Seeing Beyond the Crises: Why a new politics needs speculative fiction

We are delighted to run a piece from Ali Tamlit, part of Resist + Renew, who describe themselves as "a collective of friends, activists, artists and radical educators". They've been running workshops (last year at a protest camp near Heathrow) which try to use the techniques and stories of science fiction to open up people's minds and hearts as citizens, seeking a better society.

Ali describes their method and philosophy below. (If you want to engage them in any of their services, go here)

* * *

Seeing Beyond the Crises: Why a new politics needs speculative fiction

Ali Tamlit

In the age of Trump and Brexit the political landscape looks, from some angles, pretty dire. In these serious times of austerity, racism, xenophobia, climate change and more, surely the response to this needs to be equally serious. What possible role could SF or speculative fiction play in social change?

A World in Crises

It’s not hard to see crises in this world. There’s the social crisis: widening inequality on global, national and local levels. The economic, crisis which started in 2008, was never really resolved except by slashing government spending on public services. Combined with a democratic crisis, this meant that the rich friends of those in power are affected the least whilst the rest have little voice to complain.

There’s also the so-called refugee crisis, which could more accurately be called a crisis of resource wars and geopolitics that has displaced millions. When they they look to Europe for safety they are turned back, locked up in detention centres or left to drown in the Mediterranean.

And then there’s the climate crisis, the crisis of masculinity and gender based violence, the crisis of police and state violence against Black and Brown people, and on, and on, and on…. Yes, crisis is everywhere you look in this world and they’re all connected.

One other crisis that often gets overlooked, however, is the crisis of imagination. Since the 1970’s we’ve been living in the neoliberal era, where communism was defeated, the hippies all got jobs and we were told that free market capitalism is the one and only solution.

The motto ever since has been T.I.N.A: There Is No Alternative. And because this motto has been repeated so many times, we’ve bought into it and belief in change has been eroded. It’s hard for us to imagine a situation where the Brexit referendum could be re-run and overturned - so how on Earth are we supposed to imagine our Utopias?

The Power of Imagination

This is where science fiction comes in, because in fiction we can break free from these constraints and let our imaginations run wild. We can even go beyond Earth if that’s what’s needed and start building Utopia on the moon, as in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.

By using our imaginations we can remember the Zapatista slogan that “other worlds are possible” and we can think about the problems that we see in our lives today and imagine what kinds of worlds might be needed to overcome them.

In our Utopias, how can we see work being carried out fairly - will there be fully automated production whilst we’re free to pursue the arts? Or will we return to the land and a simpler balance with nature? What about gender? What about play? What about money? Property? The balance between individual autonomy and collective responsibility?

In fiction we can explore all the different possibilities of how our world could work and see what it feels like. For Marge Piercy, when talking about why she wrote Woman on the Edge of Time, she said the point of writing such a book is to “get people to imagine what they want and what they don’t want to happen down the road, and maybe do something about it”.

But as Black SF writer Minister Faust says “if you can't imagine it, you can't make it” - so unlocking our imaginations is key!

Given the potential of science fiction to go viral - just consider The Hunger Games - these questions and ideas can reach a much broader audience than ‘political’ writing, which usually preaches to the converted. A whole generation could ask the question “what world do I want to live in?” Now that’s exciting.

Seeing From Another Perspective

Another powerful element of fiction is that it allows us to see the world from the eyes of someone else, possibly someone with a completely different life experience to us and to empathise with them. Walidah Imarisha makes a distinction between 'mainstream SF', which reinforces mainstream power dynamics but places them in space with lasers, and ‘visionary fiction’ which is about building new, freer worlds.

In this tradition authors like Octavia Butler, who imagines what life would be like for a Black woman after the apocalypse in Parable Of The Sower or after the Earth is colonised by aliens in Lilith’s Brood.

Fiction can also help to understand the past from another perspective too. Cree writer Drew Hayden Taylor argues that ideas like alien abduction or invasion are pretty good analogies for colonisation in North America and elsewhere. For many cultures the apocalypse has been and gone but they haven’t given up because whilst they have a traumatic past, they still fight for just futures and SF can be about writing themselves into the future.

Fiction can help us gain new understandings of where people are coming from and why they feel like they do. Which, in our current context - where we don’t get why half the country voted the opposite to us - is no bad thing.

...And What About Dystopia?

Some commentators have noticed a surge in the number of dystopian films in recent years and have suggested that this shows our inability to imagine better worlds. But dystopia, I would argue, also has a role to play. Change is never easy and there will always be entrenched powers to overcome. Science Fiction needs challenge to make it exciting, but it also helps us imagine how we might face challenges in creating change. That’s why the capitalist world of A-lo and the authoritarian communist world of Thu are vital parts of The Dispossessed.

Walidah Imarisha says that anyone engaging in social change is engaging in speculative fiction and that "all organising is science fiction", because we’re imagining the future we want and taking steps to make it happen. Dystopian elements show us that vision and hope aren’t going to be enough but that with struggle and determination we can make anything happen.

For all of us who are fighting for a better world, we’re part of a process of writing our futures into existence. If you could write the future, what would you write…?

Ali Tamlit is part of Resist & Renew a facilitation collective for radical education. They run workshops on Sci Fi, Storytelling and Revolution, which explore the themes of this article in a participatory way. Our next workshop is on Exploring Collective Liberation, full details on Resist + Renew.