JUNE 11, 2022
AT ITS BEST, Black speculative fiction offers readers new openings and transformations in our understanding of the world and what it means to be human. While such stories might be set in the distant past or future, or in an alternate present, they are meant to reflect and comment on our current human condition. Each of the six stories in Amazon’s short story collection, Black Stars: A Galaxy of New Worlds, does exactly this, engaging critically with the question of what if and presenting it as if it were true. While one function of the speculative mode is to entertain, another is to engage in thought experiments that often raise complex questions rather than produce neat resolutions to the thematic problems they pose. Collectively, these stories espouse a future in which Afro-diasporic peoples survive and thrive through adaptation and serve as an homage to Blackness that is at once a loving fusion with the otherworldly.
In “The Black Pages” by Nnedi Okorafor, a young African man returns to his native land of Mali after studying in the United States only to find things significantly changed. Based loosely on a recent historical event — the invasion of Mali by al-Qaeda Islamists in 2012 — Okorafor’s fantasy story follows the hero, Issaka, as he returns home to the town of Timbouctou to visit his family only to find it besieged by jihadists who are hell-bent on destroying sacred ancient texts from an old library. Issaka’s family rescues hundreds of the books and hides them until the end, when both the books and Issaka’s family are destroyed. The burning of one particular book titled The Black Pages, however, sets free a supernatural and ancient entity, a djinn named Faro, who helps Issaka awaken to ancestral knowledge passed down through his mother’s lineage.
The burning of libraries and books has occurred for thousands of years, sometimes as the collateral damage of conquest, but more often because books represent knowledge that serves as a threat to existing regimes of power, as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 makes clear. In “The Black Pages,” although only a few of the old books can be read and understood, they nonetheless represent “the history of our people.” One of Issaka’s uncles notes that the Islamic fundamentalists invading the city “want to erase our ancestors. Wipe them all away and replace them with the memory of the Arab. It is a false jihad against the genius of the black African.” Here, anti-Blackness is the reason for the senseless destruction of sacred books representing Black Indigenous knowledge.
After al-Qaeda’s final destruction at the end, the djinn leads Issaka into the desert and gives him back The Black Pages, and he realizes that he can read its tightly packed words that were like “coiled knots and strings of blackness, layered over and crowding each other, extending into the page. […] Black like the ancestors at the gate.” Afterward, Issaka sees three figures standing in a doorway, and while their identity is never explicitly revealed, we are told that he knows who they are. What is most fascinating about this story that ends so mysteriously is how the past is wrenched open. While the jihadists seek to foreclose the past by severing all connections to it, in actuality the opposite occurs: the past is radically opened up by an act of magic and a more direct link to the ancestors — and to past occult knowledge — is secured.
In “The Visit,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie offers us a different type of homecoming as well as a transformed world in which gender roles are reversed. If the previous story provides an opening into the past, the world depicted here is sealed shut with an Orwellian totality. Set in Lagos, Nigeria, the story depicts Obinna, a married man awaiting the visit of his childhood friend, Eze, who lives in the United States and whom Obinna has not seen in 10 years. Together they discuss and navigate a matriarchal world in which women hold all positions of power. In this world, male masturbation has become illegal, “punishable by up to fifteen years in prison” and men have taken to the streets to protest, holding placards that read, “Respect the bodily autonomy of men. Government hands off my seed. Our Body Our Choice.” Reading passages like this elicited, at least in this reader, squeals of laughter and delight at the proposition of men getting a dose of their own medicine.
But the story also evokes empathy. The reason for Eze’s visit to Nigeria is to seek herbal treatment for his enlarged prostrate. He tells his friend that “there’s no real treatment for prostate issues. Modern medicine has simply ignored the health problems that affect only men. Did you know that all the major medical research uses women’s bodies as the standards?” This pointed critique highlights the real issues in our world that affect women’s health, especially their reproductive health, which is not taken as the standard by male-driven medical research. Other reversals in the story include marriage being the ultimate prize for men, who serve as the main caregivers in the home — at best, they can gain employment in entry-level positions. Women such as Obinna’s wife are the sole breadwinners and also the ones who have affairs, indiscriminately cheating on their husbands. When Obinna and Eze go out for drinks at the club, they are sexually harassed by women at the bar and on their way home by female police, who we are told frequently stop and sodomize men at night with their sticks.
Despite this being a world in which there is no escape for men as the subordinate sex, Adichie’s act of feminist inversion offers readers an opening into our thinking of traditional sexual relations. It brings into relief the utter absurdity of men’s control and domination over women’s bodies in both the social and political spheres. As visitors in this topsy-turvy “alien” world, readers walk away with a more intimate sense of the human injustice committed in our own patriarchal world, or at least that is the hope.
If these two stories focus on a return — with a difference — to native lands of Africa, other stories in the Black Stars collection focus instead on discovering new worlds, whether deep in the ocean, as in Nisi Shawl’s “2043 … A Merman I Should Turn to Be,” or in deep outer space — worlds that can support and nurture the African diaspora. But doing so entails the imperative to become something other than purely human. In “These Alien Skies,” C. T. Rwizi takes us to the far reaches of space as Msizi and Tariro, two explorers who are part of the African Space Union, travel through a wormhole to a human-habitable planet called Malcolm X-b, which is to be a “new home for the diaspora.” Once they arrive, the wormhole gate to this world is destroyed and Msizi and Tariro have to perform an emergency landing, only to find unexpected inhabitants: humans and aliens living in symbiotic relationships.
The ancestors of these humans were people from “across the Nile valley on Old Africa” who had left the solar system during the dawn of the interstellar age and escaped the prejudice of the old continent. They were thought to be long dead by the rest of humanity. The intelligent life-forms on the planet are called “the Elders,” symbionts described as “a distributed consciousness”; it is only by accepting a symbiotic relationship with them that the Nilotic people were able to acclimate to this world. The Elders’ only means of communication is through nodes that produce a sound of “glass splintering under strain.” The symbiosis that enables kinship relations between these different species alters the immune system of the humans as well as their dark skins with a “strange tech marking […] in eye-catching patterns that grow green.” The green color denotes a fertile and fecund earth but also advanced alien technology, marking a collapse of the organic and the artificial. The people of this world are still human but also part alien, which points back to the fact that for centuries, Blacks have been viewed as not fully human — part human but also part something else, closer to animals, closer to the debased natural world, closer to the demonic and the monstrously alien.
The emerging other in Rwizi’s tale, however, is in danger of closing in on itself. In a move that could have been taken out of a Star Trek: Discovery script, we find that the humans are the ones who destroyed the wormhole gate to cut off contact with others. They still remember how on Earth they “were disenfranchised and made lesser on our own lands, first by foreigners, then by our own leaders,” and they fear that history will repeat itself. With the arrival of Msizi, they have to determine for themselves whether they can safely rejoin the rest of humanity or keep them at bay. They decide to send the hero back along with one of their own, but not before he gives up the neural implant that has been keeping his love, Tariro, who has been dead the whole time, alive in his memory. After Msizi buries the implant in the ground, the Elders accept it as a gift and Tariro’s form becomes the avatar through which they can communicate directly to humans instead of by sound alone. Here, love opens up new channels of communication between the two species and allows them to better co-evolve, indicating that this world will not foreclose itself. Instead, its peoples will potentially join the African Space Union and be open to reconnecting with their “brethren,” who will in turn become something more than human.
Stories such as Rwizi’s follow conventions of the science fiction space opera, while others, like Okorafor’s, are more grounded in fantasy. In “Clap Back,” however, Nalo Hopkinson offers a unique blending of fantasy and “hard science fiction” in order to develop her thought experiments on “taking a step toward freeing all humanity” within an anti-Black world. Set in the not-so-distant future, nanotechnology is put to use in two different ways. One is by a white fashion designer with a degree in molecular bio-chemistry who develops a haute-couture line of clothing called “Forgetful” by impregnating fibers with nanobot stories. These stories are supposedly taken from a group of young African girls asking for forgiveness, and the nanobots soak into the skin like “topical painkillers,” eventually flushed out in one’s urine. At work here is the appropriation of Black culture to appease or kill the pain of white guilt under the rubric of “forgive and forget.” The other use of this technology is by Wenda, a queer Black performance artist who in her protest art deploys nanobots in order to bring distorted representations of Blackness, such as minstrel dolls and other racist memorabilia, back to life: a form of “modern-day hoodoo” using scientific technology instead of potions and spells.
Fifty years after the performance artist gets thrown in jail, the “Micro-nanites” are still in circulation but their ability to replicate has been turned off, while anti-Black racism still looms large. Xiomara, Wenda’s granddaughter, consults with her grandmother’s avatar after her partner is faced with gross police brutality. They discuss the possibility of reprogramming them to “alter gene markers of race.” In a reversal of George S. Schuyler’s satiric science fiction novel, Black No More, in which a Black scientist finds a way of turning all Black people white, the ending to this story is marked by a discussion on what it would mean if Xiomara turned all of humanity Black. She wonders, “Wouldn’t freeing us be a step toward freeing all humanity? Would dark skin cease to be an axis of violence if everyone had it?”
Hopkinson offers us a radical possibility, through science, of reparation and freedom for Black people, which entails a turning inside out the whiteness with which the fully human is inextricably linked in Western discourse. This is a unifying of humanity based historically on one of its most abject elements. In the last story of the collection, “We Travel the Spaceways,” Victor LaValle offers up a love story involving Grimace, a Black homeless man whose only “family” is a garbage bag full of empty bottles who speak to him and give him advice as he navigates the streets of New York City in search of food. In first-person narration, Grimace tells us that “no one ever saw me,” which readily establishes Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as a subtext. When people around him do notice him, they think him mad. As a reader, I too at first wondered whether he might suffer from a case of schizophrenia. Here, you have a conglomeration of three abject societal elements: Blackness, poverty, and possible mental illness, all of which LaValle seeks to reevaluate.
As the story develops, we come to find that the empty Coke and Dr. Pepper bottles — the wastes of hyper-capitalism — are in fact vessels through which an ancient people from another world called “the Astral City” have been communicating with Grimace, who himself is a type of vessel. These ancient people are really ancestors who left Africa during the start of the slave trade and headed for the stars. They meant to come back for their children but did not know it would take 500 years for them to reestablish contact. Grimace learns of all this through Kim, a woman who offers him some of her food and who can also hear the voices in the bottles. She tells him that in order to travel “the path between Earth and the Astral City requires someone special too. Someone used to navigating between a world where I’m understood and a world where I’m misjudged. Someone like me.” Once Kim and Grimace unite, the narrator lets us know directly that “[t]his is a love story. Right from the beginning that’s what this has been.”
LaValle’s tale is indeed a love story, not only of New York City but also more importantly of Black love, as all the stories in this collection are. Resolutely anti-pessimist, these are stories that keep worlds open by refusing to lock us down in some immutable anti-Black present in which Blackness remains that against which the human is measured. The radical opening of the human entails a critical engagement with the could have been of the past in order to then offer new visions of the future, that which could yet still be, and it comes by way of firing up the imagination. Like the burning of books in Okorafor’s story that releases a magical, ancient entity, by igniting the imagination and playing with form and genre (literary and human), these stories unleash new ways of being, knowing, and feeling in our world that have remained entrapped in the ultra-rational. Moreover, they interweave a distinct relationship between indigenous spirituality and scientific discourse. The insistence on establishing contact with African ancestors, now metamorphosed into otherworldly entities from outer space, indicates a turning back that is at once a looking forward in time in order to open up new possibilities in the present moment for reconnecting to the natural world, time, and one another.