Immigration and sci-fi.

In science fiction, immigration is a dominant theme. A canon of works about invasions, alliances, contact with aliens, slave races, robot slave races, factions, underdogs. Evil empires and rebellions. Not a retelling of our past, but exploration of the interaction between different cultures. These stories are vehicles that help us explain our modern situation using crisp 12pt type rather than the messy crayon of soundbites. Unlike politicians, writers assume you have an attention span to match your intellect.

Words have meanings and those meanings describe the real world. We all accept it. But a lot of the time we’re not quite sure how these words attach to the world around us. When you have kids, you inevitably encounter them talking about real world things using the right words but attaching them to the wrong concepts. They lack a sense of knowing what the words really describe, or as I once heard it expressed “It doesn’t matter how much porn you watch, until you actually have sex, you’re still a virgin”.

Politicians do this with immigration. Now at this point, it’s important to recognise the difference between immigration as a phenomenon and refugees. Refugees are always a temporary phenomenon, they arrive at destinations because they’re forced to leave their homes. The ongoing refugee crisis in Europe is driven primarily by the conflict in Syria and the political unrest and terrorist activity (not technically war, but close enough) in places like Nigeria and Ethiopia. In the past, we’ve seen refugees coming from a wide range of places where there was war, political unrest and oppression. In the past people have fled from Eastern Europe, Western Europe, South America, Africa, Asia… pick a date, pick a refugee. The entire nation of Israel was founded by refugees and immigrants from post-war Europe, for example.

Immigration, on the other hand, is constant. And everyone excepts it, more or less. There are over 300,000 Americans who live and work in London, for example. Most of them work for large financial institutions, pay their taxes and nobody bats an eyelid. I have British friends who live and work all over the world, from Luxembourg to Canada, The USA, South Korea, The UAE, China. It’s the nature of an increasingly globalised economy that people move country, in much the same way people migrated from villages into cities when the economy centralised around manufacturing centres during the Industrial Revolution.

I defy anyone to define it and then explain why it’s a good or bad thing. People move from one country to another, sometimes to work, sometimes to escape their circumstances. It’s no more or less a blight on society than taxes, pop music or the latest must have gadget. It’s just a fact of the mechanics by which social groups, and commercial markets interact. People move for work, they move for love, they move because they want to, they move because they have no choice. In fact, they move for so many different reasons and use so many different legal and illegal means to do it, once you try to get a handle on the word immigration you realise it’s a collective noun for many different political and economic issues. Which means the meaning of the word immigration, from a political viewpoint, is a sludgy grey mess. Stop it and what happens? Encourage it and what happens? Now, a year from now or fifty years down the line? The answer is “well that depends…”. So why talk about it if the answer depends on something else?

No matter where you stand on immigration, you’re standing on a label for a whole bunch of other issues from foreign policy, economic policy, employment policy and so on. And those issues have nothing to do with immigration per sé because they usually apply to the residents of a country as much as the people who move to live there. Take employment for example. In the UK, much is made of the impact of low-wage immigrants from Eastern Europe, putting pressure on resident low wage workers by competing for jobs as unskilled labour. People protest the notion that immigrants are “taking their jobs”, but as we all know, you can’t actually take a job for yourself, someone has to give it to you. So that issue is really one of employment law, because it’s the employers that are hiring the cheapest labour, they don’t care where it used to live before. And so although the argument is framed in terms of immigration, it’s really immigration-agnostic because reducing the number of immigrants competing for those jobs won’t address the underlying issues affecting low wage employment. I mean, it’s not like the lowest paid manual labourers weren’t being squeezed by economic forces before the immigrants arrived, was it?

On a recent trip to the USA I watched the Republican candidates for the presidential nomination banging on about immigration, with ideas that ranged from building a wall to keep the Mexicans out (and deporting 11 million people) through to arguments over whether a Muslim could be the President (to which the answer is yes) and even rumblings over the possibility that the current President is, in fact, both a muslim and an illegal immigrant. That last one, I hasten to add, appears to be the sole preserve of the most paranoid people, given airtime at one of Donald Trump’s rallies, and lapped-up by the press.

The word immigration is, conceptually speaking, like the word ‘clothes’. An old man in tux at a formal dinner, held to mark his retirement from the board of a giant corporation, is wearing clothes. That would also be true if he was dressed in a crotchless leather two-piece gimp suit. In both scenarios he’s labelled as wearing clothes, but in the real world, the context is more important than the label. Especially if he’s sitting next to you in the crotchless leather outfit.

And so it goes with immigration. I’ve heard politicians blasting immigration, but I get the feeling they’re not referring to immigrant multimillionaires or immigrant surgeons. I hear politicians arguing for more immigration but they don’t mean refugee kids selling knock-off cigarettes in the traffic. The context is defined by economics, public services and social mobility. Shouldn’t we be talking about those topics instead?

I can trace my ancestors to Germany, except it wasn’t called Germany back then. And France, except it wasn’t called France then either. And Norway. And Sweden. More recently England and Scotland. It’s a patchwork of inherited identities which defines me as both immigrant and native. We are all like that, especially in Europe and America where nations were forged by immigration. Right now, we see a lot of immigration from Southern Asia into the Middle East, in ten years, in fifty, those people will be locals. The entire population of proud Jamaicans are all ancestrally from Africa at some point, but they’re distinct and without them there would be no Jamaicans at all. In America, the cultural roots of the African-American community have shaped global music, cinema, literature and so forth. As have many immigrant communities old enough to consider itself a native of their current home, and reach out into global publishing and media.

Compared with political arguments about immigration, science fiction makes a more intelligent case for the most part. It trades the vote winning tribalism for the space to consider life’s complexity. For a sci-fi writer, the details make the story, the plot, the characters, the loss, love and jeopardy. That’s the stuff of real life. Not flag waving and campaigns. In cinema we’ve seen some classic mainstream examples, like the refugee themed Alien Nation and District 9, where the subject is explored in all the shades of grey it warrants. You might consider the literary Cyberpunk movement as a response to a world without meaningful economic and social borders, even national identity, worlds where ethnicity itself becomes as much a style choice as a social label.

The issue of “the other” (the immigrant) perhaps found its most popular incarnation in Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, exploring the lives and aspirations of an economic and social underclass, manufactured to protect the lives of those born with rights. More broadly, consider the work of Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and that high brow literary tradition that explored the cosmos, establishing the idea that “the other” is not defined by borders and national identity so much as nature itself. A cosmic nature that thinks in terms of food chains and evolution, not borders and passports. In science fiction we most often see ourselves as the conquest, not the conqueror, aliens invade our borders, we are forced to fight back and so on. Science fiction has a knack for swapping the perspective, to misquote To Kill A Mockingbird, it affords us the space to walk in the immigrant’s shoes.

When it comes to immigration politics, my advice is to ignore the mud-slinging and paranoia… you can sum up most of the political debate simply as this: When the economy is doing well, immigrants are invisible. When the economy is doing badly, we try to build borders around our social and economic spaces to protect them, and immigrants do badly. This is true everywhere, not least in the UK. If you go back thirty years and measure, immigrants have cost the British economy. If you go back ten, they’ve made a net contribution. If you go back a thousand years, they forged the nation. Or perhaps a thousand more, when they were invaders hell-bent on conquering it. Pick a date. Pick a side. Make it up as you go along. That’s the politics of immigration.

If you want to explore the issue, read a good science fiction novel instead. It’s a different kind of politics because it’s focused on what you think, rather than letting someone who needs something from you – your vote – to frame the arguments, and as a general rule, frame them badly.