The editors of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements have set themselves with no small task: to create a book where writers and readers are both given space to imagine futures of liberation.
Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown, both of them organizers as well as writers, use the term "visionary fiction" to describe the stories therein. Imarisha, in her introduction, uses the term to "distinguish science fiction that has relevance toward building new freer worlds from the mainstream strain of science fiction, which most often reinforces dominant narratives of power. Visionary fiction encompasses all of the fantastic, with the arc always bending toward justice" (p. 4). Co-editor adrienne maree brown adds, in her outro, that among other attributes, visionary fiction must: "center those who have been marginalized . . . show change from the bottom up rather than the top down . . . and [not be] neutral—its purpose is social change and societal transformation" (p. 279).
Octavia’s Brood offers stories that are wide-ranging in their scope and feeling, put together in a beautiful, vibrant volume with a striking layout. Some of the stories truly do seem visionary, offering up worlds that are sparkling and new. Others feel more familiar, closer to home, speaking intimately to issues in society (mostly American society, but more on that in a bit). "The Token Superhero" by David F. Walker follows a black superhero as he becomes disillusioned, then finds his inspiration again. "The Long Memory" by Morrigan Phillips is a secondary-world fantasy about organizing resistance in the most desperate circumstances. The protagonist in "Kafka’s Last Laugh" by Vagabond finds her strength by laughing at innate absurdity of the prison industry.
Accompanying these stories are two excerpts from previously published novels: Aftermath by LeVar Burton (of Star Trek: Next Generation and Reading Rainbow fame) and Fire on the Mountain by Terry Bisson. The latter, in particular, hooked me with an alternative history built from a successful raid on Harper’s Ferry by John Brown and Harriet Tubman. Both serve to illustrate the recent lineage of visionary fiction, with Aftermath as a dystopia and Fire on the Mountain as its utopian sibling.
Two essays round out the collection. Mumia Abu-Jamal, who has been writing on culture, politics, and the American carceral system for decades while sitting on death row, contributed a short essay. In "Star Wars and the American Imagination" Abu-Jamal explains how the American public—fresh from losing a war of empire—embraced and identified with a story about a ragtag group of rebels fighting their imperial overlords. Tananarive Due, in "The Only Lasting Truth" dissects Octavia E. Butler’s most persistent themes—change and adaptation—interspaced with personal memories of Butler.
One story stood out to me as exemplary of Imarisha’s visionary model: "Evidence" by Alexis Pauline Gumbs. "Evidence" plays with the structure of its own narrative: a series of exhibits, in the courtroom sense, of a future that has already, hasn’t yet, is in the process of happening. The trail of evidence is nonlinear, and the story that it tells isn’t clear in its details. The story begins with lines that echo Imarisha’s words. "By reading past this point . . . you affirm our collective agreement that in the time of accountability, the time past law and order, the story is the storehouse of justice" (p. 33).
Alandrix lives some time in the future, trying to sort out the events that led to what she calls, "the time the silence broke." She and her ancestor, Alexis (also the name of the author), engage in a sort of cross-generational communication, with Alandrix gathering the small scraps that Alexis has left behind: letters, emails, poems, and writing on the wall. "Evidence" is a moving experiment in form, hopeful and a little heartbreaking. It contains too many beautiful lines to quote, but this is too good not to share, and exemplary of the magic of this piece:
Wait for the time when blood is all we have left to write with . . . Wait for the time . . . when a woman must eat her own sorcery to bleed the ink of her existence. Let her write it and leave it. Let her call it future. (p. 37)
Despite its soft-focus and purposefully vague plot, "Evidence" struck me as an immediately recognizable narrative of the internal struggle to remain faithful to a vision of the future; a salute to those who are attempting to keep their light burning while walking a dark path.
Alixa Garcia’s story "In Spite of Darkness" is another powerful story. It imagines a planet populated by diverse peoples, including the Sol Gatherers: a group that are able to cross vast distances to gather the light of a star, then return to light their planet, which would otherwise be cloaked in darkness. When Kempúa is invaded by humans, who wish to harness this power, the Sol Gatherers must flee. It features beautiful world-building, memorable characters, and accompanying art by the author.
Worlds collide in "Sanford and Sun" by Dawolu Jabari Anderson, in which the titular character from the 1970s sitcom meets the jazz musician Sun Ra, an early Afrofuturist jazz musician. Its format follows a sitcom script, leaving places for the laughter and applause of the live audience. But it also breaks through the script, cracking open the structured form to examine internalized oppression and how art and expression can set one free.
There were a couple of stories that I felt, personally, fell short of the goal that the editors set. "the river" (by adrienne maree brown) imagines a Detroit that is protected by a spirit that lives in its river, which washes away newly arrived hipsters, politicians, and developers who are sanding down the face of the city to make a profit from it. The story is beautifully written, in short, sparse prose that evokes its laconic narrator, a water woman who travels the river’s byways, a mostly silent witness. But I thought the premise leaned more towards wish-fulfillment than visionary. Change happens due to a supernatural element, one that exists outside of the people being affected. I also couldn’t help but wonder where this spirit (creature? force?) had been during the rest of Detroit’s time. Had it raised a finger during the race riots in the '40s? Whose side had it been on when Pontiac’s men attacked Fort Detroit, trying to rid the land of the British?
One of the other criticisms that could be leveled at Octavia’s Brood is its America-centric focus. All of the contributors live in America, and most were born here. Though some of the stories are international in scope, many of those are filtered through the specific experience of immigration. American social justice movements have a tendency to speak in global terms without input from the rest of the world, and that, it seems, has come across in this volume as well.
Several other stories in the anthology feel more like a prologue than a complete tale, ending just as the most important action is about to begin. "Revolution Shuffle" by Bao Phi ends with its two protagonists about to spark rebellion by people of color who were forced into internment camps during the zombie apocalypse. "Little Brown Mouse" by Tunde Olaniran ends with the protagonist about to find out why he’s clairvoyant and what his abilities are meant for. The disabled (or UnPerfect, in the story’s parlance) characters in "Hollow" by Mia Mingus set out to finally free themselves from their oppressors, but the last view we have of them—leaving the home that they have carved out in a distant planet—gives us no clue as to their eventual fate. This happened enough that I wondered if it was a running theme in the book.
When a beginning is disguised as an ending, the world-building becomes the story, and that’s not enough for me. When this happens, it feels like a failure of storytelling. But what if it’s a failure of imagination, rather than technique? My editor for this review, Aishwarya Subramanian, suggested that "perhaps we can only imagine the beginnings of radical change because it is so radical; its origins (because they’re necessarily connected to the world we know) are the only moments we can conceptualise and have language for?" To me, this seems contradictory to the purpose of "visionary fiction," as outlined by the editors. Many of the stories bring us to the precipice, to the point at which things are as bad as they can possibly be; the wonderful point, in stories, where something must change, and the status quo must be broken. But then they leave the reader hanging, and don’t show any way forward, nor the consequences of a monumental decision. One of the most lasting legacies of Octavia E. Butler’s fiction, for me, was that she never shirked from showing the dirty, dragging work of creating change. These stories left me unfulfilled on an existential level, rather than with the simple dissatisfaction of "Wait, but what happened next?!" Are revolutions only beautiful in their promise, but never in their execution, or even failure? And if so, do writers have no less of a duty to write those stories?
In the end, I felt that Octavia’s Brood was a mixed bag, well worth the read but not quite matching my own expectations. As a project, I respect its vision, and hope to see subsequent volumes and more projects by the editors. I don’t doubt that there are readers who will be inspired, transformed, comforted, and at the very least, entertained by the stories in this anthology.
Nino Cipri is a queer and genderqueer writer living in Chicago, and a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Nino's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Tor.com, Fireside Fiction, Betwixt, Daily Science Fiction, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, In the Fray, Autostraddle, and Gozamos. One time, an angry person called Nino a verbal terrorist, which has since made a great T-shirt slogan.