Saturday 9 November 2019

When You Can't Go Home Again

“Generally speaking, a refugee is a displaced person who has been forced to 
cross national boundaries and who cannot return home safely.” Wikipedia 

One of science fiction’s strengths is its ability to engender empathy while expanding our definitions of what it means to be “one of us.” From Asimov’s thought experiments about the rights threshold for machines to Star Trek’s use of Spock to explore neurodivergence, science fiction encourages readers to see the strengths of diverse and inclusive societies.

Given that many of the problems of the 21st century are rooted in a deficit of empathy, fiction grounded in radical empathy — showing compassion to those different from us — is more important than ever.

And that’s where Cory Doctorow’s novella Unauthorized Bread, and K Chess’ novel Famous Men
Unauthorized Bread might
be Doctorow's finest work.
(image via Goodreads)
Who Never Lived
both come in. Both of these new works tackle refugee stories of cultural misalignment with an empathetic lens.

In Unauthorized Bread, the refugee protagonist Salima struggles to make sense of a society weighed down by copyright overreach and a ubiquitous system of digital rights management. Thanks to Doctorow’s expertise on this subject, it’s easy to believe that kitchen appliances might only work with brand-specific consumables, destabilizing perhaps the most sacred of cultural signifiers: How we make and break bread.

Salima provides an outsider’s point of view and is thus able to question the underlying assumptions and defaults of a society that has lost the ability to make choices about one of life’s basic necessities.

While some aspects of Salima’s personality will feel familiar to Doctorow fans, as she is a plucky, can-do attitude technophile, she is also highly observant and reflective, encouraging the reader to consider how technology can serve to both alienate and create community within cultural groups.

While Salima finds some sense of belonging in her new home, the refugees at the heart of K Chess’ Famous Men Who Never Lived remain culturally adrift. The novel explores the lives of Vikram Bhatnagar and Helen “Hel” Nash, who have fled a nuclear apocalypse in a parallel world and find themselves in a New York City that marks and marginalizes them as Universally Displaced Persons (UDP).

Although some UDPs are able to successfully integrate in some ways (e.g., careers), most remain
Whether they're from a parallel timeline,
from another planet, or from anywhere else,
refugees are welcome in our community.
(Image via
othered and are treated with condescension and prejudice. Vikram, a former PhD student, has found his training doesn’t transfer to the new world. Former surgeon Hel’s certifications have lapsed, and her knowledge is no longer useful.

The book is at its strongest when focusing on the human aspect of this displacement: the cultural touchpoints that only the refugees know; Hel’s mourning for the family she’ll never see again; and the inability of some to find ways to make their skills transferable to the new world’s job market.

While neither of these authors were refugees, their decision to write about the refugee experience might be seen as an empathy-driven extrapolation from the current migrant crisis. Both works are strengthened by a focus on dislocation and we are pleased to be able to put them on our 2020 nominating ballots.

In general, it feels like the depiction of refugees in mainstream science fiction — and the empathy shown towards the plight of displaced persons — has improved over time. There is also a recognition of intergenerational traumas and residual cultural practices, as in the exodan fleet of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers novels.

Historically, however, many refugee narratives failed to depict the difficulties faced by their real-
It is rare to see Superman experience
the cultural dislocation that many real-
world refugees face. Still it's gratifying
when writers recognize that he would
understand the refugee experience.
(Image via Twitter
world counterparts. The obvious example is Superman, the prototypical displaced person of science fiction. He is raised to be culturally American and is depicted as a perfectly assimilated citizen, a refugee that doesn’t struggle with linguistic barriers, misunderstanding of local cultural practices, finding employment, and other types of social rejection.

Works like Battlestar Galactica and The Songs Of Distant Earth might reflect some of the emotional dislocation experienced by refugees, but the characters in these stories arrive in places that are uninhabited, conveniently omitting issues related to cultural dislocation.

Screen science fiction that depicts refugees includes Alien Nation (1991), District 9 (2009), The Refugees (2015), and The Crossing (2018). But in each, an argument could be made that the focus is placed less on the experience of refugees, and more on the impact of members of the dominant culture into which the refugees are arriving. For example, human Matt Sykes is top-billed in Alien Nation, while his non-human newcomer partner George Francisco is the sidekick.

For a more egregious example, consider the post-apocalyptic TV series Jericho (2006), where an entire episode focuses on the havoc caused by a large group of refugees that passes through town.

Refugees in science fiction is a broad enough topic that it would be near-impossible to fully delve into every example; Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Bio Of A Space Tyrant, Men In Black, Movement and Location, and American War would all qualify.

There are currently more than 70 million people recognized by the United Nations as having been displaced from their countries of origin. Of those, more than 30 million fit the UN definition of refugees. It has never been more important for science fiction to be an engine for radical empathy in support of those displaced due to war, climate change or other disasters.

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