From Star Wars to Race Wars

While developing The Start of Eternity, I’ve been thinking about how Isaac Asimov might have written aliens into his stories about a fictional universe where humans colonize the galaxy. I think we can make some educated guesses based on the way he wrote robots into the Foundation Saga, but that is a topic for another blog post.

Racism in Science Fiction. Asimov rather famously wrote about his disgust with John W. Campbell, who apparently preferred science fiction stories in which white Europeans always came out on top. Apparently Campbell’s racism was a major motivation that led Asimov to imagine and write about an “all human galaxy”. Asimov did not want to argue with Campbell about the absurdity of imagining that no alien could get the better of a human.

I was stimulated to write this blog post by When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like “Avatar”? Annalee Newitz discusses stories like the one in the movie Avatar for which critics don’t enjoy seeing some “white guy” help people from a technologically weaker culture resist the encroachment of a stronger culture. So, is Avatar just an example of a racist genre where, “The main mythic story is going to a foreign culture and colonizing it“? Newitz seems to be asking: if authors like Nalo Hopkinson can provide us with different types of stories, then why must big $$$ science fiction remain contaminated (or dominated?) by tired old themes like “white guilt“?

I have not seen this movie, but I’ve felt for a while now that one of the strongest forces behind the commercialization of science fiction is that by crafting stories about aliens it remains possible to continue to explore (and profit from) certain themes that would be branded “politically incorrect” (or otherwise diverted from the goal of making $$$) if presented in more conventional (non-SciFi) ways. I don’t buy the argument that “everything is about race”. Just because you can draw parallels between conflicting species from different planets (or political conflicts, tribal conflicts, national conflicts, etc) and conflicts between human groups with different racial identities, that does not mean that Avatar is about “white guilt” or that it will make big $$$$ because of “white guilt”.

It’s the $$$, stupid. I’ve never really understood Hollywood nor do my tastes in science fiction match up well with the types of movies that make big money. I think there is a real division between movies that mindlessly milk a science fiction setting for cash and movies that try to tell a new and imaginative science fiction story. The people who invest large amounts of money to make a movie can be expected to care more about what will sell tickets than about selecting a “good” science fiction story.

My personal interest in what I like to call the Exodemic Fictional Universe is a major influence on what I consider to be good and interesting in science fiction. Some people and some science fiction stories seem to cling to the idea that humans are the center of the universe. If you want a paying audience to fork over their money after seeing a 30 second trailer, then it makes sense to not wander far from familiar day-to-day experience where humans are the center of most people’s experiences. However, if you accept the idea that good science fiction can make people think outside the box of conventional experiences then I think you can agree with Annalee Newitz and her dream of moving commercial science fiction beyond producing “the same old story again and again“.

I think both Arthur Clarke‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Star Trek franchise provide good examples of commercially successful science fiction that can constructively move people away from their comfortable “humans are the center of the universe” perspective. I’d love to see film versions of little-known science fiction stories such as Assignment Nor’Dyren, but I can well imagine how folks in Hollywood might respond to what I view as “good” science fiction. I think the story of Assignment Nor’Dyren would be of interest to critics of Avatar. Assignment Nor’Dyren has a “white guy” going to live with (and help) an alien species, but there is no hint of colonialism lurking in the story. Of course, there are no battles or wars, either, so the chances of a Hollywood movie treatment of Assignment Nor’Dyren is next to nothing. I’m not sure that you can make a 30 second trailer for Assignment Nor’Dyren that would motivate enough paying customers to spend their money on movie tickets or a DVD. And that is why Annalee Newitz is “doomed to see the same old story again and again“.

However, for science fiction fans who still read, there are wider horizons than what Hollywood will ever explore. In The Start of Eternity, I’ve been trying to provide an example of an “alien contact” story that does not fit into any conventional mold. Asimov was motivated to create his newfangled robot stories when he grew tired of the conventional robot stories that he grew up reading. I hope Asimov would have enjoyed the approach taken to including aliens that is found in The Start of Eternity.

Image. This is used in the spirit of fair use for discussing the movie Avatar.

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