Science Fiction as Mode of Action: On MIT Press’s “Uneven Futures”

Roger Luckhurst reviews the new collection of essays “Uneven Futures: Strategies for Community Survival from Speculative Fiction” from MIT Press.

By Roger LuckhurstApril 16, 2023

Science Fiction as Mode of Action: On MIT Press’s “Uneven Futures”

Uneven Futures: Strategies for Community Survival from Speculative Fiction by Gerry Canavan, Ida Yoshinaga, and Sean Guynes. MIT Press. 360 pages.

UNEVEN FUTURES: Strategies for Community Survival from Speculative Fiction (2022), a large-scale communal project of a book, is a fascinating snapshot of what the science fiction community has become in the 2020s—as a multimedia genre, an area of academic study, a set of tropes to be made and remade by makers, or a form of political praxis. Many of the roughly 40 essayists (including the book’s editors Ida Yoshinaga, Sean Guynes, and Gerry Canavan) refer to the lockdown conditions in which they wrote their contributions through the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. No wonder so many of them dream of action: SF as an active doing, a form of activism, rather than as a passive body of texts consumed in quarantined isolation, behind shuttered doors, away from the emptied-out public sphere. This emphasis on action might be a harbinger of one possible future of this kind of cultural study, a future shown emerging—suitably unevenly amid the wide diversity of these essays—out of the multiple crises of the present.

The task the editors gave their contributors was to “choose an SF text you love and explore how it helps us think of ways to live in, survive, and grow beyond the inequalities and injustices of our times.” They want to convey that the genre across its now myriad forms has the potential to be a kind of toolkit not just for imagining utopian alternatives but also for implementing them, however incompletely and precariously, in the fissures of the dystopian now. This gives each chapter its slightly awkward titling: the name of the text, and its active or activist possibility (“Affective Praxis,” “Deimperializing Empire,” “Inhabiting Hostile Futures,” “Black Lives Matter SF,” and so on).

In turn, the collection is divided into four roughly equal sections, some with more coherence than others: 1) “Emergence,” 2) “Rupture,” 3) “Transformation,” and 4) “Revolution.” This might suggest a trajectory towards texts that envision overthrow or radical change, but perhaps as a symptom of the times, the emphasis tends to be on small flickers of hope, the temporary or fugitive communities that come together in the margins, or the always thoroughly compromised utopias that might flower only on the page or screen. The essay by Fábio Fernandes on Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel New York 2140 (2017) suggests it is a “breakthrough” work in the author’s writing career because it aims for a “logistic utopia” after the sea level rises and sinks Manhattan, a political pragmatics that leaves behind large-scale revolutionary visions for temporary communities and improvised solutions that offer the promise of “stepwise reform.” The SF valued here lives with modest hopes for temporary collectivities and moments of community, after a 20th century that so resolutely screwed up utopian blueprints that it needed to invent the word “dystopia.” The first 20 years of the new millennium have been only a series of red lights ignored by the juggernaut of disaster capitalism, unchecked global development, and biopolitical control of populations, so perhaps it is apt to think in these entirely qualified and modest ways. Dreamers make do with what can be salvaged from the wreckage, and “salvagepunk” (a term coined by Evan Calder Williams for the aesthetic of George Miller’s Mad Max films) is most definitely a favored tendency in the collection.

Sometimes, the promise seems so slight that some essayists resort merely to instances of coming together, either within the SF texts examined or among the community of fans that consumes those texts. Some offer the fairly uncontentious proposal that SF amplifies empathy for aliens and others. The TV series Farscape (1999–2003), for instance, is praised for its “radical compassion.” Steven Shaviro, who has written extensively on affect theory, advocates here for Sofia Samatar’s short story “How to Get Back to the Forest” (2014) as thematizing the power of shaping and sharing feelings. Given the divisive and dehumanizing rhetoric of political discourse now, even this basic premise of cultural value probably deserves to be reasserted, but it can feel fragile indeed in the face of the ravenous machines of the military-industrial complex. Gerry Canavan ends his (very good) examination of a brief moment of human community against all those dysfunctional superheroes in the Watchmen comic (1986–87) with his last line: “No cops. No presidents. No gods. No masters. Only us—trying to help.” Great, but that’s not much to hang on to, is it?

Yet the collection is full of moments where you begin to see what the conjuncture of SF and activism might really look like. Inevitably, these tend to be tied to political movements with a deeper base or a longer history, motivated by the desire to escape determinism. For instance, there is a powerful thread across all sections of the book that links African American modes of resistance to the necessity of invoking different kinds of futures across many decades of writing. The collection opens with a study of an early Samuel R. Delany novella from the 1960s but later stretches back to Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood (1902), treated by Dexter Gabriel under the imperative to unearth “the Counternarrative of the Black Fantastic.” Octavia E. Butler emerges as vital connective tissue in this story. Butler had started out in the 1970s insisting on the determining power of slave history on the present at a moment when many African American political movements were anxious to move away from narratives of tragic or traumatic repetition. Her pessimism about the limits of human capacities to avoid self-destruction led her to create profoundly compromised possibilities of hope in her dystopian near-futures.

This position really has come to seem prophetic in the last decade, especially several years after Butler died in 2006. The catastrophic California of her Parable books (1993–98) looks ever closer to realization. A great essay by Ayana Jamieson, founder of the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network, talks about the opera adaptation of Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower (1993) that opened in Los Angeles in the first week of March 2020—just at the moment when the pandemic took hold and ended all public performances. The opera, conceived by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon, was community-financed, bringing together local artists, musicians, activists, and congregational choirs, and was due to move across key cities in the United States, revising and mutating as it landed in new places. Similarly, Gabriel also invokes in passing the work of Walidah Imarisha, one of the editors of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (2015) but, perhaps more relevantly, a community activist who prefers the term “visionary fiction” in the context of community protests or prison educational programs for people of color. Imarisha organizes groups to engage in world-building, teaches zine creation, and encourages the envisioning (as Gabriel summarizes it) of “alternatives to unjust and oppressive systems.” Imarisha was active in the community after the Ferguson riots of 2014, and is part of what Isiah Lavender III calls—in the course of a chapter on Tochi Onyebuchi’s 2019 SF novel Riot Baby—“Black Lives Matter SF.” Here is a compelling trajectory of transformation, from text into act.

There is another strand that follows “Latinx Futurism” in a similar way, exploring Virginia Grise’s play blu (2011), Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita’s Lunar Braceros: 21252148 (2009), and (in a strong essay by Taryne Jade Taylor) the syncretic beliefs of Santería invoked in an album by the Afro-Indigenous rapper Princess Nokia. There are essays on Indigenous Futurism, including a couple of very good contextual studies of Hawai‘i by Caryn Lesuma and Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada. These studies suggest different kinds of science-fictional “ethnoscapes”; co-editor Ida Yoshinaga quotes Joy Sanchez-Taylor’s suggestion that these kinds of works offer a “racialized science fiction environment that both highlights and reconceives depictions of race to unpack the assumptions about race and ethnicity often made in science-fictional writing.” This approach plugs straight into other forms of identity politics.

The long tradition of feminist transformations of the utopian and dystopian form provides another route through the essays by leading critics in feminist studies of SF—Veronica Hollinger, Gwyneth Jones, and Farah Mendlesohn. It’s a coup for the collection to feature Jones, a writer of significant compromised utopias, and the editors have also bagged Kim Stanley Robinson’s reflections on the anarchist and feminist stances of one of his key models for his own work, Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s notable that there are only a small number of essays on ecological activism and SF, which is an obvious locale to study this ongoing fusion of text and activism. (Co-editor Canavan helmed, along with Robinson, a major anthology on this topic back in 2014, Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction.)

If some of these strands are slightly less developed than the network of connections in the African American tradition, that’s also because the collection has ambitions to expand the range and displace American culture as the sole locus of study. This is more than just gestural; it is a deeply rooted commitment of the editors, an act of decentering and multiplying awareness of the cultural traditions of SF around the world that is typical in the field at the moment. Consequently, the collection includes an excellent contribution (by Ouissal Harize) from Algeria on the use of SF under the repressive regime of censorship that followed the 2011 Arab Spring; a strong survey (by Sami Ahmad Khan) of contemporary Indian SF in the context of hypercapitalism and sectarian violence; and a solid study (by Hugh Charles O’Connell) of Tade Thompson’s Wormwood Trilogy (2016–19), in which an alien fungus transforms the Nigerian locale where it eventually comes to nestle. O’Connell tucks into the general overall message of the collection, suggesting that Thompson’s vision is trying to escape the “allure of eschatology” (the lazy ease of dystopian visions of the end of the world) and to look instead for messy, improvised, and hybrid solutions salvaged from the chaos of contemporary history.

At the book’s halfway point, there is an “Interlude” section, which contains a manifesto-like statement from one of the editors, Yoshinaga. This is an essay calculated to make the case for an epochal shift in science-fiction studies (SFS). Yoshinaga suggests that SFS has gone through a first generation, largely focused on legitimating the academic study of SF and principally associated with Darko Suvin and his followers. In 1968, Suvin encapsulated the political and aesthetic value of the genre in the term “cognitive estrangement”—a pithy formulation that was both highly useful and severely restricting (the Marxist Suvin often rails against the majority of SF texts failing to meet his definition’s elevated standard, accusing the genre of too often backsliding into the “mystifications” of fantasy or the gothic). Hence SFS 2.0 followed, which had a slightly more relaxed sense of genre borders and felt less need to legitimate itself in terms of traditional cultural value. It also began to understand SF as transmedial, rather than as part of an implicit hierarchy that places literature above film or other media forms. This second generation emerged in the 1990s, and trundled along to about 2020. They might have been progressive in large part, these 2.0ers, but they were also often implicitly circumscribed by a Western-centered cultural focus.

The grand claim that Yoshinaga makes for the collection is that it should be considered the calling card of SFS 3.0. This is SF less as text and more as a form of activity and activism. Yoshinaga calls for “science-fictional modality,” “a hybrid and cross-media exercise of critical consciousness and epistemological self-reflexivity that technocultural communities of practice imaginatively enjoy/deploy toward finding balance with the nonhuman (and other humans) in their network of kin relations.” At the end of the interlude, Yoshinaga defines SF again as “the cultural recalibration of existing knowledge systems through innovative genre play, toward the ethical transformation, or community-informed regeneration, of historical modes of production.” Despite the mildly unlovely academic prose, this passage is striking in its proposal to displace the traditional cultural work of genre study and textual interpretation, moving instead toward an understanding of the science-fictional as a mode—a “perspective or orientation,” as Sanchez-Taylor puts it in her 2021 study Diverse Futures: Science Fiction and Authors of Color. It is a move from SF as noun to SF as verb, a set of actions. It is also a move from static textual study to motivated activity that follows on from the reading of texts. This echoes back to the general introduction, which calls for SF as a “justice-centered thought experiment to survive an era of futurity in crisis.”

It’s an exhilarating promise, and a decidedly utopian one. But there’s no problem with the collection generating and inspiring readers with its “archive of hope.” I will be reading a lot of the texts the essayists focus on; indeed, the book often feels as if it is offering a genuine education in the diversity of contemporary SF. As with all utopian visions, though, this also feels very situated in a certain historical moment and inside a specific set of institutional conditions. As I read this collection, a debate was opening up around John Guillory’s Professing Criticism: Essays on the Organization of Literary Study (2022), and The New Yorker published Nathan Heller’s long-form essay “The End of the English Major.” The latter is full of truly startling statistics about the falling enrollments across the humanities, from very large state schools to the Ivy League, and a sense that the value systems of knowledge have been tilting decisively away from the humanities on many campuses. I was reading it in the midst of my own institutional crisis around the collapse of humanities disciplines in the United Kingdom, with the systematic and deliberate destruction of access to cultural study fostered by a conservative government over 13 long years, doing their best to deploy the culture-war playbook of the American alt-right.

It does not seem entirely surprising to me that Uneven Futures has a strong emphasis on the utility of reading SF, its purposive and actionable premises and promises for readers, communities, activists, teachers, and students. The editors are an extremely long way politically from envisioning their framework for SF in terms of the dire utilitarian virtues of “employability” measures now used to target apparently “useless” cultural study, but there feels as if an odd sort of mirroring may be at work. You want the cold calculus of utilitarianism to be imposed on all academic study? Okay, then, here’s a set of blueprints for useful activism against that very ideology! The emphasis on the activist impulse sits inside a very particular interpretive horizon and political economy—one that Generation SFS 4.0 might look back on from a wholly different place, with a better sense of the pressures that produced this iteration of SF as mode of action.


Roger Luckhurst is professor of modern and contemporary literature at Birkbeck College, University of London.

LARB Contributor

Roger Luckhurst is the Geoffrey Tillotson Professor at Birkbeck College, University of London. His recent books include a cultural history of the corridor (Reaktion, 2019) and Gothic: An Illustrated History (Thames & Hudson/Princeton UP, 2021). His global history of the graveyard will appear in 2024.


Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!