African-American science fiction has traveled light years since the film "Brother from Another Planet." Science fiction themes and images have soaked into black pop culture, from the space-age videos of hip-hop superstar Missy Elliott to the multicultural cast lineup of "The Matrix Reloaded."
For decades, the science fiction and fantasy genre was a white man's game. Nearly every writer, director and actor who made a name in the field from the 1930s through the 1950s was a middle-class American white male. But when the 1960s and 70s brought social upheaval to the United States, the insular world of speculative fiction was not spared the winds of change. Suddenly, author photos on best-selling science fiction and fantasy books showed the occasional woman or person of color.
African-American writers, and soon writers from the worldwide African Diaspora, brought new voices and fresh perspectives to speculative fiction. Science fiction, fantasy, horror movies and television shows started featuring black heroes and villains. The genre was changed for good, and forever.
Seattle's Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas is celebrating these writers in a three-day festival taking place Friday through next Sunday. And what better place than Seattle to host a science fiction and fantasy conference? This year, the Nebula Awards were presented here by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and June 18, the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame will open in the Experience Music Project.
The festival, called "Black to the Future: A Black Science Fiction Festival" will present a multidisciplinary lineup, including discussion panels, performances, book readings and signings, and a film festival. Luminaries scheduled to participate include award-winning authors Charles Johnson, Nalo Hopkinson, Octavia Butler, Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due and Walter Mosley.
Stephanie Ellis-Smith, founder and executive director of the Central District Forum, explains that the organization tries to present programming that "makes the invisible visible. ... We try to look in the nooks and crannies of what black people are doing, where black people are."
Ellis-Smith has two favorite examples of the social influence black people have had on science fiction. "The first interracial kiss (on television) was on 'Star Trek.' ... In this faraway fantasy land, we can experiment with social taboos that could never possibly happen on planet Earth — being 50 million miles away makes it possible. And the other thing ... is a poem by Nikki Giovanni, called 'Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea,' about black people being on Mars."
Denee McCloud, the Central District Forum's program director, agrees that Giovanni's poem is an important statement about how the African Diaspora has had a crucial influence on stories of space travel, fantastic adventures and unimaginable worlds of peril. "Really, the thesis of that poem is that we've been there before. ... Black people have left their homes and traveled somewhere on a dark vessel, not knowing where they're going and deciding at some point, no matter where we're going, we're going to survive ... when NASA comes and asks us how to do it, we can tell them."
The guest list at Black to the Future is a who's-who of the science and speculative fiction genre. Among the featured speakers is Octavia Butler, 56, who moved to Seattle in 1999.
Butler has been writing science fiction since she was 13. Science fiction wasn't exactly popular in the African-American community in Southern California, where Butler grew up. "I didn't have a lot of friends," she says, "Most of the ones I had weren't much interested in science fiction."
Butler's mother worked as a maid and saved money to send her only child to the Clarion Writers Workshop, a respected incubator for science-fiction authors. "My mother lent me the money to go to Clarion. ... It really got her back up when other family members criticized me for writing."
Her mother's sacrifices allowed Butler to become a role model for aspiring young writers, especially African Americans. Her accolades include two Hugo Awards, a Nebula Award and a MacArthur "genius grant" (she was the first science-fiction writer to receive one).
In the 1970s, when Butler was first published, there were very few women or minorities writing science fiction at all. Her first novel, "Patternmaster" (1976), was the start of a loosely linked five-book series about powerful telepaths ruled by an immortal African being called Doro.
A religion is born
Most recently, Butler has written two books, "Parable of the Sower" and "Parable of the Talents," about a woman living in post-collapse America who fuses mysticism and ecology into a new religion. Recurring themes of feminism and spirituality and a deep emphasis on character set Butler's work apart from traditional hard science fiction. And she remains one of only a few prominent black science-fiction writers.
"Little by little, there are more of us," she says. "Maybe five years ago, there was a get-together at Clark Atlanta University. It wasn't really the first black science-fiction convention, but lots of people were there."
She ticks off attendees at that Georgia gathering, naming award-winning poet Jewelle Gomez and Temple University professor Samuel Delany, among others. Delany is an inductee to the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, who, like Butler, has written many critically acclaimed novels and short stories. His best-known novel, "Dhalgren," tells the story of The Kid, an amnesiac narrator wandering the ruins of a mysterious city.
Also at the Clark Atlanta conference was Longview resident and festival attendee Tananarive Due, 41, whose large and loyal following among horror-fiction aficionados compare her work to Stephen King at his best.
"Horror fiction, to me, is a great release," says Due. "I'm able to prod and probe all of my fears of death and loss, while at the same time creating characters who are strong and who give me a great example of how to stand up to the face of adversity. And I'll be frank: I enjoy scaring people."
Due lives in Longview with her husband, author Steven Barnes, 52, also a guest of honor at the festival. Barnes has written everything from what he calls "hard S.F." with futuristic settings ("Saturn's Race," co-written with Larry Niven), to alternate histories in which Islam is the dominant religion in North America ("Lion's Blood").
Creating a category
There's not a category that encompasses all these authors' styles, so Black to the Future organizers have chosen to go with "speculative fiction."
Tananarive Due explains: "Speculative fiction is 'what-if' scenarios posed in a world that is something other than what we recognize: a world where magic exists, a world of the future, a world with technologies we don't currently possess, or an altered past."
Race often figures into these writers' fiction, sometimes melded with the idea of the "alien," or "other." Octavia Butler's three "Xenogenesis" books ("Dawn," "Adulthood Rights" and "Imago") set a genre standard for portrayal of literary extraterrestrials as truly alien, and not just humans in disguise.
Black heroes are still uncommon in science fiction. Due remembers telling a woman on a plane that many of her fictional characters were black. The woman asked why they had to be any color.
"On the one hand, I understand what she's saying," Due says. "By mentioning race, in her mind, I'd erected a wall. But what most readers don't realize is that most characters in American novels are white, or are assumed to be."
She continues, "More and more white readers are discovering that they can empathize with and relate to my black characters just as black readers have had to empathize with and relate to white characters. We're all the same people, but from different experiences."
Skin color isn't necessarily a recurring theme for African-American writers. Due says, "Race is not usually my characters' central concern — it's tough to reflect on race when you're being chased by immortals, or if something invisible is stalking you in your house — but it's a part of who they are."
"The odd thing is not how different we are, but how alike," she says. "We're ever so much more alike than different. ... I'm not sitting down writing about an African American. I'm sitting down writing about a person. Originally, I was writing myself, writing me into the stories. Now it's more like, who is this person?"
At the festival, Seattle author and critic Nisi Shawl and fellow author Cynthia Ward will present "Writing the Other," an intensive workshop intended to teach authors to effectively write about characters of different ethnic, social, gender and cultural backgrounds.
Friday night's kickoff event will be the debut of an untitled theater piece by local writer-director Timeca Briggs that organizers say "celebrates blacks in speculative fiction through a compilation of text, movement, music, African dance, song and ... space adventure." On Saturday, Seattle DJ Riz Rollins of KEXP and writer Charles Mudede from The Stranger will host a panel discussion on "The Mothership Connection: Black Science Fiction in Music Form, from Funk to Electronic."
The Central District Forum's McCloud is excited about the many disciplines converging at the festival, and says she believes that there is no more relevant genre with which to explore black lives.
"I've heard before that black life is science fiction — even things like the Tuskeegee experiments. It is science fiction."
But the future doesn't look entirely bleak, she says.
"You're writing your own version of the future. If you don't like the circumstances, then write a new future. Write your own world, with your own stories."
Therese Littleton is a Seattle-based writer: firstname.lastname@example.org