Not everyone is familiar with the term “speculative fiction”: generally, it’s an umbrella term that includes both fantasy and science fiction, but I also describe it as fiction that asks, “What if…?”
Back in 2016, I wrote a post quoting Neil Gaiman extensively: “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth.” In 2013 (and before that, and since then), he spoke about the power of fiction on empathy and imagination; he wrote, “The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.” In his collection of nonfiction essays, The View From the Cheap Seats, he wrote more on the same theme:
“There are three phrases that make possible the world of writing about the world of not-yet (you can call it science fiction or speculative fiction; you can call it anything you wish) and they are simple phrases:
If this goes on…”
In a recent discussion of speculative fiction (including fantasy and science fiction), a classmate linked to a related piece of writing on the idea of “what if”: in her 2015 essay “Rewriting the Future: Using Science Fiction to Re-envision Justice,” Walidah Imarisha writes,
“For all of our ability to analyze and critique, the left has become rooted in what is. We often forget to envision what could be. We forget to mine the past for solutions that show us how we can exist in other forms in the future.
That is why I believe our justice movements desperately need science fiction. Stay with me on this one…”
She writes that science fiction “allows us to imagine possibilities outside of what exists today,” and asserts that science fiction is the only genre that “allows us to question, challenge, and re-envision everything all at once.” Imarisha uses a new-to-me term as well: “Visionary fiction offers social justice movements a process to explore creating those new worlds….This term reminds us to be utterly unrealistic in our organizing, because it is only through imagining the so-called impossible that we can begin to concretely build it. When we free our imaginations, we question everything….That is why decolonization of the imagination is the most dangerous and subversive decolonization process of all.”
Imarisha writes that “visionary fiction centers those who have been marginalized in larger society, especially those who live at the intersections of identities and oppressions.” It takes a visionary – often an outsider, someone young or marginalized or discounted by mainstream society – not just to see what is wrong, but to imagine alternatives that seem impossible at first.
Some people may discount the fantasy and science fiction genres out of hand, but writers of speculative fiction are some of the most creative writers and thinkers of their times. They often use their invented worlds to help readers see the problems with our own world by taking them to extremes (“If this goes on…”) or making radical changes to societal norms (“What if…?”). Imarisha writes, “Whether it’s Hunger Games, Harry Potter, or Star Wars, these fantastical worlds end up exploring issues like war, racism, gender oppression, power, privilege, and injustice.”
It’s not all space operas and dragons and unicorns (although so what if it is?) – sometimes it’s using fiction as a sandbox to imagine and envision ways to improve the one real world we do have. I’m planning to read Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements later this month and get some new ideas. What if…things can be different?