When you don't look like a science fiction writer

I've been told I don't look like a science fiction writer. Some wield this as an insult and others as a compliment. 

This comment has manifested itself in many forms. I had a well-established author say bluntly, "don't write science fiction" with no other explanation. I've had men smile at me with some amusement when I told them I was writing character-driven science fiction, the silent implication being that emotion and hard sci-fi can't exist in harmony in a male-driven genre.

When someone says I don't look like a science fiction writer, this is what I really hear:

  • You're too normal to write about aliens!
  • Wait, aren't you terrible at math and wasn't the last science class you took archaeology? Ok, well, you got me on both counts.
  • You're not nerdy enough for this genre, back off! Can't you leave us just this one thing and go back to lifting weights and whatever non-nerdy things you do in your spare time? 

There's some truth to all of these comments. I don't exactly tip the eccentricity scale. I own a pair of space leggings but who doesn't? My favorite movie is the Matrix, but that's about as exciting as saying that I love glazed donuts.

I saw Blade Runner long, long after it was cool. I didn't start watching Star Trek until my early twenties. Hell, I didn't even know who Isaac Asimov was until college.

So yes, I definitely face imposter syndrome everyday because of the late start I got on immersing myself in all things sci-fi. I don't have any scientific expertise and my research started with reading Carl Sagan books and watching Cosmos on Netflix. Super official research, yo.

I'm okay with being the misfit, though. I've created my own niche within a niche. It took me a while to realize that immigrant issues were often addressed so obliquely in science fiction that only someone looking for them would find them. Science fiction almost never occurs in line with real-time news, partially because science fiction by its very nature is future-oriented, or is bent on retelling the past through a futuristic lens. But I like to reimagine new technology and new societal structures in the context of ethnic conflict happening right now, disasters we've already faced or are about to face. I think technology could be the key to shaping the legal, social, and linguistic identity of displaced people, to housing and feeding them, and to assisting them with everything from health-related crises to learning the languages of their host countries. There are too many white, Western dudes running around with all the cool sci-fi, hogging all of the potential technology. It's time for the people you'd least expect to get in on the action--the Karen tribe coming from the Burmese rainforest, or the Nepalese who have never lived outside of a camp. 

I don't look like a science fiction writer, but there's a workaround for every pigeonhole and stereotype. Refugees and mind-melds? Cyborg migrant workers? Illegal aliens (literally)? Done.

In the next episode of "you don't look like," we'll address drinking coffee out of garages in South Philly while wearing plaid and how that definitely, categorically, does not make me a hipster...