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Weekly digest – 20.05.20

20 May 2020

6 mins

In Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, set in 2020s California, climate change has resulted in regular droughts, fires and floods; unemployment and homelessness is widespread; and those lucky enough to have a home resort to violence to defend what little they have. In its sequel, Parable of the Talents, society has broken down even further. A new President, Andrew Jarret, is elected. Ignoring the causes of the country’s problems, he blames migrants and sin, uniting his base around a trademark promise: that he will ‘Make America Great Again’.

Although we should not judge speculative fiction by how accurately it predicts the future, it’s difficult not to be chilled by Butler’s vision. But there’s cause for hope too. Both novels follow Lauren Oya Olamina, a black teenager who flees north after her community is destroyed and her parents murdered. Joining thousands of migrants on a dangerous journey, she begins to build a new community around ‘Earthseed’, a philosophy of change and mutual care she has developed.

The Earthseed community faces numerous difficulties and awful violence from Jarret-enabled white supremacists as they struggle to realise their new way of life. But the possibility they develop is never fully extinguished, leaving the reader to realise that our future is not predetermined but can be changed by collective actions.

It’s interesting to reflect on this hope at the moment. It’s often assumed that crises bring out the worst in people: that we will hoard what we have and use violence to get our hands on what we don’t. History shows that this isn’t necessarily the case, however, and the rise of mutual aid support groups to help those affected by Covid19 is living proof of this.

Mutual aid refers to a system where people contribute what they can and take what they need. It’s organised by the people themselves and those who contribute don’t expect a direct return, but know that the system will be there for them should they ever need it.

We can see glimpses of how such a society might work through Earthseed, but to experience it on a larger scale we could turn to another work of speculative fiction: Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, partly set in a world where mutual aid isn’t just something that emerges during crisis but is the dominant system. It’s not perfect, but it’s hard not to be inspired.

Such utopian visions give us permission to think about what we might be able to do in other forms of society. We’ve all heard stories during this lockdown of people taking the time to learn new skills and interests or develop old ones. But not everyone can do this: for those without space, equipment, time and money it’s simply not possible. The mutual sharing of responsibility could even this out, a possibility explored by the famous designer William Morris in his novel News From Nowhere, in which everyone has ample leisure time to develop their creative interests.

We won’t like everything about these utopian worlds. But by engaging with them we can see how we might do things differently. We can be encouraged to desire more, desire differently, and desire better. And when we connect them up with the positive aspects of our present, we might be able to think about how we get from here to there. This won’t be easy: William Morris describes his world coming about through violent revolution (not what you’d necessarily expect if you’d only seen his wallpapers!). Octavia Butler, meanwhile, portrays the risks taken by those looking to bring about a new world, and makes it clear that this work is disproportionately undertaken by women and people of colour.

We might not yet know what kind of world we could build together, but the best utopian and dystopian fiction lets us know that we could build one.

Want to think about what kind of world might be possible? Here’s some more utopian, dystopian and speculative fiction worth checking out!

Samuel Delany – Trouble on Triton

Trouble on Triton is set in a society where you can be whoever you want, whenever you want, with whoever you want. But it’s told through the eyes of a newcomer to the world who just can’t work out what he wants. Delany was heavily inspired by the queer social life of New York in the 1980s, so if you’ve seen Pose and ever wondered what it might be like if an entire planet (well, moon) was like the ballroom scene: this is the book for you.

Various – Octavia’s Brood

Inspired by Octavia Butler, this is a brilliant collection of short stories set in all kinds of worlds that draws on today’s social justice struggles. Other excellent short story collections include Accessing the Future, which considers disability in other worlds; Palestine+100, with twelve visions of Palestine in 2048; and Sisters of the Revolution, which explores feminist futures and feminism in the future.

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain – Sultana’s Dream

Hossain was a Bengali Muslim feminist and social reformer who wrote this short utopian work in 1905. As much a satire on patriarchy as a serious proposal for what should be, it’s nonetheless set in a fascinating world with solar powered automated farming and flying cars.

Kim Stanley Robinson – Pacific Edge

Imagining a utopia is a lot easier if you start from scratch. Robinson avoids doing that in Pacific Edge, which is set in near-future California, meaning the result is a more ‘realistic’ utopia: buildings, infrastructure and many problems persist from our present, but the world is still recognisably preferable to ours. Robinson is one of the most prolific writers of utopias in recent years, but this early work remains one of his most intriguing

And perhaps you’ve got your own visions of possible worlds? The Limit would love to hear from you if so!

David Bell
Programme Co-Ordinator, LU Arts

Header image by Christian under CC BY-SA 4.0

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