Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 20, 2018
andré m. carrington Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. 304 pp.; 35 b/w ills. Paperback $25.00 (9780816678969)
Thumbnail

Depending on the context of its usage, the Spanish term género is definable as either “gender” or “genre.” Katherine Clay Bassard takes up this dichotomy in line with questions of literacy when she opines that “[i]n speaking of gender and genre, then, [she works] from the assumption that form is not merely a matter of free choice or appropriate models but a function of how a writer perceives her/himself in the social order.”1 This conflation suggests that whenever deployed, the context is never not haunted by the subtext as well as by the social location in which the usage finds utterance. In this same manner, when one speaks about “race,” one could imagine that for some bodies of color, black ones in particular here, “[t]he fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time.”2 While these platitudes may seem trite, they prove that doublespeak is itself, à la Samuel R. Delany, paraliterary (6). Likewise, as suggested by Alexander G. Weheliye, the “indispensable contributions to Black studies, literary studies, science fiction, fan fiction, fandom studies, and Afrofuturism” made by andré m. carrington in Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction arrive in the right place at the right time.

In Speculative Blackness, carrington is attentive to gender, genre, and race as factors that take shape in and shape themselves through science fiction (sf), a medium for creating and maintaining a different social order. Yet in order to consider the future—to speculate on it, so to speak—carrington ruminates on the past, specifically slavery. Isiah Lavender III asserts that “slavery is the inevitable starting point of any exploration of a race in science fiction” such that “[n]eo-slave narratives are a repository of cultural memory as they witness and testify to the dehumanization process and our negligent attempts to forget . . . Thus, sf is a perfect medium for such excursions into the past as well as the future.”3 carrington credits Lavender with succeeding “at the difficult work of linking science fiction texts that address racial identity in explicit terms, on the one hand, to those that invoke race thinking allegorically, on the other” (25). This convergence concretizes the “difficult work” as that which advances this field of literature and simultaneously processes the recollections of yore. All of this occurs with the hope, albeit allegorically and with a gesture to an “ancient” iteration of sci-fi, that such reflective mobility does not result in the reader, or scholar, turning into a pillar of salt.4

Gender and genre hold a similar kind of weight in relation to the speculative insofar as each “functions as an organizing principle in the field of cultural production . . . not a property intrinsic to a text . . . but a condition and a product of interpretation” (2, 6). By invoking the apparatus of interpretation, carrington gives himself permission to depart from using “stalwarts of Black science fiction” such as Delany and Octavia Butler: “I have selected authors and works that emblematize particular situations in the development of speculative fiction across media . . . this study compose[s] no discernible canon formation, and I acknowledge that the perspective afforded by this approach is less than global . . . this book rehearses the kind of interdisciplinary curiosity about Blackness and speculative fiction that I hope to stimulate among specialists in these topics and nonspecialists alike” (4). Through the methodological imposition of “a distinctly African Americanist and feminist practice of scholarship” (3) in Speculative Blackness, carrington exposes the stakes of going back to the future. Under the umbrella of the “Whiteness of science fiction” and the “speculative fiction of Blackness,” vis-à-vis Afrofuturism, surrealism, “otherhood,” and haunting (22–28), the text uses categories of race and gender as bookends for the synonymy of a genre with different spellings (21–22). Putting himself in conversation with the likes of Robin D. G. Kelley, Avery Gordon, Toni Morrison, and Mark Dery, carrington lays the groundwork for a journey to the center of sci-fi through a mode of speculation.

In the first chapter, “Josh Brandon’s Blues: Inventing the Black Fan,” carrington chronicles the historiography of amateur sci-fi publishing in fanzines. James Fitzgerald, “a light skinned Negro, about thirty years of age,” started a Harlem sci-fi club called the Scienceers in the early twentieth century. Perhaps the “first group in the United States devoted to the discussion of science fiction” (30), this club had a novel premise: it centered blackness as a category at the origin of sci-fi fandom. Referring to Carl Joshua Brandon, or “Josh” as the chapter’s title suggests, carrington constitutes Fitzgerald as a progenitor of Brandon’s “blackness” (41, 65–66), even as one soon learns that “Brandon” is a white Bay Area fan named Terry Carr (33). The chapter’s archival work produces a level of care for the objects of inquiry, just as this racial revelation puts pressure on identity politics as emphasized by performances of blackness; in the contemporary moment, one may presume this bygone sci-fi calculation to traffic in the guise of the “transracial.” Nonetheless, this evocation by carrington seemingly aligns itself with what Fred Moten references as “[t]he paraontological distinction between blackness and blacks [that] allows us no longer to be enthralled by the notion that blackness is a property that belongs to blacks.”5

In the second and third chapters, “Space Race Woman: Lieutenant Uhura beyond the Bridge” and “The Immortal Storm: Permutations of Race in Marvel Comics,” carrington highlights constructions of black women in sci-fi as (ir)reducible to long-held stereotypes regarding race and gender. This theoretical move makes legible what Bassard intuits as the literary form not simply being a matter of free choice or appropriate models, even as the models are representative of raced and gendered bodies, but rather of perception. Employing feminist and black feminist critical apertures, carrington historicizes past figures that compel subsequent reverberations. For example, he charts Nichelle Nichols’s own comprehension of her groundbreaking character on Star Trek, Lieutenant Uhura, and her later work with NASA as a catalyst for Mae Jemison’s own space travel; he too qualifies Storm of the X-Men franchise as a “magical Negro” (94). Set against the backdrop of the long twentieth century, more specifically the Cold War, these machinations and tropes become precisely the fabric of perception in gestures toward the intersectional.

Given the rise of the culture wars and Reaganism in the late twentieth century, carrington forges paths of escape from such tumult in chapters four and five. “Controversy and Crossover in Milestone Media’s Icon” examines futurity and the urban center as shown in the success of a comic book franchise marketed by a black-owned publishing group; “The Golden Ghetto and the Glittering Parentheses: The Once and Future Benjamin Sisko” channels valences of speculative fiction singularly and episodically occupied by Avery Brooks on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In Icon, the character Raquel fashions the superhero Rocket after herself (118–21); and Brooks-cum-Sisko travels back in time where fictional author Benny Russell, played by Brooks, has visions “Far Beyond the Stars” to contrive that selfsame time traveler (158–63). With a focus on the black aesthetic tradition and its influence on sci-fi, these two moments, on par with Mark Anthony Neal’s reading of Avery Brooks, convey what happens when a fictionalized character has “a foot deep in the culture.”6 That is to say, carrington outlines what these portrayals betray, albeit positively, about blackness when one conjures the self into being: the self-determinative quantum leap to locate oneself in alternative orders of sociality. And in the final chapter, “Dreaming in Color: Racial Revisions in Fan Fiction”, transnationalism is the mode through which carrington considers the genre, juxtaposing the Harry Potter series with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In turn, he rethinks diasporic género by tracking cyberspace fandom since both artistic vehicles employ black British women as characters.

In this moment of prescriptive #fakenews, Speculative Blackness interrogates how “black” one’s sci-fi is as a window into a greater, and perhaps more uncanny, reality. Through this interrogation, readers and scholars alike realize that speculation is nothing more than the commingling of ART and FACTS.7

1. Katherine Clay Bassard, “Gender and Genre: Black Women’s Autobiography and the Ideology of Literacy,” African American Review 26, no. 1 (Spring 1992): 119.

2. Ecclesiastes 9:11 (New Living Translation).

3. Isiah Lavender III, Race in American Science Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 55, 70.

4. Genesis 19:1–16 (New Living Translation).

5. Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness: Mysticism in the Flesh,” South Atlantic Quarterly 112, no. 4 (2013): 749.

6. Mark Anthony Neal, Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities (New York: NYU Press, 2013), 13–33.

7. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855; repr., New York: Dover Publications, 1969).

I. Augustus Durham
PhD, English, Duke University, Trinity College of Arts and Sciences

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.