In the light of corona – Part 16: Lessons from fantasy and science fiction

I’m a huge fantasy and science fiction fan. One of my all-time favorite authors who straddles both literature categories is Sheri Tepper, often referred to as a feminist science fantasy author with a strong ecological flavoring. The too few books that have been translated to Finnish are from the most feminist end of her spectrum, but focusing only on that aspect is misleading: she is a visionary and hopeful critic of many of humanity’s biggest conundrums and failings.

Her narratives have twists and turns to blow the mind of the most avid mystery aficionados, but underlying most of her books is one metanarrative. The books start unfolding from a distant time or location where signs of the unraveling of the then-current normal are starting to pop up. Subsequently it turns out that those signs spell a renewal of an apocalyptic level happening that has happened before (thousands or millions of years ago) to humanity, with the current characters being the descendants of the few survivors of those calamities of before. Then things happen where the protagonists try to make sense of the apocalypse of the old to prevent the looming apocalypse of the new – most often in vain if not for the intervention of a deus ex machina in the form of a more advanced alien race. 

While the particular features of any of the diverse apocalypses of old vary, most often they are a variant of the missing “bao” of the humanity. Bao is referred to in many of her books, until in the book “Fish Tails” (2014) that became the last book she wrote before her death (in 2016), she explicitly defines the concept: “Bao is the acceptance that mankind is part of the fabric of the universe, not the purpose of it. Humanity is meant to live as part of creation, not as the owner of it or to make war against it.”

The point of fantasy and scifi

It took me awhile to understand that I’m drawn to both abstract academic theorizing and fantasy/scifi for the very same reason. Both attempt to extract a universal pattern from the background of the context: in academic endeavors the abstracted pattern is contoured into a theory, whereas in fantasy and scifi the abstracted pattern is replanted into a fantastical, imaginary context. The patterns in literature pertain to the human behavior, to societal tendencies, and often succeed in helping to see familiar phenomena more clearly through two mechanisms that build on distinguishing between the phenomenon and its context.

The first mechanism is distancing: sometimes we are blinded by our closeness to a phenomenon and showcasing the same phenomenon in a different setting makes it easier to see. A dramatic example: ample evidence shows that people suffering from domestic abuse do not actually understand that they are being abused – instead, if they are shown others being involved in similar events, they recognize the abusive behavior as abusive when viewed from the outside.  The same logic applies to child misdemeanor: while my child could never be a delinquent, another child doing the very same things could be identified as one. In fantasy and scifi the themes are often more complex, as they often illustrate psychological phenomena digging deeper than the mere surface of evident actions, and social traits and tendencies that capture large scale outcomes of certain trajectories. 

The second mechanism is empathy: research done on fairytales argues that the tales were born as a mechanism to teach both children and adults socially acceptable behavior through appealing to their empathy. When we read or hear a story with a captivating protagonist we can relate to, we begin living his/her journey as the story unfolds, understanding his/her joys and pains as our own even if we personally had never been in quite similar circumstances. Reading stories is ultimately a mind reading machine, as we gain access to what is happening inside the thoughts of another person, are granted the chance of viewing the world from someone else’s perspective. This mechanism applies to all fictional literature (well written enough to present fully fledged out personalities), but in fantasy and scifi the events our other personas can encounter can be even more archetypal than when the storytelling is bound by the need of keeping it ‘real’. 

Sheri Tepper’s themes

Bao means the lack of systemic thinking, and the ways it has led to an apocalypse in Tepper’s books are myriad. In essence, she sees the humanity as divided between those who have bao, and those who don’t. When the one’s lacking bao reign, all that matters, is the right to breed and mow down all flora and fauna to make room for and feed the overpopulated humanity. Contradictorily, in this setting a human has no inherent value, but can be culled to make more room to enable further breeding. (Yes, Tepper was an avid proponent of the birth control rights, and actually worked for women’s right organization for decades before launching her career as an author in her sixties. The best scene on this theme I’ve ever read can be found in her book “The Fresco”.)

She also explores the nature vs nurture discussion in trying to unravel whether the lack of bao results from some inherent trait in all of us humans, or whether it is a matter of upbringing we keep passing on to our descendants. In “Sideshow” (one of my absolute favorites) she does this by taking a pair of Siamese twins on a rollercoaster ride type of a journey starting from a religious small town of the American 1950’s and ending up in far future on an artificially modified planet where the last of humanity needs to dig deep into the essence of what it means to be a human (are we anything but our consciousness, and is even our consciousness anything but the result of our biological functions reducible to physics, chemistry, ultimately mathematics), and whether being human ultimately has any meaning. 

In “Raising the Stones” she digs deepest into another of her recurrent themes (also featuring substantially in “Sideshow”): the contradictory values of individual freedom and collective wellbeing. She takes the reader on a simultaneously foreign and familiar journey mapping the evolution of society built on maximizing the individual freedom where the rights of an individual to pursue whatever he/she wants override all other values, and the alternative path where the individuals are assimilated into a collective hivemind that puts the wellbeing of the collective in the front. Through her chosen perspective she actually makes a strong case for the hivemind, twisting at least my highly individualistic predisposition into a somewhat uncomfortable and grudging acknowledgment of the questionability of the ultimate value of individual freedom. 

Her books are well written, funny, and unfold through surprising and ingenious twists and turns where few things that look apparent at the onset remain so throughout the book. They make the reader visit and revisit her prejudices and pre-assumptions, but they do it warmly and with a sense of humor that gets the messages through better than do the writings with just doom and gloom in the narration. Her darkest book is “Beauty”, and while acclaimed (why is it that we seem to think that in order to have something weighty to say, one has to be dark and sinister?), I would actually not recommend starting there, as the tone in that book is more desolate than in her other ones. Good books to start your journey into her realms are “The Family Tree”, “The Companions” (a good place to start if you like dogs), “The Visitor” or “The Fresco” – in addition to the Arbai trilogy books, “Grass”, “Raising the Stones” and “Sideshow”, which can be read in any order, or just enjoyed individually. Her earliest works require an appetite for the more traditional fantasy lit, whereas the ones I listed here are ‘just’ good books regardless of any genre one would try to categorize them into. 

Sheri Tepper and the corona crisis

Ok, I confess: I had to write this blog about Sheri Tepper primarily because I genuinely think that the world would be a better place if more people read and heeded her words. In addition, they provide perfect places to escape to, when the home couch and the walls around it seem to be closing in too much. Escapism has its benefits and in times like these, it is merciful to sometimes transport oneself into the imaginary realms to give the mind a respite from worries and to-do-lists.

But I do see a deeper connection between the questions she spent her life first solving (through her 25-year career as an executive director in Planned Parenthood) and then writing about, and the current value reflections that in my view would be essential when we start rebuilding the post-corona normal. Is there room for other living beings apart from humanity that factor in our decisions in our stumble towards what we perceive as a suitable status quo? Do we gear our individual actions towards ensuring our ‘rights’ to pursue what we deem best for us individually, or do we adopt a more collective worldview when weighing the unavoidable tradeoffs lurking ahead of us? Can we stretch our imaginations to encompass the long term threats and benefits of our actions today, or can we only fathom the thin slice of time that constitutes our immediate surroundings?

In Tepper’s view, humanity is bound in a cycle of its own making, doomed to repeat its mistakes until the last of the many apocalypses leaves no survivors. But in all of her books, while the reader is taken to the brink of the ultimate end of all, there is always a way out, a persistent nugget of hope that prevails in all her narratives. The question is, will reality reflect this vision, or are we going to prove that the fictions, once and for all, are just that, figments of (hopeful) imagination?


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