(Note: This is a slightly edited version of a blog post originally written for the VF web-ring under the title, The Place of Visionary Fiction in Today’s World and published March 2012)
According to one online dictionary, the meanings of the word ‘visionary’ include something characterised by foresight; fantasy and imagination; prophecy or revelation; and idealism.
True to its name, visionary fiction contains all of these elements as well. Although the genre of visionary fiction is relatively new, it actually has its roots in ancient mythology, and in the parables and legends we find in religious scripture across the world. It openly harks back to the original function of ‘story’ itself, to ask questions about human potential: What we are, where we are going, and what we would like to become. So in a way, visionary fiction isn’t new at all. But we might ask why this ‘new’ type of novel has appeared just as we have crossed into the new millennium.
It’s a mad world
The future is undoubtedly both exciting and uncertain. It’s exciting because of the pace of technology; faster communications such as the internet and mobile devices and TV; the leaps in our understanding of the physical universe; our advances in medicine, genetics and much more. Yet it’s also uncertain, because it seems to lack direction. Many of us fear that our combined knowledge is not being put to the best possible use; we remain painfully irresponsible when it comes to the environment; the vast majority of scientific research is funded by, and carried out for, the military; and we still can’t seem to feed the world, even though it is already technically possible. Many people express concerns about ‘progress for the sake of progress’. Some even fear that we are losing sight of our very humanity and are gradually becoming machines.
Whilst ancient religious cultures emphasised the importance of the ‘spiritual’, in the modern age we seem to have fostered a culture of pure materialism. It might be said that at one time humanity was so focused on the spiritual, and on religion, that we neglected the material world and progressed very slowly. In recent centuries, we have reacted to this one-sided worldview by embracing science. But in our enthusiasm for material progress, we have also rejected the ‘spiritual’, and are out of touch with our inner selves. To put it another way, whilst we are technologically advanced, psychologically we remain quite primitive.
Visionary fiction comes from a human psychological need – a desire to rediscover the ‘spiritual’. It is also a totally new incarnation of the stories of old. It may contain (fictional or otherwise) references to Moses, or Buddha, or Celtic or Roman deities, or reincarnation, psychics, and the rest, inviting us to suspend our disbelief to make way for the fantastic. Yet it also seeks to find the spiritual through the regular, worldly gateways of genetic engineering, computer technology, environmentalism and dreams (insofar as dreams are a natural psychological phenomenon). In short, it uses the seemingly ordinary to explore the extraordinary.
At present visionary fiction is still new and virtually unheard of in the mainstream. But with time it could become an important part of our literary heritage and provide a valuable commentary on our present collective state of mind. Visionary fiction gives equal space to spirit and matter, and bridges the gap by suggesting that the difference between the two is perceived rather than real. And unlike some forms of speculative fiction, it looks to the future with hope.
Saleena Karim is the author of Systems, a science fiction and VF novel exploring the possibility of an ideal society.