Not so very long ago, I was talking with a friend about science fiction’s infatuation with two things: empire and dystopia. Space opera and military science fiction has a fetish for empire, but we’ll deal with that some other time. Dystopian science fiction, those stories of humanity’s struggle to survive in a bleak (but not necessarily post-apocalyptic) and inhumane future, is all the rage in young adult literature and film now that high school vampires and wizards seem to have run their course. Dystopia is nothing new to science fiction of course. Imagining a crappy future for us all has been common since science fiction became a genre. Even before then, just about every religious text has a section devoted to how crummy our lives would be in the future. From Edwardian tales of what it would be like if Germany beat England in a war to the ecological disasters of the 70s; multinational corporate overlords of 80s cyberpunk to modern YA dystopias featuring totalitarian government or corporate overlords, a blue-grey color palette, lots of guys in SWAT gear, and heroes wearing clothing that looks like some sort of Neoprene wetsuit meets lululemon; the political, social, and emotional conflict of life in a dystopian future seems inexhaustible in quantity if not quality.
It was only a couple of chapters into Nalo Hopkinson’s dystopian science fiction novel Brown Girl in the Ring that I realized that the story is, for me, an exploration of what exactly constitutes a “dystopia” and how our surrounding culture, our upbringing, our personal tastes, and our gender and race can heavily influence our sketches of what constitutes a grim future. For example, many people point to Blade Runner as a dystopian film, but when I watch Blade Runner, I see a future full of awesome cities, flying cars, punk rockers, and people sitting around listening to old Ink Spots records. That doesn’t seem very dystopian to me (remembering that all the stuff about a plague exists only in Philip K. Dick’s source material, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and is never mentioned in the movie). Similarly, I always thought the future in William Gibson’s Neuromancer seemed pretty cool. I mean, a space station full of Rastafarians? How is that not an all right future? So what constitutes dystopia to a white, straight middle class man is probably a lot different from what constitutes a dystopia for, say, a punk rocker. Or a poor farmer. Or a billionaire. Or someone in China. Or a woman living in Mogadishu.
At first glance, the dystopia of Brown Girl in the Ring is pretty familiar. Set in the near future, Brown Girl in the Ring posits a Toronto that has been ravaged by economic collapse, leaving much of the city a burnt-out shell in which the poor and unlucky have no choice but to scrounge together a hardscrabble existence. The difference between this future and other, similar after-the-fall science fiction? Almost everyone in the city is black. A few white faces, mostly stubborn old folks and hippies, remain but by and large the people left behind in a collapsed Toronto are minorities. Most of Toronto’s white and monied population, possessed of means to escape this particular dystopia and relocate to the outer rings of the city where life continues more or less normally. And with them fled most of the money, government, police, and municipal infrastructure support.
This isn’t the future. This is modern-day Detroit. Or Baltimore. Or life in cities ravaged by gangs like Boko Haram and ISIS. For thousands of people, this is basically everyday life. Maybe better.
My New York is relatively safe. I have a job, an apartment I can afford, and disposable income. I have the luxury of reveling in dystopian literature because I don’t have to live in a dystopia. At the same time, people who live right next to me probably do live in a dystopia. They are being harassed en masse by greedy developers, herded out of their apartments not at gunpoint necessarily, but by economics. I can go jogging at night in my largely residential Jewish-Ukrainian neighborhood without being harassed. Would I have the same experience if I was a black man running down the street at midnight? Or a woman? Just last week a story broke about the deplorable lives of the vast majority of women who work in the city’s cheap nail salons: indentured servitude, living twelve to a one-room apartment, exposed to toxic fumes during marathon work days for almost no pay. How is their New York not a dystopia? And yet my New York is pretty good.
A book like Brown Girl in the Ring is the sort of experience someone like me needs, a story by someone and about someone who can experience the exact same time and place as me but come away with very different impressions. Nalo Hopkinson brings a set of experiences to her writing that I could not hope to duplicate but am not hopeless at understanding (I figured out that the title referred to the book’s central character, Ti-Jeanne, being an inhabitant of one of the dangerous inner rings of Toronto, but I had no idea it also referenced a game and a song that basically every kid in Jamaica would know). Brown Girl in the Ring establishes a world where more mainstream visions of dystopia — economic collapse, urban decay, crime, a ruling elite willing to use the poor as nothing but votes and involuntary organ donors — with elements unique to a writer who happens to be a woman of color brought up in an intellectual Afro-Caribbean culture. Elements of Afro-Caribbean folklore exist alongside urban dystopia (curiously, William Gibson did the same thing in his second novel, Count Zero, where a group of hackers of Caribbean decent visualize cyberspace, artificial intelligence, and viruses in terms of voodoo folklore). Shamanism, monsters, black and white magic are all as real in Brown Girl in the Ring as the high-rise buildings, advanced medical procedures, and criminal organizations.
Feminism has also been present in modern dystopian science fiction thanks to the success of the Hunger Games and Divergent series, two franchises that feature young women as their heroes. But feminism for white women and feminism for black women can be something very different, with very different sets of obstacles to overcome. Ti-Jean and Katniss may both be women at the center of a dystopian future, but their experiences are still radically different (look how many people freaked out when a Hunger Games character was cast for the cinematic adaptation with a black actress; Katniss had to deal with all sorts of crap, but the color of her skin wasn’t among it). Hopkinson does not shy away from putting Ti-Jean in the crosshairs of a culture that has encouraged men to preen and bluster and look at women as chattel to be possessed or threatened. And how she has to deal with it is different from how a woman of a different color or different economic strata might have to deal with it.
I think facing up to one’s ignorance is part of the reason (but only part) so many white science fiction fans don’t deal well with accusations of cultural bias or with articles about lack of diversity, especially if you thought of yourself as somehow smarter than that or enlightened in some way. Afrofuturism — or, for that matter, science fiction from China or India or Brazil — can confront a white reader (a reader like me) with things they never thought about, things that never even occurred to them. And you can choose to react to that exposure either by admitting you had no idea and being thankful that your mind’s been expanded a little, or you can hunker down behind denial and threats and vitriol because something you thought secure has turned out to be less so. In the case of Brown Girl in the Ring, despite its obvious dystopian science fiction trappings, the presence of Afro-Caribbean magic and legend still causes many people to insist it’s not science fiction. As if science fiction needs stricter rather than looser borders; and as if science fiction somehow benefits from less rather than more diversity. As if one of the primary points of science fiction isn’t to force these revelations upon us and make us learn from them.
By the end of the book, I was thinking about China Mieville’s The City and The City, an odd detective novel that takes place in a city which, at first, seems to have a sort of alternate universe copy of itself. It’s possible to cross between them, and sometimes one reality bleeds into the other and causes some confusion. As the book progresses, however, you learn that nothing so supernatural is occurring, that in fact two entirely different cities occupy the same physical space simply because the two populations have agreed that there are two cities. Insane lengths are taken to maintain this utterly unnatural and nonsensical separation. Although it’s mostly a metaphor for divided cities like East and West Berlin, in the company of Brown Girl in the Ring, both stories are about how two people can look at the same thing and see something vastly different. The inability of the one to comprehend what the other is seeing does not render one or the other reality “more real.” What seems bad to me might seem utopian to someone else. What seems good to me might be a nightmare for another. We benefit from inviting the perspective and experience of others into our circle.