Leave your name in the comments if you’d like a copy of one of these books. We’ll choose at least 30 commenters with US addresses.
Winners will choose one of these:
The New Jim Crow (Kindle, paperback, or Audible)
How to Be an Antiracist (Kindle or Audible)
The Underground Railroad (Kindle, paperback, or Audible).

Recently I’ve been deluged with suggestions for books to read about race and racism. Most are non-fiction works (Stamped from the Beginning, How to Be an Antiracist, The New Jim Crow, White Fragility, Between the World and Me) some are fiction (The Underground Railroad, Invisible Man, The Nickel Boys, Washington Black), and there’s even poetry (Citizen: An American Lyric). I appreciate the lists. We should all be better informed. Of history. Of facts. Of the interior lives of black people.

But what about fantasy and science fiction? Can stories about sentient spaceships, or hobbits, or aliens with no ears bring anything to the table? I’m not talking about books that directly address racism, such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred. I ask in a more general sense. What can we say about our genre’s ability to offer something to this conversation?

Perhaps most obviously is speculative fiction’s presentation of the Other. It can be problematic yes, via racialization of traits (e.g., dwarves are greedy, elves are mystical) or pigeonholing as villains (e.g., orcs, barbarians). But can it also be beneficial? Can reading about fictional characters unlike ourselves — whether they be Black or female or trans or aged — make us more aware of their daily lives, their desires, obstacles, fears, anger, etc? Can it open our eyes to the entire panoply of their existence, making it harder for us to racialize or genderize what are profoundly individual behaviors or attitudes?

Does presenting the Other in a society removed from our own by dint of the imaginary process — setting us in a far future, or a world where trees can talk — allow for a cognitive distance that lets us more easily empathize with them? Does the sheer variety and type of Otherness (e.g., aliens beyond count, animals, robots, AIs, plants, even a toothpick), the ways in which we follow (via 3rd person POV) or inhabit the minds (via first-person POV) of different cultures and species and genders ease our own paths toward empathy in our own world? Indeed, some research suggests that reading fiction may make us more empathic.

And if we buy into the idea that reading speculative fiction can affect individual attitudes and prejudices, can we then broaden that to envision an entirely different society, one without racism? That may seem unimaginable in our current situation, but isn’t speculative fiction’s raison d’être to lead us down heretofore unimagined paths to unimagined worlds? Worlds with FTL and dragons. Can reading in a genre that presents societal change as a constant, and continually asks us to rethink entire worlds and societies (e.g., THE HUNGER GAMES), help us reimagine and change our own?

What do you think? Can speculative fiction be a vehicle for greater personal empathy and, even, for societal change? How has your personal reading experience informed your views on these questions? Let us know your thoughts and, if you’re willing, give us some examples.

And as part of our own contribution to this important conversation, we’ve chipped in to give away a book to 30 randomly chosen commentators with US addresses. You don’t have to comment with anything profound; if you prefer, you can just say that you want to read one of these books. Winners will choose one of these: The New Jim Crow (Kindle, paperback, or Audible), How to Be an Antiracist (Kindle or Audible), or The Underground Railroad (Kindle, paperback, or Audible).

(If entering the contest, check the little box so you’ll get the notification about the winners. Winners are announced in the comments. However, you’ll get other people’s replies, too, so if you don’t want that, don’t check the box, but remember to come back in several day to see if you won.)