Published in Elephant Magazine, March 26th 2020

As the country enters a complete lockdown and Dean Kootz’s The Eyes of Darkness continues to top the Amazon charts while an exasperated Stephen King tweets his followers to say no, it’s nothing like The Stand, science fiction has never seemed as necessary an artform through which to understand the ambient malaise we’re all living through. Yet, arguably, both readers and the artworld had already turned to science fiction – or speculative fiction for those for whom ‘science’ and ‘fiction’ feel oxymoronic – for guidance well before this crisis.

Seeking out dystopic narratives (Contagion, The Plague, Netflix’s Pandemic, to name but a few) with the same ghoulishness with which we monitor the number of dead on The Guardian’s Live Blog, is one way to make sense of an incomprehensible situation. But before we were seeing scenes of army trucks transporting coffins out of Italian towns or getting WhatsApped photos of an uncannily deserted Trafalgar Square, the art community was already re-engaging with dystopias and speculative fiction in a spirit of (perhaps surprising) hopefulness.

Motivated more by questions of identity, gender, historical violence, generational hopelessness, and mental health than the current lockdown, artists have been using speculative fiction in recent years to invoke radical utopias and other worlds as imaginary alternatives to an unsatisfactory political present.

Loosely concerned with the creation of fantastical worlds, speculative fiction has been used as a beacon by artists and curators in the uncertain times that preceded this deeper uncertainty. Marxist sci-fi scholar Darko Suvin defined speculative fiction as an exercise in “cognitive estrangement” where ceasing disbelief and the mental jump into the unreal made it "a genre showing how 'things could be different'" and therefore quintessentially political. Its popularity is not specific to the art community either - even before the coronavirus rumblings, sales in scifi and fantasy books had doubled since 2010.

Having already become accustomed to speculative thinking the art world seems better- prepared than most for this moment of societal unmooring. Although it’s impossible to use the word ‘artist’ to mean a subsection of society with shared values and socio-economic backgrounds, what might be suggested is that the level of precarity and hopelessness that is shared among many in the art world (particularly in this country and particularly since December’s general election) informs this return to the political potential of speculative thinking and numerous artists have made it integral to their practice.

In her 2019 Turner Prize winning project DC Semiramis and her ongoing Dark Continent series, artist Tai Shani takes inspiration from the medieval literature of Christine De Pizan’s The Book of The City of Ladies, which tells of an allegorical city inhabited and made of women, and adapts it in a style close to 1970s feminist scifi to create elaborate and complex worlds whose interior logics and purple prose question the patriarchy, its structures, and platform female self-individuation.

Irregular and popular publications such as Victoria Sin’s Dream Babes zines, use the ‘what if’ of speculative fiction to imagine alternative structures and identities “as a productive strategy of queer resistance.” Scifi here is used as a way of looking at gender and sexuality free from the weight and inherited preconceptions of history. 

South East London gallery Jupiter Woods hosted several exhibitions and one-off discursive events in the last year influenced by speculative fiction, such as a recent Very Very Far Away’s ‘Future Rangers’ reading series that looked at space (big s) and how it shapes the “collective imagination in order to propose more “democratic” alternatives and… a proposed utopia.” JW director Carolina Ongaro says that the genre is referenced everywhere at the moment and “signals the need for the making of new imaginary spaces that can keep us grounded together at a time when it’s easy to feel unable to cope with events.”

Eoin Dara, co-curator of Dundee Contemporary Art’s Seized By The Left Hand programme inspired by Ursula K Le Guin’s cult classic The Left Hand of Darkness, says her writing was “a lodestar” in thinking about how to “use our imagination productively in order to hold space for other voices with care and compassion.” To Dara the current moment presents the perfect opportunity to engage in the mental exercise that speculative fiction demands, proposing “radical imagining” as something that is “not a luxury but a vital part of being human.”

Writer and performer CA Conrad’s writing (which appeared in the DCA show along with that of Huw Lemmey) borrows from speculative fiction and mixes fable, ritual, and a repurposing of language, particularly in their (Soma)tic Poetry. “People who have unobstructed access to their imaginations are already used to building new structures,” they say, adding that a confidence in the transformative power of imagination is needed now more than ever “to understand that there is a never-ending channel to the conversations that can change the way we think we know the world.”

While a lot of the work produced by this type of speculative thinking varies, there is undeniably a shared interest in radical utopian action that has politics at its heart. Katie Stone, the cofounder of Utopian Acts, a research body that investigates the relationship between activism and utopianism, was supposed to be taking part in The Whitechapel Gallery’s now (somewhat ironically) cancelled launch of ‘Science Fiction,’ part of its  Documents of Contemporary Art book series. She says that the current return to speculative thought is understandable in that it “offers a wide variety of tools for both communities and individuals in crisis - when our normal routines are disrupted we have to find new ways of being.” Stone believes it’s an exciting time for science fiction art and utopianism. “Speculative fiction is a tool for radical, utopian action,” she says, adding that people working in the genre offer a valuable service, “imagining new worlds in order to make our world more livable.”

The gift of good speculative fiction is the plausibility of the worlds it creates. In a climate of uncertainty we have to remember the plausibility of the different worlds artists have the potential to put forward. Speculative thinking needs to continue with more courage, not to foretell potential doom, but in order to propose radical, utopic, and practicable (political) alternatives. In the coming weeks especially, it can provide us with blueprints for the future and an escape to a transcendent unreality far away from the sickening present.

 Ren © 2021