How Martin Luther King Saved Uhura: The ‘Escapist’ Power of Stories

nichelle-nichols-star-trekI recently watched the documentary Trek Nation and learned Nichelle Nichols considered leaving Star Trek after the first season. During this pivotal time, she met Martin Luther King, Jr. and learned he and his wife numbered Star Trek among the very few shows they let their children watch. When he learned she was planning to leave the show, he encouraged her to stay, arguing she had a real role on the show. Soon after, Nichols visited with Gene Roddenberry and related the encounter. Roddenberry then told her, “Welcome home. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

tolkien4Many argue that science fiction and fantasy are escapist, distracting people from real world issues. Some critics made this argument about The Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien responded that the ones who usually object to escape are the jailers. Tolkien implies that only those who are trying to imprison us–those angling to trap us in small-mindedness, consumerism, and blind political loyalty–are going to be so outspoken about “escapist” literature. When other critics brought the same argument to Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis, the writer of The Space Trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia argued fantastical stories allowed writers to “steal past watchful dragons” that often prevented people from engaging serious questions about what life is about and how we are to live in the world.

Star Trek under the guise of a science-fiction show certainly tackled social issues many would not have considered without being drawn into the adventurous spectacle of the show. A moral vision does shape the series and does rub off on its audience. Writers would do well to remember the power of stories to create the possibility for empathy in their audience. Imaginative escape challenges us to adopt a new perspective, one we might even carry back with us into the “real” world, the world we have conveniently compartmentalized according to categories that benefit us.

Though many would condemn speculative (science fiction and fantasy) fiction for being fantastical, for wandering “far afield” into the world of make-believe, we who choose to write and to read in this genre know that sometimes we need some distance from the charged political language that usually frames our discussion of social and moral issues. Speculative fiction asks us to flex our imagination: what happens when we face the mysterious, the unpredictable, the different? We do need to “escape” into our stories so that we can then come to a new angle on these issues–to borrow from Hamlet, “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll capture the conscience of the king.” And Shakespeare here drew from the ancient biblical narrative of the prophet Nathan exposing King David’s adultery and murder through the telling of a story that draws David in and leads him to condemn himself.

Wolf Code-fcStories have power we frequently do not understand. Nichols, King, Roddenberry, Lewis, and Tolkien all understood and expressed this power in their individual ways . It is an example I hope to follow. October brings two celebrations to our attention: National Wolf Awareness Week and Indigenous Peoples’ (or Native American) Day. Both these celebrations touch themes that are important to my new novel Wolf Code. Many might expect then to launch into a political speech, lecture, sermon, or (at least) an essay, but I am an author, and I would ask you to indulge me in a different course. This is not a time for didacticism, not a time for heavy-handed moralism about embracing diversity and preserving the planet. Instead, join me on an adventure; let me engage your imagination and introduce you to Tsula and Don, to their desires and dilemmas, and to the world of opportunities before them. Let me ask for your empathy. Let us escape together. Above all, let me tell you a story.

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