Arts Literary

Beyond the white space: Octavia’s Brood collects a potent variety of sci-fi voices


Science fiction’s different camps are at war. This year the Hugo Awards, literary sci-fi’s highest prize, is facing a takeover by a group of right-wing, gamergate-esque campaigners intent on minimizing the liberal voice of change that has begun to dominate the awards. The group, self-termed the Sad Puppies, say science fiction has become too highbrow, taking on issues of social justice that have no place in “traditional” sci-fi. It’s fitting then that in the same year as this attempted right-wing takeover, AK Press has released a celebration of one of the Hugo Awards’ most radical authors, Octavia Butler.

Butler wrote to capture the lasting impressions that the violence of racism, sexism and other hierarchies have on humanity. She saw the power of science fiction to express this history and understand why it must change.

To celebrate Butler’s approach, Octavia’s Brood collects science-fiction stories of women and people of colour, as well as varied race, class, sexuality and gender. As editor Walidah Imarsha writes, the collection is meant to look at “changes we cannot even begin to imagine” and to celebrate science fiction’s power to look at the “vast space of possibility.” This is where science fiction is at its strongest and most thrilling: our mistakes, and our potential, written large across the sky in the form of alien worlds.

The strength of the stories in this collection use science fiction’s imaginative potential to illustrate the possibility of political change. Certain stories can be a bit too overt, heavy-handed in the call for political change, but at its best, the stories illuminate our humanity and continued capacity for change. The most powerful stories focus on the small but potent act of imagining a future for a marginalized voice within a present that barely hears it.

The collection’s editors sought out a diversity of perspectives, and its strength is definitely within its voices. It’s a sad comment on the state of the publishing industry that a story about time travel from the perspective of two young Ethiopian lovers in Addis Ababa feels so very foreign. In fact, reading from the book’s diverse perspectives creates some small moments of tripping over gender identity and pronoun use, names of countries and cities on our own planet, underlining how easy it is to forget that not all stories are told from the perspective of a white male raised in New York. The collection starts strong with two Vietnamese-Americans determined to free their compatriots from work camps filled with people of colour whose main job is to keep the white population free of zombies. Right from the start, it’s an important reminder that too often the future is published through one dominant lens.

The power of the short story is in illuminating small moments, and it’s used to great effect here, delivering different perspectives that don’t always resolve, but do provide a new point to consider. In “The River” adrienne maree brown creates a mystical force set on attacking gentrifiers that have taken land and jobs from native Detroiters. It’s a dark, fun way to imagine taking out white hipster capitalists.

“Hollow” by Mia Mingus is a beautifully structured story of a small moment of empowerment and community from the perspective of the disabled. Hollow imagines the disabled as a group literally ejected from Earth, left to live out their lives on an isolated colony. But the group coalesces to create their own empowered community, resolved to keep their independence.

Many of the stories take this form: one group or voice dares to imagine their own future. Whether it’s a dystopic projection of current attitudes or a picture of empowerment and survival, either way it is a reminder that the future belongs to no one voice but to those who  dare to imagine the possibilities, despite humanity’s violent present. Hopefully it’s a lesson that will be delivered at the Hugo Awards this year as science fiction contemplates its own future.

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