When I first started writing, I remember someone telling me that science fiction—books about the future—were a reflection of the current world. Reading 1984 is certainly an example of that; even the title was merely George Orwell’s current date, 1948, reversed. It’s fascinating to see old episodes of “Star Trek” as well, not for the outdated technology being used, but for social issues that are anything but outdated, even decades later.
I got my first taste of this with Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book, published in 1992. It’s a fascinating story of time travel, where a women gets stuck in the year 1086, often flashing forward to the present to show how her colleagues are trying to save her. In the year 2054, they have the technology to build a time machine, a device mostly used by historians…and yet they don’t have cell phones. Significant portions of the “future” scenes are spent with the characters rushing around to pay phones, feeding coins into them in a desperate attempt to reach one another.
Re-reading the book recently, I found that it was laughably outdated—in that aspect. But despite the fact that this was a book about a future we don’t yet have, it still held a reasonably accurate mirror up to our current world. The very human issues of family, religion, and tradition are a struggle whether you’re in the 1000s, the 1990s, or the 2010s. And the much broader issues of class and how wealth can sometimes literally be the difference between life and death, is very much a topic of concern now, as we (still) debate “Obama-care” and whether or not to move to a more socialist form of healthcare with access to all.
Mirrors are important, perhaps even more important in speculative fiction than in any other genre, because we see truths in the extreme backdrops of new worlds more vividly than in our own. But as I’ve grown as a writer and a reader, I’ve discovered that windows are just as important.
When we refer to speculative fiction that provides “windows,” we’re saying that it gives us a peek into a world we don’t currently know—and we’re not talking about a peek into spaceships or time travel. If the work is written from the point of view of a character who’s a different ethnicity, sexuality, or differently abled from you, the reader, it provides a window that enables us to see, through that characters eyes, a worldview very different from our own.
This is why we say (so, so often) that representation matters. It matters that a book is a mirror for someone who rarely sees themselves in fiction, and a window for someone else to find empathy for someone who is different from them.
The best books are both mirrors and windows. Alexandra Duncan’s Salvage is an excellent example of that. It’s a mirror into our own society, reflecting a world that has a socioeconomic structure that highlights our own current disparities of wealth, and reflecting a society that devalues women in an extreme nature that emphasizes the remaining injustices that feminism currently fights for. But it’s also a window into the way a girl raised in a cult would feel, into Indian society, into a single mother family, into a poor family. For me, at least. Because this book may be just the mirror a little girl raised by only her mom may need, or for an Indian boy who’s poor, or for a family in a cult. For me, a white girl raised in a middle class family with a mother and father, these parts of the book were windows and engendered empathy. For someone else, these same elements were mirrors, and likely filled the person with pride or happiness, to see themselves reflected in the pages of a book.
Our challenge as writers is to both hold up the mirror and open the window. Show our readers the way the world currently is—even if we’re writing about the future—but also let them see a part of the world they’ve never truly experienced before.
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