Background – Part Three
By Kyra Brue
Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, aided in kickstarting science fiction with her groundbreaking work. However, after the publication of her novel, the genre was quickly overrun by white men, and science fiction became, and still mostly is, a white man’s world. For centuries, the publishing industry, specifically that of science fiction, has been mostly controlled by straight, white men. Why is science fiction such a white male dominated genre if its founder was a woman? In short, white men have been the more dominant driving force behind many of the events that have occurred throughout Western history, often drawing a curtain over the accomplishments of women. From colonization, countless wars, the bustling entertainment industry, and even the iPhone, men have been at the center of the most important, popular, and controversial events in the Western world for centuries. In fact, there is a theory called “The Great Man Theory,” created by Thomas Carlyle, which argues that every great event that has occurred in history can be credited to great male “heroes.” This rather misogynistic view of history can be related back to the men of the modern world and their impact on culture, society, inventions, literature, etc. With that being said, it makes sense why the world of science fiction is believed to be a white man’s world, while other groups, even white women, are still trying to make their presence in this genre known. There are many great things that have been accomplished by these men, but we must not forget that their ability to imprint on media such as literature, film, music, etc. just shows how strong their influence is compared to other groups of people. White men may have set the foundation for many of the things that we know today, but just because they are part of the main focus of science fiction doesn’t mean that others can’t build upon it and add their own cultural and gender experiences to this category.
African Americans joined science fiction much earlier than most people may realize. Black women came later, but black men set the stage for African American science fiction as early as the 19th century. Throughout American history, it has seemed like men have frequently been credited with creating or discovering something, whether they actually did or not. In the case of African American science fiction, it isn’t surprising that a man is said to be one of the first to create a work within this genre. In 1859, Martin Robinson Delaney published one of the first black science fiction novels, titled Blake; Or the Huts of America. This unfinished novel depicts a dystopian “black world which embodies values, terms for order, and ‘states of being’ that, as cultural disclosure, are a valid depiction of nineteenth-century black experience” (Marx). Even though it was written by a man, this story was one of the first breakthrough science fiction novels written by a black person. During this time, many African Americans were still enslaved, and since slaves usually weren’t allowed to learn how to read or write, there was very little chance for them to acquire or pass on these skills. This led to many former slaves and their descendants being unable to read or write. There were some instances in which slaves did learn how to read or write, but in some southern states, “literacy did not thrive” (Bly). These figures aided in the difficulty that African American writers had with trying to gain any type of positive recognition, pre and post slavery, especially in the literary sector.
Literacy aside, black women have had to fight hard to get somewhat close to the level of success and respect that more dominant groups of people (i.e. white men, white women, black men) have maintained. Black women have been writing science fiction since the late 19th century. However, it is hard to pinpoint the exact time that they began creating these works because there are only so many records of successful black people, let alone black women, during this time period. With that being said, a former abolitionist named Frances Harper is said to be one of the first female utopian fiction authors. Her novel, Iola Leroy (AKA Shadows Uplifted), is one of the first works to be written by an African American woman that comes closest to the science fiction genre. Her story depicts an ideal place where mixed-race couples could be free to love one another and where a black woman could improve the cultural, societal, and racial tensions that plagued the deep South. During the time that this was written, it was as unbelievable as something like time travel. Works like hers may not be how most define standard modern science fiction, but they helped to set the groundwork for those to come. Pauline Hopkins, a prominent Afrofuturist, also helped raise awareness of black science fiction. She exceeded the bounds of science fiction by including mystical elements and developing foreign fantastic lands in her stories, much like how Octavia Butler would eventually incorporate “mystical elements” into her novel, Kindred. Hopkins’ ideas strayed from the norm, and the impact that she had on Afrofuturism assisted in the surge of prolific female science fiction writers like Butler. If it weren’t for authors like those named above, there would be even less representation of African Americans found in science fiction today.
Since science fiction is pretty broad, especially in terms of African Americans, it is important to look at a more specific subgenre: Afrofuturism. According to writer and educator Stafford L Battle, Afrofuturism doesn’t have a single definition. This subgenre can be defined as something that “invokes sci-fi writing, music, art, dance and multimedia with people of color as the focus [,] speculative creators [who] conceive contrasting elements that work harmoniously to build a stronger ‘whole’ for our prodigy who will see ‘racial conflicts’ differently – if at all[, or] cultural, intellectual and physical differences essential to societal advancement today and in the future…with [culturally] diverse characters in prominent roles in plot development and final reconciliation.” With all of these different possible interpretations of the definition of Afrofuturism, one description further breaks down the following definitions. This basic characterization of Afrofuturism describes the genre as “using artistic innovation to redefine world history and bring into being an empowering future embracing multiculturalism [so] speculative fiction, digital arts and performance can inspire anyone of African descent to achieve greater in their own lives” (Battle). The idea that Afrofuturism is more than just black people in the future is interesting, because this subgenre isn’t just one set thing; it is a spectrum, and there are many different ways to interpret exactly what it is. Black speculative fiction is also oftentimes related to African mythology and folklore, because, as Masi Mbewe states in her TEDx Talk, “the blueprints are there,” but Afrofuturism goes beyond a relationship “with strange things, animals that [speak],” and other factors that grew from folklore into Afrofuturism. It even goes beyond futuristic themes. Afrofuturism is many things, which makes it an interesting and multifaceted subgenre to explore. This way of looking at Afrofuturism makes it easier to connect it to a wider variety of African American science fiction novels, like Octavia Butler’s Kindred.
One of the most prolific African American female science fiction writers of the current era is Octavia Butler. Butler was born in Pasadena, California on June 22, 1947. She studied at schools like Pasadena Community College, California State University in Los Angeles, and the University of California, Los Angeles, and additionally expanded her knowledge by attending the Screenwriter’s Guild Open Door Program and the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop in 1969 and 1970, respectively. During her time at the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop, “she took a class with science fiction master Harlan Ellison (who later became her mentor),” leading to the sale of one of her very first science fiction novels (“Octavia E Butler”). Throughout her literary career she wrote novels like Crossover (1971), Patternmaster (1976), Mind of My Mind (1977), and Survivor (1978), which all led up to one of her most well-known science fiction novels and the focus of this essay, Kindred (1979) (“Octavia E Butler”). Butler received many prestigious awards throughout her lifetime, like two Hugo Awards for her short story “Speech Sounds” in 1984 and her novel Bloodchild in 1985, the Nebula Award for her novel Bloodchild in 1984, and the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant in 1995, just to name a few. She was also inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010, alongside other creators like Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and George Lucas (“Science Fiction Awards Database”). Through her writing, Butler was able to bring joy to her readers and establish herself as a prominent science fiction author.