Analyzing the classism of sci-fi protagonists

In a recent issue of the British sci-fi magazine Vector, writer Marie Vibbert — author of the recent Galactic Hellcats, as well as my Clarion classmate under one Cory Doctorow — took a look at the representation of class in a variety of popular sci-fi stories. As a person from a very working class background, Vibbert has always been drawn to writing stories about waitresses and janitors struggling to pay their rent (in space, and/or with robots). After a particularly obnoxious convention conversation where someone lamented the lack of stories about kindly rich men dealing with hardship, she decided to crunch some numbers, and see if she could figure out who's actually the more under-represented group.

Vibbert's data is hardly comprehensive, but I think she did a good job taking a representative look at the issue (as someone who's not being paid full-time to research the topic). Here's a look at her methodology:

I limited myself to novels, because novels or their detailed discussions were easy to find, and that way I'd be comparing apples to apples.

Reading every science fiction novel ever would not be feasible, especially with a staff of just me. I searched for recommended reading lists, but which to choose? Many were simply "The Best of 2019" or such. While it would be interesting to look at a specific period of SF, I wanted a cross-section of what an average reader might have in mind, and that meant including recent books as well as old classics. I googled "Top Science Fiction Novels" in an incognito browser tab (so as not to bias the results with my search history) and took the first 50 novels the search returned. I liked that list better: it felt eclectic, and included recent novels as well as Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. Of course, the Google search results, while incognito, still would be skewed toward my location in the Midwest United States.

The British Science Fiction Association's magazine, Vector, announced a call for papers on class and science fiction. I could hardly contain my excitement (and imposter syndrome) as I typed and re-typed my email asking if this statistical analysis was the sort of thing that maybe they'd want to see? And so, my next data set was BSFA award winners. These would skew British to balance my American bias. How better to kiss up to the editors? I started my spreadsheet! 

BSFA award winners include fantasy novels with no science fictional elements, however, maintaining genre purity would open up a can of worms (how to draw the lines? Who gets to say what is or isn't SF?). I would keep the results of each list separate, to see if there was any bias. 

On accepting the paper proposal, editor Polina Levontin suggested adding the titles from the Orion SF Masterworks book series, a somewhat curated list, limited only by what titles Orion had the rights to. So now I had three piles of representative works: award winners, a hodgepodge recommended by Google, and a curated list for a total of 194 separate titles. It seemed as close as I was going to get to a reasonable sampling of notable science fiction novels.

She also goes into detail explaining how she defined protagonists, as well as character class, before providing some enlightening charts to illuminate her findings. Spoiler alert: there are definitely a lot more sci-fi stories out there where the main characters are nobles, politicians, or scientists with no clear indication of financial troubles. (Though curiously, women characters were slightly more likely to be depicted as both wealthy, and as working-class, though never poor, in her analysis.)

Again — it's not a fully comprehensive study, but it's fascinating nonetheless. I know that I tend to hyperfocus to a fault on how my protagonists pay their rent; it can admittedly bog the story down (I know, I know…), but I guess it's something that's just always on my mind.

Jobs and Class of Main Characters in Science Fiction [Marie Vibbert / Vector]

Image: Public Domain via PXhere