In February of 2016, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination published an essay I wrote called “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction.” Since then Tor.com has published my in-depth essays on eighteen of the 42 works mentioned. As their nineteenth post in the series they published LaShawn Wanak’s essay on my story collection Filter House. In this twentieth column I’m back again, writing this time about Kenyan-Canadian author Minister Faust’s 2004 tour de force The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad.
ANCIENT AND EDGY
Though Faust later won the Carl Brandon Society’s Kindred Award for his second novel, From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain (reprinted as Shrinking the Heroes), his debut novel is also quite noteworthy, both for its ambition and for its Afrocentric focus (predating the stupendously successful movie Black Panther’s depiction of Wakanda by years). The book’s narrative structure, also, is far from simple: the story is told from eleven first-person viewpoints. And these eleven voices are unmistakably individual. Two heroes and eight villains recount the convergence of an earthquake, a drug crisis, and a global plot to transform humanity into a giant pain farm. The final point of view describing these goings on belongs to a mysterious woman named Sheremnefer, lone survivor of a priestly cult sworn to protect the skull of Osiris from power-mad malefactors.
MAGIC, AND/OR NOT
That skull is a source of indistinguishable-from-magic scientific capabilities originating in pre-Dynastic Upper Egypt, and the aforementioned earthquake has disturbed its hiding place. The eight villains form two competing groups of baddies who struggle to gain mastery over Osiris’s legacy so that they may wield it to their benefit and the world’s woe: The FanBoys and the Wolves. Ex-football star Dulles Allen runs the FanBoys, a gaggle of genre misfits whose specialized fields of knowledge range from H.G. Wellsian planetary romances to Babylon 5 trivia. The Wolves comprise half-brothers Heinz and Kevlar Meany, faux-abstruse jargon-slinging academics and former friends of Coyote Kings’ heroes, Hamza Senesert and Yehat Gerbles.
Yehat is an engineer, a hacker of hardware and inventor of weapons and picnic supplies. Hamza’s a once-devout Muslim who accepts at face value Sheremnefer’s telepathically conveyed tales of dismembered gods and cosmic vengeance. In this pair of friends, Faust has personified the relationship between science and magic as it plays out in much of Afrodiasporic genre fiction. Yehat and Hamza are rivals—but loving ones. They both support and compete with one another. Conflicting worldviews can harmonize—and here they do.
A PACK OF CHARACTER CARDS
Part of Faust’s method for helping readers distinguish between his many major players is the inclusion of a Character Data sheet for each one of them. A page similar to a card from a gamer’s deck appears before the characters’ introductory chapter, listing traits such as strengths, weaknesses, armor types, slogans, and “genre alignment.”
Additional nerdish resonances abound throughout the book. There’s the high school anecdote Hamza tells Sheremnefer, in which Yehat uses Obi-Wan Kenobi’s “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” line on cops at a traffic stop; the serious love Sheremnefer shows for the Hamza’s robot action figures; the scene in which the FanBoys spontaneously sing the theme song for Rocket Robin Hood. Everywhere the author looks he sees nerds. Nerds populate every chapter of this book. Full-feathered and plausibly motivated, whether villain or hero, drug-dealer or community activist, traitor or proletarian, these characters play Dungeons and Dragons, read back issues of Cerebus comics, and generally relate to the fantastic as a matter of course. Even the decidedly feminine Sheremnefer frolics happily in a sea of skiffy pop culture (though Hamza and Yehat remark on the supposed rarity of “the elusive Genre-Chick”).
THE ABSENCE OF ABSENCE
Most of the book’s characters are men, and both the heroes are black men. For a modern novel set outside prison, that’s far rarer than depicting women conversant in the tropes of the fantastic. Hamza’s father, a doctor and an immigrant, has not divorced his wife or abandoned his son, has not been forcibly separated from him by death or deportation. The book is gender imbalanced, and the protagonists’ male gaze is the main vehicle for our exposure to Sheremnefer. Still, those problems shrink somewhat in importance when measured against Faust’s exciting achievement in keeping healthy black masculinity centered and very much alive. Yes, statistics tell a sadder story. But we choose our own narratives, our own plots and characters and actions with which to re-envision our worlds. Minister Faust has chosen to celebrate and reaffirm in his work the beauty, power, and wisdom of the men of Black Africa’s diaspora.
AT HOME IN THE BLERDIVERSE
Here’s a recently created word: blerd. It’s a twenty-first century term for those of African descent who dig on Star Trek and paleobotany and other arcane areas of knowledge. Yehat and Hamza are comfortable in all aspects of their blerdness, including their ancestral heritage. In addition to all the genre esoterica noted above, they’re well-versed in the recordings of a stunning array of African musicians: Remmy Ongala, Baaba Maal, and many others. They eat Ethiopian food, bump fists, and live in “Kush,” a vibrant neighborhood of first- and second-generation Afrodiasporans.
Simultaneously a quest, a romance, the novelization of an imaginary buddy flick, a bawdy comedy, a brutal thriller, and an affirmation of the depths and heights and world-spanning breadth of African Ur-myths, Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad deserves all the loving praise earned by each of its literary faces. There’s much more that could be said about this wonderfully protean book, and only a couple of lines of my essay left for me to say it in. Fortunately, there are these things you can write called comments. Please?
Nisi Shawl is a writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories and a journalist. She is the author of Everfair (Tor Books) and co-author (with Cynthia Ward) of Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov’s SF Magazine, Strange Horizons, and numerous other magazines and anthologies.