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.