The New Tradition of Speculative Fiction

Kazembe Balagun Jan 13, 2006

Octavia Butler is in the long tradition of writers who blend science fiction and resistance politics. Surprising to some, the progressive tradition in science fiction dates back to the 19th century. Here are some of the highlights.

Blake, Martin Delaney: Delaney was an antislavery orator and editor when he published Blake, or Huts of America in 1862. The central character is Henirco Blacus a runaway slave who becomes Blake, a leader of a slave rebellion to overthrow the Cuban government and use the island as a base area for ending slavery throughout the Americas. Written some years before John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and, the novel was a stark contrast to the pacifist leanings of many in the antislavery movement.

Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Before the personal became political, Gilman wrote this short 1915 novel on what a feminist republic would look like. Filled with wonder and irony, this funny tale challenged many to rethink what civilization is and what free women could do.

Looking Backward 1887-2000, Edward Bellamy: The 21st Century was the subject of speculation from the futurists in Russia to “The Jetsons” in the 1960s. For Bellamy, in Looking Backward, in 2000 America is a socialist republic where war, famine and cash are eliminated. Written in the vain of reform novelists like Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair, Bellamy’s work is seen as naïve in light of the advent of the Soviet police state.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin: Shevek is a middle-aged inhabitant of a desolate anarchist utopia. He is also the greatest theoretical physicist in the nine known worlds of LeGuin’s Hainish Universe. In The Dispossesed, he becomes the first person from his society in over a century to return to the powerful mother planet and unexpectedly lights the fires of change in both worlds. LeGuin uses his journey to subtlely compare and contrast the strengths and weaknesses of both anarchism and capitalism as well as to explore time, space, love, fidelity and the struggle to reconcile individual freedom and collective responsibility.

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