Wednesday Jun 19

BOOK REVIEW: Visionary Voices: Organizers and Change-Makers Write Fiction and Re-Write the World


cȧrdenas, micha. Atoms Never Touch. AK Press, 2023.

Collins, Chuck. Altar to an Erupting Sun. Green Writers Press, 2023.

Fletcher, Bill, Jr. The Man Who Fell From the Sky. Hardball Press, 2018.

Fletcher, Bill, Jr. The Man Who Changed Colors. Hardball Press, 2023.

Imarisha, Walidah, and adrienne maree brown. Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. AK Press, 2015.

Ritchie, Andrea, J. Practicing New Worlds: Abolition and Emergent Strategies. AK Press, 2023.

Sun, Kung Li. Begin the World Over. AK Press, 2022.

As organizers and changemakers, we are inherently optimistic. We hold the belief that change is achievable, ranging from minor adjustments like speed bumps to overhauling the entire system of racial capitalism. We find hope, even when it seems all but lost.

Our dissatisfaction with the world-as-it-is fuels our mission to organize people to define their aspirations for themselves, their families, communities, and coworkers. We make new futures possible because of our collective power.

This review began with a curiosity: What visions of the future do those committed to justice harbor when they have the power to shape or reshape history?

Venturing into this exploration offered a refreshing departure from my usual non-fiction reviews. Organizers, with their innate storytelling abilities, often blur the lines between reality and fiction to craft compelling narratives. Why not go all the way?

The journey took an unexpected turn as I read, leaving me both moved and transformed.

The authors I encountered are onto something profound: without the ability to envision the future, we cannot create it.

For this review, I delved into seven books, more than initially expected. I started by asking for recommendations from friends and fellow organizers, who offered me over fifty diverse suggestions. These ranged from well-known works like Stacy Abrams's romance novels and the lyrical prose of Audre Lorde and Arundhati Roy, to lesser-known and self-published gems.

One interesting tidbit: George R.R. Martin, author of the mega-hit Game of Thrones and Ice and Fire series, once served as a VISTA Volunteer, while his beloved works may not directly reflect visionary fiction or progressive politics, they definitely have dragons. So, I went down the rabbit hole.

Andrea J. Ritchie's Practicing New Worlds: Abolition and Emergent Strategies (2023) illuminates the vital roles of emergent strategies and visionary fiction in conceptualizing abolitionist presents and futures. This book is a part of the twelve-book Emergent Strategy Series published by AK Press, which also features micha cárdenas' Atoms Never Touch (2023) and Kung Li Sun's Begin the World Over (2022).

Walidah Imarisha's essay in Practicing New Worlds prompted me to revisit Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (2015), a collection she co-edited with adrienne maree brown. My reading list also included two mystery novels by Bill Fletcher, The Man Who Fell From the Sky (2018) and The Man Who Changed Colors (2023), as well as Chuck Collins's Altar to An Erupting Sun (2023). Resisting the temptation to read Sam Miller's The Blade Between until this review was a challenge for a devoted fan like me.

We'll begin by examining the thought-provoking concepts in Practicing New Worlds, then explore these six works of fiction by organizers and changemakers. These stories may inspire us all to envision and craft new futures.

I found resonance in Ritchie's evolution from traditional organizing methods to a profound appreciation for emergent strategies, which emphasizes learning from uncertainty, experimentation, and decentralization. This approach requires deepening our organizing practices to serve liberatory futures. This is hard work, not a place of comfortable retreat.

Practicing New Worlds offers insights into abolitionist strategy that integrates visionary fiction and emergent strategies, expanding our organizing toolkit and mindset. The blend of nonfiction and fiction, including Ritchie's own vulnerable narrative, adds a much-needed breadth to this collection.

The organizing movement is currently engaged in debates over the mechanisms of change. While we talk to ourselves, Ritchie warns us about the authoritarian movement's effective use of emergent strategy elements to build Christian nationalist, white supremacist, and patriarchal movements. Meanwhile, as progressives engaged in collaborative processes, we often find ourselves hesitant to experiment and envision new possibilities, especially under pressure.

Ritchie challenges us to move beyond reformist approaches that cannot address the structural inequities of racial capitalism and the prison-industrial complex. Her journey as a Black woman, lesbian, migrant, and survivor of violence informs her commitment to an abolitionist future that transcends the pursuit of state power. That said, Ritchie echoes Deepak Bhargava and Stephanie Luce’s advice in Practical Radicals: Seven Strategies to Change the World (2023) to take a both/and approach to campaigning, base-building, and emergent strategies:

Practicing emergent strategies doesn’t mean we don’t clearly envision and articulate our overall strategic objectives as we organize through critical connections, networks, and communities of practice to dismantle structures and systems of power. It also doesn’t mean discipline and structure aren’t required as we do so. Emergent strategies simply invite us to practice devotion to learning about how to achieve the change we seek from the complex systems we are part of.

Practicing New Worlds was a revelation, clarifying the essence of emergent strategy for me. Ritchie emphasizes the importance of starting small, building decentralized networks, and cooperating towards collective sustainability. The joy and pleasure inherent in this process are vital, especially after decades of disciplined organizing.

Ritchie's critique of the authoritarian right's effective use of emergent strategy underscores the urgency for us to adopt a more distributed and decentralized approach to organizing in the United States. We will not have an Organizing Revival and a revolution in power-building unless we figure this out. We need to organize tens of millions of people in deeply relational ways and that will not come from a linear relationship between organized people and organized money.

Thus, the need for a "jailbreak of the imagination," as Mariame Kaba puts it, is critical. We cannot achieve what we cannot envision.

Walidah Imarisha's essay in Practicing New Worlds highlights the role of visionary fiction in challenging existing power structures and imagining more just futures. Visionary fiction is not merely a diversion, but a central element of our strategy to foster innovation and experimentation.

Imarisha encourages us to embrace unrealistic visions of the future, as all significant social changes were once deemed unrealistic. This perspective opens up new strategic pathways and long-term agendas.

A recent conversation with a fellow organizer revealed her secret desire to write fiction, a dream she had shared with no one else. Reflecting on my own aspirations, I wonder about the futures I will write. I've harbored a story for over a dozen years, a blend of dark energy, magic, and four-dimensional thinking, centered on a galactic battle between good and evil.

Ritchie reminds us that envisioning a liberatory future is not a task we can outsource. It's a strategic imperative for all of us with stories to tell. I’ve got to write my stories, and so do you. Perhaps some inspiration from these six authors will help.

Love that can change reality

micha cȧrdenas’ poignant Atoms Never Touch imagines trans Latina love crossing multiple quantum realities. In the touching afterward, cȧrdenas dedicates this book to all the “trans people who have transitioned into another plane of existence too soon at the hands of murderous violence, we will never forget you, and we will never stop fighting for a world where no one is murdered because of their gender.” Atoms Never Touch offers such a future, with delicious quantum physics and data visualization problems to solve that push the main character Rea toward a breakthrough with societal implications. cȧrdenas brings her full self to this book, and readers will want to check out her nonfiction publications, digital media, poetry, game design, and the forthcoming sequel to Atoms Never Touch given the shock at the end.

Decolonizing and reimagining history

Kung Li Sun’s Begin the World Over is a counterfactual novel that reimagines real and fictional characters from the cluster of uprisings against slavery and colonization of the closing years of the 18th century. Sun has a gift for world-building, using every sense to evoke vivid scenes on pirate ships, Muskogee cities and society, colonial capitals, and Nuevo Orleans. Sun weaves the evolving stories of James Hemings, Denmark Vesey, Captain Mai, Mary, Red Eagle, and Romaine the Prophetess with quickening action as the stakes mount. Toward the end, James Hemings offers a French cuisine analogy that keeps this trend in my reviews alive: “that as sure as cream, properly whisked, rises into crème fraiche, the men and women crowded around him were the great hope of the most just God.” Sun gives us the opportunity to imagine what happens next, as the book ends at the precipice of revolution. Hemings, a cook whose escape from enslavement by Thomas Jefferson starts the book and whose journey is a through-line, ends “ready to begin again.”

The supernatural beneath the political

The Blade Between is Sam Miller’s fourth novel, a dark thriller where the ghosts of people and butchered whales intervene at a pivotal moment in the struggle against gentrification among newcomers and long-time residents of Hudson, NY. It’s more complicated than that, which makes for edge-of-the-seat reading as Miller’s real-life hometown becomes the backdrop for supernatural violence. Whales, addiction, dinosaurs, gay life and love, and the supernatural are themes across his canon (the dinos get an honorable mention in this one). Instructive for organizers aspiring to write fiction, Miller’s first published book, the Nebula winner Art of Starving, was his eighth novel. For those of us having a hard time imagining our first short stories (a good place to start) or novels, we can take inspiration from his persistence. Or perhaps compulsion. There are things inside of us that want to be free.

Uncovering the political in the mundane

Bill Fletcher, Jr.’s two murder mystery novels follow David Gomes (rhymes with homes), reporter at the Cape and Islands Gazette, in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The Man Who Fell From the Sky introduces us to Gomes and his Cape Verdean family and community, and the underlying political themes that carry over to The Man Who Changed Colors. Fletcher’s work in labor (including as a welder in a shipyard that features in the latter book), community, and electoral organizing, and writing on race and labor in U.S. and international contexts informs both books. There’s nothing supernatural about Fletcher’s late 1970s, where deindustrialization and labor struggles, along with race relations between Blacks, whites, Cape Verdeans, and Portuguese, set the stage for his mysteries. Through Gomes, Fletcher goes beyond reporting that would have satisfied the whites, to uncover colonial driven economic and political tensions that make the story richer and more complex. The second book shows marked improvement over the first, and I am hoping for a third installment.

Daring to ask what if”

In Altar to an Erupting Sun Chuck Collins tells the story of Rae Kelliher, whose lifelong commitment to nonviolent organizing and activism takes a turn when she is diagnosed with cancer. The erupting sun occurs in the first chapter, and the rest of the book is an altar created by Rae’s longtime labor organizer partner Reggie Donovan. Rae’s activist trajectory spans fifty years, 1973 through 2023, putting Forrest Gump’s historical references to shame as she weaves her way through key movements and organizations on the left. Like Sun, Collins uses real people to deepen the story’s resonance with readers. Without giving away too much, Rae’s deep study of the climate crisis leads her to ask: “Is our society just going to stand by and let them [oil barons] destroy the Earth?” Collins’ work on economic and climate justice informs this book, and I can’t help wondering if he is struggling along with Rae to ask if we need dramatic action to make transformative change.

These works, from visionary fiction to narratives grounded in the experiences and politics of organizers and change-makers, demonstrate the power of imagination in crafting new worlds. By bringing our full selves to the creative process, we can illuminate paths toward more just and free societies.

In closing, let's heed Imarisha's call to envision our own futures:

Imagine it's fifty years from now, and social justice movements have continued to advance liberation. What would your life look like? What would your daily routine entail? You could write out your daily schedule, pen a journal entry from the year 2070, or compose a letter to a loved one detailing the changes that have unfolded over your lifetime.

James Mumm is a longtime community organizer who consults for 22nd Century Initiative, People's Action and other organizations.