More than any modern genre of fiction, science fiction is predominantly written with a social purpose. Such a goal is rarely to explicitly to predict the future, especially since in many cases the predictive features of science fiction are at best mediocre. While in hindsight, it is easy to select stories with elements of fiction that came to be in life, there are far more examples of predictions that fizzled. Instead, these works are written to caution society about the potentially adverse impact of today’s actions, such as war as well as to explore the ramifications of radical political systems, as supported by Orwell’s 1984.
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Because of this, science fiction is usually read with a particular purpose – its consumers are usually concerned with the future of the modern world and apart from embracing fantastic worlds, want to reflect on their reality. Therefore, instead of realistically depicting the future, science fiction reflects the present in which it is written. Through seeking to create fantasy, fiction writers draw upon personal life experiences and knowledge of their culture as well as elaborate on their reality it in their works. This topic will be explored through referencing the short stories of three authors Octavia Butler, Nora K. Jemisin, and Hafissa Thompson-Spires, the fiction works of whom have been noted for their exploration of such themes as cultural conflict and oppression of the vulnerable. Particularly, Thompson-Spires’ ‘Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology,’ Jemisin’s ‘Valedictorian,’ and Butler’s ‘Speech Sounds’ will be explored in the current analysis.
Science fiction is meant to be read with a purpose in mind because, although speculatively, works of this genre provide a nod to realism and present a thoughtful perspective of society’s common future. Thus, when reading novels or short stories of this genre people tend to reflect on the various ways in which they interact with each other, their past and present, as well as with the world. A good science fiction story posits a vision of the future that is built on the basis of realism, with social issues often being at the center, albeit hidden to the ‘naked eye,’ discussion. In ‘Four Fancy Sketches,’ Thompson-Spires raises the topic of cultural bias and the issue of police violence, which is highly relevant in the modern social agenda.
The story could have been occurring at any time in the present or the nearest future as it depicts a Black man named Riley with a quite unique appearance of “blue contact lenses and bleached hair,” which was made “some mornings into Sonic the Hedgehog spikes” on his way to a comic book convection (Thompson-Spires 20). The description of the main character may be very close to modern readers who may also have similar to their interests. To understand the author’s references to popular culture, including the mentions of Neil deGrasse Tyson or Naruto, one has to be in their twenties. This makes the fictional story so realistic, as anyone could find themselves in Riley’s situation. His altercation with another black man who did not like Riley’s appearance escalates to a police shooting. The story ends abruptly, with the two men ending up being killed by officers who should have resolved the conflict peacefully, but contributed to the creation of two chalk outlines on the ground, thus eliminating any opportunity for an apology.
In ‘Speech Sounds,’ Butler also raises the question of ineffective communication among people that leads to further violence and aggression. In a post-apocalyptic society, human beings are forced to use symbols to authenticate themselves when communicating. The story’s protagonist, for example, uses a pin shaped like a wheat stalk to represent her last name, Rye. Living in silence and using non-verbal communication to interact harbors the feelings of rage and aggression among the population, with fights caused by wrong facial expressions. Subsequently, even the number of obscene gestures increased: “He gestured obscenely, and several other men laughed. Loss of verbal language had spawned a whole new set of obscene gestures. The man, with stark simplicity, had accused her of sex with the bearded man” (Butler 95). This theme echoes how people in modern times can be hostile to one another by misinterpreting intentions and over-reacting, with violence being returned with violence. The importance of the short story to the discussion of modern society also lies in the author’s criticism of preventing women from speaking their minds. References to the pre-Civil Rights Movement times are seen as African American women who lived in the past could not stand for their own voices in a white patriarchal society.
Jemisin’s ‘Valedictorian’ has similarities to Butler’s ‘Speech Sounds’ since the author also describes a post-apocalyptic society in which humans are trapped in a mysterious place of Firewall. Children are raised in strict conditions, with both the smartest and the least smart being taken out of Firewall, with their fate remaining unknown. The story’s protagonist, Zinhle, is the highest-achieving in her class, which means that she risks being taken away from her family. The girl does not want to get pregnant, which prevents her from being captured, proceeding to excel in her class: “each paper she writes must be more brilliant than the last. She tries to finish every test faster than she did the last one” (Jemisin 151).
Presented with an opportunity to speak to one of the representatives of the government due to her academic achievements, Zinhle learns that her world is run by Artificial Intelligence that welcomes her to becomes one of them. Being herself, the girl does not betray any of her own principles and “nails” the test to see whether the Firewall would take her to become one of them (Jemisin 169). The parallels between totalitarianism and the Firewall are indisputable; however, the key theme of the story is linked to women’s empowerment. As a young woman, the story’s protagonist refuses to get pregnant to avoid life challenges, nor does she agree to fail her studies just to be like anyone else. Jemisin’s fictional world alludes to the centuries of women’s oppression both in political and social life, which led to suffrage and the subsequent acceptance of women as valuable contributors to society.
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Reading the short stories, one cannot help but reflect on the current issues that bother people each day. The worlds created by the authors are mostly restricting in their barriers, causing humans to adapt to them in the effort to survive. Both in the past and the present, people have been learning to change in to fit their surrounding environments. The fictional works came to be through a reflection of the writers on their own experiences of negative events, including oppression, violence, and cultural or racial biases. As mentioned by Jemisin in her essay “Dreaming Awake,” “as a black woman, I believe I wasn’t supposed to be a writer. Simultaneously I was supposed to write about black people – and only black people. […] Took me years after I started writing to create a protagonist who looked like me. And then once I started doing so, it took me years to write a protagonist who was something different.” This shows that authors’ experience heavily influences the shaping of their storytelling since it is hard for people to overcome their history and mythology.
The implications of Thompson-Spires’s story are especially relevant in the current discussion as there is a direct parallel drawn to police brutality that has not left the news even today. While the story has a witty tone with a narrative voice that always keeps readers on their toes, the abrupt and tragic ending is akin to everything that happens in life. The characters in the story, most importantly, are freed from metafictional narration from any representation burdens, they are just ‘getting by’ as if they are anyone else. The unpolished nature of the narrative makes the issue of race-based violence even more real as life is both comedic and tragic at the same time. As Jemisin writes that science fiction reflects the present in which it is written, it becomes clear why Thompson-Spires talks about police brutality against African Americans. Published in 2018, in the aftermath of deaths of Freddie Gray, Sam Dubose, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and many others, the story explores issues that are close to the author’s heart.
Concerned with women’s opportunities to speak out and become successful in life, both Jemisin and Butler created stories that indirectly criticized the gender inequality and underlined the need for young women to be proactive in their choices and achievements. Both being African American women, the writers experienced oppression and disregard for their social roles, which enabled them to turn their knowledge and wisdom into prose. The stories and the fictional worlds that they created came to be because the authors were, lived, and had experienced both the positive and the negative in life. At certain times in history, the oppression of women was not groundbreaking, with their marginalization to be expected. Jemisin and Butler wanted to turn things around and provide a critique of oppressive societies to ensure that history does not repeat itself, especially for women.
It cannot be doubted that the near future worlds will evolve from racial bias, poor communication, and gender inequality. Since the publishing of Butler’s ‘Speech Sounds’ in 1983, for example, the social climate in the United States has shifted toward the greater acceptance of African-American women in the workforce, with more and more of them becoming prominent in politics, social justice, and entertainment. Science fiction works that are being written today are highly likely to depict such issues as terrorism, and rising income inequality between the richest and the poorest as these problems bother many people globally. The fictitious worlds created by writers explored in this paper mirror the issues that society faces today, which supports Jemisin’s hypothesis that science fiction reflects the present in which it is written.
Butler, Octavia. “Speech Sounds.” Bloodchild and Other Stories, edited by Octavia Butler, Asimov’s Science Fiction, 1983, pp. 89-110.
Jemisin, Nora K. “Dreaming Awake. NKJemisin. 2012, Web.
Nora K. Jemisin, editor. “Valedictorian.” How Long till the Black Future Month? Hachette, 2018, pp. 150-169.
Thompson-Spires, Nafissa. “Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and no Apology.” Heads of the Colored People, edited by Nafissa Thompson-Spires, 37 Ink, 2018, pp. 2-14.