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President's Day was a day off for me, which meant two things: one, I'd spent the afternoon at a Not My President's Day rally, and two, the low-level depressive miasma Rachel Dratch characterizes as Sunday feeling had stretched into Monday.

To be perfectly honest, Sunday feeling might be the best way to sum up the last few months since the election for me. Which I’m not mentioning for sympathy—ugh, cry more, employed middle-class white femme citizen—but just to let you know where I’ve been for the last few months. Which was… not much of anywhere, emotionally and intellectually speaking.

When I was finally able to lift my head up and keep it up, I found myself—not transformed, but in the process of transformation. I’ve never felt that before. Every instance of evolution in my life has been noticed after the fact. It can be unsettling to actively experience in real time, but I’m trying to embrace the fact that I’m changing. This is yet another opportunity to define what kind of woman I want to be and then go be her. But it can be unsettling, because there are some deep foundational shifts occurring.

For example: I used to be a pop culture junkie. And now I’m now sure what I am.

(Besides, of course, angry.)

Reading and writing has, for my entire life, been one of my most major and important outlets, so integral to my sense of self and wellbeing that I don’t remember not being able how to read. And speculative fiction has always been my imaginative home. But I’ve barely been able to read and write over the last few months, largely because I haven’t been able to answer the question of “Does this even matter?” to any level of satisfaction, especially when it comes to speculative fiction. It’s been, quite frankly, easier to crank up the EDM and focus on checking off my to do list rather than actively engage with that question.

But, as luck—and I mean luck on a cosmic level—would have it, Housing Works was kicking off its annual Geek Week on President’s Day with a panel on that very topic: what’s the role of speculative fiction in times of political unrest?

Housing Works: Beyond Orwell


Housing Works, founded in 1990 by five members of ACT UP, is a New York City-based nonprofit that fights AIDS and homelessness through a variety of channels. I mostly know them through their stores throughout the city. The Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, like their thrift stores, is largely staffed by volunteers and 100% of its profits goes towards the charity proper. While I don’t haunt bookstores with the same frequency I did as a young’un—not because of the aforementioned transformation, just because of my budget—I’ve always liked the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe and its space. It’s always reminded me of my time at the Tattered Cover. Geek Week is the store’s annual weeklong sale on anything remotely connected to speculative fiction (and also vintage vinyl, for which I suppose we can blame David Bowie), which is complemented with geek-themed programming.

Hence “Beyond Orwell,” a panel moderated by Berit Anderson and boasting an all-star cast of Daniel José Older, N. K. Jemisin, Justina Ireland, and Helen Phillips.

It was, to be blunt, exactly what I needed. Walking away from “Beyond Orwell,” I felt, for the first time in a long time, a sense of hope, purpose, and value in speculative fiction. My relationship with speculative fiction, reading, writing, and consuming media has definitely permanently changed over the course of this winter. And I know I’ll still be exploring the implications of that over the course of the next year or so. But this panel showed me that there is a way for me to rebuild my relationship with speculative fiction (and, by extension, all media) and create something that is honestly useful in the coming days, even if only for myself.

Here, in brief, are the three major takeaways that gave me hope.

It’s Always Been a Dystopia

Anderson opened the panel by asking if there was any concept in the panelists’ work that they think their audience should explore on their own. Jemisin immediately jumped in with history, to make the point that America has always been a dystopia to some. The scope of that dystopia, according to N. K. Jemisin, has simply widened to include groups who were privileged enough that they could afford to look the other way. (This is exactly why I’m unwilling to take any sympathy for this winter—me being blindsided to that emotional point is a reflection on my ignorance and unchecked privilege. I should have been paying better attention.)

Older jumped in to point out that any work of imaginative fiction can be a dystopia if you simply zero in on the right character. Later, Anderson asked if there was any value to utopian fiction. Older pointed out that Thomas Moore burned people at the stake, so his utopia was clearly a dystopia.

A later question about risk taking brought up worldbuilding in speculative fiction that accidentally renders itself dystopian. If only one person of color survives in post-apocalyptic Chicago, the panel pointed out, then there has been a huge problem, but white authors don’t realize that they’ve built this dynamic into their world because they’re not engaging deeply and honestly with the real world on which their work is based. It all goes back to Jemisin’s call to study history, to be honest—that’s the best way to avoid baking existing oppressive narratives and structures into imaginative work.

Who’s Leading Who

While I’ve been unable to personally hook into her fiction, I’ve always found N.K. Jemisin’s commentary and nonfiction to be hugely valuable. It was clear that the other panelists thought so too, often deferring to her, rightfully praising her work, and comparing themselves unfavorably to her. And it was also clear that this makes Jemisin uncomfortable. When they began referring to her as a leader for her audience, she demurred from that label. According to Jemisin, she doesn’t take risks, like writing down her feelings about Black Lives Matter, for the cause—she does it because it’s an actual of survival in both the industry she relies on to make rent and the social media landscape to remain relevant. The impression that I got is that Jemisin is uncomfortable with the label of leader because all she’s doing is the work—leading is not something she does by intention, but, nonetheless, others see her as a leader because of what she models, as a successful black female fantasy writer honest almost to a fault about the nature and craft of her work.

Anyone who highlights the practical nature of writing for a living over some fairy tale ideal of the work’s inherent nobility is good in my book, and it was a relief to see that good dialogue and good work can still be done in a way that is, technically, “selfish.” Older even pointed out that there’s no way to create or heal selflessly. I experience a great deal of shame and guilt over being selfish in any capacity, so having writing framed in a way that can even remotely incorporate that concept into good work was revelatory and necessary to me.

Strategic Imagination

Anderson started off the evening by describing three major functions of fiction: escapism, inspiration, and strategic imagination.

I’m familiar with the first two, as someone who grew up defending speculative fiction from family, friends, and strangers alike, but this was the first time I’d ever heard the phrase “strategic imagination” applied to speculative fiction that imagines a better future, coping mechanisms for the present, or just a way out. And it wasn’t just me; Older really responded to it as well. Later, when Anderson asked if the panelists were ever tempted to just write pure escapism, Ireland pointed out that she does do that—in order to sneak in some strategic imagination to the audience, like putting a pill in a hot dog sleeve so your dog will eat it.

This was, honestly, my major takeaway from the panel, this unique functionality that only speculative fiction boasts. It was largely just putting a name to a phenomenon I’ve already seen in action—Star Trek: The Original Series actually did have lasting social and scientific consequences in our culture. But naming a thing is powerful, and having it framed like that made me see speculative fiction as far more than entertainment. It made me realize that speculative fiction is, like all art when wielded with a true heart and open intent, a necessary social tool.

And that was all the answer I needed.

I’ll end this by referring you to two worthy organizations—Housing Works itself (you can donate and shop on their website, even if you’re outside of New York City!) and FIYAH, the magazine of black speculative fiction that Ireland co-edits with Troy L. Wiggins. Check ‘em out!
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