(Featured image: “Constellation I” by Lina Iris Viktor)
by N.I. Nicholson
As my AutPress colleague Dani Alexis Ryskamp likes to say, it’s wise to read obsessively and read ALL THE THINGS. If your medium of choice is speculative fiction, you might have read Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Piers Anthony, Douglas Adams, or other oft-lauded sci-fi writers until you’re blue in the face. But if you haven’t read N.K. Jemisin, Octavia Butler, or other Black science fiction writers, you’re missing out on literature with a rich past and that’s crafting new visions of the future.
Roots in an Afrocentric Cultural Movement
Before we delve into Black sci-fi authors, you need a quick history lesson in Afrofuturism. Anthropologist Niama Safia Sandy summarizes its core ethos: “Time is this really fluid thing. Now is now, but the past is now and the future too.” Jazz musician Sun Ra is considered an early pioneer, and a quote from his 1974 film Space Is the Place aptly speaks to that ethos: “I come from a dream that the black man dreamed long ago. I’m actually a presence sent to you from your ancestors.” Yet one of the earliest Black science fiction writers, Pauline Hopkins, has Sun Ra beat by about 50 years. Her 1902 novel, Of One Blood, documents the discovery of a clandestine, technologically advanced civilization in Ethiopia. (Wakanda, anyone?)
This movement spans multiple art forms, blending elements of science fiction and magical realism with African history to craft visions of the future. Award-winning musician and actress Janelle Monáe tells the story of Cindi Mayweather, an android fighting to save humanity and for android equality, through three concept albums: Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), The ArchAndroid, and The Electric Lady. N.K. Jemisin, Octavia Butler, and Samuel Delany are just some examples of Black science fiction writers. Joined by visual artists like Lina Iris Viktor (the awesome artist who created “Constellation I”, which is our featured image) and filmmakers such as Wanuri Kahiu, they forge ahead to create new legacies in Afrofuturism.
Magic, Social Inequality, and a Broken Earth
Nora K. Jemisin is the latest of many Black sci-fi authors using the central theme of a planet or society in crisis in their works. As Lauren Wheeler over at Black Nerd Problems mentioned, Jemisin is the first Black author to win a Hugo for Best Novel. The first book of her The Broken Earth series, The Fifth Season, was selected by TNT for development into a television show. Its saga occurs in a world with heavy social stratification, ravaged by periods of catastrophic climate change. She’s one of the Black science fiction writers continuing the tradition of painting vivid waking dreams in words, imbued with a sense of urgency while spilling over into prophecy.
Bustle has called her “the sci-fi writer every woman needs to be reading.” I’ll take that a step further and suggest that any speculative fiction writer needs to read Jemisin to see how to effectively craft a fictional realm that richly immerses and rewards your readers. World-building is a tricky business, but N.K. Jemisin is a contemporary example who balances storytelling with the intricacies of sci-fi or fantasy settings.
Apocalypse and the Lasting Truth of Change
Octavia Butler, a Hugo and Nebula award-winning author, is also one of Afrofuturism’s literary superstars. The late writer’s works include genre classics such as Kindred and the Earthseed novels series. Kindred presents the tale of a modern Black woman inexplicably sent back to a pre-Civil War past, becoming entangled in the stories of her ancestors. Meanwhile, the Earthseed books, published in the 1990s, are more examples of work by Black science fiction writers that foretell our modern political and social circumstances with eerie accuracy. The series’ first novel, Parable of the Sower, shows us a world in 2024 marred by global warming, resource shortages, and privatized schools. The second book shows the same Earth in 2032, now also beleaguered by slavery, rampant misogyny, and a contingent of violent supporters of a political candidate promising to “make America great again.”
Butler’s work is a textbook case in extrapolating future outcomes from current circumstances. She was a master at discerning trends in local, national, and world events and paying attention to social conditions. Remember when Niama Safia Sandy said that “Now is now, but the past is now and the future too”? There you go. Not only that, she both read and wrote prolifically, which further illustrates my point about reading to shape your own writing. Octavia Butler should be your starting point for learning not only elements of fiction craft but how to weave into your work the relevancy that will keep readers hooked.
They Didn’t Leave Poetry Out, Either
I’ve mostly discussed speculative fiction, but let’s not forget that writers are whole universes. Much of modern Black poetry is innately focused on storytelling, as evidenced by writers like Roger Bonair-Agard, Terrance Hayes, and Patricia Smith. Tim Seibles uses this medium to give a first-person perspective to Blade, the half-vampire daywalking hunter from the Marvel Comics universe, in his collection Fast Animal. Nerds of Color displays its opening poem, “Blade, the Daywalker,” and it’s a model for revealing character traits, motivations, and voice in poetry.
Speculative fiction themes can also be used to interlace and order poems as I’ve done in my next book, slated for release in 2019. You might have seen a glimpse from it if you’ve read the first Spoon Knife anthology. Wielding poetry as a storytelling device, Time Travel in a Closet features a multiracial transgender man forced to relive episodes from his traumatic past, thanks to involuntary acts of time travel. While his future self cannot interact with these events, he’s forced to answer a pivotal question: how will he use them to reconstruct his sense of self?
Black-Authored Sci-Fi Is THE Future
As I wrap up this discussion of what you can learn from Black sci-fi authors, I’ll leave you with a few things to consider:
- Jemisin’s The Fifth Season won a Hugo award and was positively reviewed by The New York Times and NPR. It’s also a 512-page book with not one but two glossaries in the back.
- Butler’s Kindred was adapted into a graphic novel, then released in January 2017. That’s nearly 40 years after its initial publication in 1979.
- Nova, a 1968 novel by Black sci-fi legend Samuel Delany, was called “fresh and exciting” by com writer Jo Watson…in 2015.
Whether you’ve been brains-deep in crafting new chapters this year or you’re furiously banging out prose this NaNoWriMo, reading Black-authored science fiction is the smartest move you can make to develop your own craft.