Exploring Social Justice through Sci-Fi & Fantasy

Authors, Banned and Challenged Books, Social Justice

By: Lisa Hoover

It seems as if the United States is – maybe – poised to tackle racial justice issues head on. However, for many of us who did not grow up experiencing systemic racism, it can still be challenging to truly understand the deep seated nature of the problems our country is facing. Many libraries are responding with amazing reading lists and guides (here’s my library’s guide, a great guide from Wellesley and a list from New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center, but there are so many others!). 

I suspect a lot of our patrons, when they see these lists, immediately suspect it will be a lot of non-fiction (which, of course, it often is), and may be reluctant to engage with non-fiction. The wonderful thing is that there is a long history of engaging with these issues through fiction as well; particularly famous examples include James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, but there are many. There are some great lists here, here, and here, among others.

I personally really enjoy (if “enjoy” can be considered the right word in this context) the exploration of tough social justice issues through the lens of fantasy or science-fiction – often through the vehicle of anti-magic prejudice. I feel the fantasy context allows the reader to take a step back from the real world, which may help diffuse the instinctual desire to separate oneself from the problem – “I don’t do this!” It allows the reader to think critically about equality and justice in a less personally challenging way. And it’s emphatically not just for young adults. In short, it prompts you to think about the tough issues while still engaging in some escapism. 

Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, for example, have gotten a lot of attention for doing this. Incidentally, they also have both raised real life debates about social justice issues, such as the backlash when beloved character Rue was cast as a black actress or more recently when JK Rowling made statements that many fans viewed as transphobic. 

Children of Blood & Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

One recent fantasy novel/series that has gotten some attention specifically for tackling social justice is Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi. Adeyemi’s series uses an African inspired setting in which magic users are oppressed and abused by the non-magical ruling class. While it’s pretty easy to see the parallels between magic use and race, the thing I find really masterful here is the way Adeyemi shows the ways misunderstandings and assumptions can perpetuate the problem; she shows that even with good, well-intentioned people on both sides, it can be difficult or impossible to untangle long standing prejudices and fears. This is especially well developed in the second book, Children of Virtue and Vengeance. There’s a good talk about the first book in the series here.

The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin

Similarly, the Broken Earth trilogy, which starts with The Fifth Season, by NK Jemisin uses magic as a lens through which to examine prejudice. This is a darker, more grim take on the topic and is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the weather is unpredictable and dangerous. The earth itself is dangerous, but can be manipulated by shaman-like orogenes who are mistrusted and disliked by the general populace. While the primary focus is on the prejudice against the magic users, there are some gender and sexuality and disability rights undertones as well that I also found to be food for thought. Jemisin explores the long term stress and anger that can build in people who are subjected to long term discrimination and who need to hide who they really are. Incidentally, all three books in this (finished) trilogy won the Hugo Award, so you know they’ve got to be good.  

The Poppy War by RF Kuang

The Poppy War series by RF Kuang also uses prejudice and fear of magic users in her Asian-inspired fantasy series. While it is, I would argue, less of a focus than in Broken Earth and Children, it’s still very much present, with magical users treated as “other.” She also uses the books to a lesser extent to examine the challenges faced by children from poor backgrounds and professional women, which gives the first book a nice multi-layered approach as a way to think about social justice. Kuang also draws a lot of inspiration from history, which helps give it a visceral feeling that I found powerful. 

These are just some ideas from my own bookshelf, but there are many more out there. Here are some other lists to consider:

One of the things I love about books is that even fiction can be a vehicle for critical thinking and deep thought. 

Lisa Hoover

Lisa Hoover is a Public Services Librarian at Clarkson University and an Adjunct Professor in criminal justice at SUNY Canton. In addition to her MLS, Lisa holds a JD and an MA in political science. She began her career as an editor and then manager for a local news organization, adjunct teaching in her “spare time.” She teaches courses in criminal procedure, criminal law and constitutional law. She is passionate about 1st Amendment issues. She recently began her career as a librarian, starting at Clarkson University in June 2017 teaching information literacy sessions and offering reference services. Lisa and her husband Lee live in Norwood, New York with their cats Hercules, Pandora and Nyx and pug-mix Alexstrasza (Alex). Find her on Twitter @LisaHoover01.

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