Walidah Imarisha & adrienne maree brown (ed.), Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. AK Press, 2015. Pp. 304. ISBN 978-1-84935-209-3. $18.00.Reviewed by Kathryn Allan
Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown’s Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements is important. I received my review copy of this short story collection a year ago—although life intervened every time I sat down to write my review, it also gave me the opportunity to think deeply about Octavia’s Brood and the legacy of Octavia Butler’s work. To be honest, I don’t think I could have written this review right after reading the anthology. I needed that extra time to let the vision of Imarisha and brown’s project become clearer to me.
In her Introduction, Imarisha begins: “Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction. All organizing is science fiction. Organizers and activists dedicate their lives to creating and envisioning another world, or many other worlds—so what better venue for organizers to explore their work than science fiction stories? That is the premise of the book you hold in your hands” (p. 3). By opening with this declaration, Imarisha provides an essential framing of the book, as well as demonstrates her awareness that some people in the business of science fiction will ask: Is this really science fiction? Are these social activists really creating science fiction? (And I have indeed read reviews that go in that direction). Of course, such lines of questioning conveniently side-step the necessity of the work being carried out and act as gatekeeping, privileging the voices of those making the nit-picky challenge over those of the very editors and contributors of Octavia’s Brood. These are stories to learn from.
The short fiction pieces that have stuck with me the most over the past year are varied in their tone and style. In particular, I have found myself suddenly thinking about brown’s “the river,” which involves an unforgettable watery vengeance, and Autumn Brown’s “Small and Bright,” which imagines the hope and fear of leaving one known world for another. I enjoyed the stories that explored the intersection of race and disability, either directly, like in Mia Mingus’ “Hollow” (where people are divided up into “Perfects” and “UnPerfects”), or indirectly, like in David F. Walker’s “The Token Superhero” (which plays with the comic book trope of the genetically anomalous superhero). One of the major strengths of the collection is the variety of the narrative styles: Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ “Evidence” is presented in “documents” of letters and poetry, Dawolu Jabari Anderson’s “Sanford and Sun” explodes the expected sitcom script with a visit from Sun Ra, and Mumia Abu-Jamal contributes a thoughtful (and geeky) short essay, “Star Wars and the American Imagination.” There are also novel excerpts from LeVar Burton’s Aftermath and Terry Bison’s Fire on the Mountain, and an excellent reprinted lecture, “The Only Lasting Truth,” by Tananarive Due on the theme of change in Butler’s works.
I have never included the Table of Contents in a review before, but I think that for Octavia’s Brood, it is necessary to do so. The stories speak to each other as much as they speak together as one, and I want to make sure that each contributor is acknowledged here.
Foreword by Sheree Renee Thomas
Introduction by Walidah Imarisha
Revolution Shuffle by Bao Phi
The Token Superhero by David Walker
the river by adrienne maree brown
Evidence by Alexis Pauline Gumbs
Black Angel by Walidah Imarisha
The Long Memory by Morrigan Phillips
Small and Bright by Autumn Brown
In Spite of Darkness by Alixa Garcia
Hollow by Mia Mingus
Lalibela by Gabriel Teodros
Little Brown Mouse by Tunde Olaniran
Sanford and Sun by Dawolu Jabari Anderson
Blackout Runway by Tara Betts
Kafka’s Last Laugh by Vagabond
22XX: One Shot by Jelani Wilson
Manhunters by Kalamu ya Salaam
Aftermath by LeVar Burton
Fire on the Mountain by Terry Bisson
Homing Instinct by Dani McClain
children who fly by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Star Wars and the American Imagination by Mumia Abu-Jamal
The Only Lasting Truth by Tananarive Due
Outro by adrienne maree brown
Following up Imarisha’s strong introductory call to envision and enact better worlds through the work of science fiction, brown ends the collection with a description of what such action looks like through social organizing and fiction writing workshops. She tells the reader that: “We see ourselves as part of a growing wave of folks connecting science fiction (or what we’re calling visionary fiction) with social justice. Science fiction is the perfect ‘exploring ground,’ as it gives us the opportunity to play with different outcomes and strategies before we have to deal with real-world costs” (278). brown points to the very aspect of science fiction that I also love—its ability to be an “exploring ground” for what is possible in the future using the tools and beliefs that we have today. By bringing together a group of social activists, most of whom had never written science fiction before, Imarisha and brown expand the boundaries of science fiction into what they rightly call visionary fiction. The stories in Octavia’s Brood are the strongest when read together; they each give definition to the shape of social justice movements today and spin out worlds they hope to make in the future. Octavia’s Brood offers proof that, as Butler wrote, “all that you touch you change.”