by Katherine Karr-Cornejo
When I mention to people that I’m assigning a science fiction novel to read in a course I’ll be teaching soon, I get varied responses, though many of them are somewhat confused. Why would I, a professor of Latin American literature, be assigning an English-language science fiction novel written by a woman who lives and writes in the United States? Wouldn’t it make more sense to read something in translation from the region I study and teach? Why science fiction? Is it even really literature? (My answer is yes.)
While I understand the origins of these questions, I find other queries more productive: how do we live together in community in a world that encourages us to build up barriers? What are the possibilities and limits of human imagination? Where can we find hope for the future in our present?
This may be confirming a stereotype about literature professors, but I’ve always loved books and reading. I read Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall trilogy for the Battle of the Books in elementary school, and when my uncle gave me several old copies of Marion Zimmer Bradley novels for Christmas one year, I was hooked on speculative fiction.
One summer in high school when a friend was visiting from out-of-town, we walked to the public library and checked out 30 books from the fantasy and science fiction section. We took them back to my house and read them as fast as we could, talking through what we liked and didn’t like about the characters and the stories. The stories I read inspired me to imagine what might be instead of what was. The worlds the characters inhabited were filled with technology or magic limited only by the author’s imagination. I could play with Clarke’s Third Law—any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic—and try to figure out where that line was as I explored my own Christian faith.
I also encountered frustration even in my escapist reading. Why is it that so many fantasy worlds end up looking like a crappy version of medieval Europe? If something is a fantasy, why would one build a world with the same flaws as the one we live in, but with magic? Why were classic genre writers occasionally putting forth worldviews that posited equality between the sexes only to have this ideal undermined by the actions and attitudes of individual characters? Why was it that there were so many books by white men (and a few women) on the shelves of my local public library, to the exclusion of writers from other backgrounds? In short, why were our imaginations so limited?
As speculative fiction offers the reader possible solutions to “what ifs,” my growing education as to what was left out opened up entirely new ways of thinking. We are limited by the kinds of questions we can even conceive of asking and by the kinds of connections we make between the eclectic and substantial ephemera of our lives.
At its best, speculative fiction also offers us glimpses as to how we can live in a better world. It offers hope for the future. It recognizes that our world is broken in many ways.
When humanity lives up to its promise, we can live in a better world. We have hope for the future even as we recognize our own brokenness and that of the world in which we live. If we are called to the Kingdom of God, we too must imagine greater things for this world than what we have. We must expect more of ourselves and others.
The science fiction novel I’ll be reading with my students in the next few months posits a nightmare First Contact scenario – humanity thinks it understands the Other, but that false security in understanding leads to their near-destruction. The novel then focuses on a character whose profession is to be the sole translator between alien cultures with the full recognition that he will never fully succeed.
This goes beyond the difficulty of finding words and concepts that can approximate meaning between languages. It provokes us to consider the possibility that there really is incommensurable difference and that we will only ever see through a glass, dimly. While we strive to bridge that distance, we must ever be aware of and rejoice in our diversity – in fiction as within humanity itself.
Katherine Karr-Cornejo is an assistant professor of Spanish at Whitworth University, where she teaches Spanish language and Latin American literature and culture. When she’s not reading (for work or play), you might find her playing video games, cooking, or dragging her partner out of the house to explore their new home.