Can the genre of visionary fiction be a conduit for organizing and radically re-envisioning a just future?
When we emblazon a banner with the slogan “another world is possible,” how much have we imagined about what that other world is? Movement work involves envisioning and building worlds with new relationships of power and intersections of identity and collective change. We can get to this new world if we spend some creative time there — through writing and reading — and envisioning how it looks, feels, and functions.
Visionary fiction, a term coined by writer, poet, and organizer Walidah Imarisha, is a genre that spans science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, and comics. It uses the lens of science fiction to explore world building by addressing current social issues in ways that are conscious of power inequalities, intersecting identities, and collective change. The genre, like social justice work, is not neutral, nor is it reformist: it’s political, realistic, and challenging, but also hopeful. It relies not on what we have, but on visualizing what we want.
The stalwarts of visionary fiction — Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia E. Butler, Marge Piercy, Starhawk, Samuel R. Delany, W.E.B. Du Bois — imagine away oppression, develop radically transformed systems of governance, and explore new paradigms of sexuality, relationships, and gender. Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed, for instance, explores what happens in a post-revolutionary world when those oppressive constructs we sought to dismantle begin to re-emerge in a new society. Le Guin teases out the challenges of existing in a world that is not as perfect as the revolution had hoped, and is more susceptible to replicating oppressive structures than most people had thought. While Le Guin gives us a vision of what an anarchist society could truly look like, she also gives us a tale about how revolution is not a fixed point but something that needs to remain in motion, with critical reflection as a part of the process.
What is a world without prisons, police brutality, sexual violence, poverty, oppression? We don’t know. But we work for one, building as we go. Visionary fiction lets us explore and construct answers to these questions in worlds free of the constraints that bind our work in our current real world. We can test ideas, trying out new paradigms of relationships and constructs of social order that not only push forward ideas of new societies, but also challenge our own emotions and assumptions.
In these imagined worlds, we get to release the hopes and desires we carry with us in our organizing work. Taking the time to explore the future through imagined worlds flexes our imaginations and offers a balance to the day-to-day practical work of organizing for social change.
The U.S.-based LGBTQ prisoner support organization Black and Pink recently embarked on a collective visionary fiction-writing project with its incarcerated members and free-world allies, including members who were formerly incarcerated and their supporters. Through its monthly newsletter, which is sent to 8,200 prisoners, Black and Pink is writing a world without prisons by collecting and publishing the stories of its incarcerated members. This abolition work envisions collective change for millions of incarcerated people, mostly people of colour.
Here’s how it works: the project imagines a trio of solar systems that represent different places in the resistance to mass incarceration. One planet is deeply steeped in incarceration: it is cruel and merciless. Another planet is trying to undo mass incarceration, exploring the restoration and the conflicts between reform and abolition. The third planet is one that has never known incarceration; it is a place to explore what is possible without punishment ever having been a part of a species’ consciousness. Common to all these worlds are birds that can deliver messages, even across space — a nod to the role that those on the outside play in connecting and supporting leadership among the incarcerated.
Any member can contribute a story, a character, a conflict, or a complication about any one of those solar systems, as long as the contributions are consistent with the relationships of the planets to incarceration. Black and Pink chooses three contributions (one per solar system) to print in the following newsletter, and then invites inmates to build on the evolving story, collectively forming a narrative that imagines three kinds of worlds that relate to the prison industrial complex.
Who better to imagine away the carceral state and form a new vision of the world we’re working toward than those who are incarcerated? Though the power of the prison system to crush hope is immense, the power of the imagination is also tremendous, empowering people — even in a prison cell — to create a vision of another way of life. A prisoner might slip into the life of a mutant, say, that affirms their identity. This mutant might fight and win the right to be a part of the larger world, which is seen as a gift, not a danger. The full vision of the story will be a powerfully creative image of how prison abolition looks, feels, and functions.
Many of our favourite imagined worlds in science fiction, far from being visionary, are full of problematic tropes that replicate the oppressive social and political problems we struggle with in our work for change. This is hardly surprising; after all, the publishing, film, and television industries are all products of the capitalism that defaults to a heteronormative, white, cis-male-dominated world around which all stories revolve. It is predictable, then, that most of what is produced merely replicates the oppressive structures and thought patterns of the dominant paradigm, even when presenting political allegory. Star Trek takes place in a post-capitalist era in which the fundamental ills of poverty and prejudice are banished. But what remains is still military might, occupation, colonization, and coercion. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry ends up as an Auror — essentially a cop — and all of the primary characters are in heteronormative relationships. In Game of Thrones (both the books and the television series), sexual violence is a common weapon, and despite the presence of some powerful women, patriarchy reigns. The storytelling in Firefly is rife with orientalism, though Asian actors aren’t featured in the main cast. These flaws are indicative. Just as there is instruction in visionary fiction, there’s instruction in flawed imaginative fiction. As thoughtful readers and watchers, we begin to construct challenges to the problems we perceive within their rules. This is valuable practice for our work. It’s in these flaws that analyses can be built and tactics practised. If we can imagine a better United Federation of Planets (or imagine it away, with something new in its place), we can practise what it means to imagine away state violence and the militarization of scientific exploration while holding on to the things we love.
How can visionary fiction begin to guide practice? After years of facilitating direct action trainings, I started to feel they lacked context. Either the people in the trainings weren’t engaged in campaigns that involved current direct action, or they had no immediate outlets where they could practise their new knowledge. Newly learned skills that go unused often get lost. But what if the context could be imagined?
At the Boston-area Education for Social Justice conference two years ago, I led a group of mostly Black and Latinx young people in a training session about visionary fiction and direct action. As part of the process, participants broke into small groups, each choosing an imagined world within which to work. One group took the world of Harry Potter. Rather than identifying with the title character or one of his best friends, the group identified with Squibs, non-magical people born into magical families. Squibs miss out on all the special memories, rituals, and shared cultural associations that the other children in a magical family get to experience, including the remarkable chance to attend wizarding school. The young people in the training could relate — they too had felt the sting of exclusion and othering. Impacted by histories of family trauma, migration, community violence, incarceration, and poverty, they were ill-equipped for a standard classroom setting, falling far outside the expected normal high-school student experience.
During the workshop, using direct-action training tools developed out of the U.S. civil rights movement and U.S.-based organizations like the Ruckus Society and Beautiful Trouble, these students built campaigns for Squib rights. They were building context, and it took no time at all for them to draw parallels between their imagined Squib rights campaign and changes they wanted to see at their school that could transform the default environment of isolation and suspension without regard for context. Just as there seemed to be no regard for how a Squib would feel about being in a magical world without the resource of magic, the students felt there was no regard for the context of their lives from school administrators and teachers. By the end, the imagined had given way to the real as they discussed forming a student group to move their ideas forward.
Direct action contains the elements of good storytelling: heroes and heroines, conflict, allies, landscapes and, of course, villains who jeopardize our future. In direct action organizing, we use phrases like “the spectrum of allies,” “the action target,” and “point of intervention.” But an affinity group could be called a “fellowship” and a campaign a “quest.”
To reap the benefits of using visionary fiction as an organizing tool in our work, we have only to open ourselves up to the partnership of the imagined and the real. The lessons we can learn by doing so are important. How can imagined, familiar worlds inspire us in our work? Our new, possible world lies in the futures we can imagine.
Morrigan Phillips is an organizer, writer, and social worker living in Boston. As a direct-action trainer, she has developed curriculum that merges science fiction with traditional direct action training tools to unlock imagination and social change vision. Reprinted from Briarpatch (September/October 2016), an award-winning magazine of politics and culture.