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Black Sci-Fi Short Stories cover

Black Sci-Fi Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales (Gothic Fantasy)
Forward by Temi Oh
Co-editor Tia Ross
Introduction by Dr. Sandra M. Grayson

(Flame Tree Collections, 2021)

Reviewed by Steven French

This is a collection of twenty “black sci-fi short stories”, where the term ‘short’ is loosely interpreted. Four of the entries are described as novels, totalling almost 70% of the entire volume. The first, ‘Blake: or the Huts of America’ (Part 1) by Martin R. Delany, from 1859, features the travels and travails of Henry Blake, an escaped slave searching for his wife through the America’s deep south and then up to Canada, before heading to Cuba and organising an insurrection in Part 2 (not included here). Described by Samuel R. Delany (no relation!) as a work of ‘proto-science fiction’, this early slice of alt-history reproduces the colloquial speech of the time and offers a brutal window on the conditions of both freed and enslaved black people.

‘Light Ahead for the Negro’, published in 1904, is a utopian novella in which the narrator, an abolitionist, takes an airship in 1906 from New York to Mexico, only for a motor malfunction to send the ship barrelling into the upper atmosphere. When it descends, and the narrator regains consciousness, he finds himself one hundred years into the future as ‘a stranger in a strange land’(!). Strange indeed, as, optimistically, discrimination has now been eliminated through education and land acquisition—a happy ending that contrasts grimly with the footnotes, which contain actual reports of lynchings and murders. Edward Johnson was himself born into slavery before becoming a successful lawyer and member of the New York State Legislature.

‘Imperium in Imperio’ by Sutton E. Griggs and published in 1899, is also in utopian mode, and concerns a ‘shadow’ black state formed within the state of Texas. Using the friendship and political rivalry between its two main protagonists to highlight themes of black imperialism, miscegenation and, ultimately, accommodation versus confrontation with white America, this is a powerful but also poignant piece that charts the fractures in an alternative black future.

‘Of One Blood: Or, The Hidden Self’ by Pauline Hopkins, from 1902–03, likewise tackles relations between the races, but this time in the context of an action-adventure story. Again, this involves a quest, this time to Nubia where the hero, Reuel, discovers the hidden city of Telassar. Rich in fantastical detail with betrayals and violence a-plenty, this is also an expansive riff on the biblical words with which the story ends: ‘Of one blood have I made all races of men.’

Much shorter than any of the above, and more explicitly a work of science-fiction, W.E.B. Du Bois’ story ‘The Comet’, published in 1920, uses the device of the Earth’s passage through the tail of the titular comet, whose deadly gases then kill everyone in New York. Everyone that is except Jim, a poor black man, saved through being in a vault at the time, and Julia, a rich white woman who was developing pictures of the comet in her dark room. Appalled by the surrounding horror and believing themselves to be the last people of Earth, Jim and Julia begin to see themselves as Adam and Eve figures. Their dream is shattered, however, when they realise that it is only the city that has been affected as a mob from outside confronts the pair and ‘normality’ is restored.

Of the other stories, seven are published here for the first time. A highlight is ‘Line of Demarcation’ by Patty Nicole Johnson, a short but powerful dystopian piece in which automated workplace demands lead to radical body modifications. Another strong entry is ‘You May Run On’ by Megan Pindling, in which a young girl, born in a river and into slavery, takes watery revenge on the brutal slave-owner. Moving back into standard sci-fi territory, Walidah Imarisha’s ‘Space Traitors’, originally published in Buckman Journal 003, is presented as being ‘in conversation with Derek Bell’s Space Traders’ and like the latter, concerns that classic trope of an alien visitation. Here, however, the alien representative broadcasts in the voice of the revolutionary poet and musician Gil Scott Heron (“we too know that the revolution will not be televised”) and makes an offer to the ‘scarred’ people of the USA: an exchange of tech and medicine for their help in liberating other scarred races across the galaxy. But what ‘pops’ in the story are the exchanges between the feckless Jamar and his activist sister Malika, together with ‘Gil’s’ dismissal of Obama’s election as merely a ‘token advancement’. ‘e-Race’ was also previously published elsewhere and is the first of two pieces by Russell Nichols. A thoughtful examination of the consequences of rendering people ‘colorblind’ through mandatory surgery, this emphasises the importance of passing on the history of struggle between the generations.

These are just some of the stories that I found particularly engaging but as diverse as it is, I have to be honest and say that I remain in two minds about this collection. On the one hand, it is, of course, important to give a sense of the rich history of black science fiction. On the other, I can’t help but question, first, whether so many pages should have been given over to such early stories, all of which can easily be found elsewhere; and second, whether a gap of over hundred years should have been left between these foundational works and the first of the modern entries. Granted that a number of the writers featured here deserve to be more widely known, the collection overall doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the otherwise helpful and wide-ranging introduction.

Review from BSFA Review 23 - Download your copy here.


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