“The Future We Want” Series – Part 1
I want a future in which we see diversity as a strength. Yeah, right, you might well scoff. Jan, have you noticed the hate crime statistics, lately? That’s not where we’re headed!
But what if it could be?
A few weeks ago, I posted an article about using science fiction as a way to envision a more positive future. Today, in the first of three planned posts, I’d like to delve a little deeper into that idea. In future posts I plan to talk about the environment and human rights. Today, let’s explore ways that science fiction writers can help readers see diversity as a strength.
Diversity is a Mark of a Vibrant Community
Scientists have long since discovered that biodiversity improves the stability and resiliency of an ecosystem. Similarly, sociologists and historians attest that civilizations have thrived most brilliantly when cultural diversity increased. Whether cultural mixing arises via trade, conquest, or cataclysm-driven migration, throughout history the result is predictable. Cultural cross-pollination fosters innovation and new ideas.
The cultural and genetic mixing generated by the ancient Roman Empire created a legacy that endures to this day. Poorly-conceived though they were, the medieval Crusades led to the European Renaissance. Trade routes such as the Silk Road in Asia and Trans-Saharan routes in Africa stimulated vibrant cities and civilizations. I blogged about another fruitful period of Japanese/European cross-cultural exchange a few years ago, in “A Tale of Hokusai and Cézanne.”
A great case in point is Medieval Cordoba, where Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived in relative peace. Its leaders could see diversity as a strength. They kept their subjects free from religious persecution, and created arguably the greatest city in Europe at the time.
How Can Science Fiction Help us See Diversity as a Strength?
Why – other than the fact that I write science fiction – do I see sf as a vehicle to foster a brighter future? Wouldn’t it be better to go on a lecture tour like Al Gore with his “inconvenient” slideshow? Well, there’s a place for that kind of presentation.
But as advertisers long ago figured out, the very best way to make an idea compelling is to embody it in a good story. I touched on this a few years ago when I blogged about the influence of science fiction on environmental awareness.
But I’m not the only one who sees sf this way. That bastion of liberal arts, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has recently offered a class on contemporary science fiction. The course uses 21st Century science fiction novels (see the illustration below) to help students see the world in a different way. These books provide a starting place for discussions that grapple with problems and questions we’ll confront in the future.
The government of China agrees with me in this, too. It has begun to view science fiction as an avenue for the use of “cultural soft power.” Not only did it win a Worldcon bid (Chengdu, 2023), but it has begun to promote science fiction stories of which it approves (political critique is a whole different story). It’s also a growing player in the global movie industry.
Can You Envision A Diverse and Harmonious Future?
A lot of people can’t. In our current political climate, unfortunately, anti-Semitism, anti-Asian hate, and the ever-popular urge to oppress Black people are enjoying an apparent groundswell of enthusiasm.
This is happening alongside a steady, depressing drumbeat of homophobia, trans-phobia, and anti-immigrant measures against Muslims and people from anywhere in Latin America. We have armed militias of people abroad in the land who seriously want to re-enact The Turner Diaries in real life.
If ever there was a moment to promote a new vision, one that can see diversity as a strength, surely today gives us that moment. Dystopian science fiction has long depicted “worst-case scenarios,” and they genuinely do have a role to play. But how about some more positive visions to function as an antidote to the poison?
Creating a More Positive Vision
In teaching and parenting, “catch ‘em being good” is a sound approach. If a child/student receives positive reinforcement, this offers a better foundation for going forward than always just being told “no” or “don’t.”
Kids are feeling their way along, trying to figure out how to “be” in the world. Positive reinforcement offers a map, a goal, a sense of what is desired. Negative reinforcement only tells them what not to do. How efficiently do you think you could get to a destination if you had a map that onlytold you where not to go?
That’s why I think we need positive future visions, as well as dystopian takes. Can we please stop fictitiously killing the earth and our fellow beings all the time? It’s good to be able to foresee that “this trend could lead to a bad outcome.” But in my opinion it helps more to see that “this really might be a good way to move forward.”
A Vision for a Way Forward
I certainly can’t claim to be the only science fiction author who ever thought of this. I read a review just the other day for Central Station by Lavie Tidhar that you might enjoy. And Forbes recently published a whole list of sf novels with positive climate-change explorations. Moreover, multiculture-positive thought experiments seem to be the direction N.K. Jemisin is headed in her Great Cities project, if The City We Became is any guide.
What I want to do with my XK9 novels, in part, is give readers a glimpse, a way to see diversity as a strength in action. What would a society/culture/polyculture look like, if it could truly be mostly free of racial animus? If religious intolerance was mostly absent, and near-universally frowned upon? If the society was mostly without homophobia, trans-phobia, or a backlash against any other individual expression of identity? (I say “mostly” and “nearly,” because humans are humans).
It’s fun to explore those ideas in my XK9 novels. I hope my readers enjoy it, too. And I’d like to see more authors ask how they can inform a more positive view of possible futures. Especially those that see diversity as a strength.
Many thanks to “LATESTLY” for the quote-image featuring the words of Diane Ackerman, and to TextAppeal, for the quote-image featuring the words of Stephen R. Covey. The other quote-image, featuring the words of Robert Alan Aurthur, was assembled by Jan S. Gephardt, with help from a Wikimedia image. It shows a detail of the Almoravid Minbar, commissioned by Ali Bin Yusuf Bin Tashfin al-Murabiti in 1137 for his great mosque in Marrakesh. Photo by By إيان – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia.
The two photo montages also were conceived and assembled by Jan S. Gephardt. The montage inspired by the MIT science fiction literature class is composed from a photo of the MIT Media Lab Building from Dezeen, three book covers, and a magazine cover. Books: The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin (thank you, Target). The City & The City, by China Miéville (thank you, Penguin Random House). Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer (thank you, LA Times, FSG Originals, and illustrator Eric Nyquist). Apex Magazine’s cover features Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™, by Rebecca Roanhorse.
The montage of the map hemmed in by “Do Not Enter,” “Road Closed,” “Road Ends,” and “Dead End” signs includes a map of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. I chose it for its map-folds and size, not to express any opinion of those lovely states. It comes courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. Road signs come from a variety of sources. Driving Tests provided a “Do Not Enter” sign and a “Dead End” sign. Two “Road Closed” signs came from the City of Prairie Village, KS, while Angela Carmona uploaded the third, rather dramatic one to Pinterest. Also via Pinterest, I’m grateful to Todd Gordon and Kevin Barnett for the two “Road Ends” signs. Many thanks to all!