Racing To The Future: Charting Diversity in Science Fiction

What color is the future? Who inhabits it? What do we call the cultures or races of the 24th century? There’s no easy answer to these questions, though science fiction has always attempted to answer them, even in times when such topics were largely taboo. Most comic book lovers are familiar with EC comics’ story “Judgment Day” (Weird Fantasy #18, 1953) which tackles the subject of 1950’s race head-on. In the story, a representative of Earth lands on the planet Cybrinia, “Planet of Mechanical Life.” The planet is inhabited by two species of robots: the orange robots and the blue robots. Tarlton, ambassador from “Earth Colonization,” is greeted by a contingent of orange robots, who take him on a tour of their city: he is shown their technology, their government, and finally, their means of production. The ambassador is puzzled that he doesn’t see blue robots anywhere in the facility, though is told that they work elsewhere. While impressed with the means of building and educating their new robots (after a brief apprenticeship, they get to choose their own vocation), he insists on seeing where the blue robots are constructed. Nervously, his robot guide answers, “Well…you’ll have to go over to Blue Town…on the South side of the city for that!” 

Tarlton insists on seeing Blue Town, so his guide takes him there, a very rough area where things are in obvious disrepair. However, in the facility itself everything looks exactly the same as in Orange Town: the same robots are constructed according to the same design with the same potential. The only catch is that they are destined to spend their lives in mindless drudgery due to their blue exterior. When Tarlton objects to the obvious bias of this system, the robot responds, “You are lecturing me as thought this were all my fault, Tarlton! This existed long before I was made! What can I do about it? I’m only one robot!” Tarlton thanks him for his time, but decides they are not ready to join the enlightened ranks of Earth. As his ship speeds away, the ambassador finally takes off his helmet to reveal his true identity: an African-American male. To underscore this point, the narration observes, “the man removed his space helmet and shook his head, and the instrument lights made the beads of perspiration on his dark skin twinkle like distant stars…”

While the twist ending doesn’t seem particularly remarkable today, imagine 1950’s readers cracking open this comic…and realizing that they were being judged. The tissue-thin metaphor is of course a representation of the black and white society of earth, where the prejudice of our “outer coatings” divides us. Everyone assumed the astronaut was white, and that a galactic empire of the future would look pretty much as it did in 1950’s America, with the “blues” kept in their place so the “oranges” could take the glory. The final panel, of Tarlton looking to the stars, throws the entire universe into doubt. Who has inherited the earth—and the stars? Could race exist in the future, a future where a few, lone humans have to band together against impossible odds to colonize the deadly reaches of space? It’s unlikely that our prejudices would make sense on another planet, in a world where our very history would seem like something out of Shakespeare or Homer. So why take it with us? Especially when our journeys are largely metaphorical, taking place solely within the cockpit of our imagination.

Strangely enough, so much science fiction (and fantasy, for that matter) has remained illustrative of the status quo no matter how far we go. We see this in books and films—largely white heroes, where the only stamp of diversity seems to be in ‘little green men.’ How can the imagination of writers and directors conjure up so many variations of aliens, robots, and other sentient beings, but be unable to see the endless diversity of the human race? Even in the original Star Wars trilogy, revolutionary as it was, could only imagine a single black man in a leadership role (and indeed, some of the only black men in the entire galaxy occur in Cloud City—yet not a single black woman). Other ethnicities prove elusive, and not until The Force Awakens, do we start to inhabit a more recognizable world; or rather, the latest incarnation of Star Wars finally resembles 1970’s America.

A naysayer could argue that the future is for big ideas and discoveries. Mainstream fiction can wallow in the concerns of the present, particularly when science ficiton alone can probe the mysteries of quasars and alien mega-structures. However, this sidesteps one very important point: there is no future. That is, it doesn’t exist and once we get there it will remain, stubbornly, the present (and soon after, the past). So to write about the future, we have to shamelessly pilfer the past and do some judicious robbing from the present to even contemplate a hypothetical ‘what if?’ Any answer to the question “what will the world look like a hundred years from now” is also an answer to the question, “what are the biggest problems/issues of the world right now?” We can never escape the present, nor pretend that the issues that continue to hound us—race and ethnicity above all—will blithely disappear with the distance of time and space. We might be a thousand light years from a given star, but it still gleams in the sky—and has for countless generations.

When Weird Fantasy #18 was published, Al Feldstein (the writer) knew the future provided the perfect metaphor for the present. You couldn’t write a comic book about race, but as long as you create a race of robots who deal with the same issues, readers would take note. Shortly after the comic’s debut, fan mail poured into the magazine, some of which read, “This is to complement you on turning a delicate problem into a shocking document of justice, a masterpiece of pictorial literature,” and “We would appreciate it if we could have about thirty-five copies of the story for our school. Our students would greatly profit from seeing the world of Mr. Orlando [the artist] as well as benefiting from the excellent theme.”

The readers made the issue a classic, even when comic books were pulp literature—trash for kids to while away a Sunday afternoon. It is in the very nature of literature to question our most commonly-held beliefs, not only in what we call literature, but in the subjects it holds dear. This comic was an early game-changer, in that it forced people to look at their own society through the eyes of a more enlightened race. And it did so by going under the radar, through a modest comic book which typically peddled in adolescent thrills and fantasies. If a comic book could do this, imagine what a bona fide novel or film could do…

While many novelists and filmmakers have risen to the challenge, notably people like Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia Butler, James Cameron, and Neil Blomkamp, among others, mainstream books and movies remain locked in a 1950’s mindset. Even such thoughtful movies as Arrival, Passengers, The Martian, and the majority of superhero movies (save Captain America: Civil War) show a largely white race tackling the problems of the future, blissfully unaware that their own world is more diverse and fantastic than a thousand lifeless rocks in space. One day, someone will write a book, or make a movie, as revolutionary as “Judgment Day,” and people will echo Kaye Campbell of Rockford, Ill, who wrote EC comics to say, “the story stirred me inside. God didn’t put us on Earth to hate each other’s skins.”

[you can read “Judgment Day” as well as the fan letters it inspired here: