Reality is hard.
I think that is something we can all agree on, especially these days.
Literary allusions abound these days, dear readers–we hear the US being referred to as a “brave new world”, a nod to Aldous Huxley’s novel published in 1932. We talk about “Big Brother” watching, and a number of commentators have begun to reference the slogan “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength” both of which are nods to George Orwell’s classic novel 1984. I personally saw more “Cthulu for President” signs and shirts than I ever really thought possible over the past eighteen months, each of which were references to H.P. Lovecraft’s most well-known godlike beasty.
But science fiction is good for much more than passing literary references that make everyone feel a little cooler than their neighbors. And it’s good for more than just escapist reading when the world around us becomes too real. What each of these references show is that science fiction is a really powerful tool for helping us cope with our own world–and to imagine a better one. Huxley wasn’t just using up some extra ink when he penned Brave New World–he was giving voice to his fears that consumerism and economies based on mass-production could rob humanity of its uniqueness. George Orwell wasn’t just using up scrap paper when he penned 1984 (or Animal Farm, for that matter); he had seen first hand the harm that megalomaniacal leaders had on their people, the kind of pernicious fear that government surveillance provoked, and the real danger of tyranny, and his novels were meant as warnings as much as they were for entertainment.
…And Lovecraft was a racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic creep who was, quite literally, terrified of everyone who didn’t look like him. And his novels depict that fear very well.
But the point I am trying to make here is that those works that we call “science fiction” very often speak to, and reflect, the world around us far more accurately than we give them credit for doing. It isn’t just about the gizmos and gadgets (although those can be great), or about inventing new technologies to outdo what science has done today (although Jules Verne made a pretty penny doing just that). It’s about slipping the bounds of reality and tossing out that idea of “progress”. There was (and is) this notion that human endeavor happened on a straight line, and was all building towards this One Great Good (though no one seemed to agree on what that Great Good looks like, even today). Those books can be good…but they can also come across like those 1950’s ads for the “kitchen of tomorrow” (see right). They don’t make life better…they just create gadgets to distract you from the fact that you’re still stuck in a kitchen. Progressive science fiction can show that idea to be utterly limiting and outdated, and dangerous in some cases. Even better, they offer a unlimited number of alternative paths for us to imagine walking. It’s not about crafting blueprints…it’s about dreaming in multiple dimensions, and that is just fun.
And science fiction as a genre offers a number of havens for marginalized peoples to talk about their experiences, and envision a different reality where power structures of race, gender, class, orientation, or language are either not barriers to living a full life, or are turned on their heads in order to give the outsiders some of the power. As Octavia Bulter (perhaps one of the most important progressive science fiction authors) wrote in her essay “A World Without Racism“:
Several years ago I wrote a novel called Dawn in which extra-solar aliens arrive, look us over, and inform us that we have a pair of characteristics that together constitute a fatal flaw. We are, they admit, intelligent, and that’s fine. But we are also hierarchical, and our hierarchical tendencies are older and all too often, they drive our intelligence-that is, they drive us to use our intelligence to try to dominate one another.
More fiction? Maybe.
But whatever is the source of our intolerance, what can we do about it? What can we do to improve ourselves?
And that is what makes progressive science fiction so profound, and so fascinating–because it thinks not only about spaceships and technology and “progress”, but asks bigger questions about humanity and its interactions, and challenge some of the structures that we have simply come to accept as unchangeable. But these words aren’t merely polemical, or diatribes against culture. Instead, they are creative, thought-provoking tales that engage both the critical and the creative parts of the brain at once.
So if you are looking for a bit of an escape from reality, come on into the Library and check out the Free For All’s display of progressive science fiction–not only will you get your fill of imagination and adventure…you might just come away better prepared to face this Brave New World of ours, too. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
Lovecraft Country: We’ve mention Matt Ruff’s series of interconnected stories here before, but we’re doing it again, because this is one of those books that stick with you. The basis of Ruff’s work is a fictionalized version of “The Negro Motorist Green-Book“, which was published in the US from 1936 to 1966, and provided Black travelers with tips and warnings about the places they might be going. In Ruff’s book, Atticus Turner and his Uncle George (the publisher of “The Safe Negro Travel Guide”) set out from their home in Chicago to find Atticus’ father, who has fallen into the hands of the strange and sinister Mr. Braithwhite–and come face to face with a man with enormous powers, whose connection to the Turners is both diabolical and intriguing. In this word, privilege is transformed into a kind of magic protection that the Braithwhites are able to wield for good or ill. But as Atticus and his family begin to see just what that power can do, they realize that they have the power to overcome it–and even harness it for themselves, with some startling results. This is a genuinely unsettling, surprisingly funny, and really thoughtful book that feels uncomfortably believable, even at its most fantastic points.
The Obelisk Gate: The second book in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy is dedicated “To those who have no choice but to prepare their children for the battlefield”, a powerful introduction to a riveting novel that deals very specifically with those hierarchies that Butler mentioned. In this world, earthquakes occur with such frequency and power that civilization relies on orogenes, people born with the ability to harness thermodynamic power and still earthquakes. But the orogenes are feared for their powers, and live as prisoners within the land they protect. Within this world, Jemisin has created two incredibly driven, powerful women: Essen, on a quest to find her missing daughter, and Nassun, the daughter herself, who is slowly discovering the incredible orogenic powers that she herself wields–powers that could heal or destroy the world around her. A wholly immersive adventure into a fascinating and complex world, Jemisin’s book is also a moving story about female power and relationships, as well as a commentary on how societies deal with “others” in their midst, making this series one that isn’t easy to forget. If you’re interested, be sure to check out the first book in this trilogy, The Fifth Season, to really get into Jemisin’s world.
Dune: Frank Herbert’s Dune books are seminal works in contemporary science fiction, and while they have earned legions of fans in the fifty years since Dune was first published, they’ve also inspired a number of economic studies and discussions. Because, at it’s heart, Dune is a study in economics of scarcity. Though a nearly uninhabitable planet, Dune itself is a source of “Spice”, a mind-altering drug that literally makes the intergalactic empire runs. So those who live there must learn to adapt, and to profit, even while risking their lives to endure Dune’s incredible hardships…not unlike the extreme conditions to which humans will go for oil today…and while Herbert’s books are becoming more and more prescient over time, they are also phenomenally good reads that continue to captivate readers around the world.