Thursday, 18 August 2016

Speculative Fiction: Holding Up the Mirror to Reality

I've always preferred stories where reality is an option, from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, to the Lord of the Rings, to The X-files, to Babylon 5, to X-men and The Avengers.  I could keep listing pivotal stories for the next several screens.  But there is one common thread among them all: despite being set in alternate realities or times, fantastical worlds or a slightly twisted version of our world, all great speculative fiction explores aspects of our world and culture.  By taking potentially explosive issues out of their real-world context, speculative fiction allows us to look at them without triggering emotional blindness.

Joss Whedon's short-lived television series Firefly explored the issue of sovereignty from the American Civil War.  By removing the issue of slavery from the equation, Whedon could explore the question of whether or not a people have the right to refuse to participate in a more technologically-advanced civilization.  The Browncoats fight for independence, for the right to decide their own fates.  Their Wild West existence is significantly different from the technological wonders of the Alliance and they don't want people in distant and foreign lands to make their rules or take the profit from their efforts.  Many people in the Alliance are surprised at the strength of the resistance, asking why anyone would refuse access to advanced medical knowledge and education and general quality of life.  The character, River, answers "because we meddle... We tell them what to do, what to think, don't run, don't walk. We're in their homes and in their heads and we haven't the right."

Bryan Singer's X2: X-men United (and the other X-men films) uses the mutants as an allegory for the LGBTQ community.  They are persecuted and feared for something they are born with and have no choice about.  The X-men have been used to represent different minority groups over the years, but Singer played with many aspects of what happens when a group is feared and repressed.  When Bobby Drake (Iceman) "comes out" to his family as a mutant, his mother asks "Have you tried not being a mutant?" and is clearly struggling with realizing that her baby boy is part of a group she has feared.  Some of the mutants respond with anger, forming the Brotherhood to overthrow the humans.  Some try to live in peace but are discouraged by constant attacks.  Some try to hide who they are.  On the other side, some people support the mutants, others fear them and others just want them to go away and stop challenging their perceptions of a safe world.

H.G. Wells' The Time Machine was a look at the strata of Victorian society.  As much as the upper level Eloi wanted to pretend that the lower level Morlocks didn't exist, the Eloi were dependent on them for their daily survival.  Wells deliberately drew a parallel with the servants, coal miners, laundresses, rag-men and other people who kept Victorian society rolling while the gentry and nobility amused and isolated themselves.  The problem was that periodically the lower levels rose up against their masters.  In the novel and film, this takes on a cannibalistic turn as the Morlocks hunt and consume the Eloi.  In the book, no matter how horrific, the reader can't help but be left with some sympathy for the Morlocks kept in the darkness.

This is the beauty of speculative fiction.  All fiction takes us outside of our ordinary experiences and exposes us to new ideas, new ways of thinking.  But, to me, there is something different about worlds of fantasy and slight changes to reality.  They can illuminate our blindspots and seduce us into expanding even the most closed minds.  With shiny armour or starships, flashing ray guns or dazzling magic, they invite us along for the fun, while coaxing us to learn at the same time.  The fantasy is the spoonful of sugar we need for the medicine of social change.

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