When Phoenix Alexander first enrolled at Queen Mary University of London, he studied fashion design. However, after taking a postcolonial literature class, Phoenix realized his true calling lay in writing and eventually graduated with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English Literature. Currently, Phoenix is a Ph.D. student in both the English and African American Studies departments and is also pursuing a certificate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Phoenix cites Jamaica Kincaid’s novel “Autobiography of My Mother,” which he read in his postcolonial literature class, as the work that inspired him to look at African-American literature specifically. His thesis project examines the contribution of black women to science fiction, particularly the work of Octavia Butler, as well as the role of black women in science and medicine. According to Phoenix, science fiction and speculative fiction have long been realms of expression and activism for marginalized communities. We sat down with Phoenix to discuss his work, the role of social media in today’s political climate and the increasing salience of science fiction in today’s society.
Q: What are you studying right now?
A: My work looks at the black feminist history of science fiction in the 20th century, focusing on the work of Octavia Butler in particular. It’s an interdisciplinary project because it looks at the history of science and medicine in relation to this genealogy of black sci-fi. I’m looking at key case studies, how black women have figured into medicine in the U.S. and how their narratives and stories have been reworked in fiction.
Q: Why is this kind of speculative fiction important, especially for marginalized communities?
A: Well, I think it’s a happy confluence of many things. Butler herself died in 2006, but there’s all this amazing work that’s happening around her life and legacy. Her work has been taken up by figures such as Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha, who edited this anthology called “Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements.”
Butler’s archive has also been recently finalized in its curation at The Huntington Library in California. There’s over 300 boxes, she’s collected these clippings of politics, of science and medicine, of health — she just had such a brilliant awareness of the issues she faced and that we face today. I think the prescience of her writing about these issues is something that’s so inspiring to a lot of people.
Another thing I would say is worth looking at is the kind of academic writing about science fiction in particular, the major magazines. The editors of these magazines, who are pretty much the gatekeepers of the genre, are actively seeking indigenous voices, people of color, queer [people]. Really important interventions have been made to get these voices who have not been heard in the mainstream. It’s great to see science fiction — and I would say geek culture more broadly — flourish and come into its own.
Q: How can science fiction and speculative fiction be a means of expression and activism?
A: The very important thing is who has historically written these narratives of the future, who is being imagined in the future and what kinds of structures are being imagined in the future. For many decades, you had writers who could happily envisage any kind of alien, but there were no people of color in any of their narratives. It’s super important, because science fiction has such a strong place in the cultural imagination. Even these texts that purport to be not political and just escapist romps, “good-old-boys’ adventures” sci-fi, that’s absolutely political. How you’re envisaging a future and who is allowed to exist in this future is absolutely political.
For example, Butler’s “Parable” series, which consists of the “Parable of the Sower” and the “Parable of the Talents”: It is set in the near future, and she imagines this kind of very right-wing sect called Christian America that has come into power and climate change has decimated the environment. A demagogue president-elect comes into power, and his catchphrase literally is “vote for me and let’s make America great again.” I know it was about the ’80s since Reagan said it, but just the accuracy with which she describes this science fiction future and how closely it mirrors our own situation — she didn’t just get lucky, this was the result of the scrutiny with which she existed as a citizen in the world.
Q: Do you think social media has played a huge role in this movement?
A: My dissertation is just working from [Butler’s] huge archive, but I’m interested in turning the lens to how digital archives are constituted and what kinds of records, what kinds of politics, are enabled by thinking about social media. For instance, you see people on Twitter, especially in this age of fake news and alternative facts, screenshot everything, timestamp things — because the Internet never forgets. That kind of political engagement with media is a direct line from Butler’s work of archiving.
Q: Do you think given the recent political circumstances, there will be a boom in science fiction or speculative fiction?
A: I think there already is. We already live in dystopian times, and I think it absolutely has to do too with the technological developments that we’re seeing and everyone becoming their own archivists. [Also], you have this “Disneyfication” of these huge science fiction franchises, which — for better or worse — are commodifying it [science fiction], saturating culture with it so people are aware of the iconography, they are interested in the stories. The editors of the more niche sci-fi, they are [also] trying to bring more into the fold. I think as we are trying to fathom what it means to exist with technology and with very turbulent political times, it’s only going to inspire more filmmakers, artists and writers to create.
Q: What is a common misperception about science fiction that needs to be addressed?
A: The one that is most pertinent to my project is that it is an escapist genre, that somehow by watching or reading science fiction, it suspends your critical faculties and you can be taken up into a story that has absolutely zero relation with the “real world.” I think that’s a misconception, but that’s already being undone by shows like “Black Mirror” or by Butler’s science fiction novels. If you read the right work and branch out, you will see then that science fiction has never been about making you feel better. That’s not to say you can’t be entertained by a story, like any good story in whatever genre, but you’re going to have to reflect on yourself and your society as you see through the lens of this novelist.
Q: What are some book recommendations?
A: First of all, Octavia Butler is my go-to. I would read “Dawn,” her first novel of her “Xenogenesis Trilogy”; I would read the “Parable of the Sower,” the “Parable of the Talents,” certainly — they are very eerie, very prescient. I would read Bessie Head’s “A Question of Power”: it’s a very surreal novel, but the way she filters the politics of apartheid South Africa through form is incredible.
Q: If you had to live in a world found in science fiction, where would you live? Conversely, where would you not want to live?
A: I wouldn’t really want to live in any science fiction — I’m scared of everything, it can kill you! I have a soft spot for dinosaurs, and I like “Jurassic Park,” so I’d like to be one of those dino-wranglers — but for the non-carnivorous ones like the triceratops or something. I’ll go with that.
One science fiction world I wouldn’t like to be in is Octavia Butler’s “Parable” series, but unfortunately it seems to be the world that I find myself in today. So, it’s time to get to work and fight it, because we’re all in that world and she and other writers like her left us with inspiration. She’s a hopeful author, too, so even that kind of dire world does leave us hope.