If the pen is mightier than the sword, science fiction is the evidence of that might.
I usually like to read non-fiction, but couldn’t resist a book that describes itself as “science fiction stories from social justice movements,” and is published by an anarchist publishing house, AK Press. It was well-worth stepping away from reality to explore the world of speculative or visionary fiction.
The forward by Sheree Renée Thomas, author, editor and publisher, brilliantly summarizes the mission and meaning of this collection in two short pages.
The stories, she writes, “are about people from different backgrounds and worlds, expanding the notions of solidarity and community, redefining service, and exploring and rediscovering the human spirit in baffling times, under challenging circumstances.” Because telling stories is part of the collective human experience, sharing these stories is part of the crucial creative act of being a member of society, thinking critically and maintaining a healthy skepticism of authority.
The introduction is an impassioned launch into the book, but also relays an origin story itself. Walida Imarisha defines for the readers what “visionary fiction” is and why it is important that all the contributors are organizers and movement builders. The editors intentionally highlight those who our society marginalizes and oppresses. In the same way that Octavia Butler, as a black woman, fought against the mainstream of science fiction writers, this book challenges the status quo. Butler moved to Seattle in 1999, apparently with 300 boxes of books, according to a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article written after her sudden death. She served on the advisory board of Seattle’s Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. The editors dedicate this book to her in a beautiful statement that opens the collection.
The 20 short stories contained in this anthology demonstrate that science fiction is more than technology and flashy advances in space travel. Each story is an entertaining page-turner that captures a social commentary. The same themes recur: oppression, revolution, strength and vision for radical change. The imaginary elements are largely plausible and explore deeply the consequences of our current or fictional social structures. Many are cautionary tales of an inevitable dystopia should we persist on this path of racial and gender inequality.
There’s not much about this book that hasn’t already been said, but as a voracious reader of non-fiction, I found these tales were eerily close to the truth at times. The characters and their relationships to each other, and to society, were persuasive in a way that left me both nervous and pensive.
“In Spite of Darkness” creates a mythical world in which there are “Sol Gatherers,” who gather sun or starlight and bring light and peace into the world.
They are being captured and exploited by humans in an effort to save their own world. Sound familiar?
A story written by one of the editors, “Black Angel,” is about an angel of vengeance crossing paths with a young girl. It was one of my favorites mainly because in only a few short pages the characters were clear, developed and powerful. I found myself rooting for them.
“Sanford and Sun” was written in the style of a TV show or play. I found this style a playful and entertaining way to convey a serious and commanding message. It made me wish there was something like this on TV right now.
“Runway Blackout” is about shape-shifting models of the future and a criticism of colonial beauty standards. Using fiction to highlight the real-life issues we face today, in a few brief pages, we meet Voile and read about her efforts to organize her community of “therianthropes” against the power of the fashion world.
Given the timing of this book’s release, perhaps particularly apropos given the timing of the new movies, is an essay by Mumia Abu-Jamal on Star Wars. He places the movie within historical context but also explains its continued popularity within the context of an American identity — a denial of our imperialist past, present and future. After reading it, I may never think about the rebels and the Empire in the same way again.
Finally, as a “Star Trek” fan, I was thrilled to read the excerpt from Levar Burton’s book, “Aftermath,” which left me eager to read the entire book and embarrassed that I hadn’t done so earlier.
In fact, many of the short stories collected here could be expanded into entire novels, each one a success unto itself.
As I was rounding out the final few pages, it struck me how many of the stories ended on a hopeful but uncertain note. I found myself reflecting on the fact that we all engage in the practice of asking why the world can’t be a certain way. It was at that point when the final pages are left, that you find perhaps the most important section of the collection is the “bio” section with the descriptions of what each author does in life. Many of the contributors are first-time authors, and I was inspired to see activists, academics challenging traditional academia, blogs showcasing more writing and the many ways in which this community is supporting one another and recruiting others.
The power of this brand of science fiction has reawakened my sense of adventure and fed my imagination, emphasizing the importance of both challenging the status quo and working within social justice movements.