A few weeks ago, I attended a rally in support of Bernie Sanders just north of Oakland, in Vallejo, California. At the rally, I heard a sentence that struck a deep chord within me: An idea does not have to be radical to be revolutionary.
It’s a simple statement, sure, but it has legs. I imagine that, during the height of the civil rights movement, there was a portion of the American population that felt the idea of racial equality was radical. But thinking about it, were people asking for anything completely new? No. They were asking to have the rights of protection, access, and representation that already existed for a majority of Americans. I don’t mean to say that radical action wasn’t taken in the name of revolution. Rather, that the desires of the movement were not radical, though they were certainly revolutionary.
I think that our current politics are in a similar boat. The things that the progressive left is asking for—protection from militarized police, access to affordable education and healthcare, and political representation free from the corroding influence of a rigged campaign finance system—are likewise not radical. These rights exist and are protected in most of the developed world, yet they are treated as heretical impossibilities by people who refuse to acknowledge the facts of the matter.
Ideas can be radical or revolutionary, and the can certainly be both. Writers of speculative fiction, particularly science fiction, frequently create works that embody that duality. Consider our fantastical, technological lives. How many of these devices were born from the minds of great SF writers?
In a recent speech at the national book awards where she was honored for a lifetime of contributions to fiction and writing in general, Ursula K. Le Guin issued a challenge to writers of speculative fiction:
“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.
Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.”
Octavia E. Butler was an author with radical ideas. Her contributions to the annals of science fiction were revolutionary. I have books by Octavia Butler on my bookshelf, and several more on my e-reader, but I have yet to open them. I’ve been meaning to, but a consequence of the expansion of this blog has been the total loss of time to read books on my old “to read” list. The books are, for the moment, collecting dust.
So when the opportunity arose, through the ever beneficent folks at Audible, to listen to an anthology of short stories inspired by her work, I leapt at the opportunity.
Octavia’s Brood is, for lack of a better word, different. It’s editors, Walida Imarisha and Adrienne Marie Brown, say it is “the first book to explore deeply the connections between […] ‘visionary fiction’ and movements for social change through the vehicle of of short stories. We believe that radical science fiction is actually better termed visionary fiction because it pulls from real life experience, inequalities and movement building to creative innovative ways of understanding the world around us, paint visions of new worlds that could be, and teach us new ways of interacting with one another.
The term ‘visionary fiction’ is thought provoking, though I doubt many would want to see the dystopian visions of the future in some of the stories come to pass. It demonstrates an understanding of the power of fiction that Ursula Le Guin spoke of: the power to evoke change.
Some of the stories in the anthology are great; others are “merely” good. All of them resonate deeply. And Je Nie Fleming, the narrator, did a wonderful job of imbuing the varied casts of characters with life and emotion, which must have been rather difficult given the range of character backgrounds and settings. It’s the kind of book I want to buy twenty or thirty copies of and hand out to people, just so I can say “here! This is the power of science fiction! This is why we write and keep imagination alive!”
I cannot recommend Octavia’s Brood enough, to social justice activists, science fiction enthusiasts, and everyone in between. If I could get through to them, I’d call on the puppies (the semi-organized group of frothing racists who, like GamerGaters, are currently engaged in a campaign to Make Video Games / Comics / Science Fiction Great Again) to read this anthology. It might teach them a bit about reality while showing them just how good science fiction can be when they open their minds. And that’s the purpose of speculative fiction to begin with; to broaden our horizons. As Ursula Le Guin said, Resistance and change often begin in art. If you’re a fan of art, especially the art of words, you ought to get used to change.