Things You Can’t Unsee

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The City & The City
by China Melville is a weird one. It is both a crime novel and speculative fiction, telling the story of a police detective who lives in a city that lives within another city. The trick is that these two cities, with different cultures and histories, are mortal enemies. They can’t acknowledge each other. To see the other city, to acknowledge its existence, is a crime. Men in Black come and take you away. The story is as confusing and delightful as it sounds.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, especially since the inauguration. Specifically, since the viral inauguration pictures.

A Picture and Its Story: Crowd controversy: The making of an Inauguration Day photo

Since when were pictures taken at different times a matter of politics? As a matter of fact, when were facts so dependent on political party? Relations between the two parties and party lines have haven’t been so toxic since the eighties. So have we gotten to the point where we just… unsee the other side?

I am completely serious in drawing this comparison. Throughout the book, protagonist Detective Borlu notes the seemingly sourceless hostility between the two cities, chalking it up to cultural differences. A review in The Guardian by Michael Moorcock says, “Subtly, almost casually, Miéville constructs a metaphor for modern life in which our habits of “unseeing” allow us to ignore that which does not directly affect our familiar lives.” A summary of the play adapted from the novel on The Only Animal by describes the “big question” posed by the book as, “How do communities construct myths of belonging and exclusion?… Who and what do we choose to see and unsee in our day to day lives, and how does that affect our conception of our world?”

blog infographicCreating an echo-chamber reduces the ability to empathize. It was always ambiguous as to how the two cities grew apart. Could this have been how? Was it a simple matter of incompatible cultures? Is the book a metaphor for our need for a world that revolves around our viewpoint? How dangerous is the polarization of the American public, and how did it get to this point? There are many theories. Some similar to theories behind The City & the City, a split in the time-continuum notwithstanding.

For us, the theories most strongly supported are the deregulation of radio news and the shift of public taste from news programming to a more entertaining brand of information. People like to listen to people who are going to agree with them. With the rescindencion of the Fairness Doctrine this allowed more extreme and more niche radio and talking-head shows on cable TV.

People glom onto worldviews that conform with their own. The internet exacerbates whatever talk radio started and now provides a platform to whatever ideology someone adheres to, and this is compounded by the fact that anger is a whole lot more catchy than niceness. A study done by R. Kelly Garrett, Brian E. Weeks and Rachel L. Neo published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication shows that people who consume sharply partisan news are less likely to admit they’re wrong even when presented with facts. The echo-chamber builds blinders without even making us aware of them. 

In the end, Detective Borlu becomes disillusioned with the separation between the two cities and actually meets The Men in Black characters that keep the cities separate. He is indoctrinated into them, because now he can’t unsee. He knows a whole other world exists, and now he can’t live in either. This whole “price of knowledge” trope has been excersized in science fiction since the first first story, Frankenstein’s Monster, and it echoes through every story ever written in the genre. Detective Borlu’s world changes because of his newfound knowledge. 

We think we know the other side so well because we live with it day after day. But do we even see it? And if we ever did visit the other side, could we come back the same?

 

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F Word

fact or fiction or alternative fact

I am super into comics. I find myself trying to steer conversations towards them so that I can bring them up, and it’s a source of grief that the English department at my university has stopped teaching them. From my experience, one of the biggest barriers between people and comics is how insular the medium might seem.  I feel that most people think it’s all super-ripped white guys saving white ladies in short dresses, right?

Well, that’s not wrong.

Ms Marvel-kamalakhan
Marvel Comics

But now is the best time to be into comics. The industry is changing, slowly but surely, and we have reached a new golden age in comic storytelling. Kamala Khan became the first Muslim superhero in Ms. Marvel: No Normal (and if you’re looking for a place to start, I highly recommend starting there). Thor is a woman, Spiderman is Latino, America Chavez just went solo this month as a Latina LGBTQ superhero with two moms. There are some super exciting things coming out of DC’s Rebirth line. And Marvel and DC are the ones late to the party.

Image is probably the largest and best-known distributor of creator-owned comics. Creator-owned comics can get weird, but I find them generally much stronger in narrative than in re-hashed legacy characters. Creators can go where they feel the story needs to go, and they don’t have to worry about keeping the character alive for the next writer to pick up the character. This means they go places DC and Marvel can never go, and get downright nasty.

Bitch Planet was called a “feminist masterpiece” by the dude who taught the comics class I spoke of earlier. And it is. It’s fantastic. I ain’t even gonna lie.

Bitch Planet calls out all the teeny tiny patriarchal stuff that isn’t even supposed to matter in today’s society. We can vote, we can drive, we can buy our double-shot soy mocha-ciattos; women have nothing to worry about, right?

Wrong, says Bitch Planet. Wrong, wrong wrong. It is the Third Wave feminism that is skewered so often. The very industry that is so toxic to women I can’t even follow half of my favorite female creators on Twitter is the the same industry that produced this great feminist text. Let’s think about that a moment. Harassment is so bad for female creators that a great deal don’t even have social media accounts, yet women account for nearly 50 percent of comic readers. What’s going on here?

bitchplanet-BACKUP-for-Back-Cover
Image Comics

Feminism is sometimes treated as a dirty word, or a kind of radical misandry. Some misandrists do masquerade as feminists- I’ve met them, so I can’t say they aren’t real. But at the same time, and perhaps this is the fault of all “ism”s, feminism is painted with a broad brush. All feminists are empowered women. All feminists want men in chains. All feminists this – all feminists that- an entire belief system, with branches and sub-sects and disagreements, reframed in whichever pundit’s or talking head’s convenient argument, for or against.

It then becomes a game of exceptions. “It’s okay if you’re a feminist, as long as you shave your legs.” “Being a feminist is okay, as long as you don’t fight over pronouns.” If, But, Except. There’s a line being constantly drawn and redrawn around the definitions of what feminism means and what’s the acceptable way to practice it.

Why is Bitch Planet great? Because of the variety of women portrayed. It is fearless in its advocacy that feminism is important and the need for feminism is real, but it’s also inclusive of many different types of women and what their idea of empowerment is. Women disagree on what’s best in this comic, and women disagree on where women should stand in society. Now, this is an inherently complicated idea, and people can easily become angry or offended in it’s discussion. I think it works in Bitch Planet because it shows all these different women working together for one goal and fighting against the same evil: patriarchy.

Feminism is awesome- and it’s awesome for different reasons to different people. When we play the game of exceptions, it turns the ideology into a game of acceptability. What is acceptable? Equality for all. Period.

The Tin Hat Club

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yuri-and-laika
Wiki Commons and Nick Pitarra

For the half-way point of this journey, I wanted to take a minute and talk about a comic book. There are a lot of great science fiction comic books, and if you count super-heroes as

science fiction then there are tons of great science fiction comic books. Today, however, I’m going to be talking about one that isn’t. It’s a good comic book, but it’s not a great one, and while it deals with science as fiction, it isn’t science fiction.

The Manhattan Projects is a creator-owned comic written by prominent (for comics) writer Jonathan Hickman. Hickman specializes in twisty-tervy plots that einstein-and-harryonly just make sense, that have sub-plots within sub-plots, and a habit of messing with time. A lot of people love him. I think he’s okay, but I do love TMP. Volume one, “Science. Bad.” is a re-imagining of the Cold War as if we had met aliens along the way, and FDR was actually an AI. It’s goofy and incredulous and a lot of fun. Sometimes I think we forget to have fun in science fiction.

The comic itself is cheap satire. Presidents are exaggerated: JFK is a secret sex addict, FDR is constantly trying  to take over the organization, and scientists are too.

It’s often ridiculous but also hilarious. Maybe it’s the times we live in, but it also feels true. I like science fiction because it shows us what is through what could be. All the great stuff is basically a foil for the time it was written in.
And while TMP aren’t going to win a Nebula anytime soon, there’s something to be said for a comic book about aliens and presidents that can feel accurate.

Cardassia was never great

blog-header“Duet,” the 18th episode of Deep Space Nine, is often talked about as one of the finest pieces of television ever produced on Star Trek. To be honest, I was only humoring my boyfriend until this episode by watching Deep Space Nine.  I remember looking at him and him looking at me and us staring at each other, speechless, before turning back to the television.

The plot begins simple enough: Major Kira Nerys of Bajor thinks she has nabbed a war criminal from the Cardassian Occupation of her planet. And then it quickly becomes so much more complicated, in ways the viewer is not expecting. The episode is about dealing with a convoluted and painful past on both a personal and patriotic level. What will it take for Cardassia to admit it’s wrongdoings during the occupation? How will admitting guilt help anyone?

I watched this episode for the first time just weeks after Donald Trump was confirmed as the Republican Party’s pick for the presidential race. What incredible timing. Cardassia, in the show, has this conquerer-complex, in that it feels it must establish itself as a power within the Alpha Quadrant by colonizing other star systems. In this case, that meant Bajor. It was expelled, but only after forty years of occupation that was by no means peaceful or easy for the Bajorans. The whole, “Make America Great Again” slogan felt suspiciously similar to the Cardassian ideal of “retaking” what was once theirs.

So much of what the phrase “Make America Great Again” embodies isn’t just economic prowess, it’s also a twisted-kind of political pride. “Duet” is about the isolation that xenophobia and nationalism not only enforces, but creates. Major Kira practically hungers for retribution from her war criminal, so much so that Major Jadzia Dax, her best friend, starts to worry about her.

Kira says, “As far as I’m concerned, if he was at Gallitep [ a labor camp ], he is guilty. They’re all guilty. His punishment will let Bajor feel some… satisfaction.” She directly addresses her planet’s need for reparations. The occupation ended some time ago, but it still rebuilding from more than forty years of suffering.

Dax, the eternal voice of morality and long-term-consequences, says, “It sounds like you’re trying too hard to believe what you’re saying. You already know, if you punish him without reason, it won’t mean anything. And you already know, vengeance… isn’t enough.”

The war criminal isn’t who he says he is. In fact, he’s just a lowly file clerk, who worked for the infamous war criminal. He has surgically altered himself specifically for the purpose of being arrested and convicted in a Bajoran court. He feels the guilt of his inaction during the occupation, and sees the Bajoran need for closure.

We see Kira grow and understand that reconciling the two planets isn’t as simple as killing off a few war criminals. Instead, she tells Marritza to go back to Cardassia and be a voice for Bajor there.

“Make America Great Again” to me seems like a message of nostalgia. It also seems oversimplified. In “Duet,” Kira and Marritza together realize that to make a difference and heal their own country’s scars they must acknowledge their wrongdoings and aspire to a new ideal. Both cultures, of Bajor’s anger and Cardassia’s refusal to admit fault, need to change in order for both move on.

This is a powerful message of not only forgiveness, but the kind of galvanization that can’t fit on the brim of a trucker cap. It’s not black and white, or a matter of pretending nothing ever happened. What needs to happen between the fictional places of Bajor and Cardassia is much more complicated than that. So I can only imagine how difficult it would be for someone that’s real, like us.