I was thinking a lot about science fiction while working in New Zealand last September and October.
When I was very young, I would bike home furiously from school (barefoot even in winter because I liked it that way), and read for hours. I fell in love with science fiction, and have never forgotten a story about a man who cryogenically froze himself, repeatedly over thousands of years. At one point he found a seed in his shoe, and when he woke up again, the seed had covered the entire planet with grass. But there were no other people. The story was both a purging of, and a yearning for, humanity.
As we made our way back from New Zealand to the USA, I was enveloped by a large melancholy, that refused to leave for weeks, and clearly, it had something to say.
The melancholy wasn’t just inspired by depressing conversations I overheard in the airport, between Americans who had just survived the recent hell-fires in California,. They had no help in evacuating, had not expected help, and didn’t think others should get help (except the “deserving” – fill in those blanks…). It was a familiar trope. Many English-speaking colonies have this theme – the white frontiersman who is disconnected, flinging off a collective he never liked, yet haunted by loneliness and disappointment, as he runs towards freedom, trampling others in his way.
There was the strange sensation that I was leaving New Zealand empty handed. (Which is odd because I was not – I had endless lovely re-connections with people, the land and of course, music). My journey had been a simultaneous experience of past and future. I was contemplating the wreckage of families I have been entwined with, spread over decades and continents. Much of it is a dystopic mess – lots of charred bits and smoke. A number of familial relationships in my life have resembled robots. Robots with limbs missing, wires dangling, batteries leaking, spinning around and banging into walls, or stranded head-first in the mud. Impenetrable machines, bellowing loops of cheerful platitudes, or sitting impassive in the dark. On the one hand it’s a funny, tender, scene. On the other, it’s alarming, when you know the chilling backstories, yet to be properly understood.
It takes clarity to not be that heartless machine, to be instead, responsive and penetrable. And there are risks if you are the only one doing so. If you are alone, you are in trouble.
My melancholy (reminiscent of the rainclouds in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) brought me to ground zero. For the first time since childhood I read science fiction, starting with Octavia Butler’s Earthseed series, and cannot believe it took me so long to know her work! The late, preeminent, African American speculative fictionist wrote clear, beautiful expositions of ethics and spirituality, both dystopic and utopic.
Her struggle for due recognition, and the means to sustain herself as a writer took years. and it took its toll. After two Earthseed books she began the third and could not finish it, enduring her own melancholia. Being that our speculations about the future are really about the present, this doesn’t surprise me. Every artist relies on a conversation with the cultural cloud to feed a new vision. But this country makes people labor so hard that the cultural cloud has often been small, smug and scripted. I feel Butler’s prescient explorations were hampered by the 1990s, a dreadful decade that squashed many critical voices. I’m sad she’s not here now, to mature us into better futurisms.
My melancholia began to drift away, weeks later, after I visited a Latinx-futurist art exhibition in Riverside California. The artists’ work – brilliant, visionary – was a celebratory party of fuck-yous playing in the future. The images that touched me the most were the collaborations between the artist Rigo 23 and the Mexican Zapatistas.
The revolutionary Zapatistas, notoriously invisible, have hidden out in Chiapas, against the Mexican government, since the 1990s. Rigo 23, a Portuguese-born conceptual artist who has worked with Black Panthers and Leonard Peltier, went to one of their international meetings. He asked them whom they allowed to come. They said, anybody – any gender, culture, can come, even visitors from outer space – our meetings are encuentros intergalacticos (intergalactic encounters).
Rigo 23 asked, if you were invited to attend a meeting in another galaxy, how would you get there? Their answer became a three year long collaborative project.
The Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program is a travelling exhibit that sits in a small room, A twenty foot long rocket ship, shaped like a corn cob, hangs in a room with iconic images of giant matriarchs, planetary systems, and wrestling matches with the snake of capitalism.
The ship is piloted by a pair of Zapatista astronauts, visible through the window in the metal nosecone and lit by electric lights. Snails ride on top of the ship, each wearing a balaclava, and symbolize the slow revolution as they travel the cosmos. Their shells protect their most tender parts, and suggest an indigenous view of time as spiraling, nonlinear.
The insides of the rocket ship are cut away to reveal the life inside. Classrooms. Fields of corn and hibiscus trees. Dirt roads that lead to a basketball court. Why a basketball court? Rigo 23 asked his collaborators. That’s where we have our meetings, they replied.