Science fiction and fantasy often serve as way to examine and cope with societal issues, past or present. Given how prevalent the idea of “otherness” is within genre (from monsters to aliens), it’s no surprise that writers of color would choose to use SFF as a vehicle to access their own thoughts about race and feelings of otherness in predominantly white societies—and so spawned the sub-genre called Afrofuturism.
Afrofuturism, a term coined in the 1990s by Mark Dery in his article “Black to the Future,” describes music, literature, and art that contains elements of science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, historical fiction, Afrocentricity, and non-Western cosmologies. The genre primarily critiques past and present dilemmas faced by people of color, while also imagining futures for those groups that stem from the experiences of cultures formed as a result of the historical African diaspora. The seven works below are good entry points for anyone looking to experience some of the best that Afrofuturism has to offer.
Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, edited by Shiree R. Thomas.
This anthology contains work from some of the best and brightest African-American writers of our time, including Samuel R. Delaney, Tananarive Due, and Nalo Hopkinson, but what really makes it stand out is the inclusion of “The Comet,” a science fiction story written by W.E.B. DuBois in 1920 in which a black man and a white woman are the only survivors of a comet’s deadly poison. As a co-founder of the NAACP, Du Bois was most well-known for his non-fiction work and civil rights activism. This story briefly speculates on what a world with a black Adam and a white Eve might do to eradicate racism—one in which two people see each other as merely human, not defined by the color of their skin.
Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delaney
In 1975, Bantam Books released Dahlgren to much critical acclaim and commercial success. Yet today, it’s known as a very difficult novel, told in a stream-of-consciousness style by an unreliable, amnesiac protagonist nicknamed Kid. With graphic depictions of a variety of sexualities and an inconsistent narrative, to say the least, it’s not for the faint of heart—and is still considered controversial, a feat for a book over 40 years old. But readers who are looking for a challenge will be rewarded with this seminal work of Afrofuturism that stands the test of time, remaining both impossibly modern and downright trippy.
Lilith’s Brood, by Octavia Butler
This omnibus gathers together the three novels of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. This series is considered by many to be Butler’s greatest work, and draws on her particular experience with racism and feelings of otherness as an African-American woman. The trilogy follows Lilith, a human who has survived a cataclysmic war between the Soviet Union and the United States. An alien race committed to healing rescues the surviving humans from Earth and puts them in stasis while they work to make the planet habitable again. The alien race consists of three sexes—the third having the ability to manipulate the genetic material of others to create offspring. Lilith must decide if she wants to allow herself to be “bred” and give up her humanity in order to survive, or fight against the alien race and stay loyal to her species. It doesn’t take much effort to parse the metaphor, which offers a powerful, conflicted commentary on the legacy of the African diaspora.
Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor
At 96 pages, this novella is a short read that packs a powerful punch, and is a natural addition to the Afrofuturism canon. Binti is a teenage runaway sneaking off her planet to attend Oomza University. She’s the first of her tribe to leave her people’s home, much less the planet, and the first to attend such a prestigious university. Her pursuit of learning is waylaid by an alien race called the Meduse, who commandeer the vessel, seeking to destroy the university and reclaim an artifact that was stolen from them. Binti is able to strike a bargain with one of the Meduse, and they eventually come to a mutual understanding and even a tentative friendship—a feat that only Binti is capable of achieving, thanks to her otherness even among her own species. Binti is only Okorafor’s latest work of Afrofuturism; see also Who Fears Death, a powerful story of genocide in a post-apocalyptic Africa.
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The Fifth Season, by NK Jemisin
Another post-apocalyptic story, this time with clear environmental themes and epic world building. N.K. Jemisin is quickly growing into one of the most acclaimed science fiction writers of our time, as well as an important voice for writers of color. The Fifth Season defies the elevator pitch plot summary, but revolves around characters who are tied to the earth by powers that allow them to shape and manipulate it at will in awesome and terrible ways—powers that make them targets of hatred and derision across their environmentally ravaged world. Unchecked emotions have cataclysmic consequences in a story that questions the structures of power and addresses themes of love, revenge, identity, gender, race, and class. The New York Times named it a notable book for 2015; it’s been shortlisted for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards with good reason. The Fifth Season is essential reading for every fantasy reader, and particularly those exploring essential works that exist at the intersection of Afrofuturism and the fantasy genre.
Brown Girl in the Ring, by Nalo Hopkinson
The debut novel by award-winning author Nalo Hopkinson draws heavily on the lore and traditions of Afro-Caribbean culture, bringing elements of magical realism into a dystopic vision of downtown Toronto. Ti-Jeanne is a single mother who has recently given birth to a baby boy and is forced by circumstance to live with her grandmother, Gros-Jeanne, a well-respected herbalist and spiritualist. The baby’s father, Tony, finds himself in trouble and seeks out Gros-Jeanne for help, requiring Ti-Jeanne to come to terms with her heritage and embrace her grandmother’s spirituality, which she had previously rejected. In a bleak future, traditions of the past come alive and two strong women take charge of their own destinies.
The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead
The Intuitionist is a unique novel about integration and racial progress in a world of elevators and their inspectors. The inspectors are divided between Empiricist and Intuitionists. Protagonist Lila Mae Watson becomes the second black inspector—and the first black female black—in the Elevator Guild. When she finds herself in trouble with the powers that be, she uses her wit and research skills to untangle herself, in the process stumbling upon lost technology that could deliver her society into a new future. While this novel skews more toward the literary than the genre elements of Afrofuturism, it remains an important work that comments on racism and societal reform in a science fictional universe.
What works of Afrofuturism would you add to our list?