Sunday, March 20, 2011

Earlier, back in the magazine office, his fellow writers are reading his story with universal admiration. But the editor says he can’t publish it because readers won’t accept it. Here the role of science fiction in challenging prejudices of the present, as well as the power of present prejudice, are subtly suggested in what is otherwise a joke.

“A Negro captain—it’s not believable,” editor Pabst insists.

“And men from Mars are?” asks an astonished Herbert Rosoff.

It’s a logical question. No one has ever seen a man from Mars, so how could they be more believable than a human being encountered in normal life? But as Spock found, humans are not always logical.

It’s partly because of prejudices about African Americans: they aren’t smart enough or capable of command. But it’s more than that. Pabst excuse that it isn’t believable is only part of the reason. His predominately white readers, he is saying, don’t find it desirable. That they may not be able to identify with a Negro captain is part of it. But at the heart of prejudice against the Other, there’s usually fear. The idea of a Negro captain is threatening, both because of prejudices about black people, and because this captain is not “one of us.” He’s Other, he’s alien. To accept a black leader would upset the current social order.

Some fantasies are comfortable. But sometimes science fiction has to push beyond the present comfort zone. Setting stories in the future is one way to do this. But (as GR and Star Trek found, especially in the early days) it isn’t always enough.

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