APU Exploring STEM Podcast

Science Fiction’s Unique Approach to Difficult Social Norms

Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, DMA, Department Chair, Communication and World Languages and
Dr. Shelli CarterFaculty Member, School of STEM

Explore the ways in which science fiction delves into difficult social norms and presents us with new insights.

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello. My name is Doctor Bjorn Mercer. Today we’re talking to Dr. Shelli Carter, full-time faculty in the School of STEM. Today we’re talking about how science fiction examines difficult social norms. Welcome, Shelli.

Dr. Shelli Carter: Thank you for having me, Bjorn. I’m glad to be here.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. Glad to have you back. Our last conversation about Firefly” and science fiction was wonderful. This one’s great because science fiction writers are able to play with ideas and talk about things that, say, other writers might be hesitant to. How does science fiction and the writers deal with difficult social norms?

Dr. Shelli Carter: Well, I think if we look at the history of science fiction arena and publications, we’ll find that, just like with real social situations, some people handle it with more grace and tact than others. We can think back to some of the, let’s call them the famous authors. Heinlein, for example, or Frank Herbert, they had very different relationships with the idea of the other. I mean, if we take Frank Herbert’s work with “Dune”, he actually did a lot. In the work, the heroes were the Fremen. The heroes were the other oppressed, if you will, on the planet Arrakis. That was in direct relation to what he observed of the British interaction with the people they were colonizing, for lack of a better term, and, in many cases, oppressing. So, arguably, he handled it very gracefully.

But then we can look at other situations where it’s always the white savior complex, if you will. We see a lot of that bleeding over into modern movies. I saw a joke several years ago that talked about, “Do we really need another movie where Matt Damon rescues some ethnic population? Why can’t they rescue themselves?” I think that science fiction gives us both sides of the story, just like we see in reality. Some people accept that idea of diversity and want to embrace that diversity, and others do not, for a variety of reasons.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s great. I like your two ideas there, one about “Dune”, and then one about, like you say, another movie with the white savior complex. The first follow-up question is, can you go into more detail about “Dune” and what the allegory was originally? The second one is why do you think filmmakers continue to do the white savior story, in the sense that it might be an unintentional bias?

Dr. Shelli Carter: Let me start with that one actually first, because I think it might be the easier question. I think, in a lot of regards, it has to do with what has been perceived as predominant market share, or where you will get the big bucks. If we think about the world at large, and we think about places with disposable income and places that can throw money into big budget productions, we are in the typically Western world. To date, we have been. I think that is why it has been the white savior complex, because the idea that big budget action movies, big budget science fiction movies, you are going to have a demographic of 20- to 40-year-old white man going to see this. You are not going to have very many women. You’re not going to have very many people of color or minority populations. We are going to give them something that they know and recognize, and they can see themselves in on that screen.

It’s only as we continue to examine the need for more diversity that we are seeing different movies come out. I know, for example, timestamp us a little bit, next week, The Woman King” is slated to come out, with Viola Davis playing a famous warrior queen from an African tribal situation. I personally am extremely excited to go see that movie, but I know that’s not necessarily true, and I don’t think this is a movie that anyone necessarily expects to be a huge blockbuster, even though we have seen movies such as Black Panther in the blockbuster arena. But if we think about Marvel and we think about where Disney took that property, they didn’t start with “Black Panther” They started with Avengers” and Iron Man” and the quintessential American billionaire playboy who could do what he wanted, because that’s where the disposable money has been in the past. That’s the second question.

The first question, I am going to apologize to Herbert’s memory that I don’t remember the details, but he had traveled as part of the British Empire and had seen, I believe it was especially the interactions with Aboriginal populations in Australia. This is where I get fuzzy about the exact demographic that he had seen the British oppressing. But it was certainly a case of the colonist coming in and taking over and wanting things to be their way. But instead, the tribal population continued to thrive. The local group continued to live their lifestyle and thrived in the environment, whereas the British did not necessarily. He wrote that into the idea of “Dune”. He wrote that into the idea of that Indigenous population being the one who is going to overthrow the oppressor. But he still put himself in there because, again, you have Paul Atreides coming in, arguably from the position of the white savior. Yes, he learned from the Indigenous people, but ultimately, it was not one of theirs who rose up to that position of authority.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s great. There’s so much to unpack there because in the ’60s, when “Dune” came out, that was, by that point, the sunset of the British Empire. For the most part, most of the former colonies had gained independence. But the scope of the British Empire ranged from Canada to India to Australia to different portions of Africa and the Middle East. Now, from my fuzzy memory, I always thought “Dune” was an allegory about oil in the Middle East.

Dr. Shelli Carter: It may very well have been. That is what, unfortunately, I don’t remember. I feel extremely bad, actually, because in one of our classes that we offer in STEM, it’s about the co-evolution of science fiction and society. I actually had a student who chose Herbert’s work and “Dune” in particular as one of their term papers, and I am fuzzy on the details at this point in time.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, that’s okay. For any listener that knows, please put it in the comment section. That’s one of the great things about science fiction, is that you can take a story, and the author doesn’t have to tell you exactly what’s going on, because then you can put your own ideas on top of that story. My read of “Dune” is in the Middle East and colonialism, the British Empire and the French Empires back then really going into the Middle East, what is now, say, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and extracting oil. That’s still an issue today. Colonialism is still felt in many, many countries, not only in Africa, but in the Middle East. Why do you think science fiction is able to talk about colonialism in a way that people can quite understand without them even realizing it?

Dr. Shelli Carter: I think it’s probably a combination of two factors. One, by being somewhat vague, it does allow individual readers to give their own interpretation to it. You mentioned that you focused on the oil piece. As a female reader of “Dune”, I was always focused on the power of the Bene Gesserit and these female figures who were very much in charge, arguably, even if it wasn’t overtly. By leaving out some of the details, there are these enduring stories of struggle. There are these enduring stories. We know that this happened globally. Let each person give their own interpretation to it. I think that comes into play a lot. That’s probably a big part of the draw of science fiction.

[Related: What ‘Firefly’ and Sci Fi Can Teach Us about Real-World Issues]

The flip side is, and this is something that we touched upon, I think, when we discussed “Firefly” previously, it’s not right now. It’s not the world that I know. I can choose to view these things from a distance. I can maybe put some of my own interpretation on them, but it’s not my world. So, I don’t have to look in that mirror and say, “I am contributing to X problem, which is clearly reflected in this work.” Instead, I can be like, “Oh, well, there was this great struggle in outer space.” I mean, it makes me think a little bit, but I don’t really have to do anything about it. You can take that away from science fiction, or away from adult science fiction. You can step back to Disney movies. We think about WALL·E”, the cartoon about the trash drone who just spent his entire existence cleaning up human trash. We can say, “Oh, this is a cute movie. It’s great. He finds acceptance at the end.” We don’t have to say, “We have this huge problem with throwing away stuff.”

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Transitioning briefly from “Dune” to “WALL·E”, and when science fiction is commenting about cultural issues, what do you think “WALL·E” is trying to say? Are they saying that it’s bleak or that we need to have some action?

Dr. Shelli Carter: I like to think that the intention is never to say it’s bleak. I like to think that it’s always this can be fixed. But the flip side of that is I like to think that the overwhelming evidence of climate change tells people that they need to do things now. It’s more than just don’t take the plastic straw from Starbucks. I mean, I can think of other works. There’s a newer version of The Lorax,” an animated approach to “The Lorax”, which is a Doctor Seuss book originally. It is about cutting down a forest and overexploitation of natural resources. It starts out in a city of the future, in which there are no trees anymore. The trees have all been destroyed. Then there’s a let-me-tell-you-how-we-got-here scenario involved, in which the trees were cut down, and “The Lorax” is trying to protect the environment.

As the story comes to a conclusion, the local populace is able to say, “Look, we found a tree seed. We’re going to grow these new trees. We’re going to come back from what this was.” So, I’d like to think that there’s always a nugget of we can come back. We can redeem ourselves if we go too far, if we end up in the “WALL·E” situation or we end up in “The Lorax” situation. I think that that probably comforts a lot of people, even if they don’t consciously realize it, because if they opt not to make changes or they opt not to take away the hidden message, if you will, however well it is or is not hidden, they can say, “Well, even if I don’t change and I know that this is going to turn out disastrously, humans are great at fixing things. Somebody will fix it in the future, so I don’t have to worry about it right now.”

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’ve had a variety of different podcasts with Doctor Kristin Drexler about climate change. One of the more difficult aspects of climate change is that we see it, but we don’t see it. Humans don’t see it in front of their face, so they’re like, “Well …” Not that they’re saying, “It’s not happening,” but like, “What can I do on an individual scale?” That’s where science fiction can be so helpful in just presenting so many different options, so many different scenarios, from the bleakest of all scenarios to positive ones. When we think of science fiction, and even throwing in “The Lorax”, I remember when “The Lorax” came out, there was some pushback where people were saying, “Well, they’re trying to brainwash kids with this environmental message.” How should writers try to tell people about environmentalism if then some people will call it brainwashing? And as a follow-up question to that is how do we talk about environmentalism when certain people don’t think it’s an issue, or just want to kick the can down the road? If all that makes sense.

Dr. Shelli Carter: It does. I think, on the one hand, that authors and movie producers, screenwriters, whoever, should take the opportunity to bang us upside the head with the two by four, because that is where you really can explore. If we do nothing, this is what happens. If we continue to consume and throw away willy-nilly, we get to “WALL·E”. If we cut down all the trees, then we end up with this situation. The accusation of brainwashing, I mean, it’s fundamentally no different than if you disagree with someone, you often hear the phrase, “Oh, you drank the Kool-Aid.” A horrible reference to suicide cult, essentially, but it’s easy to make that accusation because then it diminishes the points that you don’t want to look at. In a lot of ways, science fiction and the scenarios that it outlines, be it in text form or be it in movie form, give people an opportunity to look at the other side. Whether they want to accept it or not, whether they want to make the accusation that, “Oh, well, you’re brainwashing kids,” or “You’re doing X, Y, and Z,” or “It’s never going to be that bad,” you can’t take that knowledge back out.

I like to think that human preservation, it does give pause, like, “Maybe I shouldn’t do that. Maybe I really don’t need that new sofa,” or “Maybe I really can wear these shoes longer.” At the very least, if I’m not going to wear them, I can donate them instead of just throwing them into the landfill. Really, to make social change, to make modern society and complacent humans, I mean, for all that I like to think that I’m reasonably enlightened, I also understand human nature, and we are inherently lazy. We want to stick with the status quo. Sometimes you do have to do a big shake-up. It is difficult. It is uncomfortable to change your lifestyle. I mean, for whatever it may be, health reasons, because you’ve had a wake-up that this is a social problem, because you’ve had a wake-up that you are contributing to a long-term environmental problem, whatever it may be, sometimes you need that harsh reality really, really, really pushed in your face. And, I mean, why not start with the young? They haven’t picked up all the bad habits that we have.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’m going to give you a few options. Star Trek”, “Star Wars”, and Judge Dredd”. Which one of these do you want to talk about as far as examining difficult social norms?

Dr. Shelli Carter: Ooh, this is tricky. Let’s stick with “Star Wars” because I just was speaking recently with a friend and realized that I am all up to date on “Star Wars” in terms of cinematic universe, other than Rogue One” and the Solo movie. I feel more confident discussing that one. Hit me. What have we got?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: With “Star Wars”, what are some different social norms that are examined? I mean, I could think of the difference between democracy and fascism. That is constantly played with in “Star Wars”.

Dr. Shelli Carter: That one is pretty big, obviously. I think anyone who’s watched them, even if they wouldn’t use those exact terms, do understand that that’s a fundamental struggle. Even stepping back a little bit, I’m going to reference the Boba Fett series a little bit. We see in “Star Wars” an acknowledgement of different cultural norms and different cultural approaches. We can think of the Hutts. Yes, the Hutts are managing a criminal empire, but the Hutts are maintaining control. Yes, the Hutts get by on bribes. Those are accepted practices in non-Western countries. I think that even if we Westerners choose to see that as a distasteful thing, then we need to understand that that is how some of the world works.

That series and that interaction and that dynamic, especially right now, as they’re expanding the “Star Wars” universe to consider some of these other side stories or back stories that we didn’t have, makes it a little more, I’m not going to say acceptable, but it perhaps makes the typical Western viewer like, “I can see how that system came about. I may not agree with that system, but I also, in some ways, can see the advantage of the system.” If we think about some of the oppression that’s going on with the different classes in the Tatooine society, you’ve got the, I forget what they call the group of kids who are having themselves mechanized, that approach. In the original “Star Wars”, that machination, that cybernetic aspect of Luke Skywalker lost his hand, and obviously, that was a big foreshadowing to his interaction, his relationship to Darth Vader, who was half machine, essentially, that was a distasteful aspect.

If we fast forward to where we are in society now, we don’t want to go the Robocop” scenario, but it is becoming more and more likely that in the near future, we will have augmented humans. Let’s start thinking about what that’s going to mean. Let’s start thinking about what that’s going to look like. Is it only acceptable if we are using, quote-unquote, “augmentation” because someone has had a horrible accident? Or is there a point in time at which it becomes socially acceptable, if you have the interest and the means, that you can be augmented?

How does that then interplay into societal interactions? Do we go the route, and it’s the clichéd argument, are we’re going to have the have and the have-nots? As you just pointed out, that’s fundamentally what our world is already. We, in Western society, do not realize that, if we look across the globe, everyone here is a have. I mean, even those that we think of as being very, very poor and living in need, which they absolutely are living in need, compared to other countries, they’re not. I think places like the “Star Wars” universe and the lower-tech planets allow humans to think through that, or allow viewers to think through those differences,

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: The Tuskens. Throughout all of the “Star Wars” movies, the Tuskens have been viewed as an annoyance. But in Boba Fett, we get a backstory that they were, I believe, the original inhabitants of the planet. Then foreigners from space came and destroyed their planet. The entire planet is basically being destroyed for spice. It’s a horrible story. But if we look at real world applications of this, we unfortunately see that happening, have happened and still happening, today in our world.

Dr. Shelli Carter: Absolutely. You made reference to the conflicts over oil. That I think is very prominent in most Western minds, especially because, obviously, we need oil. We need fossil fuels to drive most of our society. But we see it in other places. I’m thinking back to the movie Medicine Man”, which brought to light the approach to clearcutting the rainforest versus the impacts on us from what type of pharmaceuticals are we potentially losing? So, we do have that aspect of let’s exploit, let’s exploit, let’s exploit. But we don’t pause to say, “What are we losing? What are we really doing here for the convenience of I want this right now?”

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It is tough. Going to “Star Wars” again, it seems like you would think, in a universe where “Star Wars” exists and you can hop from planet to planet relatively quickly, that they would figure out all of the internal problems on each world. But they hadn’t. Even during the Republic, slavery still existed. You’d have to be like, “Wait, why is there slavery in “Star Wars”? ” But I think that’s a really great storytelling device because, although slavery is illegal in our world today, it still exists, unfortunately, but it’s hidden.

Dr. Shelli Carter: Absolutely. I mean, I know we have a problem here in the States with human trafficking unfortunately alive and well. I mean, for a variety of reasons, it tends, in the U.S., to be related more to the sex trade, for lack of a better term. But it happens all around the globe. We still exploit each other. We as humans, there’s always going to be some segment, and arguably the default, because the path of least resistance is what do I need to do to get ahead and not inconvenience myself?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: My last question is about how science fiction examines difficult norms and cultural norms. Do you think “Star Wars” does a good job of examining how the Empire became the Empire for control? Because in the beginning, I think the Empire, the movies, was just brutal, and they’re the bad guys. You saw them walking. You shot at them. I think the more recent stories, and I’m not talking about all the novels and graphic novels, but just the series and films, shows that there is a little more complexity with the Empire. Not that the Empire does good holistically, per se, but that the government got to a point where people thought that authoritarian action was needed, and a fascist state was needed.

Dr. Shelli Carter: What was the question? Because I don’t disagree with anything you say, or anything you just said. No, I do see what you’re saying. I think that is an important thing for us to look at, if we look at modern politics and what we believe, and some of us still believe, and some people did believe were the inherent checks and balances in our political system, for example. But I do also think that it is easy as humans to look and say, “I see all of this suffering. I see this and this and this being wrong. If these people over here want to just deal with that, then I’m just going to let them deal with that. If it means that I don’t get to do X, or it means someone else doesn’t get to do Y, that’s okay because we’re going to deal with this big problem.”

It does snowball. That is what we saw in, if we’re not looking at the original trilogy, but we’re looking instead at the next set of three movies that came out, the prequels, where we see, really, the Empire becoming the Empire. We see the Chancellor declaring himself Emperor. We see the birth of Darth Vader. I think that there was perhaps some poor reception to that series of movies. But if you go back and watch it now and just, I mean, separate from some of the cinematic aspects, and just listen to the dialogue, and listen to the words, and listen to the arguments that Anakin Skywalker was making in the second and the third movies, “Yes, if this is what it takes to fix these problems, if this is what it takes so that we’re not having these oppressions go on, then I’m going to back that. I don’t really care what he does otherwise.”

I think that there is an unfortunate preponderance of people who would make a similar choice. It’s not just so much I don’t want to deal with this, but there is something to be said for the problem being too big and thinking, “I, as an individual, can’t do anything about this. There is no way I can move the needle.” I think this applies not only to societal issues such as these we’re talking about, oppression and fascism, but also the climate change problem. I individually can’t do anything to fix this, so I’m just not going to do anything. But if somebody big wants to take action, then I’ll go along with it.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: There’s an inherent human nature to glom onto an authoritarian figure. I don’t know why humans do this, but we do. I mean, you just look throughout history. I mean, why has democracy been more of a more recent phenomena versus, throughout most of history, it being kings and queens and different things like that, where it’s an authoritarian state that controls most countries in the world? What we’re living through is more unique in human history. But with so many different problems, heaven forbid there’s somebody that comes onto the scene and says, “I’m the only one who could fix it,” and is charismatic. There will always be a percentage of the population who says, “Yeah, this person will fix it.” I think you see that in “Star Wars”. In “Dune”, I don’t know enough about “Dune”, so I apologize. But there’s an emperor in “Dune”. Again, you’d think, “Why is there an emperor in a world where they span different solar systems? Why are there royal families that control entire planets?” Maybe that goes more with human nature was more akin to that before the great democratic experiment of the last few centuries.

Dr. Shelli Carter: It could very well be. We could also think through human nature, there is comfort in knowing your place, even if you don’t necessarily agree with it. I think of some of the devil’s advocate arguments that were made actually against Mother Teresa when she was being considered for sainthood. One of the key arguments was one aspect of her ministry in India was this is what you were born to. This is your lot in life. You just need to accept it, which is very counter to what we think of in the U.S. We have this idea that if you work hard enough, you can achieve the American dream. You can pull yourself up from your bootstraps. I know it’s an old phrase, but if you think about it, I mean, that is by the laws of physics, that is impossible. But we put forward that idea, that you can do it in the U.S. The rest of the world doesn’t necessarily prescribe to that particular mindset. I think that is largely to do with human nature.

Everyone can’t be on top. That’s the simple reality of the situation. If everyone can’t be on top, then there is comfort in knowing, “This is where I am. These people above me are going to deal with these things, and then I don’t have to worry about them. I don’t have to think about them.” I think that relates to your, you outlined the social structure of “Dune” quite well. There’s an emperor in charge of all these millions of planets, practically. Many of the planets have a ruling class, very similar to the idea of kings and queens and the high king idea with the emperor. It’s that trickle-up effect. We see it. I mean, arguably, that’s the same structure we have politically here. We individual citizens elect representatives that go up to the national level. They make decisions that go up to the next level, the president. If something goes wrong, well, we’re going to blame the guy at top. It’s not us and what we did at this level. Not really even the people we elected. It’s the collective decision didn’t matter. One person made that final decision.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: With “Dune”, it makes sense why there is that structure, because again, you go throughout most of human history, that structure existed. When you look at “Star Wars”, you see that there was a Republic, and it fell because you understand how, in democracy, things get bogged down. There’s political infighting. There’s inefficiency. But then, with an emperor, there becomes one person who can do anything they want. That one person can literally cause the deaths of millions. Absolutely wonderful conversation. Shelli, any final words?

Dr. Shelli Carter: It’s always entertaining to talk through different scenarios.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Today we’re speaking with Doctor Shelli Carter about how science fiction examines difficult social norms. Of course, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. Thank you for listening.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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