Here’s a Kansas science fiction writer’s reading list for strange and disturbing times

October 3, 2020 4:00 am

The cover illustration for Cory Doctor’s ‘Little Brother,’ which ‘reads like a guidebook for how to resist an oppressive surveillance state.’

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Izzy Wasserstein is a science fiction writer and senior lecturer in the Department of English at Washburn University.

We live in strange and disturbing times.

A pandemic rages. Climate change reshapes the planet. President Trump openly contemplates using force to stay in power. We’re all looking for insight about the future. People look to holy books, horoscopes and futurists to make sense of a world that seems increasingly unpredictable. As 2020 grows ever stranger, more and more people are beginning to suspect that science fiction has the answers.

As a writer and teacher of science fiction, I know it can be tempting to use science fiction as a diviner’s orb, hoping that someone can say with certainty what the future holds. But as Cory Doctorow notes, science fiction foresees the future like the man who fires a shotgun into the side of his barn, then draws a bullseye afterward to demonstrate his accuracy. Science fiction sometimes gets the future right, but only by playing the odds.

But science fiction is far from useless. As Ursula K Le Guin said, science fiction “is not predictive; it is descriptive.” It probably won’t tell us what’s coming, but it can help us to understand our world, our historical moment, and ourselves. We are living in science fictional times, and SF has tools to help us make sense of them. A few examples:

Octavia Butler’s novel “Parable of the Talents” famously predicted a pandemic and a politician who stoked prejudice and used the slogan “Make America Great Again,” but Butler’s genius wasn’t in the details of the prophecy. It was in helping us understand the ways our institutions might fail us and how we might respond.

Charlie Jane Anders’ story “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue” seems to present a future in which transgender people are forcibly detransitioned and made to live in the gender they were assigned at birth. But in truth it reminds us that this is already a lived reality for many trans people.

N. K. Jemisin’s “The Fifth Season” follows Orogenes, individuals with the power to cause or avert climate catastrophes, who are enslaved by a society that fears and relies upon them. Jemisin’s harrowing novel asks us to consider the toll systematic oppression takes, and whether any society built on such a foundation can — or should — survive.

Sarah Pinsker’s 2019 novel “A Song for a New Day” depicts a future where a pandemic has ended public gatherings and a suspiciously familiar corporation is the only source of both goods and jobs for an isolated and powerless populous. That foresight is impressive, though the novel’s great insight is not in divination but in showing us how people can respond to it by making art and building community.

Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life,” and its film adaptation, “Arrival,” is about the potential challenges of communicating with aliens. But its real power is in helping us think about what it means to love while facing the certainty of great loss.


In her 1974 novel “The Dispossessed,” Le Guin depicts a cold war between a capitalist nation and a communist one, and the anarchist community that has rejected both options and seeks to build another kind of society. Le Guin wasn’t predicting the future, but challenging the binary assumptions that brought our world to the brink of annihilation.

Examples abound. Doctorow’s “Little Brother” reads like a guidebook for how to resist an oppressive surveillance state. Malka Older’s “Infomocracy” explores the promise and challenges of a radical reconception of democracy. Arkady and Boris Strugatskys’ 1964 novel “Hard to Be a God” explores the terrifying effects of a fascist takeover while also subtly critiquing the oppressive Soviet regime under which the Strugatskys lived.

Annalee Newitz’s “The Future of Another Timeline” is a time-travel adventure in which our pasts — and our futures — must be protected from those who seek to re-write them for their own purposes. In an era of “fake news” and collapsing belief in evidence and expertise, it reminds us of the urgent necessity of fighting for truth and a better world.

Science fiction is the literature of the human species encountering change.

It can’t tell us who will win the election, whether humans will find the political will to mitigate the ongoing climate change disaster, or even whether we’ll ever have flying cars. But at its best, science fiction gives us tools that can help us face the future.

The news provides facts, but science fiction can give insight. It doesn’t tell us what tomorrow holds, but it helps us see how we might survive and even thrive in these dangerous times.

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Izzy Wasserstein
Izzy Wasserstein

Izzy Wasserstein is a senior lecturer in the department of English at Washburn University, where she teaches writing, literature, and film. She is the author of two poetry collections, "When Creation Falls" and "This Ecstasy They Call Damnation" (a 2013 Kansas Notable Book). Her work has also appeared in Prairie Schooner, Crab Orchard Review, Clarkesworld, Fireside, Flint Hills Review, and elsewhere. She shares a home with a variety of animal companions and the writer Nora E. Derrington.