Science Fiction as an Abolitionist Tool
While accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2014, Ursula K. Le Guin called for science-fiction writers to use their power of imagination to envision a world no longer constricted by the inherent inequalities and exploitative nature of capitalism. “We live in capitalism,” said the legendary science fiction writer, 85 years old at the time. “Its power seems inescapable. 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, and very often in our art, the art of words.” As a science fiction writer, scholar, and abolitionist, I often find myself returning to her words as I bear witness to the continuous devaluing and underfunding of arts and humanities. Her message was urgent — and continues to be.
Social justice activists and abolitionists have long recognized the power of science fiction to envision different, more egalitarian worlds, political systems, and ways of relating to each other. Writer-activist Walidah Imarisha coined the term “visionary fiction” to differentiate between mainstream science fiction — which often simply extrapolates existing inequalities onto futurist and alien societies — and works that bring to the forefront existing power imbalances and imagine “new, just worlds.” Visionary fiction works such as Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993), Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), and Imarisha’s anthology of short stories, co-edited with adrienne maree brown, Octavia’s Brood (2015), can be seen as a form of resistance to both the dystopian and techno-futurist imaginations — or, as Le Guin once noted, a way of “consciousness-raising.”
Both Le Guin and Butler were outspoken in their anti-capitalist views and well-known for their scrupulous research. Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed — as well as its short story prequel “The Day Before the Revolution” — is an example of an anarchist society based on mutual aid. While writing The Dispossessed, Le Guin spent years researching anarchist political theory at a Portland far-left bookstore, saying that “anarchism’s principal target is the authoritarian State (capitalist or socialist); its principal moral-practical theme is cooperation (solidarity, mutual aid). It is the most idealistic, and to me the most interesting, of all political theories.”
Social justice activists and abolitionists have long recognized the power of science fiction to envision different, more egalitarian worlds, political systems, and ways of relating to each other.
Like Le Guin, Octavia Butler dedicated an immense amount of time to her research, with a particular focus on climate change and capitalist exploitation. According to scholar Shelly Streeby, after Butler’s untimely death in 2006, archivist Natalie Russell spent several years going through Butler’s 250 boxes worth of writings, newspaper clippings, and other materials. Butler’s 1993 novel, Parable of the Sower, imagines the near future of the Earth devastated by ecological disasters, class inequality, and a neoliberal State that allowed for uncontrolled privatization of natural resources alongside legalized slavery. In all her works, including and perhaps most notably in the Parable series, Butler is invested in imagining a transition from an oppressive capitalist system to a more egalitarian one. In the Parable series, the protagonist and her friends build a community based on the principles of mutual aid and freedom from State forms of oppression, such as the police and prisons. Parable of the Sower’s Earthseed mantra, “God is Change,” is well-known to scholars and activists and often used as a teaching and community organizing tool.
Edited by Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements is a collection of science fiction stories written by political activists and organizers. Like Butler herself, who explored the themes of identity and imagination, oppression and resistance, and, of course, hope and change, the collection offers multiple paths toward a common goal of liberation and justice. adrienne maree brown also uses Butler’s ideas in her organizing work, including climate change advocacy, voter organizing, and nonviolent direct-action training. She facilitates Octavia Butler Emergent Strategy Sessions, pulling organizing lessons from Butler’s novels. In turn, Imarisha participates in prison and police abolition organizing, finding her inspiration in the works of Butler and Le Guin, among other visionary writers. She calls science fiction “a perfect testing ground” for abolitionist ideas, “because the vast majority of people can’t imagine a world without prisons.”
Imagining a world without prisons and police for me, as an abolitionist, is perhaps the most crucial power of science fictional worldbuilding. Researchers such as Brett Story have recognized that prisons “destroy communities, shorten life spans, and bear little relationship to fluctuations in crime.” Angela Davis and other Black scholars have long argued that American prisons, police, and the justice system are designed to disproportionately target the Black population. Most people, however, perceive prisons as intrinsic to any modern society — or whatever society comes next.
Imagining a world without prisons and police for me, as an abolitionist, is perhaps the most crucial power of science fictional worldbuilding.
In turn, neoliberal capitalism has little interest in going beyond the most superficial prison and police reforms. On the contrary, the prison population continues to drastically increase in a self-perpetuating loop, where those profiting from an ever-increasing number of incarcerated people reinvest into building more prisons to put them in. At the same time, murders of civilians by police continue to cause nationwide — and even international — outrage, while the statistical trends remain unaffected by the liberal “reforms,” such as anti-bias training and body-cams.
I want to be clear that imagining a world without prisons and policing does not mean imagining a dystopian lawless society akin to a perpetual Purge movie, where anything is up for grabs and social Darwinism rules the land. Instead, as Fred Moten so wonderfully puts it, the goal of abolition is not to abolish prisons, but rather “the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage, and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society.” To frame it another way, the goal of abolition — of prisons, of policing, and of capitalism — is not to deny ourselves the protections these systems are supposedly providing us with (which they’re not) but to learn to rely on our own power of community-building, mutual aid, and accountability.
The truism, “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” aptly outlines what radical cultural critic Mark Fisher means by capitalist realism: “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” COVID-19 caused a quarantine aimed to save lives, yet it was met with little support. The #BlackLivesMatter protests against police brutality were met with more police brutality and curfews (the latter of which were notably not implemented to prevent the pandemic just a month prior). The responses to both crises have shown this lack of collective imagination, particularly from the side of the current US government and its supporters. Our social media feeds are littered with images of conservatives pushing to reopen the United States to “save the economy” at the expense of human lives, with demands for the working class to go “back to work” and to “sacrifice the weak” at the altar of capitalism, and with images of police violence against Black Americans, followed by sociopathic pleas that “Buildings Matter, Too.”
As Fisher notes, “ultra-authoritarianism and Capital are by no means incompatible: internment camps and franchise coffee bars co-exist.” What the pandemic has brought to the surface is the degree to which all such places — prisons, detention camps, and franchises with exploited workers — are sites of what philosopher Achille Mbembe refers to as necropolitics. That is to say, they are places where the State manages populations by reserving the right to doom certain people — the working class, the poor, people of color, and the marginalized — to sickness, suffering, and death. From food chain employees, to prisoners, to school teachers, being sentenced to death-by-COVID-19 is the new normal.
The inability to imagine an alternative to capitalism is further perpetuated by mainstream science fiction media, which, as a genre, is known to react to crises like the COVID-19 pandemic through metaphor and extrapolation. The 2007 recession, for example, led to a significant increase in an explicit metaphor for necropolitics: zombie movies. Films such as Zombieland (2009), World War Z (2013), Warm Bodies (2013), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016), and the TV shows The Walking Dead (2010–) and Death Valley (2011) permeated the big and small screens. When all State institutions collapse, such films argue, the world will succumb to literal mindlessness; it is only in the hands of State power representatives, such as the Army (World War Z) or the police (Death Valley, The Walking Dead), that the white, middle-class, heteronormative citizens can find safety and peace.
Every year, countless dystopian films, novels, and television shows condition their audiences to images of the future that are inevitably dark and gritty, with a “dog-eat-dog” mentality that comes with an extreme scarcity of resources (a result of capitalism, which, in a mutated form, lives on in these postapocalyptic images of the future). Sexualized, gendered, and racialized violence — also an integral part of capitalist realism — lives on, even if the local Starbucks is boarded up and the suburban white picket fence no longer offers any protection. Through the normalization of capitalism across space and time, as well as reinforcement of techno-capitalism’s implications that technological progress is necessary for survival and impossible under any other system, these popular forms of media strengthen the widespread ideology of capitalist realism.
Yet now more than ever before, I dare to hope. Seeing the rise of abolitionist activism during recent protests, the resourceful use of mutual aid during the pandemic, and the growing public interest in anti-racist, abolitionist, and Black-authored literature has offered me a glimpse into a future that, before, I could only ever hope to see in the imagined, fictional worlds of visionary fiction. So I dare to hope that visionary fiction and the activism it inspires will continue to offer a glimpse of alternative futures, ones in which the end is only the beginning, and where anything becomes possible, no matter how unrealistic — or, to put it another way, “fantastic.”
The inability to imagine an alternative to capitalism is further perpetuated by mainstream science fiction media, which, as a genre, is known to react to crises like the COVID-19 pandemic through metaphor and extrapolation.
Davis, Angela. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.
Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? London: Zero Books, 2009.
Fojas, Camilla. Zombies, Migrants and Queers: Race and Crisis Capitalism in Pop Culture. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2017.
Killjoy, Margaret, ed. Mythmakers & Lawbreakers: Anarchist Writers on Fiction. Oakland: AK Press, 2009.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Day Before the Revolution.” Oakland: AK Press, 2019.
Story, Brett. Prison Land: Mapping Carceral Power across Neoliberal America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.
Streeby, Shelly. Imagining the Future of Climate Change: World-Making through Science Fiction and Activism. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018.
Ksenia Firsova is a film scholar, screenwriter, and visual media artist. Her work focuses on the representations of gender, sexuality, and race, particularly in genre media. Her short films screened at multiple festivals and won several awards, with one receiving a distribution contract. Her queer science-fiction feature screenplay Terra Incognita was nominated for the TFI’s Sloan Student Discovery Award. Currently, she is a doctoral student in a hybrid research-creation program, Film & Digital Media, at UC Santa Cruz as a Eugene V. Cota-Robles Fellow, with designated emphases in feminist studies and critical race and ethnic studies.
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