VISIONS OF VISIONARY FICTION in Octavias Brood, named for Octavia E. Butler.
  • AK Press
  • VISIONS OF VISIONARY FICTION in Octavia's Brood, named for Octavia E. Butler.

You know Walidah Imarisha: When Gizmodo ran a piece earlier this year about race in Oregon, she was the scholar quoted throughout. We've written about her revolutionary approach to science fiction and social justice right here in these very pages. And now she's co-edited an anthology of science fiction from social justice movements, Octavia's Brood, along with Adrienne Maree Brown. Out now from Oakland's AK Press, the anthology features stories Imarisha describes as "visionary fiction." It's a broad category, with room for what might be called speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy, or horror, with one key distinction: the stories must challenge normative paradigms, and make space for imagining sweeping social change.

With visionary fiction as its organizing principle, the stories in Octavia's Brood vary hugely, but certain threads carry through: Instead of far-off galaxies, many of the stories take place in recognizably American settings. Detroit and Oakland make appearances. In one of these stories, Adrienne Maree Brown's "The River," the Detroit River becomes haunted by a specter of gentrification and displacement, or what Imarisha describes as "a crime that's not a crime." In gorgeous, un-ornamented prose, it's equal parts horrifying and mesmerizing.

There's a reason for these appearances of the ordinary in what's ostensibly a science fiction collection. For purposes of visionary fiction, says Imarisha, "utopias aren't as useful as organizing in worlds like this one." But neither, she says, are dystopias, because, "If there's organizing, there's no true dystopia."

In this framework, a book like George Orwell's 1984 wouldn't be classified as visionary fiction, because, as Imarisha says, it ends with a man who's been broken by the system he lives in. But a book like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale—which is horrific, but nonetheless suggests an alternative to its characters' subjugation may exist—would.

And of course, Octavia E. Butler embodies the idea of visionary fiction perhaps better than anyone—her stories are haunting, from the body horror of Kindred (a woman travels back in time to the antebellum South, and the experience, already deeply psychologically damaging, manifests in the loss of her arm) to the frightening, violent world of Parable of the Sower. These are not didactic, everyone-lives-happily-ever-after stories. They're brutal. They're upsetting. They don't end well. But they are—perhaps Butler's titles were more prescient than she thought—parables. They are gestures not at a new and better world, but at making this one survivable.

Visionary fiction also requires a certain amount of genre-bending, or what Imarisha calls "genre-cide." In a literary landscape where the line between genre fiction and literary fiction is constantly blurry (and almost always pretty useless), there are a number of works of literary fiction that can actually be classified as genre fiction. One that Imarisha singles out is Toni Morrison's Beloved. At first, it might seem strange to recontextualize Beloved as a horror novel. But revisit it, and you'll see that she's onto something. Beloved contains classic supernatural horror (literally, a ghost) and psychological terror (a horrifying amount of interpersonal and systemic violence). If you're not convinced that it works as a horror novel, consider that Beloved takes as its subject one of American history's most horrifying events: slavery.

Recontextualizing classics like Beloved can be extremely valuable, both in terms of acknowledging the revolutionary potential of genre fiction, but also in understanding that the distinctions we make between genre fiction and literary fiction oftentimes do nothing but encourage a false dichotomy. I read Octavia Butler for the first time as a summer reading assignment in high school. I likely wouldn't have otherwise, and I didn't realize at the time what an anomaly it was to be assigned a book by an African American woman writer, much less a work of science fiction. Butler's name isn't tossed around on high school reading lists or college English seminars, but it absolutely should be. My suspicion is that if traditional barriers between genre fiction and literary fiction can be questioned, readership of writers like Butler will grow. Here's hoping that the publication of Octavia's Brood brings a new generation of readers to her work—and inspires even more of us to reject the extremes of dystopias and utopias for something a little more real.