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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My top twenty books of 2015

1144This year, I read 166 books for pleasure. (My definition of ‘pleasure’ here includes background reading for new modules, research projects, reader’s reports, reviews, blurbs, etc, as well as ploughing through books that have been cluttering up the house for years – or decades – before donating them to the local charity shop; hence I am surprised to find four of my top twenty were actually published in 2015).

Portnoy compliance data:
All of the world except… = 87
…straight white men writing in English = 74
plus multi-authored in ways too complex to divide = 5
(but only about 40 by women)

Top twenty titles (excluding books I’ve read before)
Novels

Bernardine Evaristo, Blonde Roots (2008)
Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues (1993)
Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights (1979)
Ondjaki, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret (2008)
Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement (2009)
Alain Robbe-Grillet, The Erasers (1953)
Sapphire, Push (1996)
Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners (1956)

Short stories
Dilman Dila, A Killing in the Sun (2015)
Nerine Dorman, ed, Terra Incognita: New Speculative Fiction from Africa (2015)
Abdelfattah Kilito, The Clash of Images (1995)
China Miéville, Three Moments of An Explosion (2015)
Sam Selvon, Ways of Sunlight (1957)

Poetry
Sam Greenlee, Ammunition! (1975)

Comics
Tony Puryear and Erika Alexander, Concrete Park: You Send Me (2014)
–. Concrete Park: R.E.S.P.E.C.T. (2015)
Gene Luen Yang, Boxers (2013)

Biography
Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921 (1954)
— The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-29 (1959)
The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-40 (1963)

The full list of books I read this year
Brian Aldiss, Bury My Heart at WH Smith’s
Helliconia Summer
The Twinkling of an Eye
Michelle Alexander and Jeanne Long, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days: The Universal Don’ts of Dating
Monica Ali, Brick Lane
Nelson Algren, A Walk on the Wild Side
Grant Allen, The Woman Who Did
Margery Allingham, The Tiger in the Smoke
Guillermo Arriaga, The Guillotine Squad
Isaac Asimov and Martin Greenberg, eds, Cosmic Critiques: How and Why Ten Science Fiction Stories Work
Marc Augé, The Future

JG Ballard, High Rise (film reviewed)
The Drowned World
Lynne Reid Banks, The L-Shaped Room
René Barjavel, Ashes, Ashes
Steven Barnes, Streetlethal
Walter Besant, The Revolt of Man
Calixthe Beyala, How to Cook Your Husband the African Way
David Bischoff, Young Sun Ra and the Strange Celestial Roads
Andy Boot, Fragments of Fear: An Illustrated History of British Horror Films
Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day
Dennis Broe, Maverick
Michael Bronski, Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps
Keith Brooke, ed., Strange Divisions and Alien Territories: The Sub-Genres of Science Fiction
Octavia Butler, Dawn
Adulthood Rites
Imago

Brian Chikwava, Harare North
Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger
Teju Cole, Open City
Warwick Collins, Gents
Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent
Richard Cowper, The Custodians, and Other Stories
The Twilight of Briareus

Chris Darke, La jetée
Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921
— The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsksy 1921-29
The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-40
Bernard F Dick, The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row: Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures
Joan Didion, Where I Was From
Dilman Dila, A Killing in the Sun
Brian Dooley, Black and Green: The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland and Black America
Nerine Dorman, ed, Terra Incognita: New Speculative Fiction from Africa
Fyodor Dostoevksy, Notes from Underground
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
–. Uncle Bernac: A Memory of the Empire
David Duffy, Losing the Head of Philip K Dick
Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo
Nell Dunn, Up the Junction

Caroline Edwards and Tony Venezia, eds, China Miéville: Critical Essays
George Alec Effinger, When Gravity Fails
David Eggers, A Hologram for the King
Bernardine Evaristo, Blonde Roots
Allen Eyles, House of Horror: The Complete Hammer Films Story

Michael Fabre, Under the Skin
Hans Fallada, Tales from the Underworld
Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues
Eric Flint, Gorg Huff and Paula Goodlett, 1636: The Kremlin Games
Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Norton, 80! Memories and Reflections on Ursula K Le Guin
Carl Freedman, Art and Idea in the Novels of China Miéville

Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton
Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm
William Gibson, The Peripheral
Jeremy Gilbert, Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism
Robert SC Gordon, Bicycle Thieves
Joe Gores, Hammett
Graham Greene, Brighton Rock
Karl Taro Greenfield, Speed Tribes: Children of the Japanese Bubble
Sam Greenlee, Ammunition!
Walter Greenwood, Love on the Dole
John Grindrod, Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain

Joe Haldeman, The Long Habit of Living
Sarah Hall, The Carhullan Army
Knut Hamsun, Hunger
Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights
Mark Harris, Scenes from a Revolution: The Birth of the New Hollywood
Ivor W Hartmann, ed., AfroSF, volume 2 
Brett Harvey, The Fifties: A Woman’s Oral History
Mary Higgs, Glimpses into the Abyss
Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt
Andrew Holleran, Dancer from the Dance
Tendai Huchu, The Maestro, the Magician and the Mathematician
Fergus Hume, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

CLR James, Letters from London
James Joyce, Dubliners

Anton Kaes, M
Sue Kaufman, The Diary of a Mad Housewife
Gerald Kersh, Night and the City (here and here)
Abdelfattah Kilito, The Clash of Images
Stephen King, Doctor Sleep
The Shining
Cyril M Kornbluth, Not this August
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future
Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia
Andrei Kurkov, Death and the Penguin
Henry Kuttner, Elak of Atlantis

George Lamming, The Emigrants
Andrea Levy, Small Island
Marina Lewycka, Two Caravans
Megan Lindholm, Wizard of the Pigeons
Kelly Link, Magic for Beginners
Jack London, The People of the Abyss

Neil McAleer, Odyssey: The Authorised Biography of Arthur C Clarke
Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan
The Three Impostors
The Terror
Colin Macinnes, Absolute Beginners
City of Spades
Katherine Mansfield, In a German Pension
Richard Marsh, The Chase of the Ruby
The Datchet Diamonds
Guy de Maupassant, Bel Ami, or the Secret History of a Scoundrel
Quentin Meillassoux, Science Fiction and Extro-Science Fiction
China Miéville, This Census Taker
Three Moments of An Explosion
Rick Moody, The Ice Storm
Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, volume one
Susanna Moore, In the Cut

VS Naipaul, The Mimic Men
Frank Norris, Blix
Moran of the Lady Letty
Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe, eds, Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis

Liam O’Flaherty, The Informer
Ondjaki, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret

Félix J Palma, The Map of Time
Richard Powers, Generosity
Tony Puryear and Erika Alexander, Concrete Park: You Send Me
–. Concrete Park: R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Raymond Queneau, Zazie in the Metro

Alain Robbe-Grillet, The Erasers
Jackie Robinson, I Never Had It Made
David S. Roh, Betsey Huang and Greta A. Niu, eds, Techno-Orientalism: Imaging Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media
Satyajit Ray, The Diary of a Space Traveller and Other Stories
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America
Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark

Sunjeev Sahota, Ours are the Streets
Sapphire, Push
Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners
–. Ways of Sunlight
Khairy Shalaby, The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets
Patrick Sheeran, The Informer
Anne River Siddons, The House Next Door
Sister Souljah, The Coldest Winter Ever
Muriel Spark, The Ballad of Peckham Rye
The Girls of Slender Means
Colin Spencer, Homosexuality: A History
Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net
Herbert Strang, Round the World in Seven Days
The Old Man of the Mountain
Mrs Herbert Strang, The Girl Crusoes
Neil Strauss, ed., Radiotext(e)
Boris and Arkaday Strugatsky, Hard to Be a God (film reviewed)
Preston and Sandy Sturges, Preston Sturges on Preston Sturges

Rose Tremain, The Road Home

Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation
Authority
Acceptance
Dai Vaughan, Odd Man Out
Jules Verne, The Sphinx of the Ice Realm

HG Wells, The Autocracy of Mr Parham
The Time Machine
Brian Willems, Shooting the Moon
Jeanette Winterson, The Stone Gods
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

Gene Luen Yang, Boxers
Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We
Benjamin Zephaniah, Refugee Boy