What’s the Trouble With Selfies? Speculative Fiction and the Mirror Effect

The Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year is “selfie.” If you’ve been living, er, in Tokyo with not a lot of time spent on social media, you may be surprised to learn that this is a current slang term for “self-portrait photograph.” Supposedly it originated in Australia. We did need a word for this though: who hasn’t taken a selfie at some point? I sure have, when trying to get a good author picture. Moral of the story, some things are worth paying a professional for.

My selfies were worthless, both as photographs and as portraits. They neither looked attractive nor did they look much like me. Let’s face it, this is true for most people, no matter how beautiful they may be in real life. Just think of all those pouting, lens-distorted pics that celebrities for some reason see fit to tweet to their followers.

lucian freud self-portraitThe principle here is a familiar one. The harder you try to look good the worse you will actually look. The pictures on the left and right illustrate of the difference between a self-portrait and a selfie. Hint: the self-portrait is the one where the subject isn’t trying to look good.

Selfies remove objectivity from the subject-artist loop of creation. Add in a professional photographer or portrait artist and beauty happens. Conversely, grotesquerie is inherent in the selfie creation process, this having been reduced to a mirror-gazing session.

Sometimes I feel like speculative fiction is stuck in a hall of mirrors.

There’s so much talk about representing diverse voices. It’s a good thing to have stories written by lots of different sorts of people, of course it is! But the call for diversity is usually interpreted with deadly literal-mindedness as a call for more characters who are female / black / Asian / what have you. Why are we all so keen to see ourselves on the page?

The magazine Expanded Horizons describes its mission thus:

The mission of this webzine is to increase diversity in the field of speculative fiction, both in the authors who contribute and in the perspectives presented. […] we aim to push the field of speculative fiction out of its own “comfort zone” toward increased inclusion of, and comfort with, diverse perspectives, backgrounds and points of view.

The magazine features a “list of stories by topic” which runs from Africa to Yoruban authors.* Mix ‘n’ match your preferred ethnic / sexual identifiers to create your very own comfort zone! Just don’t stare into the mirror too long or your reflection may start to look like a trout-pouted minor celebrity with a cocaine hangover.

Fandom has tried to develop this literal-minded concept of diversity in real life with the establishment of “safe spaces” for female and non-white fans at conventions. It hasn’t always worked too well, owing to a problem with gawkers. The Angry Black Woman, a blogger, had an unfortunately typical experience at WisCon in 2010: her squee was harshed by “people who just stared into the POC safe space room like it was a particularly interesting zoo exhibit complete with pointing.” Pity the poor black fan who can’t attend a convention without people touching her hair or asking her to teach them about negritude. But also spare a wee drop of compassion for the straight, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered male! He’s lectured on his lack of diversity, told to read more stories about and by people with diverse perspectives–and yet when he tries to approach them in real life, it all too often … doesn’t end well. 

Real life isn’t a hall of mirrors. In real life, people don’t look like their selfies. They look so much better.

Nothing is gained by mapping our fragmented ethnic and sexual identities onto our fiction with the fidelity of a cellphone camera photo. Well, nothing except approval from the right-thinking crowd, which, I admit, can be quite the headrush. But please let’s leave this stuff to lit-fic, shall we? Dissection and interrogation of contemporary identities is exactly what lit-fic does, and it does it well. Speculative fiction does not, precisely because it’s always half a step, at least, away from contemporary reality. So other stuff gets mixed in with the identity signifiers and everyone gets upset.

stephen baxter_evolutionWhat speculative fiction does well is diversity on the species level. Our aliens, dragons, orcs, and even or especially our far-future selves ask us, in as many ways as there are books, what it means to be human. The most diverse and challenging perspectives I’ve ever read in science fiction are by Stephen Baxter, especially the latter chapters of his Evolution. Holy crap, that book took me so far out of my comfort zone that my brain was orbiting around Cygnus Minor. Speculative fiction this good achieves something no other genre can do: it makes you realize, really realize, that we’re all in this together. Black, white, yellow, brown, male, female … to the Big Bad lurking on the dark side of the moon, we all look like snacks. That kind of perspective shift is what I read the genre for.

If I wanted to stare at selfies, I’d just read mum-lit.**


* Well worth a peruse. If you don’t know what a “pomosexual” is, or the difference between “neutrois” and “otherkin,” here y’ go! That said, I am still no wiser for having read several of the linked stories. Turns out that good fiction will tend not to reflect its author’s pomosexuality. Who’d a thunk it?

** Except I wouldn’t, because there aren’t really any books out there that reflect my identity. It’s too damn complex. And I bet yours is, too. I will own to reading mum-lit occasionally, for the lulz.

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