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Science fiction, genre, and the real world

Contributed by
Jun 24, 2020

While trapped inside our own houses for the past three months, the best option seemed to be to lose ourselves in the stories we love. When you’re staring at the same four walls all day and only venturing outside — mask firmly in place, tripping over yourself to stay six feet away from others at all times — for supply runs, television, movies, comics, and books are a great distraction. What better way to feel like you have some sort of control over your life and the world around you than to pretend, just for a few hours, that the real world doesn’t exist? 

Instead, you can march through the Tatooine desert with R2-D2 and a particularly fussy C-3PO, hunker down in the Batmobile with the Dark Knight and your favorite Robin, or revel in a different kind of fear as Linda Blair spits up pea soup.

Losing ourselves in the fictional problems of fictional worlds felt appropriate, it felt right, it felt good under quarantine. Because, ultimately, there was little we could do about a microscopic virus beyond protect ourselves and others, be conscientious, wait it out, and dream of a day when we’d maybe have a vaccine and get back to “normal” — whatever that was. As the days and weeks and months passed, it became clear that “normal” was an ever-moving and ever-evolving target. Two years from now, “normal” could look very different from what it looked like two years ago.

And nothing has made that more clear than the events since May 25, when George Floyd was killed by a police officer while in police custody as three other officers stood by and did nothing. Much of the world watched in shock while others — people who know that the United States’ history of violent racism against Black people is nothing new and is, in fact, ground so deeply into the foundation of America that the two are impossible to separate — decided to do something.

For the first time in almost three months, America’s city streets came alive, this time with protesters demanding radical, institutional change and accountability for centuries of ongoing violence against Black Americans.

Since that moment, pretending the real world and its very real problems don’t exist is no longer an option.

That is not to say that the stories we love and grew up with are not important in their depiction of the world — because they are. The best fictional stories are the ones that take inspiration from the real world, that shift it just enough to make it an allegory rather than a history textbook, that use otherworldly storytelling as a way to make the painful palatable. 

Ultimately, though, the stories and fictional universes we love are just that: fiction. Star Wars’ Empire is not real despite its inspirations being very real; George Lucas famously wrote Star Wars as an artistic protest against the United States’ role in the Vietnam War. Planet of the Apes was a grim warning about where humanity might be heading if it continued to destroy itself. Godzilla began his career of destruction as a metaphor for the horror of the atomic bomb. James Cameron made the villain in Terminator 2: Judgement Day a cop to make a point

Genre — like all storytelling — takes the real world, shifts it into something else, and then presents it to an audience. A refracted reality in which cold hard truths are reframed through the fantastical. Sci-fi fans know these stories are ways of processing the real world because, more often than not, depicting even the most deplorable elements of humanity — hate, racism, bigotry, sexism, xenophobia, the list goes on — impresses on us a stark fact: that these prejudices exist. To deny that would be tantamount to giving them power. To face them would be to acknowledge the inviolable responsibility we have to remain vigilant against them.

If people don't see institutional racism at work, it's likely because it doesn't affect them — but everyone understands when the Bad Guy is the Bad Guy in a story. Good vs. evil is the bread and butter of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and superhero stories; they provide opportunities to peek, however briefly, through lenses you might not even know existed in the first place, to glimpse the terror and the oppression, the decay and the injustice. 

But also to glimpse something else: a hopeful vision of a future — one that shows us where we can and should go.  

Star Trek envisioned a utopia marked by a groundbreaking interracial kiss that far outdistanced the series’ 1960s milieu. Black Panther matter-of-factly depicted an era of fully realized Afrofuturism that melded technology and tradition. Wonder Woman upended the patriarchy with a warrior-protector whose purity of purpose and conviction defied gender lines. The Handmaid’s Tale forged a portrait of fortitude amid damning political times. The Battlestar Galactica reboot stared down the trauma of 9/11 and harnessed it into a searing space opera on war, terror, and attrition.

“I realized immediately that if you redid that show at that moment in time, it would have a whole different resonance for the audience… that’s a completely different show than it was in 1978,” Battlestar Galactica executive producer Ronald D. Moore said earlier this year. “And it was an opportunity to really comment on the time that we were in and talk about things that were current in American society and in the world.”

It’s OK to take time to remember what it is that brings you joy and to take care of your health on every level — physically, emotionally, mentally — but don’t forget that the messages of these stories you love are that we, as a society, have a responsibility to protect and stand up for each other. Genre has long served as a mirror that creators hold up to society — “Look at yourself.” “Look at who you choose to be.” “Look at the ways you choose to treat others.” — with the hope that, one day, we might like what we see. Average, everyday people can stand firm and change the world for the better. What do you want your part in that story to be?

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