Science fiction comes in a number of flavors. There’s “hard” SF, which speculates from a basis in the physical sciences. There’s “soft” SF, which works from a basis in the so-called human sciences (especially anthropology). The market-driven art is further subdivided into horror, fantasy, and sword-and-sorcery. Firing shots across the bow of these main genres, though, are those writers who create what might be called, to borrow a term from today’s music scene, “mash-ups.” Joanna Russ, for instance, is perhaps best known for her feminist SF novel The Female Man, which throws gender into a mix of hard and soft science. Then there’s Samuel R. Delany, whose New Wave classic Dhalgren pointed the way toward a science fiction that was truly literary and not merely boilerplate genre fiction. Into this mix we can add what may be the oldest form of speculative fiction: the retelling of myths and legends.
Now take a gander at a collection of “speculative fiction from the African Diaspora” called Dark Matter: Reading the Bones. This unusual collection focuses on the experiences of Africans, and their descendents, in the Americas—and the experiences are chilling, as you would expect. Slavery, racism, poverty and homelessness, magic, myth and religion, and killer jazz feature in this anthology of twenty-four stories and three essays. Most of the stories are by less-published authors (and most of those, seemingly, from the editor’s adopted New York City), but there are some major lights here, too: W.E.B. Dubois, the above-mentioned Delany, the fiery Wanda Colman, and Walter Mosley among them.
Although some of the writing in Reading the Bones is fairly mediocre in execution, none of it is so in content. Cherene Sherrard’s story, for instance, “The Quality of Sand,” is exciting and original. It centers on a group of Haitian revolutionaries who, having captured a slave-transport ship, act as “pirates", freeing the prisoners of other slave ships. The story takes a magical turn when we learn that one of the protagonists is a jinni. Sherrard renders this magical twist as a moment of spiritual realism, producing a satisfying and tasty ending. Several of the stories are of the “stick it to the (white) man” variety, notably Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s “The Magical Negro.” This very funny short-short starts out on a trajectory of comic-book heroism but quickly (it’s only a couple pages long) resists that narrative line, running instead (so to speak, and in order not to give this little gem totally away) in an “Ain’t Gonna Work on Maggie’s Farm No More” direction.
Perhaps most startling in this fine collection of truly alternative spec lit is W.E.B. Dubois’s story “Jesus Christ in Texas.” “It was in Waco…” the story begins—but “story” is probably the wrong descriptor, since what Dubois spins here is really a parable. Jesus does turn up in Waco, but he’s not the skinny white guy we normally see pinned to a stick. Instead, Dubois manages, in just a few words, to paint a historically plausible Jesus, as a Semitic man with a “coat that looked like a Jewish gabardine” (in contrast to the cowboy’s ankle-length duster) and skin of “olive, even yellow.” This high-yellow Jesus never claims to be the son of God (which idea doesn’t come up until the historically late Gospel of John, anyway), but is, rather, in the business of witnessing and reminding folks it’s not a good idea to steal or murder or rape. It’s the black man who gets this message, of course, and again, as with “The Magical Negro,” the ending provides the satisfying crunch of misguided authority getting its comeuppance while simultaneously offering a salvational vision. Dubois’ story remains startling and relevant in still-racist twenty-first century America, and is even more so when one notices that it was written in 1920.
The anthology concludes with three nonfiction pieces: a writers’ roundtable featuring Delany, Octavia Butler, Jewelle Gomez, Tananarive Due, and the filmmaker William Hudson; an appreciation of African-American writer Virginia Hamilton; and an appreciation of Andre Norton, one of the most prolific science fiction writers ever—and an African American woman, a fact few SF fans realize and that was never revealed in all those old Ace doubles. The author of this last piece, Carol Cooper, pretty well sums up the contribution to Reading the Bones when she writes “that the world was a strange, often cruel, and dangerous place…. We need science fiction to get out of this sort of world.” Amen to that.