At about 5:00 in the evening, Walter Mosley stood at the podium where he would give his reading in two hours’ time. With his loose posture, his ladybug lapel pin, and his stylish fedora—a straw-colored number with black stripes that made it look he was standing in the shade of a pergola on a sunny afternoon—he gave the impression of being at ease.
“Does this thing need to be here?” he said. He was referring to a giant computer monitor on the podium. “If it can’t be moved, fine. But I’d rather have it out.”
The technician gave him a helpless look. The monitor would stay.
Two hours later, after Creative Writing lecturer Scott Hutchins introduced Mosley as “one of the most versatile writers in the country” and the recipient of an O. Henry Award, a Grammy, and a PEN lifetime achievement award, Mosley gave his lecture from behind the monitor.
“I’m talking about technology and humanity,” he said. “It’s funny because I got here today and this thing was in front of me, and I said, ‘Well, this thing is in front of me and I don’t like it, could you move it?’ And they said, ‘No, it can’t be moved. It’s very difficult.’"
Even so basic an exchange, Mosley suggested, contains an idea of human values and technology: “The technology is going to be there in your life,” Mosley said. “It’s like, ‘Can you take this thing out of my bed?’ ‘No, it’s connected to your bed. If we take it out, your bed will be gone.’”
(At this point, sitting in the audience planning this review, I thought of a Hemingway story called The Undefeated, where the narrator’s account of a corrida is interrupted every so often by hackneyed paragraphs from a substitute critic’s review of the same event. If there were a substitute critic for this event, I thought, the last line of his review would read, “We’ve made our beds, and now we have to sleep in them.”)
After his lecture, Mosley sat down for a discussion with political activist Mia Birdsong. Parts of Mosley’s remarks did indeed concern the abstract junction of technology and human values, but Mosley juxtaposed two simple scenes to help make the topic more concrete.
“A guy walks into a room and the light comes on. The room says, ‘Hello John.’ And then twelve-thousand years ago there’s a twelve-, thirteen-year-old kid who’s really cold, and it’s really raining, but he has this oil bag, and he pulls it out, and from the oil bag he’s able to make a fire, and from the fire he has light and warmth, and he’s taking care of himself.”
Liberal audience members have likely been subjected to a standard interpretation of this diptych in which John is the helpless victim of an exploitative capitalist machine, while the kid with the oil bag is, despite his comparatively primitive material conditions, actually living a life of much greater meaning, agency, and spiritual fulfillment. But Mosley avoided this interpretation. Instead, he acknowledged that “Life is very hard, very difficult [for this kid], and he could die. He probably will die sometime soon.” But Mosley thought it worth considering not just how much money technology makes, but what kinds of humans technology makes. Of the John from his story, Mosley would like to know, “What are you? The room is great, but you’re just the name that walked in the room.”
In addition to discussing technology and human values more broadly, Mosley also discussed his literary career. As Mosley tells it, he got his start in a pretty haphazard way: one day when he was in his midthirties, working as a computer programmer at Mobile Oil, he set his work aside and wrote a sentence: “On a hot, sticky day in southern Louisiana, the fire ants swarmed.” Some decades later, Mosley is the author of more than fifty-six books, including fourteen science-fiction novels.
In his discussion with Birdsong, Mosley spoke about what he takes to be at stake in works of science fiction. “[People] look at [science fiction] as escape,” Mosley said. “It’s escape, it’s fun, it’s heroic. No, it’s actually the only way we’re going to survive.” For Mosley, science fiction is “preordinate,” by which he means it creates the future.
Birdsong saw his point.
“I feel like the Civil Rights movement was an act of speculative fiction,” she said. “Imagining something different.”
“Listen,” Mosley said, “It’s speculative fiction to think there would be two black people sitting in front of an audience at an Ivy League school talking about ideas. That’s speculative fiction right there.”
This was one of the more triumphal notes in a measured conversation about where African Americans stand today. Mosley, who is African-American himself, believes the imaginative work necessary to ensure survival is more difficult for African Americans, because they are “so oppressed economically, and also by the government and the police.” The severity of this oppression, Mosley argued, makes it “hard for us [African Americans] to imagine being something else.” But African Americans must find a way to imagine futures in which they thrive, Mosley says, especially because they are so frequently omitted from the futures dreamed by other races. Far from being some frivolous escape, then, science fiction looks, from Mosley’s perspective, like a matter of biological and cultural preservation.
“People keep talking about the Terminator,” Mosley said at one point. “[As if] one day, the computer’s just gonna say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna take charge now.’” He seemed exasperated. Science fiction as a chance to imagine hellish robots? It does seem galling, if you think science fiction is really a way to imagine our survival in worlds where we might be more free, both from the injustices we have lived with for centuries and from the new technologies that seem to embed themselves more deeply in our world each day, whether we like it or not.
MICHAEL TAYLOR is the Interim Communications Manager for the Center for Ethics in Society. He is from Massachusetts, and he currently lives in the bay area.