- Imagining Alternatives
If one wants to invent something new, one first has to imagine something new. Perhaps this is why so many scientists credit speculative fiction for helping them take the first steps along their paths to discovery. Were it not for the extraordinary voyages imagined by Jules Verne, Edwin Hubble (the American astronomer who was the first to prove that there were other galaxies out there beyond the Milky Way) would have followed in the footsteps of his father and gone into a career in law.1 Were it not for Dick Tracy’s wrist radio and the slick communicators worn by Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, Martin Cooper might never have invented the cellular phone. And were it not for fantastic tales of interstellar travel and alien invasion written by H. G. Wells, Robert H. Goddard might never have invented the multistage rockets that eventually made spaceflight possible.2 Science fiction might also help readers acclimate to the uncertainties posed by the unknowable future. According to Isaac Asimov,
It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is but the world as it will be. . . . Science fiction writers foresee the inevitable, and although problems and catastrophes may be inevitable, solutions are not.
Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today—but the core of science [End Page 1] fiction, its essence, the concept around which it revolves, has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.3
Ursula K. Le Guin takes a similar view with regard to fantasy. She notes that the genre affords its readers with “a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence. It is not antirational but pararational; not realistic, but surrealistic, superrealistic, a heightening of reality.”4 In other words, far from serving as a diversion from the everyday world, fantasy can be imagined as a creative tool kit that allows readers to reconsider how the world has been built and to question whether it might be constructed differently if we are ever given the chance. It encourages a kind of literacy that allows one to go beyond the ability to “read the operating instructions,”5 literacy whose only purpose is to enable subjects to function efficiently within existing systems of labor and citizenship, and instead aims toward a critique of the status quo. In fact, in a speech that she gave at the National Book Awards in 2014, Le Guin specifically praised the ability of fantasy to help societies think through difficult social and political problems. “Hard times are coming,” she told the audience of writers, publishers, and booksellers,
when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. . . . We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.6
This special issue aims to further the notion that speculative fiction (including science fiction, fantasy, horror, and all manner of other fantastical subgenres) has something more to offer humanity beyond mere escapism. Our contributors posit that these genres provide a unique opportunity for creators and audiences to imagine alternatives to entrenched political narratives and to the so-ordinary-as-to-seem-invisible structures of power that organize our existence. Just as a technology must be dreamed before it can be built, so must new ideologies be envisioned before they can be enacted.
Indeed, one of the greatest tricks that an ideological system can pull [End Page 2] is to convince the world that it doesn’t exist, that it is simply a description of what is “normal” or “factual” or “natural” or just the way things have always been and therefore need not be examined. As José Esteban...