Immigration and Science Fiction

The Science Fiction Research Association held its annual meeting in Carefree, Arizona, on June 24 to 27, 2010. The planning of the conference predated Arizona’s passage of the anti-immigration bill, and in response, the SFRA drafted the SFRA 2010 Statement in Response to the Arizona Immigration Bill, SB 1070. The statement notes, “It is with discussion and action in mind that the Executive Committee has decided to hold a roundtable discussion at SFRA 2010 about SB 1070. Instead of standing in silence and throwing away all of the hard work that went into planning, developing, and organizing SFRA 2010, we intend to face the issues head-on at the meeting.”

I thus attended the roundtable, with statements from moderator Doug Davis, Jason Ellis, Mack Hassler, Rob Latham, Yu-Fang Lin, and Patrick Sharp. (Lisa Yaszek, listed on the program, was unable to sit on the panel.) The question addressed was, “What does SF across media have to say about immigration?” I summarize their remarks below, then note some concerns that came up during the discussion with the audience.

Sharp, who lives and teaches in California, which has its own anti-immigration fervor, provided a summary of the history of immigration in the United States, noting that English-speaking whites have held dominion for only about 160 years. Jack London (a proto-SF writer) wrote about the Yellow Peril, and the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon franchises echoed that concern in a manner that linked immigration and warfare.

Latham noted that as teachers, allegory might be used to inform issues of immigration and race/ethnicity–for example, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. In regard to this text, Latham noted that two things in particular struck him: first, the constituative ambiguity of the legal bar against androids, which appears clear-cut but in fact isn’t; and second, the assumption of bad faith, which is required before a test is made to make a declaration and apply the law, which thus questions its own motives, and whether a distinction is meaningful. Latham stressed the complex background to what appears to be an easy question.

Ellis and Lin, a married couple, both spoke of their personal fears of visiting Arizona because of Lin’s status as a legal immigrant, with a temporary green card. Both mentioned the fear inherent in being accosted, because untrained state police can stop people at any time, whereas federal agents are specially trained to work with the immigrant population. Ellis linked the experience to another text by Dick, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, where the protagonist’s life is erased and he has to negotiate a world without proper documentation. Lin divided her experience of being an immigrant other (she has been in the United States for 8 years) into the gaze and the encounter, with people staring at her like an “exotic animal,” which may then escalate to encounters, such as people throwing things at her and laughing. She noted that harassment will not make her feel any more an American, and laws like Arizona’s will make it impossible to make diversity work.

Hassler spoke of texts by Robert Heinlein that establish borders and assign citizenship: Starship Troopers and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Social Darwinism is inherent in these texts: characters compete for space and resources. By studying literature along these lines, it is possible to talk about conflict, competition, cooperation, and mutuality. Authors particularly relevant along these lines are Niven, Pournelle, Asimov, and Heinlein. Hassler concluded by noting that it may be more useful to think of people as all citizens of nature, not of competing nations and states. He also noted that legislating otherness and difference is useless; nature will impose it and will create boundaries, as in Moon.

Davis discussed Hollywood films with an immigration theme, where one social order imposes itself on another. Immigration is often conflated with invasion in these texts; invasion is a common SF theme, with the story of immigration often becoming a story of invasion. One of the few texts truly about immigration is the film Alien Nation, which was made into a TV show, and another is Brother From Another Planet. The recent film District 9 is a refugee story more than an immigration story; here, immigration is used metaphorically to represent the present and us, and to critique the inhumanity of the military-industrial complex. However, most of the texts identified are about violence and our own often violent condition, not the issues behind immigration. In many of the films, the alien is a shadowy underworld figure, perhaps a drug dealer, who must be stopped.

During discussion, we sought to list more SF texts with immigration themes. Inherent in the discussion was Latham’s point that SF uses an alien other to describe the present human condition, not to peer ahead into the future in an attempt to prophesy. Texts mentioned include Coneheads (with immigration officials suspicious of the Conehead family), Third Rock From the Sun, Sleep Dealer, Children of Men, actual documentaries, V, Starship Troopers, Independence Day, Men in Black, Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, Butler’s story “Bloodchild,” Samuel R. Delany’s Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand, C. J. Cherry’s Foreigner series, and texts that deal with colonialism, such as H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds.

Discussion also raised interesting points. Sharp noted that modern science is a product of colonialism and conquests. SF usefully reverses the power differential: in SF, we may be the colonized, not the colonizer. The relatively recent rise of ecofeminism as a cultural movement foregrounds cooperation and mutuality, which has implications for dealing with the alien other. As some texts, such as Men in Black, show, we erase aliens from our mind. We can only exist by ignoring the aliens among us, although they hold a crucial place in our economy.

In practical terms, it was pointed out that anti-immigration fervor is almost always linked to the economy. If the economy is doing well, immigrants are, if not invited, at least tolerated; but if it is doing poorly, anti-immigration laws result. Latham pointed out that the desire to create borders is to alleviate the anxiety about the lack of borders. The literary movement of cyberpunk, which rose in the mid-1980s, is about the meaninglessness of these borders. The Arizona law is attempting to preserve borders that are eroded beyond recovery.

The panel was useful in foregrounding the relevance of SF in generating a response to a contemporary cultural moment. The tenor of the panel was against the anti-immigration law, and the general consensus was that the permeability of borders is now so far advanced that attempting to police them is useless. A better response, the panel implies, might be exploring mutuality and cooperation.

Posted by Karen Hellekson

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2 Responses to “Immigration and Science Fiction”

  1. Jason Ellis Says:

    Hey Karen,

    This is a great review of the Immigration Panel at SFRA this past Summer! I’ll link to it on my blog.

    There is one correction: In paragraph 5, Yu-Fang’s last name should be Lin, not Fan. Thanks!

    -Jason

  2. Immigration and Science Fiction Panel at SFRA 2010, Review by Karen Hellekson « Dynamic Subspace Says:

    […] Over at the Official Blog of the Western Literature Association, Karen Hellekson wrote a wonderful review and commentary of the Immigration and Science Fiction Panel that Y and I participated in at the Science Fiction Research Association meeting in Carefree, Arizona this past Summer. You can read her response to the panel here. […]


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