Popular science fiction and fantasy are no more immune to clichés than any other genre. In particular, although there has lately been a refreshing trend of anti-heroes and moral ambiguity, morality plays of good versus evil are still quite common. Shades of gray are becoming more evident in speculative fiction, but dark monarchs and evil empires have never gone away. Some fans of "literary" or "artsy" SF have bemoaned this lack of moral complexity, which surely speaks less to our understanding of a complex, sophisticated, morally relativistic world.
Our world shifted dramatically on September 11th. Say what you may about the motivations and frustrations that drove the 19 men who hijacked four airliners that day, but the act of killing thousands in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania was unquestionably, brutally evil. As a world community we saw, and wept, and raged, and feared -- feared for the safety of loved ones, for continued security in the face of an invisible enemy, and for the human cost of actions that might be taken in retaliation.
There were stories of heroism as well. Firefighters and police officers gave their lives trying to evacuate the World Trade Center towers before they fell. And we may never know what target the hijackers of United Flight 93 sought, because passengers and flight attendants, warned of the plane's likely fate by families and friends over cell phones, apparently vowed that no innocent bystander would share in their fate. They, as writer Andrew Sullivan put it, wrestled the plane to the ground instead. (In the wake of two prominent televangelists' assertions -- since somewhat retracted -- that the attacks were God's judgment against America's tolerance of non-Christian values, I took grim satisfaction in the news that one of the heroes of Flight 93, Mark Bingham, was gay.) There were acts of self-sacrifice on an epic scale, heroism displayed in real life as vividly as it has ever been in fiction.
If only September 11th itself had been fiction.
Now I find myself looking to speculative fiction in a new light. It has always been an escape for me, and now I need such escapes more than ever. But science fiction and fantasy, through extrapolation and allegory, are also valuable tools that we can use to explore actions and reactions, conflicts and resolutions. Speculative fiction can delve into the potential consequences of decisions made and deferred, and some of them are momentous indeed:
Babylon 5's Londo Mollari, trying to bring glory to himself and his Centauri people, makes an alliance with an ancient race that leads to galactic war. His world is reduced to rubble, and he is forced to sacrifice his very freedom of thought. As the war builds, other races refuse to support each other militarily until, for some, it is too late.
The Council of Elrond, in Tolkien's masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, are faced with a choice -- a small fellowship undertaking a suicide mission to destroy the Enemy's greatest weapon, or attempt to use the One Ring's diabolic power against him. They choose the former, causing tremendous suffering for Frodo Baggins. They end Sauron's evil, but also end the Third Age of Middle-Earth as the elves abandon it for all time.
The Jesuit space explorers of Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow inspire the nomadic Runa people to garden and defend themselves against the more advanced Jana'ata, upsetting the tightly controlled and delicate ecological and social balance of the planet. Here the consequences are as unforeseen as they are tragic.
L. E. Modesitt, Jr.'s Nathaniel Whaler, in The Ecolitan Enigma, is a member of a territory-less institution dedicated to interstellar peace and civilization at any cost. He faces a moral dilemma that now uncomfortably reflects the post-September 11th world -- is it right to cause the death of innocents in service to a greater peace? The reader may well wonder about the kind of peace bought by such a price.
The common thread in these stories is choice -- sometimes difficult, sometimes unthinking, always with consequences foreseen and unforeseen. In The World of Star Trek, David Gerrold lamented the unrealized potential of the '60s series. He said that its plots tended to revolve around "Kirk in danger," when far better stories could have been told about "Kirk has a decision to make." Fortunately there is no shortage of speculative fiction that stems from inner conflict and the wrestling of one's desires with one's conscience. Characters live and breathe when they must face difficult decisions -- and readers learn from their successes and failures.
There are very few answers to be found in speculative fiction, especially regarding the current crisis. But perhaps we can use speculative fiction as one of our tools to learn to ask better, more thoughtful questions. Clearly, it would be best if world leaders, in responding to the evils of September 11th, would ask themselves what their goals are and what consequences might accompany thoughtless action. It would also be good if we as world citizens could challenge and test our own assumptions and reactions to the tragedy. Each of us must be able to study and articulate our differing opinions of what the world response should be, with thoughtful reflection on the consequences of our action or inaction. We have a responsibility, as people living in a world in crisis, to contribute our ideas; how much better it would be if we have thought them over rationally, and explored their long-term impact. We are fortunate to have speculative fiction, a broad genre devoted to imagination and exploration, as a tool to help us discover our own answers.
Chip Sudderth is Senior Development/PR Editor for Strange Horizons. He thanks his friends at Turning Point for their advice and comments on this editorial.