Academic journal article Extrapolation

The Ethics of Race, Failure, and Asian American (Ethno)Futures

Academic journal article Extrapolation

The Ethics of Race, Failure, and Asian American (Ethno)Futures

Article excerpt

What are the stakes of a critical praxis that both reads race and reimagines it? Alternately, how can we attend to a generic tendency that displaces race through analogy, submergence, and substitution while simultaneously foregrounding the concept as an organizing principle or, at the very least, a point of narrative departure? In Afrofuturist criticism the answer(s) are split. Mark Bould contends that the use of "aliens and androids" in science fiction exposes a "problem" in the genre: it "uses the indirection of metaphor or allegory to consider issues of race and prejudice" and "avoids direct engagement with the realities of racialized hierarchies and oppressions" (179). "Direct engagement," it is intimated, would alternately provide a critical ground out of which we pursue strategies of (conceptual) exposure in order to frame science fiction in a more just manner. On the other hand, Isiah Lavender III is concerned with science fiction's "problematic" attempts to avoid "race-reading" since "It has displayed racist attitudes and presented 'solutions' for the race problem by imagining postrace worlds, albeit imperfectly" (51-52). Lavender's theory of science fiction's "blackground"-a reading strategy aimed at attending to the predominance of race in science fiction-seeks to recenter a "range of race meanings" in order to properly situate the field/genre on the terrain of race/ literary studies (7). Common to both of these strategies is a formalization of the "race problem": assuming a stable and coherent field of reading practices and strategies that can lead to a wider reorganization of the science-fiction critical enterprise.

Yet how do we incorporate what De Witt Kilgore imagines as the "greatest challenge" for science fiction studies: understanding race as a concept that, with each articulation, is potentially "transformed, changing into something different and perhaps unexpected" ("Difference" 17)? In this essay I will attend to the "unexpected" by examining three pieces of contemporary Asian American science fiction: Ted Chiang's short stories "Division by Zero" and "Story of Your Life", and Charles Yu's novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.1 At stake in each piece is the interrogation of commonplace representations of relation through a form of negative critique, and race is treated either directly or analogously. This interrogation addresses issues of affect and mortality, as well as the dysfunctional minority family as traditionally represented in Asian American literature. Indeed, each writer centralizes personal failures amid strong structural critiques, working with claustrophobic contexts in an attempt to address how structural issues both initiate and are affected by (inter)personal contexts. Chiang and Yu lead us to no safe place in particular, and they undercut hegemonic notions of relation so that we may theorize, in different ways, these relations in order to think of possible futures. Rather than primarily attending to progressive or regressive representations of race in science fiction, each writer invokes it while anticipating a future mode of relation influenced by but not fully determined by the past. While this will not lead to a particular "way" of understanding Asian American (or other minority) science fiction or a discovery of an internal logic unique to such productions, the aim here is to establish a provisional relation between different minority science fiction (critical) traditions by elaborating the "unexpected" stakes and strategies of a few literary interventions. Instead of "thinking about race along the black/white binary," this essay works to disrupt traditional ways of thinking about race in order to encourage new avenues of thinking about our shared racial futures (Lavender 8). As such, this analysis aspires to contribute to what Veronica Hollinger deems "a history about the imaginary/theoretical/narrative constitution of the subject of science fiction- not only the human subject but also the genre itself as subject of/to both history and futurity" ("A History" 30). …

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