We shouldn’t underestimate the power of dreams.
Imagination is a critical element of change, inspiring us and keeping us oriented towards the future we crave. It can— and should—be a strategic part of making plans and building movements. If we don’t perceive where we’re going, at least vaguely, then we lack direction and goals to work towards. But as I dive deeper into speculative fiction, with all its utopias, dystopias, and the complexities in between, I long for more stories from the margins—the stories I used to live without.
It’s not that I didn’t have dreams growing up, of course. Some of my earliest memories are of spending time in tiny, fractured habitats. I watched orange-tip butterflies fly over brook water made toxic by runoff from a military base, I saw my bird friends struggle to find a place to nest as their homes got smaller each year, and I dreamed of what if.
What if the water ran cleaner every year? If habitats grew large and more abundant instead of dwindling before our senses? What if liberation was something tangible that we could touch and taste? These were my dreams as a young, perhaps naïve, deeply queer child who preferred the company of non-humans.
The problem is that I felt alone with these dreams, although I’m sure the brook and the orange-tips and the starlings shared some of them—if I had only known how to listen to their stories.
Surviving science fiction
As a kid, I was fascinated by science fiction: I was a budding ecologist, and anything related to science drew me in like a bear to honey. I consumed an extraordinary amount of TV and watched every fancy starship, dramatic alien invasion, and liberal utopia that mainstream producers gave me. Somewhere along the line, though, I realised that popular sci-fi wasn’t giving me what I needed.
In utopian future stories, oppression has been replaced with equity and equality for everyone. It sounds great, but I’ll admit I can’t quite trust a story like that until I see the receipts. How did the world change to this better version? How is post-capitalist society run? And, most importantly, who cleans the spaceships?
Star Trek: The Next Generation, for example. Captain Jean-Luc Picard is the definition of posh, which isn’t surprising for a military officer, but a little confusing in Trek’s utopian post-inequality future. He likes horse-riding, he listens to classical music, he loves Shakespeare, and where would he be without his “Tea, Earl Grey. Hot”? No builder’s tea with milk and sugar for Captain Picard.
Somehow, I just can’t imagine him on his knees scrubbing the mould out of his bathroom or anyone else’s. And what of those kilometres of carpeted corridors lining the Enterprise? We never see little robots whizzing around tidying things, though in one episode Commander Riker states vaguely that “the ship will clean itself.” Still, I’m unconvinced. I want to see those little robots.
I once had a Cambridge-educated housemate who—hand on heart—believed that toilets were already self-cleaning and had never scrubbed a toilet bowl in his life. The present is utopian, apparently, if you have enough privilege.
And someone must be building all those elegant space vessels, working long, dangerous hours for shit pay. Corporations are still tearing the materials for all those screens and replicators and bulkheads out of the ground, devastating habitats and poisoning rivers along the way. Capitalism, money, oppression, and presumably class, have all been abandoned, they tell us, but as a kid I needed to know who was keeping everything clean. Maybe there was a big chart on the fridge in the mess hall, and everyone took their turn with chores?
I imagine the writers didn’t think too much about it, or they figured their audience didn’t want to worry about such mundane aspects of life. There were entire sectors of space ripe for military conquest, sorry… exploration, and fantastic adventures to be had. No one really wanted to find out how society had transformed into this magical utopia.
But I did think about it. Maybe it was my class showing: I was working four jobs at the time, and three of them involved cleaning and scrubbing mould off things. Maybe it was because military air travel and upper-class officers—who almost certainly listened to Mozart and rode horses at the weekend—were poisoning my little brook.
So yes, here was a classist utopia that I enjoyed watching as much as the next geek, but that I didn’t trust one bit.
Sometimes it didn’t even seem all that utopian. In the episode “The Perfect Mate,” “empathic metamorph” Kamala is purchased for an arranged marriage to the Valtian ambassador, Alrik. Kamala’s only personality trait is a desire to please men, a defining characteristic of her species. She drives them wild with her hormones, including some noticeably rough, working-class miners who are visiting the ship. These miners pop up just to be leering and gross before going back to their invisible work underground. Meanwhile, posh doctor Beverly Crusher is determined to rescue the metamorph from what she has decided is sex slavery—even in the utopian future there are SWERFS, I guess. Picard wants to save Kamala too, but more in a way that suggests he wishes to keep her for himself. I don’t know if they could have fit more offensive, misogynist tropes into one episode if they tried.
Compare this to the show Firefly, which is quite a different beast; not exactly a dystopia, but with a lot more grit than Star Trek. The ships are crappier, everyone’s just getting by, and most impressively to me as someone who was just joining the industry at the time, one of the main characters is a sex worker. Inara Serra’s employment and social status as a Companion help the crew to survive. She does her own thing on the ship, she holds everything together, and she lives with dignity. Firefly was problematic in many other ways, but I revelled in this tiny scrap of representation.
At the end of the day, however, representation is not enough—even if it can be a thrill, on the odd occasion when it happens. Both these stories left me longing for something more. Something practical.
Searching for blueprints
I know I was asking for a lot. How could the power, profit, and privilege-dominated TV industry speak to me? I was queer and trans, without words or community to understand these things. I grew up poor, in a family of disability and trauma. Aliens and galactic wars and laser weapons and empires and robots and exciting magical futuristic technology were never going to mean much to me.
I was looking for a blueprint, an actual guide to building our utopia. What if?, I asked, but vague illusions of a better future couldn’t be the answer. The world was burning, and I needed to get busy.
I never planned to write those blueprints. God knows I didn’t grow up with the sense of “having a book inside me.” It took me until my mid-thirties to even try to tell a story, but one day, I just started. A few glimpses here, some hopeful scenes there; then, several years of nervous exhaustion and an empty bank account later, I published my first novel, Margins and Murmurations.
My book is often described as dystopic, and for a while this classification confused me. This was the most hopeful story I could find in me, part daydream-fantasy, part hopeful project. Not a spaceship in sight, but plenty of resistance organising, and all the clouds of starlings and recovering rivers of my deepest dreams.
There are undeniable elements of dystopia in the story: an oppressive corporate state, extreme inequality in access to resources, environmental destruction, the vilification of marginalised groups. But as I see it, these are just a step away from the world many of us already live in. I wasn’t being speculative in writing those parts: for marginalised people, the dystopia is here and now.
Yet it was utopia that drove this story forward. I allowed myself to dream about what a diverse resistance movement might look like in Europe. What if it was intergenerational and ecological at its very core? What if it centred, supported, and empowered sex workers, queer, trans, BIPOC, poor, and disabled folk?
Writing utopias has been my therapy. There are times when community organising burns me out, and dreams of a better world evade me. In those moments, writing scenes of gender-diverse communities fighting back against TERF infiltrators, reclaiming the land after the economy that destroyed it has gone, feels like putting a little hopeful magic into the universe.
On the other hand, my second novel Conserve and Control takes place in what looks like a liberal utopia—all permaculture gardens and trans-inclusive corporations—but is very much the most ominous setting I could find the power to write. Liberation and the living world are close to my heart, so trans capitalism and the conservation industry are sinister subjects to me.
A utopia for some is very much a dystopia for others, and I admit, I love that complexity. Margins and edges are still my playground, three decades after exploring that poisoned little oasis, stuck between industrial agriculture and an air force base but still brimming with life.
I know from personal experience that sometimes trauma is just trauma, and there’s nothing romantic or hopeful about it. Still, I think of the potential that our oppressions can bring. What if the most marginalised groups are actually the best at surviving the apocalypse? Could that which has cursed us become our greatest strength?
Owning our superpowers
I have a favourite writing prompt that I’ve used to kick-start many short stories and scenes. It goes like this. A natural or human-induced disaster takes place. How does a particular marginalised community respond, and how can they use the skills they’ve already developed for survival? What is it about having survived oppression and marginalisation for so long that gives this community an advantage?
For example, I know several trans communities which, unserved by their states and wider society, are developing autonomous healthcare solutions, self-defence, and new ways of mobilising: powerful tools to have in a disaster. To quote a poor and trans character from my short story in the queer resilience anthology, Glitter and Ashes:
“People like us have been avoiding the law, passing around hormones and meds through our networks, taking care of each other and fighting gangs of men since forever… I guess shit hit the fan for us a long time ago.”
It can be a useful reframe, this idea of oppression as a super-power. In our version of the story, we work with what we have and imagine beautiful solutions for our lives and our world. We don’t resort to magical thinking of utopic futures with no receipts. I love the pragmatism of writing ourselves some small, imperfect blueprints for how to live and mobilise. A trustworthy utopia will take a lot of work and some clear goals and often I find that fiction awakens the imagination much more than a manifesto.
My first stories are at least partially intended as frameworks for grassroots mobilising, inspired by the incredibly beautiful movements that I’ve been fortunate to be a part of. I come back to the idea that without goals—and dreams—we’re at risk of losing ourselves, and we can waste a lot of time and energy trying to find our way back. Collective visions have power—stories have power. And power ought to be shared.
I was reminded of that power while on an eighteen-month book tour between squats, bookshops, sex work conferences, herbalist gatherings, and universities. I started creating spaces for marginalised writers and would-be writers to come together and dream: this is how the workshop series Writing from the Margins came to be.
I’ve been told by middle-class people that the working class in northern Europe don’t experience material poverty, just a poverty of the imagination. I disagree with this argument. First, material poverty is still rampant in Europe—if the last year has revealed anything in Europe, it’s this simple fact. Second, what we really lack is a space for us to feel safe, to push through our socially induced insecurities, to realise that our stories are worth telling.
So what happens when a group of marginal people sit together to connect with the land and imagine three—or ten, or a hundred—beautiful, utopian things? Will those visions inspire us to make plans? What happens if we confront the rift between our hopes and our expectations, and explore ways to transform that pain into action?
We can’t trust utopias, yet some of us thrive in dystopias. Perhaps it’s a false dichotomy and reality lies in between. All I know is that our imagination is powerful, and our stories are important. Having space to imagine is something precious in a world that delivers our dreams to us pre-packaged.
If you want to, if it feels right, maybe find a little space like that for yourself some time. Sit somewhere you love and dream the best dream for that place that you can. Really lean into those hopeful visions and let them bring the feelings and ideas that they bring. So much is possible, and the world needs more stories.