Cipher: Speculative Fiction and Social Justice

Gwen works at the Institute, the source of all knowledge production in the world.

The Institute’s rectilinear stone columns and thin white cutstone steps fill her imagination, and her work fills her days. Slowly her orderly, linear world begins to crack at the edges. In the oldest part of the Institute, a woman in white stands in a room no one else sees, staring down with intense yearning over a stone balcony ledge into a green land far below, an open place at the back of the world where nothing could possibly exist. At the market where Gwen spends her time off, dark-haired girls on wooden push scooters flash by in peripheral vision, gone when she turns her head. The image seen a second too late is always the same: a lush bundle of greens in a cornucopia nodding over a girl’s shoulder, an impression of speed, and a strange quality of light.

Under the dangerous watch of Institute bureaucrats, Gwen slips back again and again to the room at the back of the Institute, to stand next to the woman in white and look down into the open, impossible place beyond the edge of the world. With the help of her trusted friend Doran who soon joins her at this task, she begins to make out more and more detail of the green world below. Gwen puzzles out the secrets of her world until she finds she can no longer be part of it.

The unexpected death of a rogue colleague, and an ensuing chase, bring Gwen and Doran tumbling over the balcony’s edge into the green world, where in a new, whole form, Gwen heals her spirit and body, learns the work of the green girls, and discovers what her part can be in the world that is to come.

Bringing together analyses informed by radical mental health, antiracist, feminist, anarchist, and antiauthoritarian impulses in a creative, intuitive form, Cipher sings the love and wholeness that is growing on the planet, a cellular reorganization of life that is slowly emerging right in the belly of our time of chaos and fear.

Why ‘Cipher’? A cipher is a secret or disguised way of writing; it is a text with encoded meaning that calls to be deciphered. ‘Cipher’ can also mean a stand-in, a person or image standing in for something greater, the way a zero stands in as a place holder in arithmetic, or the way the woman in white stands in for the green world. Cipher invites the reader to unfold levels of meaning that are not predetermined or ever fully known. In this way, Cipher mirrors the ways we must struggle to see beyond the edges of naturalized systems of power that cause dissociation and are rendered unthinkable.

Cipher is about dissociation, written by an author with a dissociative disorder caused by trauma and structural violence. It is not about an individual’s experience of dissociation, however, but is instead about how dominant ideologies and structural violence actively fragment the human soul.

Those of us who operate as oppressors within systems of dominance are being called to heal our own broken cultures and to do so in respectful relationship with movements led by those directly affected. We are being asked to stand up alongside, to listen and learn, and fundamentally to give up the culture of domination. Inspired by the Octavia’s Brood project, Cipher asks how people with forms of privilege that cut us off from resonant parts of our humanity can work internally, and in our communities, to build capacity for the wholeness that would let us be receptive and accountable.

In looking outward from inside the world of the Institute and its linear time, Gwen – who has found some success and privilege within that narrow world – is struggling to answer questions about her world, which is not as she believed it was. The Institute can stand in for systems that contain and limit our capacity to perceive, remember, imagine reality.

In the face of ongoing violence, love, interdependence, and radical embodied wholeness are reemerging as forces of resistance. Indigenous resurgence is happening in our time; migrant justice movements are strong; the movement for Black lives is rising and insisting that all Black lives matter, respectability politics be damned.

Doing the work that fiction does – immersing the reader directly in a world and bringing them through an experience – Cipher hopes to ask how, in a receptive, accountable way, people with various forms of privilege can work internally in their communities to build the wholeness and receptivity needed to heal this culture.

Daily life’s many violences cause fragmentation in various ways from the time we arrive on this earth. This is true also of those situated as dominant in various ways. People lose parts of themselves with each further inculcation into systems of domination: masculinity, whiteness and settler identity, class privilege. In order to participate in institutional knowledge production, many people are asked to further dissociate, to separate from our selves, to leave parts of ourselves behind. Cipher uses a narrative structure from the author’s own ancestral cultural tradition to listen to a yearning for healing and deep fundamental change in the relations of power that currently shape the earth.

Cipher: A Wholeness Project is currently open to collaborators, advisors, an agent, and a publisher.

If you’d like to read a copy of Cipher and see how we can dream together, contact the author at with a little bit about yourself and why you’re interested, or just reply here.

(illustration by Aleks Besan)


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