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The Reality of Black Science Fiction

Science fiction has always been deeply rooted in the events of the era. Fears of politics, injustice, war, science, and famine have been bleeding into the science fiction genre since storytelling began.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein personified our fears of meddling with creation and the ethics of scientific discovery; Godzilla, the most recognizable pop culture symbol worldwide, came into creation in 1954, during the aftermath of the bombings of WWII. Godzilla, a creature mutated from radiation and wreaked havoc on cities in Japan and New York reflected the fear of the post war era.

Ray Bradbury, a prominent science fiction writer contributed to the genre like no other, producing works that have not only graced the challenged book lists but also school curriculum for years. His short story, "There Will Come Soft Rains" (published after the Soviet Union's testing of its atomic bomb in 1949, and America's hydrogen bomb in 1950), depicts the aftermath of a futuristic nuclear war; Fahrenheit 451 also depicts the dystopian aftermath of WWII where books, knowledge, culture, and change are outlawed; and The Martian Chronicles, written during the Space Race, once again about destruction caused by nuclear war.

Pandemic and epidemic fears have not been left out of the genre, spurning tales of vampires (Dracula, The Strain) and zombies (World War Z, The Walking Dead) to name a few.

Society has often been criticized and fears addressed through one very prominent lens throughout history that has left out minorities. With such a vast genre rooted in very real fears, what does black science fiction and fantasy look like?

  • In The Prey of Gods, we are transported to a futuristic South Africa where personal robots take the place of servants and maids. However, the promising future that is laid out in this story is riddled with challenges: a new drug is introduced into the ghettos, the personal robots' uprise, and a demigoddess seeks the reverence of those who have turned away from religion in favor of the new world advancements.
  • In Riot Baby, we see Ella, a girl with the ability to see the future – both good and bad – and Kev, her brother who has protected her from losing herself to these visions as well as the world around her. When Kev is incarcerated, Ella struggles with a power that has the potential to destroy the very city they live in.
  • Rivers Solomon brings us to the HSS Matilda, a spaceship organized like the antebellum South to transport the last of humanity to the "Promise Land," in An Unkindness of Ghosts. Aster, a dark-skinned sharecropper, lives under the moral restrictions of the ship's leader. As tensions and prejudices worsen, Aster finds herself at the head of a civil war.
  • Released just last month, Master of Poisons is a fantasy steeped in African folklore. In a dystopian future, poison kills farmlands and contaminates drinking water as a society struggles to live. We are brought on the converging journeys of Djola, a spymaster, and Awa, a griot in training, in this magical story of survival.
  • Looking for pandemic science fiction? Published in 1993, Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower takes place in a dystopian 2020 amid the chaos of global warming and economic collapse…. Read more to find out what happens next!

Afrofuturism (adopted in place of "Black Science Fiction") is a term coined by Mark Dery in 1990 to depict "a cultural and literary movement of thinkers and artists of the African diaspora who were using science, technology, and science fiction as means of exploring the black experience." (Wikipedia).

We see this prominently in Black Panther (created in 1966 by Stan Lee during the Civil Rights era and regained popularity with Ryan Coogler's 2018 film). Wakanda as an African utopia untouched by the slave trade and even more technologically and culturally advanced than the outside world. Coogler expanded on Lee's character and world by adding in the black experiences, fears, anger, and power of the current society. Various black science fiction writers from Nnedi Okorafor to Ta Nehisi Coates have continued Black Panther's stories.

Black science fiction and fantasy puts black people in the forefront. They are prominent figures. They are often struggling, but are their own saviors. Their experiences mirror our own. As Cree Myles writes in The Mary Sue:

Every Black American I know has a story like this—a story of one of their ancestors doing some other worldly s*** that they lean on when they need strength and courage. The fact that we, as a race, are even alive is proof that someone in our blood lineage survived a 4,000-mile long journey chained, starved, and alone. We have endured the type of trauma, abuse, torture, and gaslighting that sounds other-worldly—like something out of a science fiction novel.

Willard Library has a growing Afrofuturism and Fantasy collection. Stop by the second floor to see what we have on display.

For more information and books on Afrofuturism and Black Sci-fi/Fantasy, check out author Nisi Shawl's (Everfair) "Tour Through the History of Black Science Fiction."


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Wednesday, 02 December 2020