“But What if I’m Wrong?”: Rethinking Speculative Fiction

What if eyes are eyes that wonder why this was said or that was done, which is both refreshing and somewhat unnerving.  Also, I realize that I curse a lot, even in a fictional context.  What if eyes are of course native to the genre of speculative fiction (not in precisely the way I describe above, but I think you know where I am going).  I think they are what makes the genre so attractive to expansive thinkers, to forward lookers, and those who are habitually dissatisfied with the now–I believe I may be all three.

But I think, through the vision of what if eyes, there’s a good bit of smugness inherent to the genre of speculative fiction. It just happens to be well-obscured by skillful practitioners of the craft.  Some of my favorite examples of the genre (insert usual suspects here) aren’t the products of random speculation, but of great minds making arguments.  In their cautionary tenor, the exploits of Offred and Crake, Anderton and Decker,  Montag and Genly Ai, are all fantastic, luridly-detailed, impeccably-nuanced, “I told you sos.”  For everything else that these stories are (and this obviously includes a LOT), they are examples of brilliant thinkers crafting spaces where they can be unassailably right about the world. And oh how right they are!  I have no reservations about admitting that this is for me one of the biggest draws of writing in this genre.

But, I am unfortunately not gifted with the skill of an Atwood, a Dick, a Bradbury or Le Guin, and I am afraid my smugness will no doubt be smeared across the digital pages of these little ebooks I plan to put out there. I am, however, making an attempt to mitigate this inevitability by keeping one question in the front of my mind.

What if I am wrong?

In Independence Cycle and WITHOUT LIGHT, I tackle a number of the ideas, discourses, institutions and movements that I have made the center of my personal and professional life–new urbanism, environmental sustainability, the corrections system, social stratification, and (most importantly) food justice.  I have strong (understatement) opinions on all of these topics, impassioned ideas about the future consequences of certain types of change or failures to change.  But I am asking as often as I can tolerate, “what if I am wrong?” What if organic farming has disastrous consequences? What if new urbanism leads to hyper-regionalism and isolation? What if environmental protectionism leads to profound alienation–pristine wild lands no one is willing to touch?

Though I have not given up entirely on being right (where would be the fun in that?), I am having a lot of fun exploring being wrong. Crossed fingers, I hope that my current and future readers have some fun with it too.

The Speculative Impulse: 4 Inspirations for WITHOUT LIGHT

WITHOUT LIGHT presents a world 250 years in the future, after the U.S.A. has dissolved and four isolated sovereign states, separated by tracts of uninhabited wilderness, have taken its place.  Shortly after its formation, the nascent government of the State of New England was driven by regional hostilities to close its borders and sever all but the slimmest of formal diplomatic ties with California, Texahoma, and the Midwest Consortium.  With the safety of its citizens ensured, the state and its scientific community turned to address an even more urgent problem–how to sustain a growing population of 300 million on 200,000 square miles of heavily developed land.

The Independence Cycle tells the story of one woman’s discovery and confrontation with the consequences of the state’s unthinkable decisions; how food has become the definitive currency of social status and inequality; and of those in power that would go to great ends to keep the truths of the state’s decisions secret.

WITHOUT LIGHT is a work of dystopian speculative fiction or “soft” science fiction, but the foundation for the story is drawn from a serious concern for, and scholarly engagement with, contemporary urban food systems. Though the details have been abstracted and fictionalized, many of the details of the story are based upon my ongoing efforts to research, write about, problem solve, advocate for, and manifest food justice in American cities.

Here are 4 personal experiences that were instrumental in inspiring me to begin WITHOUT LIGHT.

1. Whole Foods Rating Systems


I make an effort to eat well, to eat locally, and to eat sustainably.  These efforts have long been tempered by my limited disposable income and a healthy sense of ambivalence about “certifiably” good food.  I do the best I can, when I can.

I remember vividly the first time I confronted the graphic, color-coded rating systems used for produce, meat, and cleaning products in the Whole Foods Market in Charlottesville, VA.  I remember standing in front of the meat counter, looking desperately back and forth between two piles of ground beef.  One was not cheap, but firmly within my budget.  The other was inconceivably expensive.  They were tagged using Whole Food’s 5-step Animal Welfare Rating system, that gave the expensive beef a 5 (a lush green shone from its label) and the budget beef a 2 (the beef was branded with a shameful orange tag).  I was, all at once, stricken with a moral dilemma, angry with the politics of guilt and shame that are so effectively monetized in stores like Whole Foods, and ashamed of my cynicism about a practice that may go a long way in improving how consumers think about meat consumption.

The ecosystem of emotions that swirled up around me in the few minutes it took to cave in and buy the most expensive ground beef I have ever purchased was complex and dynamic and touched upon everything from my racial and socioeconomic identities to my thinking about community and parenthood. I have always understood food to be inherently social, inherently cultural, and to be implicated in power relations; but this experience inspired me to think about the more emotional and personal aspects of those relationships.

2. My Garden

img_4628I am an ardent, but admittedly inconsistent, backyard gardener. And as any backyard gardener who just read the previous sentence knows, inconsistency may be one of the worst approaches to gardening out there.  Time, however, isn’t the only challenge to maintaining the six raised beds scattered around my back and side yards, or the pots arranged on my front porch and in the front lawn. Living in a relatively urban neighborhood, space and direct sunlight are limited; Pests range from insect to rodent, and from feline to cervine; Moving loads of large or heavy items like lumber or compost can be tricky; And urban contaminants like lead paint, automotive fluids, broken glass and asbestos are a significant concern. The list goes on.

Working in my own garden has inspired me to think about the challenges growers face and overcome, what kinds of challenges future geographies might present, and the single-minded determination of people who might see in growing food, a radical form of political resistance.

3. My Time Prison

fluvannaOver the past two years, I have taught two college courses in the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, Virginia’s highest security prison facility for female offenders.  While anything beyond the most distanced and courteous interactions with residents of the facility are discouraged, it is difficult as a professor not to get to know your students. Classroom discussion is not only a platform for learning, it is a platform for growth and change and healing–particularly for those who are systematically silenced.

It was not until I spent time in a place like FCCW that I truly grasped the degree to which food can be used as a tool of social control.  It was not until I spent time talking to a group of women who have access to a shockingly wide array of overpriced candy, snack food, sodas, and highly processed “food products” in the prison’s privatized commissary; but rarely see a fresh vegetable or a whole grain carbohydrate in the chow hall, that I understood that it is not only possible, but profitable, to consign “undesirable” populations to a life of ill health and early death.

4. Central Virginia

High Bridge Trail State ParkFor roughly five years I have lived in scenic central Virginia. Having grown up in Northern Virginia and lived as an adult in Washington DC, New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Durham, the degree to which I have adjusted to living in Virginia’s piedmont region is fairly remarkable.  But adjust I have.  I’ve spent countless hours considering the landscapes that surround me and what I would do if I could claim one tiny fraction of that landscape as my own.