Science fiction and fantasy are uniquely positioned to give readers (whether deliberately or accidentally) a vision of possible alternative futures; an imagination of what could be, good, bad, or more complex. But inevitably those stories are also a reflection of the now: writers in conversation with what’s around them, growing ideas in the substrate around our rooted feet. If we as writers want to envisage, to create, an anti-capitalist, socially just future, how do we get there from here, and just how limited are we by where we are now?
Reading recent SF/F, it has seemed to me that while there are plenty of extrapolations from our present into future dystopias, and a fair few stories about mutual aid carve-outs within a current-or-future dystopia, there’s less in the way of true alternatives, compared to the writings of people like Le Guin or Delany in the ’70s and ’80s. If SF/F is a reflection of the now, how do we imagine a different future? If SF/F is an imagination of the future, should we let it be constrained by the now? Is it even possible to escape where we are right now, and what does that mean for the futures we are able to imagine?1
The political philosopher Mark Fisher, in 2009, called this the impact of Capitalist Realism—the way in which modern (post-Soviet Union) capitalism has created a narrative that there is no alternative, that capitalism is the only “reality,” the unchallengeable basis of our existence. Fisher referred to “a pervasive atmosphere” which makes its way into art and literature, then permeates our thoughts and imaginations, obliging us to operate within capitalist imperatives and structures.
Writers are, of course, free to choose what they want to write—but is that choice (is any choice) wholly free? What’s the distinction between the futures we choose to imagine, and the futures we are able to imagine? The choice to write extrapolations of what we see around us, or something wholly different, can be constrained in practice by the difficulty of stepping outside our conceptual boundaries.
It seems we’re better at envisaging (certain forms of) social change—societies in which you don’t get grief for being queer, where people’s gender is malleable and no one’s business but their own, where disabilities are a normal part of human existence and acceptance is in-built, where racism isn’t a source of prejudice and damage…It’s just that a lot of those worlds are underpinned by a form of capitalism; and even, that trying to write our way into social change runs head-on into the capitalist challenge of “but, really…can we afford it?” (Perhaps we can’t afford not to. Perhaps that’s the wrong question to ask.)
Some writers take the option of writing their way around late-stage patriarchal capitalism, rather than writing it out altogether: imagining themselves into the edges, trying to find ways to escape within it. They create a world of small-scale mutual support networks existing within an oppressive larger system, rather than reimagining that larger system wholesale. It totally makes sense: it feels far more doable. It’s easier to imagine the mini queer commune, or even a string of them, supporting us to make our way through the hellscape; it’s easier to write our band of rag-tag misfits scrabbling on the edges of society. And it’s wish-fulfilment: it feels good to write and it feels good to read, because many of us don’t have that sort of support in person. For many queer folks, for example, our queer community—our wonderful, important, supportive queer community—lives in our phones. That’s valuable, and it’s a hell of a lot better than not having it at all, but the community in your phone can’t share childcare or cooking or the general physical burden of living. For that you need in person; and we’ve all had, right, the Queer Commune Millionaire Fantasy? Absent winning the lottery, we can write it, instead.
From this angle, it begins to feel like a reflection of desperation and learned helplessness; except that “learned helplessness” in the literature conjures up visions of dogs who don’t know the floor’s no longer electrified. Our floor’s still electrified. We’ve tried to convince politicians to act against climate change, and—well, I won’t say “nothing’s changed,” but it’s not changing fast enough, and it’s bloody easy to fall into despair. If nothing works, why bother? If there’s no escape from where we are now, how can you imagine one? Alternatives are a pipe dream.
Which is precisely Fisher’s point: that’s the lie capitalism tells us, that there is no alternative. It even co-opts anti-capitalism in its own support: no longer targeting the end of capitalism, but trying to mitigate it. (As above: rag-tag bands of misfits providing mutual aid and surviving around the edges of a dysfunctional system.) Food banks get people fed, which is straight up a Good Thing; but they don’t solve structural poverty, and running them takes up time and energy during which people aren’t trying to imagine a system where food banks aren’t considered “just how things are,” in a Western country with more than enough money to feed its people.
If you’ve just stifled a groan at reading “just how things are,” I’m with you. It’s a critique that most activists of a socialist, anarchist, or anti-capitalist bent are familiar with, in that or its other form, the claim that “human nature” prevents any realisation of an alternative future which doesn’t revolve around endless growth, individualism, and the profit motive. This almost invariably translates as “this feels weird TO ME”—or to the assumption that “human nature” = “what humans in my current society are like.” People will claim with utter conviction that people just aren’t like that, even when there is both historical and current evidence that at least some people have, in fact, been like that. Humans co-operate, humans are kind, the state of brute nature is a (racist) myth. Further, sometimes it’s not even about how real humans behave, but about how people think, incorrectly, they behave—as Rebecca Solnit points out in her book about disasters, A Paradise Built in Hell. (Spoilers: Solnit found that most people in a disaster are kind and generous to one another. Except the rich, who are not.)
How, then, do writers get away from that? Can writers get away from that? At some point obviously I have to quote Le Guin: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.” So, whether or not we can entirely escape the sea we’re swimming in, we can sure as hell try.
Write what the hell you like, obviously. No one’s obliged to do anything in particular with their writing or their reading; it’s a big old genre and there’s room for all of us. But. If it feels too hard—too scary, too depressing—to propel ourselves into a truly alternative future, why is that? And can we resist that pressure to shrug and give up, accept that this is as good as it gets, if we want to?
The mini-commune on the edges of society, that feels like it might be within range, maybe, if you got really lucky. It’s a good dream: it’s a dream, but it’s imaginable. The bigger dreams are far more beautiful and thus far more dangerous. What happens if we step into that fear? How can we as writers escape our programming? Because I refuse to believe that we can’t. How do we balance the rejection of destructive capitalism with the reality of the structural factors making it very difficult to break out? Shouldn’t SF/F be showing the way here? Did we all convince ourselves too hard that utopia-means-no-place, that this can’t be done? I mean; it can’t, no, there’s no perfect world. But. There’s better.
Authors do manage, have managed this, to more or less successful extent.2
Le Guin in The Dispossessed carefully imagined what an alternative might look like and how it might interact with something more like present day society; the trade-offs are fully realised and highlighted. In a different vein, I love the patchwork nature of her far future Always Coming Home, the endeavour to reimagine everything, including myths and stories and coming-of-age narratives. And that it’s written in a way that challenges traditional Western narratives (although we should remember that Indigenous critics challenged Le Guin’s co-opting of Indigenous narratives and beliefs).
Becky Chambers in the Monk And Robot series is clearly trying to envisage an alternative society; one of the things I love about Psalm For The Wild-Built is how the differently realised society is the underlying fabric to a story that’s about finding one’s own way and what one wants; the society is set up for that to be available, and set up to be both sustainable and sustaining for individuals, but you still have to work at it.
Carrie Vaughn’s Bannerless series is arguably dystopic in that it’s a post-crash society, making its way around the skeletal remnants of our former society, after some level of ecological collapse. The main driver of the society in Bannerless is the control over having children—you have to earn the right to have and raise a child—and that strong focus on living sustainably with the land and deliberately limiting human numbers in order to do so. And, again, the trade-offs and costs are examined. Maybe that needs to be part of any successful alternative envisaging; the acknowledgement that we can’t have it all. Marge Piercy talks about similar trade-offs in the future society in Woman on The Edge of Time. In Bannerless it’s clear that this is not the only approach that exists; it’s just one fairly small society. (In a similar area to where it’s suggested the Kesh in Le Guin’s Always Coming Home live. Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing is also set in California with a fairly small sustainable society in conflict with a dystopian one; it has a somewhat clunkier feel than Bannerless or Always Coming Home.)
I like Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway for looking at how we might get there from here; and also thinking about the possibility of mainstream society (or those who run mainstream society) hitting back. It shares an approach with Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future in that it doesn’t skip over the interim; it shows us some ideas about how we might get there from here. Ruthanna Emrys’ A Half-Built Garden, which uses some similar tech ideas to Walkaway, does jump past that process but does sketch in the backstory that established its more sustainable watersheds community. Humans have begun to be successful in rescuing the planet, but it’s a provisional success and the watersheds exist in some tension (albeit not the open conflict of The Fifth Sacred Thing) with other systems and structures. Perhaps, again, those limitations are part of why it feels more achievable, more touchable from where we are right now, than some other alternative visions.
Writers, then, can do it. Can readers accept it? What about that acquired internal belief system that tells us that human nature just isn’t like that? Reading Always Coming Home, or Psalm for the Wild-Built, even I have to do a certain amount of squashing my own inner cynic, and I’m way along the optimistic end of the scale. (Anarres, interestingly, had its own cynics built-in; beautifully not-capitalist realism.) Kim Stanley Robinson tries to map from here to there in The Ministry for the Future, but that, whilst a sterling effort, is absolutely about manipulating capitalist structures into doing something that doesn’t totally suck. Arguably, the fact that it is depressing and deeply pragmatic—albeit with gleams of hope showing through—may make it more convincing to cynics.
“But people aren’t like that”—people react to their settings and to the expectations around them. The complaint of “but human nature” reveals a real misunderstanding about how actual humans behave. (Projection? I couldn’t possibly comment.) Are some people shit-heads? Sure. But not as many as is fondly imagined.
So how do we as readers challenge/escape our programming? Here’s a good starting rule: if you find yourself thinking “but surely…” about human beings, you’re probably wrong. Back to that Le Guin quote: we are all limited by our surroundings, and we are all told what we should treat as the basis, the bedrock. Let’s not. Let’s move the ground. Let’s believe six impossible things before breakfast. (Maybe choose your impossible things carefully.) And in any case, and this is not a new point: if you’re willing to read about dragons, spaceships, magic, and FTL travel, then you should think hard before criticising the “realism” of imaginary communities based on how you imagine the world “must” be. Look around you. People are doing things differently, in small ways; they are breaking out of capitalist structures, even if only for a little while. Individualism is not the only way, and indeed hasn’t been the only way for many different human cultures.
Let’s look at what Becky Chambers or Ruthanna Emrys are writing for something to aim at; at Kim Stanley Robinson’s efforts to imagine the steps away from here that might begin to take us there; let’s take the attitude-to-others of hopepunk and the structural changes implied by solarpunk. Let’s consider the trade-offs that Carrie Vaughn’s books look at, and if we don’t like those, find another way to manage the sustainability and carrying-capacity problems that Vaughn’s societies identify. Let’s write a new Always Coming Home, taking Le Guin’s work further into a future that’s rooted here and now, and bridging the gap between now and then. Let’s keep imagining what we could be, if we let go of those voices telling us this is it, this is all we get.
1 A note about cultural specificity: what it is, exactly, that surrounds you, and what you’re in conversation with, will vary between cultures, backgrounds, and sub-cultures; but the larger problem of awareness-of-the-sea-you’re-swimming-in remains, even if those seas may differ between different people.
2 Obviously I’ve missed people. I do my best, but a couple of hundred books a year isn’t enough to keep up with the conversation. I am extremely open to suggestions of things to read. I did ask some people for recommendations while writing this essay, and got fewer than I’d hoped for.
© 2022 Juliet Kemp