it was more than just missing the smell of the desert grass or being able to fall back into reskitkish. it was that people there understood. as dear as her crewmates were, constantly having to explain cultural differences, to bite back a friendly remark that might offend alien ears, to hold her hands still when she wanted to touch someone — it all grew tiring. (the long way to a small and angry planet, 271)
… out here, where she was hyper-aware of everything she was and wasn’t, truth left her vulnerable. (a closed and common orbit, 24)
last december, i went to hear naomi williams (landfalls, FSG, 2015) read in brooklyn, and she made an interesting distinction between being imaginative and being creative. she said the former is to create entirely from scratch, to imagine worlds into existence, while the latter is to take what is already existent and build from there. she wasn’t saying that one is better than the other, that one requires more and thus is more impressive; the point she was making was simply that here are two ways that creative minds work.
(i don’t think they’re mutually exclusive [and i think she’d agree that they’re not, either], and i think that we might each be inclined more dominantly to one or the other, but creating ultimately takes from both columns.)
on the rare occasion i read science fiction/fantasy, i’m reminded of this because i’m astounded (truly, seriously) by how people can create entire worlds and beings and cultures in their brains and then put those creations on paper (or on screen) for us to read and experience. seriously. mind. blown.
a few months ago, i came across becky chambers’ the long way to a small angry planet (hodder and stoughton, 2015) as it made its rounds on instagram. the cover caught my eye (i mean, look at it), so i had to have it — luckily, the story sounded interesting and like something i would love, and the book was highly praised. i promptly ordered it and loved it, then waited impatiently for the sequel, a closed and common circuit, which was published this october.
(i’m shit at synopses, so please google.)
what i liked so much about both books is that chambers shows us what it looks like to live in community with people and beings who are vastly different from us. her world is populated by humans and a number of different species of aliens, each with its own culture, its own language, its own society, and she shows us how they exist together, not always in peace and without conflict but, generally, harmoniously.
chambers also shows us about prejudice, about species-ism, which stands in for racism in her books, and she shows us that it requires work to dismantle prejudice. it requires us to come face-to-face with the ugliness in ourselves, and it requires us to step past that, to make ourselves uncomfortable, to do the work it takes to open our minds and learn to see past our judgments and -isms.
one of my favorite scenes from a closed and common circuit is this exchange between sidra and tak, an aeluon. sidra is an AI in a “human” body made of circuits and wires (called a “kit”), and she’s illegal because AIs are meant to be helpful mechanisms installed into things, not installed in forms that resemble humans. she befriends tak, an alien tattoo artist, at a party, and they become friends, sidra eventually going to tak to get a tattoo of her own — except, when she’s there to get inked, her kit freaks out and glitches because it can’t handle the nanobots being inked onto it.
tak, unsurprisingly, freaks out to find out that sidra is an AI, and they part on bad terms.
in this scene, tak comes to see sidra weeks later.
’and here, AIs are just … tools. they’re the things that make travel pods go. they’re what answer your questions at the library. they’re what greet you at hotels and shuttle ports when you’re travelling. i’ve never thought of them as anything but that.
‘okay,’ sidra said. none of that was an out-of-the-ordinary sentiment, but it itched all the same.
‘but then you … you came into my shop. you wanted ink.i’ve thought about what you said before you left. you came to me, you said, because you didn’t fit within your body. and that … that is something more than a tool would say. and when you said it, you looked … angry. upset. i hurt you, didn’t i?’
‘yes,’ sidra said.
tak rocked her head in guilty acknowledgement. ‘you get hurt. you read essays and watch vids. i’m sure there are huge differences between you and me, but i mean … there are huge differences between me and a harmagian. we’re all different. i’ve been doing a lot of thinking since you left, and a lot of reading, and —‘ she exhaled again, short and frustrated. ‘what i’m trying to say is i — i think maybe i underestimated you. i misunderstood, at least.’
sidra processed, processed, processed. […] ‘this … re-evaluation of yours. does it extend to other AIs? or do you merely see me differently because i’m in a body?’
tak exhaled. ‘we’re being honest here, right?’
‘i can’t be anything but.’
‘okay, well — wait, seriously?’
‘right. okay. i guess i have to be honest too, then, if we’re gonna keep this fair.’ tak knitted her long silver fingers together and stared at them. ‘i’m not sure i would’ve gone down this road if you weren’t in a body, no. i … don’t think it would’ve occurred to me to think differently.’
sidra nodded. ‘i understand. it bothers me, but i do understand.’
‘yeah. it kind of bothers me, too. i’m not sure i like what any of this says about me.’ (189-90)
i particularly like that last line because it’s an understandably big block when it comes to trying to overcome prejudice of any kind. no one wants to learn that s/he has that kind of ugliness within. no one wants to see that reflected at him/her. no one wants to admit that s/he is racist, sexist, prejudiced in any way. we all want to see ourselves as above all that.
the thing, though, is that, unless we’re willing to go there and see the prejudice we carry, we will never change. unless we ourselves are willing to look in the mirror and look that internal ugliness in the eye, we will never change, just like we will never change unless we’re willing to open ourselves up and have the bloody difficult conversations.
and we will never change as long as we stay in our bubbles and echo chambers. we will never learn to see the world through another lens, to see people who are different from us as dimensional, living human beings, as long as we refuse to step out of our comfort zones and try.
that goes for everyone, for all of us, myself included, liberal or conservative, male or female, straight or LGBTQ+. we all have some measure of internalized misogyny and/or racism and/or classism and/or name your -ism, and, unless we try to change, we never will, and neither will the world.
chambers gets at this point in her books, and she does it without getting on a soapbox, weaving these conflicts into her stories and showing us through narrative how difficult it is to recognize prejudice and to work to overcome it. she shows us the consequences of staying locked in a closed, self-serving mindset, just as she also shows us the fruits that come of confronting that ugliness and becoming more open, understanding people. it’s not easy, but it is worth it and makes for a better society — and that, i believe, is why we ought to try, even though the process is neither painless nor pretty.