to learn a lot about that community: how they are discriminated against, perhaps more than any other minority; of the prejudice against them that spreads in everyday conversation, even by people who consider themselves tolerant. I learned that an incredible number of transgender people get murdered each year simply because of who they are, and I began to see the immense difficulties someone must face when transitioning. From a creative perspective it was interesting, but it also made me sensitive to the concerns of the transgender community. The Other became familiar to me, but when putting this subject in a fantasy novel - in a world populated by a wealth of races and creatures - an absurdity became clear: how could a transwoman seem unusual with so much exoticism surrounding her? In such a context, Other suddenly became utterly... normal.
A question occurred to me, then: do writers, artists or filmmakers who dabble in genre possess a sense of duty to go beyond the status quo? Should they use this wildly exotic and creative medium to address the issue of the Other even more? There are still an incredible number of deeply conservative films and novels out there, despite the freedom of imagination. What is the excuse for not including women, ethnic minorities, transgendered characters in lead roles? The fact that a writer can do anything in the science fiction and fantasy genre - that they can set their novels in any kind of culture - only highlights this awkwardness when a straight white male takes the lead. When we can have weird creatures living side by side in our fictional cities, a human representative of a minority really shouldn't be a big deal.
So despite having come a long way towards representing more interest groups and being more equal, there is still a lot of work to do - the graft is up to the writers, artists and filmmakers. A staggering number of people now accept science fiction and fantasy as mainstream; as reported in the Wall Street Journal recently, literary writers are eyeing up the genre as fertile territory for their own imaginations (and bank accounts). It may be too bold to conclude that the genre has reached a powerful critical mass, but it has certainly never been more important. If more creative talents can embrace these notions of the Other and minorities, which lies at the heart of the genre, then it will help bring the concept of tolerance to a vast audience. I'm probably not alone in thinking that's a good thing.
Follow Mark Newton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@MarkCN