Photo credit: Stephen Land
Someone recently asked why I write science fiction and fantasy. I believe the question went something like, For what?
As if writing science fiction and fantasy was a degradation, a waste of time, or, at the very least, certainly not literature, definitely not art. So what was the point?
This question was not asked at Indigenous Comic Con, a 3-day event celebrating the Indigenous creators in popular culture. It was not asked by the comic book artists reimagining their cultural stories as superhero stories. It was not asked by the families crowding into the theater to watch Star Wars
dubbed into the Navajo language. It certainly wasn’t asked by all the cosplayers dressed as their favorite science fiction and fantasy characters. Everyone there inherently understood why, even if perhaps they wouldn’t all articulate it the same way.
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Because, to put it succinctly, the future you imagine is the future you get. And sometimes that future looks like Star Wars cosplay (Star Wars = all of the Native influence, none of the Native characters) and sometimes it looks like a bunch of PhDs sitting around thinking up ways that Indigenous thinking and lifeways can save us. But either way, it’s a future that includes Indigenous people, real and imagined.
That might not sound remarkable until you realize how many futures don’t include us. I mean, when’s the last time you read a book or saw a movie set in the future with an Indigenous character? (Shout-out to The Expanse
, which is a joy of diverse representation, if not in Indigenous thought then at least in Indigenous faces!) Oh, we’re big in the past. Mostly the 1880s, where we always seem to be dying noble deaths to make way for white Western Expansion. And we were big for a while in the 1970s, when environmentalism associated us with nature and a single tear (non-Native actor there, by the way). I mean, the Bureau of Indian Affairs is still part of the Department of the Interior, along with Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management, among others. So there’s something radical about imagining ourselves in the future, pushing our way into mainstream science fiction and fantasy. Or, better yet, coming up with our own.
I moderated a panel at Indigenous Comic Con, aptly called Indigenous Futurisms, with some incredibly smart Indigenous people who spend their time thinking about the future. Not only the future, but the past and how we can better understand the past by using the language of the present and the future; and how the present is just the future and the past happening all at once. A tricky idea, perhaps, but a totally legitimate one; many Indigenous cultures have been a bit loose with this idea of linear time.
One of the most intriguing ideas discussed on the Indigenous Futures panel was put forth by Jason Edward Lewis, professor and Research Chair in Computational Media and the Indigenous Future Imaginary at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He talked about how he was involved in a project that used an Indigenous language as the foundation for artificial intelligence and how that changed the very nature of the kind of intelligence and problem-solving the machines were doing. That it was causing them to think in different ways and approach problems from a different angle, and how that might lead to breakthroughs in solving real-world problems.
That might not sound remarkable until you realize how many futures don’t include us.
Beth LaPensée is a professor at Michigan State University and a Guggenheim Fellow. She was on the panel, too, and she talked about the work she does in creating games based in Indigenous thinking and lifeways, where players can experience history through gameplay, and shared some radical ideas about the future of 3D technology that would allow game players to become community healers and language preservationists and fight against threats, old and new, that endanger their communities.
Others on the panel, like Johnnie Jae and Allen Turner, had some incredible ideas. Johnnie Jae talked about surviving the zombie apocalypse, rez-style, and Turner discussed weaving cultural stories and ideas into gameplay in order to make them more accessible. I left that panel energized and hopeful for the future. Because the future you imagine in the future you get, and that’s the kind of future I want.
Now, admittedly, the future I imagine in my debut novel is a gritty, dark, and violent one. The world has been overcome by a climate apocalypse, resources are scarce, and monsters lurk in forms both human and supernatural. But, as I say in my book, the end of the mainstream world as we know it makes room for the rebirth of an Indigenous one. One where traditional stories are alive and very real, one where powers come from our ties to our families and our ancestors, one where Native people exist in number and thrive under conditions that might put others in the ground. Because if there’s one thing Indigenous people know, it’s apocalypse. We’ve been through our own in many ways. Our parents’ lives and our grandparents’ lives were too often the stuff of dystopian novels. And yet, here we still are. Alive, thriving, writing. Imagining the future.
So for me, it is important to imagine a future that centers Native people, that highlights our stories and our ideas and our languages, science, and art. Otherwise, the world suffers. Stuck in colonizing language and thought (Space conquest! Colonizing planets!) without considering that there might be another, better way. I truly believe that a future that doesn’t include Indigenous knowledge is one that won’t make it long on this planet, and will doom us to make the same mistakes on other planets, if and when we reach them. We humans can do better.
And the place to start doing better is in science fiction and fantasy. So when they ask me, For what?
I can tell them, For the most important reason of all. Our future.
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is a Nebula and Hugo Award-winning speculative fiction writer and a Sturgeon/Locus/World Fantasy Award finalist for her short story “Welcome To Your Authentic Indian Experience™.” She is also the recipient of the 2018 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her debut novel Trail Of Lightning (The Sixth World #1)
is available now. Storm Of Locusts (The Sixth World #2)
will follow in April 2019, and in 2020, an epic fantasy titled Between Earth And Sky
(Saga Press). Her nonfiction can be found in Invisible 3: Essays and Poems on Representation in SF/F
, Strange Horizons, Uncanny Magazine
and How I Resist: Activism and Hope for a New Generation
. She is of Ohkay Owingeh and African American heritage and lives in Northern New Mexico with her Navajo husband, daughter, and pug.