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Sean Cashbaugh on "Race in American Science Fiction"

Cover of "Race in American Science Fiction": African American astronaut

Isiah Lavender III

Race in American Science Fiction

Indiana University Press, 2011
269 pages

Reviewed by Sean Cashbaugh

To many authors, critics, and fans, science fiction serves as a privileged realm of progressive political thought. Its speculative dimensions and orientation towards the future render its fantastic stories as forms of social analysis and critique, where narratives of aliens, spaceships, and cyborgs serve as estranged reflections of the modern world’s social processes. As Isiah Lavender III rightly points out, race has been largely absent from these conversations. As a field, science fiction studies has avoided discussing race and racism, as too many scholars have assumed the genre to be colorblind, an ironic dodge given the genre’s ability to depict radical otherness. In opposition to such views, Lavender argues that “American sf [science fiction] is characterized by an investment in the proliferation of racial difference, that racial alterity is a fundamental part of sf’s narrative and social strategies.” Such elements remain unacknowledged and are pushed to the genre’s background, a space Lavender pithily refers to as science fiction’s “blackground.” Race in American Science Fiction maps this terrain, bringing race to the forefront of science fiction studies through careful analysis of science fiction literature, film, and television from the past hundred years. Lavender demonstrates how ideologies of race shaped the genre and how the genre responded to them in kind. Importantly, he provides a critical vocabulary for identifying and discussing the estranged discussions of race and racism embedded within science fiction.

Lavender builds his analysis of science fiction around two key concepts theorized in Chapter One: the aforementioned “blackground” and what he describes as “otherhood.” Building upon the work of Darko Suvin and Samuel R. Delany, he uses otherhood to refer to the ways ideologies of race and historical processes of racialization have shaped the genre’s investments in and representations of otherness. An “otherhood reading” reveals these processes and allows for a thorough mapping of science fiction’s hidden racial terrain, demonstrating how, for example, the term “skin-job” functions as a racial epithet when directed at the synthetic humans in Blade Runner (1982). This theorizing is necessary given the scant critical attention paid to the matter in science fiction studies and the weaknesses Lavender identifies in the approaches that do exist. For instance, “afrofuturism”—the discourse typically associated with discussions of blackness, race, and science fiction—identifies how black men and women use science fictional motifs, but it fails to address how race and racism function within the genre. For Lavender, the issue is systemic since science fiction emerged in dialogue with discourses of social Darwinism, scientific racism, and eugenics, all of which influenced the genre’s development and continue to shadow its narrative strategies and modes of representation. As he writes, “[S]ocial Darwinism is one of the master narratives that govern racial thinking in sf.” Science fiction’s claims to ‘truth’ by way of its use of scientific language and imagery—a rhetoric often assumed to be objective—compound the issue, threatening to legitimate the logic behind racially inflected estranged ‘others.’ Substantive critique from within the genre is thus necessary.

Lavender dedicates the remaining five chapters of his book to modeling “otherhood readings” and mapping the myriad ways science fiction quietly speaks about race. Chapter Two focuses on the genre’s relationship to slave narratives and describes the ways in which they recur in science fiction through neo-slave narratives and what he terms “meta-slavery narratives.” Works such as Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (1950), Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), and David Brin’s Kiln People (2002) defamiliarize enslavement, depicting future and technological versions of it, or revisit the history of American slavery through devices such as time travel. Chapter Three examines the ways writers construct “Jim Crow Extrapolations,” stories that recast the material and ideological structures of white supremacy in science fictional contexts. For example, George Schuyler’s satirical Black No More (1931), the story of a scientist who invents a skin-whitening device, confronts and ridicules segregation and the Ku Klux Klan. Walter Mosely’s dystopian Futureland (2001) depicts a radically segregated future controlled by multinational corporations, the inevitable conclusion of contemporary American racial attitudes. In Chapter Four, Lavender explores miscegenation and the one-drop rule, demonstrating how science fiction discusses “ailments of race” by linking threats of contagion with racial fears and anxieties.

While these chapters engage established literary traditions, the final two chapters engage models of Lavender’s creation. In Chapter Five, he puts a science fictional spin on Arjun Appadurai’s “ethnoscape.” For Lavender, an “ethnoscape” refers to the racial and ethnic “ideas and histories which the text uses, defines, discards, renovates, and invents” to define its socio-spatial environment and thus “foregrounds the human landscapes of race and ethnicity as constituted by sf’s historical, social, and scientific engagement with the present.” Works like Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) create fictional worlds that estrange their readers, depicting new racial relationships to which readers can compare their own. Chapter Six focuses on “technicities,” a term Lavender borrows from Martin Heidegger and George Simondon to describe how science fiction envisions new modes of racial and ethnic identification through technological difference. In texts like Blade Runner and Battlestar Galactica (2004), artificial humans and posthumans come to represent “technological ethnicities” that suggest new ways of thinking about difference itself, pushing the boundaries of human identification while revealing the ways individuals and groups construct difference today.

Lavender’s book is ambitious and provocative: he invents an entire theoretical vocabulary to discuss more clearly the ways science fiction does and does not discuss race. This significant intervention links his book with recent works that ask similar questions. De Witt Douglas Kilgore’s Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia in Space (2003), Adilifu Nama’s Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film (2008), and John Reider’s Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (2008) readily come to mind, as they similarly use critical race theory and postcolonial studies to interrogate science fiction and the discourse surrounding it. Given the breadth of his goals, Lavender’s work is remarkably successful. At times, his theories seem totalizing, but Lavender ultimately avoids this pitfall by maintaining the historical specificity of the texts he analyzes. Though he limits his study to what he describes as the “black-white binary” in American culture, his concepts—particularly otherhood, ethnoscapes, and technicities—seem endlessly flexible, applicable even to the study of other modes of racialization in different social, national, and literary contexts. In this sense, Race in American Science Fiction is of interest to a diverse range of scholars, especially those of science fiction, of the fantastic generally, of race and ethnicity, and of cinema and media studies.

Throughout his work, Lavender remarks that the real world often strikes him as science fictional. As he notes in the epilogue, writer Walter Mosley declared that “through science fiction you can have a black president.” The present reality of this supposedly fantastic scenario highlights the significance of studying the racial meanings embedded within the genre’s depictions of the seemingly impossible. As Lavender concludes, “If science fiction is about social change, let us talk about how this change comes about and speculate about what could be, how things could be different.” For all its complicity in the structures of white supremacy, Lavender’s science fiction remains a realm of progressive possibility, one where new imaginings of difference can not only appear, but can also be realized. Therein lies the importance of race in American science fiction.