We’re Going to Need a Lot of Art These Next Four Years

One of the things that has occurred to me repeatedly over the last week is how profoundly sad I am about the way our national conversation has changed. Two weeks ago I was thinking and following discussions about the validity and useful levels of universal basic income. I was paying attention to developments in the theoretical human colonization of Mars. I was, in short, preparing to live in a future where we little, fractious humans decide to look out for each other and begin to conquer the vast and unfathomable frontier.

Now I’m terrified that the events of last Tuesday will result in the United States of America returning to the 19th Century. Given Trump and the Republicans’ opinion on environmentalism and climate change and America’s outsized influence on the environment I am concerned, to say the least, that we will take the rest of the world down with us. I am not in this moment full of optimism about the future of the human race.

I have realized that this means I need to force myself to change my perspective. I need to get back to creating art. This art cannot be mere escapism or fantasy. It must be purposeful and offer a vision of a world we can all live in.

All of which is to say that I need to get back to editing Nightwind so I can either sell it for real or have it ready for self-publication. It does no good to wallow in the depression of the moment. We must have something to look towards.

I firmly believe that it is the job of the artists to lead the way.

I got into science fiction the normal way. I was a nerdy kid who didn’t have a lot of friends and lacked the social graces to find more. I spent grade school doodling spaceships in the margins of my notebooks. I watched Star Trek and Star Wars. Once I hit junior high and high school I watched Babylon 5 and played BattleTech and spent my time daydreaming about exploring the cosmos and blowing up large chunks of it with autocannons and gauss rifles.

My primary love in science fiction was, and really still is, Arthur C Clarke. When I was in junior high I was in the school library and found the Rama books. I think I read them in the wrong order, starting with the second. It didn’t matter, really. The idea of the books was amazing. It was the first science fiction I’d ever run into that was explicitly about humans meeting and trying to come to terms with the unknown and not trying to destroy it with laser guns.

Arthur C Clarke was also the first person I’d ever run into who mentioned Y2K and its associated bug. This was the early ’90s and computers were, to me, practically useless. I’d started using computers with the Apple IIe. My family got our first computer when I was in junior high and I remember using it to get onto AOL and play the old Sierra Aces games. There was no real purpose to computers otherwise. But in this book I was reading this thing called the Y2K virus had destroyed global commerce by taking down electronically connected markets. This was amazing. Even though the real Y2K didn’t live up to the one mentioned in the book it didn’t matter. I, through reading science fiction, had actually seen a glimpse of the future.[1]

One of the books that I remember reading and being most fascinated by was a book called Imperial Earth. I have not read that book in at least a dozen years, but something in it has stuck with me throughout my life. In that book there are various descriptions of the characters but everyone is mixed race. Sexual experimentation is the norm and exclusive heterosexuality and homosexuality are considered aberrant while bisexuality is the norm. Both of these ideas were revolutionary in my white, Evangelical Christian mind.

I think I wrestled with and rejected both of those ideas initially. They obviously stuck with me. I still question both assertions to this day, but I appreciate the world Clarke was trying to point to. More than that I appreciate the way it forced me to question everything I knew about the world. I knew, in my limited way, what the world was and what the world was meant to be. Arthur C Clarke challenged my notions of an immutable universe.

I now believe that being a science fiction fan made me a better historian. I now believe that Arthur C Clarke made me a better historian. I learned from him that the world of the future will potentially look very different from the world now. This gave me the imagination to realize that the world of the past looked very different from the world now, too.

In imagining how the world of tomorrow might be different I opened my mind to the realization that the world of yesterday was also different. Today is the tomorrow of those who came before.

This is Corporal Katherine Silas, Kat to her friends. She is an integral part of the universe I am creating. She is, or at least should be, the main character of that universe. I am having a hard time figuring out how to go about selling her to the world of today.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Kat. She’s actually pretty amazing; one of the best characters I’ve ever created. She’s also a black, bisexual woman who currently lives in the mind of — and on the pages of a book written by — a white, straight man. In her universe neither one of these things is a statement. She lives in the sort of universe that Arthur C Clarke would once have posited. Her gender is not a barrier. Her skin color is not worth discussion. Her sexuality is her own to explore.

Still in the world of today all of those things are worth discussion. That’s why she exists as a character. Because I, as a person living today, believe that 340 years in the future when Corporal Katherine Silas is alive, she will contain qualities that some people today think of as aberrant or unworthy but that we won’t think of that way for much longer.

This is Captain David Anderson. In the world I have created he is the one who faces discrimination. This is not because of his skin color, gender, or sexuality, but because of where he grew up.

The reason he’s oddly proportioned is because he grew up on Mars. As the story unfolds we find out that Earth and Mars do not like each other much.

I create fictional worlds to talk about the real world. I also create fictional worlds to offer something to move towards. I don’t think we’ll ever get over our humanity. I do believe that human history is the story of us getting slowly better at living together.

My friend Marc painted the header image on this post for me. He’s currently doing a series of charcoal sketches of the deprivations the men, women, and children of Aleppo are facing right now. I am proud to be able to say that I have worked with him. I am even more proud to say that I have been friends with him since grade school.

We share a love of history. He helped me realize a part of my vision of the future. He’s using his art to point out a massive injustice that exists in this world today. He, as a lover of history, has an online gallery filled with images of wounded soldiers from past wars and the crumbling walls of the old Byzantine Empire. All of these things are connected.

I’ve spent a lot of time these past few weeks writing about politics. I’ve written a lot about this year’s election since last Tuesday. I’m not going to stop writing about the injustice I see today. I’m not going to stop writing about horrid things I see coming from our current President-Elect and the pack of vandals that now have unfettered reign in Congress.

As an artist I have to start writing about tomorrow again. I need to see a world that’s worked out some of our problems. I need to create humans facing the unknown with courage and skepticism and prejudice. I need to do that to make sense of the humans today who face the unknown with courage and skepticism and prejudice.

As a historian I have to start writing about yesterday again. I need to see that our world today is better than our world was yesterday. I need to see humans facing the unknown and making a better world.

We need to get back to placing today in the context of yesterday and as a precursor to tomorrow. That’s the only I know of to prepare to fight today.

[1]In writing this I realize that I definitely started in on the Rama books with Rama II. I also realize that this means that I was somewhat bamboozled, as that means my science fiction awakening was not due to Arthur C Clarke but, largely, to Gentry Lee, who was the primary writer of the latter Rama books. This also puts a lot of things into perspective, as I went back later and read Rendezvous with Rama and was slightly confused about all of the things that weren’t in that book that I expected to find.