I just read something horrible about Orson Scott Card. For those of you who don’t know, he’s a science-fiction writer--Ender’s Game, one of his early novels, is coming out as a movie any minute now. Writes pretty good stuff, only I have had to exercise a certain amount of tolerance because he has annoying ideas about women. But that’s nothing compared to his thoughts on homosexuality. He’s not all “kill the gays,” he just thinks we should keep sodomy laws on the books--not so we can apply them indiscriminately; that would be abusive—but so that we can hold them over the heads of homosexuals to control their behavior in public. But that’s not, he assures us, bigotry or homophobia[i]; it’s just protecting society from a threat.[ii]
It started me thinking about science-fiction and prejudice. I’ve always thought of science-fiction as the antithesis of bigotry. I took in the original Star Trek literally with my mother’s milk (ha ha, sorry, Mom). I always wanted to be Captain Kirk (sans scantily-clad space bimbos)[iii], but I identified with Spock, the logical, isolated, unaffected half-alien who didn’t belong to either species.
By the time I was seven or eight and had watched every episode roughly a dozen times, I took for granted that big, scary, human-eating rocks are mothers trying to protect their children, and race is a reflection in a mirror (don’t pretend you don’t know what episodes I’m talking about) and communication is everything, and sometimes it’s the logical, isolated, unemotional alien who provides the empathic mind-meld that makes communication possible.
It’s probably because I identify with Spock that I write about characters like actor Emma Sloan[iv] who, in the words of her flamboyant agent Reggie: Was a child holo star, biggest box office draw in history (he’s prone to hyperbole). She does three plays a year, and when she’s not working, she’s studying fencing or dance or rock-climbing or some dumb-fool-thing any stunt double could do for her. She makes every B holo a cult favorite, every blockbuster a classic, every villain a hero, every bit part a starring role, and when she commits to a project, she is one-hundred-percent committed.
But after spending nearly every day of her life pretending to be other people [v], she winds up implanted with a gengineered symbiotic organism that replaces her skin. Now not only can’t she wrap herself in the roles of other people, she can’t even convincingly play Emma Sloan, assuming she has ever known who that is. She can navigate by sonar. She begins tasting things with her fingers. She can make herself bulletproof or pull her body apart and put it back together in new shapes. It all sounds great except that it makes her an alien even to herself.[vi]
Can you write sympathetically about aliens without recognizing your own alienation, and how can a science-fiction writer recognize his own alienation and still be a bigot? Or is bigotry our defense against excommunication from whatever community we look to for our sense of belonging? My point is that science-fiction, above all other genres, has the power to replace bigotry as our armor against rejection. Whoops, I’ve descended to platitudes, but I guess as long as I’m talking about dropping our armor, that brings me around to Symbiont again.
The symbiotic skins have to occasionally stop and merge with each other. It’s their way of exchanging information—new skills, new shape-changes, new immunities, or just to re-affirm their individual connections to a larger organism. The merge can also be used by a particularly charismatic individual to impose control over the thoughts and feelings of the rest. Now that I think about it, that sounds like some kind of metaphor for the way our communities influence our prejudices etc. Metaphors. Pfbbblt. There you are, innocently writing along, and some jerk accuses you of themes or metaphors or something equally noxious.[vii] It’s is a bitch of a complication for Emma because she’s supposed to catch the escaped symbionts who were implanted before her, and instead, every time she gets near them, she wants to sit down for a nice merge that will expose her to the same shade of bonkers that infected them.
So maybe I’m naïve. Okay, I know I’m naïve. Science-fiction isn’t above the human condition, and writers aren’t moral supermen—I mean super-persons—but the new Star Trek is out at the local theater in 3D, so there’s still a place where, as Kirk said in The Undiscovered Country, “Spock, we’re all human.”
[i] Many persons of “conservative ideology” object to “name-calling” when they are characterized as bigots or homophobes. But a person who steals is a thief. A person who murders is a murderer. A person who lies is a liar.
[ii] There’s more. You can read his full opinion here: http://www.nauvoo.com/library/card-hypocrites.html He includes an apologia explaining that he was writing to an audience (Mormons) who shared his beliefs and that therefore his arguments were not homophobic or an example of bigotry.
[iii] I just made a joke about scantily-clad space bimbos. Please don’t take away my feminist card. The show was ahead of its time in terms of sexism and racism, but there was only so far they could go in a culture where the idea of a woman on the bridge was scandalous enough, let alone that she was black. At least she wore a nice, respectable mini-skirt and go-go boots. Otherwise, we might have thought she was a bimbo.
[iv] Symbiont: http://www.amazon.com/Symbiont-ebook/dp/B00APORBNU/
[v] My favorite throw-away detail—Emma once played triplets in The Parent Trap
[vi] I know, I know, it sounds like a character from X-men, but I had never read any of the X-men comics—wasn’t really aware of their existence until after I finished writing Symbiont. (shakes fist) Damn you, X-men!
[vii]Noxious primarily to high-school English students. Writers are often startled by the things critics and high-school English teachers read into their stories. Shoot, I had no idea I was that deep!
[viii] If you think you might be interested in visiting Yetfurther, there aren’t any guidebooks available yet, but you might read Strangers (www.amazon.com/Strangers-ebook/dp/B004INH7ZG/) which was set—for convenience—in Ms. McCann’s home town. Forgive the cover, and the print edition is temporarily unavailable.
They live with their six dogs (of course they have dogs on Yetfurther; humans don’t settle anywhere without dogs), and Melissa raises sillybuggers, which are a species of moderately-sized oviparous feathered saurinoid something like a dinosaur with a beak. With Cyrion city nearby for the occasional dip into art and culture, they nevertheless prefer their hand-hewn homestead, the slop of the lake against its banks, the chirp of mudrimples under the trees, and the feathery rustle of sneakdillies descending with the dusk. Better go inside to bed. Those sneakdillies have a nasty bite.
[i] If you think you might be interested in visiting Yetfurther, there aren’t any guidebooks available yet, but you might read Strangers (www.amazon.com/Strangers-ebook/dp/B004INH7ZG/) which was set—for convenience—in Ms. McCann’s home town. Forgive the cover, and the print edition is temporarily unavailable.