Undiscovered Countries

On Labor Day, I had the pleasure of watching SyFy’s Trekathon. In these times where it seems like all the news is bad news, the future, and worse, visions of the future, seem increasingly bleak, it was both nostalgic and exciting to revisit the inherent optimism that Gene Roddenberry infused in the original Star Trek franchise.

StarTrek6pic_origI grew up in Star Trek. My mother, being a mixed-race woman growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, found the vision of a world of Infinite Diversity and Infinite Combinations (IDIC) to be compelling and wonderful. I grew up going to Star Trek conventions with her wildly diverse group of friends whose main point of commonality was this optimistic vision of what could be, and there is still a fanzine out there somewhere in someone’s attic with my first poem titled, “I Love Spock.”

idic_keep_calm_by_sailmaster_seion-d6dv4rrI don’t remember what I wrote, and that’s probably for the best.

I do remember running through the halls of the Hunt Valley Marriot Hotel at Shoreleave (a Star Trek convention that I recently revisited after a decade had passed,) playing laser tag with kids and adults of all ages and backgrounds. I remember being horribly teased because my mother wrote me a note explaining that the reason I wasn’t in school for the Friday of that weekend was because I had a “family reunion” and my friend at the time (who I’d made the mistake of excitedly confiding in) told someone else, who told a teacher, so when I got back, even the teachers were making fun of me being “taken to my leader” and the like. (Some of this was good natured, and some of it was not…doesn’t matter, my mom is just awesome either way!) I still have most of my Tribbles (and Dribbles, the ones with the eyes) and I owned the two tape series, Power Klingon, though I never had the dedication to learn the language. I remember Pirate parties, and watching the first appearance of the Borg at my mom’s friend’s house in front of her giant screen TV, gasping in horror and shock when Picard declared, “I am Locutus of Borg.”

i_am_locutus_of_borg_by_trotsky17-d5fjy65In short, I was raised in a Geek’’s Paradise, and it’s made me who I am today. Thank whatever Gods are out there.

Yet now, when we look at visions of the future in popular media, it seems like the darker aspects of our nature dominate. Don’t get me wrong, I love these dark stories too. The remake of Judge Dredd had me on the edge of my seat, and I’m a huge fan of the ‘we’re all just trying to stay ahead of the gutter, but we don’t really win’ theme that permeates Firefly (the series). I love cyberpunk and Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell. I think these stories are a reflection of the world we’re living in, where the line between good and evil seems increasingly blurred, and there are so many possibilities even in your Facebook feed that it’s difficult to latch onto anything and call it right.

It’s hard to imagine a United Federation of Planets when even having an effective United Nations seems difficult, and getting the U.S. Congress to do anything seems impossible.

As fiction writers, we’re supposed to be lying to tell the truth. But I wonder if, in the barrage of negativity we see in the world, the bombardment of Youtube videos of beheadings, school and police shootings, and the generalized glorification of violence that seems rampant in our media, we are reflecting the right stuff. Not that I’m advocating in any way the forced wholesomeness of censored media. I just wonder if by reflecting disproportionately the dark, depressing, and violent, are we in turn projecting a future of increasing darkness, depression and unnecessary violence?

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When Gene Roddenberry envisioned the bridge of the Star Ship Enterprise, that vision did not reflect the world he lived in. The world he lived in had rampant sexism and racism throughout. The world he lived in considered the Russians and the Japanese to be the enemy, and Black people having equal rights to be a threat to the fabric of ‘normal’ society. He projected a better world (okay, one that still had its fair share of sexism and whitewashing but he was trying.) His future was optimistic, and people like my mother in that optimism found a future worth believing in. It’s what drew me towards science, writing science fiction and fantasy, and towards a deeply held understanding that the differences between us can be breached through open conversation and mutual respect. I think it helped foster in me a basic belief in the goodness of people (which often contrasts with reality, but I’ve found that by having faith in people’s better natures, they will often live up to them in spite of themselves.) It’s not 100%, and Star Trek has been forced on many occasions to examine and recreate itself when it has not lived up to its vision, but that vision has shaped our world and many, many people (like me) in it.

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When I think about writing, I do find myself sometimes falling into the trap of being reactive. In writing, especially in writing speculative fiction, we have the ability literally to shape worlds and reality, and it’s easy to reflect haphazardly instead of truly creating. And reflecting is great, when there’s something behind it. That said, I also think we have a profound opportunity, right now, because things seem so dark, to create through our fiction a world we want to live in. Not a perfect world, but maybe a possible future where the darker parts of our nature haven’t won yet. Where it’s not a given that we’ll all be living in a dystopian hellhole just because it sure looks like that’s where we’re going. (and I LOVE dystopian hellhole books and movies, I’m just sayin’…) Maybe we can write about a world where everyone, at every moment, isn’t entirely operating from pure self-interest. (GotG managed to pull this one off I think) Because compassion is a part of us too, and sometimes it even wins. The truth is, we are a mix of dark and light, optimism and pessimism, action and reaction.

So let’s lay in our course to the futures that we create, and let some of them even rest among the stars.

Naima

 

 

 

It’s the End of the World . . .

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With the weather going crazy, various economies crashing and burning, and the probability of global foot shortages by 2050 if trends continue as they are, is it any surprise that apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic media (with its sundry false utopias and true dystopias) is doing so well lately? And who doesn’t love a good romp through Zombieland? Or a chance to stand on the front lines of World War Z? There’s a lot of great work out there, but as I watch the real life destruction in the aftermath of natural disasters like Super Typhoon Haiyan, which spent the weekend laying waste to the Philippines, I can’t help but wonder what the face of the end of the world is really going to look like. What stories aren’t we telling, and what are we missing by leaving these worlds untapped?

I was living in Japan on March 11, 2011 when the earthquake and tsunami destroyed a significant area of northern Honshu and began the ongoing nuclear disaster at Fukushima. As I lived an hour outside of Nagoya City, well south of the disaster, I didn’t feel the Earthquake. Worse, my poor Japanese and my poorer knowledge of tsunamis and earthquakes in general meant I didn’t realize the scale of the situation until hours after it happened, and only due to the frantic Facebook messages and emails from family and friends who were terrified I had died. For the people near Fukushima, it was the end of the world. Meanwhile, I was eating knock-off Italian at a Japanese Famuri-resturan, not even aware that people in the States would notice that there had been an earthquake because it had happened at 4am there and who was going to be awake? In short, even a major disaster is going to affect different people in different areas differently, and a whole lot of survival is just pure, random luck.

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One serious difference I’ve noticed with real life natural disasters like Super Typhoon Haiyan, the two massive tsunamis that have wrecked significant portions of Asia in the past 15 years, the recent earthquake in Haiti, and Superstorm Sandy in the north-east US (not to mention the countless droughts, floods and tornadoes that seem to be running amok) is how international a problem this truly is. In a world apocalypse scenario, the WHOLE WORLD might actually be involved. But if a movie comes out of Hollywood, you can be certain that aside from the obligatory destruction of Tokyo tower, some buildings in Hong Kong, that statue in Brazil that always gets toppled (it’s called Christ the Redeemer in English in case you were wondering), and a random five seconds of Masai waving spears somewhere in the savannah (and yes, Africa has many different countries, climates and even cities but do we see those?), the movie itself will be centered around somewhere in the US with a racial mix that’s about the same as you’d see on US network TV. But on the bright side, at least these days, the Black guy isn’t obligated to die first.

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There are exceptions.  I think the movie World War Z actually did a decent job of actually showing worldwide destruction and reactions to it, though of course it was the Western characters (mainly US) who ultimately saved the day.

But what didn’t we see?  It’s safe to say, if you’re gay, you can forget even participating in the apocalypse. What about transgendered people? Heroines who doesn’t exist solely to be rescued by the male lead? People of color? People of color from non-Western countries? Or wouldn’t it be great to have genderqueer Somalis duking it out with the undead? Or to flip it even more, how about using a non-Western concept of the undead as a central focus of the story?

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While we’re on the subject of defying tropes, let’s face it, if you’re not in top running form, apocalyptic media considers you meat. Now obviously when there is a shambling zombie hoard moving in your direction, fast running helps, but one could argue that also so does quick thinking. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a story which deals with someone who is differently abled fighting to survive? Maybe someone who is blind? Or someone in a wheelchair? Someone on dialysis?

Any of these things could add another level of dramatic tension and take a story to a new level as opposed to simply chugging along the same track. Instead of saying, “That would never work,” ask yourself, “how could this work?” preferably as a fully dimensional, strongly rendered character on the page. By stepping a bit outside of the norms of the tropes we see on the silver screen and between the pages of popular novels, we have a chance to create something new, and rise to fame by having done something truly unique with what seems like a tired trope.

What, where, or who do you think is overlooked in apocalyptic literature as we know it? Who have I overlooked? What would you like to try and how would you approach it? Feel free to put your thoughts in the comments.

Cheers, Naima 🙂

Information to donate for Typhoon Haiyan Relief here: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/11/09/haiyan-how-you-can-help/3484467/

*Note: All Photos purchased Royalty Free from Shutterstock.com