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  • The Social Life of Speculation
  • Gabriella Friedman (bio)
Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic. By Michelle D. Commander. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017. 296 pages. $99.95 (cloth). $25.95 (paper).
Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women's Speculative Fiction. By Sami Schalk. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018. 192 pages. $89.95 (cloth). $23.95 (paper).
Imagining the Future of Climate Change: World-Making through Science Fiction and Activism. By Shelley Streeby. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018. 168 pages. $85.00 (cloth). $18.95 (paper).
Migrant Futures: Decolonizing Speculation in Financial Times. By Aimee Bahng. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017. 248 pages. $94.95 (cloth). $24.95 (paper).

In the past two decades, scholarly and popular interest in speculative fiction has surged. Groundbreaking anthologies like Sheree Renée Thomas's Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000) and Grace Dillon's Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction (2012), as well as scholarship by Ramón Saldívar, Curtis Marez, Dillon, André M. Carrington, Donna Haraway, and others, deploy speculative fiction to address the interconnected histories and current realities of racism, heteropatriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism. The four books under review here showcase speculative fiction studies (or perhaps, more accurately, "speculative studies") as an emerging, interdisciplinary field engaging many of the key analytics of American studies: racialization, settler colonialism, imperialism, climate change, diaspora, (dis)ability, and the transnational turn. Our current scholarly moment is marked by a turn not only to nonrealist literature but to speculation in all its multitudinous forms. As Michelle D. Commander, Sami Schalk, Shelley Streeby, and Aimee Bahng illustrate, speculation evokes an extrapolative practice that articulates the repercussions of urgent global [End Page 205] problems, a set of political tactics that shape new worlds through activism, and an imaginative strategy that etches unexpected ways to organize social life.

Of course, science fiction has an established presence in academe. The prominent journals Extrapolation and Science Fiction Studies were founded in 1959 and 1973, respectively, and the history of science fiction scholarship dates back even further. The editors of Science Fiction Studies, for example, maintain a chronological bibliography that lists Johannes Kepler's "Notes" from Somnium: The Dream, or Posthumous Work on Lunar Astronomy (1634) as an early work of science fiction criticism.1 Since then, scholars have painstakingly historicized, contextualized, and debated the parameters and stakes of the genre. Some, like Darko Suvin, Fredric Jameson, Samuel Delany, and Joanna Russ, highlight science fiction's potential to unsettle hegemonic structures of power; others, such as John Rieder and Patricia Kerslake, analyze the colonial logics texturing the genre.

But speculative fiction studies, though it overlaps with scholarship on science fiction, is a different animal: broader, more capacious, less concerned with technical literary and generic questions. While some have tried to demarcate the bounds of speculative fiction—with Robert Heinlein and Margaret Atwood proposing the most famous definitions—others find the ambiguity of the term attractive.2 In Migrant Futures: Decolonizing Speculation in Financial Times, Bahng is "less interested in literary taxonomies than in the various modalities of writing and reading that can alter relations between writer and reader, shift ways of thinking, and produce different kinds of subjects"; she sees potential in speculative fiction's "promiscuity and disregard for the proper" (13, 16). Similarly, Streeby embraces the term speculative fiction in Imagining the Future of Climate Change: World-Making through Science Fiction and Activism "because it is less defined by boundary-making around the word 'science,' stretching to encompass related modes such as fantasy and horror, forms of knowledge in excess of white Western science, and more work authored by women and people of color" (20). In Commander's Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic, Afro-Atlantic speculation exceeds science fiction, or even Afro-futurism, which Commander regards as only one "subgenre of Afro-speculation of the twentieth and twenty-first century that is concerned with the artistic reimagining of the function of science and technology in the construction of utopic black futures" (6). Schalk's Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis) ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women's Speculative Fiction...


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