Why is it so difficult to think of new possible worlds? "Fantasy" by Ah Wei (Lung Wei) is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Why is it so difficult to think of new possible worlds?

We are what we read, it is sometimes said. In this blogpost, Jackie Ashkin suggests what academics might read to inspire imaginations of a world that could be otherwise.

Why is it so difficult to think of new possible worlds? This is a question Marta Hejer and Wytske Versteeg ask in a recent paper for Territory, Politics, Governance. It is a question I ask myself almost every day.

Hejer and Versteeg contend that 'use of fossil fuels is deeply embedded in our societal values and everyday routines' and that 'as a consequence, we lack coherent imaginaries of alternative post-fossil futures'. Imagination, for them as well as for me, is inextricably linked to the capacity to change.

So what might help academics imagine? As an old English teacher used to tell me, you are what you read – so why not something a bit more fantastical?

When I say fantasy, think of more than Harry Potter or the Hunger Games: think of (amongst many others) classics of magical realism like Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita or the more contemporary surrealism of Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights; think of Emily St John Mandel’s eerie post-apocalyptic Station Eleven or Isobelle Carmody’s epic Obernewtyn Chronicles. Fantasy books are not just children’s books. When we relegate fantasy to the realm of adolescent escapism and insist that we have more important things to read, we collectively fail to take new possible worlds seriously. We make it harder for ourselves to begin to think of new possible worlds.

One vibrant example of what can happen when you combine social scientific practice with speculative fiction is Radical Ocean Futures, an art-science exhibit developed by the Stockholm Resilience Center in 2014. The project presents four possible futures for our ocean, worlds in 2070 where there is no land or there are no fish - but none in which the world continues with ‘business as usual’ and everything turns out ok. The team developed short stories, audio-bytes, and scientific papers to make their case.

As we continue our steady march into what some call the Anthropocene, others the Capitalocene (Moore 2016), we must engage with radical possibilities for a world that is otherwise. In this spirit, I here suggest three fantasy novels for imagining new possible worlds.

  1. For the History Buff - Naomi Novak’s His Majesty’s Dragon (2006)
    Everything is better with dragons – including the Napoleonic Wars. Novak brings you dragons like you’ve never known them before: Temeraire is as charismatic and complex as his master, naval captain William Lawrence. The novel is fast-paced without sacrificing the intricate details of military warfare in the late-eighteenth century and is the first of seven books through which Novak meticulously tackles issues of race, coloniality, and the inevitability of history. A spirited read that will leave you wondering if there really weren’t dragons back then, after all.

  2. For the Strong Female Lead – N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (2015)
    What’s that? A believable heroine? Never mind fantasy novels that forget women in their middle age – on the contrary, this story revolves around one. In a world where the apocalypse is just another season (hence the title of the book), follow Essun into the depths of political intrigue on her quest to find her kidnapped daughter. This thought-provoking novel will leave you questioning a number of appropriately STS-ey themes, including time, perspective, and the very nature of what you know.

  3. For the Wandering Soul – Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore (1972)
    This story follows a middle-aged wizard and a young prince as they set out to understand why magic across the land is losing its power. The third book of her Earthsea cycle, this volume stands out to me because it is clearly written with the delicacy and sensibility of the most practiced ethnographer (after all, the K. in her name refers to her father, American anthropologist Alfred Kroeber). Her steady, straightforward prose will carry you on a journey quite literally to the ends of the earth.

I leave you with this: imagination is not a gift, but a skill – one that we must commit to practicing as much as any other if imagining new possible worlds is to get any easier in the days and months to come. Happy reading!

1 Comment

Jochem Zuijderwijk

Thanks for the suggestions Jackie. I've always loved the strangeness of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and would definitely recommend it. Over the last couple of years I've started reading mostly Scifi books while doing my PhD, and I've found that it is often 'light' or even silly enough reading to distract from an over-analytical frame of mind that this work can sometimes leave me in. But when on occasion it's actually also a really good book, it can definitely lead to some creative inspiration and point to things that we've slowly come to accept as unquestionable and 'normal'. I've recently gifted my partner a 50th anniversary edition of Le Guin's famous 'The Left Hand of Darkness', and last week I bought an Earthsea collection book for myself: very curious to start reading it, especially now that you've recommended it here.

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