In 2016, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination published my survey “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction” (now hosted here). Since then, Tor.com has published 28 in-depth essays I wrote about some of the 42 works mentioned, and a twenty-ninth essay by LaShawn Wanak on my collection Filter House. This month we’re delving into Mindscape, multiple award-winning author Andrea Hairston’s debut novel.
Set in a post-apocalyptic future in which lethal Barriers have mysteriously sprung up to divide Earth into isolated regions, Mindscape follows the fates of characters representing different tribes who’ve come into existence after generations of this mess. There’s Lawanda, an “ethnic throwback” preserving the aesthetics and values of 20th-century African American culture; Ray, a film hero drawing on his studio experience to live out a real-life thrilling adventure; and Elleni, a Barriers-generated mutant with semi-autonomous dreadlocks. There are several others as well, including—depicted in flashbacks—Celestina, author of an inter-region treaty now ostensibly up for ratification.
But the corridors allowing trade which have pierced the Barriers at fairly reliable seasonal intervals begin collapsing unpredictably, and the special paths that mutants like Elleni can sometimes create on demand are no substitute. Plus clandestine hostilities and sinister neglect (snuff films, germ warfare, etc.) abound within each enclave, with human rights-oriented interventions virtually impossible. Getting everyone to agree to the terms of Celestina’s treaty is supposed to be Lawanda’s highest priority, though she speedily realizes there’s no way to tackle that one problem alone…because all these problems—and their solutions—are interrelated.
MIND OF MY MIND
The novel’s title refers to the mental landscape each of us carries within ourselves—the emotions and insights and perceptions from which we construct consciousness. Elleni and her ilk can touch others’ mindscapes, but it’s a form of telepathy that’s two-edged, a surrender as well as an invasion. The intersubjective nature of their power resonates with the plot’s mutualistic resolution and Hairston’s own belief in the Gaia hypothesis and the evolutionary value of cooperation. “No enemies,” various diplomats and bodyguards avow, and eventually what they swear to one another becomes the truth.
Where do the Barriers come from? What’s the technology behind them? In this book, no one knows the answers. Some characters wonder if they’re alien weapons. Others theorize—with supporting evidence—that the Barriers are themselves aliens. Or perhaps they’re native forms of sentience, enforcing a balance that humanity’s teeming billions ignored in favor of rapidly increasing our numbers. As ground-bound clouds of colored static and sky-high walls of psychedelic thunder leave their century-old locations and fill the minds of their mutant interlocutors with threats of planetary demolition, people start to pick up on one clear message: commit to change or die.
THE UNREAL AND THE REAL
Trusting in the solid truth of psychic phenomena is a requirement for these survivors of the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it. Simultaneously witnessing the effectiveness of electronic “Cross-Barrier Transmission” equipment and telekinetic healers, regions may call each other names for depending on crystal-tipped wooden staffs versus “bio-computers,” but in the end no one denies that both these dissimilar tools work. Poetry and science blend in this future to their mutual benefit: medical researchers travel disguised as choirs and perform like stars, while explorers of the strange paths which songs open within the Barriers test and record these new routes through the application of rigorously grounded scientific methods.
Within the category of traditional wisdom there’s a comparable eclecticism. Mindscape’s Japanese, German, Yoruba, and Sioux paradigms don’t compete; instead, they complement each other and shore each other up. The concept of “vermittler” (roughly, go-between) is used to describe Elleni’s Barriers-translation function, but so is that of “griot.” A glossary at the book’s end helps familiarize readers with foreign language terms. All are useful, and thus all are valid. Like most Western Hemisphere versions of African religious philosophies, Mindscape’s milieu adapts worthwhile material to its uses without banning it due to its origins.
I’d also argue that this book’s spicy, mélange-style prose is ineffably Afrodiasporic. Passive constructions are used very sparingly, and in almost every passage bland “to be” verbs give way to words that whirl, splash, incandesce, grind, and growl—that move and excite readers with their vivid action. After Elleni endures a grueling session traveling through the Barriers to the long-inaccessible wilderness, she journeys on to where “Squabbling spider monkeys chased each other around cathedral trees. One hung by its tail and pelted her with nutshells as she danced by….The monkey tossed ripe walnut flesh at her face. She caught it with her teeth and chewed quickly.”
You need to catch this story in your teeth. Chew it as quickly or slowly as you want, though. As Lawanda opines earlier in the novel, “Just cuz we choose to reach back thru two hundred years and snatch wisdom offa the tongues of our ancestors, that don’t mean we stuck on stupid!” That’s deep knowledge, and there’s a lot of it here—the sort that it sometimes takes a while for a reader to properly absorb.
THE QUIET WAR
Often, aliens and other nonhumans appearing in speculative fiction are thinly disguised stand-ins for people of color. Many SF/F/H stories reenact colonization, genocide, slavery, apartheid, and other shameful chapters of our world’s history. The distance provided by reframing such events as fantastic tales can allow for resolutions defiant of the status quo, or it can ease the guilt associated with the supposedly inevitable outcomes of winners’ versions. But with Mindscape Hairston subverts the whole us/them binary entirely.
No enemies. No villains. Antagonists, yes—people understandably working toward goals separate from those of the story’s heroes, or even toward identical goals but via different methods. Yet through the author’s art her characters’ discords resolve into harmony. Internal conflict undergoes the same healing gaze, with holistic outcomes for everyone. Sans victory, sans defeat: a just conclusion.
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, and the editor of the anthology New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov’s SF Magazine, Strange Horizons, and numerous other magazines and anthologies.