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The ambivalent powers of speculative fiction

Recently, we’ve published articles on Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism. Both Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism can be framed as belonging to the larger genre of speculative fiction. But what is speculative fiction? Or perhaps more importantly, what can it do?

Speculative fiction seems to be gaining massively in popularity just lately and deservedly so, since it’s a genre that is producing some fantastic writing. The example that comes immediately to mind is Namwali Serpell’s excellent The Old Drift, published last year. Serpell’s novel envisions a present in which digital chips called Beads, which fulfil the purposes of smartphones as well as identification documents, are implanted into people’s fingers. It imagines a semi-dystopian and not-too-distant future in which micro-drones are used for surveillance and repressing a political uprising – as well as being the potential vehicles for an emancipatory revolution. The political potential of this kind of writing, which speculates on alternative pasts, the weirdness of the present and possible futures, is ambivalent. On the one hand, it can have a distinctly liberating energy; on the other, it might also have roots in some relatively conservative histories.

Possibly one of the most well-known writers of speculative fiction is Octavia Butler. Butler’s deservedly famous Kindred, for example, uses the narrative device of time travel to communicate the notion of intergenerational trauma: the idea, to render a metaphor literal, of how the past lives on in the present. In Butler’s hands, speculative fiction clearly became a means of confronting and rewriting difficult histories of slavery and – importantly – resisting representations of these histories as definitively cut off from the world African Americans live in today.

On the other side of the coin, spec fic might well count science fiction as one of its forebears. Even as spec fic can be a site for contesting established ways of encountering the ‘other’, for instance, in the form of aliens or cyborgs, the discourses and motifs it inherits from science fiction are also embedded in imperialism. The emergence of science fiction is deeply rooted in 19th century expansionism and often racist accounts of Europeans encountering non-European ‘others’. It can also trace in its lineage a glorification of European ‘scientific’ knowledge that counted other epistemologies as superstition, and produced scientific racism.

Science fiction and spec fic are both connected to notions of futurity and often give a stage to exercises in imagining alternative futures – which, at face value at least as our recent articles on Afrofutures suggest, could be empowering for postcolonial writers who were relegated by colonial narratives to ‘living in the past’. But it was also narratives of future, particularly as married to particular understandings of progress and technology, that were harnessed in the name of the colonial civilising mission, and in various (hetero)normative types of representation that mark some groups as having ‘no future’.

Through figures like the monster, the alien and the cyborg, speculative fiction often appears to present alternatives to fixed identity categories that have long served structural inequality. Texts that put up for scrutiny the meanings ascribed to gendered or racialized bodies can present hope for transcending the ways power is exerted over such bodies – and how technologies might enable this. Yet, at the end of the day, technology in fact more often than not tends to work rather to perpetuate existing power structures, and the gendered and racialized body is perhaps not so easily transcended.

In a related way, speculative fiction that stages racialisation practices of various figures of the ‘other’ encourages a critical reckoning with these practices and their naturalisation. But science fiction, at least, has also historically been a relatively white genre – in terms of the over-representation of both white writers and white represented experiences.

All the same, an upsurge in interest in the genre – from creative writers and reading audiences – seems to suggest that spec fic has a lot to offer these questions. Writing in this mode has a knack for creatively troubling received normative categories. Texts that seek to think beyond or work to dissolve prescriptive binaries (of, for instance, gender or sexuality) speak to political projects that have gained greatly in visibility in recent years, and the genre’s popular appeal means that it is able to communicate the challenges it poses and the critical engagement it fosters to broader mainstream audiences. However ambivalent, spec fic seems to present to many writers and readers a significant means of de-normalising existing structural inequality; of telling cautionary tales about, for example, climate change and white supremacy left unchecked; and of fulfilling a need felt especially acutely by marginalised groups to imagine a different future. I, for one, am really looking forward to what this genre still has to give.