Charlie Jane Anders is an author, editor and activist. She is one of the co-founders of io9 and the author, most recently, of All the Birds in the Sky, which was nominated for and won a lot of prizes and general acclaim (including the 2017 Nebula Award for Best Novel, No. 5 on Time’s list of best novels of the year). Her next novel, The City in the Middle of the Night, will be out in February of 2019. She co-hosts the delightfully titled science fiction podcast Our Opinions Are Correct. She is also an outspoken advocate for diversity in genre fiction, and frequently gives talks about the power of narratives to lift up those society often overlooks or oppresses. That’s what I wanted to talk to her about.
Watching television on the night of the midterm elections, I was struck by how quickly commentators glommed onto the idea that the Democrats nominated a very diverse and very progressive array of candidates who didn’t do as well as they should, and so it was a bad night for them. It felt like the message was, “Nice try, but you lost.” How does science fiction help people when the dominant message is so dispiriting?
Our world is made out of stories, and that is never more obvious than during an election where you have these dueling narratives where one candidate will say, “This election is all about gun violence,” and the other candidate will say, “It’s all about immigrants.” They tell you what will happen if you vote for them, what will happen if you vote for their opponent, what the problems that are going on in the world that they think they can fix. Often, they try to convince you that you're in a different genre of story. One candidate will try to convince you that you're in an action movie or a thriller where there's a huge threat that we have to freak out about and that is going to get us, and the other candidate will maybe try to convince us that we're in a different story where we have to fix our problems or whatever. The thing that's great about science fiction as a genre of writing is that it usually takes place in a world that's explicitly constructed.
Science fiction has a track record of helping people to question the stories they're being told because often in science fiction, there's an undercurrent of people being given a false vision of the world or being given an over-simplified vision of the world or not understanding. There’s a tradition in science fiction of looking at misunderstandings and looking at received narratives and showing how the world is never that simple.
So because science fiction has constructed narratives, it helps people see that the narrative that’s being constructed in front of them in the real world. But what if you don’t see yourself in that real-world narrative? Is diversity in science fiction something that can translate into empowering marginalized people in actual politics?
It's not an accident that as more marginalized people are standing up and trying to be heard, we're also seeing them reflected as creators and as characters, as heroes, as protagonists in speculative fiction.
I think it’s easy to understand how narratives can be empowering, but you’ve also said we need creative narratives to help us imagine why people do bad things.
In my story, "Don't Press Charges and I Won't Sue," I've been asked about the fact that one of the two point of view, characters in that story is this terrible guy, Jeffrey, who is basically torturing his childhood friend. We get a lot of like Jeffrey's point of view and you have to sympathize with him even though he's objectively doing horrible sadistic things to someone who was his friend. And I want people to identify with that character, I want people to see themselves in him because I want them to reflect on our willingness to go along with horrible stuff.
And I tried to publish that story in a fancy literary magazine [It appeared in Boston Review's “Dystopias" issue] was because I wanted it to be read by middle-of-the-road people, I didn't want to just write it to be read by my community or people “on my side."
People might think they have to seek out narratives about and by marginalized people, but I wonder if it’s really that hard. Those narratives can be right in front of you. I think of some mainstream pop culture as being “sneakily subversive.”
Like so many people, I'm obsessed with Steven Universe, which is this cartoon about this little kid who lives with these three magical superhero ladies who are basically light projections from crystals. It's a show with a lot of queerness and a lot of messages of inclusion and the central message of the show seems to be that learning to understand each other is better than fighting. It recently had what might be the first same-sex marriage on a kid's cartoon ever and it was beautiful and that show is awesome. Supergirl is a show that I'm obsessed with because even before they added a transgender character, it's been a show that has been relentlessly pushing messages about immigration and assimilation and basically pro-immigrant messages, which is in line with what Superman, the character, was always about.
And what was the sneakily subversive stuff that you read as kid?
A Wrinkle in Time was like a big influence on me when I was a little kid. The Phantom Tollbooth. I don't know how subversive it is. It's sort of weirdly nonsensical and it I think that that makes it subversive in a weird way. I read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books at a very impressionable age, and because they're so weird and goofy and silly, they're subversive in the sense that they leave you with the sense that everything is absurd and ridiculous. I think that is a powerful thing, especially for a kid to encounter.
Why do you think silliness is subversive?
Part of what makes people freak out and want to, you know, support repressive policies is this sense that things should be under control or that everything should make sense. I feel like I encounter that with people who are transphobic who to think, “Gender is very simple. There's men and there's women and your gender is assigned at birth and everything is set in stone.” They have the need for things to not be more confusing. I think teaching kids and adults to be comfortable with the idea that things are confusing and don't always make immediate sense to you is actually a really good thing.