Saturday 2 June 2018

Black and Brown Planets, ed. by Isiah Lavender III | review by Stephen Theaker

Subtitled The Politics of Race in Science Fiction, this book (University Press of Mississippi, hb) aims to show “what SF criticism means when joined with critical race theories and histories of oppression”. Part one, Black Planets, features essays about African-Americans and sf. Lisa Yaszek introduces the idea of “The Bannekerade: Genius, Madness, and Magic in Black Science Fiction”, explaining how Benjamin Banneker’s life has inspired stories of “black technoscientific genius”. The essay identifies several interesting works, but it’s not clear that there are many distinct examples of the Bannekerade.

In “‘The Best Is Yet to Come’; or, Saving the Future: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as Reform Astrofuturism”, De Witt Douglas Kilgore writes about the episodes that threw Commander Sisko into the life of a black writer in the fifties, and wonders whether Star Trek’s racism-free future is as positive as it seems. In “Far Beyond the Star Pit: Samuel R. Delany”, Gerry Canavan reads that story “as an allegory for life under the regime of legal and customary segregation known as white supremacy”.

As well as the introduction, Lavender writes “Digging Deep: Ailments of Difference in Octavia Butler’s ‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night’”, where he suggests that Butler’s story can be read as an allegory for race in America. In “The Laugh of Anansi: Why Science Fiction Is Pertinent to Black Children’s Literature Pedagogy” Marleen Barr argues that children’s sf featuring black heroes “causes a wrinkle in time, a respite from the history of oppression”.

Part two, Brown Planets, ranges further afield, though surprisingly not to India (“Africa and Asia are beyond the scope of this collection”).

In “Haint Stories Rooted in Conjure Science: Indigenous Scientific Literacies in Andrea Hairston’s Redwood and Wildfire” Grace Dillon explains how that novel incorporates “indigenous scientific literacies, a forward-thinking way of characterizing indigenous knowledge in opposition to Euro-Western characterizations of ‘native superstition’ and magic”. In “Questing for an Indigenous Future: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony as Indigenous Science Fiction” Patrick Sharp makes similar points, while comparing post-apocalyptic narratives with a novel about a town affected by uranium mining.

The view of science put forward in those essays seems almost Victorian, all taxonomies and determinism. In “Monteiro Lobato’s O presidente negro (The Black President): Eugenics and the Corporate State in Brazil”, M. Elizabeth Ginway explains how science earned that bad reputation, using a 1926 “chilling fictional experiment in genocide” to illuminate the thinking behind the Brazilian eugenics movement. A highlight is Lobato’s honest surprise that no US publisher wanted his racist book.

In “Mestizaje and Heterotopia in Ernest Hogan’s High Aztech” Lysa Rivera reads Hogan’s novel as a science fictionalization of José Vasconcelos’s theory that the melting pot of Mexico might eventually produce a cosmic “fifth race”, which will lead us into enlightenment. Matthew Goodwin’s “Virtual Reality at the Border of Migration, Race, and Labor” critiques the notion of cyberspace as post-racial utopia, considering, for example, how it provides cheap labour without allowing immigration. In “A Dis-(Orient)ation: Race, Technoscience, and The Windup Girl” Malisa Kurtz applies the concept of “raced” characters, who may not face problems relating to their ethnicity, but are marked in other ways, such as Emiko’s built-in physical stutters.

Though it’s a reprint, “Yellow, Black, Metal, and Tentacled: The Race Question in American Science Fiction” is worth reading first, as Edward James provides a useful overview of how American sf has tackled race (or not). It gives context to the more tightly focused essays, though his concerns about “the problem of the recognition of race in SF” – the risk of assuming sf is about race and not, say, technology – aren’t shared by many contributors.

In “The Wild Unicorn Herd Check-In” Robin Reid notes the variety of fans who asserted their presence after Racefail, and catalogues how they described their ethnicity and nationality. It addresses the book’s title: “white readers of SF … simply did not see all the planets (black and brown and many other colors) that exist and have existed, independent of white observers”. Like “new” planets now being discovered, minority readers and writers of sf were always out there.

Like any book of literary criticism, it can be dull, but that’s outweighed by the issues, authors and stories it works so carefully to bring to our attention. A few essays make great claims without much evidence, but all provide much to think about; it opens up the conversation, rather than having the last word. Walter Mosley is quoted inside as saying: “The power of science fiction is that it can tear down the walls and windows, the artifice and laws by changing the logic, empowering the disenfranchised or simply by asking, What if?” Black and Brown Planets shows how writers and critics are doing just that. ****

A slightly shorter version of this review appeared in Interzone #255.

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