A friend once told me she couldn’t get interested in a book unless it was about people just like herself. She meant 21st-century African American women, but the demographics were not the point. Her comment made me realize I am exactly the opposite: I read books to become something I am not. To capture my attention, a book has to take me to a time or a place or a culture I have never lived in.
Most science fiction readers are probably like me, while most readers of realist fiction are like my friend. There is no point arguing about which of us is “right.” We simply have different needs, and thank goodness there is fiction enough in the world for both of us.
But why do I find it so alluring to inhabit the skin of someone unlike myself? It’s partly that, growing up, I didn’t find myself or my world terribly interesting, and I seized every opportunity to escape it. Besides reading—and eventually writing—science fiction, I became a historian, then a historian of cultures other than my own. As I began working with people unlike myself, and eventually had the disorienting and profoundly uncomfortable experience of being alone in another culture, I began to realize how far short I had fallen in trying to imagine myself out of my own shoes. Today, I work in a museum where my bosses and most of my colleagues are American Indian (no, they don’t say Native American; that’s another long story). Misunderstandings and cultural collisions are a daily occurrence. I am lucky they tolerate my boneheadedness. But I learn a great deal.
Naturally, I write a lot about first contact.
Recently, I have been working in a setting I call the Twenty Planets, a universe inhabited by hundreds of diverse human cultures and by a class of people called Wasters who travel among them. Because of the time delays caused by lightspeed transport, Wasters are constantly out of sync with everyone else. Even when they arrive on familiar planets they have missed years in transit, and they are constantly scrambling to catch up. When they travel to unfamiliar planets, they are forced to negotiate culture shock. My novellas Arkfall and The Ice Owl are both set in the Twenty Planets, and so is my most recent novel, Dark Orbit.
I like this setting because it allows me to write about other cultures without having to navigate around the shoals that surround the real ones. For example, I would not feel comfortable writing from an Indian point of view, because I have not experienced what they have. But I can write from the point of view of an invented culture. In fact, it can be tremendous fun—though a lot of work—to invent a culture by making a few assumptions about the environment and history of a people, then seeing where it takes them. In The Ice Owl, I was writing about a harsh and unforgiving planet, and its people ended up with a culture so unbending it was ready to shatter. In Dark Orbit, the planet is so challenging that the only people who can survive there are a culture of the blind. Imagining the type of architecture, arts, and social structures a blind civilization would construct was a thought experiment that occupied me for months. Since it has never (to my knowledge) happened in this world, no one can say I am wrong.
In writing about diverse peoples, the drama—the true meat of the story—generally lies at the edges, the borderlands where dissimilar societies collide and challenge one another’s values. That is the uncertain territory where I live most days, and where more and more of us find ourselves living in this world of migration and mixing. My most grandiose hope for our beloved genre is that, by reading stories that require us to practice seeing the world differently, we may be building skills that will serve the human race well. The ability to imagine ourselves into another person’s point of view is no longer just a nice thing; it is becoming as critical to our survival as opposable thumbs.
Who knows, maybe science fiction may yet save the world—not through the wonders of technology, but through changing our habits of mind.
About the Author
Carolyn Ives Gilman’s latest novel is a space exploration adventure, Dark Orbit. Her other books include Isles of the Forsaken and Ison of the Isles, a two-book fantasy about culture clash and revolution. Her first novel, Halfway Human, was called “one of the most compelling explorations of gender and power in recent SF” by Locus. Some of her short fiction can be found in Aliens of the Heart and Candle in a Bottle, both from Aqueduct Press, and in Arkfall and The Ice Owl, from Arc Manor. Her short fiction has appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction, The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Lightspeed, Phantom Drift, Bending the Landscape, Interzone, Universe, Full Spectrum, Realms of Fantasy, and others. She has been nominated for the Nebula Award three times and for the Hugo once.
In her professional career, Gilman is a historian specializing in 18th- and early 19th-century North American history, particularly frontier and Native history. She lives in Washington, D.C. and works at the National Museum of the American Indian.