I didn’t learn the term ‘xenophobia’ from the news, the radio, or a textbook. Didn’t come up in class or any place you’d expect. Rather, I learnt the word ‘xenophobia’ from the old Star Wars Expanded Universe books.
Was in the context of various political factions being distinctly anti-alien. Now, the xenophobia usually stemmed from the Empire and their staunch humans-first attitude and view of anyone who wasn’t as being intrinsically lesser, but some players in the New Republic also held xenophobic beliefs which made working together harder. Key thing was, these people were either villains or antagonists and their belief that someone who looked and thought differently was worth less than a person was wrong. The heroes, Luke, Leia, and even Han, weren’t about that; it was Emperor Palpatine and his ilk who pushed a xenophobic agenda. For a kid in his early teens recently immigrated to the US, it was a pretty clear distinction: good guys aren’t afraid of or mean to people because they’re different.
Now we all know that aliens and hyperdrives and Jedi are fictitious. But, xenophobia, as I would find out later, is a real term used by real people to describe real issues. The idea behind it, though — treating different people differently and meanly — was something I knew was unquestionably wrong because, well, Star Wars books. That and I was, y’know, a half-Singaporen cultural immigrant to South Carolina. But you get the idea.
I’m loathe to call Star Wars and science fiction in general ‘morality plays.’ Heck, I’m loathe to call any good fiction a ‘morality play’ because good fiction doesn’t preach at you. What science fiction does particularly well is, well, it says something without saying something. Diego Luna, in an interview with Vanity Fair, said that the wonderful thing about setting Star Wars in a galaxy far, far away was “…whenever you get too personal, you can say, “No, I’m not talking about you. This is a galaxy far, far away.” But with this tool, you can actually make the most effective comments on the reality in which you’re living.”* Learning that species isn’t a demarcation for the capacity to do good is good practice for knowing that skin color and country of origin don’t have any bearing on whether someone is ‘good.’
And that’s the thing about stories: they’re practice. See, folks smarter than me have been trying to figure out why humanity does this whole storytelling thing. One theory is that stories are practice for interactions, a sort of simulation. When we read, we experience it ourselves. It’s science, since there are studies that “…suggest when we experience fiction are neurons are firing much as they would if we were actually faced with Sophie’s choice or if we were taking a relaxing shower and a killer suddenly tore down the curtain” (pg 63 of The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, if you’re wondering). Stories are practice. They’re parables, where you can learn something by living something in a different way. As Gottschall says, “if you want a message to burrow into a human mind, work it into a story” (118).
Back to science fiction. Reading stories about the real world can be tough, because seeing the crap we know exists in real life existing again isn’t always the funnest thing. Science fiction (and fantasy, etc) are reality adjacent, and so have more leeway. Ursula K. LeGuin can explore classism and sexual identity without pointing a finger at anyone for being a bigot. It becomes a safe space to discuss complex topics and live experiences you wouldn’t ordinarily. Stories can change you, can impact you because, well, the nature of fiction is that it strives to put you in that place. A good book has you working with the writer to empathize and live the narrative first hand. You can’t read a good book and come out entirely unchanged.
And the fantasy of science fiction means that there is a quick gratification to that hope. You don’t have to wait years and years on the edge to know that good will triumph over evil, that diversity beats xenophobia; you just gotta reach the end of the book.