J. K. Rowling is not shy about expressing her political views publicly. One pleasant side effect at having earned over a billion dollars from one’s art is having no fear of speaking one’s mind.
In a twitter exchange near the beginning of the year, one of her followers angrily denounced Rowling’s attack on the immigration ban and said she’d never read Rowling’s books again. The Harry Potter author replied, “Guess it’s true what they say: you can lead a girl to books about the rise and fall of an autocrat, but you still can’t make her think.”
This exchange reminded me of a post I saw a while ago by David Gerrold, author of “The Trouble With Tribbles,” one of the most popular episodes of the original Star Trek series. (To quote Peter King, “this may only be of interest to me,” but my first cat, a long-hair, black fluffball was named Tribble after that show). Gerrold was involved in other Star Trek episodes and knew Roddenberry and other cast members. Gerrold responded to someone who claimed to love Star Trek complaining about social justice warriors by pointing out that the complainer appeared to have missed the entire point of Star Trek’s emphasis on diversity and inclusion.
I bring these examples up, not to start a political debate on either the current political theater or social justice, but to wonder about the limitations of writing speculative fiction and writing in general on changing people’s opinions and the world around us.
I certainly can understand someone rejecting the themes of Star Trek or of the Harry Potter series, but I am perplexed by missing the themes entirely. Liking Harry Potter enough to read it multiple times while somehow missing the point that laws and regulations are not inherently virtuous just because those in power enact them? That those in power must be questioned, not blindly worshipped? Loving Star Trek but not understanding that the television show that aired the first interracial kiss and stuck by an alien character with pointy ears was to a significant degree about diversity. About how different races have alternative points of views that mesh together to form a new whole?
Janet once wrote, “nobody likes heavy-handed issue books.” I certainly don’t like books that ram their political or cultural sensitivities down my throat, but apparently some people don’t grok subtlety, even if one accepts that Star Trek or Harry Potter were at all subtle in their messages, which is highly debatable. One of the problems that new writers have is not trusting their readers. Fearing that their readers won’t grasp a concept, authors want to beat them over the head with details. Examples of people not internalizing such obvious themes as those in Harry Potter and Star Trek may not help, but it’s important to realize that there will always be people that miss the point.
A large body of research supports the idea that people view the world through their own preconceptions and entrenched world views. It’s no brilliant observation to say that people find different messages in the art they read or observe, that a book is a Rorschach test for its reader. In the quest to tread lightly, authors may not connect with all of their readers. This is not an argument for heaving-handed themes, simply an observation that readers can’t be forced into absorbing themes. That’s not a writer’s job. The writer lays out the story with its underlying message and sends it out into the world to be absorbed, or not.
J.K. Rowling provided us a portrait of resistance to a dictator and Star Trek showed us a vision of strength in diversity, not weakness. The fact that I can blog about the worlds of Harry Potter and Star Trek while providing no background highlights the common framework so many of us have attained through the permeation of these particular works of art into our culture.
In 1992, Mae Jemison became the first black woman to go into space. She cited Star Trek and Nichelle Nichols as a seminal influence in her decision to apply to the astronaut program. In 1993, after retiring from the astronaut program, she appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation.