Isiah Lavender III
Further Deliberations on Black SF Criticism
Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2015. v + 222 pp. $85 hc.
Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2016. 282 pp. $87.50 hc; $25 pbk.
Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2015. v + 95 pp. $70 hc.
Currently there is an explosion of race criticism in sf, particularly in black studies, and its extraordinary development provides personal joy, professional satisfaction, and increased knowledge. Given the archival research that introduced a lost story of W.E.B. Du Bois at the turn of the twentieth century, the ongoing interest in Octavia Butler and her work, and the emerging significance of African science fictions, not to mention all of the work on racial representations of Asia, India, and Latin America, now is the time to be a scholar of race and ethnicity in sf, fantasy, and other speculative literatures. So what does the flourishing field currently look like? This review considers three new black-authored texts on race and racism in sf—Reynaldo Anderson and Charles E. Jones’s edited collection Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness (2015), André M. Carrington’s Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction (2016), and Gregory Jerome Hampton’s Imagining Slaves and Robots in Literature, Film, and Popular Culture (2015).
Reynaldo Anderson and Charles E. Jones assemble a remarkable collection in Afrofuturism 2.0. The book purposefully updates Afrofuturism to include Africana studies, philosophy, religion, and other areas in response to the emergence of Afrofuturism’s use of social media, music, literature, and art. In their introduction, “The Rise of Astro-Blackness,” Anderson and Jones also expand the definition of Afrofuturism to include the idea of Astro-Blackness, described as “a black identity framework within emerging global technocultural assemblages” fundamental to “racialized identities” resulting from technological development (vii-viii). In this respect, Anderson and Jones link Astro-Blackness to “technogenesis,” the term by which N. Katherine Hayles signifies “the idea that humans and technics have coevolved together” (10). Blackness as an identifier moves to a post-digital perspective on a global scale. Consequently, Afrofuturism 2.0 provides an improved theoretical and transdisciplinary approach to imagining possible black futures. This contemporary iteration of Afrofuturism upgrades Mark Dery’s original definition by including five other dimensions: metaphysics, aesthetics, theoretical sciences, social sciences, and programmatic spaces such as online forums.1 Eleven chapters divided into three parts follow the introduction. Anderson and Jones also provide a minimal index as well as notes on their contributors.
The three chapters comprising Part 1, “Quantum Visions of Futuristic Blackness,” concern time manipulation and black consciousness in sf about African-descended people seeing into the future through the past. Tiffany E. Barber, in chapter 1, “Cyborg Grammar?: Reading Wangechi Mutu’s Non je ne regrette rien through Kindred,” offers a compelling comparative analysis of Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu’s mixed-media collage featuring the “transgressive disfigurement” of a black woman with techno-mechanical parts, and Dana Franklin’s dismemberment in Butler’s novel (4). In so doing, Barber dismantles and explores black female subjectivity and argues that Mutu uses her cyborg artwork to project an uneasy future for race, gender, and sexuality. In chapter 2, “Afrofuturism on Web 3.0: Vernacular Cartography and Augmented Space,” Nettrice R. Gaskins discusses new media spaces and how these layered locations might offer novel ways to map, code, and decode Africana cultural production, beginning with antebellum slave quilts, progressing to Hip Hop semantics, and ending with open-source software applications such as Re+Public. In chapter 3, “The Real Ghosts in the Machine: Afrofuturism and the Haunting of Racial Space in I, Robot and DETROPIA,” Ricardo Guthrie discusses imagined post-racial urban environments to investigate two twenty-first-century films that foreground suppressed racial themes, using Afrofuturism to explain contradictory racial images in these films’ versions of Chicago and Detroit.
The three authors featured in Part 2, “Planetary Vibes, Digital Ciphers, and Hip Hop Sonic Remix,” turn to black musicians as Afrofuturist agents of change who collapse space-time to overwrite the slave experience in order to create the alternative black futures that Delany imagined.2 Tobias C. van Veen, in chapter 4, “The Armageddon Effect: Afrofuturism and the Chronopolitics of Alien Nation,” combines Mark Sinker’s pre-Afrofuturist musings on slaves as aliens with Kodwo Eshun’s notion of chronopolitics, a temporal strategy of “countermemory” that restructures a stolen black past into a different future, to great effect (288). Van Veen reflects on how and why the music and poetry of Public Enemy, Sun Ra, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Amiri Baraka, and Gil Scott-Heron transgresses slavery’s dehumanizing timeline to reimagine alternative black futures. In chapter 5, “Afrofuturism’s Musical Princess Janelle Monáe: Psychedelic Soul Message Music Infused with a Sci-Fi Twist,” Grace D. Gipson demonstrates how Monáe uses an Afrofuturist aesthetic to discuss race, sex, and gender politics through her music and videos. Ken McLeod, in chapter 6, “Hip Hop Holograms: Tupac Shakur, Technological Immortality, and Time Travel,” considers through an Afrofuturist lens the resurrection of slain rapper Tupac Shakur as a three-dimensional hologram. McLeod suggests that this technological performance represents Afrofuturist manifestations of utopia, immortality, and black freedom.
Part 3, “Forecasting Dark Bodies, Africology, and the Narrative Imagination,” shifts the collection’s focus to more esoteric Afrofuturist subjects—religion, strategic forecasting, communicology, and medical humanities. This move largely succeeds in its attempt to garner attention and reflect the breadth of issues facing people of African descent. The five chapters in Part 3 make up roughly half the volume. In chapter 7, “Afrofuturism and Our Old Ship of Zion: The Black Church in Post-Modernity,” Andrew Rollins contemplates the black church’s historical purpose in America and how it intersects with Afrofuturism. Lonny Avi Brooks, in chapter 8, “Playing a Minority Forecaster in Search of Afrofuturism: Where am I in This Future, Stewart Brand?,” contemplates his time as a black forecaster in a Silicon Valley think tank where he developed foresight frames, or long-term thinking, to set expectations for American minorities. In chapter 9, “Rewriting the Narrative: Communicology and the Speculative Discourse of Afrofuturism,” David DeIuliis and Jeff Lohr suggest that the nascent communicology field might provide an overarching framework for Afrofuturism. They claim that Afrofuturism not only analyzes black speculative fiction but also aids in “the diasporic transmission of the experience of blackness” (168; emphasis in original). In chapter 10, “Africana Women’s Science Fiction and Narrative Medicine: Difference, Ethics, and Empathy,” Esther Jones persuasively makes connections among the histories of scientific racism and racial/sexual pathology, the practice of humanistic medicine, and science fiction. She uses Afrofuturism to convey how these connections are developed in Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring (1998), Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death (2010), and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (2001). The volume concludes with chapter 11, “‘To Be African is to Merge Technology and Magic’: An Interview with Nnedi Okorafor,” Qiana Whitted’s brief but insightful interview with the increasingly celebrated Nigerian-American author.
Eight of the essays strongly project a more dynamic sense of Afrofuturism’s continuing development. Part 1 is particularly strong. Barber deftly incorporates Haraway and Afrofuturism into her comparison of Mutu’s artwork and Butler’s Kindred. Gaskins effectively examines how new media mappings overlay and enhance our understanding of past and present black cultural production from quilts to apps. And Guthrie fashions a fascinating dialogue between Afrofuturism and Afro-pessimism in his analysis of two different kinds of film—the Hollywood blockbuster and documentary film. Part 2 is almost as strong. Van Veen convincingly frames his analysis of Afrofuturist jazz, rock, and hip hop artists through Sinker and Eshum to demonstrate how this music displaces “temporality from its whitewashed visions” (83), while McLeod makes a convincing argument about the meaning of Tupac’s holographic resurrection via Afrofuturism. Gipson’s essay on Janelle Monáe, while competent, is the weakest of the section, offering nothing really new about the musician or her music.
Part 3 is largely experimental and something of a mixed bag. A minority member of the overwhelmingly white futures industry, Brooks uses Afrofuturism in his compelling analysis of how blacks and other minorities can ensure their own futures against a racist corporate industry by creating an “anticipatory democracy” and “social justice” to queer the white-imagined future (164). Esther Jones’s essay may be the best in the collection with her valuable observation that “black women science fiction writers consistently recuperate denigrated African-based spiritual practices and engage with them as a holistic part of health and wellness” (199). Whitted’s interview asks pointed questions that illuminate Okorafor’s work. Rollins’s essay on the black church’s future, however, fails to connect Afrofuturist theory with black liberation theology by neglecting to suggest how the church can reach a new generation of unchurched black youth. Finally, DeIuliss and Lohr should have embedded communicology within Afrofuturism and not the reverse in order to make a more substantive contribution. Anderson and Jones have taken Afrofuturism in fascinating directions, encouraging scholars to consider how the concept is expressed across media. I strongly recommend this volume to scholars and research libraries, as well as for the college classroom.
In Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction, André M. Carrington makes a telling and thoughtful contribution to discussions of blackness in science fiction, fantasy, utopia, and horror important to cultural production across a variety of media, including fandom, television, film, comics, and literature. Along with the introduction, the book contains six chapters, a coda, acknowledgments, notes, and an index. Broadly framing his study from African Americanist and feminist scholarly perspectives, Carrington makes a brave and deliberate decision to leave out any discussion of Samuel R. Delany and Octavia E. Butler while acknowledging the deep and ongoing criticism of these formidable sf writers.
The title of his introduction, “The Whiteness of Science Fiction and the Speculative Fiction of Blackness,”functions as Carrington’s critical point of departure as he seeks to understand what race, specifically blackness, means to popular culture and science fiction. Ultimately, his exploration of this complex binary underscores how and why blackness matters to science fiction. In this introduction, Carrington pinpoints some of the racialized paradigms of interpretation in the genre and shows how these paradigms have different race-specific meanings. He makes a familiar claim regarding the normalizing effect of disproportionately high numbers of white sf authors and the overrepresentation of white experiences in sf. But Carrington neatly buttresses this claim by demonstrating how racism roots itself in sf’s cultural production through underrepresentation of minority voices and experiences, resulting in alienation. Ironically, whiteness itself is the problem’s source, as Carrington surmises in reference to W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous question, “How does it feel to be a problem?,” from The Souls of Black Folk (1903). With this racial chiasmus in mind, Carrington identifies a different pattern in each of his chapters.
In chapter 1, “Josh Brandon’s Blues: Inventing the Black Fan,” Carrington examines early to mid-twentieth-century black fandom as displayed in the fanzines. He briefly touches on James Fitzgerald, the black president of the Scienceers, arguably the first science-fiction club in New York City (in Harlem, of all places!), before shifting his focus to the amateur publishing career of Carl Brandon, a fictional black fan dreamt up by the white writer Terry Carr, who had a virtual life for a couple of years during science fiction’s golden age. Carrington illustrates how Brandon defines whiteness in relation to fandom. Irrespective of race and racism, Carl Brandon and his amateur fan writing represent the importance of membership as well as the limited nature of any conversations concerning blackness when only white fans participate.
In chapter 2, “Space Race Woman: Lieutenant Uhura beyond the Bridge,” Carrington explores Nichelle Nichols’s time on Star Trek (1966-69), as well as her later involvement with NASA. Using Nichols as an exemplar of black womanhood, Carrington demonstrates how her performances as Uhura made futures free of interlocking oppressions available for women at least in utopian sf narratives. Similarly, chapter 3, “The Immortal Storm: Permutations of Race and Marvel Comics,” examines projections of black womanhood, this time in the X-men comics. Carrington uses the character Storm’s evolving story “as a negation of the negations involved in constructing black womanhood as a figment of the normative imagination,” not white and not male (91; emphasis in original). Storm’s overlapping characteristics (female, black, human, super-powered) become significant to identity politics in speculative discourses.
In chapter 4, “Controversy and Crossover in Milestone Media’s Icon,” Carrington slightly alters his emphasis to discuss the short-lived 1990s comic book Icon (1993-94) produced by the black-owned Milestone in order to examine black political culture in urban America. Chapter 5, “The Golden Ghetto and the Glittering Parentheses: The Once and Future Benjamin Sisko,” analyzes the Star Trek franchise Deep Space Nine (1993-99), its celebrated “Far Beyond the Stars” episode (9 February 1998), and its later novelization by the black sf writer Steven Barnes. Carrington finds significance in how Barnes bridges genre television and print sf in his meditation on authorship and racial identity. Carrington claims that fandom wins “when black readers, viewers, and authors participate in the genre” (157). Science fiction’s racial past comes to life as Carrington critiques the golden age and the value it lost in its rejection of black authors, signified by Avery Brooks’s Commander Sisko playing the imaginary black sf writer Benny Russell.
In chapter 6, “Dreaming in Color: Racial Revisions and Fan Fiction,” Carrington returns to fandom to focus on fanfictions that intersect with blackness in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and the Harry Potter series (1997-2007). Carrington reminds us of the integral role fandom plays in sf and how online fanfictions, in which race, gender, and nation intersect with established genre conventions, have changed that role. He analyzes black-British diasporic characters to demonstrate connections between black and white, America and England, seeing the idea of the black diaspora as forming a “tensile thread” in these connections (195). Carrington discusses fanfictions about Buffy the Vampire Slayer concerning the black Caribbean-born vampire -slayer Kendra and Buffy’s white British mentor Giles’s black love interest, Olivia. He also examines the slash fictions concerning minor characters in the Harry Potter series—Angelina/Montague and Dean Thomas/Seamus. In his coda, Carrington argues that the relevance of race to popular culture may best be determined by robot, alien, and ghost motifs and how they reflect on blackness.
Carrington’s Speculative Blackness makes a vital contribution to both fan studies and science fiction. His impressive archival research in the first chapter represents an important intervention into early fandom, expands our understanding of Carl Brandon’s legend and its legacy, and demonstrates his thorough research throughout the book. Carrington delves into the essential relationship between consumers and producers of the speculative genres and examines how together they generate racial thinking in popular culture. The Deep Space Nine chapter may be the strongest because Carrington identifies how a particular episode and its novelization deviate from Star Trek’s color-blind future as actual American racial history replaces allegory. It reminded me of Samuel R. Delany’s recollection in “Racism in Science Fiction” (1999) of how the legendary editor John W. Campbell rejected Nova (1968) for serialization in Analog because of its black protagonist wearing purple brocade. Only a few months earlier Delany had won the 1967 Nebula Award for Babel-17 (1966). Such reminders demonstrate how far we have come and how much further we have yet to go. I learned a great deal about fanfiction, the power of popular culture, Internet archiving, and their importance to speculative fiction from Speculative Blackness.
One minor complaint: the book’s subtitle, The Future of Race in Science Fiction, may mislead its audience because of the greater stress on fantasy, comics, and fandom rather than on science fiction. More importantly, however, the book is readable, provocative, and well-reasoned. It should be useful for media, sf, race, film, Africana, and fan scholars. I recommend it highly for both libraries and undergraduate and graduate level courses.
Gregory Jerome Hampton’s slim volume, Imagining Slaves and Robots in Literature, Film, and Popular Culture: Reinventing Yesterday’s Slave with Tomorrow’s Robot, contains an introduction, six brief chapters, and a conclusion as well as a bibliography and index. Hampton presents his argument for imagining slaves as robots in popular culture in the introduction, “Reading the Writing on the Wall,” reading them as near-future cautionary tales. Hampton looks to the antebellum era with its black slave bodies and critically projects this image into a future of slaves transposed into humanoid robots in literature, film, and music. He questions humanity’s relationship to its technology and cannot imagine a robot’s role as anything other than an “organic technology” participating in “chattel slavery” (x). Using the past to predict a future he asks his audience not to disentangle the two eras when machines gain consciousness and identity. Most of Hampton’s chapters involve stories from Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (1950), with an emphasis on “Robbie” (originally published in 1940).
In chapter 1, “Racing Robots in Making Slaves: How the Past Informs the Future,” Hampton explains how porous the boundaries might be between American slavery of the past and its potential rebirth as robot servitude in the future, using Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (1921) and Asimov’s “Robbie.” In chapter 2, “Proslavery Thought and the Black Robot: Selling Household Appliances to Southern Belles,” Hampton argues that today’s advertising of labor-saving devices normalizes an antebellum past for its future return, examining proslavery rhetoric in British writer Thomas Bellamy’s play The Benevolent Planters (1789) and comparing it to “Robbie.” Chapter 3, “The True Cult of Humanhood: Displacing Repressed Sexuality onto Mechanical Bodies,” explores the boundaries between flesh and machine by engaging the race and gender stereotypes of the stock characters of Sapphire, Jezebel, and Mammy as they are displaced onto gynoids—sexualized mechanical bodies. He relies heavily on Hazel Carby’s work in Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (1987) as he makes his case with such obvious examples as Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and Ridley Scott’s adaptation Blade Runner (1982), as well as with less recognizable choices such as the short-lived television series Almost Human (2013-2014), and unconvincing comparisons to Frances E.W. Harper’s postbellum novel Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted (1892). Eventually, and ineffectually, he employs Haraway’s famed “Cyborg Manifesto” (1985) and the nineteenth-century Cult of True Womanhood.
In chapter 4, “The Tragic Mulatto and the Android: Imitations of Life in Literature and on the Silver Screen,” Hampton considers the cyborg as the miscegenate issue of human/machine relationships that might pass for human. He marks similarities between abolitionist Lydia Maria Child’s “The Quadroons” (1842), both film versions of Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959), and the film Bicentennial Man (1999), itself an adaptation of Asimov’s Hugo- and Nebula-Award-winning novelette “The Bicentennial Man” (1976), rewritten with Robert Silverberg as The Positronic Man (1992), exploring a blurred human/machine identity anchored by his understanding of LeiLani Nishime’s “Mulatto Cyborg” (2005). Chapter 5, “AI (Artificial Identity): The New Negro,” continues Hampton’s examination of racial identity; he recycles familiar arguments as he employs W.E.B. Du Bois’s notion of double consciousness to look at Asimov’s I, Robot, specifically the story “Reason” (originally published in 1941), The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), and the recent sf films Chappie (2015) and Ex Machina (2015).
Focusing on robot images in current popular culture in chapter 6, “From Fritz Lang to Janelle Monáe: Black Robots Singing and Dancing,” Hampton critiques Metropolis (1927) as a primary source for Afrofuturist singer Janelle Monáe as she uses her android alter-ego Cindi Mayweather to seed “revolution and racial uplift” for the oppressed through her music (67). In the conclusion, “When the Revolution Comes,” Hampton declares that difference and change, not homogeneity, are at the heart of revolution; he believes that American dependence on robot-slavery will become the core issue for tomorrow’s labor movements, perhaps leading to a robot uprising if humanity ignores historical slavery.
Hampton occasionally offers sound ideas. For example, of slavery he says that “to repeat such a monumentally tragic error in human history on the rhetoric that technology will not intersect with humanity and morality is nothing short of criminal” (26). But the idea is undeveloped. Likewise, he claims that he is the first author to compare antebellum literature and science fiction, although A. Timothy Spaulding’s Re-forming the Past: History, The Fantastic, and the Postmodern Slave Narrative (2005) did this ten years earlier. Hampton’s theorizing would have benefited also from Sherryl Vint’s Bodies of Tomorrow: Technology, Subjectivity, Science Fiction (2007). The sloppiness of the editing greatly detracts from this book with repeated typos and careless writing.Though I only offer faint praise for Hampton’s book, it does belong on a research library’s shelves. It is surprising that Lexington Books published this volume, weak as it is, as well as the outstanding collection Afrofuturism 2.0.
The three books under review reflect a growing interest in the roles (historical, political, and cultural) that skin color, ethnic ancestry, and cultural identity play in our future visions.
1. Dery defines Afrofuturism as “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century techno-culture—and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future” (736).
2. In Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (1984), Delany writes that “if science fiction has any use at all, it is that among all its various and variegated future landscapes it gives us [black people] images for our futures” (31).
Carby, Hazel. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Delany, Samuel R.“Racism and Science Fiction.” The New York Review of Science Fiction 10.12 (Aug. 1998): 1, 16–20.
─────. Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Pleasant-ville, NY: Dragon, 1984.
Dery, Mark. “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.” South Atlantic Quarterly 92.4 (1993): 735-78.
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York: Penguin, 1996.
Eshun, Kodwo. “Further Considerations of Afrofuturism.” CR: The New Centennial Review 3.2 (2003): 287-302.
Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Techno-genesis. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2012.
Nishime, Leilani. “Mulatto Cyborg: Imagining a Multiracial Future.” Cinema Journal 44.2 (2005): 34-49.
Spaulding, A. Timothy. Re-Forming the Past: History, the Fantastic, and the Postmodern Slave Narrative.Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2005.
Vint, Sherryl. Bodies of Tomorrow: Technology, Subjectivity, Science Fiction. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2007.
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