Monday, February 29, 2016

Black History and Science Fiction: A Review of Reviews

Happy Leap Day!  To celebrate this year's' 29-day Black History Month, I thought I'd collect some of my reviews of science fiction and fantasy by black authors.  So, here's my special Black History Month edition of a review of reviews!

Octavia Butler

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

Anyone looking for a place to start with the history of black science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction should start with this excellent anthology.

From my review...
"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. ... 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..."
See my full review here.

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Butler is one of my favorite science fiction authors.  Like all her fiction, Kindred is a tour de force that will make you think and feel things you didn't know you could.

From my review...
"Time travel is a science fiction trope, but Kindred is essentially a horror novel.  The horror is American slavery.  Here we see it through the eyes of an American black woman living in 1976 who is transported to an early 1800's Maryland plantation. .... Like all of Butler's work, Kindred is horrifying, touching, thrilling, and thought provoking all at once.  Butler's work is seldom easy to read.  It's often downright uncomfortable.  If you want an easy, comforting read, look elsewhere.  Nonetheless, Butler's novels and stories are also hard to put down.  Butler's readers are encouraged to have thoughts and feelings as complex as those of her characters.  For instance, the main character of Kindred, Dana, has a difficult relationship with Rufus, the son of the owner of the planation.  She hates him, but she also pities and somehow loves him."
See my full review here. 

Nova by Samuel Delany

Delany is one of the greatest talents in science fiction.  He's equal parts literary, visionary, and boundary transgressing.  Delany's stuff isn't always easy, but you owe it to yourself to read it.  Nova may take place over 1,000 years in the future, but its focus is historical in some sense, making it an excellent work to think about in conjunction with Black History Month.

From my review...
"I've enjoyed some of Delany's later, more experimental books (such as Dhalgren and Triton, aka, The Trouble on Triton), but I had yet to read one of his earlier works.  Nova's greatness lies in the fact that you can see Delany's literary genius at work, but you also get a more conventional plot that sits within and yet expands many space opera tropes.  It's all the more impressive that Delany wrote this in his mid-20's.   ....  In addition to space opera shenanigans, Delany gives us a lot to think about in terms of human modification (most humans have cyborg implants), race (the world of Nova is racially diverse, which is important in science fiction), alienation, art, and the scope of history.  Let me focus here on the last point.  The novel takes place in 3172, with several flashbacks in the decades before, so Delany gets to indulge in a lot of one of my favorite science fiction pastimes: writing the history of the future."
See my full review here.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

Jemisin has been taking the world of fantasy by storm in the last several years.  I need to read more of her work.

From my review...
"I love the world, especially the background mythology and the idea that the gods are incarnated and live among humans.  It's also one of the more diverse fantasy stories out there. I loved the way Jemisin played with the social positions of humans and gods in terms of identity, relationships, and how fluid (and confusing) power dynamics can be."
See my full review here, which is embedded in a post on fantasy for science fiction fans.

Metropolis, The ArchAndroid, and The Electric Lady by Janelle Monáe

Science fiction isn't confined to the page or the screen.  It can also be in musical form, as Janelle Monáe reminds us with her musical explorations of robots and respect for all types of people.

From my review...
"Monáe's trio of releases, Metropolis: The Chase Suite (2007), The ArchAndroid (2010), and The Electric Lady (2013)follow an android named Cindi Mayweather as she is persecuted for her love of a human.  As the title of the first one indicates, Monáe was inspired by the 1927 film, Metropolis.  Through the story of androids, Monáe explores issues of difference (racial, sexual, robotic, etc.), discrimination, and acceptance."
See my full review here, which is part of a post on sci-fi music that also includes discussion of another classic of sci-fi music: Parliament's Mothership Connection.

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

Okorafor is a Nigerian-American author who gained widespread attention and acclaim for her 2010 novel, Who Fears Death.  The Book of Phoenix is a prequel to that novel, but you could enjoy it without having read Who Fears Death.  I'm almost done reading Okorafor's Lagoon, a first contact story set in Lagos, Nigeria, and I'm loving it even more than I've loved her other work.  I hope to write a full review of that soon.

In the meantime, here's a bit from my review of The Book of Phoenix...
"With some framing that connects this to the world of Who Fears Death, the plot of The Book of Phoenix focuses on young Phoenix who lives confined to the ominiously-yet-generically-titled Tower 7 in a future New York City that's partly underwater.  Phoenix is the result of genetic engineering on the part of Big Eye, a shadowy agency that seems to delight in ethically reprehensible treatment of their creations.  Phoenix's powers unfold as the story moves along.  Her powers initially include advanced maturation (she is two years old but looks 40) and the ability to generate tremendous heat from her skin.  ...   Phoenix and her cadre of SpeciMen (sort of like X-Men without the benevolence of Professor X) eventually bust out and lead a rebellion.  This is a bit more complex than I just made it sound, especially because there's a long digression in Ghana and plenty of really weird and cool stuff along the way ...  Okorafor's use of cultural and mythological elements from several different cultures in Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, Sudan, and elsewhere works well.  I especially liked the robotic anansi spiders."
See my full review here.

Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements (edited by adrienne marie brown and Walidah Imarisha)

This anthology, inspired by Octavia Butler, is worth thinking about for Black History Month for the way that it connects history with the future through the concept of what the editors call "visionary fiction."

From my review...
"Like the anthology Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, this anthology invites readers to think about speculative fiction and social justice, particularly with regard to the African diaspora.  ...  Octavia's Brood builds on this idea by suggesting that visionary fiction is more than a way to understand; such imagination is itself part of the work of social justice movements.  Visionary fiction is simultaneously theory and practice.  A hint about how this works can be found in the editors' acknowledgements: "To our ancestors, for dreaming us up and bending reality to create us.  May we carry that legacy into the far future" (p. 284)."
See my full review here.

Learning about the history of black science fiction is a way to see the links between history, present, and future.  Maybe we should read the work of black science fiction authors in March and call it Black Future Month!


  1. Ethan, this is absolutely amazing. Thank you for compiling this list. I must admit that science fiction isn't normally my niche but some of these stories seem really interesting. Have you ever thought about writing a story of your own?

    1. Thanks! These are all great stories. Enjoy! I haven't written much fiction since I was a teenager, but I have a few ideas I might work on at some point.