Empathy is a Metaphor: Writing the ‘Other’ in Science Fiction


“Human love… is always combined with some degree of dying—dying to one’s ego, to one’s desires, to one’s preferences for the sake of the other. And this is so because human love is itself a reflection of Divine Love, which we can experience only after the death of our ego, and can lead to the Divine those souls who are fortunate enough to have experience this love. That is also why legendary love stories are outwardly about human love and inwardly about the love for God and of God and therefore often end in the earthly death of the hero or heroine or both.” —Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition

Salaam, everyone, and jummah mubarak. In the last post, I discussed what science fiction reveals about our assumptions. For the benefit of coherency, my post operated on few assumptions (premises) of its own. It is important to acknowledge this. The first assumption, of course, is that there exist universal principles, and that (sometimes, through our art) these principles can be tested, discarded, or identified and formulated. Although I believe this personally, other understandings of reality exist. In addition to the subscription to moral absolutes—to which I am inclined—there is moral relativism, to which I am not opposed (as secondary within certain well-defined parameters) and to which many subscribe wholly in its own right. Science fiction enables us to explore not only these models but various conceptualizations of reality ranging across cultures and times.

Most science fiction authors, particularly those who use elements of fantasy, will research extensively to create their worlds, meticulously assembling the beliefs, practices, histories, social hierarchies, and struggles of their characters. One of my favorite “secrets” is that it is largely untrue that writers only write from their own experiences. Who has time to both live and write? Experience is informative, but empathy is fundamental, and it requires the total dissolution of the ego. Empathy is not a temporary mask to transform ourselves into the Other. Empathy is to liquefy into particles. Empathy is a metaphor, not a simile. It is to forget oneself entirely.

This is why science fiction novels operating on simple inversions of existing prejudices are prone to failure. Save the Pearls, the 2012 novel that rewrites racism so that dark-skinned individuals are powerful and the lightest (‘pearls’) are condemned, understandably received copious criticism. The story is “stolen.” Of course, it violates no actual copyright laws, but we experience the sensation of someone—perhaps an entire people—having been robbed. The reason readers feel duped is not merely that the narrative is “unoriginal”—originality is difficult to achieve, and the unoriginal still provides value—but it is that the adaptation itself of these prejudices for an audience that can only fantasize about enduring them rather than emphasize with another who does perpetuates the very injustices the novel seeks to address, undermining the “purpose” of the book. In the place of empathy, we sense pretension, a desire not to understand but to own.

In my last post, I mentioned Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; I want to make clear that eighteenth century British literature cannot be read without the context of the empire. The aesthetics of the monster, which evoke descriptions non-white women, is closely tied to British preoccupations with massacre. Frankenstein’s monster is the keepsake of massacre and macabre embodied, a living collage of all those slaughtered by Britain’s conquest, who paid the price of British advancement, haunting the conscience of the narrative against the wreckage of its “proper” British characters. I contended most narratives conveyed in English are informed by colonialism, and Shelley’s novel is no exception. Nineteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the daughter of Britain’s early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, would have surely read conquest literature contemporary to her time as she drafted her novel. The novel—and this has been an endless source of amusement for me—is simultaneously brilliant and poorly-written.

When does it work when we “borrow”—and when doesn’t it? My theory is that narratives are successful when we write not to redeem ourselves, but to heal ourselves.  There is a reason individuals who are marginalized, whether by the intersections of sex, race, sexuality, or disability, grow frustrated when characters who resemble them are consistently abused or murdered for plot progression. It is not sufficient—or empathetic—to parade these disturbing narratives under the guise of social critique, because we then evade the powerful, transformative next step in science fiction: imagining a world where these characters develop to their full potential, and the possibilities borne subsequently.

Consider Sultana’s Dream, the 1905 feminist utopian scifi written by Islamic feminist Roquia Khatun, in which women are liberated to walk the streets openly, to manage financial affairs, to invent, to create, to rule their own lives, while men are cloistered in their homes. The short story describes women inventing flying cars and harnessing the power of the sun (solar power)—early blueprints of technology that would come to exist. It does not seek to redeem men, with whom it is generally unconcerned; rather, it mends the wounds of its female characters. And it accomplishes this because of the perspective of the female author and by extension, the narrator. Could a man have written this to the same effect? Certainly, but not if he’s preoccupied with personal redemption. And that is why Save the Pearls, absorbed with alleviating the miseries of settlers rather than envisioning a world where the formerly enslaved can prosper, failed to serve a literary purpose higher than catharsis for guilt-ridden readership.

Where there’s lack of empathy in cross-cultural narratives—and there often is—perspective is crucial, particularly in creating characters who aren’t tokenized or discarded. After all, empathy is only a substitute for perspective, for experience when it is lacking. When we write Muslim characters, or any character who is marginalized, we should ask ourselves about who they are rather than what they signify for us, and, most importantly, who they could be if we didn’t kill them off or dispose of them so consistently. A major complaint I receive whenever I assert that American or Canadian or British literature cannot be read without the context of subjugation or violence is that I am disallowing essential character development independent of the atrocities committed in the “background.” Overlooking the enormity of these atrocities, isn’t it true that Muslim characters, whose religious beliefs are politically situated in the context of the American audience, are “disallowed” of the same development, since they are perpetually tied to the context of “terrorism”? We are asked to ignore “background” genocide for the sake of observing the wit, courage, growth, and humanization of certain characters (sometimes even professing them anti-heroes) when Others (the “terrorists”) are not afforded the same space.

If empathy is a metaphor, it is then not enough to simply liken (like a simile) oneself to having the struggles of another without exercising compassion for that person with her struggles. We cannot merely invert dynamics of history, switch the threat for the threatened so that they are packaged in more consumable forms, and expect to reach some sort of enlightenment. If empathy is only a substitute for perspective, this means that the ego must be shed, which entails, for authors who are not marginalized, re-envisioning the marginalized as human, rather than costuming ourselves in struggles that are not ours for a duration in the narrative.

A few weeks ago I was getting to know someone over dinner. Moving my fingers over the rim of an icy glass, I asked him, “What’s your favorite planet in this solar system?”


Really? Why?”

“Yeah.” He grinned sheepishly, and dim lights flickered across his face. “Because I live here.”

“That’s nice; you care for it.” I brushed a tuft of hair away from my face. “Okay, if you had to choose excluding Earth.”

“I’ve wondered what Jupiter would look like. What’s yours?”

“Uranus. It’s on its side like a dancer and it’s a pretty color.”

“I wrote a report on Neptune. I thought it was pretty because it has methane oceans.”

“That’s the gas that comes out of cows.”


“Earth cows could fart into existence an ocean on Neptune.”

Stunned silence.

“So anyway.”

I had been thoughtful without thinking. It was slightly mortifying (I am astounded that he burst into laughter after those few seconds of surprise; I hadn’t intended to be funny)—but it was also a moment of unguardedness, unimpeded candor, of vulnerability. A woman who is Muslim could, under certain authorships, be written a villainess (or, more commonly, a victim, since we aren’t granted the power of even villains), but unlike the anti-heroes with whose frustrations we sympathize, I have yet to see “terrorist Muslims” made human for the sake of literary exploration.

Superheroes are unimpressive to me for this reason. The superheroes that are the most globally well-known (Batman, Superman, etc.) are advantageously positioned in society to render the powers they acquire/apply accessible to them, and a “troubled childhood” (which often only works to add to their heroism, not their humanization) isn’t enough to remedy that. Most often, superheroes are wealthy characters who just as readily view the very population they seek to aid as disposable for their agendas as the villains to whom they object. Would a Muslim with the same powers, particularly one from another planet, not register in America or Europe has having potentially “terrorist” abilities? Are we truly to believe that a dark-skinned character with the ability to fly and with superhuman speed, vision, hearing, etc. or otherwise equipped with nifty gadgets wouldn’t be perceived as a threat rather than a hero?

In the Farsi-language film “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” a lonely vampire—a woman in a chador who, in the middle of the night, attacks unwitting men who dare cross her—is never identified in her story as a hero, but the audience recognizes her at once, because her heroism is not superficial. Her situation and her character are poignant, and her nature (as a vampire) and its accompanying powers both liberate and isolate her… a too-familiar combination that strikes a resounding note on the heartstrings of any Muslim woman.

Returning home, I typed up the following ad:

Woman, 25, Seeking Planet
I am looking for a planet located outside of the Milky Way, preferably with at least two moons and vaporous oceans that harbor intricately crowned sea creatures with telepathic abilities. Planetary rings are mandatory. Planet must be tilted on axis, and of the teal green variety.

In this gesture, I realized how much imagination composes my life. When asked about the moment they were aware of Islamophobia, most Muslims answer September 11th, citing the day the Twin Towers fell in New York. But if I am absolutely honest—most times, like at the dinner, I am too honest for my own good—I was aware of tensions long before then, aware that I was perceived as less liberated a woman, and, despite my intense religiosity, less qualified a Muslim.

My world, though, is marked with magic. Every morning, I wake up in the same sphere, in the same dimension, in the same body, and I think to myself, “But I could have sworn that I dreamed myself real.” There is an aching I cannot name, and this, I think, is the core of being human.

“Skin is so much work,” I said once to my aesthetician as she tore wax off my legs. “Reptiles are lucky. Can you imagine if humans had scales? We wouldn’t need to wax. Although, we would complicate that too, probably. We’d come in for scale shining, and make appointments to infuse every color of the rainbow into each scale, in order to obtain the standards of beauty.”

“I need you to lift your legs so I can get the back of your bikini area.”

“If I had scales,” I said, lifting my legs into the air, “I wouldn’t need to wear bathing suits.”

What are powers but will manifested? What is narrative but desire? We read science fiction because something churns within us. We read science fiction because we have noticed that our collar bones and shoulder blades are like frustrated wings. We notice that we have the longing for flight, with bodies that fall inches short of the ability. Considering this, one of the most soothing things I’ve heard is that we are souls incarnated in human flesh for a reason; there is something then, we are meant to know, to learn.

In “Snowpiercier”—possibly my third favorite movie of all time—a supertrain harbors the remnants of human life after an attempt to counteract global warming results in an apocalyptic ice age. As the train spans the globe for seventeen years, it is revealed that the elite who are seated at the front of the train have been using small children from the tail section as replacement parts for machinery that has gone extinct. The children are rendered brain-dead, so that they cannot disobey and their mechanical, repetitive work is robotic perfection. When the train is derailed and explodes through an avalanche, only Yona, a young clairvoyant Korean woman, and Timmy, a small black child, emerge from the wreckage. They witness a polar bear, indicating that life on Earth still exists, and it is implied as they walk into the snow that they will rebuild civilization. Since no one else from the explosion has survived, the movie ends on the note that the oppressive system built by supremacist mindsets, in which small children from indigent families are fit into tight spaces to labor for the upper class, will cease to live on as Yona and Timmy start anew.

The movie transports us beyond the social critique; the identities of its survives have restorative implications. “Snowpiercer” does not merely repeat the devastation of marginalized classes for the sake of sentimentality or under the pretense of homage to reality. Lauren Chief Elk produced this brilliant article discussing the ways that technology (namely drones) can advance our humanity, rather than destroy it, when our social configurations allow. In science fiction we write our technology ahead of our time, and so should we write our sociopolitical structures. The fantasy series Harry Potter is enjoyable and brilliantly written, but it isn’t ahead of its time, so it isn’t too much of a wonder that J.K. Rowling is retroactively identifying Dumbledore as gay and Hermione as black to keep the series relevant. If we do not properly write marginalized characters into our stories, we will be rendered irrelevant. And that, is the practical side of empathy.

So write away, and metaphors be with you.


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