Image Credit: National Archives at College Park / Wikimedia Commons
In the opening line of her 2021 book on science fiction, Sherryl Vint writes, “it has become axiomatic to say that the world is becoming like science fiction,” and with rapid advances in science and technology, things that were once dreamed have now materialized. Yet, the utopic visions of the twentieth century have been abandoned. Today we accept dystopian conditions as the norm.
With our world resembling science fiction, we no longer endeavor to imagine the future. Instead of creative expressions of possibility, slick marketing and aspirational visions of hyper-capitalism present us with quick fixes for economic, political, and ecological catastrophe on earth all while selling us on neocolonial visions of outer space.
Imagining alternative futures could help breach some of today’s most pressing political and philosophical concerns: for example, the Anthropocene and environmental catastrophe, renewed calls for decolonization against the rise of fascism(s) around the world, our complicity with imperialist violence abroad and political impotence at home.
Today, it looks as though the Western Left has failed to, as Wendy Brown puts it, “apprehend the character of the age,” resigning revolutionary ambition to a bleak future. Where are our revolutionary visions? Do our analyses not have more to offer beyond the institutionalized critiques of the present?
The futures I imagine call on those who are interested in revolutionary alternatives to engage the lessons of theorists of culture, art, and particularly science fiction. These futures draw from and revise the course set out by the promise of communism and decolonization, reviving unfinished utopias for the twenty-first century. As we cling to the promises of past struggle, the future requires not only our attention but the courage to try something different. Shouldn’t the Left revise its narratives for the future?
The question of revising the future invokes a natural parallel: revising history. The emergence of historical materialism represents a major paradigm shift for twentieth-century analyses of society, one often attacked as revisionist. But revisionist histories have also produced important correctives to mainstream historical narratives. The histories of slavery and colonialism, the founding of the Americas, the nature and value of scientific discovery—all have been revised to create more accurate accounts.
Indeed, recurrent interventions in historical narratives have allowed for the oppressed to gain control over their histories as well as their futures. They are a form of critical thought that clarifies and exposes the inconsistencies or outright fallacies that serve the status quo. I want to propose that in the present age, we need revisionist futures too.
For the Left in particular, the reanimation of occluded and suppressed histories has served as a space to imagine different outcomes. Why not try to replicate this method to develop revisionist futures?
In his 1974 essay “The Muse of History,” poet and literary scholar Dereck Walcott describes how the collapsing of history into memory comes to dominate over the future:
The method by which we are taught the past, the progress from motive to event, is the same by which we read narrative fiction. In time every event becomes an exertion of memory and is thus subject to invention. The further the facts, the more history petrifies into myth.
Walcott is thinking about historical method in relation to colonial conquest in the Americas and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He argues that we should understand the colonial figure who venerates his past and the revolutionary who seeks to break from a violent and oppressive one, as perpetuating the same tradition. This is because those who ‘reject’ the idea of history as time and embrace it as myth dominate those who engage with the past without projecting new myths.
The recognition of history as myth—open to revision—allows it to be a “habitable moment,” by which Walcott imagines a space to think differently. Similarly, Frantz Fanon, in addressing the process of decolonization, writes in The Wretched of the Earth (1963):
It is not only necessary to fight for the liberty of your people. You must also teach that people once again, and first learn once again yourself, what is the full stature of a man; and this you must do for as long as the fight lasts. You must go back into history, that history of men damned by other men; and you must bring about and render possible the meeting of your people and other men.
Both argue not just for the possibility of revising the future, but that embracing that possibility is a historical necessity.
Likewise, Marx’s vision of historical materialism was future-oriented and mythic in what it promised. This hopeful myth, an egalitarian society, was brought to life through both Marx’s analytic method and the promise that it might produce another world. This was communism’s promise, and the source of its magnetism, throughout much of the twentieth century. Feminists, anti-racists, and others have built on this vision and, in some ways, been validated by new social movements that have expanded our understanding of class, its formation and stratification in the present, generating new possibilities for its future. But these insights fall short of envisioning a new society.
History and the future must be imagined within the same revisionist process. At a 2016 memorial lecture for South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, Angela Davis referred to past struggles as not just a legacy, but also “mandates to develop new strategies, new technologies of struggle . . . these legacies, when they are taken up by new generations, reveal unfulfilled promises of the past and therefore give rise to new activisms.”
Rather than imagining the twenty-first century as the end of revolutionary aspirations, Davis motivates a vision of the past and future as essential to each other. She states:
The young activists of today stand on our shoulders. And precisely because they stand on our shoulders, they see something of what we have seen, but they also see and understand a great deal more. They are beginning to address unresolved questions and some of the erasures and foreclosures about which I spoke earlier. They stand on our shoulders, but we do not provide a steady foundation, precisely because our questions were questions of a different era.
This idea of unfinished or unfulfilled promise offers hope, and it is one response to Brown’s question about how we might simultaneously honor past socialist ideals and recognize changing historical conditions.
Revisionist futures challenge the narrative arc of a progressive past-present-future, eliminating the break between our past and present. Instead, the past calls on us to reach back and locate a different path forward, a reorientation, one with its own promise and a new myth about how we will arrive in the present.
Now even more than before, the crisis of capitalism requires this promise of something else, and transformation requires the courage to imagine something else. Critical engagement with a past that engineers different futures and outcomes is already underway. In his essay, “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism,”(2003) cultural theorist Kodwo Eshun writes of the “overdetermined” desire by Black intellectuals to respond to their expulsion from history, and thus the future, through a demonstration of their history. “To establish the historical character of black culture, to bring its subjects into history denied by Hegel et al.,” Eshun writes, “it has been necessary to assemble counter-memories that contest the colonial archive, thereby situating the collective trauma of slavery as the founding moment of modernity.” This narrative has slowly emerged in recent years to challenge the longstanding historical narrative of modernity, and with the introduction of these counter memories an altered narrative of both past and future has been introduced, reconstructing a deliberately extinguished account of slavery.
Similarly, Adom Getatchew’s Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (2019) recasts anti-colonial nationalism as a “worldmaking” event with its own unique promise of “internationalism,” particularly on the African continent. To do so, she revisits the promise of decolonization, its unfolding, and recovers from it a different past.
With the prominence of techno-scientific characteristics, the twenty-first century no longer prompts us to imagine something other than the present: the future is here in crisis. The crisis: our captured imaginations. Science fiction, despite its utopian/dystopian visioning, as Eric C.H. de Bruyn and Sven Lütticken note in their introduction to Futurity Report (2017), isn’t about the future. It’s about crisis, shift, mutation, and recasting.
As a creative practice, science fiction privileges revisionist futures. At its best, this genre is a ”worldmaking technique,” one that exposes the possibilities contained in multiple presents. Unlike history, science fiction has not been burdened by the need to produce believable outcomes. Operating through the suspension of disbelief, the ‘science’ in science fiction is free to be prophetic, in that it does not have to exist—yet.
Not just stories about utopias and dystopias to come, science fiction should be understood as an arena where competing narratives of the present allow us to reimagine the past and future and allow us to imagine alternatives for action. It may not be predicting the future, but it does allow us the space to imagine, speculate, reanimate, and most importantly revise that which is lost, occluded, and extinguished from history.
Lina Nasr El Hag Ali is a lecturer in literature and philosophy at OCAD University, Toronto, Canada.