How Sci-Fi and Fantasy Change the World

Aliens, Frankenstein, and fairy tales help us imagine feminist futures and radically new ways of being

A surprise hit film this year was Everything Everywhere All at Once, a sci-fi romp through this world and the multiverse, which highlighted issues of nihilism, choice, motherhood, and sexuality.

Its success wasn’t a surprise for English Department professor and chair Sonia Hofkosh, who teaches the course Feminist Science Fictions. “Science fiction is a way of reflecting on our own world by positing something completely alternative. It tries to get us to rethink what we know and understand,” she said.

Fantasy works along similar lines, said Gregory Maguire, AG90, author of the bestselling novel Wicked, which retells the story of the Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West and was made into a hit Broadway musical. Stories set in other worlds aren’t as made-up as we like to think, he suggested.

“They are an examination of our societies,” Maguire said. “They dress up and make it look like it isn’t really us, but it is. That’s all sci-fi is about, and possibly all speculative fiction as well. The magic in them is just window dressing.”

“Science fiction isn’t the only literature that disrupts our assumptions, but it does it very elaborately and dramatically because it’s unbound by the conventions of realistic fiction,” Hofkosh said. “In order to get a different kind of world we need to think outside and beyond our world.”

For example, science fiction has often explored women’s rights, specifically consent, reproductive choice, and oppression and exploitation, said Hofkosh. Some works imagine grim futures in which limits to the rights of women are taken to the extreme. Margaret Atwood’s novel (and subsequent TV series) The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a dystopian society with falling birth rates, where the few remaining fertile women are enslaved, ceremonially raped, and forced to bear children for the families in power.

Humans also face extinction in Octavia Butler’s post-nuclear-war Dawn series, and must decide whether to save their race by mating with an insect-like species called the Oankali. Many agree to do so—but in a situation where one group will otherwise die out and the other party holds all the power, is true consent even possible?

“One way science fiction thinks is by putting the human next to, alongside, and in relation to the foreigner, the alien, and looking at what that encounter is,” Hofkosh said. “And what any socially conscious science fiction does is to open, elaborate, and expose problems that then the reader has to imagine.”

Bucking Assumptions

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman depicts a society where a single act of violence against a woman is enough to get a man ostracized from society. “It was interesting to see someone in 1915 imagine that world,  which is very much unfortunately not how our world works,” said Melissa Feito, A16, who analyzed the work for her undergraduate thesis “Gender, Power, and Reproduction in Feminist Science Fiction.”

Similarly, Feito said, the original Star Trek series is known for one of the first portrayals of a strong, Black, female main character—Lieutenant Uhura.

“It was one example of how science fiction allows writers to imagine a world not constrained by the social systems, rules, and characteristics of our world,” Hofkosh said. “Gender  was still depicted in fairly conventional  ways in that series , but the fact that Uhura was there and had a significant role broke both race and gender  barriers and opened up possibilities for what could happen differently.”

Likewise, said Hofkosh, Butler’s Dawn series examines not just reproductive choice and the limits of consent, but the fundamentally hierarchical nature of society, which divides its members into those with power and those without—as well as those who are presumed to be people, and those who aren’t.

“Butler opens up the question of what it means to be human, and what it means to be other—to be foreign, to be kept out or minoritized, not to be empowered to determine their own lives,” Hofkosh said. “It becomes a real question in much of science fiction, but especially in feminist science fiction.”

Feminism is commonly understood as advocating more power for women, Hofkosh said, but its real target is the idea of power and that some people have more of it than others, and the structures that support this. Ultimately, feminism aims to break down monolithic, binary thinking, and consider the reality of human life in more complex ways, Hofkosh said—and science fiction and fantasy are particularly well-suited to do that.

Connecting with the Other

The idea of “othering” has been central to countless works of science fiction, according to Hofkosh—going back as far as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is often considered one of the earliest examples of feminist science fiction, or even more than a century earlier to Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World.

It’s also prominent in works of fantasy such as Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, where Ozians draw lines between humans and nonhumans (animals populate much of Maguire’s version of Oz), as well as between good and evil. 

“It’s about power and who gets it, and the shorthand, sloppy way we pick out our enemies in crowds and start to throw stones, and the difficulties of assigning the values of moral right and wrong to human behavior,” Maguire said. 

But no matter how different the “other” might be, works of sci fi and fantasy almost always include a bridge between new and old. This can be a newcomer we follow as they navigate an alien society (such as Earth native Genly Ai in Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness), or a relatable native who roots us in even the most bizarre realities (such as Lilith in Dawn).

It’s our empathy for characters that fully brings us into strange new worlds, Hofkosh explained.

“There is a moment of possibility in really seeing into someone else’s experience as opposed to being isolated in your own, in connecting with someone completely different from yourself,” she said. “Sci fi is a good vehicle because it’s not bound by our reality at all, but it is still tethered to our reality, and has recognizable features of our world. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t have any impact on us.” 

In other words, communing with someone totally unlike us can give us a clearer look at ourselves, Hofkosh suggested. “The human relies on the non-human or the not-quite-human to understand what is integral or inherent about itself,” she said.

Instruction and Release

Unfortunately, science fiction and fantasy are often dismissed as less serious than so-called “realistic” literature, according to Maguire. Whether it’s because they deal in make-believe rather than facts, or because one of their primary aims is to entertain, he said, they are frequently marketed in frivolous ways and ignored by critics.

Fantasy does offer an escape, Maguire acknowledged—but that’s part of what makes it so powerful. He pointed to classics such as The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Gilgamesh, Milton, and Pilgrim’s Progress.

“All these great saga cycles involve a very human protagonist whose encounters with the magical world are meant to relieve our sore eyes from the strain of looking at the punishing, terrifying, crisis-ridden world in which we find ourselves,” he said.

Other worlds offer “a balm to the spirit,” Maguire said—and an enticement onward. “They are powerful lures for the imagination, entrancing and enchanting us to come into the story, and to be just as full of wonder when we come out as we were on the first page,” he said.

Relief and wonder aren’t frivolous, Maguire added. As a child, they were the difference between life and death, allowing him to step outside of his own fear, grief, and thoughts about himself.

“My medicine was fantasy. Those stories saved me—they kept me alive until I was ready to look more unblinkingly at the world in which I found myself,” Maguire said. “Fantasy puts down an overlay on the world that we have to endure, fix, and take care of. It gives us both instruction and release at the same time.”

And by enthralling, instructing, and empowering children in particular, fantastic worlds have a very real effect on our future, Maguire said. “J.M.Barrie [author of Peter Pan] wrote about the need for children to spread their wings and take responsibility for and shape their own world—which was kind of prophetic,” Maguire said. “Writers like Maurice Sendak give children a spyglass and say, ‘Here you go, my mate, this is going to be your world one day. Do the best you can with it. I trust you.

New Ways to Be

Maguire refuses to accept that realistic fiction is somehow more “real” than fantasy, arguing that any world is as real as the character through whom we experience it.

“Whether you’re trying to write the interior life of the tooth fairy, or the interior life of Charles Lindbergh as the president of the Nazi United States, if your character is central and firmly planted, then your reader will be able to walk around as them, and think about the dilemmas in which the characters find themselves,” he said.

Hofkosh pointed to the word “science” in science fiction, suggesting that like biology or physics, this genre concerns itself with observing and describing our world as it is. Rather than speaking in terms of realism or fantasy, Hofkosh proposed drawing a different distinction.

“There is some literature that reassures people that what they know is the truth, and some literature that is really trying to get people to rethink what they know and understand,” Hofkosh said. “That’s the literature that’s going to allow for and propel change in the world, as opposed to refining what already exists.”

Such literature gives us a way to start thinking about doing things differently, she said—especially when we read it together, study the lessons it offers, and discuss how we might apply them to our lives and world.

“It doesn’t give recipes for social action, and it’s not the change that happens by storming the bulwarks of society. But it does start to change people’s minds and change how people think,” she said. “And we need that as the crucial part of any next step of social action or organizing—because that’s when we can start to break down barriers and build alternative ways of being.”

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