‘An optimistic act’: Charlie Jane Anders talks future of science fiction before Bay Area Book Festival

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Jessica Doojphibulpol/Senior Staff

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Charlie Jane Anders may be known for her Hugo and Nebula Award-winning stories, but her title as an author is just one of the many hats she wears. Anders also co-founded io9.com — a website about all things science fiction — and she hosts the monthly spoken-word variety show, “Writers With Drinks.”

At the upcoming Bay Area Book Festival, the San Francisco-based author will moderate the panel “Women & Speculative Fiction: In the Footsteps of Atwood, Butler, and Le Guin.” The panel will also feature Åsa Avdic, Maggie Shen King, Lidia Yuknavitch and Meg Elison.

For Anders, science fiction is a genre of possibility, one which defies the pessimism it exudes. “Writing a dystopian story is really an optimistic act,” Anders said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “It is based on the idea that we can confront this dark possibility and actually face up to and possibly do something about it.”

This tendency towards dystopia also inevitably results in the protagonists enduring or entering catastrophic circumstances. In a word, science fiction can seem spectacularly depressing. Think of the terrifying IT of “A Wrinkle in Time” or the ash-covered, lifeless San Francisco of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Science fiction, or speculative fiction, often anticipates hardship — yet it is consistently the genre that inspires the most optimistic, stubborn belief that everything might just get better, as long as we continuously fight for a better world.

The way the genre so effortlessly balances hope and despair is partially because of the fact that science fiction is not only an important reminder of the world we can imagine — it grounds itself in the world in which we live.

“I never think of my work as being dystopian,” Anders said. “My next novel, which comes out in January, has some societies in it that are kind of hurtful to the people living in them, but I think that that’s just reality — that’s just the way the world is.”

Granted, there is not a literal, giant brain controlling all of us like in “A Wrinkle in Time” — but conformity is undoubtedly encouraged in society. At a young age, children begin to feel inordinately self-conscious about the traits that deviate the most from the norm. And while all plant and animal life isn’t yet extinct, not in the way “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” imagines, the deterioration of our environment appears to be an inevitable reality.

Anders reiterates the way science fiction is a balancing act between realism, pessimism and optimism. Mentioning the way Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” or Octavia E. Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” remind us of how things might become if we’re not careful, Anders postulates that there is bravery in writing dystopian narratives.

“I have written one or two dystopian short stories, actually, that are along those lines of ‘this is what scares me, and I’m going to look at it,’ ” she said.

Confronting reality is only the first step, however. Science fiction that only displays despair and lacks hope is not very good science fiction. Once we are exposed to what we fear the most, we must decide how we’ll face our fears. The genre needs to be able to imagine the future in all its vastness — not just in all the many ways things can go wrong, but also in the infinite ways that things might eventually bend towards the good.

One of the main requirements to envisioning this vastness, according to Anders, is the act of amplifying a myriad of experiences — as achieved by elevating female authors, LGBTQ+ authors and authors of color. “The more kinds of voices you include in science fiction, the better the genre becomes,” she said.

Pointing to works such as Becky Chambers’ “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” and N.K. Jemisin’s “The Fifth Season,” Anders emphasizes how diverse perspectives convey optimism about the future’s potential. “I’ve loved seeing some of the science fiction stuff that depicts an inclusive future, where people are working together and it’s kind of just upbeat,” she said.

This vision of a better future translates to the page within Anders’ works. In her novel “Choir Boy,” Anders, who is transgender, uses magical realism to write the compelling coming-of-age story of a gender-questioning kid. Anders went on to publish the science fiction stories “Six Months, Three Days” and “All the Birds in the Sky,” establishing herself as a prolific writer in a genre that so often favors male authors.

Disrupting the trope of artists who struggle to include LGBTQ+ representation, Anders revealed her secret to including straight and cisgender characters. When she writes heterosexual characters, Anders says, she refrains from always making them the villains to her often LGBTQ+ characters. “I like showing that they can be good people, too,” Anders explained, “and that you’re not doomed by heteronormativity or patriarchy to be horrible.”

As science and technology continue to advance, the ominous future often envisioned by science fiction bears a closer and closer resemblance to reality. Whether our reality unfolds like an optimistic science fiction story or a pessimistic one largely depends on the actions we take as a society.

“I think everyone should read broadly,” Anders said, speaking of one such action. “Try to expose yourself to as many voices as you can.”

The Bay Area Book Festival’s “Women & Speculative Fiction” panel is Sunday, April 29.

Danielle Hilborn covers LGBTQ+ media. Contact her at [email protected].

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