On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, It’s natural to reflect on how his message has affected relations in the U.S., and not just racial; King believed in trust and brotherhood among all groups and nationalities, and saw that only that total trust and brotherhood would allow us to grow and prosper. We’ve made a lot of strides since then, though we clearly have a long way to go in others.
However, I find myself looking even further afield than that, and reflecting on how King’s message had impacted science fiction over the years. I have to say that, with some notable exceptions, I don’t think King’s message is reaching to the stars in our science fiction (or fantasy).
At the moment, the most popular SF and fantasy material is all about conflict: Star wars, alien or rival invasions, versions of the Crusades, etc, far outnumber SF about discovery or exploration. A great deal of fantasy is either devoted to wars between kingdoms or repelling great, evil (and usually ugly) forces, or stories of forbidden love, usually love between species, which tends to bring its own conflicts among the species opposing the couple.
Violence. Conflict. Race (or species) hatred. These are the present hallmarks of SF and fantasy. And sure, there are exceptions, usually in the form of the single non-human creature that willingly tags along with the humans… the Spocks and Chewbaccas of the genres. Or the series about groups of various races who have learned to work together, as depicted on shows like Farscape or Star Trek. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule, as these isolated groups band together to resist the single-minded forces of other races (most of which show no racial or species diversity of their own… oh, you hadn’t noticed?), fighting desperately to control their own areas and forcibly remove or wipe out any other aliens in the area.
In SF, we’ve gotten really good at throwing almost every color of the melting pot at our stories, doing our best to make ourselves look progressive and egalitarian. But it seems that, once we’ve seeded our main characters with Africans, Asians, Moors, Mexicans, Aleutians and Celts, we forget that the idea of race can extend to the other planets we aspire to visit as well.
In most SF, aliens are still depicted as mysterious and ultimately untrustworthy, outsiders, prone to animosity and violence… exactly the way we used to depict terrestrial races. In fact, the lone “exception” is often placed in the story in order to have someone conveniently around to tell the humans why they should be careful around others of their species, or why they react so badly to tribbles or the color orange or B-flat. The “exception” is also presented as the Enlightened One, the only member of their species who has risen above those issues and can play nice with humans (and as the tribble reference suggests, Star Trek‘s Worf is the perfect example of such a character).
But more often, conflicts involve entire races/species… and since war over resources rarely applies in SF, the driving forces are more often pure racial hatred, sometimes driven by an initial misunderstanding, but never resolved, never even an attempt at resolving the conflict. Race warfare with the ultimate desire for complete genocide.
So, it seems peace and brotherhood don’t extend much further than this planet… or, for that matter, much beyond certain countries on this planet. Which makes it doubly a shame that King didn’t survive to today, because it’s clear we still need a voice like his to inspire us to better relations and understanding with our brothers and sisters… both here, and in our future.