The Power of Speculative Fiction to Promote Human Rights

June 12, 2023

Kara Anderson surrounded by speculative fiction texts

Kara Anderson ’25

By Kara Anderson ’25

The world is facing a human rights crisis and this crisis is reflected not only in how we experience life and the daily news but in the movies we watch and the books we read. Yet these mediums do more than just reflect the issues that plague our society, they can help to promote human rights and move us toward a better world. Speculative fiction novels, in particular, can work to promote and protect rights in a variety of ways.

 Speculative fiction is a literary “super genre” that involves elements that do not exist in the “real” world and change the laws of what is possible. It includes sub-genres such as dystopian fiction, science fiction, fantasy, etcetera. Some of the most well known examples include The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451. Other, more modern, examples include Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, and Divergent.

So how can speculative fiction promote human rights?

  1. Help develop empathy and understanding
  2. Open the mind to different ways of thinking and problem solving
  3. May change one’s rights-consciousness
  4. Allows for political topics to be analyzed with distance from modern politics

First, speculative fiction, similar to other forms of literature, allows readers to walk in someone else’s shoes. Through characters people can experience lives different from their own. Therefore, people can better understand different experiences and their impacts. According to researcher Dora B. Rowe, “Recent studies in a variety of disciplines have linked the reading of fiction specifically with measurable increases in empathy using both self-reported instruments and neurological examinations. […] The act of transportation into the story and identification with the characters can lead to substantive changes in perception and world view.”

In a global society where too often we simply cannot understand one another, literature gives us a peek into the lives of others. When we have a better understanding of others and develop empathy, it is  easier to treat others with the dignity and respect all humans deserve, and from there, we can move forward collaboratively to address the problems facing the world. 

Second, speculative fiction can open the mind to new ways of thinking. This is in part due to the ability to walk in characters’ shoes. Living through characters gives readers the opportunity to engage with problems and situations they have not experienced before. These experiences help develop readers’ ability to think critically and solve complex problems.

Yet the world itself also contributes to new ways of thinking. With speculative elements anything is possible which broadens our own understanding of plausibility and sparks creativity. According to writer and activist Walidah Imarisha, speculative fiction allows one to ask not, “What is realistic?” but rather, “What do we want?In order to enact human rights change, we have to identify what that change looks like and have hope that it is possible. We have to think outside the box to solve problems others may label futile. 

Third, speculative fiction may change one’s rights consciousness, that is, what rights one believes they should and do possess. The creation of new worlds uniquely situates the individual to enter places that recognize different rights from what the reader may understand for themself. The characters may have access to rights that the reader does not, but by living through those characters the reader may come to believe that they too should have that right. Conversely, a reader might take a particular right for granted, but by entering a society where that right is violated or nonexistent the reader can come to recognize it and understand its importance.

In the words of Duke human rights professor Robin Kirk, “Through the lens of story, we’ve […] explored ideas about how society could or should function. […] And that shapes what rights we think we do or should have — even who should have rights at all. This observation is almost as old as science fiction itself.”

Fourth, speculative fiction allows political topics to be engaged with and analyzed separate from modern politics. We live in a highly polarized society and human rights and related issues frequently become bogged down in partisanship. Speculative fiction helps to separate an abstract idea from current polarized situations since the stories take place outside of those situations. This new perspective can help readers get a better understanding of an issue and then apply that new, more objective, understanding to the modern world.

Joel Cunningham has said, “speculative fiction has long concerned itself with breaking barriers and exploring issues of race, inequality, and injustice. The fantastical elements of genre, from alien beings to magical ones, allow writers to confront controversial issues in metaphor, granting them a subversive power that often goes unheralded.”

In the end, many speculative fiction books take advantage of these different benefits to promote human rights and social justice. The ability of speculative fiction literature to increase empathy, open one’s mind, alter one’s rights consciousness, and distance issues from partisanship is powerful. So go out—read, write, talk about speculative fiction. Enjoy the powerful and emotional journey through different worlds, and use what you learn to make this world a better place.

Kara Anderson is a rising junior political science and English double major, pursing an experiential learning certificate in human rights. At Albion, Kara is a part of the Prentiss M. Brown Honors Program and the Gerald R. Ford Institute for Leadership in Public Policy and Service. 

The views expressed here represent those of the author and not necessarily of Albion College.