English, Department of

 

Comments

Published in Callaloo 24:1 (2001), pp. 236-252. Copyright 2001 Charles H. Rowell. Reproduced with permission of The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Abstract

Futurist fiction and fantasy encompasses a variety of subgenres: hard science fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, sword-and-sorcerer fantasy, and cyberpunk. Unfortunately, even though nearly a century has expired since the advent of futurist fiction and fantasy, Richard Pryor’s observation and a call for action is still viable. Despite the growing number of Black futurist fiction and fantasy writers, the proportion of Black futurist fiction and fantasy authors to White futurist fiction and fantasy authors is dismal. This disproportion means that Black futurist fiction and fantasy authors have a limited presence in the industry. Thus, although Black futurist fiction and fantasy authors have produced novels falling into the last four futurist fiction and fantasy categories enumerated above, they have not produced a single hard-science fiction novel, although Samuel R. Delany, Jr., and Octavia E. Butler have incorporated hard science into their speculative fiction.

The most recent Black FFF authors, all publishing their first FFF novels after 1996, constitute the most rapid appearance of new Black FFF authors in the short history of the genre. LeVar Burton—best known for his roles as Kunta Kinte in the 1977 television dramatization of Alex Haley’s Roots (1976) and most recently as Lt. Commander Geordi LaForge of Star Trek: The Next Generation—is perhaps the most well-known of all the authors. Following in the footsteps of William Shatner, who is best known as Capt. James T. Kirk of the original Star Trek serial and subsequent movies, Burton has moved from directorial engagements with the Star Trek phenomenon to speculative fiction. His novel, Aftermath (1997), unfolds in a post-Holocaust Los Angeles. Aftermath follows the exploits of three people, an African-, European-, and Native American, who are attempting to save a United States decimated by the assassination of its president, a major earthquake in the Midwest, and socioeconomic collapse in the aftermath of the nation’s second civil war. His speculative fiction career has not generated much attention, despite endorsements from Barnes and Ben Bova.

The second member of this newest set of Black FFF authors, Nalo Hopkinson, has already made her mark by winning the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest and the Locus Award for Brown Girl in the Ring (1998). Hopkinson ensures the continuation of a female voice in Black FFF. As a native West Indian, she has already introduced new elements into the genre. Afro- Caribbean gods enter the theatre of fiction as active participants in a manner respecting the traditional theology surrounding these deities. Hopkinson uses themes similar to those found in Butler’s Parable saga and Barnes’ cyberpunk novels. But by setting Brown Girl in Toronto instead of Los Angeles, Hopkinson assumes the vantage point of a single, unwed, Black mother attempting to reconcile tradition, modernity, and romance in an inner city officially severed from society. Race loses much of its centrality in Hopkinson’s novel as class warfare, often existing along ethno-racial fault lines, predominates.

The publication of Walter Mosley’s Blue Light (1998) could well be the most significant event for Black FFF yet. In Blue Light, a mysterious blue light from the firmament strikes the Earth and hyper-evolves those humans caught in its beam well beyond their former peers. Told by a biracial male, the novel ventures into questions of identity, race, and humanity probed by such notable novels as James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), Nella Larsen’s Ouicksand (1923), and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). Even more important than its connection to the canonical texts is the institutional significance of Blue Light as a Black FFF text. As the author of the very successful Easy Rawlins series, Mosley has seen one of his novels—Devil in a Blue Dress (1990)—converted to cinematic life in 1996. Moreover, former President William Jefferson Clinton has endorsed him as one of his favorite novelists. Mosley’s established name, which no doubt now has national as well as international recognition, may provide Black FFF greater legitimacy among the African- and European-American lay and academic communities. When Delany began writing in the early 1960s, his goal was to create classic works of literature respected by literary scholars. In some sense, the circle has been completed, for the Black FFF authors whose efforts made Blue Light a possibility likewise benefit from its release: Butler has released yet another novel, Parable of the Talents (1998), the much anticipated sequel to Parable of the Sower (1993), her preceding novel. Perhaps out of this synergy one is witnessing, as Mosley observed, “[T]he beginning of a new world of autonomy created out of the desire to scrap 500 years of intellectual imperialism” (33). Indeed, as the next millennium rushes forward, it is possible for one to say, of diasporic African arts and letters, it is going where no person has gone before.