As a writer and lover of all things science fiction, I spend a lot of time thinking about the future. I wonder what the world will look like not only five years from now, but also five hundred years from now. Back to the Future’s vision of 2015 proved exaggerated, but I’m curious to see if Star Trek’s, Isaac Asimov’s, or William Gibson’s will be more accurate.
Will we encounter other species like the Romulans or Klingons?
Will we create mechanical beings that challenge our notions of human identity?
Will we find a way to seamlessly incorporate technology into our physical bodies?
Some people have argued that science fiction is a form of escapism. They suggest that writers create imaginary futures because their own time periods are chaotic with social or political unrest.
Others have stated that science fiction is a form of prescient allegory where writers explore the consequences of their society’s actions. And then there are still others who view science fiction as a laboratory, the place where we hypothesize and experiment with the “if” and “then” of time.
Whether escapism, allegory, or lab, science fiction presents us with heroes, thieves, tricksters, damsels, rogues, and other archetypes. Even though our every day literary familiars have been transplanted across time and space, we still recognize them. Battles between good and evil are still waged in galaxies far, far away.
Authors, actors, and directors leave visual breadcrumbs for us to follow as we traverse the unknown terrain of the future. He may carry a light saber and ride a Tauntaun, but we know to cheer for Luke Skywalker.
And the fact that I often recognize these futuristic worlds as my own is what troubles me about science fiction.
Because these worlds often present racial utopias without explaining how we achieved them.
Did you ever see Kirk, Uhura, and Sulu get into a debate about racial inequality?
Or Picard and Guinan discuss institutionalized sexism?
In the Star Trek universe, the crews are racially diverse. Women and men captain starships equally. Throughout the many iterations of Star Trek, it is implied that the problems of today are relics, things of the past. In the future, we won’t suffer from police brutality, environmental destruction, racial discord, rampant sexism, and human trafficking. Humanity will evolve and move forward to its manifest destiny across the stars to a highbrow future of space exploration.
Unfortunately, the writers of some of my favorite science fiction novels, short stories, and films failed to disclose how on earth we solved these issues.
This is why, as a black woman writer, I continue to dream about the future and imagine the worlds that exist there. But as I’ve gotten older, my imagination has become tempered because, as ungracious as this sounds, I find it irresponsible to pave a future without a road map.
I don’t want to construct a future without any hope of getting there.
Though such a practical idea is antithetical to a writer’s imagination, I’m tired of fantasizing about a future that has no basis in reality, that doesn’t take into account that we are always already living in the future.
Since 2008, I’ve been told that I live in a post-race society, yet I can count the amount of non-white people in my PhD program, and I can name all of the non-white professors I’ve been taught by throughout my graduate career.
Well meaning individuals have continually told me that racial issues aren’t as prevalent today as they were “back then.” Conversely, I’ve heard stories about “the good old days” when people got along with each other and helped their neighbors.
By and large no one has ever been able to tell me how far “back” I have to go to find “then” or for whom those “days” were “good” for.
Now, I should mention that not every vision of the future is starry eyed. For every future utopia there is a dystopia where starvation, global warming, governmental takeover, nuclear holocaust, robot overlords, or tentacled aliens have brought about mankind’s destruction. However, in these depictions of the future, mankind usually unites in the face of a common threat. Larger, more overwhelming concerns overtake the snags that have become integral threads in our American tapestry. After all, who cares about sexism when aliens are blowing up the White House?
But I have to be honest: I’ve grown a bit weary of waiting for a singularity to unite us. In order to bring about the inclusive and utopian future I desire, it might be time to change occupations.
Writing – building universes and creating galaxies – has taught me how to see where I’m going, but I think cartography may actually help me to get there.
Any honest PhD candidate will tell you that our work can be isolating. Even though a great deal of our work involves interaction (teaching, office hours, comparing notes with colleagues, attending lectures, and sometimes venting with other students about how we never have enough time), the majority of our work requires great stretches of time spent alone.
I’ve always loved the etymology of kindness, which comes from kin—those to whom we are bound by choice or genealogy. And yet I often find kindness is most difficult to practice with my family—those who have witnessed just how unkind I can be.
Last summer, the book project I was in the midst of was mapped out on a drafting table in my writing space: sheets of paper with lists and quotes, photographs and maps, excerpts from 19th century books on gold mining.
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