January 28, 2014

Aliens Are People, Too

        A recurring theme among several panelists I heard at the Arisia con was that they hate it when sci fi authors use aliens or fantasy settings to explore real-world human issues.  One example was the movie “Avatar,” and I agree that it’s problematic to put blue skin on the “natives” and then trot out a whole batch of tropes and stereotypes about colonialism and race relations.  That said, however, I totally disagree with the basic premise that speculative fiction shouldn’t use fantasy characters to explore human problems.  Indeed, I think that’s one of the most important things speculative fiction can do.  Examples where I’ve tried to do it abound in my Otherworld SeriesReturn to Tchrkkusk wrestles with the very human issues of prejudice and discrimination, and the complex ways oppressed people may react to their oppression.  Now, my Tchrkym are not supposed to represent African Americans, or Australian aboriginals, or Native American Indians, or any other particular Earth people.  They are their own people with their own history and their own particular situation, but their story is nevertheless a story about a problem that humans have created and then had to deal with over and over - and that’s why I’m telling it.  Vision Revealed is about issues of religious fundamentalism, faith, continuing revelation…  It isn’t about any particular incident in the Middle East or the United States or anywhere else on Earth, but it’s nevertheless about real Earth puzzles that all of us need to think about.
        Authors who use aliens or fantasy to stand in for real Earth situations were accused of wimpiness.  These panelists seemed to feel that the only reason an author would do this is unwillingness to grapple honestly with reality.  (This from people who call themselves fans of 
speculative fiction!)  If you want to explore racism, they said, don’t write about prejudice against aliens; write about black and white right here on Earth now.  There may undoubtedly be cases where authors are too squeamish to tackle an issue head-on, but I have two objections to the charge of authors copping out.  First, we are talking about writers of sci fi and fantasy here.  “Realistic” fiction is not their chosen genre, and the implication that only in “realistic” fiction can serious subjects be addressed is nonsense.  Even more importantly, the panelists were looking at this question only from the writers’ perspective, but the readers are equally (or perhaps much much more!) important.  “Star Trek” may be guilty of wimpiness, but it was undoubtedly capable of leading mainstream 1960s viewers to consider important issues (including racism) in ways they might not have done had they seen the show as a Serious Drama About Race in America.  It’s the author’s job to tell a story that readers believe in, not to hit them over the head.
        Finally, I want to point out that, ironically, I don’t think even those panelists who said aliens shouldn’t stand in for humans actually meant it as much as they believed!  After all, they all held up Terry Pratchett and Ursula K. LeGuin as masters of creating fantasy cultures and peoples: authors who do it right.  And both those authors are notable for just how consistently they use their speculative worlds to explore the obviously all-too human issues of sexism, politics, racism, religious fundamentalism, war, and more.  The distinction here is 
that fantasy should not be used as a shield to put a comfortable safety barrier between author or reader and a difficult issue.  It should be used, rather, as a probe, a way in, to slip us into a knotty human situation before we quite have a chance to put up our accustomed defenses, and to jolt us into a new perspective on an old issue.
        Perhaps the best way to think about the distinction is to remember the deepest purpose of all - to tell a story.  A work intended to preach a Message About An Issue will likely ring false or grate irritatingly on sensitive nerves looking for nuance.  A story, however, a story by and for people, about people, will of necessity grapple with those same messy human issues, no matter whether the characters are rabbits, robots, elves, or aliens.

[Pictures:  UFO in a Tree, illustration by Bjorn Rune Lie (Image from PioneerHouse);
Ankh-Morpork Civic Protection Stickers, from the Discworld Emporium;
The island of Gont, illustration by Ruth Robbins from A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, 1968.]

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