Monday, December 5, 2016
December 5, 2016: Fall 2016 Reflections: Intro to Science Fiction and Fantasy
[As another semester comes to a close, I’ll reflect on some of my fall courses and conversations, focusing this time on moments and ways that they were relevant to our own moment. I’d love to hear your Fall 2016 reflections as well!]
Three great sci fi stories, three lessons for 21st century America.
1) Only Connect: I wrote in my semester preview series about some of the historical and cultural limits to Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950), so it’s only fair that I engage here with one of its most progressive stories. In “Night Meeting,” Tomás Gomez, an Earthling settler on Mars, has an otherworldly encounter with Muhe Ca, a Martian who seems to have come from a different time period (pre-contact, when Martian civilization was at its height). Gomez and Ca can’t quite bridge the gaps in their respective settings and worlds before they head their separate ways, but they work much harder to do so than any other characters in the novel, and in so doing offer through their perspectives and shared empathy a moving reminder of a very different possibility for cross-cultural contact and connection. As his works do on many other topics as well, Bradbury’s eerie story still has a great deal to teach us in 2016.
2) How to Resist Authoritarianism: A fair number of the sci fi stories we read in the course were set in dystopian futures, and like most dystopias they tended to feature an authoritarian regime in need of resistance. All such dystopian stories can offer valuable lessons as the United States moves frustratingly close toward our own version of authoritarianism, but I would highlight in particular Harlan Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (1965). Ellison’s authoritarian leader, the titular Ticktockman, isn’t a warmongering dictator so much as an embodiment of capitalism and corporatism; the leader of the story’s resistance movement, the titular Harlequin, challenges his society’s authority with humor, creativity, and a sense of the joy that even a dystopian world has to offer. Serious and even violent resistance might well be necessary responses to dystopian authorities, but they also make can both their world and the resisters even more dystopian; Ellison reminds us of the role creativity and wit can play in creating a different tone.
3) The Dangers of Nationalism: Authoritarianism is something most of us would agree we need to resist; nationalistic pride, though, is much less overtly negative, or at least has as many advocates as it does critics. But while I likewise support a critical form of patriotic sentiment, I am also my grandfather’s grandson, and Art Railton spent a lifetime railing against the evils that have been done in the name of flags and the us vs. them narratives they can help create. I know of few works that portray the dangers of that narrative more evocatively (if metaphorically) than Dan Simmons’ novel Hyperion (1989), and particularly its closing story “Remembering Siri.” The narrator of Simmons’ story works as a diplomat, helping the novel’s futuristic human government subdue the native cultures on worlds they’re settling; if the things he does and sees in the name of his own culture’s hegemony don’t make you question nationalistic pride, then I’m not a lifelong sci fi fan. Which, as this course always remind me, I most definitely am.
Next reflection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Reflections you’d share?