Monday, July 11, 2016

Weekly Update #239: Thoughts on Ben Winters' Underground Airlines and the Dallas Shootings

Editor's Note

Well it was another rough week for my country and I do plan to talk more about it when we get to our main story, but I just wanted to say be good to each other. Our lives can be so short, we shouldn't waste it on hate, anger or fear.

And now the news...

Thoughts on Ben Winters' Underground Airlines and the Dallas Shootings

Last week, Ben Winters' new novel, Underground Airlines, was published. For those who don't know, its set in a world where the American Civil War never happened and slavery is still legal in several states. Alexandra Alter profiled the novel for The New York Times calling the controversial work daring, especially considering Winters is white and he is writing about slavery.

Responses to the article have not all been good. Besides what you saw on social media, J. Holtham of Slate criticized the The New York Times piece for lavishing too much praise on Winters and not mentioning black science fiction writers, like Octavia Butler, who discuss slavery and racism in their works. To Winters' credit, he did respond to Holtham and you can see his response on the link I previously provided to the Slate article. Still the question remains, should Winters have written Underground Airlines despite not being black?

A common piece of advice I have heard from authors is to "write what you know". Other writers, however, say that is bad advice and you should write about whatever you want, even if you are not an expert about it. For one thing it teaches you something you may be ignorant about and for another it provides a fresh perspective on a topic from an outsiders point of view. Admittedly Holtam made it clear in his article that Winters' race should not prevent him from writing about slavery...but America's history regarding race is complicated to say the least.

Just last week two men (Alton Sterling and Philando Castile), who were legally allowed to openly carry firearms, were shot by police. Now I'm not denying the fact that police officers often are faced with dangerous situations that require quick thinking to protect their lives and the lives of others, but many have suspected that race was a factor in those shooting and speculated that if a white person was in a similar position, the officer's response would have been less violent. Perhaps that counterfactual may be true, especially when you consider that the National Rifle Association (NRA), the most powerful organization in America that champions the right of open carry, did not even comment on those shootings until after the shootings in Dallas.

And now we need to talk about Dallas. It was there that a peaceful protest, organized as a result of the earlier mentioned police shootings, where a sniper fired upon police, killing five. Although the investigation is still ongoing, Micah Xavier Johnson appears to be a perplexing person. He was a veteran who fought in Afghanistan, had no criminal record and helped children with mental disabilities. He, however, was also accused of sexual harassment once and apparently showed interest in black nationalist groups before the shooting. A part of me thinks it would have been easier for us a country if he was a simple criminal, had serious mental illness or was radicalized by his religion...but now we are in an old and uncomfortable place. We are forced once again to address racism in our society.

To our credit as a people, I have seen a lot of positive responses in the aftermath of the Dallas shooting. White and black, police and Black Lives Matter supporters have all come together to condemn the violence and mourn the victims...but there have been others who have done the exact opposite. They instead suggest only more violence is the answer. It sickens me to think that such playground logic is being used, as if all of life's problems can be solved by just pushing the kid who pushed you back and keep escalating until an adult intervenes and separates you. Sadly the real world doesn't work that way. No one will break up such a fight if it were to actually break out in this country.

So what is the solution? Well former Speaker of the House and alternate historian, Newt Gingrich, said "If you are a normal, white don’t understand being black in America." Thus the only solution is education. We need to learn more about each other. Reading Underground Airlines and the authors mentioned in Holtham's article are a start, but there is only so much science fiction can teach us. More importantly, we need to engage in peaceful debate and actually listed to the criticism we receive, rather than reject it because we don't agree with it. We need to get out of our comfort zone and see things that may disturb us, because in the end, it can only make us better people.

I feel like I have been talking a lot more about this timeline, but you can only go so long visiting other worlds before you need to focus on the one you inhabit. Still if you agree with some of the things I said, please let me know by sharing your own book recommendations, whether alternate history or not, to help all of us gain a better understanding of the world we live in.

Thanks ahead of time and hopefully we can unite over these tragic events rather than letting it divide us.

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update, a blogger for Amazing Stories, a volunteer interviewer for SFFWorld and a Sidewise Awards for Alternate History judge. When not exploring alternate timelines he enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the day when travel between parallel universes becomes a reality. You can follow him on FacebookTwitterTumblr and YouTube. Learn how you can support his alternate history projects on Patreon.

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