Although “speculative fiction” is sometimes used as a catch-all term that includes fantasy, science fiction, horror, and superhero literature, Margaret Atwood identifies speculative and science fiction as different genres. While science fiction, according to Atwood, “has monsters and spaceships”, speculative fiction is about things that “could really happen”. We can find speculative fiction in many contemporary forms of popular culture, in podcasts (e.g. FlashForward), movies and tv shows (e.g. Black Mirror), and books (e.g. Handmaid’s Tale and Parable of the Sower), to name only a few. I contend that speculative fiction has a role that goes beyond entertainment purposes. It can be used to reimagine online spaces as inclusive spaces for women and minorities as academics and activists.
Academic scholars such as Sarah Kember and Donna Haraway have discussed the role that writing plays in world-building for academic use especially through irony and parody. I have recently read Kember’s book iMedia: The Gendering of Objects, Environments and Smart Materials and was struck by her intertwining of speculative fiction with her work on the gendering of smart objects and technologies like Google Glass and smartphones. By doing so, she has turned writing to what she describes as “a mode of reinventing the world without having to affirm or deny it.”
Community activists, inspired by Octavia’s Brood, have also dabbled in speculative fiction writing. Through short fiction stories, these activists have tried to build new ways of thinking and new imaginings around current issues facing their communities.
From these works, I gather that speculative fiction is more of a way to engage in and be reflexive to draw out our imaginations to re-world; it’s not as much as convincing other people that our world will come about. It is about bringing forth possibilities based on our reflections and experiences and of what we want out of our world and to draw attention to this.
Speculative fiction in my own practice:
My colleagues and I worked last year with speculating futures, fictions and designs on topics of interest to us. It was useful for me to be able to think beyond the apps that exist today in order to think about new apps to potentially make new worlds tomorrow. I used speculative fiction to help me think through a speculative design of apps that could be useful for women who experience violence. We can’t just look at the technology in isolation but rather at its entanglements with behaviours and culture
Below is an excerpt of my speculative fiction, inspired by Sarah Kember’s use of writing fiction around technology alongside her theoretical ideas. I created my imagined future of a Canada free of online harassment. This example, I hope, illustrates the often overlooked physical effect of experiencing online harassment that has been pushed aside and ignored by tech developers, law enforcement, and news media who continue to reinforce violent behaviours instead of preventing and ending them:
“It’s Friday morning, as you head into the kitchen, grunt a barely comprehensible “good morning” to your family already there waiting for you. “Can I please get extra lunch money for doughnut day?” “Sure, kid” you reply and using just your thoughts, deposit money into your child’s online bank account. As you do so, the child’s dopamine and serotonin levels start to rise, heart rate and breathing rate have increased, and the exact levels of elatedness the child is feeling is transmitted through the microchip you have implanted in your brain to induce an emotional event equivalent to the experience being felt by the child. Both of you, feeling pleasantly content, continue with your day, interacting with others. It’s March already and only a few months since the bio-implants were made mandatory to access the Internet by the Canadian government. As you’re sitting in your self-driving car, you browse through your news feeds being shown through one part of your eye, you come across a photo of a friend of a friend, a woman who looks pretty happy in the photo and a discussion that’s already starting to get a bit heated between the woman in the photo and another friend of hers. You watch for a while, chuckle to yourself, and then decide to jump in with something that would be much more attention-grabbing .. you call her some foul names with your mind, but that’s not really enough, you’re not getting the reaction you want. So you urge others to continue to taunt her, and you share her home address, threaten her and her family and go on until … until the chip in your brain begins to detect how you are causing another person to feel through your interaction. Your bio-integrated social networking induces an emotional trauma equivalent to the levels of trauma the other person is experiencing. The chip in the brain is set up to lock you out of the Internet once you’ve passed the threshold of trauma being inflected and simultaneously experienced. You are locked out until that other person returns back to their neutral state before you had interacted with them, for however long it takes, if it ever even happens.”
I hope to spend more time with speculative fiction in my future work to start rebuilding these online spaces. How do you use or hope to use speculative fiction or design in your academic/activist/community work? Or for yourself?