Two Classic Science Fiction Stories Flip the Script on American Righteousness
**WARNING: There are spoilers in this article. **
In the futuristic short stories “America” by Orson Scott Card and “We See Things Differently” by Bruce Sterling, the issue of moral superiority is on startling display. (For the purposes of this article, it is assumed that we the readers belong to the group living in the U.S. who would identify themselves as “American”).
In examining these stories, we are implored by the authors to shift our perspective and examine our perceptions about what is good or bad, right and wrong. Each author uses symbolism to saturate his text with meaning and to compel us to ask intriguing and perhaps controversial questions.
Card asks us to consider an alternate set of ideals and principles as being superior to our own. Sterling challenges our preconceived notions about an alien culture and about ourselves.
In “America,” we know right away that the story is set in the future when the narrator refers to the “State of Deseret, the last European state in America” (Card p665). Already, the reader is aware that things in Card’s America are different than they are today.
The two main characters, Sam and Anamari, seem unlikely partners when they first meet in the lush green jungles of the Amazon. He, a young boy from Utah, dragged to Brazil with his oil drilling father, and she, an older woman of native ancestry dedicating her life to providing care for the sick. They are both “dreamers” who have foreseen meeting each other in nocturnal premonitions.
It seems that spiritual forces have guided the two together in order to create a child who will be Quetzalcoatl reborn - the new messiah for the native people. This child, once grown, leads his followers to rise up and join forces to reclaim their lands from the “Europeans”.
At the close of the story, the narrator, at an advanced age, finishes by telling us “this is what America wanted” (Card p 688). Upon taking a look at the deeper meaning infused into the story, a reader can find many ways that Card implores us to realize the dilemma of incompatible moral goals between groups of people.
“America” is deeply embedded with symbolic meaning. Sam and Anamari themselves seem to be archetypes of sorts for their respective groups in this story. He is “European,” the younger race. She, like the indigenous people she represents, is older and closer to the land; “for ten thousand generations I belong to this land. You are a stranger here” (Card p669).
Anamari regards the so-called Europeans with great disdain. The term itself seems to be associated with greed, laziness, or inhumanity and includes all people except for natives. Card has enabled his reader to shift into another perspective because it isn’t hard to agree with Anamari’s opinion given her vantage point. She tells Sam that the earth provided for people until “the Europeans made them poor” (Card p668).
Sam himself is disillusioned and even disgusted by the behavior of the elders of his race. If Sam and Anamari each represent a group, then Sam’s father certainly does too. He stands for the old generations of Europeans, “colonists” – exploiting the land for profits, proclaiming purity but living hypocrisy. It isn’t a coincidence that Card paints Sam’s father this way.
When the boy and the woman conspire about the possibility of a revolution, a reader’s inclination is to root for them. It is a story of the down-trodden, “the lowest of the low” rising up to liberate themselves from their oppressors (Card 679). Of rightful heirs reclaiming stolen treasures. These must be the good guys. They even refer to Ben Franklin, an icon in our culture, while coming up with a slogan to unite the people.
Card then asks us to consider something else new when Annamari asserts that the European dominion over the world was merely punishment by her God, the land, inflicted on her people for becoming so removed from it. Card baits his American reader to consider the possibility that the glorious story told in our history books, “manifest destiny” and such, was merely a chapter in their story – the real Americans!
He audaciously implores us to entertain the notion that the best possible outcome may not be what we had always thought or assumed. This powerful theme can also be found in Bruce Sterling’s tale.
“We See Things Differently,” by Bruce Sterling also puts us in a future version of America that has, at some point, been bombed by “Afghani fanatics” (Sterling p775). Things are dirty and run-down, and America seems to have has lost its financial and moral authority in the world.
Our narrator, a well-spoken man who identifies himself as Sayyid Qutb, is a reporter who has come to America from Cairo to interview Tom Boston. Boston is a heavy metal singer who possesses some political sway over people, drawing swarming crowds who join in his angry lyrics with fervent loyalty. He seems a likely figure to lead the defeated Americans to some kind of organized renaissance.
During their interview, Qutb provides some cocaine for the two men to share while chatting. The coke, we later find out, is laced with some kind of cancer-causing agent that will eventually kill Tom Boston – and our protagonist. We come to find that this narrator is not Sayyid Qutb or even a reporter, but a “nameless” man who has made a sacrifice that he believes is for the sake of peace and service to God (Sterling p779).
Throughout “We See Things Differently,” Sterling seeks to offer an alternate viewpoint and to challenge ingrained assumptions in the reader. A more in-depth look at the story reveals the many ways he accomplishes this.
Right off, Sterling takes us outside the scope of what we might normally associate with America. The first paragraph is a barrage of negativity aimed at America. Our narrator describes it as “The Great Satan…the home of Hollywood and blond sluts…of rocket-equipped F-15’s that slashed across the land in godless pride.”
When he momentarily mistakes a coal plant for a mosque, the symbolism is not subtle: “A Mosque for the American Dynamo,” he thinks to himself. The first American character Sterling gives us is the cab driver. He is portrayed as ignorant and greedy, apparently fitting Mr. Qutb’s mold for all Americans. “The mention of money brightens them like a shot of drugs” (Sterling p763). It’s not a great stretch to see how someone could form this opinion about Americans – even in current times.
Sterling doesn’t waste time in challenging popular notions about the Muslim culture. Many Americans, even those considering themselves to be progressive and tolerant, tend to hold a stereotypical view of the Muslim woman – oppressed and controlled, unlike the American woman who is liberated and self-reliant. But Qutb’s description of a woman he sees tugs at our sensibilities: “Like all American women, she was dressed in a way intended to provoke lust” (Sterling p763). Is he incorrect? Is this more or less morally deplorable than the way Muslim women are expected to present themselves?
While Qutb acknowledges that Tom Boston is “a great man” (Sterling p778), he does not hesitate to justify killing him for what he believes is the greater good.
Sterling wants us to look at our assumptions about moral justification. Has our country not killed for what we believe is the highest cause? Don’t we usually believe that the causes of our side are the true will of God? Qutb believes that America should be left to smolder into nothingness instead of being reignited by the movement Tom Boston will inevitably create - and Sterling implores us to ‘get’ why he feels this way.
Line by line, the author asks us to look at the labels we might flippantly place on someone like our main character: zealot, extremist, terrorist. These one-dimensional titles are more difficult to frame on the seemingly reasonable person that Sterling has created for us.
When we’re told that Boston’s music was popular in Cairo for a time, but did not last, Sterling is reminding us that our ideas about race and morality are not so black and white as we might think. Not all beliefs cross over in to other cultures and there is not some universal standard by which to measure righteousness. “The words mean nothing to them. The thoughts, the feelings, are alien” (Sterling p778).
Toward the end, when the man we knew as Qutb says: “We see things differently. But he is a man, a child of God like all of us,” it becomes increasingly difficult to blindly hate him or to see him as an enemy (Sterling p778). Sterling also gives us an alternative perspective on suicide killings for the jihad: “it is not that we value our lives lightly. But that we value God more.”
Orson Scott Card and Bruce Sterling have created stories that highlight the dilemma of competing moral superiority between cultural groups. Both “America” and “We See Things Differently” coax a reader to ask him or herself some disturbing questions. Throughout the stories, we are invited to allow our beliefs and assumptions to be challenged. To put ourselves in the place of someone whose experience is foreign to us and, hopefully, to question what we've been taught about morality and righteousness.