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A Social Justice, Sci-Fi Tribute: “Octavia’s Brood” Honors a Legacy

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Octavia Butler was an iconic black American sci-fi writer, winning multiple Hugo and Nebula awards for her work. A unique voice in science fiction, she was honored in last year’s acclaimed anthology “Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Movements.

The anthology of visionary science fiction was edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha (who each contributed fiction of their own). It’s made of short stories and a few essays by myriad authors from diverse backgrounds. Walking in her footsteps, they incorporate themes of transcending the human condition, breaking hierarchical systems that lead to and cause oppression and violence – making it all the more fitting that it’s published by the anarchist AK Press.

As to the quality, it varies a bit, with the tone skewing towards Young Adult in some cases. This is not a bad thing, however, and understandable given many of the authors are new to fiction. The diversity of pieces, as well as their brevity, keeps things from getting dull and prevents weaker ones from dragging down the whole. Particular standouts include Imarisha’s “Black Angel,” a tale of a fallen angel thrown out of Heaven for disobeying God who is unable to watch human suffering, and Gabriel Teodros’ “Lalibela,” a short joy about time travel and Ethiopia.

Essay-wise, the book boasts an excellent discussion of imperialism and American culture by Mumia Abu-Jamal in “Star Wars and the American Imagination,” while Tananarive Due’s “The Only Lasting Truth” explores Butler’s career and the value speculative fiction can hold for social justice, allowing us to envision worlds beyond our own; better, worse, different. Butler believed so deeply in the different, in the potential for growth, change, and evolution beyond our inherent failures and fears, and it echoes in some ways throughout the book.

Speaking With An Author

I had the pleasure of talking with the author of “22XX: One Shot” (a story in the collection about a rebellious student doing research at a future Martian military school and his subsequent escape). The author, Jelani Wilson, is a writer who has also taught in the English Department at NJCU (as well as at NYU and several other universities). He spoke to me from his Jersey City home about both the anthology and his piece in particular, giving excellent insight into some of the thought and themes present throughout:

GT: How did you initially get involved in the project?

Wilson: “Well, I had written a piece for a magazine called “Left Turn” several years ago back in 2011, maybe 2010, about science fiction and growing up reading science fiction, [and] how a couple of science fiction books in particular, how an author named Steven Barnes helped influence my political and social thinking as a young person and furthermore as an adult.  So I wrote that piece and a colleague and a friend Walidah Imarisha [co-editor]…. [who] had been doing a lot of great work organizing, doing political organizing and activist work, she had asked me back in 2011 if I had had something I was working on that would work or if I could work on something new.”

GT: Your story deals heavily with the intertwinement of the human and the mechanical – do you see transhumanism as something integral to the future of social justice?

Wilson: “I guess my sort of non-answer is I think what needs to happen is really to get the question of what being human means and how essential biology is or isn’t to that, especially considering biology isn’t just a hard science divorced from the human lens but also functioning as a social construct as well. So much of how people think of other human beings is put through a social biology lens, whether we’re talking about justifications for homophobia, transphobia, gender discrimination, racial discrimination – there’s almost always been a science or pseudoscience explanation of that…. To determine where one’s humanity and what and where that is. Particularly, in that story, it has less to do with cybernetic components and more to do with psychology, emotions, empathy and a willingness to escape from a reality that has been presented.”

GT: Academics (Professor Tsai and Milton in the story) are portrayed as mentors and rebellious figures, even while working at, or attending, military institutions – do you see this as analogous to current thinkers and workers in oppressive places?

Wilson: “I think that comes from different things academics do – they have a responsibility to help create social change through both their works and inspiring their students to see beyond and investigate the confines of what they consider people, places, and things. I think it’s really, really important academics be politically and socially engaged, especially today as we have a situation where a lot of academics can contribute to debates in the public arena and a lot of voices are absent and locked in the ivory tower. It’s important for them to be involved, to actively question the world around them, not only imagine a better one but how to get there. The teachers that had the biggest influence on me all had this sort of streak about them – questioning, not just rebellious, but willing to push parameters, push norms and reconsider the limits we live in.  Particularly in American society, before and heightened after 9/11, is the idea of a military answer for everything… Those are the times where what we learn and study has to come to fruition and effect the world around us because we can and we should. I think it’s also important to confront… particularly in English and literary academia, there’s this sort of divorce between the subject matter with which people write and human agency and it’s absolutely important to consider the human element of what we do and I don’t think it’s wise, nor healthy, to try and separate the two with a misguided objectivity that never arrives at being objective.”

GT: You chose to have teenaged protagonists – do you see youth as leaders or following mentors?

Wilson: “There’s something valuable in being too young to be cynical. Those [past] movements were led by young people, spearheaded by the commitment to social justice by people who had both the yearning for freedom and from people who very much understood you can’t have a society that has benefit for some but not for all. I think a lot of what has happened in our current era is this hyper-individuation, probably more so now than then; it’s easier to look at problems as them or others. The short answer is that there’s plenty to be learned by the youth from the old guard so to speak, especially people involved in social justice movements, but that’s not a one-way street, it’s very much a two-way street, and I think youth have a lot to teach to all of us how to create a new world, a new society with a new way of living.”

GT: In your piece, Delia is a brown love interest- how important do you think the politics of beauty are both, in speculative fiction and social justice?

Wilson: “It’s very important, the idea of the gaze, particularly the idea of the male gaze, that deserves the examination and unpacking of something some of us consider benign but frankly is not. Admittedly this story is one pearl on a string planned to build off a commentary. Beauty is often connected to what’s of value, particularly in a capitalist and postindustrial society, and those values and attributes of beauty often have some very ugly consequences for real people and real lives… Having an attachment to an idea of a person, and being motivated on a level that can be positive or negative, but in effect are decidedly negative. I think part of social justice and why fiction is so important to it is that it has to be connected to real people’s lives and real experiences, grounding things more fantastical and less realist, providing some catharsis on either end. I am someone that definitely puts a lot of work in my presentation of black as beautiful. Even within that there is an implicit justification that Sasha [the protagonist] at some point in his angsty, teenage life has to come to terms with his gaze and what it means.”

GT: You have a young person study at an oppressive if privileged place and see his work turned against him – do you find this emblematic of “tools of the master unable to dismantle the master’s house”?

Wilson: “Absolutely, absolutely, that’s the nail in the head right there. That’s why he has to leave! That’s why they all have to leave. It’s also, I think for me anyway, it’s something that connects to some of my own experiences as a teenager being seen as smart in some ways and receiving some kinda privilege in one respect but also feeling like not being treated as a whole person on another. Also, feeling like being able to be ‘successful’ in an academic setting meaning a very, very particular and narrow thing… The weight of those things [being politically and socially aware], once I turned my mind towards social justice, how that informed not just the way that I thought  but the actions I chose to take and to educate myself and others, there’s a lot of hostility to that. Even in academic departments of supposedly liberal institutions there a lot of entrenched old ideas and the ways people behave in a professional setting that really show again the master’s tools doing the master’s work. Again, as an academic trying to repurpose those tools or making new tools and finding a way to do the work – that needs to be done.”

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A Social Justice, Sci-Fi Tribute: “Octavia’s Brood” Honors a Legacy