Hope Signifies Something Different to the Privileged and the Marginalized
Melvin Van Peebles' obituaries finally prompted me to watch the classic movie that started Black independent cinema in the 1970s, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. I wish I could say that it was dated. You would have thought the indiscriminate killing of Black people by cops would have been passé by now, but, no, we aren't yet that civilized. To summarize, for those who haven't seen it, cops are treated satirically, in that every single one is corrupt, racist, and willing to kill, seemingly for the fun of it. Sweet Sweetback is a male prostitute who, while arrested in a corrupt deal between the showrunner of the sex show in which he stars and two beat cops, witnesses the cops beating and torturing a Black Panther they have also arrested. Sweet Sweetback knocks them unconscious and frees the young man; then, he starts running. At every point in which he narrowly escapes, there is a feeling of joy, a rooting for him. At one point, after reconnecting with the Panther, he allows the young man to be escorted to freedom on a motorcycle with room for only one passenger because "they are our future."
You could revel in this movie for its great music or lambast it for the misogyny all too typical of the time. (Most white women in the film exist solely to show their enthusiasm for sex with Black men—the Black women don't fare much better.) But what was notable for me, watching it in 2021, was the treatment of hope. In a completely corrupt and racist system, Sweet Sweetback's escape—sticking it to "the man"—conveyed hope for a future in which Black men could live without fear of the police.
The previous weekend, I had done a reading at FIYAHCON—an outstanding science fiction/fantasy convention that centers people of color. They did invite some not-particularly-marginalized folks like me whom they deemed allies. (I was honored to have been included on a panel the previous year, the first FIYAHCON.)
One of the panels I watched was on Palestinian speculative fiction. The hosts spoke of how unspecified individuals tried to shut the conference down because of the audacity of allowing Palestinians a voice.
Four panelists, all at least spec-fic-adjacent writers, spoke about what Palestinian futurism should look like. They made a few key points that were new to me that I will summarize here. None of them wanted to see writing about the process of change from the present to the near future. To them, any such writing would be in the shadow of the Nakba (catastrophe, the events of 1948 in which many fled Palestine). To them, the future will begin once Palestine is free.
One of the panelists spoke about her mother and her mother's friends. For them, casual comments in any social gathering would mention this future. That there would be an independent Palestine was a matter of faith—faith was a word used by all panelists. To them, faith constituted ignoring the seeming impossibility of the current situation (post-Oslo, as one panelist explicitly pointed out) and believing that Palestine would one day be free.
The panelists contrasted faith with hope. To them, hope was what came with an occasional strike against the occupation.
So far, not so controversial. Then came the shocker: the recent uprising in Gaza was, to them, an event that gave them hope.
This uprising was the first in which rockets were fired from Gaza that could hit Tel Aviv. Israelis died. In the reprisals, many, many more Palestinians died. But that death could bring hope was not the surprise. At least two of the panelists (maybe more—they didn't specify) identified as queer. They knew very well that queer folks would have no future in a state run by Hamas. But yet, the Hamas-led uprising still gave them hope.
Such is the nature of hope with a people where rational analysis would make the status quo seem hopeless, much like with an African-American filmmaker creating art about resisting police violence and racism in the early 70s.
Oh, sure, one could argue that second- or third-generation Palestinians living in the US should take a more nuanced view, reflecting an understanding of the other side's perspective. But wouldn't that be like arguing that Van Peebles shouldn't have made all the cops in his movie racist and corrupt?
Drawing hope from an act that led to killings would be ridiculous if those hoping were the privileged class. Indeed, Thomas Pynchon drew satire from a similar point in The Crying of Lot 49 with the "Peter Pinguid Society," a group of reactionaries named after a 19th-century sailor who accidentally fired at a Russian ship, striking the "first blow" against communism. But for those where the future is an article of faith, acts that outsiders consider problematic can be the only source of hope.
And yet, the privileged take this very position in the arguments for "solarpunk" or "hopepunk" in science fiction. I have argued with very white, very privileged groups of writers at science fiction conventions that skipping over the near future in which climate change and species extinction, among other things, are going to be horrific is reactionary. None of them get it. Envision a technology or an innovation in societal structure that will be terrific in the future, and write about that. Well, the former is reminiscent of 1950s Golden Age science fiction, and the latter was done well in the 1970s. Ursula Le Guinn's The Dispossessed is my favorite example of the latter. Do read it—it's terrific—but it doesn't offer any path from the present to even a flawed utopia.
And that's why panel after panel at FIYAHCON kept bringing up Kim Stanley Robinson's Ministry for the Future. Is KSR really the only established science fiction writer willing to think about a path from our present to a world in which environmental catastrophes are brought under control to the point that we can muddle through it? Is he the only one to realize that capitalism has to end (or at least change radically) to have a sustainable future? Or is he just the only one getting published?
Pollyannaish faith that the future will be hunky-dory on the part of the non-marginalized, to me, is one step removed from white supremacist fantasies of a simpler status quo ante that never really existed. New technology can be useful—hell, I spent a good part of my research career trying to understand plant disease resistance with the future goal of agriculture that didn't require spraying of dangerous agrochemicals—but it isn't magic. Most of the tech we need to move to a sustainable future already exists—the problem is the entrenched power of the fossil fuel companies, the weapons manufacturers, the bankers that finance them, the media companies that promulgate their ideology, and the politicians they own. If nationalization and dismantling of the fossil fuels and weapons industries were in the cards, it wouldn't take long to move to carbon neutrality. If private property was abolished (and I'm using the term in the Marxist sense, as distinguished from personal property—not the clothes on your back but the oil in the ground under your house), conservation efforts could at least slow the race toward species extinctions.
Solarpunk and hopepunk are misnamed. Reactionary fantasy would be a better name for both. Both ignore the "punk" suffix—struggle against the system, even when in vain, even when it was just individuals trying to eke out an existence, was core to cyberpunk and some of its early derivatives.
I'm a hopeful person. I imagine our species muddling through one way or the other, but my laptop sits in a middle-class American community. The best definition of dystopia I have heard is a time period in which middle-class Americans experience what most of the world lives through every day. To me, hope is not an early 70s radical shout of "Off the pigs!" or joy in bombs falling anywhere. To me, real hope acknowledges the suffering the next generation will endure—and those already suffering will bear the brunt of climate change, for sure—and envisions the first steps toward a better future.
I've written a novel that does this. I haven't found an agent yet willing to sell it. I've been told, "Near future is a hard sell." So, the powers that be in publishing prefer galactic empires duking it out like space-age Romanovs or secondary worlds that all-to-often bear a resemblance to Medieval Europe in which the privileged get to go fight dragons? But, wait, wait, why not solarpunk? Couldn't a plucky (white guy) inventor develop something that magically solves all problems and then allows us to colonize the galaxy—our Manifest Destiny, our exploring of the Dark Continent. (Oops, I mean dark expanse of space, didn't I?)
You get my drift?
FIYAH Magazine is coming out with a special issue on Palestinian futurism. I'll buy a copy; I want to read it. I think it's important to hear what marginalized people have to say.
But their visions of the far future in which the Nakba is ancient history is not my story to tell. For my reading at FIYAHCON, I did read a story set in the Middle East. Jerusalem, actually. A virtual version, in a world where the real version was so beset by ecological devastation that everyone lived in a partitioned VR space. (Published in this anthology.) My heroes attempt coexistence despite a near-complete separation of Jews and Palestinians in the virtual space and a destroyed real world. The story ends on a hopeful note, that peace between peoples is possible and the environment can be restored. Maybe. With great effort.
I keep my links to the present tangible because the present is where I live. And when I write fiction, as when I act politically or when I blog, it's that place I want to change, so my kids' generation might have a future less horrific than what rational analysis of our current economic and political paralysis would predict.
I'll admit I'm not Sweetback running from the pigs, but I still don't intend to write solarpunk. At least while it ignores the present and dreams of a mythical future.
But I won't hold the marginalized to analogous expectations.