Strategic Science Fiction Reader Caucus with a Splash of Transformative Justice (notes, Allied Media Conference 2011)

I got to be a part of this team, which included Leah, Jenna and Alexis. We started by geeking out, and brainstorming all of our favorite radical science fiction materials and creators.

Here’s the list of works/creators, followed by the full collective notes from the session (taken on a collective notepad!)

writer Iain Banks, (The Culture Series)
writer Octavia Butler
writer Samuel R Delaney (esp Dhalgren)
writer Nalo Hopkinson (Midnight Robbers)
writer Daniel Heath Justice
writer Madeleine L’Engle (esp Wrinkle in Time series)
writer Ursula Le Guin (esp Four Ways to Forgiveness, The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas)
writer China Mieville (esp Un Lun Dun)
singer Janelle Monae (all albums)
writer Joanna Russ
writer James Tiptree Jr’s short stories

Doc & Fluff, Pat Califia
The Stories of Your Lives and Others, Ted Chang
Black Wine, Candas Jane Dorsey
Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor
Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy
Fuzzy Nation, by writer John Scalzi
Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
A Door Into Ocean, Joan Slonczewski
Truth or Dare, Starhawk
Anarchist Farm
Battlestar Galactica
Firefly (tv series) + Serendipity (the movie)
Avatar: The Last Airbender

session notes:

– Presenter Intros
– Why Sci-Fi Reader Workshop?
– Octavia Butler Strategic Reader
– Presenting three science fiction texts with transformative justice threads.
– Fishbowl on transformative justice in science fiction

Presenter intros

Adrienne: Sci-fi geek, co-editor of Octavia’s Brood anthology
Jenna: Sci-fi nerd from Philly, working on sci-fi comic book
Leah: Watched Battlestar Galactica 17 times, likes using sci-fi to explore creating a
world without violence
Alexis: Engaged in project to amplify queer black brilliance across generations, haunted by Octavia Butler

Why are we having sci-fi workshop here?

– Vision is important
– Sci-fi is all about imaging world as different, social change is oriented around same premise
– It’s fun and makes me happy
– If we can play out dystopias, we can play out utopias
– Sci-fi stories change how we think about the world
– gives us opportunities to try out the worlds we want to live in
– Fun and dynamic and better than reading theory
– Gives us the opportunity to talk about issues we normally couldn’t (if you make the person purple or green you can suddenly talk about race)


The Octavia Butler Strategic Reader

Developing this reader started last year and was the jump off for our scifi track this year. We discussed radical genius science fiction writer Octavia Butler – What implications does her
work have for our work today?

(Adrienne + Alexis) introduced strategic reader, created through series of fishbowl conversations about Octavia Butler’s work and why it has been so transformative for us as political beings.

What came up was not so much this answer or that answer, but these are the questions and emotions that arise. Person who has thought about the apocalypse and brought us into an emotional run through.

Then we broke up into groups and discussed individual works. We didn’t cover all books.

We asked what kind of questions do we want to raise before walking into an Octavia butler book so we can get a lot out of it?

Looked at overarching themes in Octavia’s work as a whole. For each series, there’s talk about themes, how we related it to our world, additional questions that would be useful to a reading group.

If you have edits or feedback, we can make changes, this is not a published work.

For almost all folks in the room last year, Octavia’s books gave people survival strategies or meaningful contributions to their work.

–> Could we put it online as a wiki? [yes. hot. on the AMP site hopefully]

What is a strategic reader? We don’t know! We’re making it up. Not like cliff notes.

So, it’s something that isn’t like cliff notes but…the way we’re told be to strategic comes from a status quo that we don’t agree with — “manipulate and outfox your foe” — in Octavia, opening your mind, opening your power, being present, being part of a whole — those are strategies but not the kind of strategies we come across in organizing work.

We tried to write the reader in accessible language, especially for younger folks, to make sure it doesn’t fly over their heads.

How many other books and authors and series are out there that are affecting how we think about things?

Another thing that makes a strategic reader is that it changes the way that we think, lets us read in a way that changes our thinking. There are sacred texts that can transform our communities…what makes it possible to be a strategic reader is a political belief about the
power of reading.

Last year people were very open and naked — not concerned about getting it just right. Speak it from your heart and that’s what we want to put out as strategy. What touches us is what we need as strategy. (not too cosmic, right?)

What are the things that most touch us, because that is what transforms us.


Presenting three science fiction texts with transformative justice threads.

This is when we jump into talking. There are so many texts that revision the way justice works. We want to start by talking about three, and then pull more into the room.

Women on the Edge of Time (by Marge Piercy), with Leah:

As an abuse survivor i read a lot of feminist sci-fi to escape my reality and informed my political reality. Part of my work with a group called Generation 5 was how do we end childhood abuse in 5 generations — that’s sci-fi right there. We had these documents, if a generation is 25 years — how do we change conditions so that in 100 years everyone knows how to intervene if they see signs of a young person being abused?

We had study group that was dry, i wanted to explore feminist utopian texts.

Women on the Edge of time by Marge Piercy – this is a visionary novel. Working class, feminist
queer writer.

The main character is a Latina who is incarcerated, has visions of good future society. She’s not actually experiencing alternate consciousness/craziness, but is actually contacted by a good future society — capitalism is over, everyone is in a small village, some interesting
things around birthing — not just assigned to uteruses. everybody is queer, they have basically broken connections between genetics and race. lots of interesting stuff that happens in this book. I would live there, it’s awesome.

learned a lot of her working class feminism. I stole her books — doesn’t have sterilized feminist 101 politics. Sometimes she gets really real.

Looks at justice system: no police. We don’t want to have the infrastructure to support that. Because everything is small scale, so everyone is trained to intervene. Anyone could be randomly picked and would be the coordinator of your region for a year. In terms of the
justice system, in this world, there is no scarcity. If someone hits someone, we ask if they intended to do it? If they say no, they are “sick” and they address the emotional reasons why they did it. Otherwise, everyone gets together — and ask what needs to be done for reparations? It could be taking sheep somewhere high or going to a remote space station — but not locked up. And afterwards they are considered to be healed — for real second chance.

The really interesting thing about this future is the question about what if you rape or murder a second time. They execute people. They don’t want to have prisons or people repeatedly raping or hurting someone. At first I thought that was kind of fucked up, but this isn’t
a non-violent future, it’s very real. They also got their world through armed struggle. I’ll hold some of my thoughts about that, it does bring in a question about that there’s a spectrum of what rape and consensuality is. And they don’t talk about the details of what execution looks like.

The Fifth Sacred Thing (by Starhawk), with Jenna

(movie coming out soon, weird! check out the blog)

The year is 2525, I forget the word they use, but it’s been 20 years since the big change has happened. There is a total war zone a total horror – not enough water, and water is used to hold over people’s heads, there’s not enough food, etc.

Then there’s this other zone, a feminst utopia, queer and mixed race. in this place the earth is sacred, people have enough to eat, everybody loves each other. (It’s complicated in that “no one sees race anymore”.)

The way healing happens is interesting — trance work that Starhawk bases on some scientific research – healers are not just doctors – cell – what’s a cell — blood cell — the healers presence is able to go into this cell and move disease from here to there – every way of
imagining agriculture, healing, science is infused with trance. There are work guilds that are important – your work guild can change but its site of community for everybody. It’s also how people are held accountable.

The gardeners guild is present, teachers guild, … different parts of the community. Before they start the circle they sing. “no one goes hungry, no one lacks shelter. There is sickness but all have care…we have guarded our waters well .. all the gifts of the earth are
there …”

I’m going to read a few sections — it’s like San Francisco…

A character named bird from the south…Madrone a character, a healer in the north makes a journey to the south. As a reader you go back and forth between the north and the south. No one leaves the north – why would you? through Madrone’s eyes you learn how bad and how scary things are (in the south). … She meets a resistance group of southern christian white ladies. The first thing they ask Madrone is what you do in the case of rape and child abuse – (she is surprised they don’t ask her about her 11 lovers or the trance healing they do)… in this book sexual assault is described as something only can be done by men …

so in this book she’s talking about shame. “first everyone would talk to his friends and lovers … who are shocked at his behavior …there’s a long haul process for transformation .. maybe he goes off to live with the wild boar people. They are exiled .. they hunt wild boars, –they smell really bad, Once you are banished to south you cannot go back, clear moment of exile
reminded that you’re in the south – what if you won’t go, do you have police? “as we get older we learn peace keeping … ‘but if someone has a gun?’ then he might be killed…'”

It’s a thick book with a lot of detail, which makes space for the discussion of nitty gritty like how spokes councils work, conflict resolution works. Like Woman On the Edge of TIme, having the juxtaposition of [positive] and [negative] makes the discussion of the
utopia more powerful.

The book Truth Or Dare I consider to be Starhawk’s manual for writing this book.


is there any sort of race, how does this work in the book?
– race is only invisible in the north part, in the south people are very racist. In the south it’s really white and racist. There are demarcations, mapped out.

San Francisco is the site of the utopia and LA is the south?
– communications are down and people don’t know what’s happening in Japan or elsewhere. A lot of disasters. Part of the creepiness of north and south characters meeting is that
there is no other way for them to know what is going on.

Midnight Robber, (by Nalo Hopkinson) with Alexis

We started with Octavia Butler, she focused on trying to get other black women writers to write science fiction

Hopkinson is in some way a great continuation of Butlers work, but in some ways represents the same sort of tokenism. She is Trinidadian and uses those cultural themes in her work.

Midnight Robber, her second novel, addresses transformative justice.

Planet called Toussant, place called carnival, so carnival is how people live. When people cause harm they are sent, one way, to another dimension – to a place called New Halfway Tree, like exile into the universe, one way trip, no way back, helps to imagine a sort of diaspora, there is no coming back.

In Halfway Tree the things that are mythological, in Toussant are real and on the ground. in New Halfway Tree, dreams and nightmares are real, raising questions of where the stories really started.

Tan Tan, main heroine, her father is exiled, and he takes her with him so they are not separated. In New Halfway Tree they have created a sort of utopian, survivalist society, based on all of them being exiled. Her father begins to sexually assault her in this society. She moves to live with beings that are tree like, she become exiled from her community.

Midnight Robber is a character in carnival who uses language in a way that turns language upside down to disrupt power structure, symbolizes what is happening to tan tan and how she has to embody the Midnight Robber and find a way to tell the community what life is, and what it means.

For a survivor of sexual violence, the book raises questions of how can we be realistic about the stories we tell each other about what life means, and how they inform how we navigate life when abuse happens, and where the stories and mythology come from.


Fishbowl on Transformative Justice in Science Fiction:

Start having fishbowl conversation: a few people are having a conversation in the room, once someone has spoken someone else can come in and tap them on the shoulder to take their place and participate in the conversation.

Talk about these texts and other texts we know of — what are best strategies for transformative justice in the sci-fi we know of? We want to lift up questions — it’s OK to say
when I read this book, it makes me think about this — or what’s up with this?

Going to make strategic readers from the notes from this conversation.

What is transformative justice?

There are a lot of arguments about what it means. Basically idea is — right now the system we live in is punitive justice. You steal something, you go to jail.

Restorative justice (some people say) alternative idea — oh harm happens we need
to return conditions back to how it was before the harm happened. But in capitalism if i stole your radio I was broke before and broke afterward, so we need to address the conditions that brought rise to the harm.

In transformative justice we have to transform the world, so maybe if I stole your radio, I’ll give it back but we need to make sure everyone that has a radio.

What are some of the strategies in these texts around transformative justice that works, what are some of the questions that they raise?

– The only book that I have read is midnight robber, but it was a long time ago, want to bring up another book, Adore into Ocean, Joan sancheski? Such a hippy dippy book I feel embarssed to like it. Moon: waterworld gilled purple people nonviolent lesbian women, over terrible
partiarchal capitalist world. A boy who goes to live on this moon. The planet is trying to colonize world to take resources. non-violent resistance on moon. thinking about how they deal with harm. they all get together to talk someone does something wrong gets sent into
exile. also keeps a check on themselves. my name is neville — but when I come of age i take on a name that embodies my worst quality. so every time i introduce myself i am reminded, and others know. Bernice, not native to the moon, everyone suspects her of having alliances with her old people, takes on the name Nice the Deceiver, and then is renamed Nice the Traitor. Everyone is totally good but everyone has these names that embody the worst in them. Their language — kind of like the dispossessed — they don’t use possessives,
instead of saying i will teach you, they say ‘lets share knowledge’. not ‘he killed her’ but ‘we shared death’. the soldiers who kill them are also taking the death into them.

Represencing the question: thinking about these texts and others, what are transformative strategies or questions you’ve seen that you want to uplift?

– lingering question: something especially in first two novels, both talked about peaceful society, but were still preparing citizens for taking care of themselves, is that militarization in a time of peace? when we all have the capacity to be violent, how do we remain peaceful? Might apply to a lot of our cultures nowadays.
– When I read starhawk when i was 15 and isolated, I responded to it differently. I remember a specific time when a soldier is prepared not to enact violence, but to take on violence, so starhawk tries to embody non violent resistance, instead of violence.
– I guess I’m just not talking nonviolent resistence in scifi — madeline engel the wrinkle in time almost every time resistance is brought up it’s about joy and really being emotionally present (like butler). reread that series two years ago and really struck me.
– thing that i struggle with particularly with starhawk is in terms of transformative justice that white supremacy is so embedded in the text and also in writers that i actually can’t get to transformative justice. i always want to draw from new things that everyone is trying, but some of the strategies are really live from white supremacy land in this way that doesn’t feel unpacked in the book because the authors feel so secure. I struggle with even saying starhawls name, so I struggle to even hear her strategies, how do we grapple with hearing strategies when they come from privilege
– we are all in this society together, so we can find worthwhile things, while also acknowledging the lenses that people have form the experience of being a part of this society.
– How do we deal with texts that have great things in them but also alienate us at the same time, as someone who is disabled, queer and indigenous, most texts will alienate me in some way, but I can still extract things from them that are worthwhile, need to find tactics to
extract worthwhile things
– then how can those tactics, and how can those fucked up parts serve our transformation, we lift up the good parts and ignore others? in octavia butler the answer for earthseed is to go colonize other planets, and yet, and yet…
– There is a text that speaks to this – The Ones that Walk Away from Omelas – Ursula Leguin.
A utopian society made possible by a child being abused, who is locked away. when people come of age they are taken to see child, they decide whether to stay in Omelas or not. Some people decide to walk away and not be complicit, she says that we don’t know where they are going, but we need to go with them
– Questions: what is the purpose of psychic and intuitive powers in transformative jsutice, coming form a family where intuitive powers are passed down, how would that play into a transformative justice system?
– What would starhawk’s book look like if it was written by a radical feminist of color?
– I want to talk about a scifi text that has a similar vision of transformative justice that leaves me cold but is similar to previous visions we’ve discussed. Ian banks, Culture Series, socialist space operal, no scarcity, vision of justice is that if you do something bad you don’t get invited to dinner parties anymore. Sounds too much like what has happened in my own family w/ past sexual abuse — this doesn’t feel to me like justice, it feels like what actually happens when it isn’t dealt with, people are invited or not invited — but not really dealt with, not real healing. Also I have questions about these descriptions of worlds with mostly good people and bad people — but that’s not like our world in which people do good and bad things.
– I like darker side, BSG, people are all doing bad things all the time, feels more like the world that we live in
– Can I respond to the dinner party thing? Part of the way that many of us exist is by shutting down and ignoring interdependence, not being aware of privilege, in a world where interdependence is acknowledged and held up in that way, what it means to not get invited to dinner parties has a much larger implication
– What I hear a lot is talking about purity, one work that deals with that is Avatar the Last Air Bender, television show, main character has to grapple with what he is willing to do to end the war, moral line he may not be willing to cross within this character its shown that there
is a really sort of dark place that he goes into, destructive powerful force that is risky, interesting way to have a character there is no really pure characters
– Add on about the culture novels, in some of the other ones they address justice, its not just that you are not invited, more serious things you have a robot that follows you around to stop you before you do something bad, or maybe they exile you to a planet where all your needs are taken care of but you never see anyone
– in these knowledge, technology is so evolved, everyone can do anything that they want, how do we take something so beyond our capabilities and learn from it?
– questions related to midnight robber, is exile a transformative space, there is something exciting and nuanced to me in how we think about solitude, and taking space, and have a conversation about survivors and perpetrators that doesn’t see them as separate
– there are political decisions we can make about what works we can center, centering texts by people of color, and not only the one text that’s well known, this is really important, we don’t only have to critique the dominant text, we can center other texts
– another example is Mists of Avalon, Marian Zimmer Bradley, retelling of king arthur, if
you are talking about exile, what is the choice to withdraw? in that book the good guys withdraw to another realm and don’t come back because things in medieval England have gotten so bad, what is that space to remove yourself and maybe not come back, and how does that relate to exile?
– Have a question about what are the good and bad things that are happening, how do we define badness and trying to flesh that out more, talking about what the acts we are talking about are
– as far as understanding good and bad, there’s a text called The stories of your lives and others (Ted Chang). in that story has evolved people that withdraw into themselves and become enlightened, but end up opposed. some see social change as altruistic manipulation of the market, another sees it through enlightenment. switches back and forth
between antagonist and protagnost.
– people are concerned about changing the goal OR concerned about changing the culture and intention of the society.
– I just have a question, because I haven’t read these texts: good and bad, we keep saying, what are the good and bad things — how do we define what is good and what is bad? Taking people out of their communities — what are we talking about?
– problem with a lot of utopias: brian aldiss wrote a short story — utopia where people don’t lie, surgery given — zap part of brain where you lie. one person made a world in which all the lies were true, so they could get around that.
– Harlan Ellison said that Scifi talks about the world we see now — scifi from 30s is very different from the future we see now.
– been thinking about how authors have a lens, but haven’t talked about how readers bring a lens to what they are reading, I have read books and realized after the fact that some characters I read as white and straight…that was not what the author intended, want to encourage people to think about

Jenna’s closing:
Sci-fi is made up of sacred texts that save a lot of our lives and give us strength and let us do the work we do, gives us strength and ambition to focus on what is bigger and larger than what is in front of us now. grounding us strategically in our work and part of our spirituality. testify. giving sacredness to intention for the world.