If You Want to Change the World, Talk to Your Friends About Utopian Sci-Fi
The late, great author Ursula K. Le Guin made this very salient point in a BBC (and PBS) documentary not so long ago:
“Imaginative fiction trains people to be aware that there are other ways to do things, and other ways to be […] I think it trains the imagination.”
Today, the left is often concerned with what is right and wrong in the here and now, but it often misses the opportunity to take a stake in what could be better in the future.
We live in a time when dystopian fiction is very popular. In leftist currents, it's become somewhat common to say that we live in a strange time, one in which the imagined (and now very possible) point of societal collapse is easier to conceive of than an end to capitalism itself. This is not to say that the struggles of the present are not real, or do not affect us, of course.
Thus we need images of the future. Fast. We need images of utopia. We even need images that may on the surface seem like dystopias but contain less obvious utopian perspectives, survival perspectives, post-apocalyptic perspectives. And following that, we need to critique these perspectives and use them to build something that is best for those without power and privilege.
So what kind of things can science fiction, and indeed speculative fiction, show us? I am not talking here about tired renditions of bland good vs. vague evil. Or the limited appeal of futurist technologies that we may never have the chance to enjoy. Elon Musk seems far more concerned with egress for his coterie and his class than he does about the rest of us, or even the Earth. Adam Curtis has described him as somewhat of a poor Superman villain, even if Lex Luthor himself more closely resembles Jeff Bezos.
So let’s not think about those futurists and their techno-utopias, and survival bunkers for the limited few. If they want to board the Snowpiercer-esque perpetual motion train as the world freezes/burns, let’s make fare-dodging our last resort, not our only plan.
Here is a non-exclusive list of different ways of being and ways of living in “how-to” form, with some pertinent examples of sci-fi and speculative fiction that touches upon each subject:
- How to empathise with difference: Check out the Afro-futurist work of Rivers Solomon. In An Unkindness of Ghosts, the neuro-divergent hero struggles with civil disobedience in a white-supremacist future.
- How to conceive of the post-human, the radically “un-human” and a world beyond modern economic concerns: Works like Octavia Butler’s classic Lilith’s Brood trilogy shows the limit of our human concerns and drives. The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee asks how love could take place in a future of cyborgs and robo-perfectionism. One might add the quasi-biblical dystopia of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Krake.
- How to imagine alternate realities (of the past and future): For this, see Marge Piercy’s time-travel novel, Woman on the Edge of Time, where we are presented with a grim story of 20th century oppression offset by future, utopian anarchism. Stories like China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris demand we re-examine surrealism as a form of resistance to totalitarianism, and reinfuses the World War period with the absurd and the uncanny.
- How to structure definite examples of radically different societies: Ursula K. Le Guin was accomplished in performing this task. Beyond her classic works such as The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness she also wrote shorter stories like The Matter of Seggri, which explores how gender differences can utterly structure a society, from our founding stories to the roles in life we assign ourselves.
Taking the interior landscape you have wandered alone and explaining it to someone else is an even more rewarding step. Why not set up a utopian fiction reading group or a writing group?
Further, why limit oneself to books? New media like video games are able to question reality in even more interactive ways and structure our interior world (see existentialist-detective RPGs like Disco Elysium, or Soviet-fantasy biting-bureaucratic satires like Papers, Please).
A theoretical mind is important. But sometimes it needs food that our dismal politics cannot provide; it needs tales of hope and struggle. It needs to be tested and to see the limits it has set itself.
Our imagination, as Le Guin said, needs to be trained too. Sci-fi and speculative fiction can do just that. It can open minds, the minds that need opening, to the new, and to the wonderful.