Harrison Middleton University

Science Fiction and Liberatory World-building

Science Fiction and Liberatory World-building

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


September 17, 2021

Thanks to Rebecca L. Thacker, a 2021 HMU Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

Although I won’t deny the pleasures of “art for art’s sake” (I’m no stranger to a lazy day curled up with a plot driven page-turner), as a feminist cultural studies scholar, I’m interested in the role literature can play as a cultural change agent. Whether intentional or not, all literature is political. And, science fiction is a genre uniquely well suited to help us understand how power works through culture. Feminist Sci-Fi is a socially and politically potent narrative form for the critique and the re-vision of minoritizing ideologies.

Changing the world first requires that we recognize that the world can be changed, and second, that we then imagine the society those changes might create. Liberatory speculative fiction accomplishes these two purposes; it is a visionary genre which allows writers and readers to critique contemporary society while also creating visions of more just worlds. These feminist speculative texts alienate what people take to be reality (for my purposes some aspect of patriarchal, heteronormative ideology) and “cognitively estranges” it, defamiliarizing social constructions we have come to take for granted. This fiction takes advantage of Sci-Fi’s conventions while blurring the genre’s boundaries and challenging the notion of genre itself.

Although the Sci-Fi genre holds this latent potential, traditionally many authors have deployed the genre representationally, crafting narratives that uphold, even celebrate, inequitable normative masculinist discourses. In “Progress vs. Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?”, literary critic and political theorist Fredric Jameson notes many of the texts in the Sci-Fi genre are representational, “These narratives are evidently for the most part not modernizing, not reflexive and self- undermining and deconstructing affairs. They go about their business with the full baggage and paraphernalia of a conventional realism.” One example of masculinist science fiction is Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom series (eleven books, 1912-1948). Here, I need to qualify my analysis; I have loved these novels since I was a child. I read through my set of well-worn, dogeared first edition hardbacks every two or three years. But, because minoritizing power works through language, I refuse the position that these novels (or any novels for that matter) are just harmless stories to be appreciated solely for entertainment value. When Barsoom is read through an intersectional feminist lens, it becomes clear that the series shifts discourses of white male exceptionalism and colonization to Mars, reproducing the status quo. A hyper-racialized consciousness pervades the novels. Mars is populated by three distinct races: black, white, and green. Although the protagonist John Carter (a human from Earth) lives for a time among the green men and befriends one of their chieftains, the green race is portrayed as savage, primitive, backward and feminized (communal, without a patriarchal marriage system). Despite his fondness for and willingness to work with one tribe of green men, John Carter ingratiates himself with the red men of Mars, eventually marrying a red Martian princess. The red race is positioned as the most highly evolved, technologically and culturally superior of the Martian races. Unsurprisingly, in this representational text the red race most closely resembles western Anglo-American cultures.

Despite the tradition of masculinist conservatism in Sci-Fi, some speculative narratives do depict the future in a multicultural way. For example, in Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel Starship Troopers, readers discover on page 200 that the protagonist, Johnny Rico, is a black man who wears makeup; in the original Star Trek series, the Enterprise’s chief communications officer, Lieutenant Uhura, is a Black woman; in 2017, Star Trek: Discovery introduced Star Trek’s first openly gay characters; and in episodes VII-IX, the Star Wars franchise has increased speaking time for women and non-white characters. Narratives such as these cannot be discounted out of hand. They offer minoritized individuals the opportunity to see themselves depicted in mainstream Sci-Fi. The fact that these characters simply exist unremarked upon in these universes is important. As queer black Sci-Fi author and critic Samuel R. Delany notes, multicultural narratives may not explain how we can achieve such a world, but they do provide an image of what such a world might look like: “One cannot revise an image until one has an image to revise.” Here, Delany identifies an important utopic potentiality of the genre; Sci-Fi’s subjunctivity (the use of the subjunctive mood to express desires) can allow authors to create futures for those who are futureless in our hegemonic cultural narratives.

I do not discount the importance of this representation; however, I argue that these texts do not engage with hegemonic ideologies in a truly radical way. Rather, these narratives mirror the contemporary liberal politics of social recognition. In “From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a ‘Post-Socialist’ Age,” political theorist Nancy Fraser argues that society either can offer “affirmative” remedies which don’t disturb the inequitable underlying cultural framework that creates them or “transformative” remedies that do restructure inequitable frameworks. While they are important steps forward, the presence of Lieutenant Uhura and one gay couple in the Star Trek universe and other such “affirmative” portrayals don’t go far enough toward destabilizing or subverting normative understandings of gender, race, class, etc. The characters, multicultural though they are, have been inserted into a patriarchal, heteronormative social structure carried out from Earth into the universe.

But since the 1960s-1970s, the feminist Golden Age of science fiction, radical feminist, anti-racist writers have been using the conventions of science fiction to deconstruct and subvert phallocentric thought while at the same time crafting entertaining, page-turning stories. This Golden Age can be characterized by a diversification of voices publishing in the field. In addition to the aforementioned Delany (author of the brilliant heterotopias Trouble on Triton and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand), Marge Piercy (Woman on the Edge of Time; He, She and It), Ursula K. Le Guin (The Dispossessed; The Left Hand of Darkness), Joanna Russ (The Female Man), Octavia E. Butler (the Xenogenesis trilogy) and others critically interrogate heteropatriarchal systems of power, asking, what powers do cultural ideological myths serve and who is left behind?

Readers’ interest in liberatory Sci-Fi has continued to grow and the genre’s diversification has continued through to the twenty-first century. Publishing houses Tor Books and Akashic are committed to “reverse gentrification of the literary world.” Otherwise offers fellowships and an annual literary prize to authors dedicated to the “exploration and expansion of gender.” Twenty-first century transformative Sci-Fi writers carrying on the tradition include: Lidia Yuknavitch, whose novel The Book of Joan (2016) alternates between a post-apocalyptic near-future Earth and a “past” Earth where children are conscripted, climate disruption has sparked water wars, and a reality-star-turned-politician is in charge; Mary Rosenblum, whose Horizons (2006) wonders how life in space will alter our DNA, redefining what it means to be ‘human’; and Time magazine “Hero of the Environment” Kim Stanley Robinson, whose novels, including 2312 (2012) and New York 2140 (2017), address capitalism’s role in climate disruption. These authors create counternarratives to masculinist hegemonic discourses using affordances commonly associated with the science fiction genre.

The literary field is changing – although the old guard historically has looked down on genre fiction in comparison to “literary” fiction and might view with disdain an academic (like me) who chooses to specialize in science fiction, contemporary authors and scholars are willing to blur the boundaries, not only in Sci-Fi but also in horror, young adult, and other styles previously dismissed as escapist. In genre fiction, we can find some of contemporary culture’s most cogent sociopolitical critique. So, may I suggest giving Rivers Solomon, Nnedi Okorafor, N. K. Jemisin, Larissa Lai, or Emily St. John Mandel a read? Not only do these authors craft thrilling, eventful, enthralling page-turners, they also offer transformative visions of more egalitarian societies.

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