Sartrian freedom, Orwellian threats

By Mindy Silverado

“Fast Food Executive for Labor Secretary” –the beginning of a NYT article or a social activist science fiction story?

“Throughout his entire career, Andrew Puzder has looked down on working people […] he got rich squeezing front-line workers on wages, overtime, and benefits, all while plotting to replace them with machines” — a character profile in that sci-fi story or a facebook status by Elizabeth Warren?


The project of Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha, bringing social justice fighters together for a collection of science fiction, is a great idea. In their book Octavia’s Brood (AK Press 2015), the second of our December picks, variations in the skill of story-telling are more then made up for by ideas and inspiration.

Today’s news reads like so many beginnings of political sci-fi stories. They distort our sense of what is realistic, what futuristic, what dystopoian, and what likely: Vagabond’s story Kafka’s Last Laugh is set “after the election of Jenna Bush in Dallas, the G16 protests of 2022” (178).  Reading this today, after the Trump election, seems like maybe that would have been a better option. In 2015, when the book was published, a President Jenna Bush was meant to convey a nightmarish aristocratic development.

Stories about a separate planet for disabled people (Mia Mingus’ Hollow), a mysterious river wave helping Detroit and its city-citizens get back on their feet (adrienne maree brown’s the river), or models that can change their bodies away from blackness and cultural heritage (Tara Betts’ Runway Blackout) are all well worth a read. There is a marked interest in fertility, mothers, and progeny throughout the stories–because survival has become precious. Feminist psychoanalytic Luce Irigaray would be so pleased to offer her reading of the plots, and their emancipation of women and female sexuality. The excitement of creative sci-fi and the intensity of social justice come together as an empowering mix. Its stories help fight off the darkness of Orwellian distopyias and Trumpian presents.

Autumn Brown’s story Small and Bright is essentially an exercise in Sartrian freedom: it is the narrator’s punishment to be ‘surfaced’, i.e. to be excluded from the underground society that has developed over hundreds of years. She will be sent off into the wild that has become the surface of the earth. Maybe she will find survivors, sunlight, and  make Sartre proud as she feels the fear and exhilaration of being on her own and entirely free. Maybe she will die in her first hour. On the morning of her surfacing, she knows that her prison cell “may be the last place in which I ever feel any sensation of comfort” (80). It is a certain irony that her mother “should try to save my life with a thousand-year-old survival pack” (85). The sentence is executed and she is pushed up into the sunlight, with nothing but the backpack to help her.We will not follow her once she reached the outside, but we are left with a feeling of excitement rather than anguish:”I open my eyes. I stand there looking up” (87).

So, reading Elizabeth Warren, the NYT, and Octavia’s Brood together outlines a field of tension for the reader: we live in a reality that we can shape but that also gets shaped by many other actors, some of whom are terrifying and harmful.Thanks to the editors and contributors of this sci-fi collection, we have yet another pool to draw on for narratives, and resistance.

Pic: location of evil, real (Trump Tower on 5th Ave in Manhattan) and imagined (Sauron’s Tower from Lord of the Rings).


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