Looking at our problems head-on is uncomfortable. It either makes us angry, or it makes us retreat. Neither of those options are enjoyable. This is where SF/F has an advantage over other genres. Very few folks would opt to spend their Friday night watching a movie about, say, apartheid. But a movie with aliens and spaceships and giant arm cannons? Yeah, we’re all for that. Which is, of course, why we all went to see District 9, a movie about aliens and spaceships and giant arm cannons – and, y’know, apartheid.
The other kicker is that our stories are ones that could be, not ones that are. This is a vital distinction. If I tell you a disturbing story, and I say, “this is how it is right now,” you may be motivated to do something about it. More likely, however, you will end up like me and my friends, picking at fries and feeling hopeless. You’ll feel pessimistic and disillusioned. You’ll feel like our species totally sucks.
But if I show you a fantastical place – even a scary one – that lights up all the little imaginative parts of your brain, and I tell you, “this is how it could be,” that opens up a whole new realm of possibilities. If the underlying message is positive, then just like Dr. King said, you’ll feel empowered to work towards that future. Take, for example, Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space. Here’s a quote about her from a 1996 issue of Stanford Today (fair warning, that link’s a PDF):
As fantastical as it sounds, her pioneering journey about the Space Shuttle Endeavour was fueled by a childhood passion for “Star Trek,” its made-for-TV adventures stimulating a hunger for real ones in her mind. Who cared that, in reality, every U.S. astronaut was white and male at the time? She looked no further than the USS Enterprise. After all, right there on the screen, week in and week out, who could miss Lt. Uhura, the starship’s stylish, self-assured communications officer – and a black woman, no less. For little Mae, a child of the ’60s, the make-believe image was more potent than any dispiriting fact of real life.
Now, if the story shows us a grim future – such as Blade Runner or Battlestar Galactica – the same principle applies. Since the future depicted has not happened yet, we can work to avoid it. We can take it as a warning. We can use it to prepare for the road ahead of us.
I believe that the caveat of “the future” makes all science fiction, even at its most bleak, inherently hopeful. Even if it ends badly, I can still do something about it.
But what about fantasy? Fantasy can’t exist, no matter how we may long for a dragon heartstring wand or a dire wolf pup. What value can there be in exploring an impossible world?
Well, what if we frame the question differently? What if we ask, “What value can there be in exploring character studies in heroism, friendship, creativity, perseverance, and bravery?”
…yeah, that’s not even a question.
Of course, there’s the possibility that you won’t take anything like that away from a story. Some of you may have walked out of District 9 talking about arm cannons instead of apartheid. And you know what? That’s okay.
Consider this quote from Jane McGonigal‘s Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (which you should totally read).
When we’re depressed…we suffer from two things: a pessimistic sense of inadequacy and a despondent lack of activity. If we were to reverse these two traits, we’d get something like this: an optimistic sense of our own capabilities and an invigorating rush of activity. There’s no clinical psychological term that describes this positive condition. But it’s a perfect description of the emotional state of gameplay…In other words, gameplay is the direct emotional opposite of depression.
I think that applies to any fandom, not just gaming. Geeks are hardly passive recipients of entertainment. When we watch TV or read books, we’re not turning off our brains. We’re posting on our Tumblrs and arguing in forums and making cakes and fanart and level mods. A good story can leave us with a high that lasts for days.
When we’re in a concentrated state of optimistic engagement, it suddenly becomes biologically more possible for us to think positive thoughts, to make social connections, and to build personal strengths. We are actively conditioning our minds and bodies to be happier.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but that sounds to me like the most powerful tool for social change that we could possibly have.
The danger, of course, is getting so caught up in those alternate realities that we lose touch with the real world. This is what society thinks of when it thinks of geeks – sexless misfits devoid of social graces and personal hygiene. And yeah, those geeks exist. For some people, life is just so unpleasant that they wear their fictional worlds like a suit of armor. However, what we are dealing with here is a case of squares and rectangles. Some shut-ins are geeks. Not all geeks are shut-ins.
Or, to put it another way, just because you are a geek does not mean that your interests are without societal value.
Progress is impossible without imagination. When we say that we are geeks, what we’re really saying is that we like to get rampantly enthusiastic and think about new ideas. In my eyes, that makes us some truly extraordinary human beings. Far from being loners, we have woven ourselves into a weird, wonderful, mighty community that serves no other purpose than to get excited together. In a big, mean, scary world, that might just be revolutionary.
Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.