Reviewed by Steve Brady
Octavia’s Brood, edited by adrienne marie brown and Walidah Imarisha, is a collection of science-fiction and fantasy short stories published last year, by people involved in social justice movements. The title is a play on Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler, the pioneering Black female sci-fi author, suggesting that these new writers, mostly of Color, are following in her footsteps.
I learned about Octavia’s Brood at a presentation at the Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair. Co-Editor adrienne maree brown described their idea of “Visionary Fiction.” Like existing forms of speculative fiction, sci-fi and fantasy, Visionary Fiction involves imagining possibilities outside the realm of everyday life, but in an expressly political way, visualizing the fulfillment of our unmet needs and dreams that are stymied by the system we live in. From the introduction by Walidah Imarisha:
All organizing is science fiction. Organizers and activists dedicate their lives to creating and envisioning another world, or many other worlds—so what better venue for organizers to explore their work than science fiction stories?
Of course I got myself a copy and dug in. But to my surprise, only one of the stories had a utopian element. More common themes are last-ditch, often tragic resistance in dystopian futures, or someone fighting the system with magical powers. Interviewed in “Yes” magazine, co-editor Walidah Marisha explains:
In our collection, Octavia’s Brood, my co-editor adrienne maree Brown’s story, “The River” explores this idea [alternatives to dominant narratives of justice]. What does justice look like? What does holding people accountable look like for crimes that this system does not consider crimes—like gentrification, economic displacement, the violence of poverty?
Except “The River” is about an anti-gentrification sea monster! Again, not the blueprint for a just society I expected from visionary fiction.
At the presentation, adrienne maree brown described their outreach to collect the stories in this anthology. Outstanding activists in social justice movements with little or no experience writing fiction were encouraged to just go for it, putting their passion into words.
Looking at the author bios, not only are there a few experienced fiction writers, but many have backgrounds in performance art, music, theater and poetry, rather than being organizers and rabble-rousers new to expressing themselves. For me, this belied the “anyone can do it” spirit of the promotional workshop.
The good news is that once I put all these expectations aside, the stories in this anthology are wonderful. Especially from those new to the craft, the stories are refreshing, and despite (or because of) the politics, unpretentious. Part of the joy is that the heroes have more similar values to me than in mainstream science fiction. But besides that, I think they’re just more likable, more admirable people.
Back to the introduction, Marisha explains:
“Visionary fiction” is a term we developed to distinguish science fiction that has relevance to building new, freer worlds from the mainstream of science fiction, which most often reinforces dominant narratives of power.
That’s too simple for me; I see a variety of political biases in science fiction. Many of the most famous writers, while not radicals by our standards, are creative in their approaches to society’s problems. Authority and tradition are constantly questioned, even if from a tacky intellectual libertarianism. And some of my favorite famous authors are from the psychedelic era, writing as weird as possible for weirdness’ sake—as Imarisha says, “there are as many ways to exist as we can imagine.”
But reading Octavia’s Brood had me realize that despite this, something is really wrong and toxic about modern sci-fi. A pervasive snarkiness, a fear by author’s that they’ll be perceived as naïve. Whether I agree with the author’s politics or not, there’s a cowardice is today’s sci-fi, striving to be “nuanced” about anything smacking of politics, thus embracing a quasi-neutrality that defaults to literary liberalism. There’s also this negativity; regardless of genre everything reads more like horror, a combination of shock value and a perverse delight in a meaningless universe.
Octavia’s brood is the opposite and the antidote.
I wanted to describe my favorite stories in the book, but I can’t put my finger on it. I’ll try:
“Black Angel” by Walidah Imarisha: An angel cast out from heaven (not a demon) fights injustice on Earth. This surprised me with how much a enjoyed it, as I usually hate the angel/demon sort of urban fantasy. The inner life of the angel moved me.
“Evidence” by Alexis Pauline Gumbs: In an idyllic future, someone sends messages of hope back to her ancestor struggling in our era. A lot of the technology for this was over my head; I didn’t know whether this was on the edge of 21st century hard science, or quantum terms strung together. But when the focus was on the social message, dang that was powerful.
“Sanford and Sun” by Dawolu Jahari Anderson: In screenplay form, Sanford’s primetime TV reality is interrupted by visions from Sun Ra about the spirituality and nobility of Black history. As wacky and original as it sounds.
“The Long Memory” by Morrigan Phillips: In a fantasy archipelago, people with magical memory keep tradition alive, and an evil up-and-coming emperor hunts them down. Yes, this is familiar, but for all the reasons I mentioned above, this version of speculative fiction is more human, and the politics are courageous instead of bland.