Erica Hoagland is a big fan of science fiction but claims it gets a bad rap as escapist juvenile literature that’s largely focused on western culture. That’s no longer true, she says.
Science fiction is no longer a boys’ club, and far from escape it is for an increasingly diverse audience an emerging – even hopeful – roadmap out of our current crises.
“I think that these stories are gaining more visibility,” says Hoagland, who teaches Creative Writing at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. “We’re seeing a really clear shift in what audiences want to read and what they want to support.”
She noted Vandana Singh’s Mother Ocean. Sea levels rise displacing millions including the tribal community of the protagonist. The heroine develops a friendship with one of the remaining blue whales on the planet that has become trapped by a fiber optic net.
“She helps to get rid of this meshing and saves the whale’s life. But more importantly, she learns to speak the whale’s language.”
Hoagland says a new crop of writers are remolding science fiction “in fundamentally beautiful and important ways,” helping the genre to progress by engaging with some of the most intractable challenges of our time, including climate change, systemic racism, migration and great power conflict.
Imagining a future ‘based on hope’
Libia Brenda is one of those change-agents. She writes speculative fiction as well as nonfiction and was the first Mexican woman to be nominated for a Hugo Award. An anthology she edited, A Timeline in Which We Don’t Go Extinct, is also a video game, free to download and play.
“So, in Mexico… we are kind of tired of the dystopian futures and we are fed up with the male, super-vertical, super-masculine, super-commercial science fiction,” says Brenda, a Climate Imagination Fellow at the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University (ASU). “So, we try to imagine a future based on hope. We are not imagining a world that is impossible. We are imagining a world that is the product of a change.”
At an Ethnic Media News briefing last week, Brenda described her latest project – a collaboration between five Mexican writers about a volcano that erupts in Central Mexico – as an “experiment” that happens to be science fiction.
“We are imagining how we are going to live after something like that. That is a probability here in Mexico. So, we have been writing and we have been consulting with scientists and one of us is an artist and she has been making some drawings and it’s a collective effort,” she said.
The story’s context is specific to Mexico, but it has a sensibility that is decidedly avant-garde.
‘Punkifying’ the sci fi genre
Much of award-winning American author Ken Liu’s work focuses on technology – which Liu defines broadly as “human craft” – and how it can alter the way we think and construct the future.
“I speak to a lot of folks from all around the world in different cultures. And one common refrain I hear is a sense of not feeling entirely at home in modernity,” says Liu.
Credited with inventing “silkpunk” – which blends elements of sci fi and fantasy with East Asian antiquity – Liu says the genre is his attempt as a technologist and as a thinker to reimagine and “punkify” traditional East Asian technologies. These include things like philosophy, engineering, or political theory not typically associated with the latest tech craze.
“When we speak about indigenous or so-called non-Western philosophy, we speak of them as though they are not relevant in modernity, they are just alternative ways in the past,” explains Liu, who points to the growing movement of techno shamanism as an effort to reinterpret and reintegrate traditional indigenous ways as a core part of modernity and not merely “something to be preserved.”
When she was young, Isis Asare started a book club and shared her enthusiasm for reading with friends. Today she runs Sistah Scifi, an online bookstore. Asare says it’s “a cauldron of all things Afro-futuristic casting spells to uplift literature written by Black women.”
Asare, who says she loves technology and imagining the future from a Black diaspora POV, pointed to the book Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures as an example of the kinds of works now emerging. The book is a companion to a yearlong exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC that explores Afrofuturism across literature, music, cinema and television.
“Looking at black literature, historically, there’s a lot of concentration in urban fiction, there’s a lot of concentration in celebrity biographies, but there wasn’t a lot of focus on black speculative fiction,” Asare says.
She described authors Toni Morrison and Alice Walker as early pioneers in speculative fiction, drawing a direct line from their works to films like Blackula (1972) and more recently Black Panther (2018), which Asare says has sparked renewed interest in Afrofuturism.
Global challenges, local settings
Halfway around the world in India, Samit Basu imagined an anti-dystopian novel set in 2030 called The City Inside. The novel, published last year, offers a lens into a near-future Delhi through the eyes of a female protagonist whose job as a social media influencer is interrupted by the encroaching issues of creeping authoritarianism, climate change and social disruption.
Basu, who says he turned to sci fi for the creative freedom he hoped it would give him, describes publishing culture in the US as “mostly one of constraints,” comparing it to “filling in a visa form. My imagination or my perception of reality has to be shaped into boxes that I wasn’t aware existed and are not necessary.”
Still, he says he was surprised the book’s setting in the Indian capital was not an issue for American readers.
“All over the world, we are essentially dealing with the same problems,” noted Basu. “But the specific local settings of those problems are dependent on the local cultures where people are experiencing them.”