The Missing Voices of Science Fiction?

Author N.K. Jemisin asks what should science fiction sound like?

A short story of mine, “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters”, was published in the UK anthology Postscripts a few months back. I’ve sold the audio rights to Podcastle, which is going to run the story sometime soon — and I’m glad for this, because it’s one of my favorites. See, this story is set in New Orleans

. . .

Tookie [the story’s hero] talks like a young, poorly-educated black man from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. He conjugates the verb “to be” in ways that will send any composition teacher into conniptions; he says the n-word; he curses like a sailor; and he’s not stupid by any stretch. I’m not usually a fan of writing “in the vernacular”, but this story is one of my attempts to do so, and I don’t know that I did it right. I only lived in NOLA for 4 years — grew up in a completely different part of the South, with a different accent — and I didn’t spend a lot of time in the Ninth Ward. But that was long enough for me to notice that Ninth Ward-dwellers have their own unique accent among the multiple accents of New Orleans — and yeah, I said multiple. Folks who’ve never lived in the South tend to think there’s only one Southern accent, but I’ve heard dozens. Anyway, any defects in the rendering of the accent are my fault, thanks to the failure of my ear and memory.

But there’s another problem with rendering this story into audio: Podcastle apparently has no black male readers.

. . .

We need realistic representation at all levels — we need to see it, sure, but we also need to hear it. And I’m not talking just about my story here, or just stories featuring black male characters. Where the race of the character isn’t specified, we should be hearing non-white voices as often as we do white ones. If it really doesn’t matter, why not? We should be hearing English speakers with non-English accents, and Southerners whether the story demands “Southernese” or not, and Midwesterners, and Alaskans. We need to hear more people who talk like members of the lower class of whichever culture they come from, and people who talk in all the various creole mishmashes that exist. Because that’s what society is like, dammit. We don’t all speak BBC English and we don’t all sound like actors in a Hollywood blockbuster.* SFF needs to reflect who we are, as well as who we want to be.

So. The folks at Podcastle are on this. They were trying to solve the problem before I even knew it was a problem, which is one of the reasons why I keep sending them stories. They put out a call for readers of color a few months back, specifically because of my story. (!) But the results have been… well, not good. To put it bluntly, they got a number of white men offering to read for Tookie, which is awkward to say the least.

So I’ve decided to help them out by adding to the call. I care less about the accuracy of the accent than I do about the accuracy of the identity; black and male and Southern foremost among the other facets of who Tookie is. Now, I’ve actually read this story myself, at NYRSF last year, and did a passable-enough rendering that I think I can endure hearing a woman’s voice instead of a man’s, if it’s done right. I know a few good black female VAs (and the latter is a kickass audio producer). But there has to be a black man out there somewhere who can do this.

And even if it’s too late to solve this problem for my story — cf the rest of this post. There’s still a need — for my story, for all stories. The folks at Podcastle don’t pay, alas, but they can loan you the microphone and walk you through the basics of using audio recording software. They helped me do it, and they can help you. So please — help them.


14 thoughts on “The Missing Voices of Science Fiction?

  1. Ever seen the movie Tropic Thunder? Remember how Robert Downey Jnr’s Caucasian character played a black man? Is it therefore conceivable that a white person can voice the part of a black person by using this amazing new thing called “acting”? You would be astounded at how some people can actually make themselves sound completely different.

    1. Paul…

      First of all, it is simply rude to imply that the authors (Lavie Tidhar and NK Jemisin) don’t know about “acting” and what that craft does. Second of all, this isn’t about the talent or ability of some actor to create a character, but about equal job opportunities.
      Finally, Robert Downey’s character in the mentioned movie was a caricature.

  2. @Paul,

    The point of that character in Tropic Thunder was that despite his belief in authenticity, what he accomplished was pastiche. It wasn’t a brilliant portrayal of a black man by a white man, it was a caricature portrayal by a white man. And the film makes fun of it for those reasons, and it isn’t even funny if it’s treated as a realistic performance. I think you also miss something if you don’t recognize the lampooning of Hollywood implicit in the character — why do we need a really good impersonation of a black man by a white man? Why can’t we just. . . get a black man, for example?

    I’m actually surprised that a suggestion like Jemisin’s should have raised any eyebrows in the first place. Are you really bothered by the idea that we need diversity in readers? If for no other reason, it would help us avoid mishaps like this —

    SF is bigger than white males. Its presentation should reflect that.



  3. I’ve had to wrestle with a version of this myself in podcasts of my stories. And sure, I wish there were more readers out there who, say, knew how to pronounce Arabic names properly (regardless of the specificity of a pronunciation guide and the skill of a reader, there are certain sounds that one’s tongue needs to be used to making.

    But I did find this sentence slightly troubling: “I care less about the accuracy of the accent than I do about the accuracy of the identity; black and male and Southern foremost among the other facets of who Tookie is.” I genuinely didn’t get this when the anxiety expressed was about getting an accent right. Especially if the author is themselves doing a sort of cultural ventriloquism via dialect in the original story. Say your choice was between a poor New Orleans white guy and a bougie Black guy from Raleigh. Is the North Carolinian *really* going to be able to do the job specified here ‘more authentically?’ OTOH, American culture loves nothing so much as an ‘authentic’ white guy who supposedly ‘grew up around Black people’ and is therefore supposedly not minstreling when he ‘talks Black.’ So genuine conundrums here – conundrums which will only grow more relevant as audio fiction becomes a bigger and bigger market.

    1. Agreed — on all points actually. I also am unsure how much genuine “acting” I want in the reading of what is designed to be prose fiction. Should audio fiction read like a radio play, or should the voice disappear so I can interpret it as I do text I read to myself?

      One salient point is that sometimes, which are not easily definable and not something I can lay down in rules, a white reader can be distracting. If I find myself thinking about the ethnicity of the reader (which I will undoubtedly do if I hear a white reader break into Southern black American accent, regardless of how authentic the accent), I have suddenly begun to pay attention to something other than the story.

      I think the other point is that of a cultural bias toward male readers with accents that closely resemble the newscaster Midwestern accent. Anything too alternately regional (or female) tends to get pushed aside. You can see this happening especially if you listen to the narration in movie trailers, where the narrators are all white males of a certain age.

      Regardless, there are some good things to come from mixing up the reader demographics, and I can’t think of anything bad that might come of it.

    2. Yeah, I’m with Ciro–I tend to view it as someone reading to me (the author, amusingly enough), and I think I’d only break out of the “listening trance” when the dialogue started to sound wrong (but how much of it would be wrong? There’s usually more than one gender and one race/class speaking in a story, and you can’t possibly nail them all with a single reader).
      I’m really weird in that it doesn’t strongly matter to me whether the reader for my stories is male or female, even if the POV is the opposite gender. Like Saladin, I tend to be more bugged out by wrong linguistics than by gender.

    3. I was also troubled by that sentence. Let’s not forget that this is a story written by a bougie black woman. She’s undoubtedly done her best to make a working class Louisiana man’s voice authentic, but if we’re being purist about this, the story itself is an act of cultural appropriation.

      Mind you, I’m all for respectful cultural appropriation. That’s how civilization advances.

  4. No what is rude is to say because no black voice over artists signed up the opportunity must be denied to those who do want the job. I use black voice over artists all the time (most of them male) they are out there and they are very good at what they do.

    And yeah I get that RDJnr in Tropic Thunder was a joke. This PC gone mad blog post is also a joke right?

    1. Sir, you are commenting on a blog devoted to a global perspective on SF — objecting to the “PC” nature of the content is a bit perverse, considering, and a waste of your time. Besides, while I’m sure you have an opinion, I can’t imagine it is so thoroughly informed that you can be absolutely sure that there is not in fact a point to the discussion.

      It doesn’t matter to you. Fine. If that’s the case, though, you’re better off simply listening to the people to whom it DOES matter than insisting that it’s a non-issue.

  5. While the Escape Artists podcasts pay their authors, the big catch is that they don’t pay their readers, relying on volunteers or the editors for the readings. So the lack of diversity in the narration reflects the limitations of the editors’ social networks and probably of fandom in general.

  6. I appreciate the effort, but this post still rubbed me the wrong way.

    I think this is a general trend in the Anglosphere: many magazines – and especially genre magazines – expect people to work for peanuts… or, in this case, not even peanuts! One can only afford to do that if one is alredy well-off to begin with. No surprise most readers end up being from privileged groups if the magazine doesn’t pay readers.

  7. Personally, as someone who likes to listen to stories, I think this is a more than reasonable request and ultimately something that could improve the quality of stories. Exactly why the comments have turned into “Won’t somebody think of the White People?!” is beyond me.

    1. Huh? I thought the comments turned into “Why not get someone whose accent is accurate?” I dunno about you, but I think verisimilitude is important.

      The alternative is to simply have a reader, like the author, who is reading rather than acting, so we don’t expect the accent to be right.

      But why having a black guy whose accent is wrong would be better than having any man or woman whose accent is right, I just don’t get.

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