Is All Social Commentary Visionary Fiction?

By Saleena Karim

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”.

Walidah Imarisha

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.”

Parallels

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,[1] and similar to the VF of today, this devotional literature does not necessarily aim to proselytise.[2] 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.[3] Today, it has its own category in the major online book retailer Amazon, namely “Metaphysical & Visionary Fiction”.

Marks of social commentary

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”

The world we shape

The world we shape

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. [4] 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.


Footnotes

[1] 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.

[2] 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

[3] Hal Zina Bennett (1999) “Visionary Fiction: Rediscovering Ancient Paths to Truth” in Deborah Levine Herman  (2001) Spiritual Writing: From Inspiration to Publication, p.60

[4] See Carl Jung (1955) Modern Man in Search of a Soul p.155, 156

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About Saleena Karim

Saleena is a writer and publisher, best known for authoring the political biography "Secular Jinnah & Pakistan". As well as being the co-brainchild of the Visionary Fiction Alliance, she is the author of the award-winning visionary fiction novel "Systems", which is also part of the curricular reading material and the Marghdeen Learning Center, Karachi.
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11 Responses to Is All Social Commentary Visionary Fiction?

  1. Saleena, You make such an important point in your article. When I first discovered Walidah Imarisha's article I was excited to see the term VF getting exposure in the literature world. Then, after further consideration, I, too, had some questions about her definitions.

    The VFA welcomes and encourages the exploration of all expressions of VF, including Walidah Imarisha's. After all, we are a relatively new genre, (that paradoxically has been around for millenia!) You succinctly pulled out the one ingredient missing in Ms. Imarisha's definition of VF – the evolution of human consciousness. This crucial ingredient of the internal shift that necessarily precedes the external changes in our world is indeed the emphasis of VF.

    Well thought out and referenced article, Saleena. Thank you! I hope and invite Ms. Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown to comment here as well! Our exchanges are what will grow this wonderful genre!

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    • Thanks Jodine – I too would welcome comments from either Ms Imarisha or Ms Brown, because as I said, I do see some strong parallels which was what drew the VFA team to their work in the first place (see also my comment to Theresa below). It was just that missing vital component that places their fiction in a slightly different category.

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  2. Saleena, This quote sums up VF: "a way to uncover the truths buried in the fantastical – and to inject a healthy dose of the fantastical into our search for truth." Very informative and inspiring post.

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    • Theresa, interesting that you picked up that particular line, because it is Adrienne Maree Brown's. 🙂 And yes, it does describe VF of the type we know too. The line was so blurred in fact it took a bit of investigation to see the distinction. But I could only go on what has (or in this case, has not) been explicitly stated by Ms Imarisha to describe her VF. It could well be that the fiction itself does possess the vital component, and I'd be happy to be corrected if that was the case.

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  3. reanolanmartin says:

    These posts are critical to the future of VF as a genre. Unlike many genres, VF has intrinsic purpose. I think we have to be very clear on its definition going forward or we'll end up back where we started.

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    • Rea, you have put it very well – VF does indeed have an intrinsic purpose. And yes, ensuring the definition is clear to all is extremely important not only for marketing reasons but for literary ones as well.

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  4. I totally agree with you, Rea!

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  5. You have opened an interesting discussion here, Saleena. I sincerely hope that Imarisha and Ms. Brown will join in the discussion. From my limited research, I get the impression that they "coined" the term "visionary fiction" without being aware that it was already in use. Looking through the wonderful work of Octavia Butler, who evolved through the classical science fiction genre into something quite different that did not yet have a genre name distinct from science fiction, she wound up writing visionary fiction in every sense of the word as defined by both Imarisha and the VF. For instance, her novel Kindred (see description on Amazon) is not only about black slavery in America but human slavery of all kinds, the resolution of which is internal change.

    Just as "hard science" and spirituality are now merging via quantum physics, I believe that social justice and growth in consciousness will eventually have to merge in order to resolve the knotty problems with human community or lack of it. Any other solution leads to a new configuration of fragmentation as occurred with communism (a prefectly good idea in theory), which replaced the aristocracy with the proletariat–and we know how that worked out. It seems to me that Imarisha and Co. have only to include the internal "growth in consciousness" element to their list and both movements and their definitions are in the same VF tent. Perhaps for practical reasons, there could be a specific VF sub-genre for works oriented to resolution of current social issues.

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    • "I believe that social justice and growth in consciousness will eventually have to merge in order to resolve the knotty problems with human community"

      Me too – and in fact this topic is of great interest to me, which is why I was drawn to Ms Imarisha's work. Vic, thanks for your insightful comments, and yes, I agree that her definition is only missing that single component, otherwise it would be identical with the general definition. Well, even the VFA took a while in getting down to the details of what VF is and isn't – I recall these discussions occurring way back when most of our earliest members met over at Goodreads, and it's still a popular topic here even now!

      Taking into account your remarks about Octavia E. Butler's fiction, it could well be that Imarisha is actually describing the very same VF – in which case, her choosing of the word "visionary" is a case of synchronicity. 🙂

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  6. After sending Dean Koontz the link to Walidah Imarisha's interview, he emailed me the following response: "…if a 150-year old idea like social justice, which gave us 10 million deaths under Hitler, 100 million deaths under Mao in China and 60 million under Lenin/Stalin, is considered the primary visionary-fiction material, I don't belong in the genre. Justice is a fragile and fungible concept, and in this broken world, when it's taken up as a political slogan, it inevitably leads to violent envy-and-revenge politics. The pursuit of justice is a bronze standard; the pursuit of truth is gold."

    In a past email to me, Mr. Koontz said: "You got to the heart of what I try to give readers when you mentioned hope and healing, and spoke of seeking to 'help readers see the world in a new light and recognize dimensions of reality they commonly ignore.'"

    Seems to me that Koontz's work is more in line with VFA's definition of visionary fiction than with Imarisha's.

    And by our definition, I repeat what you so succinctly included above: "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'". "It makes internal social reform a prerequisite to external reform. In VF proper, 'systemic' means nothing short of a revolutionary change from the inside out, encompassing the spiritual, the secular, and everything in between." "The universal ingredient, of course, is the evolution of human consciousness."

    Thanks you, Saleena, for the clarification.

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    • Thanks for your thoughts Margaret, and thanks also for sharing these remarks from Dean Koontz. I agree with his misgivings on the contemporary political expression of social justice.

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