Afrocyberpunk 3: Steven Barnes, Streetlethal (1983), Gorgon Child (1989), Firedance (1994)

Barnes Steven - Aubrey Knight 01 - Street LethalIn 1993, Claire Sponsler argued that cyberpunk reworked earlier post-nuclear-holocaust narratives (Alas, Babylon; A Canticle for Leibowitz; Riddley Walker) which depicted, with ‘angst and ambivalence’, a ‘physical world [that] is unfriendly, unyielding, and unforgiving’, a ‘hostile and forbidding … no-man’s land where humans must struggle to survive’ (257). In contrast, for cyberpunk ‘destruction of the natural environment and decay of the urban zones are givens that are not lamented but rather accepted’ (257). In ‘decayed cityscape[s]’, cyberpunk found ‘a place of possibilities, a carnivalesque realm where anything goes and where there are no rules, only boundaries that can be easily transgressed’ – and where entry into cyberspace, a disembodied realm of deracinated liberation, is ‘encouraged, not hampered, by a milieu of urban decay’ (261).

Thomas Foster’s The Souls of Cyberfolk criticises this view, reminding us that part of the cultural backdrop against which the cyberpunk imaginary emerged was the discourse of urban planning and development that came to the fore in the US in the 1970s and 1980s – and that its ‘language of urban “ruin,” “decay’” or “blight”’ possessed ‘ideological and often specifically racist subtexts’, providing an encoded way of talking about ‘racialized inner-city ghettoes than cities in general’ (206). (It is well worth having this is mind when reading Delany’s Dhalgren, too.)

Steven Barnes’s Aubry Knight trilogy – among the trashiest of afrocyberpunk fiction and in some ways much more afro than cyberpunk – gets closer than any other cyberpunk I have read to acknowledging this urban-planner/property-developer discourse and its racial content.

Written before William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Streetlethal (1983) sits alongside cyberpunk, developing similar material rather differently. The trilogy’s ongoing negotiation with 51WfmS5e1uL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_cyberpunk is most evident if we judge Barnes’s novels by their covers. Barclay Shaw’s 1983 cover – where it is difficult to tell that the protagonist is black – combines 70s martial arts imagery with hints of a post-apocalyptic scenario, perhaps like The Ultimate Warrior (Clouse 1975). It alludes to Mad Max, but the overturned car and shattered road bridge give way to an airy futuristic metropolis. The jacket blurbs point to a conservative tradition of adventure sf (Larry Niven), made a little more decent (Gordon R Dickson) and perhaps a little edgier (Norman Spinrad) (Firedance (1994) adds a blurb from Peter O’Donnell, the creator of Modesty Blaise). The 1991 reissue of Streetlethal retains these three blurbs but has a new cover by Martin Andrews that builds on the imagery of Luis Royo’s cover for Gorgon Child (1989) (rather 593041more effectively than Royo’s cover for Firedance). Aubrey is definitively black. His costume suggests a black urban cool coming out of the dancier end of hip-hop. His dark glasses turn cyberpunk’s mirrorshades black. The urban backdrop is more ambiguous, with hints of futurity and ruination. The female figure is like a rock video version of Molly, Gibson’s street samurai. (The relationship between the women on the covers and the female characters in the novels remains mysterious to me).

From its first sentence, though intermittently, Streetlethal draws on noir imagery and, like Gibson, science-fictionalises it. The novel begins:

Naked and transparent, the woman’s smooth white body undulated slowly, beckoning to the empty streets. The streets were still slick from the afternoon rain; the hologram reflected back from the wet asphalt, an erotic mirage.

[Maxine] steered him further down the street, past the fluxing, beckoning projections that lined Pacific Coast Highway. Soundloops triggered by their passing cajoled, promising the finest in services and goods, the ultimate in intimate experience. A hungry taxi-drone paused on its eternal run down the central guidestrip, and Maxine waved it on. (1, 2-3)

41XSvGIDuwL._AC_UL320_SR212,320_.jpgThe overall plot is also rather noirish. Maxine uses sex to betray Aubry, framing him for murder as part of his punishment for quitting work as muscle for the Ortega gang. He is arrested and imprisoned in the Death Valley Maximum Security Prison; he escapes, makes his way back to Los Angeles, wreaks revenge.

Unlike Gibson, Barnes also works in a blaxploitation mode. Aubry is large and immensely powerful figure, a streetfighter turned Nullboxer – a kind of zero-gravity MMA. Inhumanly strong and determined, there is at times something of Jim Brown, Richard Roundtree and Jim Kelly to him. He is not very smart, though, or well-socialised; the later novels gradually cure him of this emotional/psychological stuntedness, turning him from a kind of Luke Cage into someone more like T’Challa, the Black Panther. Barnes draws on cultural-political strains of black power, Afrotopianism, Afrocentricity and Pan-Africanism (In Firedance, Aubry discovers he is actually African, an child of the Ibandi tribe of warriors who was orphaned in the US. He returns to Africa to topple the insane, Japanese-backed insane military dictator of Pan-Africa, which is composed of six countries: Zaire (Congo), Tanzania, Uganda, possibly Kenya and two never-named others.) Barnes presents a matter-of-fact multiracial and mixed-racial future. More awkwardly, but in a generally positive way, he includes a lesbian separatist community and a group called the NewMen – physically imposing, genetically-engineered warriors, who are all also homosexual. (This sort of diverse future caught between the ghetto, the gang and the New Jim Crow is developed in Erika Alexander and Tony Puryear’s Concrete Park.)

At the centre of Streetlethal is the Los Angeles downtown:

Downtown Los Angeles covered some of the most expensive real estate in the world, and in the 1960’s and ’70’s it had become run-down. Property values were slipping. There was a major effort to clean the area up, to bring in investors. … [Impoverished, homeless] Scavengers have existed for … maybe a century. They move into ruined neighbourhoods, slums, anywhere nobody else wants to live or work, and reclaim. People have been doing it forever, but I guess they just started organizing during the Second Depression, in the eighties. (177, 180)

Although fleetingly evoked, this historical context points to the still ongoing real-world conflicts between a city government enamoured of property developers and the residents of the garment district, skid row and other communities/areas that also occupy the downtown.

Barnes’s LA differs from the real LA not just because of that Second Depression but also because the Big One finally hit.

It was easy to remember when there had been skyscrapers here. The Great Quake, and the even more ruinous firestorm that followed, had razed the city, sending businesses fleeing to the valleys and peripheral areas. Already decaying by the turn of the century, no one cared about central L.A. anymore. The slums remaining in the area were simply referred to as the Maze, and only the hopeless made it their home. (60)

[It] must have been a street, once. It was hard to tell, with the accumulated layers of trash and debris, shattered fragments of buildings, and the gut-punched wreckage of a bus, stripped of rubber and glass and most of its metal, only a framework of rust remaining. … The wreckage was incredible, as if an orgy of wholesale looting and vandalism had destroyed what little was left by the natural disasters of earthquake and fire. (108, 109)

The Maze is home to the Scavengers, a subterranean co-operative community developed from those earlier scavengers. They live in the ruins, including the secretly renovated PanAngeles Multiplex, ‘the largest underground living complex in the western hemisphere’ (177). And they have a semi-official government franchise to recover valuables and salvage materials from the ruins. The state sees them as ‘hoboes scratching at a trash heap’ (176) and have no idea how wealthy they have grown, how far their trade network reaches, how much their influence and range of alliances have grown.

The most depressing aspects of the trilogy is that by the start of Firedance, the Scavengers have themselves turned property developers, using ‘the leverage of property, money, and manpower, combined with generous grants and federal tax breaks’ to create ‘an empire’ (9). They have turned the Maze into Mazetown, a new and more ethnically diverse downtown – and ‘the label “Mazie” seemed less an insult than a celebration of an individual choice’ (17). The new population might have ‘skins tinted every color of the rainbow … cloaked in the raiment of a dozen lands’ (17), a dozen languages and a hundred dialects’ might fill ‘the streets’, and there might be a ‘thousand savory collations from around the world’ being sold by ‘ten thousand street vendors’ (33), but they also look and sound and smell of gentrification. As if capitalism somehow suddenly – and in LA of all places – dropped its racialising and racialised dynamics.

Works cited
Steven Barnes, Streetlethal. New York: Ace, 1983.
–. 
Gorgon Child. New York: Tor, 1989.
–. Firedance. New York: Tor, 1994.
Thomas Foster, The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
Claire Sponsler, ‘Beyond the Ruins: The Geopolitics of Urban Decay and Cybernetic Play’. Science Fiction Studies 60 (1993): 251-265.

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AfroSF volume 2 (2015), edited by Ivor W. Hartmann

afrosf2So much has happened since the appearance of Ivor Hartmann’s AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers (2012). It is not just that AfroSF is more visible than it was four years ago, but that the market and venues for it are growing, especially at short story length. This year alone has given us Jalada’s online Afrofuture(s) anthology, Nerine Dorman’s Terra Incognita: New Short Speculative Stories from Africa, Jo Thomas and Margrét Helgadóttir’s African Monsters (2015) and five issues of omenana. This proliferation must have seemed impossible when Hartmann started work on AfroSF 2, but it makes his decision to follow up his anthology of 22 short stories with a collection of just 5 novellas all the more significant.

There is a long tradition of sf writers cutting their teeth on short stories before proceeding, via novella and novelette lengths, to full-length novels. Primarily a peculiar by-product of the demands of mid-twentieth-century US magazine publishing, it nonetheless provided a pragmatic apprenticeship and trajectory. We no longer live in that world (as Eric Flint’s Hugo commentaries spent a bunch of 2015 explaining), and with the majority of sf magazines now electronic rather than hard-copy there is relatively little demand for fiction at those intermediate lengths. But the step-up from short-shorts and shorts and even long-shorts to novels remains a big one. And so AfroSF 2’s change of format represents a conscious commitment to the further development of the field – and of the writers within it. Only two of the six writers in this volume have published a novel before: Nick Wood, whose YA sf The Stone Chameleon appeared all the way back in 2004 (although his sf novel, Azanian Bridges, is due out early next year), and Tade Thompson, whose crime thriller Making Wolf appeared just a couple of months back.

AfroSF 2 opens with Thompson and Wood’s ‘The Last Pantheon’, a sprightly tale of rival African superheroes, called Black-Power and Pan-Africa, that riffs off Luke Cage and Black Panther (and Superman), as well as name-checking Nigeria’s Powerman aka Powerbolt (drawn by a young Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland) and South Africa’s Mighty Man (but why not Jet Jungle?). Although the backstory covers millions of years, the story itself focuses on their decades-long disagreement over the role they should play in the period of post-WW2 anti-colonial and post-colonial struggle – the assassination of Patrice Lumumba is a watershed moment – and on an attempt to bring them both out of retirement for one last smackdown, to be televised globally. It is all rather canny and quick-moving.

Next up is Mame Bougouma Diene’s ‘Hell Freezes Over’, set in a post-human post-civilisation hanging on in the watery ruins of our world as a new Ice Age advances. The two halves of the story, placed (I think) in reverse chronological order, feature treachery, betrayal, revolution and retribution. Sadly, it is not the kind of story I ever enjoy, regardless of who wrote it (reminded me of Claude Nunes, kinda, but that’s probably too obscure to be helpful), and I read it under considerably less than ideal conditions (involving tube trains, loud drunks, illness and fatigue). But it does contain some quite beautiful passages, such as when the Fish People swim into waters that freeze around them.

I am a big fan of Dilman Dila, and his ‘The Flying Man of Stone’ is for me probably the best piece in the anthology. Like his ‘A Killing in the Sun’, it is about surviving (or not) in the contradictions, uncertainty and sheer randomness of conflicts; like ‘The Healer’ it is about the complex cultural and social identities left in the wake of colonialism; and like ‘Itanda Bridge’ and ‘The Yellow People’ it is about crash-landed aliens living underground and forging ambiguous symbiotic relationships with humans. It is also a superhero story, full of questions about power, responsibility and consequences.

Andrew Dakalira’s ‘VIII’ is set in a near-future Malawi where a series of apparently random killings breaks out just as the world’s population hits eight billion. These attacks turn out to be a global phenomenon, presaging a wider slaughter (there’s a kind of AVP backstory lurking in the backstory). It rattles along at great pace, jumping between multiple viewpoint characters. You wonder how this apocalypse can possibly be averted and, when the story is over, you continue to do so.

Efe Tokunbo Okogu, whose BSFA-nominated ‘Proposition 23’ was one of the highlights of AfroSF, ends the volume with ‘An Indigo Song for Paradise’. It is the longest piece in the anthology, a great big sprawling mess of story that works really well when it does work, but never quite hangs together, especially when it switches from cyberpunkish crime caper action sequences to meandering, sententious speechifying. As with Diene’s ‘Hell Freezes Over’, I found the setting a little too unfocused to get a clear grip on. There is an idyllic Gaia and a post-apocalyptic Terra which also seems to be a post-historical Dying Earth. There is the ironically named Paradise City, presided over by an evil corporation and the remaining few white people (known as vampires), and populated by people of colour who sound a lot like they’ve popped in from the 1990s. And there is a xombie apocalypse. And it might all just be a simulation running on a computer anyway. Everything the author could think of seems to be crammed in somewhere somehow, and some of it might be jokes I just don’t get. But there is no denying the pell-mell energy that dominates stretches of it.

There is, of course, a downside to publishing just novellas. Obviously, Hartmann’s desire to do something new and different with this volume, to help writers step up to the challenges of writing at greater length, means that AfroSF 2 inevitably lacks AfroSF’s wide variety of story types and voices from across the continent and diaspora. This is most obvious in the absence of women writers (discussed with Hartmann and omenana’s editor Chinelo Onwualu on the always fabulous bookshy).

Maybe the next challenge, whether for Hartmann or others, should be an anthology of AfroSF entirely by women writers. It should only be a matter of logistics – as the original AfroSF and other anthologies/magazines clearly demonstrate, there are already more than enough potential contributors out there.

(Many thanks to Ivor for providing me with an ARC.)

Johnny Storm in a Teacup: The New Fantastic Four

fantastic-banner-10-18To be honest, I’d forgotten there was a new Fantastic Four movie coming out until the trailer appeared yesterday.

My memory was lagging behind in other ways, too. For the life of me I could not figure out why they’d cast Michael B. Jordan as Ben Grimm/The Thing.

I mean, he’s so skinny.

My mistake. They’ve actually cast Jamie Bell, and I’m good with that.1  Jordan is playing Johnny Storm/Human Torch. There was, tediously and of course and now dimly remembered, some kerfuffle about the casting of an actor of colour in a role of pallor. The usual racist bullshit tweeting and trolling. It seemed to die down pretty quickly, especially after Jordan, caught off guard, snapped back ‘You’ll all come see it anyway’. Which is not quite a Neil Patrick Harris well, duh moment, but not bad on the fly.

hulkvsthingMy confusion about who was cast as who does actually make a kind of sense. Because the Thing – although perhaps not quite as obviously as The Hulk – was always one Marvel’s black buck stereotype superheroes.

The Hulk is inspired by Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Hyde is clearly racialised in Robert Louis Stevenson’s short novel from 1886, and even more so in the 1932 adaptation dr-jekyll-and-mr-hyde-1starring Fredric March, in which Hyde clearly signifies some kind of simian negritude. (It is always worth remembering that the multiple trials of the Scottsboro boys – a case more typical than exceptional – were dragging on through the first half of the 1930s, even as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, King Kong, James Whale’s Frankenstein, Erle C Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls and other fantastical American racial fantasies were appearing in cinemas.)

Show-Boat-CinematographyThe Thing builds more obviously on the combination of buck stereotype and proletarian image with which Whale imbues Mary Shelley’s creation (building on her description of Frankenstein’s apocalyptic vision of his creations breeding and producing a new posthuman race that will displace aristocratic privilege and white hegemony) and which he explicitly and sympathetically develops in Showboat when Paul Robeson sings ‘Ol’ Man River’.

Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagooncreature3 is a close relation. The appearance of this archaic fishman can easily be interpreted in terms of racist caricatures of African/Afrodiasporic peoples. Something of his melancholy aquatic courtship of Kay, her whiteness emphasised by her dazzling white swimsuit, is carried forward into the sequence in The Fantastic Four (2005) when Ben’s engagement is called off. The racist imagery of the black buck as sexual monster/monstrously sexual it evokes – his finger is just so big he can’t get it into the tight little engagement ring – falls somewhere between unfortunate and hilarious.

Buckwildmsu0And of course, early in his comics career Luke Cage, Power Man – later spoofed, a little unfairly, by Milestone Comics as Buck Wild, Mercenary Man – subbed for the Thing in the Fantastic Four, and soon after had his own side adventure in Latveria with Doctor Doom.

So like I said, my confusion makes a kind of sense. But nonetheless, I am curious about my own unreflective assumption that Jordan was playing the Thing, while also profoundly untroubled by him playing Johnny Storm, a character with plenty of potential (as Chris Evans showed, albeit whitely) to be just another ‘one of those Tom Slick brothers that think you can get by on good looks, a wink and a smile’ (as Black Dynamite‘s Gloria might put it).

The one thing I dread however – partly because over the years I have seen so much awkward, straight-to-video exposition justifying Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Belgian accent to American ears – is the painful scene explaining how come Johnny’s sister, Sue, is white.

I mean, deep down there is a part of me that does actually want to see it, and be appalled by it. But we really could do without it.

It’s not like this is Pleasantville out here.

1
Someone somewhere please, in an alternate universe if not this one, cast him in the other FF franchise, post-Paul Walker, to take up the whiteboy slack alongside Lucas Black.

The Household Gods and the Darth Vader Corkscrew

Queen Kong. Goddess of utopian desire. Will work for peanuts.
Queen Kong. Goddess of utopian desire. Will work for peanuts.
Mr Atomic. Powerful, if unconvincingly so to look at.
Clockbot. Battery flat. Nonetheless, unlike other gods, he is right about something every day. Twice.
Clockbot. Battery flat. Nonetheless, unlike other gods, he is right about something every day. Twice.
Shrine. Evidence of ancestor worship. And wishful thinking.
Shrine. Evidence of ancestor worship. And wishful thinking.
Luke Cage. Guaranteeing sweet Christmases since 1972. Also, sticking it to the man.
Luke Cage. Guaranteeing sweet Christmases since 1972. Cf. the Man, god of sticking it to.
Wile E. Coyote. Spirt animal.
Wile E. Coyote. Spirit animal.
The Darth Vader corkscrew. Not a household god or deity of any kind. Just a Darth Vader corkscrew. Photographic evidence thereof, because no one believes me. A Christmas present, a nice try, a miss is as good as a mile...
The Darth Vader corkscrew. Not a household god or deity of any kind. Just a Darth Vader corkscrew. Photographic evidence thereof, because no one believes me. A Christmas present. A nice try. A miss that is every bit as good as a mile.