Friday, November 11, 2016

Op-Ed: Imagination must trump despair.

I have not felt much like writing the last few days. I have not felt much like reading: paradoxical as it might sound, I find the escapist side of reading kind of repulsive right this second. I don't want to escape: I want this world I'm in to be different.

And on top of all this, I feel a bit weird using Positron to talk about the election. Not that I think this project should be apolitical, totally neutral, it's just that I've tried to keep it focused on science fiction and fantasy, on readers and writers and books, without too much commentary outside those bounds.

But. This is the venue I have to work with. This is the soap-box I have to stand on, and while the issues and impacts of this election are vastly beyond what Positron was founded for, excuse me a minute to think about science fiction & fantasy as this disaster descends upon us.

I have a couple thoughts. The first is overwhelming disappointment. I can't get into all the demographics and causes of this election, and my disappointment is obviously and directly with the Americans who have been led to these straits by ignorance, by fear & hatred. However, setting that aside, what's crushing to me as an SF/F fan is the idea of this election as the failure of the self-preventing prophecy.

One of the most real and important roles of speculative fiction is how it shapes our attitude to the future. In a talk at Worldcon this year, David Brin described future fiction as like poking ahead of you with a long stick, looking out for pitfalls and stumbling blocks. It's usually way off base, but every once in a while science fiction stumbles onto something so plausible that we can respond to it, think about it, integrate it into our plans, just as much as if it were real. 1984 still shapes the way we think about surveillance, about revisionism and ideological control. Frankenstein and its many descendants shape the way we think about science, especially the manipulation of living things. Dozens or hundreds of SF writers made the threat of nuclear way—the weirdest and most extremely possibility humans have engineered—into something that people could visualize, conceptualize, prioritize avoiding.

You take the big-long-stick of SF/F that imagines utopias and dystopias to steer towards or away from. And you take the lessons of history, you try to avoid repeating mistakes.

So for we as Americans to fail at this basic act of memory, this basic act of imagination, is mind-boggling, is crushing. Don't recreate Hitler, Franco, Mussolini. Don't voluntarily transform into The Handmaid's Tale. Heck, don't voluntarily transform into The Hunger Games.

Voters who visualize themselves as Luke Skywalker, pulling the lever for Jabba the Hutt. Voters who read Potter more eagerly than the children they were putatively buying the books for, lining up to deport all the mudbloods and house-elves they can get their hands on. Last year, the surprising feminism of Mad Max: Fury Road; this year, Immortan Joe.

These next four-plus years are going to be bad, in ways that were completely predictable from the past, completely predictable from our imagined futures, from our alternate fantasy worlds. Somehow, those stories didn't stick hard enough.

I'm not saying I expected SF/F to save us from anything. But I hoped, as one ingredient in our culture, it would help. That the robots and aliens and elves and friendly monsters on our screens and pages were having a positive impact, that we thought about the Other with more than just fear. That the basic way that science and the appreciation of nature had become part of our cultural fabric, from Sagan's Cosmos all the way down to stuff like Fern Gully & Avatar, would lean us away from voluntarily, actively seeking destruction in the name of short-term profit and convenience.

So to watch those numbers come in Tuesday night: the main heartbreak is for all the people who are going to be hurt, whose lives are going to be harder, and for the break of trust in basic decency. And then I'm left with this after-image: that all the gains I've seen, all the movements forward in our culture as a whole and more narrowly in SF/F, haven't spilled over enough.

But I want to rally. I want to refocus on what we can do. The SF/F community these last few years has been fighting its own little culture wars, and some of what I see there is inspiring. When the Puppies (a large group of bigots) came for the Hugo, fandom said "NO", resoundingly.

There's this whole cohort of writers who are doing exciting things in the field. So much of my life over the last few years has been enriched by the most amazing and diverse group of voices. Sofia Samatar, China MiƩville, Ted Chiang, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, Greg Egan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Naomi Novik, Paolo Bacigalupi, Kelly Link...the list goes on. There's an energy, a passion for ideas, an awareness and an engagement with real issues, even as they're crafting these astonishing worlds, fantastic, science fictional, hard to categorize. The voices of authors like Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin have never been more important.

A lot of these writers and their fans have been dubbed "SJWs"—social justice warriors—by the retrograde forces. I have never understood that as an insult. We need social justice warriors, we need them badly, and to the extent that writers and creators and their fans are part of that—more power to them. SF/F is one slice of an important cultural movement that is active on all fronts—moving towards inclusiveness, moving towards equality, moving towards justice. And maybe moving towards saving the planet that we all live on.

So who I read gives me hope, gives me inspiration. And who I read with does, too. Chicago's the first place I've connected with an SF/F community, and in groups like Think Galactic and the Chicago Nerd Social Club there's the most open commitment to these social ideals that I've ever encountered. Wiscon, the feminist SF convention held in Madison every year, is like a glimpse of utopia. I really mean that. And I treasure it. The conversations we have at these book clubs, where folks are ready to really dig into issues of sexism, of racism and class, where people are genuinely passionate to talk about the future, about ideas, about the world—that gives me hope. And it reminds me that it's to each other we must look over these next years.

We have to keep dreaming. We have to keep telling stories, listening to stories. We must keep critique alive and powerful. We must keep acting. And we must keep imagining to power all this.

That's what makes me want to read again, makes me want to write again. This is just one tiny slice of what we have to do, but we can't stop. Support writers and artists and creators. Buy from the bookshops that keep these communities alive. Support your libraries. Speak up. Listen. Act.

Keep imagining.

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