What Speculative Fiction and Possible Worlds Theory Taught Me about Grief

The following essay touches on experiences relating to suicide, loss, and grief. If you are experiencing thoughts of harming yourself or others or know someone in crisis, please know that you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, reach the Crisis Text line by texting Hello to 741741, or chat by visiting the Suicide Prevention Lifeline Chat.

Sundays are my long-run day, when the comforting monotony of arms and legs swinging finally quiets my brain and allows my unconscious to peek above the surface. Almost always as I run along the high berm of North Lakes Park, I think of Katie.

To my left, I can just see the roof of her apartment complex on the horizon. I see the dog park where we were supposed to meet to play with Rulo, her newly adopted shelter dog. To my right, I see the towers of our university. Most Sundays I try not to notice the white one, the one Katie chose to fall from.

Some Sundays, I’ll think instead of a possible world, just to the side of this one, where Katie and I are slow-jogging the park’s rocky trail together. Often, our dear friend and colleague Jackie is with us. There are no masks, because Katie died before the world closed itself off to COVID-19. There is a running stroller for Jackie’s youngest son Beau, though. Katie would have loved his big, bright eyes.

In my “day” job as a professor—we all know it’s a 24-7 job, really—I study narratives. I write lesson plans and give presentations, always trying to make sense of the stories we humans tell. I still cannot make sense of the story where my vibrant friend and colleague chose to end her life. I have learned, however, that I can use narrative theories to understand my own grief.

My students and I are reading speculative fiction this semester, focusing on BIPOC novels that depict alternate futures and histories as a form of resistance, what Walidah Imarisha calls “visionary fiction.” We talk about the clash of political corruption and Afr-Caribbean magical realism in a dystopian near-future Toronto (Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring) and a steampunk reimagining of the Congo Free State (Nisi Shawl’s Everfair). But speculative fiction—the loose grouping of genres like science fiction, fantasy, and horror—does not always diverge so drastically from our actual world.

To understand how these speculative worlds help us navigate our own, my students and I talk of possible worlds theory, borrowed from philosophy. This theory tells us that reality is the sum of what exists, as well as the sum of what we imagine. While only one world is our actual world, that does not make other possible worlds any less real. Reality is made up of not only what happens, but also the ways we process what happens—through stories, daydreams, even nightmares.

Processing what has happened over the course of the pandemic has not been easy, to say the least. Even stories seemed to fail me: I read a total of one book in the year 2020. That book, though—Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer—reminded me that the greatest value of speculative fiction is its ability to help readers imagine other ways of knowing and being. From slave narrative and magical realism I moved onto fantasy, with G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King, and then to science fiction with Ted Chiang’s Exhalation. And suddenly, during another Sunday run with an imaginary Katie beside me, I realized it was time to revisit an old friend from Chiang’s collection Stories of Your Life and Others.

***

Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” (the basis for the movie Arrival) speculates on a possible future where, in a world just like our own, aliens arrive suddenly. The story is less about “what if aliens landed” and more a subtle rumination on the role of determinism in our lives. Approaching Chiang’s story through possible worlds theory helps me to imagine time less as a linear march toward inevitable death and more as a matrix of memory and hope. It reminds me that by necessity human language must aim to fix people, places, and things in time—but that fixity is only an illusion.

Katie now exists only in the past; to imagine her as alive is counterfactual. It defies the actual world truth. But there is still something very real about Katie’s presence in our world. To imagine the world where she slow-jogs beside me is simply to acknowledge that I miss her. That she is still a part of our lives, that she left a legacy. Briefly constructing this alternate narrative is merely part of the healing process.

Like Chiang’s story, grief encourages us to ask, “Would I do this again if I knew how it would end?” Would we have hired Katie, or become as close, if we knew she’d take her own life? Like Louise Banks, the story’s narrator, from our present we can see the inevitable future of that choice. There are no “what ifs” that can change the past. But I have now learned not to ask, “What if this happened instead?” as so many speculative novels do. What if I had answered her last text, instead of thinking, “Oh, I’ll see her tomorrow”? Imagining these possible worlds only leads to impossible guilt. Using speculative fiction as a tool to understand grief reminds us not to get lost in the counterfactual world where we might have made different choices.

Those novels which tell alternate histories do so knowing that the past cannot be changed, that their story is not the “truth”—but speculative fiction is not escapism. Narrative theory reminds us that counterfactual fiction is a tool for better understanding our own world, even as it seems to contradict it. Where a narrative departs from written history, physical laws, or consensus reality is where we have the most to learn. Speculative fiction reminds us that there are many histories, many versions of history, which have been lost or distorted. That mythmaking is a valid mode of knowledge production. That “realism” is just as relative as any other ideal.

Speculative fiction also allows us to create possible worlds just to the side of this one where we can test hypotheses, where we can create and solve fictional problems in order to imagine solutions that make the actual world better. It’s often easier to imagine this on a larger scale, as in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower or P. Djeli Clark’s Ring Shout. What societal norms or structural issues do we need to address before we end up in a dystopian landscape? What histories do we need to reckon with before we can move into a more equitable future?

But speculative fiction also allows us to imagine new ways of being on an individual level. No genre more clearly shows us that there is no single way of being human. And possible worlds theory demands we acknowledge that every individual choice opens a new reality. We all have pressures that prevent our options from being truly limitless. But what if we just began by allowing ourselves to imagine alternatives?

Jogging with Katie is not a viable option for me, not in this actual world. It is only a fiction, one that reminds me of other ways I might choose to be. It is a way to ask myself to push past my comfort zone—to reach out more, to connect more, even as my instinct is to retreat in order to save myself the pain of future loss. It is a way of asking myself not to follow the urge to push those I’ve lost so recently—my father; Katie; Tiernan, a beloved student—to the fuzzy edges of my memory.

When I spoke at Tiernan’s funeral, I invoked possible worlds theory in an effort to comfort his friends and family—along with myself, of course. He was a huge fan of the Marvel superhero movies, with their Infinity Stones and multiverse, so I don’t think he’d have objected to me imagining an alternate timeline for him. In that time stream, Tiernan finishes his Master’s degree with us, earns a PhD, and becomes a professor. We meet regularly at conferences to argue about literature over a pint of craft beer. Imagining this alternate timeline helps me to process what a profound impact Tiernan made on his fellow students and on his teachers, and to acknowledge my grief at what we’ve lost in his passing.

Narrative theory is a set of tools for making sense of stories. Not only fictional stories, but the stories we all craft in order to navigate our world. Speculative fiction reminds us that even the most fantastical stories can be truthful—they resonate with what we know to be true for ourselves and our own world, even as they represent impossible situations. Through narrative theory I’ve come to understand that the possible worlds constructed by my own “wishful thinking” are a necessary and welcome part of coming to terms with the traumatic loss of friends and family. In our altogether too dystopian present, embracing speculative fiction can not only help us imagine a better world on the other side of a global pandemic—it can help us find ways to make sense of our own story as we live through it.

Gretchen Busl is an Associate Professor of English at Texas Woman’s University who’s had a thing for linguistics and narrative theory since Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel.

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