Ethical Empire built the gate to heaven, and their employees hold the keys. By offering custom-built afterlives through full-brain uploads, they answered the needs of a society pushed to the brink by climate change and cascading antibiotic failure. But for Zoe, who works daily to assess the sins of users and decide who’s worthy of salvation, heaven is not so simple. Despite the urging of the angels on her shoulder, she is determined to uncover heaven’s secrets, no matter the cost.
In February 2016, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination published author Nisi Shawl’s essay “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction,” an annotated list of 42 black science fiction works that are important for a readers’ understanding of that continuity and history. (For the most up-to-date version, read Nisi Shawl’s January 2020 update over on the Carl Brandon Society or on her own site).
Since late 2016, Shawl has gone in-depth on the 42 books and stories in the monthly History of Black Science Fiction column here on Tor.com. (With special guest LaShawn M. Wanak popping in when the history reached one of Nisi’s own books!)
Curious? Keep reading! Assembled below are selections from these expanded looks at important titles in the history of Black science fiction. (Note: Some of these books would be considered fantasy, and in many cases throughout the list, the two genres are interwoven.) This walkthrough is current as of March 2020, but the column continues on. Keep track of new installments here.
It’s a question every writer asks as they begin work: how do I build my world? How do I create a universe teeming with life, vibrancy, heartache and hope, rather than a flat set filled with cardboard cutouts? One of the best, most immediate ways is to imbue your story with unique language. This technique has been used by many classics of SFF, but my favorite recent example is The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson.
I already loved his story “The Devil in America,” published here on Tor.com in. And when I read Stories for Chip, a collection of fiction and essays honoring Samuel R. Delany, I was really taken with Wilson’s inventive contribution, “Legendaire.” But now, in Wildeeps, he’s added an extraordinary voice to the Sword and Sorcery subgenre.
Before Jam was born, the world went to war. Not against each other but against monsters, people who did terrible things to others and those who permitted them to operate. A few people, later called angels, led the revolution and destroyed or locked up the monsters, often having to act monstrously themselves. Now there is peace and happiness.
In the town of Lucille, Jam, a selectively mute transgender Black girl grows up believing everything is perfect. After all, the town slogan is “We are each other’s harvest. We are each other’s business. We are each other’s magnitude and bond,” taken from Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem Paul Robeson. There is no hatred, no bigotry, no abuse. Or so they say. But Lucille isn’t a utopia for everyone. For some it is a monster’s playground, for others their own private hell. The monsters aren’t gone, they just learned to hide.
Babel-17 is one of the early, short novels of SFWA Grand Master Samuel R. Delany, first published in 1966 and winning the Nebula Award the following year. Sexuality—including various queer and/or polyamorous sexualities—is one of Delany’s main themes, but people more commonly discuss this topic in relation to his later works even though it is present very early on. Several readers have asked me to review Babel-17, a novel which is possibly one of the earliest mainstream SFF works with casual queer inclusion—including bisexual inclusion, which is still comparatively rare.
“The House floated in and out of consciousness, waiting to die. It would no longer have to stomach wickedness, deviance, and injustice. It looked forward to Its demolition that would level and free It at long last.”
Francesca Momplaisir’s novel My Mother’s House tells the tale of a sentient home that burns itself to the ground in rage and despair at housing a terrible and abusive man. The dark and unsettling story follows Lucien, who flees his home country of Haiti with his wife, Marie-Ange, and their three children to move to New York City’s South Ozone Park and seek a fresh start. The family then buys a run-down house that they name “La Kay,” or “My Mother’s house,” which becomes a place for fellow Haitian immigrants to find peace, food, and legal assistance. What the family doesn’t know, however, is that all the while the house is watching and passing judgment on all of its inhabitants and is particularly upset at Lucien’s cruel behavior. But after La Kay burns itself to the ground, Lucien’s true evil nature is revealed.
It’s fitting that Tochi Onyebuchi’s first adult novella, Riot Baby, comes out the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The roots of activists like MLK run deep through the story, not the sugar-coated, hand-holding, civil rights Santa Claus version the majority likes to champion but the impassioned preacher who wrote fiery words decrying those who stood in the way of progress. Onyebuchi’s story is a clarion call for action and an indictment of pacifism. And it’s a damn good story, too.
Earlier this year, we paired Witchmark and Stormsong author C.L. Polk with Alyssa Cole, award-winning author of historical, contemporary, and sci-fi romance, for a chat about the intersections between science-fiction, fantasy, and romance as a genre. We knew that these two would have a lot to talk about, both regarding writing practices and the craft of two characters falling in love. What transpired was a lively, insightful conversation about bridging genre gaps, sex and consent, how relationships are part of worldbuilding, and the magic of love.
A soul is an ineffable thing. It cannot be seen or smelled, but your senses detect evidence that it exists. A smile, a sob, a kinesthetic or verbal tic, a way of walking, the peculiarly human brightness in someone’s eyes. We’re not androids, all of these things come together to say. We are not manufactured things. We are organic and singular. We are human.
The same, argues N. K. Jemisin’s latest, The City We Became, can be said of the metropolis. You can see the contours of a city’s soul in its skyline at dusk. You can hear its soul in the ambient chatter of its Chinatown, the musical haggling in its souq. You smell it on its buses and you hear it creak beneath your boots as you ascend the five flights of your walkup, arms burdened with grocery bags.
The way a city affects, attacks, adores you, all captured in the way you utter its name.
The current wave of speculative fiction from underrepresented groups continues to provide the SFF world with peeks into oft-forgotten slices of the globe. Interesting settings are huge draws in science fiction and fantasy, so little wonder we’ve been enamored by these sojourns into non-EuroAmerican spaces. The African continent stands in the front lines of this charge, offering stories that overturn long held views about its history and future, or at least provide some long desired nuance. However, our fascination with Black Panther, Children of Blood and Bone, and Who Fears Death? is mostly steeped in the fantastic or futuristic representations of these African locales, and not as much the contemporary.
Pray, where are the SFF books about the African locales of now?
Y’all, Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a miracle. It’s a gift from Anansi himself. This book. This book. THIS BOOK.
Dead. I’m dead. I have died. It is so good it killed me. Murdered by my own ARC. Please bury me in my To Read pile.
FIYAH, a literary magazine dedicated to Black Speculative Fiction, seemed to come out of nowhere at the beginning of 2017 with its premiere issue. But FIYAH has a deep history due to seeds planted well before the magazine was announced in September 2016.
FIYAH was birthed from the minds and effort of a collective of Black SFF readers, writers, and fans who all congregate in a vantablack subspace time coil we call the Niggerati Space Station (NSS). Its purpose is to allow Black SFF writers to share, discuss, vent, build, or what have you, on all things speculative fiction. It functions as an incubator of creativity, a safe space to dream our dreams of the Black beyond.
We love a good retelling—whether it’s a favorite fairy tale, ancient myth, or epic tale, it’s always great to see old things made new. Part of the reason we love these stories is because they’re so malleable; with themes that span the breadth of the human experience, tales of love, revenge, and adventure can find a home in any place and time, with characters that feel both familiar and fresh at the same time.
As we started thinking about of favorite retellings of classic stories, so many brilliant adaptations, updates, and re-workings came to mind. Here are just a few that we adore! Please feel free to add your own in the comments.
Game designer Orion D. Black has left their job at Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons department, calling out the company for paying lip service towards diversity and change while exploiting BIPOC, especially Black freelancers, and silencing and ignoring criticism of systemic problems. This comes within a month of members of the RPG community asking for more accountability at the company, highlighting interactions with WotC online, and in gaming and professional environments.
This final published volume in the Star Ka’ats series reads more like a continuation than a conclusion. Young humans Jim and Elly Mae are well settled in with the telepathic alien Ka’ats. But not everyone on the world of Zimmorra is happy. A few of the cats who were rescued from Earth before it presumably exploded into nuclear war have not taken well to the Ka’ats’ laws and culture.
One cat in particular, Boots, whom Jim rather likes, sneaks off to hunt, which is a major crime among the Ka’ats. Jim catches him and frees his mouselike prey, and warns him against breaking the law. Boots is not a happy cat, and he has no desire to stop hunting. Hunting is what he is.
This is a general crisis, but there may be a solution. Thanks to the metal the humans helped the Ka’ats find and manufacture, the Ka’ats and their robots have built a spaceship. They plan to head back out among the stars and find lost Ka’at colonies.