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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Zombies, Vampires, etc.

A few weeks back, there was a call for papers posted for a panel on “The Undead in the West,” and since then, I’ve been on the look out for items that might fall into that category. One of the ways the western as a genre has survived is by combining with other genres, and perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising to find examples of horror westerns, or western horror, which is visible across a range of mediums.

There’s a new comic book series called American Vampire, with Stephen King as one of the authors.

The first issue (May 2010) takes place on two timelines, one in the 1920s (primarily on the set of silent film) and the other in Colorado in 1880 (and this part of the story, “Bad Blood,” is based on King’s script). In the Colorado narrative, a notorious outlaw named Skinner Sweet, who has been captured by Pinkerton agents, is being transported by train. One of the bank executives turns out to be a vampire, and after Sweet’s gang halts the train and frees the captive, the bank exec does what a vampire does, creating all sorts of havoc, and apparently turning Skinner Sweet into one of the undead in the process—and thus the vampire cowboy outlaw.

According to Scott Snyder (another of the writers—the comic is drawn by Rafael Albuquerque) in an editorial in the first issue, “The central question of the series is this: What if vampires evolved over time? Meaning, what if every once and awhile, when a vampire turns someone new, the blood makes something new: a new kind of vampire—with new powers, new strengths, new weaknesses?”

As  Crevecoeur asks in Letters From an American Vampire Farmer, “What is this new man? This American Vampire?”

Skinner Sweet, it turns out, has undergone a kind of Turnerian transformation on the western frontier. As Snyder describes him, Sweet does indeed “become a new of vampire—the first American Vampire, tougher, meaner, born of the American West, with a new bag of tricks.”

So the first book in the series, with its mixture of bank robberies, outlaws, Turnerian frontier philosophy, and vampires, is pretty entertaining.

I also finally caught Zombieland, which came out recently on DVD. Starring Woody Harrelson as a cowboyed-up zombie-killer, Zombieland is an example of the post-apocalyptic western horror farce buddy movie romantic comedy genre. It’s got a little bit of everything, but is especially heavy on the blood and the gore and on putting on vivid display the truly disgusting eating habits and generally poor table manners of zombies.

The zombie virus has spread throughout America, and few humans remain who have not been zombified. An otherwise hapless college student (played by Jesse Eisenberg) has survived by adhering to a strict set of rules. He and Harrelson team up as the film’s mismatched buddy pair. Eisenberg has his rules, and Harrelson just likes killing zombies.

This was actually the first of the post-apocalyptic westerns to open in theaters last year (followed by The Road and The Book of Eli). And if the other two films had come first, you’d swear Zombieland was as much a parody of them as it is of zombie films. Again, we have a Man With No Name. Or men and women with no names. “Stop,” Harrelson states on first meeting his sidekick, “No names.” Instead, they go by their destinations, Columbus and Tallahassee.

The film begins in Texas, and initially the nameless men are planning to travel on eastward to their destinations. An encounter with two sisters (too complicated to explain) results in teaming up the traveling pairs and heading West, to California, to the Pacific Palisades Amusement Park, in search of an innocence the two sisters once knew as children while visiting the park.

But, really, in Zombieland, America has become one big amusement park, and this group of humans crossing the American West has a great time shooting things, knocking stuff over, and breaking stuff. When they finally get to the amusement park, and are surrounded by zombies, it’s all a big game, with multitudes of zombies as targets in a bigger than life arcade. Unlike The Road and The Book of Eli, in which the apocalypse is a disaster to be lamented, the zombie apocalypse turns out to be quite fun, especially if you have a scenery-chewing Woody Harrelson along.

If you’re in the mood for a post-apocalyptic western horror farce buddy movie romantic comedy, then check out Zombieland. It really is fairly entertaining, if also over the top in both its use of gore and its silliness. And there’s a nice moment when Harrelson is trapped alone inside a souvenir hut, surrounded by zombies, with nothing but his guns (his many many guns) and his wits. The scene is simultaneously a parody of the western’s Heroic Last Stand (especially The Wild Bunch) and of the famous scene in Night of the Living Dead when the zombies start ripping apart the cabin where the humans are sheltering. There are lots of slow motion shots of stuffed animals getting the stuffing ripped and shot out of them. Imagine The Wild Bunch with teddy bears.

And there’s even more to come in terms of the undead west, including a forthcoming movie adaptation of the “weird western” comic book hero Jonah Hex.

Hinterlands of Devotion

Many of you may be aware of the Afro-British R&B singer Sade. Many more of you may be aware of her ability to capture the essence of love and longing in her music–an impressive set of best selling records that she is talented enough to only release every 10 years or so. Being an African American West fanatic when I heard the first release from her latest album my ears shot up. The title is “Soldier of Love” which does not mean much until she begins to sing about the “Wild Wild West” and the “hinterlands of [her] devotion.” I immediately began trying to figure out how and why the mythic 19th century west became a point of contact in her song (in 2010). I am still teasing this out, but I find it fascinating nevertheless.

More on Dollhouse

As a fan of Joss Whedon’s science fiction western Firefly, I’ve also been watching his most recent television creation, Dollhouse. Five episodes of the series have now aired, and some of the complex back-story is starting to come clearer. However, I’m still finding that I have mixed responses to the show, alternately disappointed and intrigued. And since I was particularly interested in the explicitly western elements of Firefly, I keep hoping that Whedon’s knowledge of the western genre will come out in Dollhouse as well. Thus far, that hasn’t happened, although I can see the possibility of a western “sensibility” emerging from the show. At the very least, “True Believer,” the most recent episode, was set in Arizona.

If you haven’t seen Dollhouse, the dolls are living humans who have had their personalities erased. They are kept in the “dollhouse” in a state of blank mindless activity (they spend a lot of time showering), physically functioning but personality-less. When the dolls are sent out on missions, they are then imprinted with new personalities and skill sets depending on what they need for their assigned missions (which are then erased at the end of the mission).

The doll whose adventures we follow is Echo. In the first episode, she was imprinted with the personality of a crisis negotiator. In the episode that aired this past Friday, she was imprinted with the personality of a religious cult follower in order to infiltrate the cult. These missions are at the center of each episode, and because they are framed by the various goings on behind the scenes at the dollhouse (there are scientists and handlers and leaders and showering, lots of showering), the missions operate as a kind of episode within a episode, a play within a play, which sometimes leads to interesting “echoes” between the machinations within the bureaucracy of the dollhouse and the events of the mission.

However, the dullest part of the show thus far are the missions. Each mission is a short genre drama, with a different action genre providing the plot conventions each week. In addition to the Hostage Negotiation Plot, we’ve also had The Most Dangerous Game Plot (hunter client wants to hunt the most dangerous game of all—man, or, more precisely, woman, in the form of Echo), the Heist, and, most recently, the Undercover at a Religious Cult (in the past few years, I’ve seen both Veronica Mars and Monk use this plot device, both to much more interesting effect). Because the missions are mini-episodes within the larger episode, there’s not much time or space for exploration or innovation, and the missions as a result have been competent but bare-bones versions of genre set pieces that we’ve seen time and time again. Generally, this is what Joss Whedon does very well, take conventions of a genre and reinvent them, but the missions themselves are pretty straightforward repetitions rather than reinventions.

The interesting stuff seems to be going on in the frame. We’ve learned that there’s a character known as Alpha, a doll who has gone renegade, and who may be in the process of sabotaging the work of the dollhouse bureaucrats. And there are indications that Echo may be following in Alpha’s path. The most interesting part of the most recent episode was when Echo broke character, and rather than playing the devotee as she was programed to do, she punched the cult leader in the nose.

In the future of Dollhouse, we may eventually move away entirely from the missions (which is what I’m hoping for). However, before that happens, I hope Echo at least gets sent out on some sort of western adventure.

Deadwood Wedding

Are you a fan of the HBO series Deadwood? Ever wonder what your wedding would be like set in the world of Deadwood?

Then check out Offbeat Bride’s story of an Old West Deadwood-inspired Wedding.

Also, if you’re thinking of planning your own Western Wedding, check out Cultured Cowboy’s guide to Western Weddings.