I was recently in the remote Alaskan town of Barrow for an academic project. Barrow is profoundly different from any place I have been: at 71.3 N latitude, it perches at the edge of the Arctic Ocean. During April, when I visited, the ocean is frozen as far as you can see. The tundra is white and flat, and there is no vegetation. Most of the people who live there are Inupiat Eskimos. It is as far removed as you can imagine from Delhi, where I grew up, or for that matter, Boston, near which city I now reside.
I was wandering through the bright hallways of Ilisagvik college in Barrow, looking for someone with whom I hoped to speak, when I found an efficient young administrative assistant. She assured me she would find the person I was seeking, and took my name down. As is usual in the US I had to spell it for her. “I’ve never heard that name before!” she said. “Where are you from?” There was only curiosity and friendliness in her gaze. I could tell that she was trying, and failing, to place me. My skin was about the same color as hers, yet I looked different. I was clearly not white, or African-American, and I was certainly not Inupiat, like her. The innocence of her question was such that it did not occur to me to be offended, and I explained.
She said: “Wow! It must be really strange for you to be here.”
I must have looked a question as I nodded, because she explained that she had once gone to Washington D.C. Having lived in Barrow all her life, it was her first trip south. South! What was it like? “It was so weird!” she said. “So different!” After that experience she realized how strange her home would seem to people from other places.
The best speculative fiction, like travel, does that to you – it takes you to strange places, from which vantage point you can no longer take your home for granted. It renders the familiar strange, and the strange becomes, for the duration of the story, the norm. The reversal of the gaze, the journey in the shoes of the Other, is one of the great promises of speculative fiction. Much of the time it doesn’t deliver, however. Much of the time you get to go to other worlds with your feet firmly encased in your own shoes, carrying around your perspectives and prejudices as though you had never left home.