Monday, December 14, 2015

Visionary Fiction: Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (Edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha)

"Visionary fiction encompasses all of the fantastic, with the arc always bending toward justice.  ... Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless." 
- Introduction, Octavia's Brood (p. 4)

I love Octavia Butler, and I share the notion that science fiction can be helpful in thinking about social justice, so I was keen to read Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements.  The editors, adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha, have coined the term "visionary fiction" to describe the focus of the anthology.

I became slightly worried, however, when the Introduction went on to say that some of the contributors have never written fiction before, much less science fiction.  This definitely shows for many of the stories.  It's not so much that they're bad, but many aren't all that original or interesting as science fiction (or fantasy or horror).  For instance, Bao Phi's "Revolution Shuffle" is okay, but feels more like Walking Dead fan fiction than anything innovative in the genre.  With a few exceptions, like brown's "The River," I admit I was disappointed with most of the first third of the book.  If the first 100 pages were indicative of the whole, this anthology would be just okay.

Luckily, things took a turn for the better starting with Gabriel Teodros's "Lalibela," a fun alternative history/time travel story in which Ethiopia developed advanced technology in the 1100's.  Other highlights include Anderson's "Sanford and Sun" (a trippy take on an old TV show), Betts's "Runway Blackout" (genetically engineered supermodels take on racialized standards of beauty), and Vagabond's "Kafka's Last Laugh" (government enforced love of capitalism turns well, Kafkaesque).

There are excerpts from longer works by LeVar Burton (yes, the host of Reading Rainbow, actor who played Kunta Kinte and Geordi LaForge, and SF author) and established SF writer Terry Bisson. There's also a short, but insightful essay by Mumia Abu-Jamal on Star Wars, which only served to underline my excitement for the opening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in just a few days!  My favorite part of the anthology is Tananarive Due's essay on the theme of change in Octavia Butler's works.  Due's essay alone is worth the price of admission.

The Philosophy Report: Visionary Fiction as Theory and Practice

Like the anthology Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, this anthology invites readers to think about speculative fiction and social justice, particularly with regard to the African diaspora.  In my review of that anthology, I argued that diversity is important because it puts us in touch with perspectives other than our own, which we need for greater understanding in philosophy, politics, interpersonal relations, and matters of justice.

Octavia's Brood builds on this idea by suggesting that visionary fiction is more than a way to understand; such imagination is itself part of the work of social justice movements.  Visionary fiction is simultaneously theory and practice.  A hint about how this works can be found in the editors' acknowledgements: "To our ancestors, for dreaming us up and bending reality to create us.  May we carry that legacy into the far future" (p. 284).

Rating: 87/100

See my Goodreads review.

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