Whitmarsh on Yoshinaga and Guynes and Canavan, 'Uneven Futures: Strategies for Community Survival from Speculative Fiction'

Ida Yoshinaga, Sean Guynes, Gerry Canavan, eds. Uneven Futures: Strategies for Community Survival from Speculative Fiction. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2022. 360 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-262-54394-1

Reviewed by Patrick Whitmarsh (Wofford College)
Published on H-Environment (April, 2023)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58657

Edited by Ida Yoshinaga, Sean Guynes, and Gerry Canavan, Uneven Futures: Strategies for Community Survival from Speculative Fiction delivers an invigorating and wide-ranging intellectual wallop. Featuring thirty-nine compact think pieces, the collection reads like a series of exhilarating dashes through various cultural territories, including classic science fiction (SF) literature, contemporary television, graphic narratives, video games, internet forums, and more. The editors have divided their creative compendium into four sections: “Emergence,” “Rupture,” “Transformation,” and “Revolution.” These sections structure the arc of the work, which guides readers through speculative scenarios of social and political resistance, highlighting the conditions and circumstances in which capitalism’s unsustainable machinations might finally give way to alternative realities. In this respect, the book is more than a collection of cultural criticism. It aspires to be a guidebook for collective political imagination in times of global crisis, uncertainty, and institutional breakdown.

Uneven Futures is not strictly about the climate crisis or environmental injustice, but these topics compose significant dimensions of its critical attention. The book’s contributors perceive and unpack the links between ecological distress and social injustice, often situating politics within the context of global climate change and accumulative momentum of extractive capitalism. Speaking very broadly, the collection oscillates along the spectrum of violences and disparities that characterize what we have come to know as the Capitalocene-Plantationocene vector within Anthropocene studies. Adapting their title from a dictum attributed to William Gibson, the editors navigate an asymmetrical cultural cartography engineered by long histories of colonialism, imperialism, and industrial capitalism.

Along with essays on canonical Anglophone texts, the collection includes several entries that blow apart the standard “Western SF and everything else” model, as editor and contributor Ida Yoshinaga puts it (p. 165). Readings of Indigenous, Latinx, Black, Indian, Chinese, and other BIPOC speculative fictions resist the historical unevenness of Suvinian science fiction studies. “Now is the time to talk about multiformalisms,” Yoshinaga writes, ushering readers toward a theory of decolonized and redistributed speculation, a diverse and inclusive way of identifying and reading speculative fiction (p. 168). This is a welcome rebuke to Amitav Ghosh’s lamentable appeal to the “mansion of serious fiction” in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), a move that maintains and valorizes the exclusionary mode of the literary novel (p. 61). Yoshinaga, Guynes, and Canavan’s assemblage of authors and sources ventures well beyond Ghosh’s mansion, breaking out of the gated and landscaped literary grounds and excitedly exploring the neglected but lush spaces beyond.

Over the course of its four sections, Uneven Futures traverses a wide terrain of cultural production, from the canonical to the obscure, illustrating the political potential to be located across aesthetic boundaries. Coverage of well-known texts such as Edwin Abbott’s Flatland (1884) and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974) situates readers in the modern tradition of speculative writing, which reaches back at least to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Meanwhile, fascinating readings of digital apocrypha—such as Andrew Ferguson’s account of 4chan’s SCP community—explore the dimly lit and multifarious avenues of speculative narrative in the post-truth epistemological backwater of the twenty-first century. Writing about the mysterious object SCP-173, which purportedly attacks those in its vicinity (although no one has ever witnessed it move) unless others are maintaining constant visual surveillance, Ferguson suggests that the online work of flash fiction “stands in for the general discourse on 4chan,” demanding collaborative action to curate the forum’s vitriolic content (p. 125). In other words, SCP-173 figures online discourse in a narrative, or at least fictive, fashion. The threats posed by misunderstood objects in a speculative world map onto the threats posed by a misunderstood and mismanaged information ecosystem.

Several authors in Uneven Futures attend to the generative dynamic between fictional narrative (its form, medium, and thematic content) and the storytelling structures that shape and govern our social experiences. As Sherryl Vint observes, in Netflix’s series The OA (2016-19), awkward choreographic movements unlock a collective power: “Through the power of story,” Vint writes, “the OA brings people together who otherwise would not interact—and, more importantly, she forces them out of their habituated performances of self” (p. 59). Speculative premises serve as expressions of community action against bureaucratic and ideological containment. A communal activity, storytelling composes an affective tissue for group creativity and reveals its empowering interdependency: “There is no outside the social,” Kirin Wachter-Grene writes in her piece on Samuel Delany, adapting the mistranslation of Jacques Derrida’s mantra; “we move in concert with others—including with those so seemingly different outside of and within our kinship groups—in our continual states of emergency and our suffering biosphere” (p. 8). The authors and editors of Uneven Futures know intimately the narrative bedrock on which rest legacies of racial, imperial, and colonial violence: “That Black US history has been science-fictional itself is now beyond question,” Isiah Lavender III declaims, for instance (p. 266). The urgency of the collection lies in spotlighting and animating how speculative fiction provides roadmaps for metamorphosing the science fictionality of marginalized experience into realities of social and political action.

Uneven Futures has much to offer a broad audience both within and beyond academia. Its succinct and accessible essays make for thrilling reading that is at turns demonstrative, insightful, and eye-opening. Its interdisciplinary and multiformalist approach speaks to those interested in not only speculative fiction, but general literary and cultural studies, media studies, critical race studies, gender studies, the environmental humanities, and more. The contents of these essays will be immensely helpful to those looking for new texts and approaches in their classrooms. Outside of higher education, readers will find energetic discussions of what pop culture can tell us about agency, empowerment, and intersectional organization on an increasingly precarious planet.

Citation: Patrick Whitmarsh. Review of Yoshinaga, Ida; Guynes, Sean; Canavan, Gerry, eds., Uneven Futures: Strategies for Community Survival from Speculative Fiction. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. April, 2023.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58657

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.