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Writing Science Fiction and the Politic of Race

In my journey out here in the hinterlands, I have begun writing again. To get good enough at it to gain any note, or even sell a few books still is a far off dream. There have been several notable black Science Fiction writers – Octavia ButlerSamuel R. Delany, and Steven Barnes to mention the best known. For many years black writers shied away from presenting black characters, and some even used pseudonyms to publish their work.

So it is great to see that, one, there is a new generation of black speculative fiction writers, and two – that one has won the titular award in the industry – a Hugo. A victory that didn’t come without racist push-back from the alt-right.

N.K. Jemisin and the Politics of Prose

A conversation with the recent Hugo Award-winner about science fiction, race, gender, power, and Trumpism

Last week, the World Science Fiction society named N.K. Jemisin the first black writer to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel, perhaps the highest honor for science-fiction and fantasy novels. Her winning work, The Fifth Season, has also been nominated for the Nebula Award and World Fantasy Award, and it joins Jemisin’s collection of feted novels in the speculative fiction super-genre. Even among the titans of black science-fiction and fantasy writers, including the greats Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany, Jemisin’s achievement is singular in the 60-plus years of the Hugos.

The Fifth Season is a stunning piece of speculative-fiction work, and it accomplishes the one thing that is so difficult in a field dominated by tropes: innovation, in spades. A rich tale of earth-moving superhumans set in a dystopian world of regular disasters, The Fifth Season manages to incorporate the deep internal cosmologies, mythologies, and complex magic systems that genre readers have come to expect, in a framework that also asks thoroughly modern questions about oppression, race, gender, class, and sexuality. Its characters are a slate of people of different colors and motivations who don’t often appear in a field still dominated by white men and their protagonist avatars. The Fifth Season’ssequel, 2016’s The Obelisk Gate, continues its dive into magic, science, and the depths of humanity.

Just a year ago, the idea of a novel as deliberately outside the science-fiction norm as The Fifth Season winning the Hugo Award seemed unlikely. In 2013, a small group of science-fiction writers and commentators launched the “Sad Puppies” and “Rabid Puppies” campaigns to exploit the Hugo nomination system and place dozens of books and stories of their own choosing up for awards. Those campaigns arose as a reaction to perceived “politicization” of the genre—often code for it becoming more diverse and exploring more themes of social justice, race, and gender—and became a space for some science-fiction and fantasy communities to rail against “heavy handed message fic.” Led by people like the “alt-right” commentator Vox Day, the movements reached fever pitch in the 2015 Hugo Award cycle, and Jemisin herself was often caught up in the intense arguments about the future of the genre.

I spoke to Jemisin about her works, politics, the sad puppies controversy, and about race and gender representation in science-fiction and fantasy the day before The Fifth Season won the Hugo Award. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Vann R. Newkirk II: Tell me more about the creative process that goes into this trilogy. This seems like a huge undertaking.

N.K. Jemisin: It is, and this is the first time that I’ve ever done one continuous story all the way through three books. Trilogies are relatively easy when each story is a self-contained piece, which I’ve done for all of my previous books. I have a lot of new respect for authors who do like giant unending trilogies just because this is hard. It’s a lot harder than I thought it was. But I’m enjoying it so far. It’s a solid challenge. I like solid challenges. I had some moments when I was writing the first book where I was just sort of, “I don’t know if I can do this.” Fortunately I have friends who are like, “What’s wrong with you? Snap out of it!” And I moved on and I got it done and I’m very glad with the reception. I’m shocked by the reception, but I’m glad for it.

Newkirk: You’re shocked by the reception? This seems like something that is tailor-made to be a hit right now.

Jemisin: Ehh. You may have seen some of the stuff that’s been happening in the genre in terms of pushback, reactionary movements and so forth. Basically, the science-fiction microcosmic version of what’s been happening on the large-scale political level and what’s been happening in other fields like with Gamergate in gaming. It’s the same sort of reactionary pushback that is generally by a relatively small number of very loud people. They’re loud enough that they’re able to convince you that the world really isn’t as progressive as you think it is, and that the world really does just want old-school 1950s golden-age-era stalwart white guys in space suits traveling in very phallic-looking spaceships to planets with green women and … they kind of convince you that that’s really all that will sell. Told in the most plain didactic language you can imagine and with no literary tricks whatever because the readership just doesn’t want that.

Newkirk: For you, are those people something that bothers you as you build a profile? Are people louder now that The Fifth Season is getting so much love?

Jemisin: They may be, but I’m not hearing them as much. I seem to have passed some kind of threshold, and maybe it’s something as simple as I now have so many positive messages coming at me that the negatives are sort of drowned out. As a side note, the so-called boogeyman of science-fiction, the white supremacist asshat who started the Rabid Puppies, Vox Day, apparently posted something about me a few days ago and I just didn’t care. There was a whole to-do between me and him a few years back where he ended up getting booted out of SWFA [Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America] because of some stuff he said about me, and I just didn’t care. It was a watershed moment at that point but now it’s just sort of, “Oh, it’s him again. He must be needing to get some new readers or trying to raise his profile again. Or something.” I didn’t look at it. No one bothered to read it and dissect it and send me anything about it. No one cared.

I think that’s sort of indicative of what’s happening. To some degree, as I move outside of the exclusive genre audience, the exclusive genre issues don’t bother me as much. Maybe that’s just speculation. I’m reaching a point where I’m still hearing some of it, but it’s just not as loud, or maybe it’s just focusing on different points. I don’t know. It’s still there. It’ll be there. I think that the Hugo ceremony at this upcoming WorldCon is going to be another not-as-seminal moment as last year when the Puppies tried a takeover that was somewhat more successful at the nominating stage and where they got smacked down roundly at the actual voting stage with no award after no award. I don’t think that’s going to happen this year, and I don’t think it matters as much. But who knows? I’ll guess we’ll see. If I win I’ll be happy. If I don’t win, I’ll be happy. I’ll continue to write…Read the rest here

 
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Posted by on September 4, 2016 in Giant Negros, Women

 

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Octavia E. Butler, And the Power of Determination

In the business world, there is a strategy called the “Self Fulfilling Prophecy”. Ergo, you can’t get that promotion to the executive suite – until you act like you already have it. One of the key steps to that is developing “presence” a self belief in yourself that projects to others. That same “presence” is what defined the Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s and 60’s that a long suffering people had dignity, the right to be treated fairly, and moral clarity.

Octavia E. Butler is best known for her Science Fiction novels, which incorporate aspects of African American spiritualism to create stories woven in deep characters, whose change in response to hardship and rejection chart humanism and the effort to mold the world around us. Her best known work is “Kindred”

Embrace diversity
Unite–
or be divided,
robbed,
ruled,
killed
By those who see you as prey.
Embrace diversity
Or be destroyed.

From “Earthseed: The Books of the Living,”Parable of the Sower.

Octavia E. Butler Wrote The Story Of Her Success Years Before It Happened

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Octavia E. Butler, the Hugo-award winning science fiction writer best known for the novels “Kindred” and “Parable of the Talents.” As an African-American female author in the predominantly white, predominantly male sci-fi landscape, Butler achieved extraordinary success over her decades-spanning career, even winning the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant”.

And now, the release of personal journals from the late novelist has revealed one more extraordinary thing about her success: She wrote it down before it happened.

On Wednesday, the Huntington Library in California published a collection of notes and journal entries written by Butler throughout her lifetime. On one notebook from 1988, pictured below, Butler writes: “I shall be a bestselling writer… each of my books will be on the bestseller lists of LAT, NYT, PW, WP, etc. My novels will go onto above lists whether publishers push them hard or not.”

In addition to writing down affirmations of success, Butler also wrote her plans to “help poor black youngsters go to college” and “help poor black youngsters broaden their horizons.”

Amazingly, Butler would soon find the kind of success she wrote about not long after writing down these affirmations. Many of her novels, including “Clay’s Clark” and “Kindred,” were at the tops of bestseller lists around the world, and earned her honors and accolades including an induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. In 2006, in memory of her death, the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship was founded, providing Clarion Writers’ Workshop scholarships for young writers of color. This year, Butler will be honored in a year-long series of events and exhibitions in Los Angeles celebrating her life and her work. Talk about inspiring.

 
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Posted by on January 31, 2016 in Giant Negros

 

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Black Folks in Space!

Top Black Characters in Science Fiction

Over my lifetime, a few movies and TV shows have got it right by casting a black actor in a particular role, not to get a stereotype on the screen, but because the actor or actress was the right fit for the part; they were the embodiment of the character.

The character was not a slang-talking, gangsta-riding jokester with a background in the ‘hood. Not a sex kitten or ultra-pro-black (or as David Alan Grier says, “Mike Tyson black”), holding the gun sideways. Not a drug-dealing, pimping, dancing and jiving stereotype. They  were just another excellent player in said show or movie. They made us forget about race as a divisive issue.

So, in recognition of the first day of Black History Month, here is a list of my top 10 favorite African American sci-fi movie & TV characters of all time.

1. Ben Hanser, Night of the Living Dead, played by Duane Jones: One of the first black hero characters in a mostly-white movie? Maybe, but I am not a movie expert. Duane Jones showed us all how to take out a zombie or two.

2. Lornette “Mace” Mason, Strange Days, played by Angela Bassett: Kicking ass and taking names, Mace broke the mold by being the black lady that would come to the rescue of the white man. I believe it was one of Angela Bassett’s best roles.

3. Benjamin Sisko, DS9, played by Avery Brooks: Running for six years in the ’90s, Star Trek: DS9 was a great entry into the canon. And Avery Brooks owned the role of the space station commander. While most geek folk remember Avery for DS9, I still like the Hawk character better.

4. Geordi La Forge, Star Trek: The Next Generation, played by Levar Burton: My hero back in the day. I wanted to be Geordi. Out of all the Star Trek characters, I would propose that Geordi was the most geeky. He “loved” starship engineering. Even fell in love with a holographic colleague.

5. Lando Calrissian, Star Wars, played by Billy Dee Williams: Suave, cool, collected and prepared, Lando held it down in Bespin and proved he could fly a bucket of bolts just as well as Solo. I’d have Lando at my back any day.

6. Sgt. Apone, Aliens, played by Al Matthews: While the tough-as-nails black sergeant is a running stereotype in Hollywood, Al Matthews was great in Aliens. Just wish he would have cracked a few more alien heads before being taken out in that tunnel.

7. Morpheus, The Matrix, played by Lawrence Fishburne: Fishburne killed this role. The elusive Morpheus. Man of mystery. Thinking back on who else may have played this role any better, I’m coming up blank.

8. Lt. Uhura, Star Trek, played by Nichelle Nichols: The queen. While her role was limited in most episodes, Nichelle Nichols was a fixture on the Star Trek bridge. Because of her casting, many more opportunities opened up for black actors. And that kiss was controversial for its time.

9. Lt. Vanessa Damphousse, Space: Above & Beyond, played by Lanei Chapman: Before the Battlestar Galactica reboot, came Space: Above & Beyond. I was truly saddened when this show was kicked from the air. Glen Morgan and James Wong did a great job of casting this near-future space drama. And who could not love a fighter pilot as fine as Lanei Chapman.

10. Mace Windu, Star Wars, played by Samuel Jackson: I remember when Sam Jackson was announced as a feature character in the Star Wars prequels. One could only guess as to how he would portray one of the leaders of Jedi Council. While I think the dialogue for his character should have been tossed, I still feel that Mace Windu was one of the best Jedi masters from the movies.

Many more actors and actresses could have gone on this list. As time slowly rolls by, we are seeing more and more diversity on TV and in the movies. And as cheaper technology allows for Hollywood-caliber effects (Panic Attack) to spread across the world (Pumzi), let’s hope we see a more realistic portrayal of humanity’s peoples on the sci-fi tubes.

We are kind of thin on the ground in space but – other favorite suggestions besides those posed by Lonnie Morgan?

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2010 in Black History

 

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