Science fiction has long been the genre of choice for social commentary. By breaking away from the everyday real world and presenting alternative realities, it offers a safe haven for making statements on controversial or otherwise sensitive topics. Unsurprisingly, as a speculative fiction type, sci-fi is also a favourite genre choice for the visionary fiction writer, myself included. But just as not all visionary fiction is sci-fi, not all sci-fi is VF. Even so, with both being used for social commentary, the line that distinguishes the two can occasionally seem blurred. This is exactly what happened recently when the VFA came across a writer who was promoting a kind of fiction for which she had chosen the term “visionary fiction”.
Writer and activist Walidah Imarisha has mainly written poetry and non-fiction, but she has co-edited the anthology Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements named after sci-fi writer Octavia E. Butler. The book is described at its website as “visionary science fiction and speculative fiction written by organizers and activists,” and elsewhere co-editor Adrienne Maree Brown describes the book as offering “a way to uncover the truths buried in the fantastical – and to inject a healthy dose of the fantastical into our search for truth”. Imarisha has also said about what she means by visionary: “If its weird and it helps us build new just worlds, that’s us.”
When in January 2015, VFA editor Margaret Duarte first sent the VFA editorial board a link to an interview of Imarisha I was especially interested, since I spotted some key words that corresponded to my own VF, in particular justice, and systemic. (My novel Systems is about a quest to create an experimental ideal society designed to open human potential.) But it soon emerged that Imarisha’s take on “visionary” is different from that of the VFA. This is not to say that Imarisha’s collection isn’t “visionary” in its own right, insofar as it aims to create a better future, in line with the dictionary definition of the word, but nevertheless her concept of “visionary” differs from the existing genre of the same name – which I will call “VF proper” here.
A brief history of VF proper
As I wrote in 2012 for the webring that later became the VFA, VF proper has emerged from a human need to rediscover the “spiritual” in a secularised contemporary world. While it is as yet an emerging genre in mainstream publishing, it has precedents in the visionary literature of old, including the myths of Biblical and other scripture. The term “visionary literature” has long been used formally in academia to refer to religious devotional literature, and similar to the VF of today, this devotional literature does not necessarily aim to proselytise. As an art form, VF proper shares common ground with the broader visionary art movement, which “purports to transcend the physical world and portray a wider vision of awareness”. As a genre, it has gradually gained increasing recognition in the commercial publishing industry. Hal Zina Bennett has noted that in the 1990s a panel of various representatives from the publishing industry agreed the time had come to establish “visionary fiction” in a distinct book category. Today, it has its own category in the major online book retailer Amazon, namely “Metaphysical & Visionary Fiction”.
At a talk given in May this year at Oregon State University, Imarisha provided a list of principles for what constitutes visionary fiction (see video above, approx. 10 mins mark onwards). Some of them align closely with those of the VFA:
- Explores current social issues through lens of sci fi
- Conscious of identity and intersecting identities
- Centers those who have been marginalised
- Conscious of power inequalities
- Realistic and hard but hopeful
- Change from bottom up rather than top down
- Change is collective
- Not neutral – purpose is social change
This list of criteria places strong emphasis on equality and social justice, suggesting that (social) system reform is the defining characteristic for this particular type of fiction. Exploring social reform can and does feature as a central theme of VF proper as well, but this is not its defining characteristic. In fact the defining characteristic of VF proper is made conspicuous by its absence from this list, and to the best of my knowledge Imarisha has not mentioned it anywhere else. We will return to this shortly.
The visionary meaning of “systemic”
Imarisha’s VF and VF proper are both technically didactic; they both fall into the larger category of inspirational fiction; and both aim to inspire and create positive change in the real world. Imarisha’s vision is fixed on social reform, on political issues revolving about racial and gender equality, and economic justice. For this reason, Imarisha has described VF as “systemic”, a word that happens to be important to me personally too, both in my fiction and non-fiction. VF proper is “systemic” as well, and it often explores the same issues, but it also promotes the idea that addressing them will only be possible following an inner transformation of humanity. It makes internal social reform a prerequisite to external reform. This is reminiscient of Jung, who introduced the term “visionary” to describe one of the two major “modes of artistic creation” in 1929.  His concept of visionary fiction takes a holistic worldview, in contrast to the limited and usually external worldview of other fiction.
When Imarisha says, “what is going to be needed is an incredible, deep, and complete systemic change”, she means at the socioeconomic level, i.e. the material plane. But in VF proper, “systemic” means nothing short of a revolutionary change from the inside out, encompassing the spiritual, the secular, and everything in between. Indeed, the VFA’s own description of VF is that it is “universal in worldview and scope“(emphasis mine). This all-inclusive view owes itself to the defining characteristic of VF proper, which is the evolution of consciousness.
The vital characteristic
The VFA’s Vic Smith has made the same point quite succinctly: “What of fiction that centers on single issues, even if from a spiritual viewpoint: recovery, women’s rights, political reform? Since many such topics fall into already established categories and lack the universal ingredient, they would not qualify as VF.”
The universal ingredient, of course, is the evolution of human consciousness.
If we accept the general consensus that the hallmark of VF is the evolution of human consciousness, the absence of this single but vital characteristic from Imarisha’s list indicates that her visionary fiction is not the same as the established genre, even if it shares some intriguing parallels.
 See for example Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff (1986) Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature; Victor I. Stoichita (1995) Visionary Experience in the Golden Age of Spanish Art; Denise Ellen Blue (1974) Visionary Literature and Finnegans Wake.
 Mary Lou Shea (2010) Medieval Women on Sin and Salvation: Hadewijch of Antwerp, Beatrice of Nazareth, Margaret Ebner, and Julian of Norwich (American University Studies), p.59
 Hal Zina Bennett (1999) “Visionary Fiction: Rediscovering Ancient Paths to Truth” in Deborah Levine Herman (2001) Spiritual Writing: From Inspiration to Publication, p.60
 See Carl Jung (1955) Modern Man in Search of a Soul p.155, 156