content by

Tochi Onyebuchi

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Level 1. Catch Fire

It begins with a virus.

Then, after the apocalypse, you wake up in Boston.

Leafless tree branches, pockmarked either with the white of residual radiation or mere silhouetted skeletons against a sky that is always the wrong color. Fog running along war-created riverbeds to hide mutated dogs and two-headed bear-wolves and zombies that run too fast. In the towns you happen across, people trying to kill you fill the alleyways between the brick apartment buildings. Military convoys rumble down concrete streets. Armed guards, dressed in the all-black of a steroid SWAT team or the rags of a band of marauders, swarm around concrete barricades. Storefronts are hollowed out, but occasional supplies will glow when you near them: scissors, gauze, ammunition for your .45; tin cans, the irradiated hide of an unnatural animal, ammo for your customized nine millimeter.

Shortly after returning home from a post-law school year spent starving in New York, I’d played The Last of Us Remastered for the PS4. As preamble to the exercise, I played through the original Gears of War. I wanted post-apocalypse in all its varieties.

My father had passed away over 18 years ago, and I was still angry. Genociding zombies with slapdash weapons across an irradiated America would help, I thought. I hoped. It was supposed to be fun.

My console hums to life.

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White Bears in Sugar Land: Juneteenth, Cages, and Afrofuturism

We resist enclosure. Deer roam forests. Vines colonize abandoned Coliseums. A human being held in solitary confinement will self-harm, scream, plead, kick doors, smear feces on their cell walls, and refuse food if there exists even the promise of seeing the sun for fifteen minutes of their day. There are many words in English for what that human being quests for: liberty, emancipation, freedom, independence. So much of the American project has been dousing its cultural fabric in these colors. No mention of brotherhood and precious little of equality. Justice is nowhere to be found. Peace, somewhere far off in the distance. Over the horizon, in fact. Those messy words presume an After, and they presume that this After is other than post-apocalypse. Liberty, emancipation, independence, without brotherhood or equality or justice or peace, presume utopia. Any alternative imagining can only be fiction.

An episode in the second season of Black Mirror, titled “White Bear,” dramatizes precisely this conundrum. The protagonist, a woman played by Lenora Crichlow, awakens with amnesia, haunted by a symbol that flickers on the television screen in her room and hunted by unreasoning pursuers. People on the street catch sight of her and immediately raise their cameraphones to record. Even as her pursuers shoot at her and those who have decided to aid her, the spectators remain just that. Spectators. They’re being held captive by a signal from a transmitter at a facility called “White Bear.” Get to White Bear, destroy the transmitter, and free the world from their stupor. When she and her confederate reach the transmitter, two hunters attack. In what is supposed to be the episode’s climax, she wrestles a shotgun away from one of her assailants, aims, and pulls the trigger.

Out comes confetti.

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Pretty Woman: On the Allure of Androids

In stretching ahead and behind us and sideways, science fiction allows us to problem-solve. Twelve or twenty years from now, the primal impulse in us hums, there should be a way to render our most primordial fears obsolete. It is telling, then, that so many of our most popular stories involve synthetic women, and that those stories pivot on the notion of those women gaining agency.

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Homecoming: How Afrofuturism Bridges the Past and the Present

The first indication I’d seen that I was in the right place was the little Ezio walking down the line of people waiting to enter the Schomburg. He could not have been more than eight years old, but his Assassin’s Creed outfit shaped itself perfectly around his small frame. Later that day, that little black Ezio would be joined by Nick Fury, Falcon, and Blade. Wonder Woman would make an appearance. As would a number of new heroes—black bounty hunters in space, animal whisperers, men and women with swords as big as them.

The 6th Annual Black Comic Book Festival—filled with kids who looked like me gawking at comic book covers featuring kids who looked like us, filled with books and art and gloriously fly merch, not to mention its Black Power exhibition on the second floor featuring a scopic look at the movement as it existed in the States and as it existed in the world—that festival is exactly the kind of place I would have once thought beyond imagination.

That festival, this current moment, are only the latest iterations of the wave of Afrofuturism washing into the mainstream. What is Afrofuturism? A literary movement? An aesthetic?

With the music of Janelle Monáe, the speculative fiction of Nnedi Okorafor, the synths of Sun Ra, we have a growing collection of artistry that sees a place for people of color in the future. In the fantastic. And the Black Panther movie is only the latest entry in the pantheon.

[Afrofuturism is a Janus-faced endeavor…]

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