Science Fiction in Black Music

Happy Labor Day, USians! Also, fellow Brooklynites, enjoy the Caribbean day parade! Had a small dinner party for friends last night, firing up the balcony grill one last time before retiring it for the season. Baby back ribs, grilled green tomatoes and eggplant, and peach cobbler. Aaaangh.

At Worldcon, I was on a panel about Michael Jackson and his music/videos’ influence on speculative fiction. At the panel, I mentioned Sun Ra and other MJ precursors, and the fact that MJ was part of a long tradition — though IMO he helped shunt it from the auditory into the visual with his videos. Would’ve liked to delve into those previous acts, but I was too intimidated to really speak up much on the panel because I was sitting between JOHN SCALZI OMG and two seats down from STEVEN BOYETT OMG OMG GO BUY HIS BOOK IT IS TEH GREATEST EVAR, and next to some other guy who was a professional DJ whose name I don’t recall (but he gets a spiritual OMG anyway, because he really knew his stuff), and there I was, Jane Nobody, so I STFU’d like a smart girl and didn’t push it.

But some of the folks who attended the panel were thinking along the same lines, and one of them sent me this link to a fascinating article called “Loving the Alien: Black Science Fiction”. In music, note. Contains a rambling interview with Sun Ra, and gems like this:

“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/Out of this stony rubbish?” Eliot’s Wasteland was cultural, a blasted reach of dead fragments (the narrative borrow sits [sic] drive – and key items of its imagery – from Bram Stoker’s Dracula). “Your home is my home/Welcome To The Terrordome!” Public Enemy’s Wasteland seems very real and very present: whole blocks burned in the black ghettos in the 60s, and in many the rubble’s still there, the dominant feature in the crackhammered badlands…

The advantage of Science Fiction as a point of cultural departure is that it allows for a series of worst-case futures – of hells-on-Earth and being in them – which are woven into every kind of everyday present reality (on a purely technical level, value in SF is measured against the fictional creation of other worlds, or people, believable no matter how different). The central fact in Black Science Fiction – self-consciously so named or not – is an acknowledgement that Apocalypse already happened: that (in PE’s phrase) Armageddon been in effect. Black SF writers – Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler – write about worlds after catastrophic disaster; about the modalities of identity without hope of resolution, where race and nation and neighbourhood and family are none of them enough to obviate betrayal (“Every brother ain’t a brother cause a colour/Just as well could be undercover” raps Chuck D in “Terrordome”).

Go read. Good article, though with some odd grammatical constructions here and there. I can’t help contemplating that last line, about black SF writers assuming the apocalypse has already happened and writing about its aftermath. I think the article writer is wrong; maybe this is true for Delaney (haven’t read much of him) and certainly it was true for Butler, but it’s not the case for Hopkinson, nor for Barnes. (Invoking the HopkinsonButlerDelaneyBarnes quartet, just for example.) That said, I’d have to say the “apocalypse assumption” is pretty true of my Inheritance Trilogy, which is set in a world still recovering from a war between the gods several millennia before. This war was indeed apocalyptic, as wars between universe-spanning, phenomenally powerful entities are wont to be — but the trilogy starts long after that war, at the point when the world seems just fine — much in the way our world seems today, even though there’s a good chance that a meteor literally created hell on earth not so very long ago (geologically speaking). Since the disaster was even more recent in 100K, the lingering effects are mostly sociological. But aside from that, everything’s fine. And in the other fantasy trilogy I’ve written (but not yet sold), there’s been no disaster; the characters all work to prevent that from happening. So my fiction doesn’t conform to this article’s assumption. Is this a reflection of the fact that I primarily write fantasy? (People are always preventing apocalypses, or preventing repeat apocalypses, in fantasy.) A generational thing (Butler grew up pre-Jim Crow; I grew up post-)? Maybe the problem is just that the article writer is wrong about “black SF” being apocalyptic.

In any case, I wish I’d read this before that Worldcon panel; I would’ve felt more comfortable citing Public Enemy, Afrika Bambaataa, John Coltrane, and some other artists I’ve always thought of as skiffy-influenced. (It was a great panel, but I think I might’ve been the only hip hop and jazz afficionado on it. Oh, well.)

Hmm. I think there might be some green tomato slices left…

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