Science fiction and social justice: giving up on utopias

We make fiction that disrupts the status quo, examines change as a collective bottom up process, centers marginalized communities - and is neither utopian nor dystopian.

Adrienne Maree Brown
18 August 2015
 John Jennings.

Octavia E. Butler: Octavia's Brood, co-edited by adrienne maree brown, takes its title from her work. Credit: John Jennings.

I've been facilitating visioning sessions for organizers for a while now. We get together and imagine the world as we say we want to see it. There are often themes - gardens and local food, schools, children safe and free, abundant water, gender fluidity or equality, and the absence of isms, injustice, prisons, violence.

We articulate these things with each other and affirm our visions, and then we go back to our work and lives, where the majority of our practices run counter to the utopian visions we espouse. We are punitive with each other, with our families, with our friends, in our movements. We hoard and waste resources. We laugh at difference, we hide our hearts.

We dream well, we mean well, then we keep on being human.

The visions don't feel attainable, they have nothing to do with our daily lives. They are utopias, perfections. Even the most righteous among us don't live like that.

The more social justice work I support, and the more science fiction I write and read, the more I realize the danger of utopias.

I grew up with the ultimate utopia: heaven. When you die you go to an infinite cloud, get issued a lute, or inducted into an eternal Allelujah chorus. Everyone you are related to is there to welcome you, along with your trusty pets, all who have died before, Malcolm, Martin, Marilyn, all suspended in a wispy amber, awaiting you. And a benevolent God is there, and of course you are only there because you are good. Your goodness formed your ticket, and your whole family is good too. So yay.

Only, at some point early in my life I realized there was one major problem with utopia: I wouldn't be there. I was always thinking inappropriate things, challenging authority, crushed out on someone of the same sex, questioning why God was so full of smite, engaging in small and meaningless sins that made my life infinitely more interesting.

I was good, but not Good.

I wasn't interested in following rules, I was interested in learning, tasting, understanding the world, creating the world.

It isn't that I don't like peace, stillness, rest. In balance, I can enjoy those things. But I think the balance is important - I think this why in so many utopian visions of the future, there is still the presence of a threat, or another point of attention.

In several of my favorite sci-fi utopian narratives - The Fifth Sacred Thing, Woman on the Edge of Time, The Dispossessed, Herland, the stories really get moving because of a threat from beyond the utopia. The past, the future, the devil, men, the masses...someone is outside the utopia, and seeks to destroy it. There is a certain tension, or conflict, which makes us feel alive.

Even the Christian heaven I grew up believing in was still oriented around the punitive structures and dramas of our earthly lives.

This year Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements was released, an anthology of original science fiction and fantasy written by people who are active in a variety of social justice movements. I am co-editor of the collection, along with Walidah Imarisha. We have been articulating our work as visionary fiction: we are working to generate fiction that intentionally disrupts the status quo, examines change as a collective, bottom up process, centers marginalized communities - and is neither utopian nor dystopian.

The reason for that last piece is that dystopia leaves us with no hope. Utopia basically does the same thing, by creating a future that is unattainable and has so little to do with present day experience that it isn't useful.

We are instead interested in generating stories, visions and futures that are hard and realistic and hopeful.

This means, for instance, that we don't seek or generate stories where no one sees color.

Race and ethnicity, our cultures, the ways we have survived, all of this is what gives us depth and brilliance. Erasing all of that, or swallowing it into a monoculture, does not feel safe or desirable. It is infinitely more interesting to look at futures in which race does not create enemies, in which culture is not a reason for derision or disrespect, but seen as a part of a fecund and vibrant living system.

We don't seek a world of physical perfection, a post disability world. Instead we look at what a plethora of abilities can teach us about interdependence, different ways of being in a body.

We don't seek saviors who will come in and rescue us from the impact of our choices. Instead we create stories in which people learn and create ways to navigate life. We encourage collaborative resourcing, surviving and innovating the future.

We don't seek a world where everyone is the same, or agrees to the same set of values and practices. Instead we invite writers and artists to show us visions of a world where difference in values and priorities creates a multiverse of beautiful existence. We are particularly curious about concepts of justice in the future, how communities might work together to root out hatred, isolationism, supremacy - those things which make our current societies so sick.

We don't seek a world where good and bad are polar opposites in a binary system, and once you have been determined to be bad you are punished, banished forever from the world of good. We are interested in the grey areas, in the ways transformation works over time at an individual and collective level.

Perhaps there will come a time when this is not interesting, where conflict is not interesting and defining, where we know all there is to know about the human experience. But for now, we are alive, and we want to keep innovating and improving upon the conditions of those who live now and those who are coming through us into the future. We want to discover if there are other beings out there, and how our gifts and flaws line up with the universe. We want to learn how to transform injustice at the root while retaining our humanity, our imperfection, our singular magic and collective will.

Relinquish utopia. Justice is our work today.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData