content by

Tochi Onyebuchi

Fiction and Excerpts [1]

Fiction and Excerpts [1]

Greatest City On Earth: The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin

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.

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“Where in your affidavit does it say you’re Black?”: Why Worldbuilding Can’t Neglect Race

“Where in your affidavit does it say you’re Black?”

I was on the witness stand, and opposing counsel had on a red tie. Suit jacket was either black or a dark enough blue that it might as well have been black. Pants either matched or were khakis. The details are a little fuzzy in my memory; I remember the essence of the kid rather than his specifics. But he was white and his tie was red. And it was too long.

There was a window to my right. Early afternoon sunlight gilded the desks behind which sat his clones. My representation was on the far side of the room.

“Where in your affidavit does it say you’re Black?”

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30 Minutes Till Madness: Power and Male Derangement in The Wheel of Time

Power is a most persistent taxman. As interesting as those examples are of the bodily tariff that attends tapping into extreme power (see Rock Lee’s Lotus taijutsu in his examination fight with Gaara in Naruto, the Elric brothers losing limbs in an attempted resurrection in Fullmetal Alchemist), I am much more fascinated by the intangible requisitions. Sure, you may be willing to sacrifice an arm or perhaps even your eyesight to wield the power necessary to defend/avenge your loved ones, but would you sacrifice your goodness? Would you sacrifice your sanity? In Robert Jordan’s masterwork series, The Wheel of Time, it is a question asked of every male channeler who wields saidin. Go ahead and tap into the One Power, energy powerful enough to manipulate the universe. We kindly ask that you leave your mental health at the door. That way lies madness.

(Note: That way also lies spoilers for the Wheel of Time series.)

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My Gift Was Memory: On Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer

Mythic language pervades the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates. In his leviathanic 2015 piece, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” he invoked The Grey Wastes, hearkening back to a childhood enthrallment with D&D. In “The Case for Reparations,” race relations are recast in the language of plunder and credit, and though he’s writing specifically about housing and redlining and Clyde Ross, he’s also writing about slavery and Jim Crow, state regimes and intergenerational oppression. In his National Book Award-winning letter to his son, Between the World and Me, the epistolary format provides a ribcage for the poetic heart beating inside.

With The Water Dancer, Coates’s first full-length novel, a story about slavery and a superpower, we pay witness to a writer unchained. In the proliferation of subjunctive clauses; the easy moving from waking to dreaming; capitalizations as we see in the Tasked, the Quality, and Low whites; in the very configuration of Lockless manor as two houses—one shown and one hidden—containing liminal spaces through which the Tasked must flit so as to appear at parties to pour a guest’s drink like they were summoned out of thin air, in all of these things lives a writer finally able to marry novelistic tendencies to the form. The faithfully dated prose and the constraints of this story’s form as recitation or testimonial allow Coates ample room to both dramatize his arguments and encapsulate them in single lines of cutting dialogue, to carry an entire longform essay’s worth of insights in the arms of a single paragraph-long interaction between two characters. The result is a powerful, if somewhat bloated, book that seeks to do so much. Sometimes, perhaps, too much. But while the moonshot may be off, the fistfuls of firmament Coates is able to bring back to us are a wonder to behold.

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Select Difficulty

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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