Sheree Thomas, ed., Dark Matter I: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (New York: Warner Books, 2000).
Sheree Thomas, ed., Dark Matter: Reading the Bones (New York: Warner Books, 2004).
Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan, eds., So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004).
Martin Delany, Sutton Griggs, Charles Chesnutt, Pauline E. Hopkins, W.E.B. Du Bois — black people have always written speculative fiction. And, within the purist sci-fi world Samuel Delany, our dearly beloved Octavia Butler (1947-2006), and Charles Saunders have made a huge impact. They broke open the doors of sci-fi and introduced black characters who were at home in their “alien” forms in their “alien” lands, subjects rather than objects of a gaze, pondering, negotiating their positions in their “alien” worlds. Their characters have taken on the ills of our society, reconstructed them, and have thrown them right back into our faces. Yes, Delany, Butler, and Saunders have been welcomed into the fold of the sci-fi community, but it is only in the past six to eight years that the sci-fi community, more specifically the publishing industry, has even considered the possibility not only that blacks (and other people of color) write sci-fi but that there is an overwhelmingly huge audience, desirous, chomping at the bit for more, more speculative fiction written by us, about us, for us, for everyone.
Why? Speculative fiction opens a space, like no other, where blacks can explore the full range of possibilities available to us in “our world.” Walter Mosley believes that speculative fiction is a genre that “speaks most clearly to those who are dissatisfied with the way things are: adolescents, post-adolescents, escapists, dreamers, and those who have been made to feel powerless” (Dark Matter I, 405). And, so it goes in the three edited works containing what can only be called a fascinating introduction to the world of speculative fiction. Sheree Thomas’s two volumes of Dark Matter and Nalo Hopkinson Uppinder Mehan’s volume, So Long Been Dreaming perform three objectives. They introduce the uninitiated to an amazing breadth and depth of speculative fiction and multi-talented writers who have been keeping the trail clear behind those who first blazed it before them. These volumes for the uninitiated are an achingly sweet form of foreplay, suggesting what lies ahead if they choose to explore further. For the initiated, these volumes are the syrup, whipped cream, and nuts atop a solid foundation of fandom. Finally, these volumes provide a platform, a safe space, as it were, to protest, to lament, to record the atrocities… to look horror and one’s worse fears (which can be a horror) in the face. Hopkinson puts it best in the introduction to So Long Been Dreaming, stating that these stories “…take the meme of colonizing the natives and, from the experience of the colonizee, critique it, pervert it, fuck with it, with irony, with anger, with humour, and also, with love and respect for the genre of science fiction that makes it possible to think about new ways of doing things” (9).
Both volumes of Dark Matter have a fiction and an essay section. In volume I, Walter Mosley implores more African Americans to write science fiction and fantasy and, naturally, implores publishers to publish them. Mosley posits that science fiction can “tear down the walls and windows, the artifice and laws by changing the logic, empowering the disenfranchised, or simply by asking, what if?” (407) But that “what if?” goes deeper than “what if we can explore space?” or “what if there are alien life forms?” or “what if we totally destroy the earth’s environment to our ultimate destruction and death?” Well… yes. Even readers who aren’t fans of speculative fiction can wrap their minds around those kinds of truths and possibilities. The stories in these three volumes do consider these kinds of questions and they readily embrace advancements in science, technology, and medicine. But, these stories put a slight twist on the readers’ considerations of “what if?” The authors look back as well as ahead and this results in tales forged together to teach us not to trust, just in case the future holds something so unthought of, so unheard of — these tales are warnings.
Volume I of Dark Matter shares with the reader the old guard. Thomas includes W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1920 tale, “The Comet,” which speculates upon the terror and the position of a black man who survives the deadly gases that are emitted when earth passes through the tail of an unusual comet as he searches for other survivors. Thomas also includes an excerpt from George S. Schuyler’s hilarious satire Black No More (1931), which explores race relations and race politics once a “mad” scientist reveals that he can make black people white. These truly are “what if?” tales, and readers will gasp and chuckle with delight. Yet, the eerie aspect of all three volumes is the tales that they have in common, what I call the slave trade-cultural genocide tale, for lack of a better phrase.
Volume I of Dark Matter, which is an extremely intense, almost heavy, weight-bearing experience, includes Derrick Bell’s “Space Traders” (1992), a tale of political intrigue in the face of America’s depleted resources, faltering economy, and ruined environment. When the aliens come to earth to bring gold, fuel, and chemicals to repair the environment, Americans will have to make a “fair” trade — all of their citizens of African descent. Bell uses this tale to critique both the liberal and conservative political fronts as well as past political maneuvers such as the World War II Japanese internment camps. Yet, his critique does not lead to the ending that we hope for in our future, but points to that fear that unadmittedly, perhaps subconsciously, lingers, shut away in a tight place, in the minds of so many African Americans today. Despite all of our contributions, all of our sacrifices to our country, is it possible that we aren’t citizens, don’t belong, are objects of barter and negotiation? In other words, are we still classified as non-human?
In a similar vein, Devorah Major explores the futuristic status of those of the darker hue in her story “Trade Winds” in Hopkinson and Mehan’s volume of postcolonial science fiction and fantasy writing. Jonah is an accomplished translator and has traveled all over the galaxy learning the languages of other galaxy forms. No other translator has his abilities and talents. This is why Jonah has been selected to speak with another life form, the voyagers who have no home planet but simply travel throughout the galaxy learning new cultures, languages, and stories. Jonah has to negotiate a trade for water as the supply on the research/explorer ship he inhabits is dangerously low. After weeks of negotiations, the voyagers offer another “fair” trade — a ton of water in exchange for the brown-skinned Jonah. Although Jonah refuses, he learns that his fate might not be in his own hands. Unlike Bell, who is quite blunt with his social critique, Major is more subtle and critiques first and third world slavery as well as the capitalization of the world’s natural resources. It is in the small tight sentences spoken between Jonah and the voyager’s negotiator that the reader is gripped suddenly by the collar. Jonah wakes up to find that “he was sold for water” and asks the voyager translator, “How could you make me an object of trade?” The voyager replies, “You are truly free.” Jonah’s response? “I was already free” (198f). And throughout the story, seemingly small, quiet images like this one cry out to be thoroughly explored and discussed with others.
Although the stories in Volume II of Dark Matter seem slightly less heavy than those in volume I, they are still rather intense. It appears as if volume II encompasses a group of characters who, rather than face hopelessness, take on a cloak of survival by which they will negotiate and maneuver as necessary to ensure their existence. It is a refreshing volume despite the intensity of stories like Wanda Coleman’s “Buying Primo Time” (1988). A Population Control Amendment has been passed in the 22nd Century, and the poor and the working class can insure their time on earth by purchasing a breathing permit, cost of which is determined by their importance to society. Della Niobe an African American artist and single mother is so savvy, so flippant, so cunning in her quest to demonstrate the importance of an artist that the reader is not horrified by her methods but applauds Della and her resourcefulness and eagerly cheers her on.
Every one of the stories in these three volumes has something to offer the fan of and the newcomer to speculative fiction. But, these stories cannot be merely for our entertainment. Although they are quite entertaining, they are also thought-provoking. I have to, the reader will have to, seriously contemplate our positions in our society, in our universe. In 1974 Ray Bradbury defined science fiction as “sociological studies of the future, things that the writer believes are going to happen by putting two and two together.”* I have to ponder, is this the future we see for people of color on earth? Sold into slavery? Traded for favors? Beaten into oblivion? I hope not. Not if we take this wealth of material and accept it as the warning that it is. If we taste of it and roll it on our tongues, mull it over carefully, we might can prevent a future like the ones depicted in some of these stories.
*In Science Fiction: The Academic Awakening. Ed. Willis E. McNelly (Shreveport, LA: College English Association, 1974), p.17.
Reviewed by Yolanda Hood
Valdosta State University