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Prax Meng, Ganymede refugee.

Space the Nation: We are refugees

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Apr 3, 2018

It does not take much imagination to envision those of other cultures who seek refuge in our country as “aliens.” That’s what some people often call them—and lately, being in a nerdy frame of mind when reading the headlines of anti-immigration propagandists can make these times seem delightfully weird rather than claustrophobically fearful: “Four Situations in Which Aliens Are Treated Better Than Citizens,” or “A Judge's Magical Thinking About an Alien 'Activist's' Constitutional Rights.” 

For decades, if not centuries, genre fiction has had played with the idea of immigration by making the differences between cultures galactic rather than merely continental. As Charlie Jane Anders has argued, science fiction, broadly speaking, is itself the literature of refugees. Whether it’s Superman or Arthur Dent, everyone’s always fleeing from somewhere. When the aliens are not recognizably humanoid, the stories become metaphors for assimilation and the threat and promise of diversity (Alien Nation, the Zygons of Doctor Who, District 9). Yet however well-intentioned, older stories about immigration often tend to reflect the biases of white privilege; it’s still the aliens invading, they just are green or from Mars instead of the Southern Hemisphere. The critical commentary emerges from caricaturing our panic rather than questioning it or subverting it.

But what if it's humanity who are refugee population? What if we’re the ones begging a more affluent and stable civilization for assistance?  

A personal favorite: the entire Battlestar Galactica reboot was based in the idea of humanity in exile, and Season 3 explicitly explored what happens when the exploiters become the exploited. Once a servant class, the Cylons rule New Caprica with an iron fist (or whatever it is their fists are made of). Humans resort to terrorism, including suicide bombings and IEDs, in an uncomfortable echo of the most violent depths of the war in Iraq, which played out in the headlines even as BSG aired. It’s probably one of the most sophisticated and morally evocative treatments of the subject ever put before a mass audience. Conservatives were appalled by the show’s cheek but the season earned the show its only Emmy nomination for writing and one of its two nominations for directing.

A more sprawling take undergirds the whole series of The Expanse (spoiler alert!). It begins with Earth as a divided but dominant empire. The “Belters” are the migrants and refugees, humans on Mars are cocky former colonists. The roles are reversed through an act of planetary terrorism, and Earth residents are forced to rely on the generosity of those they once subjugated. And there are the poor residents of Ganymede, who never had any real power, and who become political footballs at the mercy of whoever happens to take pity of them (or have a point to prove). The writer of the TV series episode dealing with Ganymede drew from the Syrian crisis for inspiration but the series co-creator noted "there's a grim evergreen quality" to such scenes. Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series has a backstory that’s more, well, humane about the whole thing. Humans are the civilizationally backwards race who, having fled Earth, must prove that they have set aside their wasteful, destructive ways if they want to be members of the Galactic Commons.  

Games can be very fertile ground for this narrative. Homeworld’s protagonists aren’t “humans,” but the story of the Kushan does force the humanoid race to band together for their peripatetic journey back to Hiigara. The Mass Effect universe is full twists on immigration and refugees, including an actual, metastasizing refugee camp. Mass Effect: Andromeda sees humanity in flight again, and arriving on a world where, in the words of the game’s producer, “You are the alien, but you’re not only the alien, you’re also not as strong as the guys that are already there. You’re weaker or at least at the same level. Everything you learn, you have lessons to take from those guys. You’re in their home.” 

Octavia Butler interrogated the theme of humanity’s diaspora over and over again, usually with chilling, thoughtful intimacy. Bloodchild, for example, isn’t just about humans who have to settle on another planet, but what happens when they are used as breeding stock. Children of Time explores the volatile gap between human refugees and extremely not-humanoid culture with less contact but some truly astonishing feats of what Darko Suvin called “cognitive estrangement” — the dominant species that humanity seeks to find refuge with evolved from spiders, and their technology and society are thoroughly rooted in spiderness, giving them little grip on the desires and needs of the voyagers from Earth.

These stories remind fans of the relatively trivial nature of political  borders and use the framework “illegal aliens” to illuminate how xenophobia, well, dehumanizes us all.

Thanks to all that commented and responded to my Twitter call for examples, including @GrittyCitySndr, @RobbLoeb, @theobald\_ben and @NathanJLawrence.