Justina Ireland on how systems create oppression and how to break free

Justina Ireland’s story, “A Theory of Flight,” imagines a future in which one woman recognizes the barriers of getting to space, so she takes the issue into her own hands with an open-sourced rocket, kickstarting a revolution to open up the skies to everyone.

Ireland received acclaim for her best-selling novel, Dread Nation, which imagines an alternate Civil War. The appearance of zombies after the battles of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville alter the war forever, and a young woman is caught in the middle of a conspiracy. Ireland is also the author of books including YA novel Promise of Shadows, Vengeance Bound, and Star Wars: Lando’s Luck.

The Verge spoke with Ireland about representation in space travel and why the practice feels like it will be inherently unequal in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

What was the initial inspiration for your story?

I wanted to write something that felt familiar and new all at the same time. I’m a huge fan of Ray Bradbury’s story Way in the Middle of the Air, in which a group of Black people eagerly flee a Southern town abroad a rocket that’s bound for Mars. (This story is awesome, and a lot of modern collections of The Martian Chronicles exclude it because talking about racism in America makes white people uncomfortable.) I wanted to write a story that focused on how oppression has changed: less overt Jim Crow-like policies and more systemic and subtle practices that still have a similar, limiting effect on marginalized populations.

Photo by Eric Ireland

The character Carlinda wants to open up space travel to everyone — not just those who can afford it. What are you seeing in the world right now that feeds into this?

I think just about everything. We’ve created a system where the neighborhood you grow up in pretty much dictates your success. And then we have put into place numerous policies to make sure people from those areas don’t succeed, even if they should manage to leave those places. Subpar schools, unsafe neighborhoods, over-policing, lack of employment that pays a living wage, these all work against an individual trying to succeed and passes on that burden to their children as well. And when one or two people manage to beat the system, we hold them up as paragons of success, as though their achievements mean that the other unfair policies were justified.

Until we fund schools in inner-city and rural areas the same way we fund schools in affluent outer-ring suburbs, inequality will always exist. The face of that injustice might change — such as the ability to expose children to technologically advanced concepts via hands-on instruction, thus preparing them for a future economy that relies on such a knowledge base — but that inequality will persist. Our current form of capitalism almost dictates it.

Space and other planets are harsh environments. What hope do you see in traveling throughout the Solar System?

If governments can spend the lives of millions of people colonizing continents in order to expand, I don’t really think a few stars and planets stand a chance. Human greed is a powerful motivator.

What is your view of the current efforts to get to space through private companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin and public organizations like NASA?

Relying on a private company to fund space travel for the public good is like giving a fox the keys to the hen house. Private companies exist to make money, not better humanity. And capitalism, regardless of your feelings on it, most often exists in direct opposition to equality and human rights. There is nothing morally good about trying to gather and stockpile resources while someone else starves, whether they are next door or halfway across the world. And public organizations most often have an eye toward space travel, not for the common good of its citizens, but for military advantage, colonization, or to please large donors, which takes us back to the issues above.

Honestly, the best hope for space travel that is equitable and fair are groups focused on just such a mission. In the past, this would’ve been universities and other collectives. But as higher education becomes corporatized, it’s anyone’s guess who will take up this mantle in the future. I believe, like other advances in technology, it will take open-source efforts by scientists and engineers to truly move space travel forward in a meaningful way for the majority of people.

The core of “A Theory of Flight” isn’t about people simply going to Europa. It’s about the inequality that’s inherent in our world and the fight to undermine those barriers. As we move forward into space, what fights do you see ahead of us?

A basic standard of living for every human being with as equal a chance to succeed as is humanly possible will always be the goal. That will mean changing how we see oppression and react to it as the capacity for human compassion grows. But honestly, I think universal health care and a basic minimum income in the United States would be a good place to start.