This semester I’ve seen something that warms my heart: I’ve seen a student body with their eyes on the future. I’ve seen this in The Human Side of Robots in Film series that screened movies like Her and Ex Machina in the Wilcox Blackbox. I’ve seen this in the newly formed Princeton Futurist Society, which is gearing up to discuss AI, nanotechnology, genetic engineering and all the other tech trends that are bringing the Singularity hurtling toward us.
I’ve seen this in Professor Ruha Benjamin’s sociology seminar, Black to the Future, where we “examine the stories embedded in science and technology and the social facts that are seeded in science fiction.” I’ve seen this in a particular someone’s creative thesis, set a few decades hence, narrated by the resurrected nervous system of an infant black boy, brain floating in a secret tank while his mind flits across the web viewing things no one should be able to see…
And I’ve seen this in the protests and the demands of the Black Justice League.
What if? is the question at the root of all speculative fiction. What if the War of the Roses were set on an alternate continent where a demonic presence threatens mankind (Game of Thrones)? What if kids are drafted into a gladiator survival competition for entertainment (Hunger Games)? SF is the unapologetically counterfactual genre.
What if? is also at the heart of every social justice movement – unapologetically countercultural moments in history. What if women could vote? What if colored people could eat and drink in the same public spaces? What if institutionalized racism were a thing of the past? In envisioning a better world, activists by definition envision a world that does not – not yet – exist. Organizers create a compelling vision of the future to rally around. Visions of the future are science fiction.
When I call activism science fiction I am not being dismissive or playful. I am being optimistic. Sci-fi is the “not yet” of speculative fiction, as opposed to the “no way.” Unlike wizards and fire-breathing dragons, but just like human cloning and interstellar travel, a world free from institutional racism falls within the realm of possibility. To call such a vision science fiction is to say, “Yes. Maybe some day. Maybe soon.”
Part of our required reading for Black to the Future was an anthology called Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. In the intro, editor Walidah Imarisha says that present-day descendants of historically oppressed peoples are literally living, breathing science fiction. We 21st century black Americans embody an existence that 19th century slaves could hardly have imagined. Maybe they had dreams, too absurd to be worth speaking aloud, of great-great-great-grandchildren, not just going to school but going to Princeton University. Dreams that might as well take place on another planet, where black fingers peck magical black buttons that form black words that are published and read, with respect, by even the white students.
So then, shout out to all my fellow afro-aliens. We are the truth that is stranger than fiction. We made it.
In this issue of figments, there is actually not as much of the futuristic as the fantastical and the horrific. We do have an AI tale from recent graduate Morgan Presley, which fans of the Human Side of Robots series will enjoy. We have a gorgeously creepy Lovecraftian novelette from our first ever grad student contributor. We have comforting ghosts from the Rio Grande, a cult-like travelling circus and an unusual dental practice. What we have, in every story in this issue, is a what if, a flexing of that uniquely human mental magic, an exercise in the pre-cursors of progress.
What if you can’t put it down?
Keeper of Fears, Futures and Fantasies