A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting China Miéville at ComicCon. I was supposed to be meeting Prisco and Drew for scheduled inebriation, but when I walked by the signing booths, I saw that Miéville had ten minutes left on his book signing and only one person left in line. I took advantage. Miéville earned a PhD from the London School of Economics, once stood for the House of Commons, and professionally writes science fiction and fantasy. So, he’s what I want to be when I grow up.
I asked Miéville if he could sign an ancient paperback of The World’s Best Science Fiction: 1966, as I already had all of his books, but didn’t have any with me. He said that he would be honored, and as he did so, I asked a question that I’d always wanted to ask him in particular. I wondered if he saw his works as a vehicle for real political change. He was very blunt in saying no. He insisted that while politics might be reflected in fiction, that change, real change only occurs when people take political action.
I disagreed, to put it mildly.
This filtered back up to the active centers of my mind a couple of weeks ago, while endlessly flipping channels whilst in the grips of a quite fantastic illness caused by the colonization of my lungs by some mutant strain of alien hell bacteria. An episode of “In the Heat of the Night” almost as old as me revolved around the rape of the wife of Detective Tibbs. Despite being a show that frequently dealt with issues of race, and was based on a famous movie of the same name that was explicitly about race, the show never once mentioned race in an episode dealing with a white man raping a black woman. But what it did show was how monumentally the process of investigating rape has changed in the world of television in 25 years.
Mrs. Tibbs is shown being examined in the hospital, giant flash bulb camera clattering as it documents her battered face and torso. But as the doctor rolls his chair around between Mrs. Tibbs’ stirruped legs, he comforts her by saying that they’re done with photographs now and it becomes clear that the doctor is treating her injuries, but that those few photographs of the assault that preceded the rape are the extent of the evidence collection. To someone who has seen more episodes of “Law and Order: SVU” than is probably mentally healthy, I can see what’s going wrong. Rape kit? Not in this small rural town in the 80s.
The rapist is subsequently released for lack of evidence, with the rationale given that the victim never saw his face and that there is no evidence that a rape even occurred. It’s not presented as malicious, as a problem with the system, or even as anything other than an unfortunate break in the case. The fact that there is no evidence because no one bothered collecting any in the first place is never broached in the least, an utter blind spot to the writers of the show. That’s certainly not to say that law enforcement of the time was as blind, but this episode and Mrs. Tibbs’ subsequent character arc dealing with the aftermath were hardly panned at the time.
Now take a look at something like “Law and Order: SVU” and how the portrayal of rape has changed on television in two decades. Sure it’s full of the usual television junk. Detectives generally aren’t that gorgeous (except for Ice-T and Munch, I think they’re exactly as attractive as the average police detective) and DNA results don’t get back over a lunch hour. But even though I have never had any personal experience with rape, I know what a rape kit is and that it’s not right for there to be tens of thousands of them that have never been tested, deteriorating in unrefrigerated warehouses. Public knowledge is what allowed the passage of laws to start fixing problems like that in the last few years. Sure, it also required the usual sorts of things we associate with politics. Signatures, lawyers writing language for proposals, voting. But these are the final steps of change, and if minds haven’t already been convinced, these just amount to another irritating guy outside of the grocery store that you brush by. It’s the spark that makes you stop, makes you care, the little voice of recognition that prods you into realizing that this is something you’ve heard about and actually do agree with.
Art, whether novels or television, is a vector for changing how people think. That doesn’t make it a lever that can be yanked to change the world. A very special episode of “How I Met Your Mother” isn’t going to pass tax reform in the next session of Congress. Miéville was right in that regard. If you want that change, you’re going to have to make it happen. But that doesn’t mean that art isn’t a slow burning change. The old rule for telling good stories is to show and not tell. Telling someone something can convince them intellectually, but showing them something makes them believe it, makes them feel it in their gut and mind.
So that’s a long way around to argue with Miéville. Stories might not change the world tomorrow, but they’re never just stories.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.