Fighting Fear: Why Sci Fi is so Important

They say money is the root of all evil, but I'm willing to bet it's actually xenophobia.

Xenophobia is something ingrained in our society, something so deep in our communal psyche that Joseph Campbell touched on it in his monomyth studies. It is the source of wars, the source of conflict, the source of hatred.

It is, ultimately, the fear of the unknown.

I think it's no accident that the word xenophobia was developed in 1903 and that it's use since then has been steadily on the rise:

Source: Google definition
Think of what's happened in the last century or so. Airplanes. Global communication. Space travel. The Internet. Which each advancement, the world has shrunk a little. In the 1890s, it was highly unlikely that the average person would travel across the world. Now, anyone can do it with a passport and a couple thousand dollars. In the 19th Century, it was unheard of to have daily, casual conversations with someone in another country. Now, all it takes is an internet connection.

But as our world shrinks, our fear grows exponentially. In some ways, fear is taught. My grandparents were taught to fear the Japanese; my parents were taught to fear the Russian Communists; my generation was taught to fear people from the Middle East. In some ways, fear is ingrained. As children, we have a fear of the dark because we do not know what is in the dark. As we grow older, we realize that the fear of the dark is irrational, so we seek a face to represent it.

On some deep level, social researchers and psychologists say, people as a society and as individuals choose, from an endless menu of things that go bump in the night, what to fret over and what to shrug off.  --Kirk Johnson, NY Times Article, "The Things People Choose to Fear"
I challenge you to take a close look at the things you fear, whether it be terrorism or spiders, and analyze why you are afraid. In nearly every case, there is a factor of the unknown that plays up your fears, turning them from a mild worry to a deeper phobia. Xenophobia is a massive tapestry of fear, with threads wrapped around every aspect of our terror.

There are, of course, ways to fight xenophobia.

Via This Is Indexed

The more aware we are of something, the more we understand it and are familiar with it, the more we can accept it. We may never love the things we fear, but we can learn to not be afraid of them. 

This is one reason why, as a teacher, I was so passionate about encouraging students to travel, eventually leading three trips abroad before I became a full time writer. When we travel, we see more of the world, we understand it, and we grow less afraid. 

This is one reason why, as a writer, I have been so passionate about the idea that "representation matters." The more diversity we see in our literature, the less afraid of others we become. And make no mistake: sexism, racism, homophobia, and other prejudices all that a root in fear. 

And this is also why, as a reader, I am so very, very joyous over the increase of science fiction. Just as xenophobia has risen in the world, so have stories written to fight it. 

I would argue that science fiction really got going as a genre around the 1950s. Of course, there was science fiction before that--you could argue that the oldest recorded tale of history, The Epic of Gilgamesh, has science fiction (and xenophobic) roots, but as a genre, the 1950s really saw a boom in sci fi. To prove this, I made a chart, because charts are cool. 

You can read more about how I developed this chart and the data I used on my blog.
While science fiction had been on the rise in the early 1900s, it took a hit in the 1940s (during World War II), and then sky-rocketed over the next few decades. On a cultural level, it's not hard to theorize why science fiction has been growing in popularity over the decades. At first, it was a matter of being a hero on a grander scale--much like in comic books, which were also gaining in popularity at the same time.

These were stories where men could be men and shoot things and save bikini-clad women (insert manly grunting here). On a societal level, for a country coming out of a major war where no side really won, it's understandable why we'd want to have stories where there was clearly a right side and a wrong side, and the right side won. These were the days of black-and-white science fiction. 

But you'll notice that, for a bit, science fiction sort of plateaus. It gets a surge again in the 1980s. And, looking back at our history, you can see why, all over again. Around that time in history, our country was changing again. Walls were, literally, coming down. Our society was on the cusp of great change, and the world was shrinking in very real ways: telephones were rampant, the Internet was being developed, computers were changing everything. 

And sci fi changed, too. 

As much as I disagree on a personal level with Orson Scott Card, you cannot deny the impact this novel made on the literary world, and its reflection of the world as a whole. What made Ender's Game so remarkable--and what changed the face of science fiction--was the shift from thrilling heroics in a black-and-white world to a conscious awareness other cultures and their viability. Ender's Game tapped into the very deep fears we have on a societal level on the unknown, the ultimate novel portraying xenophobia, and--remarkably--the development of empathy, understanding, and compassion for the feared unknown.

Take a look back at the chart on the use of "xenophobia" and the rise in sci fi novels. Just as more and more people developed xenophobia, more and more novels were written to combat it.

Ender's Game and other novels of its ilk marked a shift in science fiction, one that much more actively fought against the xenophobia of the world. At the foundation of sci fi in the early twentieth century was the idea that there is unknown in the world, and we should kill it with a laser gun. Of course, this still exists in our sci fi today. Movies such as Alien and its accompanying sequels, Pacific Rim, the Godzilla franchise, and more remind us that, in some cases, we were right to fear the unknown. 

But in many more cases--and, notably, in nearly all YA science fiction cases--the stories teach us the exact opposite. We did not know what was out there, but when we discovered it, learned about it, and tried to empathize with it, we found something amazing. These stories lead us away from thinking in terms of black-and-white, and encourage discovery more than fear. They remind us that ignorance is linked with fear; knowledge with acceptance. They teach us that we should try to understand others, that sometimes our very survival depends on working with each other. They whisper to us that fear can be overcome.

And if all that doesn't work, we do still have our laser guns. 


ilima said...

Awesome post. This is why I love writing YA sci-fi with diverse characters. Very nice.

Jan Dohner said...

Excellent commentary. Science fiction readers also do not fear change. Dealing with change and helping to shape it is what we all need to be able to do. When characters in books do this, they help show us how.

Unknown said...

Great ideas here and I completely agree. This is why I love books like Ender's Game, where perhaps the majority are scared of the New, but the protagonist fights to have it accepted. Inspiring.

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