A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
I love meerkats, I really do. I can spend hours watching them at the zoo, I have a meerkat calendar on my wall, and I think a baby meerkat is one of the cutest things in existence, but I wouldn’t want to live in a world where the only animals were meerkats. Books are like that too. However much I like a particular type of character, I wouldn’t want to read a book where every character is the same. I certainly wouldn’t want a whole bookcase full of them.
I’ve always loved science fiction and fantasy, with its infinite possibilities for amazing worlds, but as a child I felt many of the books I read were missing something. Especially, curiously enough, the ones written for adults. One day I read a particular book written for adults, where aliens were handing out artefacts that gave people super powers, but the aliens would only give them to men never women.
I was 11 years old at the time, and with the wisdom of long years of experience I felt that book summed up the problem. Aliens were going round with a checklist, and if you didn’t match the list then you couldn’t be a hero. So many of the books I read were missing any significant female characters with influence on the plot. Other groups of people were excluded as well.
Reading some books was like going to a zoo that only had meerkats. There were some glorious exceptions, which I won’t talk about in detail. Mine is the third Author Allsorts post on the subject of diversity, and Robin Stevens has already discussed the obvious examples in her excellent post. It’s really quite scary that the first character we both thought of was Ged from the Earthsea books.
One of the great things about the YA books today is seeing more diverse characters appear, but the 11-year-old girl deep inside me still holds a grudge about those aliens handing out artefacts. That’s why the main character in the Earth Girl trilogy is a girl, and her decisions drive the plot. Jarra’s competent, and she’s as likely to be the one doing the rescuing as to be rescued herself, but she also has a problem that limits her life.
I started writing the first Earth Girl book when recovering from a period of disabling illness, and the theme of the trilogy is about disability. The Equality Act 2012 defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities. What is a normal daily activity is defined by the society you live in, so changes in society and technology can change who is considered disabled.
Earth Girl was the product of several different ideas. The thought of a change in technology creating a new disability. How disabilities tend to isolate the sufferer from society. The coldly cruel labels that officialdom has sometimes used to label people (like the 1944 Education Act talking about the educationally subnormal). The sad truth that a minority of people aren’t just unhelpful to people with disabilities, but feel entitled to judge, reject or insult them.
Using a new disability rather than an existing one had certain advantages, because people can have wildly varying reactions to different disabilities. I wanted the story to involve an invisible disability, because those have their own special problems. Many disabilities aren’t visible to a casual observer, deafness is an obvious example, and people can be less sympathetic about a disability if they can’t actually see it. Sufferers from invisible disabilities have to decide whether to admit they have a problem to a new acquaintance, or hide it and risk something going wrong to betray them. What they decide to do depends on past positive or negative experiences, and the specific situation. Many people willing to openly admit to a disability when going to university, will try to hide it from potential employers.
So Earth Girl is set in the future. Today everyone is limited to living on Earth, and that’s considered perfectly normal, but in 2789 it isn’t. Interstellar portals have been part of everyday life for nearly 500 years. People casually portal between hundreds of colony worlds scattered across space, except for the random one in a thousand born with an immune system that can only survive on Earth. My main character, Jarra, is one of these. Coldly labelled as handicapped, regarded as a second class citizen, she was abandoned by her parents at birth to be raised in the institutions run by Hospital Earth.
Jarra lies about her background and joins a class of history students from other worlds to try and prove she’s as good as they are. Now Sangu Mandanna has written a brilliant post about incidentally diverse characters, so I don’t need to repeat any of the things she said there. Earth Girl is set in the 28th century, about 25 generations in the future. Portals have existed for 20 generations. For a century, everywhere on Earth was just one step away through a portal, destroying the old country boundaries so all that mattered was what continent you were on. Then the invention of interstellar portals scattered people across hundreds of star systems. By the year 2789, there are twelve hundred colony worlds, divided between six sectors of space.
When I pictured that future, it seemed obvious that most people, including Jarra, would have ancestors from many or all the continents of Earth. There’d be a few exceptions; people who for varying reasons have ancestors mostly from one area of Earth. Four named characters came into my head as having ancestry from India, Africa, Japan, and northern Europe respectively, so there are minor flags to indicate that, but I don’t labour the point because it’s not relevant to the story. Only one of the four characters knows any details about her ancestors at all, just as few people today know details of their 14th century ancestors.
In 2789, a lot of old divisions, stereotypes, and prejudices have been forgotten, left behind when people left Earth, but there are new ones. People aren’t interested in ancestry, but what sector of space someone comes from, because there are cultural differences between sectors. Jarra’s classmates are from star systems in the five sectors with established colony worlds. Aristocratic and wealthy Alpha sector. Permissive Beta sector. Moral Gamma sector. Conservative and intellectual Delta sector. Frontier Epsilon sector. Same sex marriages between two people have been accepted for centuries in all sectors, but the triad marriages commonplace in the worlds of Beta sector are still regarded as controversial in other sectors.
The characters I pictured living in 2789 are a varied group. They had to be, because this isn’t a future where everyone is the same. The zoos don’t just have meerkats, or Earth animals, but alien ones as well. The characters include a lot of diversity, but that diversity reflects the future they live in rather than ours. As Sangu Mandanna phrased it, the characters appeared that way in my head, and I couldn’t change it about them even if I tried.
Janet Edwards lives in England. As a child, she read everything she could get her hands on, including a huge amount of science fiction and fantasy. She studied Maths at Oxford, and went on to suffer years of writing unbearably complicated technical documents before deciding to write something that was fun for a change. She has a husband, a son, a lot of books, and an aversion to housework.
Find out more about her and her EARTH GIRL trilogy at www.janetedwards.com