From Fantasy to Collective Action

The relationship between speculative fiction (sf) and human liberation is perhaps not as straightforward as the old formula “science fiction is progressive, fantasy is reactionary” touted by many leftist literary critics in the past few decades, but it is nonetheless important to understand the ways in which the fantastic can illuminate our world by laying bare its contradictions and oppressive structures. Octavia’s Brood is a collection of sf writings compiled by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha which engages in a grand experiment to test this relationship by offering amateur writers — who happen to be social justice activists — the opportunity to publish original work which explicitly deals with themes of struggle and oppression. Alongside several non-fiction essays and excerpts from novels written by LeVar Burton (of Star Trek and Reading Rainbow fame) and Terry Bisson (of the left-wing sf classic Fire on the Mountain fame), the collection represents a powerful collective project aimed at exploring the relationship between art and politics.

One of the greatest challenges in developing the political aspect of aesthetic production is the temptation to substitute good politics for good art. In this respect, the goal of engaging amateur writers with left politics for the collection was fraught with peril from the outset. Within this context it is easy to see how poor writing that managed to go through the “correct” political motions might pass through the filter, producing just the sort of work that mainstream critics regard as didactic or even propagandistic. While the writers may have inevitably struggled with this tendency at some point (what politically active writer has not?), the actual finished works that appear in the collection manage to develop compelling narratives imbued with the politics of human liberation without falling into this trap. Some readers might find certain elements of a few of the stories questionable in this regard, but they need only visit works like Snow Crash or A Scanner Darkly to see that critically-acclaimed works in the sf have often employed seemingly unsubtle political elements without eroding the overall aesthetic accomplishment.

Nonetheless, the condition for being a part of the collection was for the narratives to exhibit elements of what brown and Imarisha call “visionary fiction,” which is best described as a standpoint within sf best exhibited by an author like Octavia Butler. In her “Outro” within the text, brown describes visionary fiction as fiction which “explores current social issues through the lens of sci-fi; is conscious of identity and intersecting identities; centers those who have been marginalized; is aware of power inequalities; is realistic and hard but hopeful; shows change from the bottom up rather than the top down; highlights that change is collective; and is not neutral — its purpose is social change and social transformation” (279).

This is undoubtedly a tall order, and one might note that the use of “sci-fi” here is just a convention since the collection itself exhibits the characteristics of slipstream fiction in that it freely moves between science fictional, magical realist, etc. tropes without slavishly submitting itself to a litmus test of acceptability for any particular genre. One does not need a rocket ship or a space suit for any of these narratives, and quite a few are decidedly devoid of science fictional elements. That aside, perhaps the defining characteristic is the admonition for realism and hardness as well as hope.

Indeed, Tananarive Due’s essay “The Only Lasting Truth” is a reflection on the ways in which the theme of change is central to the development of hope within the fiction of Octavia Butler. Due’s essay allows for some theoretical reflection on the kind of writing represented by Octavia’s Brood. Citing Robert Heinlein’s classic formula of sf’s basis in three main lines of thought, she notes that Butler’s work primarily utilizes the “If this goes on —” standpoint to structure her fiction. Butler’s work in many ways exhibits the classic subversive sf sensibility of exaggerating, magnifying, or making explicit elements of our own world in order to create a fantasy world.

To highlight a few examples, Vagabon’s “Kafka’s Last Laugh” reflects on political repression and the absurd, totalitarian nature of conceiving of prison as a place for “reforming” individuals. As Foucault noted long ago, prison reform is the very program of imprisonment from its outset. The story masterfully captures the totalitarian nature of rehabilitating political prisoners by exposing them to the practices of capitalist exchange. Within North American prisons today this takes on the form of prison money, prison labor, and so on. In the story, this prison labor is brought out of the back rooms of production onto the bright lights of retail in the form of “CROC,” or “Corrective Retail Operation Refinement” complete with nanomachines that monitor attitude. In the end, laughter — at the impossibility of one’s situation and the absurdity of the system — is the one thing that the CROC system cannot beat.

In an excerpt from LeVar Burton’s novel Aftermath we are exposed to a world in which the destruction of the ozone layer has left the white population uniquely exposed to danger. In this context, “skinners” emerge, who capture and enslave black people in great numbers in order to harvest their skin for grafts onto white bodies. Courage and boldness are highlighted in the excerpt, recalling the ways in which countless thousands of ordinary enslaved people resisted their masters throughout the history of the Americas. The story is perhaps one of the most shocking and brutal in the collection, all the more surprising coming from Burton (who one cannot help but associate with the character Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: the Next Generation).

Imarisha’s own piece, “Black Angel,” is one of the most solid from the collection. It portrays the dilemmas of an angel of color who has been cast from Heaven for standing up against injustice. She finds herself on Earth, compelled to intervene first against a gang of white supremacists and then ICE as it carries out one of its infamous immigration raids. What is all the more troubling is that these events are common occurrences within our actual world. The intrusion of the fantasy element in the form of the angel is literally the only thing that distinguishes Imarisha’s story from real life, and that is all the more troubling and powerful.

On the opposite end of that spectrum, Bao Phi’s “Revolution Shuffle” portrays the political consequences of a zombie outbreak, with the government resorting to “protective custody” for non-whites in order to coerce them into performing bizarre acts of physical labor. Strikingly little occurs in the narrative; really it is nothing more than a conversation between two characters engaged in a kind of Granma moment. In the same way that Castro, Guevera, and their allies were engaged in an impossible mission aboard the Granma prior to the Cuban Revolution, the two characters prepare for a daring raid against all odds, but maintain a kind of steadfast hope. Indeed one senses that they feel they simply have no other option. Their revolutionary standpoint is best expressed by the line, “I don’t think there are any happy endings left,” which is followed by the description, “Then they strode down the hill together, rifles in hand, straight for the prison camp. Toward a war that might just turn into something like a revolution” (14). This kind of tragic resignation in the face of unbelievable odds is rarely captured so poignantly in works of sf.

One more notable example is David Walker’s “The Token Superhero,” which is a powerful reflection on the relationship between real life politics and the current superhero obsession sweeping the United States. It must be noted that the comic book and its more popular form — the superhero saga — is one of the uniquely American forms of art to have been developed in the last century. The main character, who is given the name “Black Fist” very much against his will, becomes aware of all of the ways in which his position is being exploited and used to conceal the racist structure of his world and over time his attitude becomes jaded and cynical. In that context he is suddenly exposed to the reflexive side of popular fiction: young fans, inspired by his example, acting collectively to try and build a better world. One could say that “The Token Superhero” is even a reflection on the very concept of fandom itself, and it manages to take a critical eye to it without completely dismissing its potential.

Perhaps the most exciting component of Octavia’s Brood is the ways in which it reflects China Miéville’s dictum, “Fantasy is good to think with” without the unspoken corollary that often accompanies it, that only high art fantasy is good to think with. Many on the left will readily accept something by Philip K. Dick but balk at Grant Morrison (if they even know who he is) or Hideaki Anno (and they definitely don’t know who he is). The collection of sf shorts not only features issues of oppression and resistance as thematically central, the works themselves are largely the product of amateur writers engaged in a collective writing project. This is the great strength of the work as it eschews genre conventions and militates against the notion of writing as an individual exercise. When artists reject the realm of what is acceptable and possible for being published, beautiful things are born.

Imarisha and brown envision Octavia’s Brood as more than a traditionally-conceived work of art as something to be consumed and observed. In producing the collection, they developed a framework for engaging in a collective project, as outlined in brown’s “Outro”:

In the process of hearing and working these stories, we developed tools, frameworks, and principles that would help us to bring the work off of the page and into our lives. We wanted to end this anthology with an offering of three of these tools. The first is visionary fiction…the second tool is emergent strategyFinally, we have our collective science-fiction/visionary fiction writing workshops(279)

There is more to say on each of these notions than can be mentioned here, but needless to say the workshops seem to be a fruitful way of furthering this project. Octavia’s Brood is hopefully more than a one off publishing event, the two are engaged in speaking tours and their work is inspiring other like-minded activists to explore the connections between sf and their work. Brown’s description of the workshops speaks for itself:

In each workshop, we start out by asking ourselves what in our community needs vision, with the idea that we can apply our collective ideation to it like a healing salve. We identify lead characters — often pairs or groups of lead characters to disrupt the solitary hero narrative — and we intentionally move those voices that are often marginalized in our society to the center of the world-building. We then build the setting, identifying where we are in time, creating a geography and conditions, naming any shared assumptions we have, and determining what the major conflict will be in that world…Once these elements are laid out, we send people off to spend time writing their stories in this shared world. So far, no matter how much time we give people, they are still writing when the timer goes off. The imagination just needs a little nudge to run wild…We believe that this experience helps grow the capacity to truly vision and implement together (281)

From this one can see clearly that the project initiated by Octavia’s Brood goes beyond the mere publication of an anthology of sf stories. It marks a first step in taking quite seriously the entanglement of social struggle and the fantastic. Rather than merely spilling more ink theorizing this relationship, brown and Imarisha have initiated a project aimed at sparking collective action which further erodes the boundaries between activism and art. As such, this work is promising on many levels — and sports a fantastic collection of imaginative and original sf narratives to boot.

Jase Short is a writer and activist living in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He write the blog "The Ansible," focusing on speculative fiction and fantasy, for Red Wedge.