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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Afrocyberpunk 1: The enervated ghosts of Zion

In the South Atlantic Quarterly interviews most famous for coining the term ‘Afrofuturism’, Mark Dery asks Samuel Delany why, in a recent piece on William Gibson’s Neuromancer called ‘Is Cyberpunk a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?’, he did not comment on the representation of the Rastas on the Zion space station.

Dery sees them as bricoleurs offering a quite utopian potential for imagining a harmonious relationship with technology. Delany schools him on how ‘a black reader’ might respond to these marginal, withered figures, concluding

You’ll forgive me if, as a black reader, I didn’t leap up to proclaim this passing representation of a powerless and wholly non-oppositional set of black dropouts, by a Virginia-born white writer, as the coming of the black millennium in science fiction: but maybe that’s just a black thang… (751)

Delany promptly steps back from the ad hominem aspect of this to praise Gibson and Neuromancer’s achievements. And to point out that while the three pages or so devoted to Zion and its inhabitants are problematic, there are far more problematic (Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold) and interesting (Disch’s Camp Concentration) white authored sf novels to deal with, let alone the sf produced by black writers – himself, Octavia Butler, Steve Barnes. (He also argues that the dry-run for the Rastas – the Lo-Teks of Gibson’s ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ – are ‘Gibson’s real romantic bricoleurs: they were not specifically black, but rather “fourth world” whites’ (753).)

But there is something interesting about Gibson’s Rastas. In a globe-trotting (and cislunar-trotting) novel, they are the only black people mentioned. In a novel depicting a globalised future in which capitalism has consolidated its hold on the planet, and in which the quality of a commodity is indicated either by its make and model or by reference to its country of origin, there are no corporations or trade names of African origin, and not a single mention of Africa or any of the countries in Africa.

Those enervated orbital ghosts – brittle-boned from calcium deficiency, their hearts ‘shrunken’ from so much time in low-gravity, their Rastafarianism reduced to a Rasta lifestyle of ganja and dub, and their dub easily replicated by computers – are all that are left. A spectral remnant of yet another world-building genocide.

At least in Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, we learn in passing that the Nazis are in the closing stages of a continent-wide final solution to the ‘problem’ of Africans. It is a cold comfort, but at least he doesn’t just leave them out.

***

I am currently re-reading a bunch of cyberpunk novels, some of them for the first time in twenty years, as background for an essay I am writing this winter on Afrocyberpunk film (Les Saignantes, Bedwin Hacker, Tetra Vaal, Adicolor Yellow, Alive in Joburg, Tempbot, perhaps Crumbs if I can ever get hold of a copy, perhaps Africa Paradis).

The focus of this reading is on the representation of Africa/Africans/Afrodiaspora in cyberpunk, and cyberpunk by African and Afrodiasporic writers, and I will inflict my thoughts/notes on the world here when I can. My provisional reading list is below, though I cannot promise to get to them all. Please point out the things I’ve overlooked.  (And do we ever find out whether the Effinger novels are set in North Africa? Or are they in the Middle East? (And yes, I know they are ‘really’ set in New Orleans.))

Steven Barnes, Streetlethal (1983)
–. Gorgon Child (1989)
–. Firedance (1994)
Lauren Beukes, Moxyland (2008)
–. Zoo City (2010)
George Alec Effinger, When Gravity Fails (1987)
–. A Fire in the Sun (1989)
–. The Exile Kiss (1991)
–. Budayeen Nights (2003)
Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Pashazade (2001)
–. Effendi (2002)
–. Felaheen (2005)
Andrea Hairston, Mindscape (2006)
Anthony Joseph, The African Origins of UFOs (2009)
B Kojo Laing, Major Gentl and the Achimoto Wars (1992)
Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net (1988)
G. Willow Wilson, Cairo (2007)
–. Alif, the Unseen (2012)
plus various stores from Afro-Sf, Lagos 2060, omenana and other collections/sites

Afrocyberpunk 2

 

 

Bernardine Evaristo, Blonde Roots (2008)

9780141031521It takes a while to get your head around the generic cues and fictional world of this comical and fantastical neo-slave narrative. It flickers between an alternate history and (race) role-reversal satire, each seeming to conflict with the other. A long succession of gags about Africanised London place names – gags which are not particularly funny (such as Mayfah, Paddinto, Golda’s Green, Brixtane and, settled by Chinese seamen, To Ten Ha Ma) but which ultimately pay off with a geological reference to the Essex massif – clashes with a growing certainty that this Londolo is not in the country called England. And so you turn back to the map in the front-matter and everything becomes clear.

Blonde Roots is not a role-reversal narrative in which everything stays the same apart from race relations, as in, say, Desmond Nakano’s 1995 film, White Man’s Burden. Nor is it an alternate history like, say, Steven Barnes’ Insh’Allah novels (2002–3), in which some not-unreasonable extrapolation underpins a relatively rigorously worked-out world dominated by an Islamic Africa for two millennia, and in which Europeans are the victims of an alternative Triangular Trade, abducted and sold into slavery in Bilalistan (as North America is called).

No, what that map reveals is an alternative terrestrial geography.

An island shaped like Britain (unaccompanied by Ireland), but perhaps larger and called the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa spans the equator off the western coast of north Africa, which is also located further south than in our world. It is not quite clear what has happened to the rest of Africa since it is squeezed off the edge of the map by a Europe, here called Europa, displaced to the south of the Gulf of Guinea. England and Wales, but not Scotland, are wedged into the gap between this relocated northwest Europe and Scandinavia.

While it is entertaining to imagine a seasoned sf pro labouring to establish some geophysical perturbation causing this alternative dispersal of the Pangaea supercontinent, and in turn leading to this inverted social order, that is not where Bernadine Evaristo’s interests lie – nor is doing so as much fun as reading the novel itself.

A comedy about slavery is no easy thing to pull off, as the disastrously misogynist and not terribly funny French timeslip comedy Case départ (2011), directed by Lional Steketee and its co-starring co-writers Fabrice Eboué and Thomas N’Gijol, demonstrates. But it is by no means impossible. Ishmael Reed manages it (more or less) in Flight to Canada (1976), as does Charles Johnson (less than more) in Middle Passage (1990).

From the outset, Blonde Roots has some nice comic touches – in its world, the West Indies are called the ‘West Japanese Islands … because when the “great” explorer and adventurer, Chinua Chikwuemeka, was trying to find a new route to Asia, he mistook those islands for the legendary isles of Japan, and the name stuck’ (5) – but sometimes the comedy sits a little uneasily. For example, the protagonist, Doris Snagglethorpe, abducted from the Cabbage Coast (i.e., Yorkshire), transported to Great Ambossa, sold into slavery and renamed Omorenomwara, is branded with the initials of her owner, Kaga Konata Katamba, and his daughter, her first mistress, Panyin Ige Ghika.

Omorenomwara, who hates Panyin, no doubt gets the PIG half the joke, but the KKK half – and the entire joke, if a white slave being branded KKK PIG is a joke – only works for the reader.

Role reversals and inversions come thick and fast to begin with – monogamy is condemned by the polygamous Ambossans as ‘uneconomical, selfish, typically hypocritical and just plain backwards’ (19); house slaves are known as ‘wiggers’ (24); prosperous Ambrossan urban centres are known as ‘Chocolate Cities’ and ‘the tumbledown ghettos on the outskirts’ where ‘free whytes’ live in ‘squalor’ are called ‘Vanilla Suburbs’ (29) – but as the world is established and the narrative begins to come together, the comedy becomes less gag-oriented and  Evaristo expands her comic vision to capture also the pain and tragedy. Misgivings fade.

The novel switches between three strands: Omorenomwara’s present, as she attempts to flee on the Underground Railroad but ends up exiled to a West Japanese sugar plantation and must try to make some kind of life for herself there; Omorenomwara’s memories of her life as Doris and of her years as a house wigger; and an autobiographical pamphlet by Kaga Konata Katamba which includes his justifications for enslaving the self-evidently inferior Caucasians.

Families and lovers long separated by the slave system reunite, sometimes only fleetingly, and a sense of community thrives among brutalised slaves because they are dependent on each other. And in this final section of the novel, Evaristo gets the tone perfect. She reproduces that tired old cliché of slaves singing together in the fields, but makes it clear they do so out of mutual care and to support each other, not because they are happy. She shows them singing on command to welcome their visiting owner, and counterpoints it with them singing for themselves. And she includes the eleven-year-old slave Dingiswayo, ‘strutt[ing] about the quarter in a pair of outsized, hand-me-down cotton pants worn so that the waist hung (somehow) beneath his bum’ (204).

There is always a danger with role-reversal satire that the reader or viewer’s sense of injustice will be aroused for the wrong reason. Not by patriarchy and misogyny, but because men are being treated like women. Not by slavery and racism, but because people of pallor are being treated like people of colour. Blonde Roots’ fractured structure of narrators and temporalities helps it to avoid this pitfall, but for me there was something else, something curious, going on.

I kept forgetting that the slave characters were white.

I suppose this is because the novel mostly uses their Ambossan slave names, rather than their European names; and because so much of the cultural imagery around slavery features enslaved Africans; and because, being a novel rather than a film, there was an absence of concrete visual detail to fix their appearance.

Then every few pages I was brought up short as I remembered, as this potent anamnesis – this remembering of things forgotten – swept over me.

I have no idea whether the novel will work in this way for other people, and I have yet to figure out what it means. But it was powerful and disorientating. The way a good book should affect you.