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Rethinking Humanitarianism | What science fiction teaches us about imagining a better world

‘Anytime you start planning or thinking about the future, you are doing a science fiction exercise.’

podcast banner featuring the two people who were interviewed.
Malka Older's headshot by Allana Taranto/Ars Magna.

Time and again, guests on this season of Rethinking Humanitarianism have called for systemic changes to the humanitarian system and global governance – from alternatives to the UN to revolutionised global climate financing.

But how can you imagine something you’ve never seen before, while being grounded in the realities of today?

In many ways, this is the domain of science fiction. The writer and activist Walidah Imarisha once said: “Any time we try to envision a different world – without poverty, prisons, capitalism, war – we are engaging in science fiction.” With science fiction, she added, we can start with the question “What do we want?” rather than the question “What is realistic?”

In this first episode of the New Year, host Heba Aly looks to the future to explore how science fiction can bring about paradigmatic change by helping us believe a better world is possible.

She is joined by sci-fi authors whose work speaks directly to the future of global governance and how to better address crises. Kim Stanley Robinson is the acclaimed science fiction writer behind the Mars trilogy, and, more recently, The Ministry for the Future. Malka Older is the author of Infomocracy and The New Humanitarian short story Earthquake Relief. Mexico City. 2051.

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Got a question or feedback? Email [email protected] or have your say on Twitter using the hashtag #RethinkingHumanitarianism.

Books and authors mentioned in this episode

  • Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future (2020)
  • Malka Older, Infomocracy (2016)
  • Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (1993)
  • Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward: 2000–1887 (1888)
  • H. G. Wells, A Modern Utopia (1905) 
  • Ursula K. Le Guin (see The Dispossessed, 1974)
  • Walidah Imarisha (see Octavia’s Brood, 2015)
  • Joanna Russ (see The Female Man, 1975)
  • Cory Doctorow, Walkaway (2017)
  • Neon Yang, The Tensorate series (2017-19)
  • Martha Wells, The Murderbot Diaries series (2017-21)
TRANSCRIPT | What science fiction teaches us about imagining a better world

Baptiste: I dream of a world where everyone will have insulin if you need it. I dream of a world where, you know, people can get health[care]. Where climate targets that we set, those things will actually be achieved.

Murithi: Many people who  talk about, “oh, if we didn't have the United Nations would have to invent it tomorrow”. I would say please do not invent the same United Nations tomorrow. Please invent something different, because this thing is actually killing us. Literally.

Ali: I think the future should be where we have global solidarity. That it shouldn't be “aid recipient countries” and “aid-giving countries”. It should be a system where everybody is a developed country. Everybody is meeting the needs of their citizens – they're meeting the health needs, the education needs, giving people a decent paying wage and a job to pay for the basic needs of their children. That’s what everybody wants. 

Heba Aly

On this season of Rethinking Humanitarianism, we have heard from many of our guests their visions of a better world. We specifically  set out in this season to reimagine today’s global governance and what a more equitable world order could look like. And part of the motivation was that until we can imagine, and then articulate, an alternative to the status quo,  it’s very hard to build one. 

So what roles does imagination play in building a better world?  As we start a New Year and look ahead to the future, today we’re turning to science fiction writers for an answer.

From Geneva, Switzerland, this is Rethinking Humanitarianism. I’m your host, Heba Aly. 

How do you imagine something you’ve never seen before, while being grounded in the realities of today?

You’ve probably noticed that in many of our interviews on this podcast, I end up pestering our guests about the feasibility of their proposals – whether it’s reparations for colonialism, alternatives to the UN, or revolutionising global climate financing. And in one way or another, they always say that for change to ever happen, one of the first steps is articulating that which might at first seem impossible.

In many ways, this is precisely the domain of science fiction – or a larger genre of writing called speculative fiction, which includes elements that move from reality to a more imaginative realm and explore what’s possible. When you think of science fiction, you might think of Star Trek, aliens, and advanced robots. But science fiction is also intimately intertwined with social justice and activism.

The writer and activist Walidah Imarisha once said that “Any time we try to envision a different world – without poverty, prisons, capitalism, war – we are engaging in science fiction.” She has also said that with science fiction, we can start with the question “What do we want?” rather than the question “What is realistic?”

Unfortunately, I think a lot of our movements get trapped by this ideal of realism in our organising. And really, that’s a method of social control, because all real substantive social change was considered to be utterly unrealistic at the time that people were trying to make it because it fundamentally challenged the power structure. And so, it’s vitally important to have spaces where we can transcend everything we're told is realistic or possible so that we can imagine the impossible and then make it our lived reality.

So to help us understand how to do that, we’re joined by science fiction writers whose work speaks directly to the future of global governance and how we can better address crises. 

For science fiction fans, Kim Stanley Robinson needs no introduction. Described as one of the “greatest living science fiction writers”, Stan is the author of nearly two dozen books, most notably the Mars trilogy. His most recent novel, The Ministry for the Future, explores how a governing body born out of the Paris Climate Agreement attempts to address climate change, and has been described as presenting a  “rousing vision of how we might unite to overcome the greatest challenge of our time”.  Stan joins us from Davis, California. Welcome to Rethinking Humanitarianism

Kim Stanley Robinson

Thanks, Heba. It's good to be with you.

Aly

And our second guest is no stranger to The New Humanitarian. Malka Older is an author and an aid worker. Listeners may remember her fictional story published by The New Humanitarian in 2021 – Earthquake Relief. Mexico. 2051 – in which she draws on more than 10 years of experience in the aid and development sector to offer a hopeful glimpse into the future of humanitarianism. She is also the award-winning author of the Centenal Cycle trilogy, which includes her debut novel, Infomocracy. Malka joins us from The Hague in the Netherlands. Welcome. 

Malka Older

Thank you. It's great to be here.

Aly

So I want to start by asking both of you a rather simple question: What drew you to science fiction?

Robinson

It was a long time ago, I grew up in Orange County, California, when it was orange groves. And through my childhood and youth, groves were torn out and a city replaced it. A city built for automobiles, as everybody knows from Los Angeles. Orange County is just the south part of Los Angeles. So then I went to college and I ran into science fiction because I was reading a lot. And it seemed right to me, it seemed realistic, it seemed the best description of what I had lived and how it felt. So from that point on, I mean, just just one of those science fiction people that you hear about.

Older

So usually, when I get this question, I kind of say, I read a lot of different stuff, including science fiction and fantasy and other kinds of speculative fiction from when I was very young. And it was always one genre that I've read among many and enjoyed among many, and that happened to be the thing that I wrote that got published and that's kind of led to me writing more. But I think for this conversation, it's worth pushing that a little bit further and talking about why I wrote Infomocracy, which is the book that got published and sort of launched me into science fiction. It really is based in my experiences around the world. And it's based on me being really annoyed about things in the global order. And in the different kinds of democracies that we practise today, both in my country of origin in the United States, and in other places that I lived and worked, that I thought were just really unnecessarily bad, unnecessarily counterproductive, unnecessarily inefficient, unnecessarily counter to the ideals of democracy. And so, I think the fact that I chose to write those feelings into a science fiction novel kind of says something to how science fiction and other kinds of speculative fiction can really be used to address our feelings of what's wrong in the world, and present ideas, present visions that show us how things can be different and hopefully better, or sometimes you know, how they can go really, really wrong as an incentive to make things better in the real world.

Aly

So, in your opinion, what is the power of this genre in particular, especially when it comes to all of the problems that the world faces?

Robinson

Well, for me, for me, I'm, I define myself as a utopian science fiction writer. And as a science fiction writer who focuses on utopia, that just means positive futures. So it is as you said in your introduction about other people, you need to be able to imagine what you're working towards to be able to organise your present activities towards that future. Anytime you start planning or thinking about the future, you are doing a science fiction exercise at that point, it could be tomorrow, it could be 5 million years in the future. And I like it, because the present is changing so fast that if you were to set a novel in the year 2022, by the time it got published, it would be historical fiction, things would have changed. So by putting stuff in the near future, you are indeed speculating for sure. Although I like calling it science fiction for old fashioned reasons. But you're speculating and running a scenario. You're saying what if this happens? What would that do? And what if things got better? How would that feel? Or as Malka said, what if things get worse? Can we prevent that? Another thing science fiction does is a dual action, like 3D glasses at the movies, that the two lenses are showing you two slightly different things. Through one lens, you really are talking about the future, we may get to this or that through the other lens. It’s a metaphor for how things feel right now. It’s symbolic. It’s not attempting to really predict any future it's saying right now feels like this. Time is accelerating. Time is accelerating. I've turned into a robot. These kinds of statements or metaphors for how things feel right now. So when you combine the two lenses of what science fiction does as an aesthetic act as a reader, it is pretty sophisticated thing, a third dimension pops, in this case, the fourth dimension, which is time you get a sense of time happening the history you get now you get some future. You see the zone in between suddenly this dimension pops and you're thinking historically, and that’s what science fiction does that regular literary nonfiction just doesn't have the capacity to do is to think historically.

Aly

It's interesting that you reference that science fiction can become historical fiction. And we've seen that to be true in many cases where writers like Ursula LeGuin, or Octavia Butler are using science fiction to make really poignant commentaries about our world, and then what they write actually becomes reality. And so while I wonder, for those of you like, like both of you that are using science fiction to address the very real and existential threats of our time – climate change, Stan has been a big one for you, but humanitarian crises also. What does science fiction allow you to do that other methods like working in aid and development, in your case Malka, doesn't?

Older

I think that what Stan said, I'm just going to pick up on that, because I think it's a really powerful way of understanding what happens in science fiction that it's about the future purportedly, but it's also very much about the present. We are products of our time, and we are producing stuff that's tightly linked to the concerns and hopes of our time. And that double vision that he talked about is useful, because, as he said, it’s a metaphor for the present. And sometimes it's very hard for people to see what’s going on and what their role is, and particularly what the other possibilities are when what is closed off to them because of what they take for granted, unless they come at it from sort of a different angle. So I sometimes call it like a funhouse mirror, or it’s sort of a distorted view where you think you’re reading about something else, and hopefully, there’s a moment in the book or piece of media, where you say, oh, but that is actually telling me something about where I am right now. And perhaps that something is actionable, perhaps it's something that says, ‘Oh, maybe I need to demand more and demand better.’ Or ‘maybe I need to think harder about this particular threat’. Or ‘maybe I need to think about how I interact with people in my life on a very local intimate scale.’ It doesn't necessarily have to be huge to change the world. But, I think I'll be honest that when I stopped working in the field, it was a big adjustment to move first to academia, and then more and more into fiction writing, because it’s often quite hard to feel like you are accomplishing things in the same way as when you’re face to face with people. And so to move from that to writing words on a page that will hopefully reach other people in several years, maybe if they buy it or not. It’s a big jump. I sometimes still kind of yearn for doing things more directly. But I do think that it’s important for us, as activists, as humanitarians to also occasionally take that step back and be willing to look outside of the system that we work in, because that is how we think about paradigmatic fundamental change. And one of the things that's come up very clearly in these conversations that you've been having now for more than a year is that a lot of voices within the humanitarian system are calling for that kind of systemic, deeper change. And to look at what is what is possible, what that could be, we really do need to step back, and we need to be using our imaginations.

Aly

You teach this course called speculative fiction, where you make the case that speculative fiction is an undervalued method of understanding the future. So walk us through that argument, especially as it relates to humanitarianism.

Older

Right. So exactly, as Stan said, anytime we plan for the future, where we're speculating, we're doing a kind of science fiction because nobody knows what the future will be. And so whether it's something as simple as a weather forecast for later in the day or macro economic forecast, or product launch, any of these things are kinds of science fiction, they are based in maybe some kind of science or some kind of data. But they involve elements of fiction, elements of what they want to present, elements of guesswork, perhaps elements that have to do with how the system that they are presented within, is designed. So for example, there's been some great sociology on weather forecasts, on meteorology, by a sociologist named Gary Fine, who writes about how meteorologists will kind of tailor their predictions a little bit, not, not in a really an evil way or anything, just because they're, you know, they want to kind of be accurate most of the time. And so then, if they say there's a 90% chance of rain, they're more likely to be accurate than if they say there’s a 100% chance of rain. And so there's all these elements that go into these quantitative things. And these very impersonal predictions that were fed all the time. And yet, from the weather reports to the economic reports, even though we know all the time that there are strong elements of uncertainty in them, they're presented to us as nonfiction, they’re presented to us with the news. In the newspapers, a cost benefit analysis for a new project is presented as this is the way it's going to look. Okay, there's some margin for error. So I'm really interested from a sociological perspective, and the difference of how we value those things, and how we value science fiction and other narrative stories about what the future could be. And I think that we have a real risk as a society, in that we only listen to this one kind of prediction, and not the other. And particularly from my humanitarian background, I actually kind of love numbers, and quantitative and benchmarks and [the] SPHERE [standards], because I think it's really important to have numbers that we can look at whether it's to know when we need to evacuate, in certain situations, or to know whether we're hitting a minimum target, I think those are super useful. But at the same time, numbers do not tell the whole story. And I think this is also something that's very clear in the humanitarian world, that we need the stories of the human beings who are involved when we're making decisions, we need to have our emotions engaged, because to make decisions without emotions is impossible. And all these stories that de-personalise our world in order to predict the future, that say in the next quarter, consumers will be saving less, it's taking our agency out of the future. And it's taking the weirdnesses of individuals and of humanity out of their predictions. And that this is a lot. That misses a lot. So I think that we need to be while we keep the value that we have found in data analysis, and then quantitative approaches, I think that we need to be putting back in our emotions, we need to be thinking about human stories, we need to be thinking about the way humans realistically react to things as we're considering what works in the different systems that we need to keep society functioning and to keep this planet healthy.

Aly

And as someone who is married to a meteorologist, I can attest that data driven approaches are often wrong. And when I asked him, ‘Is it gonna rain today?’ and I don't take my umbrella and I come home soaking wet. But anyway, you're both using speculative fiction to reimagine global governance in some form. And I mentioned it off the top Malka, you wrote recently for us about how disasters could be handled better. And the timeframe and that piece was 2051. Stan, you wrote a short story that you read on TED Talks set in 2071, where you recount how humanity ended the climate crisis. So let's meet halfway, let's say it's 2061. How has your writing and other science fiction, I suppose, influenced your vision of what global governance could look like then? And if science fiction has the power to change how we look at things, and what we think is possible, what do you think is possible?

Robinson

Well, okay, so this is a kind of science fictional game. It has a gaming aspect to it, where it's okay, pick a date, and then let's presume that what we're going to do is try to describe things working better. So global governance, humanitarian aid and global governance. Well, okay, we have the UN and we have the Paris Agreement. And we now have the biodiversity agreement, which is very powerful coming out of Montreal. And then we don’t have a good sense of what the migration is going to be or how we’re going to deal with climate driven migration. Also, failed states’ migration, like Syria in 2015. So you pick a number, but it's going to be in the millions. Right now, you know better than I, but it's close to 100 million people displaced on this planet. And we have 8 billion people. So that's not a giant fraction of the totality, but it could easily triple or quadruple in a matter of a few short years, driven by climate disasters, or governments falling apart because they can't sell petroleum anymore. So we have these Petro states that depend for their government money, their income, on the fossil fuels that they own, and they sell. And then they've signed the Paris Agreement. We can't burn that CO2, or we've torched the planet. And suddenly, these nations which are big nations – Venezuela, Nigeria, South Africa, all the Arab States, Canada – they suddenly are broke, and their governments begin to fall apart because they can't pay police; they can't pay airport control. They're in such a terrible state for paying their government workers and they are bankrupt. They're running to the IMF, they’re running to the World Bank, we need special drawing rights, and then suddenly, you are in a different global governance. And what's running it is the central banks of the developed countries, the richest countries – really US and China, the G2 – and they don't like each other, they're not cooperating well, right now, it's a competition between the two for global dominance. But you also have Europe, a big third power; then you also have the BRIC countries. It's not a simple situation, in terms of global governance or global power dynamics, but you do have the US dollar and then Chinese money as the two forms of money that you can count on to backstop everything else. So I'd say the new global governance is going to be – the brains of it, the theory – will be coming out of the UN and out of think tanks and out of academia in sociology; the actual action of it is coming out of central banks and private capital, investment capital: Do they see an investment opportunity to make a profit? Well, not really. Humanitarian aid is exactly done on the margin as charity as a gift on the side, typically. It doesn't make money for private capital. If a business goes to the bank and says: ‘Look, we want to borrow money because we're going to build towns for people who can't afford to pay for them’. Well, where's the profit in that? So if you're trying to postulate a good flexible system in the year 2060, to cope with the chaos that's going to come from mass dislocation, you do indeed need to invoke governments cooperating through the UN, through the central banks, through international treaties or through doing it themselves, if they're the biggest companies, and them saying that they'll be better off if the world is safe. So this is a big if this is why we’re talking about this, it's actually not looking good because it doesn’t fit into the capitalist model of making profits.

Aly

You describe yourself as a utopian science fiction writer. That sounds rather dystopian to me.

Robinson

Yeah, well, I am a utopian science fiction writer. So this is why I try to go to the sources of power and think: Would they change out of enlightened self interest? Is the United States and China safer if you don't have millions of people crashing their borders and starving and causing disruption in their cities and atheir own citizens? So well, to be a utopian now is to set a very low bar, given where we are if we don’t if we dodge a mass extinction event in the next 30 years, that's a utopian story.

Aly

But I guess that leads me to the question: Is the goal of science fiction in this realm to scare people or to inspire them?

Robinson

I'd rather inspire them. But, okay, how do you inspire people without them saying, ‘Oh, well, that'll never happen. That's a fantasy. That's that guy's wish list, old hippie leftist, the wish list has been the same for 50 years, that'll never happen.’ So how do you inspire them by them reading a utopian novel and saying, that could happen. There's the test, that could happen, it's going to be messy, and it's going to be filled with defeats and reversals and conflict. But we could still get to a good result, despite all that, and really, that’s the same as the work you all are doing. Humanitarian work is saying, ‘Look, we have disasters, let’s be realistic, but we could make a better outcome than just mass disaster for millions; we could have a better outcome.’ So that too, is a utopian narrative.

Aly

What about your Malka? What's the vision you're trying to create through your writing?

Older

Yeah, well, first of all, that was plausible and terrifying. It's hard for me to say that I have one sort of vision for where we should be or where we should be aiming for in 2061. As part of what I believe is that, as Stan said, that this future is very, very uncertain. I certainly wouldn't want to put money on where we will be as a prediction. In terms of where we want to be, I also think it's really important to have a wide variety of potential outcomes, because we do ourselves a disservice when we say, Oh, this is the one system that we should go for. And anything that takes us off of that path is a threat. And we need to forcibly kind of get people back into thinking in that one way. And there are a lot of possible ways that we could be doing better than what we're doing today. I personally really dislike the nation state system, and also think it has run its course of usefulness such as ever had any, I think that one of the issues we're facing is that our global system has not caught up with the realities of our technological world. And I say that even with the caution that like our technological world, all of our capacities could fall apart at some point in the reasonably near future. But we still have, we still have a whole lot of knowledge and capacity that we didn't, when this system was cobbled together by elites and or people sort of fell into it because of how territory was used at the time. So, I really think that we can hopefully, move on from these ideas about borders and about governments and about being ruled by ideas about economics as the absolute good, and the way to ensure people's wellbeing. I think that we are seeing a lot of this experimentation with supranational bodies, like the EU, like the African Union, which is moving to get stronger, like ASEAN, like MERCOSUR. We were seeing that sort of expansion, at the same time that we see a lot of microstates and autonomous movements coming out. And so I think we're seeing a lot of this kind of muddling through what the right scale for human coordination, what the right scales really are. Because it's not just one thing, it depends what we're talking about coordinating on. And so, I would really hope that by 2061, we figured out some kind of global coordination that works in a much more global way than the UN does, and works in a very different way. Because we do have global problems that we really need to be dealing with. And we need to find ways so that it doesn't become a rich countries club, that are making decisions and vetoing things or or a nuclear powers clubs, such as that continues to have relevance.

Aly

And actually, in the piece you wrote for us. The concept that you were kind of laying out was around kind of mutual aid at an international scale. And one of the episodes we had earlier this season was about the concept of Global Public Investment, which is essentially that. So already there, you can see that this notional vision has some legs in reality, or at least in movements that people are pushing for. I guess the question is, to what extent you have hope that the worlds that you're building in your writing could actually become reality?

Older 

I mean, I do have hope for that. I think, like Stan said, I really think that, to guess what the world will look like in 40 years is an act of such enormous hubris that I both hesitate to say, ‘this is something that will happen’, but I absolutely cannot say ‘this won't happen’, because there's so much potential between new technologies or social changes leading to unexpected, whether it's from a collapse that leads to a different kind of organisation or a social movement that leads to a profound change, or an experiment, like democracy was an experiment at one point. Democracy was even kind of a historical fiction fantasy, right? Because they were really like: ‘The Greeks were awesome. Let’s do this, our way.’ There's really these elements of narrative that are so powerful in the changes that we have seen in the world historically. And to quote Ursula Le Guin, because I'm not going to pretend I made it up: “Capitalism seems inescapable now. But so did the divine right of kings. And yet, here we are. We know that these massive shifts have happened in the past. I'm certainly not going to say that they can't happen in the future. Now, will something come about that's exactly what I envisioned? No, but that's why I say we gotta have a multitude of possible futures, that we look towards, and we have to be flexible, and really, there's a tendency not to talk a whole lot, this is less so maybe in the humanitarian community, but if you look at political science and stuff, there's a lot of focus on structure and system, and less on values, and really thinking about, you know, why do we want democracy? What makes democracy better or worse? There are people working on this, but in the major strands of conversation, there’s not a lot of talk about values. And I think for me, being a humanitarian, in this kind of, broad philosophical sense of, I see every person as a human with an equal, equal needs, equal agency, equal desires, equal rights, but I also think that we need to move beyond rights and say, that we also have responsibilities to do what we can for each other. That's, for me a pretty core principle in how I think about things. And we need to start figuring out, broadly, societally, some of these principles that we can start working toward, because even if we take our societies at face value, and saying, oh, democracy, we defend democracy, we are, neither at the country level, nor at the global level, are we functioning in democratic ways. And so if we, if we really drill down on that principle, I think that would be one way to make the world a better place. It’s not the be-all end-all, it's not going to get us all the way to a utopia. But, starting from some of these areas, and trying to build systems that are that are flexible, but that are anchored in the principles we care about that we think will make a better world for everyone is really important and possible.

[PROMO]

Aly

And I mentioned in the introduction, Walidah Imarisha’s assertion that, with science fiction, you can start with that question of what we want, which I think speaks to what you're talking about, ie: what are the values we care about? But then, Stan, to your mind, how do you bridge that gap between what you want and what's realistic? Or how do you, I suppose, get to that vision that you have laid out in the imagining, or the dreaming?

Robinson

Well, that part of it, I think, is extremely straightforward and easy. 

Aly

Oh, ok…

Robinson

What you would want is for everybody to have food, water, shelter, clothing, healthcare, education, electricity, and security that they keep that stuff. How do we work towards that? So pulling a couple of strands that I want to follow up from what Malka was saying, the nation state system is particularly bad right now for dealing with global problems, because that's a zero sum game where everybody, every national government is fighting for differential advantage, supposedly, for their citizens. And that also cross cuts with global capitalism, where really, we're in one global economy that is capitalist, which means capital rules, which means the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and there’s precarity for everybody, but the top 5%. So in that sense, the divine right of kings, as Ursula brought up in her great quote, they never went away. We still have the divine right of kings. It's simply liquified. Why should there be billionaires? The billionaires are way more powerful than the kings of the Middle Ages. They are not constrained. We tell stories to ourselves about the power gradient in this world that allows… everybody's thinking, oh, there couldn't possibly be what progressive taxation like Picketty talks about, where it's impossible to be a billionaire because you would get taxed away from it. It's impossible to have social security from everybody for adequacy, why should that be true? The other thing that Malka brought up that's important is that we now do have member states: the shift from a nation state to a member state – like in the EU, or the African Union, or even the UN, the Paris Agreement, this Montreal accord –  there are both legal and emotional differences between being a nation state - which is sovereign and you get to do whatever you want - and a member state, where you have to agree with all the other states. So this is a positive step. Now the many nation states agree to this, and then scoff at it. So there’ll be a member state of the Paris Agreement, but then they’ll still do what they want, as a nation state, especially the big ones, the rich ones. They can afford to do it, nobody can say no to them, their armies are powerful. They agree on sufferance. And so at that point, you’re back to treaties amongst nation states, rather than obligations of member states. So this is the flux world that we're in right now as I see it. And what you have to hope for is that using this present system that we're already in, you can still support the things that create mutual aid, and you can criticise and oppose, maybe even by way of active civil disobedience and resistance, the things that are wrecking the world. So partly, this is citizenship, partly it’s activism. Partly, it’s the work that you choose to do. And I guess one of the reasons I have hope is because there are shows like this, because we are in an Infomocracy, as Malka’s first novel called it, everybody knows everything. And so that's a weird kind of democracy of knowledge. In this world of global self awareness, and we've got this global problem, global solutions are beginning to kind of nudge their way up to the surface and say, Well, you can't actually go to war against another country, because you want their food and their oil, that is proscribed. We're going to cut you out of the banking system of the world and you're slowly going to starve to death. So we have a changing dynamic in the world that has its possibilities for cooperation and for coping with all these things. But it's so it's so messy, we're so trapped in the divine right of kings, which never went away.

Aly

But you said it was easy, when I asked how do you…

Robinson

It's easy to imagine… It's easy to imagine what we need. We need adequacy for everybody. I mean, that's not hard.

Aly

Okay, yes, but how do you move from the vision that science fiction might make visible to us, to that becoming the real world? Have you seen any examples of where science fiction has advanced social justice causes and helping people along that journey of imagination, I suppose. 

Robinson

For sure. Edward Bellamy wrote a book called Looking Backward From the Year 2000. There were Bellamy clubs all over the United States and Europe in the 1880s, 1890s. The Progressive Era of 1900 is helped hugely by that vision, not a great novel, powerful vision with clubs. H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia and all of his utopian novels between 1905 and 1945. And you have to imagine those decades, and then imagine a guy writing utopian novel after utopian novel. And then at Bretton Woods and in the UN buildings in 1945, what did they build? They built a Wellsian World Government Order as best they could Bretton Woods financial order and the UN political order – this was HG Wells, but both Wells and Bellamy were channelling political thinkers, socialists for the most part, world government socialists, Fabians, that kind of thing. So they weren't making it up a science fiction writer and I would say this, for sure for myself is not making stuff up, but more being a reporter and coalescing everything they see in the kind of work that you do, and then saying, ‘Well, given all these things, then the solution would be x’ and very often socialism is a kind of mutual aid, a kind of communalism, a kind of saying there shouldn't be divine right of kings, it should be an everything world, it should be democracy. So these are very simplistic notions. And then the individual storylines have to get into the particularities.

Aly

So there you're kind of describing the power of science fiction in inspiring the masses to believe that something's possible and work towards it. What about on the policymaking side? The Ministry for the Future was on Barack Obama's best books of the year list. Do you get the sense that your writing can also influence those who have political power in today's world to act differently?

Robinson

Well, sure. Everybody in the UN loves my novel, the Ministry for the Future, because they feel they're already working in the Ministry for the Future. And there hasn't been a novel about their work before. So now the UN is going to have its Summit of the Future in 2023/2024. They're going to convene NGOs, governments, and everybody they can to make a vision of the future. Well, I'm told by people who work in the UN, but of course, my novel gave them the idea. Well, we shouldn't have a vision for what we're shooting for 50 years from now. So you have Resilience Frontiers Initiative in the UN and you have this Summit of the Future. That the Secretary General's most recent report called for. They're working it up. There'll be meetings in September of ]20]23, and [20]24, and hopes of creating a kind of a blueprint/constitution/plan that is really Ministry for the Future type work. So I think what I did by accident was fill a hunger people had for a vision of things going well, despite the awful situation that we're in. There aren't that many books like it, and actually, Malka’s is one of them. But basically, it's an empty ecological niche in our cultural imagination. You say, ‘Oh, I want to read about things going well in the year 2050. I'll go to that shelf in the bookstore’. It is empty, that shelf is empty. And so people, when they find it, they begin to share it.

Aly

The shelf is empty. That's interesting. But also, the few books that are on the shelf, the wider science fiction shelf, are often written by a very specific slice of the population. So if we talk about the politics of science fiction, and whose vision of the future is most valued, science fiction is often dominated by white men – sorry Stan – but with no particular social justice agenda, which is not your case. And the voices that are a bit more marginalised, don't often have the ear when it comes to science fiction fans that they might hope for, despite the a really rich tradition of people from, as I say, more marginalised communities trying to write themselves into the future or reimagining futures that might better serve them. And Afrofuturism, which really centres black history and culture, is an example of that. So maybe Malka, is science fiction any less susceptible to oppressive power structures than any other field?

Older

Well, I mean, when we're talking about science fiction here, what we're talking about is publishers, right? Those are the people who decide not what gets written, but what gets to readers. I do think it is changing somewhat, and we're seeing that reflected in what's getting out. There's still a long way to go, obviously. But I think what's even more regressive than what's coming out in print is what's been made into TVs and movies. And that's unfortunate, because that does actually reach, sadly, way more people and get more way more money funnelled into production. And I think that's, actually, a big part of the problem, because when you're spending a lot of money to make a show, it also means that there's a lot of people who have an interest in saying, Oh, we must make sure this is profitable, and we're gonna guess what's going to be profitable by looking at what was profitable last year. And that doesn't always work very well, and it also leads to very slow change, and sometimes really boring shows. Because those stories, again, affect how people think about the future, what they think is possible, what they're afraid of, what they hope for. To come back for a second to print, while we're starting to see more marginalised voices being published. The area that I think is really lacking, especially when we think about it from the humanitarian perspective, is translations and people from other countries, other parts of the world, and trying to get more of those voices. As we talk about global futures, as we talk about global government, we really need to be doing more, more of that: more translation, more publishing. And it's hard to get that done in the US. That's one big issue that I think we need to keep looking at.

Robinson

Yeah, Octavia Butler is having a moment now. And she's been dead a couple decades. And when she was actually publishing those books, she was quite marginalised. So there's such a desire for those kinds of narratives that there's some backfilling; people go back into the tradition, and I really hope people start reading Joanna Russ, for instance, as an incredibly powerful, hilarious, and angry feminist voice in science fiction and one of the great stars of her time. And Ursula was more famous the longer her career went on, because of a desire for those kinds of narratives. So, science fiction can have everything ideologically, it can go from hard right reactionary QAnon type conspiracy theory set into the future to communist and far left manifestos of liberation for all humanity. It's just the same as any other form of literature in terms of its ideologies. But if you're looking for positive visions of a mutual aid future for the world, then indeed, science fiction is the right place to look, then you have to kind of go hunting and pecking to get past the same old same old ray guns and lasers and blowing things up and spaceships zipping around, which is typically war stories or stories of feudalism. And a lot of fantasy is of course, straight feudalism: the kings, the servants, the troubadours, the dragons, it's all straight medievalism taken as a kind of an escapism, or a metaphorical vision of the present, where you wish you could have a magic sword and just chop their heads off. So a lot of escapism in all of literature in all of art. And when you try to have committed or activist literature, then as Malka said, you run into the business of publishing: Who's gonna buy this when they're looking for escape, and you write a gritty story of humanitarian work, who's going to buy it? Very few, because people read and watch TV to escape their current trapped reality rather than engage and understand it. So you have to perform some pretty convoluted Judo tricks and Cirque du Soleil type jumps to make the kinds of things we write about entertaining, and get it through your industry to a readership that enjoys it, even though they're looking for escape. One of the escapes that would be nice is to imagine that things could still work out. So it could be that my novel ministry for the future is just as much a fantasy as a Game of Thrones or Harry Potter. Because it isn't clear that we're going to be able to run the table and put all of the bricks in place in time to keep from having a universal crash. But I'm very interested in, say, the refugee camps. So a Ministry for the Future has about maybe six or eight plot strands, and one of them is refugees. It's pretty much Syria: a country that's falling apart. They get to Switzerland, and then they're in a refugee camp for 20 or 20 or 30 years, and then they get out and they're Swiss citizens on a kind of Nansen passport. It takes up at least 15 to 20 percent of the text in Ministry for the Future, and nobody talks about it. Nobody. What can you say? “It's an intractable situation. As a life, it's boring.” Even though I was intent to write it, because the only solution I can see to the oncoming humanitarian refugee crisis, climate refugees, is a holistic sub solving of all the problems, at which point you don't have millions of people wandering the earth homeless and without much in the way of an ability to control their fate. So…

Aly

But when you say nobody talks about it, you mean in the reviews of the book, that's not a part of the book that is popular.

Robinson

Right. Exactly. Yeah. Not discussed. Let's talk about central banks. Let's talk about the carbon coin. Let's talk about geo-engineering. Let's talk about eco-terrorism. Let's talk about anything except for a life spent in the camps.

Aly

And so how do you go about popularising a book that is essentially about – it's both a cynical and optimistic book at once, I suppose but – a book that is essentially about the future of human suffering. How do you go about making that something that people want to think about and understand?

Robinson

Well, some people go into survivalist fantasies: ‘oh, if the world fell apart, then my life would suddenly be more exciting’, which is not true. The other thing would be simply to do creative non-fiction and live the life; go in there interview people; and write that story up. And there are some great accountants out there in the non-fiction literature. How do you find a plot that tells that story? The way I did it was to make sure that that was part of a larger global story that you had to remain interested in like, these are the stakes that are involved in solving climate change. These people will have their Nansen passports, you could imagine … I'm thinking about your specific issues, the involuntary migrants, the refugees, the climate refugees, could be a workforce to quickly decarbonise the planet, full employment plan, where governments gathered together and said, “Look, we need lots of workers, we have lots of people, could we put them to work in decarbonising fast so that we decrease the climate emergency?” Well, it would be hard, but it wouldn't be impossible. Can we match the solutions to the problems, which is sort of putting people in the right places and giving them agency and giving them expertise. It's a… it's a messy problem, and it's bearing down on us hard. And when things bear down on us hard people tend to freak out and go back into fantasy land.

Older

Yeah, I just, I want to pick up on some of those things, because I think there's a ton of interesting stuff in there. I have a very small and brief refugee subplot in my second book, Null States, and basically, there's, there's a war going on, and there's a bunch of refugees, and there, there's a fair for them, where all the governments from around come by and try to promote their governments is the place where these refugees should go, because in the world I created, population is power, almost as much as information is. So countries – they're not countries but the governments, there's these entities, these political entities – want people to choose them and want people to come to them. So, I would like to think that's imminent. I have hoped for it happening someday, because generally, studies show that refugees, migrants are good for the host countries they land in, in a variety of different ways from economic to social. But there's such a powerful narrative against that right now, unfortunately. But I have hoped that might change. And in the meantime, I hope that by writing about it in that way, it might trigger at least a few people to think about how ridiculous the current system is, which turns all this research on its head and says, ‘Oh, this is a huge problem that you have to worry about.’ Having these these visions and presenting them can be can be really useful for for even if you don't get to that place of like all the countries coming and having a fair where they like, look at our wonderful government come to our city, even if we don't get that far, maybe we can get to a point where it's not: ‘Go away.’

Older

Governments should be working a lot harder for our allegiance.

Aly

We often end the episodes with a question to our guests about what's one concrete step towards whatever vision they have laid out. What's one thing coming out of your fictional visions that you think doesn't have to be so far from reality? Or that could well be implemented if people were dared to dream.

Robinson

This is gonna sound stupid, but I'm gonna say it anyway: The return of strong progressive taxation, where the more you make and that companies as well as individuals and assets, as well as incomes all get taxed progressively, and we break down the power of the of the rich now, but this leads to…

Aly

Why should that sound stupid? 

Older

Yeah, really.

Robinson

Well, because it's so technical, wonky, and monetary. But let me generalise it just a little more before I give up on it. We are in neoliberal capitalism. That's been - the rich get richer, the poor get poorer - it's been disastrous; 40 years of it. And what I would like to see as a return to Keynesianism that is progressive taxation, and then a shift to social democracy like we see or have seen in the Scandinavian states, and then a shift to democratic socialism, and then a shift to some kind of post-capitalist mutual aid system as a quick step-wise…

Aly

Simple. 

Robinson

… Reform. In other words, not world revolution or not a technological trick, politics, policy, political economy, and step-wise. So Keynesianism worked before in the past, we could reinstitute it if we got a working political majority. And then social democracy next. And then, but like Malka said, instead of trying to call out a sequence and follow it ruthlessly, or which often happens, take the first steps and see where the opportunities lie next.

Older

I don't think that was stupid at all, and I don’t think it’s super technical. I think you're right. That's a great basic thing to be asking for. For my own writing, the basic thing that we've been talking about with science fiction is just: Demand better. Remember that where we are in the systems that we are in are not inevitable, and that we can change them. I think I do want to also come back a little bit to what you picked up on from my short story, which is the mutual aid question. And actually, the reason that I included it in there is because not just the work I did when I was an aid worker, but my PhD, my dissertation research, which was looking at actually how disaster response is done in rich countries. I looked at the United States and Japan. And there were tonnes of problems in both. These rich, stable governments had a lot of difficulties and problems and culture clash between DC and New Orleans, or between Tokyo and Tohoku, and just all the things that we see in humanitarian work all the time. But one of the things that was strikingly common across both cases, was that most of my respondents cited mutual aid as one of the things that really worked and they were talking about city to city or county to county. People coming in who were not exhausted and traumatised as to who were in similar positions from other places who had been through that, perhaps in other years, and were coming in to help on a sort of equal basis. I think as there’s more and more discussion in the humanitarian world about localisation; as we’re recognizing more and more of these problems with inequality and post-colonialism, and having various types of saviour complexes and just rich countries deciding that they can decide how aid should be and what it should look like, and what people need, and all of these problems… really kind of going back and thinking about some of these structures of how we are all probably, at some point, going to need help of one kind or another, and how we can be providing it on a basis that feels – and hopefully is – more equitable, and more about human to human, city to city, county to county, country to country, and really thinking about each other as equals.

Aly

Final, final question. We've talked about some of your own writing, and we'll link to that in the show notes. But if you have convinced any listeners to become science fiction readers, what's one book you would point them towards to inspire them about what is possible or what an alternative future could look like? 

Older

Only one?

Robinson

There's so many, but one that's very thought provoking, particularly since it's human motion across the landscape, which is part of what you're up to involuntary or voluntary, in this case, Cory Doctorow, Walkaway. That's an interesting book. It's not perfect, but it sure is interesting. 

Aly

Noted.

Older

Yeah. That's a great example. I always get stuck on these questions, because I have so many books that I want to tell people but… I can't, I'm gonna cry. One series that I really liked that sort of mixes fantasy and science fiction is the Tensorate series by Neon Yang that are four short novellas. And they're each very different. And they describe a really complex and fascinating world that includes a lot of political analysis, as well as cool tech as well as magic. If you're really into corporate stuff and robots read The Murderbot [Diaries] series [by Martha Wells]. If you…

Aly 

She’s cheating. 

Older

Yeah, I'm gonna stop.

Aly

No, I know it's hard. But I think we got quite a starting point there. Stan Melka, fascinating world that you inhabit and perhaps one that we will inhabit meaning the worlds that you write about. Thank you for giving us a window into what it means to be a fiction writer, science fiction writer in particular, and I really do think about it as daring to dream of what else might be possible. So thank you for helping inspire that.

Robinson

Thanks. 

Older

Thank you for having us.

EXTRO

Kim Stanley Robinson is the author of the Mars trilogy, and most recently The Ministry for the Future.

And Malka Older is the author of the Centenal Cycle trilogy and a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society. You can read AND listen to her short story Earthquake Relief. Mexico City. 2051 on The New Humanitarian’s website.

If you’ve got thoughts on this episode, write to us or send us a voice note – or better yet, a bit of science fiction writing, if that’s up your alley – at [email protected]

Today, we’ll leave you with a clip from Walidah Imarisha, the writer and activist we mentioned earlier. Imarisha is the co-editor of an anthology called Octavia’s Brood. It’s a collection of science fiction stories from social justice movements, and as you can judge by the title, the stories are deeply influenced by the legendary sci-fi writer Octavia Butler. In this talk, Imarisha described the prophetic power of Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, and how the book continues to inspire social movements 30 years later. 

This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian.

This episode was produced and edited by Melissa Fundira

Original music by Whitney Patterson

I’m your host Heba Aly.

Thank you for listening to Rethinking Humanitarianism.

Walidah Imarisha: One of the foundations of this story, ‘Parable of the Sower’, is set in the 2020s. It was published in the early 1990s and it is a slightly dystopian future to ours at this point where there's massive climate catastrophe that’s happened; the wealth gap has grown immensely; there is regression in democracy; racial tensions are incredibly exacerbated as part of that; there's a huge anti-immigration movement. For many people it felt very predictive and even prophetic and in fact folks have been reading Parable and turning to it so much that it became a bestseller 14 years after Octavia E. Butler's death. So just, I think, last month, Octavia finally reached the New York Times bestseller list 14 years after her death for ‘parable of the sower’ because it is so prophetic and because it centres not just around the immense violence and catastrophes of that world, but because it centres in the possibility of change. And so, in ‘Parable of the Sower’, the main character Lauren Olamina is a young teenage black girl who creates  another way of living – some call it a philosophy, some call it a religion. But it is a radical re-envisioning of how to be with one another that focuses on collectivism, on communal change, on a coming together, and a healing, and a reimagining. And I think many people, including me, have definitely been turning towards that vision for now.

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