For the last month we’ve celebrated Black History Month by looking at some of the great black science fiction writers (Afrofuturist is now the vogue term for black sf writer). So far we’ve considered Samuel R. Delany, Octavia E. Butler, Steven Barnes, Nnedi Okorafor, Nalo Hopkinson and Tobias Buckell, but that barely skims the surface of the black science fiction waiting for you out there.
So we’re going to round off the month with a quick survey of a bunch of other writers you really should be checking out.
Jennifer Marie Brissett
Her first novel, Elysium, won the 2015 Philip K. Dick Special Citation Award. It is set in a distant future when the surface of the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable, but underground a computer is constructing alternative realities. Though these realities seem to be set in the past, the future or in something resembling our present, they are all variations on the same city. And within this city the protagonist, Adrian or Adrianne, who goes through many changes, including sex, is constantly seeking to save the life of his/her lover, Antoine/Antoinette.
One of the things we’ve noted consistently about the black science fiction writers we’ve looked at, is that their work often moves fluidly across different genre boundaries. This is particularly notable in the work of Tananarive Due, whose novels often combine elements of horror, fantasy, mystery and science fiction. Her first novel, The Between, explores the experience of being black in Florida in a story that moves between detective fiction, horror and sf. While her African Immortals quartet, beginning with My Soul to Keep, places a modern American family between an Ethiopian sect that has traded its humanity for immortality and a drug company anxious to make use of their vampire blood.
Minister Faust, the pen name of Malcolm Azania, blends his science fiction idea with images drawn from films, comics and games (he has written a number of video games), and the effect is usually both wild and funny. Thus in his first novel, The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, a bunch of geeks must fight the bad guys to find a jar full of ancient knowledge and so save the world. he has a fondness for superhero tropes, for instance From the Notebooks of Dr Brain is supposedly written by a therapist who treats superheroes, while the two volumes of War & Mir features someone with the ability to see the future and a superhero from another world, and The Alchemists of Kush is about two boys separated by thousands of years but united by a mystical truth. The combination of weirdness, madcap invention and wild comedy is perhaps summed up by the title of his short story collection, E-Force: Sixteen Stories of Ultra-Freaking Awesomeness.
Hairston’s first novel, Mindscape, presented a world divided, by an alien entity, into separate warring zones, and how a small group struggles to bring peace and repair their fractured world. She followed this with two linked novels, Redwood and Wildfire (which won the Tiptree award) and its sequel, Will do Magic for Small Change. Although both novels were basically fantasy, with its central characters using magic, but as with so many of these writers she merges genres, including aliens from another dimension, and an alternate history of America told through its minstrel shows and vaudeville.
With her first novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the first novel in her Inheritance Trilogy and winner of a Locus Award, Jemisin wrote a powerful dynastic fantasy the complexity of whose worldbuilding made it feel like science fiction. And that blurring of boundaries continues in her Broken Earth sequence, The Fifth Season (which won a Hugo Award for Best Novel), The Obelisk Gate and a third novel, The Stone Sky, due later this year. Again the plot feels like fantasy, but the setting, a landmass known as the Stillness where a great rift suddenly opens up right across the world, has a feeling more of science fiction.
Alaya Dawn Johnson
Alaya Dawn Johnson’s early work was fantasy, but her more recent YA novels have moved into science fiction. The Summer Prince is set in a posy-cyberpunk Brazilian arcology ruled by a powerful matriarchy. The story concerns a young artist who meets and falls in love with the Summer King, but the regime dictates that each new king must die at the end of his year’s reign. Love is the Drug, which won the Andre Norton Award for Best Young Adult Novel, is set in a near-future Washington DC, where a deadly new flu virus is bringing with it an epidemic of amnesia. But one victim may remember more than she thinks, and it could unleash a massive political scandal.
Karen Lord made an immediate impact with her first novel, Redemption in Indigo, a sprightly, humorous updating of a Senegalese folk tale in which mischievous spirits give a wife a “Chaos Stick” as protection against her former husband. But this overt fantasy is given a science fictional twist by talking about quantum fluctuations. And she moved decisively into science fiction with her next novel, The Best of All Possible Worlds. When the home world of a proud and isolationist race is destroyed, the survivors have to make a new home. But even as they try to preserve their culture, they must learn about and reach out to their new hosts. Her third novel, The Galaxy Game, is a story of psionically-gifted youngsters at a special school where the intense and dangerous sport of Wallrunning proves to have an unexpected significance.
If a freewheeling attitude to genre boundaries is one of the things we’ve noticed among Afrofuturist writers, then there can be few who represent the trend as distinctly as Walter Mosley. He had already established a reputation as a writer of hardboiled detective fiction, particularly with his Easy Rawlins stories, before he even turned to science fiction. The troubled hinterland between black and white in modern America, the setting for so much of his crime fiction, is also where mush of his sf occurs, such as the novel Blue Light or the linked stories in Futureland, and it is made explicit in the YA novel about slavery, 47. Being black in a white society is dealt with more metaporically (if perhaps less successfully) in the engagement with the alien other such as the reanimated dead in The Wave or the aliens seeking a megaweapon in Inside a Silver Box. His most recent speculative work is Crosstown to Oblivion, six short novels published in three volumes in which ancient gods and dead film stars walk the streets of Hollywood as harbingers of the end.
Nisi Shawl’s great contribution to contemporary debates on race and feminism in science fiction have often been through non-fiction. Writing the Other, written with Cynthia Ward, is effectively the course book for a workshop on how to write fiction about people from different cultures, different genders, different sexual orientations and so on. Followed up by Writing and Racial Identity which she edited from talks and panel discussions delivered at WisCon, this has put her work central to the debate on cultural appropriation. She has also co-edited collections of fiction and non-fiction on Samuel R. Delany (Stories for Chip with Bill Campbell) and Octavia Butler (Strange Matings with Rebecca J. Holden). But this should not obscure the contribution of her own fiction, the short stories collected in Filter House, and especially her recent novel, Everfair, a steampunk alternate history that has been shortlisted for this year’s Nebula Award in which an independent black nation has the technological wherewithal to counter the horrors imposed on the Congo by Belgian colonial rule.
Given that the Indian writer Vandana Singh is also a Professor of Physics, it is perhaps no coincidence that many of her stories turn on mathematics, though these often interact with cultural issues relating to her native India. She has written no novels so far, but there are two substantial novellas that have been published separately, Distances and Of Love and Other Monsters, and there is a shorter piece, Ambiguity Machines, that has also been separately published. Much of her short fiction has been included in the collection The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet.
Sheree Renée Thomas
Although Sheree Renée Thomas has had a couple of collections of her stories and poems published, Shotgun Lullabies and Sleeping Under the Tree of Life, her major contribution has been as the editor of two monumental anthologies, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora and Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, both of which won World Fantasy Awards. The two anthologies together played a major part in gaining recognition for the idea of Afrofuturism, with stories by many of the authors we’ve featured over the last month, as well as writers like Charles W. Chesnutt, W.E.B. Du Bois, George S. Schuyler, Charles R. Saunders, Ishmael Reed and Jewelle Gomez. To discover the depth and range and excitement of black science fiction, this really is the place to go.
Tade Thompson is one of the newest of black science fiction writers to emerge, with two novels appearing in the last two years. In his first novel, Making Wolf, which won a Kitschies Award for best debut, a London security guard returns home to West Africa for a family funeral. He lets people think that he is a Scotland Yard detective, which seems harmless enough until he is called on to investigate a murder, and finds himself involved in surreal events that could erupt into civil war. His most recent novel, Rosewater, is centred on the township that has grown up around the site of an alien incursion, a place of promise and of threat.
Colson Whitehead is a highly acclaimed and multiple-award-winning mainstream author, and yet three of his six novels are science fiction. His first novel, The Intuitionist, is set in a soaring modern city in which there is a war brewing between two different factions of the Department of Elevator Inspectors. Zone One is set in a post-apocalyptic New York in which plague has created zombies, and the black protagonist has to defend the privileged against the zombiefied underclass. His most recent novel, The Underground Railroad, has already won the US National Book Award and is liable to feature on sf award shortlists. It is a searing examination of race in America that begins with slavery then takes its protagonist, via the titular underground railroad, to experience the different ways in which blacks have been violated by whites, from enforced sterilisation to lynching.
Kai Ashante Wilson
Kai Ashante Wilson is another writer whose work, particularly his highly acclaimed novel, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, is most readily identified as fantasy. But again, as we have seen so often in this list, there is a science fiction sensibility at work in the fiction also. This is perhaps most visible in something like his novella, The Devil in America, in which slavery and its consequences are played out across time, from the Civil War and before right up to the present day.
And is that it? Not by a long chalk! There’s lots more wonderful Afrofuturist writing out there, so keep your eyes open for it.