Why Science Fiction?

I’m a compulsive reader with pretty Catholic tastes, and I write about everything from shamelessly cheesy Young Adult romance to shamelessly highbrow literary fiction for my blog. But I recently decided to dedicate a week to talking about speculative fiction exclusively, and the enthusiastic reception affirmed the special place science fiction in particular has always held in my heart.

Why science fiction? Here’s a story for you: I grew up in a very small and unpleasant town, with parents whom I adore, don’t get me wrong, but whose politics are very different from mine (i.e. they watch Fox News religiously, I have an FBI file from getting arrested at anti-globalization protests). As a very young person, I was solidly on my way to a content middle-class life of fluorescent-lit day jobs, picket fences, and voting Republican (my mom recently unearthed a fan letter I wrote to Ronald Reagan at a tender age). Somewhere between then and now, however, I took a hard left on the road less traveled. What happened, you may well ask? I wonder that myself sometimes, and the best I can come up with is: science fiction. No, seriously. Bear with me.

Science fiction: it does not have the greatest history. For every Lieutenant Uhura, there are a whole truckload of Kirks, and even Uhura had to wear that stupid uniform. But as long as science fiction has been written, the ladies and the queers and the people of color have been hijacking that business for their own excellent ends, and the results are what I might describe as transcendent. You take White Man, Captain of the Universe; I’ll take Octavia Butler, Ursula K. LeGuin, Sheri S. Tepper, James Tiptree Jr., Samuel Delany, Mary Shelley, and the legions of people they have influenced and inspired.

I started reading that stuff young, and it did its percolating somewhere in there under the surface, so that when finally I got out of dodge and met people doing the righteous work of the revolution, everything just sort of clicked. When you grow up reading about planets without gender it doesn’t seem very odd that a person in your real life might feel the gender they live is not the same as the sex they were born with. When you spend your formative years obsessed with a story about transgender mutant prostitutes inhabiting post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C., it’s not really a stretch to envision an anarchist, self-governing utopian future. When you read Samuel R. Delany as a kid, once you put your brain back in the ear it came out of it’s no big deal when someone sits you down and says: Look, kid, pull your head out of your ass and recognize the privilege your white skin affords you.

People bring up “common sense” a lot in the real world, usually when they are trying to tell you there’s something wrong with you: it’s “common sense” that illegal means illegal, it’s “common sense” that marriage is between a man and a woman, it’s “common sense” that biology is destiny and women are feeble (this last usually illustrated with an allegedly scientific anecdote about the behaviors of cavemen). It’s “common sense” that racism ended with the election of Obama/the civil rights movement/some other arbitrary point in history where a random person of color did something radical without getting shot by a police officer. Well, fuck common sense. Common sense is a none-too-subtle stand-in for “shut up and suck it up.”

Speculative fiction offers us human beings something different: not “common sense” but a sense we have in common that the world is larger and more filled with possibility than we might be able to imagine, a sense that enlarging the opportunities of other people’s lives does not have to mean making our own lives smaller. In fact, quite the opposite. If we’re writing the stories, there’s room on that spaceship for all of us. There are not many days, anymore, that I feel particularly hopeful about the future. But as silly as it may sound, speculative fiction is a reminder that our vision is bigger than our histories, that some other kind of tomorrow is still an option. We are the species that invented genocide; but we are also the species that brought into being the written word. As Ursula K. LeGuin writes, “It is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception and compassion and hope.”

I was lucky enough to be able to interview some truly fantastic women as part of my own little science-fiction blog party; those interviews will appear here as well in the coming week. I’m truly delighted to be blogging for Tor about a genre that means so much to me.

Tomorrow: An interview with author Elizabeth Hand.

The Rejectionist is an anonymous assistant to a New York City literary agent. She blogs at www.therejectionist.com.


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