During an interview in the 1980s, Black female science fiction writer Octavia Butler was asked her how it felt to be THE Black female science fiction writer. And Octavia replied she never wanted that title. She said she wanted to be one of hundreds of Black female sci-fi writers. She said she wanted thousands of folks writing sci-fi and writing themselves into the future.
My co-editor Adrienne Maree Brown and I didn’t even know explicitly we were answering the call Octavia laid down when we started working together on Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements, an anthology of radical (or what we call visionary) science fiction by organizers, activists and those immersed in social change. We just knew we felt the power, the potential and the necessity of visionary science fiction.
We have a series of videos on YouTube called Voices of Octavia’s Brood, where writers talk about their pieces as their connection to science fiction.
Science fiction is as vital as air to our communities of color, for the future of the earth. Science fiction/speculative fiction/fantasy/etc. is the only genre that allows us to step outside of the confines and rules of this society, this world, and to completely re-envision the present and the future.
This is the premise of Octavia’s Brood; we have over 20 change makers from across the country who have written stories using sci-fi to explore issues from prisons to climate change to colonialism to gentrification to the “War on Terror.” We also have two essays, by Tananarive Due and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Many of these organizers, activists and visionaries had never written science/speculative fiction before. In fact, when we reached out to folks, many of them responded with skepticism and trepidation — “I’ve never done that before, I don’t think I can do it, I wouldn’t even know what to write about.”
But we knew that wasn’t true, because this was work they were living every day. All organizing is science fiction. What does a world without poverty look like? What does a world without prisons look like? What does a world with everyone having enough food and clothing look like? We don’t know. It’s science fiction, and it is as foreign to us as the Klingon homeworld (which is called Q’onos in case you were wondering). But being able to envision it and imagine it means we can begin seeing the steps it would take to move us there.
Overwhelmingly, those folks we contacted to write for the book reached back out to us in a few weeks, excited about the 15 or more pages they had already written. Many are now working on novels coming out of this project! They had these stories living inside of them, and all they needed was a little space to bring them into the world.
Obviously, there have been countless mainstream movies and books that create a future where the current issues and inequalities with power and hierarchy are replicated. In fact, Mumia Abu-Jamal’s essay in the book analyzes Star Wars in the context of U.S. imperialism, serving as a reminder we must engage with and deconstruct these types of narratives.
But to differentiate between reactionary sci-fi (and also to avoid hardcore nerd arguments about what does or does not qualify as sci-fi), we call the work in Octavia’s Brood visionary fiction. We consider science fiction visionary when it sees the world through the eyes of the oppressed, when it is aware of institutional power inequalities, when change happens from the bottom up rather than the top down, when it is aware of the impact of intersecting identities on our experiences, when change happens collective rather than through one lone white hero.
Because for anyone from communities that have experienced historic oppression and trauma, every single of us, of you, are science fiction. Your ancestors dreamed you up, and then bent reality to create you. For Adrienne and myself, as two Black women, we think of our ancestors in chains dreaming about a day when their children’s children’s children would be free. They were visionary science fiction creators and alchemists. By dreaming of us, they gathered the courage, the strength, the ingenuity and the creativity to reshape the entire world, to birth us.
And that is a heavy responsibility. We often think of fantasy as frivolous, indulgent, selfish. Nothing can be further from the truth. Octavia Butler laid down a challenge to us in that interview — are we brave enough to face the realities of the world we live in? Can we grow dreams from that reality like wild flowers through the cracks in sidewalks? Are we strong enough to do the work of making those dreams reality?
The incredible response to Octavia’s Brood reinforces my belief that the answer to all those questions is yes. When we were unable to find a publisher interested in putting out the anthology, Adrienne and I decided to do it ourselves, with the support of our community. We launched a crowd-funding campaign — something neither of us had done before. We had no idea if we’d raise anything at all. In the end, the response was overwhelming; 550 individual contributors donated more than double our original goal.
The successful campaign ensures not only that Octavia’s Brood will be published (release date is June 2014, in honor of Octavia Butler’s birthday), but that there will be a national tour that will include not only book readings, but writing workshops, organizing strategy sessions, book clubs and sci-fi-themed community parties. It is important for us the tour is multi-faceted, to reflect the complex lives and realities and needs in our communities, and to create space for all of us to participate in this collective dreaming. Because we are all part of the legacy of visionary elders and ancestors, like Octavia and so many others, when we engage in this work: We all become part of Octavia’s Brood.