Under Strange Stars: Black Writers and Fans Explore Race through Science Fiction. (Culture)

Article excerpt

Science fiction has been a part of the Black American experience from the first moment slaves looked to the skies to follow the "drinking gourd" North to freedom. To enslaved people ripped from their homeland and dragged to a new world, the idea that the stars would lead them to an unknown land of freedom might have seemed a fantastic fiction, an imaginary hope. That the symbol of freedom was both a distant star and a symbol of the African communal past is no small irony. The tension of black existence has always been a pull between the hope of the future and the magical legacy of the past; or to put it another way, between science fiction and fantasy.

As a lifelong fan of science fiction, fantasy, and everything fantastic, and as a young black man, I've always thought that speculative fiction is a largely untapped and misunderstood avenue for expression in the black experience. The genre allows one to explore other worlds where the "laws" we currently live under, both social and physical, can be challenged or replaced by the creations of the imagination. And in an abstract sense, anyone who imagines that the world does not have to remain the way it is, who dreams of a better world, is creating a fiction of the imagination.

And yet why is it that African Americans are so little a part of genre science fiction and fantasy today? Blacks of course are far from absent from speculative fiction (the term commonly used to describe the whole of science fiction, fantasy, fairy tales, horror, magic realism, etc.). The groundbreaking anthology Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000), edited by Sheree R. Thomas, helped set the record straight about the rich contribution of black writers and fans to speculative fiction. But science fiction has been largely dominated by white writers, fans, and editors, more so even than American publishing at large.

So why not more black writers? And what draws the few existing black writers of speculative fiction to this largely white field?

New Worlds for Old

Of course, not only do black writers increase black fandom, but black writers also emerge from black fans. Every young Octavia Butler reader is a potential genre writer of the future. That is definitely true of today's black speculative fiction writers. Butler, Samuel R. Delaney, Nab Hopkinson, and others were all young fans before they became writers. Authors write what they like to read. At least good ones do.

Walter Mosley, author of the popular Easy Rawlins mysteries, has written a few science fiction novels in recent years. Mosley says, "In science fiction you don't have to accept the world the way it is." 'What more could black people ask for? The world "the way it is" has rarely been good to black folk, so why not exchange new worlds for old?

Butler's novel Wild Seed is a wonderful example of fantastic writing, and of a speculative approach to issues of race and gender. Doro is an immortal who possesses others' bodies, killing the host. He therefore has no one gender, race, or color, but hops from identity to identity. He uses his terrifying power to lord over other humans with seemingly supernatural traits in order to breed another immortal presumably to spend eternity with. Anyanwu is a shapeshifter, and is possibly immortal herself (or at least ageless). She also can be any race or gender by shifting her body's biological makeup. In Anyanwu, Dora finds a true peer, and someone who doesn't fear him as easily as others do. The relationship between the two characters--hostile, tender, violent, and potentially redemptive--questions assumptions about race and racism, power, and morality.

According to Hopkinson in her essay "Dark Ink," blacks do write speculative fiction, but "it's unlikely that you'll find it on the SF shelves in your bookstores. Novels such as Gloria Naylor's Mama Day or Devorah Major's An Open Weave end up on the shelves for black authors, not in the SF section. …