Friday, June 17, 2016

Science Fictional Meditations on the Value of Diversity

I’m still reeling from the tragic mass shooting at the Pulse gay bar in Orlando last weekend.  Although I wrote a short post about it addressed to my LBGTQIA+ friends, I still don’t quite know what to say.  Remember the victims and who they were.  Please listen to LGBTQIA+ voices, whether your own, in your social circles, or online such as those here and here.  I in no way mean to co-opt these voices.

Science fiction is sometimes thought of as an escapist genre.  I admit to finding some of that kind of solace in the last few days, especially in reading Heretics of Dune (book five of Frank Herbert's Dune Chronicles) and finally almost finishing Babylon 5.  

But whatever escapist tendencies it might have, science fiction is also a philosophical laboratory in which ideas are put to the test in extended thought experiments.  This is why I created a philosophy and science fiction blog.

While I certainly don’t mean to imply that science fiction can solve the social, political, and personal ills that led to the Orlando tragedy, I think science fiction is an excellent way to address some of the issues that arise in a diverse society.  

How should we think about and live with people different from ourselves?  How should the marginalized react to the powerful and vice versa?  Should diversity be tolerated?  Valued? Celebrated?  What kinds of diversity are we talking about, anyway?

Here are some works of science fiction that constitute meditations on these questions.  Please feel free to add more in the comments.


The cast of Sense8

I start with the TV series, Sense8, not just for the diversity of its characters but for its central message: we are all connected, and our diversity is a strength, not a weakness.  And there's a second season on the way.

From my review:

Sense8 encourages us to think about our connections to each other and the rest of the world.  Buddhist ideas about dependent origination and inter-dependence come to mind: who we are is determined by causal factors in the world, and our actions have effects on the world around us. But neither does Sense8 encourage a homogenization of differences.  (Would it really be altruism if we were all one big person?) The sensates are connected, but they are also a diverse lot, far more diverse than you see on most TV shows.

Janelle Monáe: Metropolis, The ArchAndroid, and Electric Lady

If you're looking for science fictional musical meditation on the theme of diversity, I wholeheartedly recommend Janelle Monáe.  From my post, "Sci-Fi Music (Part 1)":

Monáe's trio of releases, Metropolis: The Chase Suite (2007), The ArchAndroid (2010), and The Electric Lady (2013)follow an android named Cindi Mayweather as she is persecuted for her love of a human. As the title of the first one indicates, Monáe was inspired by the 1927 film, Metropolis.  Through the story of androids, Monáe explores issues of difference (racial, sexual, robotic, etc.), discrimination, and acceptance.

Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, Edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha)

This anthology inspired by Octavia Butler is also a great way to think through some of these themes.  From my review:

Like the anthology Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, this anthology invites readers to think about speculative fiction and social justice, particularly with regard to the African diaspora.  In my review of that anthology, I argued that diversity is important because it puts us in touch with perspectives other than our own, which we need for greater understanding in philosophy, politics, interpersonal relations, and matters of justice. Octavia's Brood builds on this idea by suggesting that visionary fiction is more than a way to understand; such imagination is itself part of the work of social justice movements.  Visionary fiction is simultaneously theory and practice.  A hint about how this works can be found in the editors' acknowledgements: "To our ancestors, for dreaming us up and bending reality to create us.  May we carry that legacy into the far future" (p. 284).

She Walks in Shadows, Edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles

As a human being, H. P. Lovecraft was about as far from an advocate of diversity as one could imagine (and yes, I think Lovecraft was writing a weird sort of science fiction).  What's interesting about this Lovecraftian anthology with stories and artwork entirely by women is what I call the attempt to deconstruct Lovecraft.  If we can find positive resources in the work of a curmudgeonly bigot like Lovecraft, maybe there's hope of turning the swelling tide of reactionary bigotry that seems to be sweeping the world these days.

From my review:
Does Lovecraft have some awful things to say about people (or transdimensional entities, elder gods, etc.) who are different?  You bet.  But are there resources within Lovecraft's mythos that might welcome or even promote appreciation of difference despite his xenophobia?  Maybe.  And that's exactly what She Walks in Shadows is all about ...  So, what She Walks in Shadows shows us is that rather than eradicating Lovecraft from our personal mythos, we might instead deconstruct him.  In doing so, we might come to better tackle the horrors of xenophobia, racism, and misogyny.  Maybe having fewer Earthly horrors would free us to face head on the looming cosmic horror that threatens to devour our precarious human intellects.

 Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

This First Contact story that takes place in Lagos, Nigeria delves into relationships between diverse groups of humans, aliens, animals, and the odd quasi-magical being.  And it's a lot of fun, too.

From my review:
I love the science fiction trope of First Contact, which has always been a way to think about encountering otherness.  The aliens here are, well, alien.  We never really understand exactly what they're up to or how they do the cool stuff that they do.  They also don't contact humans first.  That honor goes to a giant swordfish.  And why not?  I mean, who the hell do we think we are that ETs wouldn't want to spend time with non-human Earthlings as well?  On the note of "who the hell do we think we are?", why must aliens land on the White House lawn?  Why not off the coast of one of the world's largest cities in one of its most populous countries?  Okorafor encourages a postcolonial decentering of eurocentric world views: if setting this story in Lagos seems odd to you, maybe it's worth asking why that should be seen as odd in the first place. Questioning these associations about what seems "normal" is one benefit of encouraging more diversity in both science fiction and philosophy (as I've argued in an earlier post on eurocentrism and another one on diversity in science fiction and philosophy).  I've always been drawn to the way that both philosophy and science fiction can challenge and expand our perspectives on life, the universe, and everything.  Diversity shouldn't be an ornamental addition to science fiction and philosophy, because interrogating and enlarging our perspectives is the core of what science fiction and philosophy are all about.

The Culture Series by Iain M. Banks

I'm a huge fan of this series.  The Culture itself is an enormous post-scarcity anarcho-socialist galactic civilization.  I'd sign up to become a Culture citizen in a heartbeat.  The Culture contains tremendous diversity within itself, which gives rise to utopian reflections on how we might someday accept and celebrate diversity.  Some of the most interesting story lines in the series revolve around how a society like the Culture should interact with societies whose values differ from their own.  Fascinating stuff.  And often hilarious.

From my post, "Death and Utopia: Reflection on The Culture":
The Culture is an unabashed utopia.  In this era of cynical dystopianism, the Culture reminds us that we could do better.  Especially for those like myself, whose moral and political leanings are decidedly to the left, this is a powerful idea that gets surprisingly little attention in contemporary science fiction.  ...  Nonetheless, the Culture is one of the deepest statements I've encountered in favor of leftist values such as diversity, compassion, equality, rationality, science, freedom of conscience, and so forth. ... The Culture is described as a post-scarcity anarcho-socialist society.  Thanks to Soviet-style communism, many people tend to think of socialism as authoritarian these days, but there's nothing necessary about that.  As Banks says in his essay, "A Few Notes on the Culture" (which is required reading for any Culture fan!), expansion into the brutal emptiness of space will make people aware of their dependence on each other in the close quarters of starships and planets (the socialist bit) and simultaneously independent of those across the unimaginable gulfs of space (the anarchist bit).  As he says, "socialism within; anarchy without."

This Alien Shore by C. S. Friedman

It is a poignant coincidence that I posted my review of this deep mediation on diversity several hours before the Orlando murders took place.

From my review:
What this novel does best is to give some resources for thinking about the question: Why is diversity a good thing?  There's a big push for diversity these days in business, education, government, media, and so forth.  But why?  What's so good about diversity, anyway?  Why is there such a backlash against diversity among the GamerGaters, Sad Puppies, Trumpists, etc. of the world?  Friedman's answer - and I think it's a good one - is that recognizing the diversity within and between ourselves makes us stronger, better people.  One of the deepest themes of This Alien Shore is that of otherness not just of others, but otherness within ourselves.  We are aliens to ourselves in some sense, a point I made awhile back in my post, "Aliens are Everywhere."  To reject the otherness of others is to reject the otherness of oneself, to put oneself in a constant state of self-loathing auto-xenophobia.  ... Who has not occasionally been surprised by their own thoughts and feelings? What if, instead of rejecting these surprises from oneself and others for the sake of ensconcing some pure personal, national, gender, or racial identity, one were to wait and see what good these differences might do, what benefits they might bring for all of us, and what new horizons of knowledge they might open up?  In Friedman's novel, the economic, technological, and moral basis of a vast human civilization depends on valuing such diversity.  And I'd like to think that we could recognize that exactly the same is true for us here on Earth in the 21st century.


  1. Hi Ethan, a friend dropped a link here on G+ and I followed it back because I have an interest in how gender and sexuality are presented in SF (if I ever make it into a master's program, that's what I want to make the center of my study). Donna (the friend) brought up a few that also popped into my head -- Octavia E. Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy, Anne Leckie's Ancillary series, and of course Grand Dame Ursula Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness. There are more (I have a lovely little book, now far out of date, that carefully lists appearances of LGBT characters in SF books).

    Have you run across Brian Attebery's Decoding Gender in Science Fiction? It is also showing some age, but it touches on the topics of LGBT representation in SF.

    I'm going to be thinking about this idea for a while and I'm going to link to your blog if you don't mind. Thanks for the interesting post!

    1. Thank you for stopping by! I appreciate the comment.

      I'm a huge fan of Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin, and you're right that the Xenogenesis series and The Left Hand of Darkness belong on a list like this one. I didn't mean to exclude them, but I guess I was just thinking of more recent stuff (or at least more recent to me). I really appreciated what Leckie did with gender issues, but I had trouble getting into Ancillary Justice for whatever reason.

      In any case, the novels you mention are all worthy additions to the list of works that touch on diversity. I will check out the Attebery book sometime. I just put it on my to read list. It sounds really interesting. Thanks again!

  2. The Leckie books are a bit difficult, mostly for the pronoun shift. They break some of the standard tropes, really deep, basic ones, like always knowing the gender of a first person protagonist -- which, upon more thinking, is both a matter of how we identify with the protagonist and something basic to our culture. We put a lot of importance in clearly identified gender. We would interpret every word and action along those lines. Because we can't do that here -- really, no one's gender is fixed in the language -- we can't neatly shove the actions into any particular box. When love, romance, sex, or relationships are in the narrative, we can't categorize and pigeonhole them as gay, lesbian, straight, male, female, dominant, submissive, etc.

    It's pretty jarring. I took a long break in the front half of the book while I worked my way around it. As much as some of us claim to be "blind" to such cues and roles and categories, they are ingrained so deeply in our culture that we think they are genetically coded, that we have to think this way, that it's natural, normal, and anyone who either doesn't think this way or doesn't fit into our sorting system is alien and wrong and dangerous.

    Then again, maybe the book just didn't ring your bell :) you're allowed that. (aren't I generous?)

    1. I actually loved the gender/language aspect of the book and found it interesting. I just had trouble with Leckie's writing style, which I found to be unclear. It just didn't click with me. Part of it may be that someone favorably compared her to Ursula Le Guin and Iain M. Banks, which maybe put the bar too high for me. Here's my review for more of an explanation:

  3. Science fiction isn't about political correctness. If it were, much of what was written up until the last fifteen years or so would be unpublishable by that standard. Political correctness isn't about diversity-it's about censorship of those who don't agree with you. Conservatives on college campuses, gay activists who have voiced their opinions about the way gays are treated in Islamic countries, the Hugos are prime examples of this. SF can send valuable, powerful messages about human nature, but if you want to be honest you have to deal with the bad as well as the good, and you should acknowledge that much of our science and literature came from those Europeans that the politically correct culture and campus warriors now claim to hate so much. There was much in intellectual Christianity, for example, that inspired science and medicine in the middle ages. Space flight would not have been possible without the math of the ancient Greeks. In their push for diversity in SF, social justice warriors have created a climate that denies much of SF's history and heritage. History is written by the winners-but it can also be revised and re-written by those who don't want to admit they might be wrong.

    1. I didn't say anything about "political correctness" nor did I say all SF is or should be about "political correctness." Here are some questions I think we should ask ourselves about the term "political correctness" before continuing the (rather pointless) debates that it provokes:

  4. Can you believe I've never read Lovecraft? I really need to.

  5. Can you believe I've never read Lovecraft? I really need to.

    1. Maybe you have read Lovecraft, but Cthulhu erased your memory! It's cool stuff even if Lovecraft was a bit of a bigot.