"If change is inevitable, predictable, beneficial, doesn't logic demand that you be a part of it?" —Captain James T. Kirk, Star Trek, "Mirror Mirror"
One would certainly think so. It’s kind of evolutionary.
One might even think wonderful ideas would be immediately embraced, sought, cherished, acted upon, and implemented. One would think, fancifully, that every governing body would have a dedicated group of science fiction writers (an advisory panel of imagineers, so to speak—whispered to avoid Disney litigation) who could point to Octavia Butler, Sam Delaney, George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Frank Herbert, or a thousand other visionary writers who not only showed us where we were as a country or a world, where we were going, but also how to nudge those paths toward newly imagined outcomes.
This, however, is not the case.
Fortunately, we have sci-fi visionaries ready and able to show us how speculative fiction and all that it entails can lay foundations of actionable civic engagement at our feet.
Jim Kirk would be proud.
I hail from Detroit. We have a book club there called The AFROTOPIA Book Club. During one of our monthly meetups, Asadullah Saed, writer and Afrofuturist, said something that rocked my world. "I love how science fiction interrogates tradition." That short sentence changed the thrust of every word I then planned to write for the rest of my life. We interrogate things to analyze them. We analyze to effect change. Everything is a tool. For me, it wasn’t enough to be a writer, not if the words didn’t alter a single thought in a reader’s head. Building starts in the grey. It wasn’t enough to merely fashion mental playrooms. I wanted to build in the real world. Yes, there are those who bemoan issues, identities, and politics in fiction, but Jim Kirk had one thing wrong: change is inevitable; a better world isn't, unless we actively work for it. All of us.
We have the imaginations to build an equitable, beneficial world. We don’t need warp drive to do it, as cool as that may be. And it’s not that we aren’t doing it, because we are. Lots of folks. But we could always use a few more.
Five authors and a scientist walk into a virtual bar…
Saladin Ahmed, author
Maurice Broaddus, author
Tananarive Due, author and educator
Dr. Nettrice Gaskins, educator and futurist
Eileen Gunn, author
Z Z Claybourne, author and moderator
We have four questions. By the time we get to the end, I expect you’ll have four answers of your own.
Z Z Claybourne: The first order of business is specificity. After we get dressed in the morning, what can we do to bridge the gap from imagination to reality? How important is it to do this with young people? They’re the first line of lasting social advancement. I see authors positioning themselves as activists, starting creative workshops in underserved areas, hosting reading series, even providing free interactive content.
Nettrice Gaskins: In the work I do, the sci-fi comes off the page and gets presented in myriad ways. For example, last October, a theater teacher/director from Boston Arts Academy where I teach told me she was doing research for a play. It was a new version of The Wiz. I sent her some URLs, including a blog post I wrote addressing black aesthetics and Afrofuturism in the film version and a more recent live TV version. At the time, the teacher/director wanted to locate the play in Roxbury, MA, and address some of the sociopolitical issues of the time (i.e., Black Lives Matter). Most important was the emphasis on creating new worlds and magical realism, or expressing a realistic view of Roxbury while also adding magical elements.
My role at Boston Arts is STEAM Lab director with STEAM standing for science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics. I had been working with theater teachers on integrating new media such as projection mapping, which is the display of an image on a non-flat or non-white surface. Also, it's important to note that most of the students at BAA are African American and Latinx American, the groups most underrepresented in STEAM. I began training students on how to do projection mapping using images, videos, and computer programming, as well as fabricating props using laser cutters and 3D printers.
Z Z Claybourne: Imagination becomes technology becomes production. An evolution of thought-experiment to concrete reality. A lot of people don’t get the opportunity to see their imaginations made real, or even get the sense that their creativity matters.
Nettrice Gaskins: All of this and more went into the production of The Wiz and, perhaps as a result, three thousand people from the community saw the show over four days.
Maurice Broaddus: We (writers) need to start as young as possible. Go into elementary schools, read to classes, and do Q&As with students. We need to let them see us, let them catch a vision that being a writer can be done. Workshops can be done in underserved areas to increase enthusiasm for creative writing. Writing of all stripes, give them room to explore stories, journalism, comic books, plays, and poetry. The important thing is to allow them to exercise their imaginations, dare to dream, and see themselves in their work and reflect their story. Teach them about the importance of narrative, especially controlling their narrative, because if they don’t define their narrative, others certainly will. Organize and collaborate with other artists. Young or old, from hip hop artists to taggers, but make interdisciplinary art. Experiment and make bold statements.
Z Z Claybourne: Agreed, there’s nothing more powerful than an imaginative mind, especially a young person’s. That’s X-Men-level potential. Right now Detroit’s got a mayoral candidate, Ingrid LaFleur, running on a platform of imagination being vital to any contemporary community system. I love that! An artist, curator, and researcher who knows there’s no real growth without imagination running for political office is straight science fiction: the poet-warrior challenging the technocracy. There are so many people hungry and thirsty to imagine new systems and build new lives.
Saladin Ahmed: Really, nothing beats teaching as far as this goes, but it's not for everyone, and certainly many writers make for horrible teachers. I think those of us with platforms can start by connecting other people with resources, including connecting them with one another. Writers are pretty good about bringing people together, and doing so with intention in both virtual and physical spaces is one of the things we can do to make the world less miserable.
Tananarive Due: One of the recommendations of the committee studying solutions for the gun violence in Chicago was a no-brainer: the city needs more brick-and-mortar community centers to provide structure and alternatives for young people. With a physical presence in underserved communities, the contributions could range from sport programs to art programs to essay-writing and oratorical contests (like the ones I participated in when I was young) to food programs. Family counseling. Drug counseling. Of course, infrastructure and preventative measures are anathema to the current GOP administration, which has a callous disregard for the lives of the poor and middle-class. So it will be imperative to find ways to funnel investor funds into creating a stronger presence in underserved areas nationwide while we fight for more equity from government. Instead of providing jobs in prisons, we can provide jobs that build communities. But it will take coordination and ingenuity. I think we all have to be willing to work a bit harder and be more engaged than we’ve been previously—because none of our current problems are new, only exacerbated.
Eileen Gunn: For many readers, young or old, the author’s job is done when the reader finishes the book. Wham, bam, thank you, slam, and onto the next book. But not all readers are sedentary, and more to the point, not all authors are sedentary. So, if you enjoy activism, by all means go for it. It does not have to be connected to your writing career at all: working in a soup kitchen is activism, as is writing an interesting newsletter or helping with a fundraising effort.
But if, as I do, you want to channel your activism into helping others improve their ability to communicate, there are many ways in which you can encourage people, young and old, to think and create outside their own experience, outside their own culture, gender, genre, social class, universe. Helping other writers can be extremely involving and yield enormous benefits to the SF community. As readers of Strange Horizons, you may already know this, but here are a few ways to get involved with sharing your knowledge:
- Go to science fiction conventions and offer to help with the writers' workshops. Specifically, go to WisCon and talk to the scores of activists there. Find out what they are doing.
- Help new writer/activists get to WisCon and other conventions. Con or Bust raises funds to help people of color get to conventions.
- Writing the Other is an intensive, real-time, online workshop about writing characters whose gender, sexual orientation, religion, racial heritage, or other aspect of identity differs from your own. Run by Nisi Shawl and K. Tempest Bradford. Attend one of their classes and put it to work. Or help others attend. Or just give them the book.
Z Z Claybourne: Which shows that it really doesn’t take a lot to spur change or even simply be a part of change. People are inspired and influenced by imaginative leaps. Star Trek has certainly presented loads of social, economic, and governing jewels which either are or have become reality (cashless, wireless transactions; 3D printing as consumer leveling-field; the eventual dissolution of corporate rule). What examples, either via your own work or someone else’s, can you offer of science fiction being mined for real-world action? adrienne maree brown’s work to advance social justice and personal preparedness within the framework of Octavia Butler’s Parables series immediately comes to mind. (Check out her book, Emergent Strategy: Shaping, Changing Worlds.) Others?
Nettrice Gaskins: Projection mapping and laser cutting are just two examples of what I do with teachers and students in the STEAM Lab and other projects across the country. I see projection mapping as a type of augmented reality that we see simulated in sci-fi films such as Mission Impossible and Pumzi. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about similar technology in a short story titled "The Princess Steel" in 1905. Du Bois describes a mechanism (a megascope) by which a human deed can be represented in two dimensions on a "thin transparent film." Layering such films one on top of another produces a representation of the "history of these deeds in days and months and years." Du Bois’s work attempted to counter the racist technology of the time, especially through visual images. Du Bois and other writers/scholars embodied concepts and ideas that we now refer to as Afrofuturistic—Afrofuturism being a type of technological enframing. Another invention that intrigues me is the Outerspace Visual Communicator, which is a complex hybrid visual-music machine (built in the '70s) with various control interfaces for optical electromechanical light sources, electronic video effects and video generation, and intuitive instrumental control. The OVC was a collaboration between Boston inventor Bill Sebastian and Sun Ra, one of the pioneers of Afrofuturism. The imagery of the OVC is produced by musicians, or sounds. This inspired my work with music visualization and culturally relevant computer science concepts that I teach to students in the STEAM Lab. These students see these ideas manifested in plays such as The Wiz or in public pop-up installations where animations are generated and projected on walls and buildings. The underlying theme or mechanism is world-building. I heard Junot Diaz say that we’ve got a lot of work to do for theorizing and conceptualizing about how subjects like religion can play out in invented worlds. The same goes for STEAM education.
Saladin Ahmed: For me this has always been more about ethos than about technology. I could talk about what the ST:TNG holodeck "predicts," but that could never matter to me as much as Worf's pathos as an outsider scorned by "his people" and misunderstood by white I MEAN FEDERATION society. X-Men taught me that freaks and Others can find family and fight evil together. Alien Nation helped me sort out my shit regarding assimilation vs. pride. As an Arab man, these gifts matter so much more to me than anything "predictive" genre does. That said, we should all be (re)reading The Handmaid’s Tale right now.
Tananarive Due: It’s so hard to pick out one example because I’m currently teaching Afrofuturism, and the work sprawls in so many directions, with so many artists contributing to a conversation in progress since the first slave spirituals—which I see as the first US Afrofuturism. Whether it’s Octavia or W. E. B. Du Bois or Samuel R. Delany or Nnedi Okorafor or N. K. Jemisin or Steven Barnes or Nisi Shawl—or the music of Sun Ra, George Clinton, or Janelle Monáe—or the art of John Jennings and others—literally way more artists than I can reasonably mention—this is a robust time for the black speculative arts. The images of claiming power are electrifying for so many of us, and the allegories help us put a name to multi-generational traumas while we imagine ourselves immersed in the world and technologies of the future.
Z Z Claybourne: Do you see it as the ideas taking root, or the (grass) root taking the ideas?
Eileen Gunn: I don’t think the process is quite as simple as SF being mined for real-world technical or social advancement. I’m not denying that there is a flow of ideas, but I think it goes both ways. Scientists and technologists, philosophers and politicians, all create and promulgate ideas.
Z Z Claybourne: Agreed. If T-Rex had a say in evolution he might have opted for longer arms. Keeping people away from their imaginative potential is an act of violence. The people who read our works do more to help create them than they might realize. There’s power in that. "Power to the people" is the old cliché, but—again—acknowledging and embracing the imagination is the building block of everything.
Eileen Gunn: It’s often the writers who mine the thinkers, writing stories that incorporate philosophical or social ideas or are inspired by them. And I think this is true of ideas concerning social activism, as well as science and technology. In constructing stories, writers examine ideas for feasibility, test their limits, extrapolate and explore what could go wrong. When new thinkers read the stories, they also examine ideas that catch their imagination, and they may criticize them, refine them, change them, and retool them to solve new problems.
In terms of SF that proposes possible ways to deal with opposition and achieve just societies, there is a massive amount: much of the earliest science fiction was both didactic and utopian. I offer recent work by Malka Older (Infomancy, 2016), Nisi Shawl (Everfair, 2016), Cory Doctorow (Walkaway, 2017), as well as a body of work by Doctorow, Kathleen Ann Goonan, and Kim Stanley Robinson, and further back by Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, and Ursula K. Le Guin. However, although I know of a lot of technical projects, advocacy programs, and intentional communities formed by people who read science fiction, I would be hard put to say that SF provided any unique ideas or strategies; although, in my opinion, science fiction nurtures the kind of thinking that enables change.
Z Z Claybourne: Is that nurturing enough to build from? We’ve got them while they’re young; we’ve engaged them to create—if technology is voice (and it increasingly is), how do we as writers leverage their (and our) insights and creativity into making sure messages are heard not only within sci-fi communities but in the wider world? How can we use the ability to be "everywhere at once" to drive social change? If we're already doing this, how do we amplify it?
Nettrice Gaskins: It needs to be on the page and it also needs to come off of the page to reach more people. Projects like M. Asli Dukan's M.O.M.M. (2011) based on Octavia Butler's Mind of My Mind, and John Jennings's graphic novel for Butler's Kindred (2017) are two examples. Ta-Nehisi Coates's writing for the Black Panther comic book is another one. In a way, these projects are gateways to sci-fi literature. One day I want to build Du Bois's megascope, a mechanism that, when worn on the head of the protagonist, transports them to another world. I want to fabricate the device that John Coltrane sketched for Yusef Lateef in the 1960s when explaining his musical composition for Giant Steps, which is based on Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Today, we have access to the tools and platforms to reach the masses but there are so few of us who take advantage of these resources that we become the outliers. This has to be part of a concerted effort to educate, activate, and disseminate (present, install, or display).
Saladin Ahmed: I think activists on Twitter and other social media, and those organizing protests right now, are actually doing a splendid job of this. Protest seems to feel so much less lonely than it did in, say, the '90s. There will always be a signal-to-noise problem, but I honestly think we're in kind of a golden age for communicating. The question is: is that enough to stop the monsters?
Tananarive Due: In many ways, social media is in its infancy, so it’s hard to imagine ten or fifteen years down the line—but I think we’ve seen the seeds of that leverage already. We can transmit information quickly and we’re witnessing these incredibly creative interactions, whether it’s humor or dispensing information. So that will accelerate in the times to come, and the people in their infinite creativity will find ways around government attempts to curtail their freedoms online.
I do think it will be important for us as artists to try to learn new platforms to keep up with the masses—so I always encourage Facebook users to learn Twitter, for example. It’s a powerful tool and weapon. But wherever we reach the end of our comfort zone, we should nest and remain active and vocal and creative.
Maurice Broaddus: Technology is voice, it’s also democracy in action. I’m looking at three things that have impacted under-resourced communities:
- Cell phones—technology has leapfrogged infrastructure. Whereas some households struggled to have computers, now they own powerful devices at their fingertips.
- Social media—aided by those same devices, people can communicate and organize in whole new ways.
- DIY publishing —now publishing becomes, both for good and ill, much easier. It allows people to get their work directly into readers’ hands.
These three innovations allow traditional structures and impediments to be bypassed and truly put control in the hands of the people. You have the backbone of grassroots organization—and resistance if need be—in place. All we have to do is spark the ideas and imagination. We need more dreamers and vision casters.
Z Z Claybourne: Saladin made a great point about the signal-to-noise, which keeps a lot of people (authors included) from even bothering to add their voices to new conversations. The Why Bother attitude encompasses a number of ills.
Eileen Gunn: As an author, mega-famous or not, you have an opportunity to use your online persona to advocate things other than your new novel. The simplest thing, in terms of social advocacy outreach, is to promote someone else’s social-agenda book on your Twitter feed, Facebook wall, or in other social media. Discuss it, or simply let people know it’s there.
You can also advocate your causes on Twitter and other sites. This is time-consuming. Do not regard it as self-promotion. If you’re doing it right, it’s advocacy. Try to be interesting, for God’s sake.
Z Z Claybourne: Which leads us, finally, to "hope," because we hope that while we’re out there with our words, stories, books, and blogs in the e-sphere or in the physical world, we’re being interesting. Like Saladin said, writers are good at bringing people together. Since the word "hope" gets short shrift, what gives you hope within the sci-fi community in regards to its viability as more than solely entertainment?
Tananarive Due: After November 8th (Election Day, 2016), when my head was still spinning and I was in a numb state of cognitive dissonance, I remembered Octavia Butler’s words from her Earthseed tenets in Parable of the Sower: "The Only Lasting Truth is Change." Remembering those words cleared the clouds in my head—and remembering the near-future world of that novel reminded me that we had been on the march to this reality all along. I also remember a letter I got from a reader years ago where she described how my novel, The Living Blood, helped to give her the strength to fight off a home invader. And I just got an email from a prisoner about how transported he was by that same novel. The hope and healing are real. Sometimes we only need escape in our art—which is fine—and sometimes it helps us believe we can survive what had previously seemed unsurvivable.
Nettrice Gaskins: My brain is always making connections between something I've read or seen with what is developing in fields such as science, technology, or digital media. Julian Bleecker talks about "design fictions" that help people tell stories that provoke and raise questions. These things are like props that help focus the imagination and speculate about possible near future worlds. Design fiction is a process of merging fictional worlds with the creative design, hybridizing our notions of reality and fiction into objects, with a look to the future. In his seminal 2009 "Design Fiction: A Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact and Fiction,'' Bleecker frames this combination as, "assemblages of various sorts, part story, part material, part idea-articulating prop, part functional software." The assembled design fictions are component parts for different kinds of near-future worlds.
Recently, I received an email from Bill Sebastian, who worked with Sun Ra and the Arkestra on the OVC. His daughter read some of my stuff and noticed I wrote about his work. I went to visit Bill in his studio and experienced his virtual reality version of the OVC. I couldn't help but be reminded of Oculus Rift technology, or even Du Bois's megascope from 1905. We need to create more design fictions and make sure it reaches younger generations who need tools to counter what is currently happening in the world right now. Many of the young people and adults I've worked with experience a kind of cognitive dissonance when it comes to technology, after generations of exclusion and exploitation. It takes time to convince people that they, too, can create software, tools, and devices that help their communities or help them create their own worlds.
Maurice Broaddus: I came up as a horror writer, a genre of terror, disturbance, and being unsettled. When I write it, the stories come from a place of trying to make sense of the pain I saw around me, past and present. The SF genre itself is about ideas, again both good and ill, because people are people. What I love about SF is that I get to dream about possibilities and better tomorrows. It sets my brain in terms of how can we get there. What gives me hope are the conversations and efforts about diversity and inclusion. They’re messy, loud, awkward, bumbling, and fraught, but they rail against the status quo and challenge conventional thinking, which in the end is what the best art does.
Eileen Gunn: Hope is what chases off despair in times like these, when much of the world, including our own country, is dominated by inimical forces.
Hope also drives change, and what gives me hope is the very fact that science fiction is entertainment, many different forms of entertainment: comics, movies, television, games, music, art, and lots of different kinds of writing that’s available to entertain and amuse people of different ages and tastes and nations and classes and ethnic origins. As long as SF can entertain, it can survive. SF, like fantasy, is a way of understanding that the possibilities of the world, of politics, of thinking, of art, are mutable, not fixed.
Science fiction embodies the message that the world can be different, and that different is not necessarily bad. The world can be changed, and change is incremental, and you, the reader, could change it for the good or the bad, in small or in large. Right there is the message from much of science fiction, and the core of Octavia Butler’s syncretic religion: "God is Change."
Saladin Ahmed: A whole new crop of writers is blowing our field wide open, and I love that, but even moreso, I find hope in the fans. Not the few who defend a calcified, depressing notion of what genre should be. The many, many folks from incredibly diverse backgrounds whom I've met online and at conventions who are THRILLED by the motion (not just the notion) of our field opening up and reaching out. There are way more of these folks, and it's important to remember that.
Eileen Gunn: The means that the author suggests may or may not be how a better future is accomplished, but the idea of a better future is what drives the activist to come up with a plan and to persist and change it until it works. That’s the value of science fiction.
Z Z Claybourne: That puts me in mind of something activist Grace Lee Boggs said: "People are aware that they cannot continue in the same old way, but are immobilized because they cannot imagine an alternative. We need a vision that recognizes that we are at one of the great turning points in human history when the survival of our planet and the restoration of our humanity require a great sea change in our ecological, economic, political, and spiritual values." Our imaginations allow us first to notice, then to resist, then to change, then to build. The human condition is a work in progress, and perhaps the most imaginative, constructive thing we can functionally realize comes from, of all places, the campaign platform I mentioned earlier from a candidate in one of the most realistically sci-fi places in the world, Detroit (trust me, we have it all, from cyborg wonders to billionaire despots, shiny and chrome): "Real growth is measured by perseverance, passion, and the will to help others." I think Ms. LaFleur is onto something with that.
Four questions, now at an end. Voice: you have it. Advocacy: win-win for all. Creativity: free it. Imagination: expand it. These four blocks form the strongest posts for building new ways of being outside the standard Team Us Versus Them box. There are thousands more, but this is a start. Change is inevitable, even predictable.
It’s up to us to make it beneficial.