Like everyone else, I was shocked and saddened by the loss of the space shuttle Columbia this weekend. Like most science fiction readers, I've always been a space enthusiast, and I had a far more visceral reaction to this event than I do to, say, news of airplane crashes or freeway accidents. The shuttle has immense symbolic value; it stands for a whole range of dreams, of a human future in space.
But the loss of the Columbia made me aware of two things:
First, that I've come to take shuttle launches for granted. I'm always glad to hear that a shuttle has gone up, but I no longer pay much attention to launch schedules or even what a given mission is doing. I wasn't aware, for example, that the Columbia couldn't travel to the space station, and I didn't know much about the crew.
And second, that the shuttle astronauts have become a fairly diverse bunch while I wasn't looking.
In the 1960s, Star Trek brought to the world a vision of a multicultural future in space. It could be argued from our perspective thirty-plus years later that some of the casting looks like tokenism and caricature; nonetheless, showing a Japanese man, a Russian man, and an African woman, as well as a half-alien man and a Scottish man, working alongside the white American men was eye-opening. Whoopi Goldberg has talked about being inspired as a girl to believe that she could do anything she wanted to, by seeing Nichelle Nichols on TV playing Uhura. The fictional portrayal of this multicultural crew had a strong effect on the real world: it gave viewers something to hope for, something to strive for.
And looking at the biographies and photos of the crew of the Columbia, it looks to me like we've come a long way. Because this vision of an African-American man, an Indian woman, a white American woman, and an Israeli man working alongside their white male American colleagues -- this isn't a science-fiction TV series, this is real life.
(And since it is real life, I should note that of course all of the astronauts were much more than their races and genders. Each was a person; they had families and friends; my discussion is in no way meant to depreciate the loss of those individual lives. But I only know them from their brief biographies, and so it's easy for me to look at them as symbols as well as people. And symbols are important; the nations mourning their lost astronauts are mourning the loss of larger-than-life symbols as much as of people.)
In the meantime, speculative fiction still provides a growing number of examples of representations of people from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures. But it's still got a long way to go. I'm very pleased to see a greater variety of perspectives beginning to make inroads into speculative fiction, and we at Strange Horizons are happy to do what we can to help the process along, but we can always use more perspectives, and more complex examinations of those perspectives.
These women and men of the Columbia -- I hope they'll be as inspiring to us as the Star Trek characters were back then. I hope their example will, among many other things, help speculative fiction to continue to welcome more diversity; and I hope that that more inclusive speculative fiction will help to give a wider and more diverse audience new dreams to strive for. I hope that, like Whoopi Goldberg, today's children will be inspired by the examples they see, will learn that they can grow up to do whatever they want to do.
As for the future of the space program, I think Lois Fundis said it best, in a comment posted at Electrolite:
It's what people do, from the time we're tiny babies: Experiment. Explore. Investigate. Try. Fail. Try again.
This has been a terrible and heart-wrenching event. But the best thing we can do is pick ourselves up and try again.
Copyright © 2003 Jed Hartman
Jed Hartman is Senior Fiction Editor for Strange Horizons.
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