Listen to All Sides of the Story

A concept that I found to be important while reading the beginning of Lagoon and watching the subsequent TED talk by the author, Nnedi Okorafor, was the notion that there are multiple viewpoints to a single story and how crucial it is to be able to understand and listen to all the different facets surrounding that story.

Nnedi Okorafor opens up her novel Lagoon with a short introduction about how the name for the city of Lagos in Nigeria came from the Portuguese word for “lagoon”. She then goes on to criticize the naming of the city, for the Portuguese “could not come up with a more creative name.” Okorafor then comments about how the colonizers were so ignorant as to not even think of asking the natives for suggestions of what to call their own land.

This short excerpt from the novel fascinated me because of the way Okorafor describes the nature of colonization in the past. She does so in a way that exemplifies the innate ignorance of history as we know it today. Simple constructs such as city names like that of Lagos were made without the consideration of the very people who had lived their whole lives there. This notion of a “white history” is important because it is what differentiates traditional science fiction texts from those rooted in Afrofuturism.

Traditional science fiction, whose authors include the likes of Isaac Asimov, George Orwell, and H.G. Wells, are rooted in a predominantly white, male context. Afrofuturism differs in the sense that it imagines a historical context that hasn’t been influenced by white colonialism – a “what-if” scenario that hypothesizes the advancement of African civilization without the consequences of outside influence.

Nnedi Okorafor makes references back to this difference between the sub-genres in her TED talk. What’s interesting is that in the TED talk, she doesn’t outright put one sub-genre over the other. She merely explains that the two are different in some regards, but that both have merits in the way they form their speculations. A commentary that I appreciated was the octopus analogy she mentioned in her talk.

The octopus analogy goes by saying that, like humans, octopi are among some of the most intelligent creatures on earth. The difference between octopus and human intelligence is that they diverged down different paths in the evolutionary line, and therefore the very foundation of that intelligence is different. I took this to mean that just because the foundation of some ideas are inherently different, it doesn’t mean that there can’t be something to take from it.

To put things into a more modern perspective, we can’t be so ignorant as to not consider viewpoints that might be different than ours. Doing so only limits our understanding as a whole and serves to diminish critical thinking in its entirety. Instead, we should strive to try and understand where the opposition or other side is coming from and try to learn from a viewpoint that is different from our own.

What Does it Mean to be Equal?

A scene that I thought was profound occured in Chapter 13 of The Left Hand of Darkness. The event took place shortly after the main protagonist, Ai, was arrested by guards and taken to Kundershaden Prison. En route to the prison, Ai was forced to take refuge inside a dark, decrepit van with twenty-five other prisoners.

The tone was set as the journey began when one of the prisoners died from hemorrhaging due to previous injuries inflicted upon by the guards, presumably. More importantly, it was noted that once the prisoner was decided to no longer be of saving, the rest of the prisoners disregarded his suffering as “there was nothing to be done.” The only person who offered some semblance of care was Ai, who took the grieving man’s head onto his knees so that he may die more peacefully. Upon reading this passage, I immediately thought of how careless the other prisoners were to not even try to ail the man in any way. Going forward, I thought that this apathetic behavior was all that would be shown from these prisoners. Therefore I was shocked when I found out that they could be cooperative and kind to one another a few paragraphs later.

When the van got too cold, the prisoners would huddle together for warmth – even going as far as to note who was more susceptible to the cold and to put them in the middle. When the meager jug of water was passed around inside the van, “no one ever tried to get much more than his share,” which exemplified how they were unselfish on some accords. However, in that same paragraph, it is said that when one prisoner kept missing his opportunity to get a share of the water, nobody bothered to see that he got a portion. It occurred to me that the prisoners only showed kindness if it didn’t get in the way of their own needs and ambitions, so to say.

This concept is underlined even more when Ai says, “It is a terrible thing, this kindness that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are finally naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have.” An interpretation of this quote could be seen as humans only act out of kindness when they have nothing else to lose for it. That if caring for a sickly person meant that you had to exert more energy than you needed to, then it wasn’t worth helping them; but if you had something to gain from cooperation, like warmth or water, then it was the time to act kind.

After reading this scenario, it made me think back to more recent times when people who were privileged grew frustrated when affirmative action was given to people who were relatively disparaged to themselves. They thought that affirmative action meant unfair treatment, when in fact the playing ground was never the same to begin with. So, if giving aid to those who are disadvantaged is an act of inequality, then what does it truly mean to be equal?

Science Fiction or Real Life?

One of the most interesting ideas of the first chapter in Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction was the prospect that science fiction can predict the future. In the reading, Hugo Gernsback, one of the great sci-fi magazine publishers, describes science fiction (or commonly known at the time as scientification) as enabling scientific change, whereas most people believed that scientific advancements allowed for science fiction texts to be made at all. What especially stood out to me was the fact that inscribed above each editorial of his magazines was the phrase, “Extravagant Fiction Today – Cold Fact Tomorrow”.

To me this is a very powerful saying because it displays the very power that science fiction has in influencing reality. A common theme in many of the science fiction works we’ve read in class so far is the concept that science fiction’s purpose is to get us thinking critically, to spark new innovations in society and technology. Furthermore, science fiction is incredible because of its ability to inspire creativity and imagination in others.

Some real-life technologies that were first conceived in science fiction.

A quote in the reading from Jack Williamson, a science fiction writer in the 20th century, states that after he started reading classical science fiction novels from older writers like Verne and Wells, he “began dreaming up and writing on [his] own.” Following that quote, another science fiction writer, Frederik Pohl, described the genre as an
“irremediable virus.” Both sentiments play into the idea that science fiction is an infectious source of energy for creativity and imagination.

The creative nature of many science fiction novels are often what keeps readers invested in the genre. For example, in the science fiction series Red Rising by Pierce Brown, there is a weapon called the razor which can transform from a two-meter long whip into a one-meter long rigid blade that can cut through anything with the flick of a bioelectric impulse. To many people, the inner mechanisms of how such a technology could work is beyond the scope of comprehension, but when introduced to us in a science fiction setting, we are forced to contemplate about how it might. This brings me to my final point: the allure of science fiction also allows for a more widespread audience to become exposed to more technical or scientific concepts that normally would be too hard to digest alone.

A crucial aspect of science fiction is its ability to condense a plethora of information into a form that is more easily digested to the ordinary person. Hugo Gernsback describes science fiction as “instructive” and great for “supplying knowledge that we might not otherwise obtain … in a very palatable form.” This depiction of science fiction as a form of enlightenment to concepts and terminologies unbeknownst to us is important because it ultimately broadens the appeal for the subject matter inside a given work of science fiction. An example of this phenomenon includes the film Interstellar in which there is a considerable amount of scientific understanding embedded into the plot, but not too much to where the reader can still understand the main plot, which is that humanity needs to find another planet to live on because climate change on Earth has made life unsustainable. The sci-fi film therefore allows a lay watcher to comprehend the issues of why climate change is an issue in an entertaining fashion.

A poster for the film “Interstellar” directed by Christopher Nolan.

The ability of science fiction to create such an influence in real life makes the genre so much more interesting and powerful.