What is visionary fiction?
Her shirt read “Octavia Butler tried to tell us” but, after Covid year two, I really don’t have any social skills left. I didn’t chase her down, but I wanted to. Because she did, and I knew that the person wearing this shirt was a fan of something nerdy and cool that I like, too.
I have always been a fan of speculative fiction, an umbrella under which things like fantasy, dystopian/utopian, visionary and science fiction genres fall. Throughout various points in my life, I’ve needed both the inspiration and the escape hatches these built worlds offer.
Visionary fiction, in particular, is important to me. Work that falls under this subgenre tend toward the hopeful. There’s a positive connotation to the word “visionary” that we don’t assign to people, places or processes that aren’t forward-thinking. It’s important to note that visionary fiction works don’t always have a happy ending, though. Sometimes the vision is in pushing back against what could be. But a visionary future is everything.
Octavia Butler tried to warn us.
And oh, did she. Black feminist and a reigning queen of speculative fiction, her most well-known tome, Parable of the Sower, drops us into a world that sounds scarily familiar, a world run by Christian fascists, featuring economic and social unrest and a fucked up climate.
We have had a lot of time to get visionary about that vision. Thirty years is longer than you think. We didn’t quite have the internet yet thirty years ago, to give you some perspective on where we were (although arguably, to someone who came of age in the nineties, it feels like yesterday even so).
Why visionary fiction is so important
adrienne maree brown, activist and co-editor of Octavia’s Brood, likes to say that “all organizing is science fiction,” and that
we are bending the future, together, into something we have never experienced. a world where everyone experiences abundance, access, pleasure, human rights, dignity, freedom, transformative justice, peace. we long for this, we believe it is possible.
This is precisely why we need science fiction: It allows us to imagine possibilities outside of what exists today. The only way we know we can challenge the divine right of kings is by being able to imagine a world where kings no longer rule us — or do not even exist.
We can imagine completely different worlds, ones that aren’t confined by the political, spiritual, or social realities we already know. We have these visions to fall back on when building in the real world gets tough. They reorient us and keep us dreaming.
Where to find visionary fiction:
If all you ever read are Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin, you’ll be busy for a really long time. But, I’d suggest mixing it up a little, because it’s a movement. Obviously this is by no means an exhaustive list, just some of the stuff that I’ve loved recently.
One of my absolute favorites right now is author R.B. Lemberg, discovered at random when I signed up to read a galley of their first novel, The Four Profound Weaves. Jaw. drop. I was so excited when their publisher, Tachyon Publications (check out their entire catalog), reached out this past March and asked if I’d read the next one. WOULD I??!?!?!? The next one, The Unbalancing, is amazing.
R.B. Lemberg is a skilled worldbuilder, and the Birdverse is a perfect and rich example of what speculative fiction is meant to do. The world they’ve created is one in which “they” is a given: there’s room for all kinds of fluidity, neurodivergence, sexual preference (or not) and gender expression. Chances are that if any of these things are especially important in your life, you’ll feel seen here in a way that is joyous, powerful and necessary.
I lost sleep this past year getting into the The Nsibidi Scripts series by Nnedi Okorafor about a young American-born Nigerian woman with albinism who joins a secret society.
Midnight & Indigo publishes special speculative fiction editions of their magazine, written by women of color.
Love Beyond Body, Space and Time is an anthology of Indigenous LGBT [sic] and 2-spirit sci-fi writing.
Rivera Sun has written several books, including The Dandelion Trilogy and the Ari Ara series. The Trilogy is about people-powered change and the toppling of corporate meritocracies in a very near future. The young adult Ari Ara series is about a young heroine who travels the world helping to resolve conflicts and build peace. Rivera also produces Nonviolence News.
An oldie but a goodie, Starhawk wrote The Fifth Sacred Thing in 1993, but it takes place in the Bay Area in 2048. I don’t think she could ever have envisioned how the soul would get sucked out of a place that was once so colorful and human, but this was my introduction to visionary fiction and it’s still grand (and part of a trilogy).
Visionary fiction is an avenue to hope.
Dogs, my kid, and visionary fiction are sometimes the only things that keep me from un-aliving. It can be easy to lose hope these days. No I’m fine, I promise, as fine as any of us are who can see where we are right now, but yeah… this is visionary fiction and this is why it’s important. When all else fails, live a joyful fantasy for a moment and let yourself believe another world is possible.
If you’re into speculative fiction of any kind, please feel free to add a comment and tell me what you love and why. I’m always looking for more to read!
Dori Mondon fixes typos for a living and is an Ada Comstock scholar at Smith College, where she is an American Studies major with a focus on public history and creative writing. She currently lives in Northampton, Massachusetts with her 11-year-old daughter and a teeny chiweenie with a very big attitude.