Race and Sci-fi Theory: Not Just for Dissertations Anymore

Ever thought Toni Morrison’s Beloved has a place at ComicCon? André M. Carrington’s Speculative Blackness might be for you.

Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction
André M. Carrington
University of Minnesota Press

Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction is a tricky book to review. On one hand, it’s an excellent exploration of blackness in sci-fi, and on other the hand, it’s a challenging read. Not because of the subject matter, (although that too challenges) but because of the structure of the text. It’s too bad really since some of the conclusions the author reaches about sci-fi could apply to contemporary issues of race in culture more broadly, which (I think) was one of author André M. Carrington’s intentions. Early on in the text, Carrington declares:

Contrary to these long-standing tendencies to invoke race in metaphorical terms, I argue in this book that we ought to focus our critical attention on situations in which race thinking and speculative fiction converge on the meaning of Blackness as such.

The problem here isn’t his argument. In fact, it’s an excellent thesis and an interesting premise to sink one’s teeth into. The problem is Carrington’s “we”. To put it simply, it’s a dissertation. The formulaic organization of the book will be familiar to anyone who’s ever written a dissertation — an introduction that establishes a central thesis and describes the theoretical perspective, a brief literature review, followed by several chapters, each dedicated to the close reading of a specific sci-fi artifact in a somewhat disappointingly prosaic chronological order, culminating in a brief conclusion that restates the thesis and expresses hope for future work. Academics will find the structure easily navigable, but perhaps unimaginative.

Although the title and the topics discussed may initially appeal to those interested in both sci-fi and identity, the complex language and theory-heavy introductory chapter may discourage some readers from pushing forward. I personally was excited to dig into the subject matter but was a bit disappointed when I realized I was reading a dry lit review.

Additionally, the depth of historical detail presented in some of the text, while interesting, is incredibly esoteric. I’ll even go as far as to argue that some of the author’s prose comes across as intentionally obfuscated. Perhaps he chose to emulate the writing style of one of his favored theorists, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, whose prose on queer theory is some of the densest and difficult to follow in academia (not counting Michel Foucault, of course). Sedgwick is brilliant, there’s no doubt, but one would hardly call her a facile read. Carrington’s compound sentences and polysyllabic vocabulary reminded me of her writing. Fortunately, like Sedgwick, Carrington’s ideas are also worth pouring over.

The close readings the author performs on the various sci-fi artifacts delve into the previously under-studied aspect of the genre: People of color reading, writing, and being represented by sci-fi artifacts. I say under-studied because the author acknowledges early in the text that it “is not a study of Black science fiction.” Rather, the author’s goal, in part, is to examine how representations of race in popular sci-fi participate in the construction of identity in culture at large. In other words, the author notes that celebrated sci-fi writers of color, such as Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany, although worth attention, are not the subject of the book. The focus, instead, is on more mainstream popular sci-fi in multiple media, including the comic X-Men, multiple entries in the Star Trek universe, and, importantly, fan-generated content for television and films like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter.

In fact, fan participation in the generation of content, beginning with some of the earliest fan magazines of the ’50s and later in the era of the internet and fan fiction, is a key aspect of the text’s argument about how SF participates in the cultural creation of racial identity. The author’s thorough and exhaustive research demonstrates the expertise of subject matter here that leaves no doubt about his ethos as both an expert and fan. After spending a bit of time in the book, some readers might even find his research into the history of fan-generated sci-fi and its connections to race and real science relentless. However, the depth of the material was truly impressive. He won me over when he argued for reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved as sci-fi.

Of particular note are the details on Nichelle Nichols’ participation in NASA’s space program as an offshoot of her service on the bridge of the starship Enterprise, and the importance of reader letters to independent sci-fi comics and magazines like Icon.

The in-depth history of the evolution of that early fandom (among other things) lends some real credence to the author’s argument that race in sci-fi is much like race in culture more broadly — the default character is assumed to be white (and male, though the author intentionally avoids that discussion by noting that’s already the bailiwick of authors like Ursula K. LeGuin). The assessment the author makes about sci-fi is that representations of color in sci-fi media is much the same as representations in other areas of culture — whiteness is “normative, benign, and frequent.”

It should also be noted that the text is not an angry critique of how people of color have been under-represented. On the contrary, Carrington’s use of a literary-style critique in analyzing the artifacts makes readers feel as though they are experiencing the emergence of a technologically evolving subculture, rather than raging against a monolithic machine.

Carrington’s theoretical text will likely be an invaluable resource to scholars of race and sci-fi, especially those looking for a crossover with queer theory. Also, historians interested in the development of fan-generated content will find that Carrington has not only done his homework but has read more than a few comic books along the way. The protracted discussion about the rise of early duplication technology like the hectograph and mimeograph might even catch the eye of a few techno-geeks. Did I mention the text was incredibly esoteric?

Carrington’s final assessment of race and sci-fi is incredibly succinct:

Understanding the significance of Blackness in science fiction… requires us to reach for fantastic possibilities while we are already entangled in the web of racial connotations that structure popular culture. In other words, we might only comprehend what it means to be a robot, an alien, or a ghost by learning about what it means to be Black.

As our understanding of what it means to be Black continues to evolve, sci-fi will undoubtedly continue to reflect our changing attitudes through our fictional interactions with TV aliens and comic book superheroes. If readers can get past the mundane structure of Carrington’s text and into the heart of his actual ideas, they’ll find a deep well of sci-fi and race theories from which to draw.

RATING 9 / 10