Article Content Warning: spoilers for several science fiction novels
In the introduction to her groundbreaking sci-fi novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin rebukes the claim that science fiction is about the future. “Science fiction is not predictive,” she explains, “it is descriptive.” In her view, science fiction is not about the future—everything that happens in it has already happened in some way, shape, or form. Instead, “the future, in fiction, is a metaphor.”
While it is impossible to give a simple response to what the future is a metaphor for, a close enough answer is in all of those ways, shapes, and forms that life can occur around us. All the writer has to do is observe this world, and describe it.
Of course, this is much easier said than done. The following writers have gone above and beyond by truly forcing us to reconsider the present while crafting a narrative in the future. Their what-ifs give a new light to the world around us, and open the door to possibility.
What if we were heading towards climate fortune?
The 1965 novel Dune by Frank Herbert is a landmark piece of ecological science fiction. The book begins with its hero, Paul Atreides, moving to the desert planet of Arrakis. Quite soon in, he encounters the planet’s natives, the Fremen, a tribe that has lived in the dunes of Arrakis for millennia and has learned many strategies for survival along the way. However, they are not content to simply survive. For all the millenia they have survived, they have been working towards a common goal: to collect enough water to completely revitalize the climate on Arrakis and transform it into a lush, fertile ecosystem.
This inversion of climate prospects completely reconceptualizes humanity’s relationship with the environment. There are no worries about climate change—Arrakis is the worst it can get. Rather, the Fremen put their energy toward envisioning a climate utopia. However, to enact momentous change requires momentous action. The solution to the problem of Arrakis sets a startling precedent for our own climate issues: the Fremen have lived their whole lives in excruciating awareness of their environment. They wear suits to recycle their breath, spit, and urine into new water. To shed tears is unusual. Anybody who dies is immediately drained of blood and other water. Not a drop is wasted—ever.
It’s not that the Fremen’s peaceful coexistence with their climate is easy; rather, harsh and daily sacrifice has become the norm. But even as they collect the amount of water needed and fertility spreads across the land, it doesn’t result in a flawless promised land. The following books in the Dune saga chronicle the results of this change on Arrakis: while the Fremen don’t have to ration water anymore, some contract “water illness,” not used to the easy availability; while the region grows into a bustling mecca of political and scholarly action, this also leads to class strife and instability; while some things are better, other things are worse. To put it simply, Dune truly considers the relationship between a society and its environment. It not only gives us a model for rebuilding our own climate, but also considers the sacrifices it may take to get there and the drawbacks that come with it.
What if the gender binary wasn’t societally enforced?
The Lilith’s Brood trilogy by Octavia Butler blew the historically exclusive sci-fi community out of the water by centering a Black woman’s perspective on colonization and miscegenation in space. On top of Butler’s striking prose and unique viewpoint, she is also able to subvert the alien invasion trope to reconsider humanity’s relationship to gender.
In the trilogy, the alien Oankali race is made up of three sexes: male, female, and ooloi. All Oankali young are born sexless, and experiment with their identity and presentation. Once they hit puberty, they mature into one of the three sexes, the end result a combination of personal preference and biology. The fact that intuition is intrinsic to one’s sex breaks down the distinction between sex and gender in Oankali culture. Later, as Oankali mature, each sex is necessary in reproduction, and tripling is the norm in any sort of sexual interaction. The ooloi acts as a connector of sorts, with an extra set of “sensory arms” that can attach to other organisms, affect genetic information, and provide pleasure in mating. In short, they are not a marginalized identity, but completely accepted as an integral part of Oankali society.
This culture clash between the human gender binary and the Oankali gender-sex trinary comes to the forefront in the last book of the series, Imago, when the first human-Oankali ooloi, Jodahs, is born, forcing the consideration of what the ooloi represent gender-wise in a human context. The Oankali began mating with humans in the first place because of their need for biological diversity. While they were extremely good at genetic adaptation, this often led to biological and incest-like dead ends, necessitating copious amounts of genes from other alien species to produce enough genetic diversity. The humans, of course, had less of a need for this, which created disparate offshoots of humanity who either wanted to live with the Oankali or stay among their fellow humans. Initially, the Oankali forcefully sterilized any human who chose not to live with them. It was only through the efforts of other human-Oankali hybrids that humans even began to set up their own colony without any outside interference.
Jodahs is born into this world of separate and antagonistic communities, and is able to utilize its identity (Jodahs and other oolois use the neutral pronoun “it” to refer to themselves) which sits squarely in the middle of the human-conceived gender binary to mediate a different binary—one between aliens and humans. However, Jodahs’s and other oolois’s power in gender and genetics does not come without drawbacks. They have the ability to wreak havoc in the essential biological identities of both themselves and others around them, and their identity as neither male nor female is inconceivable to some humans.
When Jodahs finds humans to mate with, it is able to repair their genetic illnesses, but also creates conflict in their human isolationist community. While it eventually helps the humans and Oankali connect and integrate, Jodahs’s stressful and challenging experiences raise the question of whether its interbinary and connective ooloi identity is a blessing or a curse: Jodahs’s singularly unique identity gives it the ability to repair the relations between these two groups, and so in effect it must repair these relationships above anything else, turning its ability to connect into a mandated duty. Even as Jodahs escapes the masculine and feminine stereotypes of our own binary society, it finds itself stuck in a new kind of role.
This nuanced take on how any gender identity brings its own baggage would allow more discussion in our own society. Even if all of humanity were to accept genders beyond the binary, allowing more people to feel comfortable expressing their own gender identity, it’s important to recognize the limitations that gender in any world imposes on us. There are many complicated and sometimes painful interactions people have because of their gender today—gender-based discrimination, being misgendered, the difference between how one wants their identity to be perceived and the reality of it. Rather than simply “fixing” these interactions, Imago and Lilith’s Brood show us how breaking the binary expands and diversifies these experiences in new kinds of ways, both painful and positive.
What if the concept of ownership didn’t exist?
The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin, a particular favorite of mine, is also quite popular, having won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus science fiction prizes (among others) over its lifespan. It details the life of Shevek, a physicist from the anarchist state of Anarres. The people of Anarres revolted against the more familiar capitalist society of Urras, and left to start a colony on the moon to practice their own way of living. On Anarres, no one owns anything. Children are raised communally, everyone rotates in shifts to produce the food and other needs of Anarres, and even the possessive pronouns “my,” “yours,” “ours,” and “theirs” do not exist in this society.
Following its subtitle, “An Ambiguous Utopia,” Le Guin chronicles both the achievements and pitfalls of such a society. There is no one living in destitution, and everyone is free to pursue their own interests. However, Shevek is never able to gain intellectual praise for his own work, as it is not “his,” and during a time of drought, all the citizens must put aside their own interests to do the menial tasks that keep society functioning. This is all put into stark contrast with the capitalistic state of A-Io on Urras, where Shevek witnesses class stratification in extreme detail. While there, he joins a protest against the state, meeting dozens of protestors who have been disenfranchised by A-Io’s economic policies.
Over the course of the book, Shevek is working on the “General Temporal Theory,” which, if solved, will allow for instantaneous communication across any distance. Neither society is completely conducive to his work; Anarres shifts away his ownership and access to intellectual property and forces him to put his studies on hold for various periods of time, while Urras limits his ability to work together with others and puts restrictions on how the discovery will be put to use when developed. However, by presenting both possibilities, we are able to fully realize what a non-capitalistic society would look like, and consider the differences between that kind of society and our own to their fullest extent.
What if humanity was just one race of many throughout the universe?
The Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, originally written in Chinese by Liu Cixin, begins with The Three Body Problem—the first Asian book to win a Hugo Award. The books have been some of the very first to popularize Chinese science fiction internationally, and they’re well-deserving of these claims, covering an unimaginable scope both spatially and temporally.
The story begins with Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist that has developed a hatred for humanity due to the Cultural Revolution and its effects on her and her family. She uses her technological prowess to beam a message into the stars, which arrives at the planet of Trisolaris hundreds of light-years away. Although they are much more technologically advanced than Earth, Trisolarans live in constant climate disruption because they orbit three stars rather than one. Upon corresponding with Ye, they decide to invade Earth and take advantage of its relatively stable astronomical setup.
Trisolaris’s immediate decision to be antagonistic towards humanity may seem surprising at first. Why not work together and share resources to grow with each other? But the universe of Remembrance of Earth’s Past is not one of empathy or cooperation. After all, those values were created specifically by a civilization that enjoys plentiful resources, a stable sun, and more eases of life, a standard which is clearly not equally held by the rest of the universe. Such absence of empathy and cooperation is formalized in the Dark Forest Theory, both the second book’s eponymous title and a theory discovered by the character Luo Ji, which states: as all life desires to live, and it is unknown how aggressive other lifeforms are, the safest thing to do is annihilate any life that you see. This quickly spells doom for the inhabitants of Earth, who are mere ants in the galactic battles of other alien lifeforms across eons and even spatial dimensions. And yet, even as different races massacre each other without thought, the final chapter of the last book ends with an act of love; the new protagonist, Cheng Xin, abandons her safe bubble to give a bit of matter back to the universe, in the hope that it will be reborn into a more peaceful and loving space.
The sprawling range of the series is pinned down with Cixin’s reflections on the Cultural Revolution, which provide imminent comparisons to be made. Different groups have different values, some of which are untenable with each other. He gives credence both to a utilitarian, save-the-most-you-can type of view, as well as a deontological, moral goodness one.
And Cixin fits these complex themes of the incomprehensible vastness of the universe and the diversity of moral values into a reverse-colonial situation, where we are the endangered inhabitants that risk destruction—we aren’t the heirs of the universe, and any choice we make in it is rife with disaster. Yet while changes and endings are scary, especially in the face of uncontrollable circumstances, those who are left are always given the option to respond with love.
How we imagine our future matters
In an essay by sci-fi savant N. K. Jemisin, “How Long ‘til Black Future Month?” she asks where all the people of color are in “The Jetsons,” a cartoon set in the future: “So what happened to all those people, in the minds of this show’s creators? Are they down beneath the clouds, where the Jetsons never go? Was there an apocalypse, or maybe a pogrom? Was there a memo?”
Violet Allen echoes this sentiment in her speculative short story “The Venus Effect,” with a humorous fourth wall breaking quote: “So I checked, and it turns out there are no black people in the far future. That’s my bad. I really didn’t do my research on that one. I don’t know where we end up going. Maybe we all just cram into the Parliament-Funkadelic discography at some point between Star Trek and Foundation? Whatever. That’s an issue for tomorrow.”
These concerns complexify Ursula K. Le Guin’s argument about science fiction. For writing to take in the world around it, it must deal with the struggle, inconsistency, and hard truths that are clearly present.
All of the works presented here take on that challenge with open arms. While they each present exciting ways to look at our own world, they don’t shy away from anything that comes with that, good or bad. They work as helpful tools to reimagine society for the better because of these nuanced considerations; while a perfect society exists in the realms of the impossible, these exist squarely in the possible. And it is because of this that although the most optimistic of the books mentioned here is only an “ambiguous” utopia, each one is a beacon of hope in its commitment to speaking of the future in order to reimagine the present.