Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Should Exploring Hard Questions Look Like Us?

I wrote a story about an alien with a nasty past, exploring a fragment of his time. I love the story and find it rather powerful, but I didn't recognize the theme until called on it. The theme considers the question of repenting. If someone who has committed deliberate, terrible crimes gives up their life of crime, are they still accountable for those crimes? Now, my tale doesn't give an answer and if I had to give one it probably would sound something like "It depends," but the philosophical point came when I was asked if using aliens to explore this message diminishes it.

That's a pretty big question, in my opinion. I see two sides to the argument:

1) The truly difficult questions shouldn't be explored in an alien environment because the impact of the decision is lessened to the point that the decision becomes random as opposed to a thinking choice.

2) Presenting difficult questions through an alien world allows us the distance to really explore our beliefs and the reasons for them without our thoughts being disrupted or undermined by emotion.

Remember what I said first. I wrote a story about an alien and I stand by his story. However, I have to ask myself if I'd started with the theme, would I have chosen an alien to bear this question?

Here are my thoughts.

1) Science fiction has a long-standing tradition of exploring issues considered untouchable in mainstream writing because it allows for that distance. Does it diminish the emotional impact? Absolutely. However, if I wrote a story about released sex offenders who had repented and fixed their ways, could I set aside my own fears about the reformed sex offenders in my neighborhood? I think I'd be charged with going on a soapbox and probably would provide an emotional answer as opposed to exploring the question as I did in the short story I mentioned.

2) This position, probably obvious from my earlier statements, is more in line with my thinking. I'd relate it to anthropologists who go out and study "alien" cultures only to learn more about their own. Very few people can look at their own lives with any sense of objectivity and that goes for anything that might touch their lives.

If you ask me if a sex offender should be allowed to live three blocks from where my children play in the park, my answer is no. It doesn't matter if they've reformed. It doesn't matter if they've served their time and swear up and down that part of their past is behind them. I don't want a person who ever did such a thing near my kids.

That statement is not reasoned. It is not objective. It has nothing to do with laws, rights or philosophy. As a mother, I cannot accept the risk.

However, within the context of an alien world far distant from my daily life, I am able to look at questions which otherwise would provoke solely an emotional response.

I think this is one of the successes of science fiction. Racial integration, mixed marriages, homosexuality and many other binding questions were addressed on Star Trek long before they could be touched on a mainstream show. If we are to explore those things that touch our lives, I feel this is a good way to gain the distance necessary to apply objectivity and really question our own assumptions. We may find the same answers for some questions, but others may have a complexity hidden by our fears.

Without that distance, the emotional response can overwhelm the reasoned one and, when we let our fears govern our actions, it is difficult to produce a society, legal or political system that protects the appropriate rights of all people, not just those who happen to sit on the top of the heap.

So, tell me what you think about exploring the bigger questions through the medium of "alien" societies. Does it promote objectivity and therefore reasoned responses or distance to the point that the question has no impact? Or is there a third answer?