Upending the Wagon Train to the Stars
I have always been into superheroes and comic books," says Walidah Imarisha when we meet up at Coffeehouse-Five on N Killingsworth. Perhaps best known for her writing (everything from poetry to criticism), teaching (at Portland State University), and her public scholarship on race in Oregon, Imarisha's now putting a social justice lens on science fiction. As co-editor of Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, out now from Oakland's AK Press, she's also written a story for the anthology, about a "grumpy" black angel.
"When I was growing up, all I had was Storm from the X-Men who looked like me," says Imarisha. "She's supposedly the second-in-command but she's very Uhura [from Star Trek]. She's very underutilized."
So when she and fellow writer Adrienne Maree Brown signed on to edit Octavia's Brood, named for science-fiction luminary Octavia E. Butler, Imarisha wanted to create a black female superhero. But it turns out it's pretty difficult to write a superhero who isn't inherently fascist.
"Superheroes by definition are these very elitist ideologies," she explains. "You have superpowers either because you had money to buy them—Batman—or you were born with these superpowers or you got mutated by some spider or whatever—but you're better, you're super."
Imarisha had done what many sci-fi writers have, from Joss Whedon to The Hunger Games' Suzanne Collins. She'd written a character you don't normally see taking power in mainstream sci-fi. But instead of subverting the dominant superhero narrative, Imarisha realized she'd merely reinforced it. Her heroine had become "a regular superhero."
"It's not enough for me just to put a black woman in this role," she says. "I need to re-envision the role itself."
She scrapped the 40 or so pages she'd written.
Bringing new imagination to tired sci-fi clichés is at the heart of what Imarisha and Brown call "visionary fiction." It's the subgenre they use to categorize each of the stories in Octavia's Brood, "a general term that can encompass sci-fi, speculative fiction, horror, magical realism, fantasy—so we don't have to argue with our nerds—and also to differentiate it from more mainstream fantastical writing that often reproduces dominant paradigms."
Visionary fiction intentionally challenges many of these, from the "one straight white dude who's going to save the world as the rest of us just cower in fear" to the "idea that the ultimate solution is... just blow everything up" to what Imarisha's previously called "a wagon train to the stars"—science-fiction narratives that launch all-conquering space pioneers into the outer limits, manifest destiny in a spaceship.
Look for these paradigms, and they're everywhere, in our most ubiquitous sci-fi franchises. Take Star Wars, for example: Not only does George Lucas cast Luke Skywalker as his normative savior of the universe, but he's so married to the idea that exploding a thing means victory that the Death Star meets its end twice. The comforting dominant narrative, says Imarisha, is that "if the Death Star blows up, the movie's over." She disagrees, and the Star Wars universe actually backs her up on this.
"What happens next, when you rebuild society?" she asks. "There's still a monarchy!"
Visionary fiction seeks to do what Lucas very likely never will. It engages with Imarisha's questions about rebuilding society after a conflict—and not in far-off galaxies, but in worlds that look more like our own. It's science fiction that deliberately aims to upend the wagon train to the stars, that purposefully links social justice with storytelling—a connection that isn't hard to see when you consider that the goal of one is to invent a world and the goal of the other is to reimagine this one.
"We believe that all organizing is science fiction," says Imarisha. "We feel that every time organizations and individuals and movements are dreaming of a world without police violence, without poverty, without war, without borders—it's science fiction, because those worlds don't exist."
The future can be an albatross for progressive movements; they're often bogged down in the short-term tyranny of reactionary politics and election cycles, and the stunted view of two-year strategic plans. This isn't how it should be, says Imarisha.
"Progressive advocates would do well to think further into the future," she says. "We often ask, 'What's realistic? What could I get?' We don't say, 'What do I want?' And for us, we actually think that our organizing needs to be completely unrealistic. Because [with] all real, substantive, transformative change, people were told [it] was absolutely unrealistic at the time."
Acts of Genrecide
Genre fiction—the parent category for visionary fiction, and any kind of speculative fiction—has a bad reputation. From Avon Books' juggernaut of swooning Fabios to an army of femmes fatale, the mass-market genre fiction paperback has justified no shortage of awful writing and immortal clichés, historically housed in cheap pulp novels. But even among these, there are gems—Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled detective novels, Ann Bannon's lesbian pulp novels, the sci-fi worlds of Philip K. Dick. And in fact many books regarded as contemporary classics double as works of genre fiction. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is science fiction. So is almost everything Kurt Vonnegut ever wrote. Ditto Marge Piercy. And what is Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice if not a stoner noir in a Hawaiian shirt?
This goes for visionary fiction too. If we look for it in existing works, it's easy to find. Imarisha singles out Toni Morrison's Beloved. "[It] never gets tagged as horror," she says. "But it's about a ghost that comes back to life and is haunting her mother, who killed her."
Beloved depicts systemic and interpersonal violence stemming from slavery; categorizing it as a horror novel seems accurate. But we may need to redefine our idea of horror, says Imarisha, specifically with regard to social justice. "When we talk about horror stories, living as black folks is a horror story. Michael Brown is a horror story," she says. "It's a horror story that happens almost every day in the United States, in the black community. So for us, we don't have to imagine horror. We live it every day."
Imarisha says this not about Beloved, but her co-editor Brown's story in Octavia's Brood. In "The River," the Detroit River physically embodies the horror of displacement and gentrification the Detroiters in the story experience. It's a fantastical conceit, but it's rooted in this world. The same can be said of Beloved—and everything Octavia E. Butler ever wrote.
In Butler's novel Kindred, an African American woman time-travels from 1970s Los Angeles to the antebellum South, where she must rescue a young white boy, her ancestor, from drowning, in the process facilitating an act of violence and becoming physically marked by the trauma of moving through time (yes, there's body horror in Kindred). In Parable of the Sower, Butler tells the story of a young woman, Lauren Olamina, who develops a new theology in a hopeless, violent world, based on the idea that change is the only constant.
"All that you touch/You Change," Butler writes, through Lauren. "All that you Change/Changes you."
In Lilith's Brood, Earth has been all but obliterated by nuclear violence, and the only hope of saving the human race is for humans to breed with aliens.
These are not happy stories. They're dark and brutal, and they demand a kind of reckoning that makes them singularly difficult to read. With their fantastical elements, they are unquestionably works of science fiction. But I'd argue they have much more to say about the world in which we currently reside than anything presently billing itself as literary realism.
Genre fiction has a bad reputation, but the existence of a book like Kindred is evidence that it shouldn't. Still, there's reluctance on the part of writers and publishers to embrace genre fiction, or to accept that the lines between genre fiction and literary fiction have always been blurry. Toni Morrison does not consider Beloved a work of horror, says Imarisha. But embracing genre is one way of writing a different future, and re-contextualizing the past.
"Writers have the right to define [their work] however [they want]," she says. "But for us, we need to do some genre-bending," or, as she puts it, "genrecide."
A Brood Is Born
Octavia Estelle Butler was born in Pasadena, California, in 1947, but spent the end of her adult life in the Pacific Northwest, in and around Seattle. She was a Nebula and Hugo Award winner, and the first science-fiction writer to receive a MacArthur genius grant. She died outside of her home in Lake Forest Park, Washington, in 2006, the cause not immediately clear. Some outlets claimed she'd had a stroke, others that she'd died from head injuries after a fall. She had written 14 novels and two collections of short stories. In 2010, she was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.
"She said she didn't want to be the black woman sci-fi writer," says Imarisha. "She wanted to be one of thousands. And really, that was an invitation, a permission, and a challenge to us."
But, she says, Butler did consider herself heir to a literary lineage, one that Imarisha believes might be traced all the way back to Kindred's antebellum South.
"We think enslaved black folks in this country... were some of the most brilliant, innovative, fearless, and beautiful science-fiction creators on the face of the planet, that they dreamed the most fugitive, impossible, illegal dreams, and then changed the entire world to make them a reality," she says.
It's a lineage Imarisha wants to see continued with Octavia's Brood. She acknowledges the Brood's stories—which vary hugely, and cover everything from dissociation as superpower to PR for superheroes—might not be exactly what Butler herself had in mind. But Imarisha sees this simply as evidence of those writers' inheritance. They're like the alien-human hybrids in Lilith's Brood—they don't resemble their parents, but they carry forward a lineage.
"In the context of Lilith's Brood, those children are utterly familiar and wholly alien to them as well," says Imarisha. "They have no idea who their children will be. Their children make decisions that they wouldn't make. But they are their brood, they're their progeny."
As for her own contribution to the Brood, Imarisha returned to that first story, which appears in the anthology as "Black Angel." A., Imarisha's heroine, has been cast out of heaven, and doesn't want anything to do with the human beings that surround her in contemporary New York, where she conceals her one remaining wing under a trench coat. Using her powers is physically painful for her, and she's only jolted into action by the experience of watching a displaced community protect its youth from a government raid.
In other words, A. is changed by what she touches. It's a nod to the spiritual philosophy of Butler's Parable of the Sower.
"We're the brood," says Imarisha. "We're carrying on that legacy of telling folks you not only have that right, you have the responsibility to dream. Please do it."