Story Collider is a podcast and magazine collecting “true stories about how science has affected people’s lives.” Aaron Wolfe’s story, “Saving Hubble, Saving Aaron,” is about how science fiction makes a life of science possible — by sparking wonder, sure, but also by allowing us an escape from the brutality of scientific reality and offering a purity of hope that only fiction can maintain.
(h/t Lisa. Transcript, currently in progress, available here.)
I’ve been bingeing on science fiction lately, both in books and on television. It’s no coincidence that I’m rewatching Stargate SG-1, discovering Fringe, and reading Contact while I’m establishing myself in a new community after losing both my job and my marriage.
In science fiction, anything is possible and ordinary people become extraordinary heroes. Those heroes rarely suffer from endless days of mundane grief or fits of existential purposelessness. Details about physics, biology, anthropology, psychology — not to mention alien languages, technical sleight-of-hand, alternative histories, future backstories, whole fictional cultures — keep the audience’s attention occupied on a level beyond the seductively fantastical plot itself. It doesn’t hurt that people like me, civilian nerds whose special skills are confined to words or numbers or stars or chemicals or whatever unglamorous esoterica, get to be at the center of the action. It’s wish-fulfillment, it’s escape, it’s a perfect distraction.
Science fiction also has great potential for political engagement. In college I took a course with playwright and novelist Andrea Hairston called “Shamans, Shapeshifters, and the Magic IF.” We explored how genres like fantasy and science fiction take advantage of their distance from reality to throw hard truths into sharp relief. (See also: Brecht’s alienation.) Indeed, science fiction and its artistic relatives have been employed to great feminist effect — as in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for an example that is particularly relevant to current politics in the United States; or X-Men (2000), a parable of identity politics.
The best awareness-raising stories don’t actually fix the big problems like gender inequality, because no tidy end to those conflicts would ring true. But most stories do provide some resolution, however temporary or superficial: we came home from this adventure; we staved off this catastrophe; we walked away from that shoot-out with all our limbs in tact.
Those fabricated resolutions offer a kind of catharsis that I, as a feminist, long for. Scary legislation gets mulled over for months, killed, and then reintroduced, bigger and scarier, years later. Protest campaigns are launched, attract a smattering of media attention, and then go ignored for months because they aren’t new anymore. You call one person out on their carelessly hateful language, or you explain privilege to them, and maybe they even listen! But then they fail to apply those concepts broadly, or there happens to be more than one person in your life, and the next day it’s all here we go again.
I don’t have to tell you this. You know what it’s like. We can’t ever feel that we’ve found the solution and cured the epidemic, hooray, the end! because oppression is a million interconnected epidemics and the pathogens that cause them are adaptive little fuckers. We can’t take off our uniforms and go home because the Patriarchy knows where we live and is probably coming over for dinner.
So you can escape into action-adventure, where it’s very clear who the good guys are and the bad guys are and at the end we can all rest easy because the bad guys are dead. But good luck enjoying that, because the bad guys are probably people of color and the good guys’ main virtue is violence and their heroic “protective” vibe is kind of creepy if you think about it. Different but parallel issues apply for romance and other easy realism. Alternatively, you can go for more difficult, culturally-critical realism or nonfiction, but that’s a busman’s holiday for feminists.
Science fiction is just as vulnerable to problematic representation as other genres. Its canon is rife with exoticization and paternalism, in particular. Yet I find that science fiction as a medium is uniquely capable of combining escapism and engagement in a kind of productive utopianism that promises to save me and save the world.
Science fiction asks the big questions: What does it mean to be human? What makes people good or bad? What does it feel like to be different? Why can’t we all just get along? It elevates social issues to epic meaning-of-life and fate-of-the-universe glory. And it reminds us that while the end may not be in sight, we are working towards something meaningful. It invites us to imagine a time when we can take off our uniforms, declare our missions accomplished, and go home for the night. It suggests that our world can be different from how it happens to be — even different from how we are able to imagine it.
Perhaps best of all, the escape that science fiction offers is to a world where our engagement is always effective. Every action signifies, and every person makes a difference. Grief is never meaningless. We are fairly burdened with purpose. The refuge itself is a renewed call to arms.