BY REBEKAH SHELDON
Author of The Child to Come
“Maybe it would be better not to survive.”
That’s my favorite line from The Child to Come though I didn’t write it. It is spoken by Camilla Del Ray, a military woman and computer specialist from Marion Zimmer Bradley’s accidental colonization novel Darkover Landfall (1972), after learning that she will be forced to keep her pregnancy. How, wonders the nurse who drugs her and drags her away, could she be so selfish? They have precious little chance of survival on their new planet. Every woman must bear as many children as possible. Camilla wonders if survival is worth the price of bodily autonomy.
I’ve been thinking about that line a lot recently. When I put it at the opening of the second chapter of the book, a chapter that takes the impossible position against life, I thought I knew more or less what it meant. If human life is the central political value, I argued, then all political positions will find their grounding in women’s reproductive capacity. Yet the future is stranger than we imagine. A non-reproductive relation to futurity is not only possible but continuously operating within the logic of self-similarity, whether we recognize it or not. Such, anyway, was my claim. Now I find myself wondering if I wasn’t too modest. The future, the child, the reproductive woman: these elements make up a drama with species-level stakes, or so the story goes. What though about that other form of survival, the kind that concerns this very body at this very moment, the kind that arises when faced with violence or violation? What of the violation that isn’t of the body but of its mantle of protections? What of the violence that takes the form of the desire to intimidate? Would it still be better not to survive?
November was a beautiful month in Bloomington. The 9th was no exception. Blue skies behind trees crowned in gold leaves. The sepulcher white of the limestone campus buildings. The garish red of IU letter gear. At home, our five cats purred and pounced. The mail came. Students showed up to class and we showed up too. But the daily newspapers stayed creased in their plastic wrapping, a small sign of difference.
By week’s end, the weirdness was too much, so we went sojourning for dinner and a movie. Dr. Strange with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. A little nothing to distract us.
There were an astonishing number of previews. Who even knew there were that many franchises? Guardians of the Galaxy 2; Wonder Woman; Fast 8; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; Logan (Wolverine 3); The Great Wall starring Matt Damon. With a science fiction horror film rounding out the selection, it was a thoroughly bloody half hour. All conventional, of course. Spectacular in the way of digital film techniques: post-continuity editing, throbbing sound. But I study science fiction and so I was attentive to the subtle markers of a shifting episteme made visible in these phantasmagorias of light and sound, though I didn’t want to be. At all.
And, of course, there it was. The refrain, repeated across trailers, repeated even in the same trailer, hailing me to thought.
Again and again. Save.
The world is coming undone. We must save the world.
Violence and salvation. Just war. Hopeful rebels. Last stands.
Guard. Protect. Save. Save you. Save us. Save her. Save my family. Save our tribe. Save our people. Save our nation. Take back our world. Whatever I do, I do it to protect you. Our rebellion is all that remains to push back the empire. We have hope. Rebellions are built on hope. Save the rebellion. Save the dream. You’re all rebels, aren’t you? It is our sacred duty to defend the world. Overcome. Attack. Defend. Push back.
Rhetoric familiar from decades of American heroes and superheroes, good guys staring down enemy gun barrels, outnumbered but righteous. And indeed Dr. Strange is in many ways like any other entry in the Marvel comic cinematic universe. It is the story of a broken man, Steven Strange, who makes his way to the spiritual sanctuary of Kamar-Taj in the hopes of healing. There he find his destiny as savior of humanity and foe of the malevolent Dark Dimension—a timeless realm that hungers to consume the energy of our time-bound world.
The film introduces a twist on this otherwise familiar plot in the form of renegades who seek to join our world to the Dark Dimension. In a key scene, the renegade leader Kaecilius tempts Steven Strange by arguing that time is an insult to human superiority. Kamar-Taj doesn’t protect the Earth; they perpetuate the enslavement of humanity to time. They are the true enemy.
For a moment, Steven Strange vacillates—just long enough, as it transpires, for a minion to arrive with a knife for Strange’s back. From there, the film moves on to greater certainty and ultimate vindication for Strange and the guardians at Kamar-Taj.
I’d like to stay with this vacillation for a moment. While quickly resolved, the moment introduces doubt about how best to protect the future. It opens a zone of indistinction between harm and protection, reminding us not only that protection often means harm to others, but also and more unsettlingly that the harmed other may be identical to the protected person. For Kaecilius, it is the very act of protecting this world that constitutes the harm. This is his revolution.
I’ve been thinking about this moment a lot since watching the film. Of the many things that have become clear since election night, the most pressing is that, like the Kamar-Taj for Kaecilius’s renegades, my continued well being and the well being of everyone I love is tantamount to harm.
And they? They are rebels in a war to save the future. From us.
Bloomington, IN, 11.11.16: KKK KKK
The New School, NYC, 11.12.16: Swastikas
Brown County, IN, 11.13.16: Fag church. Heil Trump
Natick, MA, 11.14.16: Natick has a zero tolerance for black people
Iowa City, IA, 11.14.16: You can all go home now we don’t want n—– terrorists here #trump
Silver Springs, MD, 11.14.16: Kill Kill Kill Blacks
Warick, NY, 11.14.16: Heil Hitler, SSS
Reed College, Portland OR, 11.14.16: The white man is back in power you fucking faggots
Denver, CO, 11.16.16: DIE HESHE TRANNY FAG DIE
Oolitic, IN, 11.17.16: Crossdress faget. Fag lives here. Trump. God save us from gay
Sarasota, FL, 11.17.16: My new president says we can kill all you faggots now
Augusta University, FL, 11.17.16: Not seeing the America you want? Start changing it today! Euro-Americans! Stop apologizing, living in fear, denying your heritage. Be white!
Whether appearing as scrawled graffiti and chalkboard profanity or typed letters and well-designed posters, the message is the same: War on social justice warriors. The oppressed rise.
Daily Stormer, 11.15.16:
History has been made. Today, the world ended. A new world has been born. Anything is possible now. The future is wide open…. We have won so much. And it has led to the ultimate win. The battle is far from over. Much, much, much work to be done. But the White race is back in the game. And if we’re playing, no one can beat us.…I am humbled to have had the honor of narrating this epic story for all of you amazing people.
The future is wide open. The enemy has been defeated. America is saved.
I’m scared. I am scared of the violence these and other acts promise and deliver. But the claim to fear is shared. They are scared of the future our safety and vibrancy suggests. This is not an equivalence. It is a Mobius strip and the future is the fabric that holds it together. For while violence happens in the present, the consequences that violence seeks to ward off is not here and now but soon. Any day now.
So: “Maybe it would be better not to survive.”
The Child to Come speaks at times in the oracular, but I never saw this coming. Yet the question persists: To what does it commit us to labor for the future, when that labor takes the form of protection and protection proves so hospitable to violence?
Such a position is hardly articulable, then or now. Indeed, Zimmer Bradley raises the objection only to refuse it. By the novel’s conclusion, Camilla has come to find her own position as alien as the planet had once been. Survival, Zimmer Bradley’s novel suggests, is merely the occasion for restoring right relations.
The Great work. The ultimate win. Work to be done. Epic story. History has been made.
Rebekah Sheldon is author of The Child to Come: Life after the Human Catastrophe. She is assistant professor of English at Indiana University, Bloomington.