Image: Devin Cooper
One of the best things about living in the Bay Area is that people who make different kinds of art often get the chance to make it together.
Last week, I got to read something I wrote to accompany a series of paintings by my friend, Katie Morton. So did some other local writers, Louis Evans and Danielle Truppi. Borderlands Books hosted us, and we had a great time.
I wrote a little about what science fiction is, from the point of view of a person in a future where it no longer exists. I finished writing this while I was at Wiscon, which is in its 40th year in 2016 but for my own first time. The convention got me thinking about the state of the genre, and where we’re headed. I scrapped most of what I had written to that point and rewrote it with my head full of speeches by this year’s guests of honor, Nalo Hopkison and Sofia Samatar.
What Was Science Fiction?
Guests, esteemed colleagues, it is my great honor to appear here with you today. I am Dr. Elison, professor of Pre-Crisis texts at the University of Calivada Berkeley-Nabisco. I am speaking with you today thanks to the work of several researchers in our temporal engineering department. The Schrodinger Projector here in this podium allows me to project my image not only omnidirectionally in time, but also across divisions in the multiverse. It is possible that I am addressing you from a future that you will never experience. I suppose only time will tell.
My subject today is a pre-crisis genre of texts commonly referred to as science fiction. This genre incorporates many pre-digital texts, but the bulk of the preserved works exist now in the university wetware system. Berkeley-Nabisco’s collection is the foremost inside the quarantine zone, and anyone with a licensed neural integrator may examine it. It is from this collection that I have drawn my conclusions.
The banning of genre fiction came as no surprise to the academics who lived in crisis times. It followed naturally and logically, subsequent to the regime’s outlawing of negative or critical representation of the state or its leaders. From there, what was once referred to as the right of free speech steadily eroded. The early crisis years saw the loss of commercially produced pornography, as well as most forms of immersive gaming. The blacklists of explicit material and those who produced it were even lauded in certain institutions, as the works thought to represent a return to “traditional values.” The meaning of this term is nebulous and its actual definition may be lost to history.
However, up until the third year of the crisis, science fiction was still produced. Some fragments exist from the final examples in our archive, dated just before the genre disappeared forever. The final iteration in the multimedia saga known as Star Wars, titled Rogue One, exists as a series of corrupted digital film files in the archive in my today. Like the fragments here before you in your time, it is difficult to ascertain whether that media depicts a future, a past, or an alternate path in the multiverse.
What is clear is that science fiction served the purpose of imagining or creating a timeline other than the one in which the viewer and the artist lived. It was a way of constructing the world along an alternate outline, to ask the question ‘what if?’ and then to answer it in a way that ultimately commented on the world as it was. It is this last function that fascinates me, and forms the basis of my thesis. Although many academics believe that the banned genres existed purely for pleasure and diversion, I maintain that each of these works contained some form of social commentary. Indeed, it was for this reason that science fiction may have been a contributing factor to the crisis itself.
Before the destruction of the genre, science fiction media had for a long time fixated on the end of the world. In some works, such as the mystifying and partially unreadable text known as “Adventure Time” posed the apocalypse in a whimsical style. In others, such as the lesser-known “Elysium” or “Planet of the Apes” saga, the futures were a thing to be feared. However, no matter what the tone of this media, it allowed audiences to envision the world to come after some delineating event. Science fiction of the apocalypse sought out the unmaking of the world in order to make space for it to be remade according to a new design.
It was this that provided the regime with the public approbation it needed to enact sweeping changes in both governance and warfare. Voters inside the quarantine zone had been instructed by the social commentary of science fiction that only after the corrupt world had been demolished could a virtuous one rise.
The virtues espoused by the genre of science fiction include white supremacy, the primacy of the male gender, gender binary, the necessity of euthanizing the severely disabled, the exceptionalism of the nation formerly known as America, the intrinsic worth of warfare as a method of spreading and preserving one’s culture, and the importance of space travel. These norms emerged after a long cultural struggle wherein women and nonwhites were permitted to publish in and read this genre. This period was brief, and we are only capable of locating those works in the canon through remaining reviews and criticisms; the works themselves were expurgated some time before the crisis.
The chilling irony is that the creators of science fiction media were in complete agreement with the crisis-era government. Their symbols were co-opted for propaganda; Captain America was a popular mascot for Dow Chemical long after the graphic novels that created him were banned and destroyed. Robocop’s films were first banned and then eradicated when the crisis-era government determined that they contained too much screentime featuring nonwhite faces, yet we’ve all seen him in milipolice training and tourism videos. Paul Atreides Bank is in fact named after an exceptional character from this genre heavily associated with the riches of oil and spices for which the conglomerate is known.
Once the regime had sanitized these icons and made them into trademarks, they no longer held any value. And so they, like the subversive works of such lost and hardly-known writers as the elusive Nalo Hopkinson or Ted Chiang, were scrubbed from all drives, disks, clouds, and other dryware systems. It is my hope that some of the lost works still exist in your timeline and the crisis can still be averted for you. The Berkeley-Nabisco library is forever indebted to the work of Burrtec-Edison’s electronics waste collection initiative for turning over all potentially readable media discovered on the western side of the quarantine zone for our skilled extraction and archiving. Most of what we find is the approved content of the former state, but some are these pre-crisis gems.
The Schrodinger Projector is an inexact machine, for the multiverse is always in motion and every decision we make can potentially destroy the connection between my timeline and yours. I see through the haze of our linkup that many of the works upon which you gaze tonight are unknown to me. If my optical implants are providing me with correct information, beyond them lie many texts that you may lay your hands on that I can only dream of seeing. I do not know if yours is a verse in which the crisis can be avoided; but if there are texts available to you in any medium that represent the work of diverse creators, SEIZE IT. Propagate it. Celebrate it. I hope that my verse is your verse, and that one of the choices you make will stop me from transmitting.