Monday, February 16, 2015

Review of Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (edited by Sheree R. Thomas)

I figured reading this was a good way for a science fiction nerd to celebrate Black History Month.  I've been wanting to read this for a long time, and I'm glad I finally did.  This anthology features superstars like Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler as well as other established authors such as Nalo Hopkinson and Stephen Barnes.  There are also a few authors not normally known for science fiction like W.E.B. Du Bois and Amiri Baraka.  I was also pleased to see a lot of names I wasn't familiar with before.

For more on the specific stories and essays, see my Goodreads review.

One of the most interesting stories, Derrick Bell's "The Space Traders," imagines that extraterrestrials offer to give the United States advanced technology if all people of African ancestry in the US can be taken away to the ETs' home planet, which prompts a meditation on the value accorded to black people by white Americans.  This is also a major issue in Darryl Smith's "The Pretended," George Schuyler's "Black No More," and Sherree Thomas's introduction.  In light of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, these stories offer powerful ways to think through these issues.

The anthology ends with a short, but brilliant essay by Octavia Butler called "The Monophobic Response," in which she explores our science fictional fascination with aliens (I have also dealt with this issue in a far less brilliant way).

The Philosophy Report

As an anthology, there are a lot of different things going on, so it's harder to pick out big themes.  Nonetheless, the very idea of this anthology and the work it contains do bring up the general issue of difference.  How have we encountered difference here on Earth?  What are some alternatives?  Is difference to be erased?  Celebrated?  Shamed?  Subjugated?  Can we recognize commonalities without erasing distinctive identities?  Of course, these questions are dealt with in this anthology in ways that I, as a white man, can't fully appreciate.  I can't speak with any authority about what sorts of things black readers might encounter in this anthology, but I can say from my own experience that encountering these questions has challenged and expanded my understanding of myself and others.  And that's just what good science fiction ought to do.

My desire to explore diverse perspectives in both philosophy and science fiction doesn't come from a somewhat condescending politically correct push toward diversity for the sake of diversity, which if we white folks are honest is often really just a way to assuage our white guilt.  I do love diversity for aesthetic reasons and out of considerations of justice, but another fundamental reason for me is epistemological.  As human beings we each come to know the world from a particular perspective.  It would be completely insane to claim to have exhaustive knowledge of things from a single perspective, although this doesn't stop many of my fellow straight white cis gender men from claiming to do just that.  I don't mean to suggest that all perspectives are equally true (whatever this kind of relativism would even mean and however we could ever know that to be true - an issue I'll take up in another post soon).  Rather, whatever pretensions we might have for understanding the truth about the universe and ourselves will require that we take seriously a wide range of perspectives.  To put it another way: we have something to learn from everyone.

For instance, I have a lot of sympathy for standpoint epistemology, which claims that marginalized people often have to know not only their own perspectives, but that of the dominant group.  For instance, as a white man I can navigate the social world of the United States without having to understand the perspectives of women and people of color, but women and people of color need to have some understanding of white male perspectives to function in our society.  If this theory is true, I will need to do some work to understand other perspectives (to the extent that I am able) in order to have any hope of understanding social factors like misogyny and racism, but also if I want to learn about lots of really interesting ideas when it comes to philosophical issues in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.  Of course I lack the social experience to fully understand these perspectives, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't strive for some degree of understanding.

In philosophy, this has led to my interest in feminist philosophy and non-Western philosophy.  When people ask me why I'm interested in Indian philosophy, I often reply, "Why would you not be interested in such a vast and fascinating tradition of philosophy?"  When it comes to science fiction, I am interested in perspectives of women and people of color, not as exotic alienness, but as a way to expand the perspectives on my radar.  Philosophy and science fiction are two of the best ways to expand our perspectives on things, and starting with the diversity of perspectives we already have, as this volume does, is an excellent way to expand our intellectual, aesthetic, and social horizons.

Rating: 90/100

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