One of speculative fiction’s greatest authors once remarked that “stories of imagination tend to upset those without one”.
This was Sir Terry Pratchett, a man who had spent his entire career narrating deeply imaginative stories about the worlds he created and characters who inhabited them. These stories were funny, introspective, rich, and fascinating in their exploration of the human condition. And yet, his imaginary worlds were rarely taken seriously. Instead, they were dismissed as child’s play. While other literary genres like historical fiction, magical realism, romance, etc. had finally been recognized as genuine works of art, science fiction and fantasy (SFF) had largely been ignored. This hurt him deeply because he felt that his imagined worlds had something meaningful to say about the real world and the directions our lives are going towards.
This same feeling was shared by many of his fellow writers who believed that speculative fiction (which includes SFF) had the potential for something big. These writers spent their time and literary talent in imagining and crafting worlds out of thin air. The now celebrated works of SFF are the legacy of these writers. They revealed to us the unexpected ways in which speculative fiction can guide us.
First, let’s discuss the core element of the speculative fiction genre. There is something inherently escapist about it. Unlike literary fiction, where language fuels the narrative, speculative fiction relies on another more peculiar human habit to drive the narrative- imagination. In essence, speculative fiction is an extended act in imagination. A writer creates a fictional world inside their mind, lets it grow into a particular shape, and then pens it down in a written form. Once those fictional worlds become written words, the writer invites the reader to join them in this exercise of the imagination. This is a two-way street. The readers collectively get together to visualize the world created by the writer. And in return, the writer takes the reader’s hand and guides them through their fictional world. This whole process is tempting because it promises an escape from the more mundane realities of life. Speculative fiction, and particularly fantasy, offers a safe refuge from the harsh reality we live in. You can be a tired adult going through another banal day of your life but, for a brief moment, speculative fiction offers you the opportunity to be someone else. A wizard. A king. A hero. Anything. Anyone who is not you in real life.
It is perhaps this escapist element that invites a subtle disdain towards the genre. “What meaningful lesson is there in fiction that offers only escape?” the critics ask. At most, it is useful for children or teenagers to ease into reading until they move onto serious literature. There is not much for adults on offer. Before nerd culture gained ascendancy in pop culture, reading SFF was still perceived as an unusual habit for adults. This is what prompted some of the pioneers of the genre like Ursula K.Le Guin, Sir Pratchett, and C.S. Lewis to defend the value of their entire life’s work over and over again. As Kurt Vonnegut, one of the leading sci-fi writers of the 20th century, once lamented: “ I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labelled “science fiction,” and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”
It took decades of cultural evolution and rise of the internet for speculative fiction to gain legitimate currency and become the core of modern pop culture. Today, we understand the importance of speculative fiction. The positive effects of reading fantasy on children while growing up are well-recorded. It helps develop empathy and emotional intelligence. For adults, speculative fiction offers an alternative to cynicism and an outlet for creativity. Also, SFF is an immensely entertaining genre with so many varieties and options available for all kinds of readers. However, these are only personal reasons for reading. There is another more collective reason for embracing speculative fiction- politics. And more specifically: progressive politics. But to understand how this relationship works, let’s first do a quick overview of what we mean by progressivism.
Though the term ‘progressive politics’ incorporates a wide variety of worldviews, there is one core idea that ties it all together: social change. Without going into specific ideologies, we can agree that progressive politics are politics that explicitly seek to improve society for the betterment of everyone.
Progress is always continuous and forward-looking. Thus, progressive politics have transformed throughout time as human civilization has marched forward. With time, more elements have been brought into the larger framework of progressivism as we gain new information on ways to improve society for everyone. Through this process, we’ve become aware of the things that affect human lives- class, nation, race, gender, ethnicity, and ability along with others- and how much farther we still have to go.
Progress doesn’t come easily though. It has to be fought for. More importantly, it has to be envisioned. For this, we have to see what is currently wrong with our society. We have to identify how people are suffering. We have to, essentially, question the status quo. And this is rife with problems. For one, there is always a tendency to accept things as they are. It is tempting to think that society has reached its zenith and there is no further need for progress. Then, it is also very human-like to feel pessimistic and believe that what we have right now is the best we can ever have in our collective lives. Both worldviews could be defined as ‘conservatism’. It’s a mindset that accepts the world as it is. It doubts the very notion of change and continuous progress. Conservatives of each era are essentially former progressives who have at some point stopped their struggle. They’ve made peace with the present and chosen to accept the status quo with all its flaws. In the simplest of terms, they’ve stopped imagining a different future.
This has become an increasingly relevant issue as we approach the end of this decade. With each passing year, we’ve witnessed the world unravelling in all sorts of ways. The newer generations have grown up facing a set of struggles that their predecessors couldn’t have possibly conceived. The promises made in the previous progressive phases of the world have yet to become a reality. Conservative mindsets have not given up. The physical manifestations of these mindsets have kept on hurting women, indigenous groups, LGBT, and many other marginalized people of the world.
Though the dominant ideology of the world aka Capitalism has finally reached its zenith, its promises still remain unfulfilled for most of humanity. Inequality is on the rise globally. Meaningful work is hard to come by. Social protection for the poorest has been pulled back through aggressive austerity. Technology has taken great leaps forward but has carried as many cruel costs with it as it has brought benefits. Entire populations in the world suffer from one mental health issue to another. At the macro-level, global politics have taken a regressive turn as xenophobic and troubling ideologies once again take centre-stage. The Global South barely stood a chance at development, in any case, thanks to dysfunctional governments, troubled colonial histories, and continued exploitation by the developed world. Wars, terrorism, and extremism are still in vogue and continue to pop up at various places in the world. The very real possibility of nuclear holocaust continues to haunt us. And to top it off, our current global economic and social system seems ill-equipped to deal with the climate apocalypse coming our way.
In short, the present is a time of hopelessness. This is not to dismiss the efforts of progressive movements around the globe who are still fighting for social change in this increasingly troublesome world. But there is no denying that there is a feeling of dejection on a very large scale. This is perhaps the defining element of late-stage capitalism. This feeling of hopelessness (and even helplessness) stems from a collective inability to envision a version of the world beyond this. Ever since the breakdown of the Soviet Union and its form of societal organization, capitalism and markets have emerged as the only viable and inevitable option available for this world. Politicians, businessmen, economists, policy professionals, and most other experts have bought into this dogma, either in theory or in practice. Capitalism, which can be operationalized through State and/or the private sector, has supposedly withstood the test of time. One cultural theorist from the past decade summed this up quite aptly when he said that there is a “widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”. Or, as the oft-repeated quote goes: “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism”.
And this feeling of hopelessness right here is what brings us to speculative fiction. They say it is impossible to imagine a coherent alternative to the status quo, but imagination is at the very core of speculative fiction. The worlds that speculative fiction authors construct are rich, coherent, and deep explorations of alternatives that we can have. Sometimes these worlds may be similar to our own, other times they offer something else entirely. If we have to imagine a different and a better world than what we have, speculative fiction is a good place to start.
Perhaps no one understood this better than Ursula K.Le Guin, one of the greatest speculative fiction authors of all time. She spent a considerable amount of time establishing the credibility of the SFF genre. According to Le Guin, the criticism directed against SF isn’t against the genre but its core idea: imagination. For her, imagination is a subversive force that could be deployed against the present reality of the world. A reality which is reflected in the current material and social conditions of our times. A reality where the vast majority of the world- including women, minorities, poor, indigenous people, and many others- are still oppressed and marginalized. The escapism of fantasy, which seems childish to critics, is perhaps an alternative outlet for humans to hope for something different from this reality.
For Le Guin, the very act of imagination was liberating. Being able to imagine a different world allows you to pinpoint what is wrong with your own reality and what forces are shaping it. Imagination enables you to ask important questions on society, philosophy, and our collective and individual lives. This idea prevails in all of her writings. She visualized and played with many alternative visions of the world. In The Dispossessed, she compared a patriarchal Earth-like capitalist society with an Anarchist utopia to figure out where we stand and what other options we can pursue. In other works like The Left Hand of Darkness, she tried to understand the gender dynamics of our real-world by creating another world where gender is fluid for everyone. In her now-iconic short-story, The One Who Walk Away From Omelas, she used the tools of speculative fiction to directly tackle the age-old question of whether it is worth hurting some people for the benefit of the society at large. A question that continues to perturb our policymakers and social leaders.
The ability to use imaginary worlds to reflect on our reality is a common theme in speculative fiction. Back in 1965, Frank Herbert wrote his magnum opus Dune, an epic science fiction story set in a distant future where feudalism works on a galactic scale. Using a precious (but fictional) spice as MacGuffin in the story taking place on a desert-like planet, Herbert tried to unpack the possible ramifications that would emerge through oil trade in the Middle-East. He also used the novel to explore the human proclivity to seek a ‘Messiah’, how politics and religious beliefs interact, and what are the inherent problems embedded in all this.
Along with Herbert and Le Guin, many other authors have used their worlds to imagine different realities and explore themes crucial to society. Sir Terry Pratchett used his fantasy Discworld novels for not just entertainment but also to investigate how changes in things like technology, money, police, etc. affect society and what possible reactions can we expect. Octavia Butler’s entire corpus of science fiction works involved understanding not just the nuances of race and hierarchies in alternate settings but also the question of what it even means to be a human being and how that could change in the future. Michael Moorcock’s famous Elric of Melniboné is an examination of the idea of corrupting power, decaying world, and the unwillingness of societies to change even in the face of doom. A sordid reminder for our own very real impending doom through climate change.
In recent times, a new generation of authors has followed suit. China Mieville’s The Iron Council is set in a 19th-century industrial era-type world that explores many globally relevant themes such as racism, ruthless capitalism, imperialism, and destruction of old norms. One of the most famous works of epic fantasy, Malazan: Book of the Fallen, explores the idea of violence spread over millennia and how history, beliefs, politics, and technology (or magic) interact to shape our collective lives. N K Jemisin, possibly the best fantasy author of our times, used her award-winning Broken Earth series to explore the idea of justice, oppression, motives for violence, and how our perception of the world can lead us to make false assumptions.
Along with imagining different futures, speculative fiction can also trigger ideas for progress itself. For instance, the subgenre of Cyberpunk defined the settings of our modern internet world before it even came into existence. Authors like Philip K.Dick, William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, and many others anticipated the onset of modern technology in their dystopian cyberpunk worlds. These worlds they created are in many ways similar to how our realities turned out. These works predicted the rise of ubiquitous internet, monopolized control of technology, mega-corporations, subtle surveillance, uncontrollable data, and the increasingly unclear boundaries between our physical and network world. The very name ‘cyber’ that we use to describe the internet now was borrowed from this subgenre. But it wasn’t just dystopia they predicted, they also explored ways in which human beings would be able to thrive in this harsh reality. These authors used their imagined worlds to understand how humanity can and will cope with these ever-powerful technologies. They tried to search for better prospects in what they thought would be a world dominated by late-stage capitalism. Looking back now, it is worth noting how cyberpunk authors foresaw this state of hopelessness we might fall into the future. They were looking for ways to defeat it. These imagined worlds were the tools they used.
Of course, the above-mentioned works form just a tiny portion of what is a genre-wide attempt at challenging the status quo. Countless authors (who haven’t been mentioned here) have used the art of imagination for progressive purposes. This is not to imply that this is all that speculative fiction has to offer. All of these works are also built for entertainment. They are meant for mass consumption. To be enjoyed as works of accessible art. Sometimes they even offer escapism just for the sake of escapism. But along with entertainment, these works have the inherent ability to push for change.
It is worth reflecting on why speculative fiction allows for imagination and why this imagination can so effectively question the status quo. There isn’t a complicated answer here. In essence, it is because speculative fiction is less constrained than other genres. The harsh reality of the world cannot dominate the narrative of a speculative fiction novel. Imaginary worlds allow us to keep a distance from our reality while still keeping in mind the daily truths we have to face. It offers us an examination of issues without our own biases and apprehension intruding into the story. By letting us escape outside of our narrow world, it allows us to view ourselves and our society in many divergent ways. One of fantasy’s foremost authors, Robin Hobb, summed up this argument beautifully:
“Fantasy is where we can examine the big questions we face while leaving our own baggage outside the door. Divorce yourself from your own ethnic, religious, gender, nationality and other identities and think about slavery or being born a worker or serf or any other hot button issue. It lets us confront those issues without preconceived notions in radically different settings.”
Thus, speculative fiction allows us to go beyond our limited worlds. In real life, if you wish to see a world different than what you have, you would have to radically restructure your society to achieve it. You would have to undertake large-scale experiments on this. You would have to force unwilling citizens to go along with your vision. All of this is unthinkable. Radical experiments at restructuring societies don’t work even if they are undertaken with the noblest of intentions. The entire history of the 20th century is a testament to that. More importantly, any attempt at radical restructuring threatens the current status quo directly, which would invite harsh consequences. You can’t simply burn your own house down to go witness another world outside. At least not in the short-term.
What speculative fiction offers us is simple: An opportunity to go outside without burning down your house. It allows you to peek outside your house just for a moment. To look at alternative options without ever having to take forceful actions. At some point, others might join in on your vision of a progressive world. But until then, you can explore things outside of your current world without bearing the accompanying costs. In short, you can more effectively question the status quo without facing negative consequences. In my opinion, this is what Ursula K.Le Guin meant by speculative fiction’s ‘subversive’ power. It allows you to envision what progress would look like before you get down to fight for it.
In the end, we keep running back to the same point. Speculative fiction is about ‘imagination’. This is the link between progressive politics and speculative fiction. To fight for a better world, you have to first imagine it. You have to discover what is wrong with your current reality. See who is suffering in this world. Examine the status quo. And then ask yourself: Am I okay with this? Is it even possible to change our world? Can we make it a good society for everyone?
Speculative fiction might help you effectively answer these questions. On this very point, Ursula K.Le Guin once said something that I’d like to leave as the final thought for this piece:
“The use of imaginative fiction is to deepen your understanding of your world, and your fellow men, and your own feelings, and your destiny.”