— Amy Johnson

Like so many people, in recent years I’ve found it increasingly difficult to imagine positive democratic futures. Too often, worries about the dire state of our planet and governments have crowded out more hopeful possibilities. So when NDI approached me to helm a global speculative fiction anthology themed around positive visions of democracy, I loved the idea.

By its nature, speculative fiction—a term that includes science fiction, fantasy, and all their subgenres and kin, such as magical realism, alternate history, weird fiction, etc.—explores other worlds. Sometimes these worlds are recognizable as future or reimagined Earths, sometimes they are places still more strange and unfamiliar. Speculative fiction thus offers rich insights into how we in the present understand ourselves, our societies, and the courses we are on; it has inspired sociotechnical innovations from the submarine to mixed reality. But perhaps most importantly, when we read—or write—speculative fiction, we practice imagining fresh possibilities. As such, speculative fiction offers an antidote for hopelessness, for it reminds us that other futures are, in fact, possible. And that’s critically important, because when you struggle to even imagine a possibility, realizing it becomes exponentially more difficult.

As it happened, I’d been working on a new anthology design perfect for an anthology themed around positive visions of democracy: partner with multiple speculative fiction magazines around the world to publish individual themed issues, and then bring select stories from these issues together to create a global anthology—and in the process set even more people dreaming about democracy.

Four intrepid editors agreed to join me in the challenge: First came Mazi Nwonwu, editor of Omenana, a speculative fiction magazine based in Nigeria that publishes authors and artists from Africa and the African diaspora. Next came Salik Shah, editor of Mithila Review, a magazine based in India that publishes speculative fiction and poetry from authors all around the world. Last but not least came Jana Bianchi and Diogo Ramos, editors of speculative fiction magazines in Brazil, Mafagafo and A Taverna respectively, who decided not only to take on a themed issue, but to join forces and publish it as their first-ever bilingual Portuguese/English collaboration.

Our collaboration reflects how deep and widespread concerns about the state of democracy are. It also reflects how deep and widespread commitments to democracy are.

But what exactly did we mean when we asked authors to explore positive visions of democracy? We invited authors to interpret democracy broadly. To consider democratic institutions, yes, but also democratic norms and principles and practices. In the vein of optimistic science fiction and visionary fiction, stories and poems should have strong positive elements, but not necessarily only positive elements. And because sometimes inspiration lives in the familiar and sometimes in the strange, we welcomed not only near future stories, but the full panoply of science fiction and fantasy. And, of course, we sought compelling characters and beautiful writing.

Now, speculative fiction has a long history of writing about authoritarianism and other oppressive power structures, both to resist and to valorize those structures. (If you’re not sure about the latter, think of two now stereotypical storylines: science fiction that celebrates the violence of settler colonialism on far-flung planets; epic fantasy that traces a hero’s journey from humble beginnings to elite ruling power.) Democracy doesn’t enjoy the same presence. Even more rare? Stories in which democracy not only appears, but flourishes. So we were asking writers to tackle a subject that by design embraces plural voices and complexity, and without having a well-trod path to follow.

Writers responded. Enthusiastically. Hundreds of writers submitted stories and poetry to the three submission calls. From this abundance, each editorial team selected pieces and worked with authors and artists to create beautiful themed issues.

Although the editorial teams worked independently, certain themes recur across the stories and poems they chose, including the importance of education, generational tensions, and the climate crisis. Perhaps not surprisingly, technology abounds—decision simulators, virtual reality, alien energy generators, AI, biotic networks, atmospheric regulating suits, fusion reactors, printing, holographic assistants, blockchain-based identity systems, and automated vehicles, but also spellcraft, magic staffs, fungal lanterns, alchemical matrices, portals, and much, much more. Throughout, technology remains firmly a tool for people working to solve problems and thrive, it does not in itself offer answers.

For this global anthology, I’ve selected nine pieces—seven stories and two poems, three from each issue—that speak to important broader trends in envisioning democracy that surfaced across the thirty-two stories and poems of the themed issues. Let me highlight three:

First, stories and poems ask us to consider how democracy can expand. In “Oyarsu—Terraforming Earth,” Dooshima Tsee imagines a decision simulator that enables children to vote on futures that affect them, too. In Uchechukwu Nwaka’s “Mindscaping the Esheran Liberator, One Hundred Years Later” an alien refugee breaks her culture’s deepest taboo to overcome human oppressors and create a democracy that recognizes more than just the human species. And the people in Isa Prospero’s “The True Story of a Kartenian Soldier in an Enemy Land” express their voices through media, petition, and demonstrations to persuade their elected officials to integrate former enemies after a war for alchemical resources ends.

Second, stories and poems take fresh looks at democracy’s balance between the individual and the collective. In “Worker’s Song” by H. Pueyo, ants cautiously navigate democratic principles to found a new society after their queen’s death ends their hierarchical system. That same tension underpins paulo da costa’s cozy “Harefoot Express,” when, in a future world governed through regular, at-home voting and thoughtful attention to sustainability, an unexpected disaster throws an individual’s vacation plans awry. It shimmers, too, in Gretchen Rockwell’s “In My Utopias,” where humans living in healed ecosystems use AI to manage resources and create space both to care for each other collectively and to be accepted fully as themselves.

And third, stories and poems underscore the importance of understanding democracy as an ongoing process—and propose different ways to tend it as such. The courses detailed in Florence Lenaers’s “School of Continuing Education, Excerpt of the Course Catalog” argue eloquently that we need to keep learning about our many, evolving interconnections so that we can dance together in “urban & / agricrosscultural mosaics.” In “A Ride for the Future” by Mwenya S. Chikwa, when a young girl’s get-out-the-vote effort doesn’t yield the electoral turnout she’d hoped, rather than despair she makes plans to begin again. And in João Mendes’s “The Apprentice with the Thousand Eyes,” an elderly man is finally able to pursue his childhood dream to study magic after a friend launches a citizen initiative and labors for years to enact the country’s first Law of Inclusion of the Elderly and People with Disabilities.

The above only scratches the surface. These stories and poems abound with insights; they will undoubtedly reveal other thoughts and possibilities to you. So I invite you to read the anthology—and when you’ve savored that pleasure, then go and read all of the themed issues, too. But most of all, I invite you to imagine positive futures of democracy yourself, ones that inspire you, individually and collectively, to hope and action.

Amy Johnson

MIT’s Language and Technology Lab Fellow

Amy Johnson uses speculative methods to explore the societal impacts of technology and social change—and then imagine fresh possibilities. An author, anthologist, and scholar, her stories and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Diabolical Plots, Escape Pod, Fantasy Magazine, and Lightspeed, among others. She edited the Drones & Dreams anthology (Digital Asia Hub 2019) and regularly leads speculative workshops and projects. As a scholar, she studies unexpected uses of digital technologies, with focuses on government, freedom of expression, and play. She’s currently a fellow at MIT’s Language and Technology Lab and an affiliate and past fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. She holds a PhD from MIT. Find her at or on Twitter at @shrapnelofme, where she tweets about language, technology, and other fun things.

United States of America