Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond

Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond

This anthology attempts to address a dearth of speculative fiction stories featuring people of culture, or as the editors call them, “people of color.” Mothership’s press release includes this bit: “while studio executives continue to show the world’s multi-hued population through its monochromatic lens…” That provocative statement elicits a full stop.

Such “colorful” stars as Duane Jones, Harry Belafonte, Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Zoe Saldana, Whoopi Goldberg, Wesley Snipes, Eddie Murphy, Morgan Freeman, Nichelle Nichols, Laurence Fishburne, Samuel Jackson, Billy Dee Williams, Forest Whitaker, Levar Burton, and Jaye Davidson, to name a few, have provided racial diversity in speculative fiction films for many years now. And that’s just from the relevant section of the chromatic spectrum. Therefore, to compare the diversity in this volume to an alleged lack of diversity in films sets an expectation that the stories here will include people of culture as main characters—not just bit players, faces in the literary crowds, or sidekicks.

Additionally, Mothership cannot escape comparison with similar anthologies. Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, edited by Sheree R. Thomas and published in 2000, included twenty-nine stories and five discussion-provoking essays. In 2005, it was followed by a second anthology, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, which contained twenty-four stories and three essays. Milton J. Davis and Charles R. Saunders’s Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology of fifteen stories was published in 2011. That these volumes exist changes the question Mothership needs to answer from “where did the people of color in science fiction go” to “why is it still necessary in this day and age for us to have conversations about race and speculative fiction.”

Clearly, people of culture have been represented in speculative fiction for some time—as under- and mis- represented as many other groups, perhaps, but represented nonetheless. Therefore the challenge for Mothership is to present stories that not only offer characters of culture, but also are, in and of themselves, good speculative fiction pieces. Diversity—racial or otherwise—cannot come at the expense of solid storytelling.

Mothership’s table of contents announces thirty-nine stories:

“I Left My Heart in Skaftafell” by Victor LaValle
“Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows” by N.K. Jemisin
“The Runner of n-Vamana” by Indrapramit Das
“The Last of Its Kind” by Kawika Guillermo
“Bludgeon” by Thaddeus Howze
“The Farming of Gods” by Ibi Zoboi
“The Hungry Earth” by Carmen Maria Machado
“The Half-Wall” by Rabih Alameddine
“Unathi Battles the Black Hairballs” by Lauren Beukes
“Amma” by Charles R. Saunders
“The Homecoming” by Chinelo Onwualu
“Life-pod” by Vandana Singh
“Skin Dragons Talk” by Ernest Hogan
“Bio-Anger” by Kiini Ibura Salaam
“The Voyeur” by Ran Walker
“Dances with Ghosts” by Joseph Bruchac
“Four Eyes” by Tobias Buckell
“Live and Let Live” by Linda D. Addison
“In the Belly of the Crocodile” by Minister Faust
“The Pavilion of Frozen Women” by S.P. Somtow
“Waking the Gods of the Mountain” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
“The Aphotic Ghost” by Carlos Hernandez
Un Aperitivo Col Diavolo” by Darius James
“Othello Pop” by Andaiye Reeves
“Culling the Herd” by C. Renee Stephens
“A Brief History of Nonduality Studies” by Sofia Samatar
“Northern Lights” by Eden Robinson
“Protected Entity” by Daniel José Older
“The Parrot’s Tale” by Anil Menon
“One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sunlight” by Tade Thompson
“The Pillar” by Farnoosh Moshiri
“The Buzzing” by Katherena Vermette
“Angels and Cannibals Unite” by Greg Tate
“A Fine Specimen” by Lisa Allen-Agostini
“The Death Collector” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Fées des Dents” by George S. Walker
“The Taken” by Tenea D. Johnson
“Monstro” by Junot Díaz
“Good Boy” by Nisi Shawl

Only eleven of these have not been published elsewhere. If the press release statement that “the literary field of speculative fiction has become more diverse than ever” is true, one would expect more new stories than reprints here. In this review, we will cover only the never-before-published stories.

“The Last of Its Kind” by Kawika Guillermo

This is the collection’s fourth story and the first original piece in this anthology. However, it is all “tell” with no “show.” We never learn enough about the magician to know sex or race—not that either would matter. Nor do we learn enough about how or why things came to be as they are. There are no challenges or surprises here. Six-word synopsis: Magician introspects while hunting dying dragon.

“The Hungry Earth” by Carmen Maria Machado

The title is the only thing this tale shares with a Dr. Who episode. In this story, civilization has become decidedly uncivilized. Bird-men rule and humans are kept alive with nutrients uploaded to them via jacks hooked into their necks. Though the story takes place in Little Havana, if the events presented here are happening all over the world, this is another tale where neither color nor culture matter. Six-word synopsis: Humanity collapses. Survives on alien grace.

“The Homecoming” by Chinelo Onwualu

This story is told from alternating POVs. The first is Maltoush’s, the mal servant to a wealthy couple. His Mistress is the other POV character. The tale revolves around the events that occur after the Mistress’s husband returns to her after a five-year absence. There are obvious differences between Maltoush’s culture and that of his Mistress and Master. However, this tale of tribal culture contrasted with non-tribal culture is more contemporary than speculative fiction. Six-word synopsis: Servant condemned after Mistress commits suicide.

“Dances with Ghosts”by Joseph Bruchac

Here Harvey, an Indian man on a reservation, deals with the literal ghosts who inhabit his trailer. Harvey is a Renaissance man and war veteran who struggles against becoming a stereotypical drunken Indian. The Costner bits of this story are funny. And there are a few surprises along the way. Unfortunately, the pacing is off. The build-up is too long and the resolution too easy. At no time is Harvey in any real danger. Though correctly used, one word, incarnadined, calls attention to itself by being inconsistent with the rest of the story’s vocabulary. This story is a reversal of the typically clueless white people blithely defiling Indian burial grounds. Six-word synopsis: Indian man encounters ghosts on rez.

“Waking the Gods of the Mountain” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

This story is reminiscent of the movie Avatar and how the Resources Development Administration (RDA) planned to either relocate or destroy the Na’vi in order to mine unobtanium. One difference here is that unlike the movie, these tribal people do not need a non-tribal outsider to enlighten and lead them. When this tribe has had enough of losing their land and being relocated to tenements, they take matters into their own hands. From there, we get the fitting title of this story. Six-word synopsis: Jungle dwellers request mountain gods’ help.

“Othello Pop” by Andaiye Reeves

A nice piece of flash fiction, told about a place where, and time when, dark-skinned people—Blacks, Browns, Reds, and Yellows—are considered “infected with melanin,” “infected” being so much less offensive sounding than modern day racial slurs. Electronics have been banned as a resource conservation measure, and getting a library book requires being injected with illegal microchips. This is the freshest new piece in this collection so far, a fast and pleasant read. Six-word synopsis: In 2032, infected citizens shoot books.

“Culling the Herd” by C. Renee Stephens

It would be easy to abuse the kind of power presented in this story. Of course there are moral and ethical questions that would have to be examined. For example, do two wrongs make a right? Thinking of herself as neither superhero nor villain, a woman gradually comes into her own paranormal gift. She becomes capable of weeding out the bad seeds, rigging the Darwin awards, or, as she likes to think of it, culling the herd, by manipulating people’s energy fields. It makes one wonder who, indeed, is watching the watchers. Six-word synopsis: Woman gradually develops power to kill.

“The Parrot’s Tale” by Anil Menon

An old Brahmin husband, Sankara, and his illiterate young wife, Shanti, are as opposite as Jack Sprat and his wife. Sankara delights in telling his wife stories as he rests his head in her lap while she massages his eyebrows until he falls asleep. The stories and physical contact arouse Shanti, but being forward is not a woman’s place. After an encounter with magical parrots, Sankara undergoes a transformation. The story’s title refers to stories that cannot be told for reasons that are subtly rather than blatantly explained. Six-word synopsis: Pundit meets parrots and learns lust.

“The Buzzing” by Katherena Vermette

This is a first person POV story. We never learn the narrator’s name. There is a lot of post-apocalyptic “tell” and not much “show” here. After bombs explode—time and place unidentified so it is unclear if this is an alternate history—there is deafening buzzing. Then things get worse. That’s it. We never learn why the bombs were dropped or by what forces. That there is a Ruling and a lower class is mentioned, but we never see any real conflict from the distinction. In fact, there is no real conflict or danger anywhere in this story other than the narrator being jostled in a crowd. Six-word synopsis: Bombs cause buzzing and acid rain.

“Angels and Cannibals Unite” by Greg Tate

The beginning of this story brings to mind a mash-up between the movie, Brother from Another Planet, and the novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. An extraterrestrial angeloid lands in New York and indulges in an act of auto-cannibalism before offering itself to a witness. After recovering from the shock that the offer to eat the angeloid is real, the onlooker indulges. A delicacy such as the Angeloid Chris is one that simply must be shared with confidantes. What is lovely here is how both the sex and sexual orientation of the narrator are deftly woven into the story. This is the kind of story a griot or bard might tell. Six-word synopsis: Regenerating angeloid encourages cannibalism; offers transmigration.

“A Fine Specimen” by Lisa Allen-Agostini

The last of the new stories in this collection is the one that should have been this anthology’s opener. This delightful tale exemplifies the collection’s theme. It is written in Trinidadian English, about Trini culture. In this story, “wine” is a verb, not a noun. The narrator regales us with a tale about a man she meets at J’Ouvert, a large street party during Carnival. As the narrative unfolds, it seems like nothing more than a native Trini talking about the interaction. At the end, the story takes an unexpected yet logical turn. If this were an Aesop’s fable, the moral would be, “dis time nuh like before time,” as my mother used to say. Six-word synopsis: Trini woman surprised after J’Ouvert wining.

This anthology’s press release begins with, “When we look up at the night sky, space is black as far as the eye can see. Yet when we read novels about it or watch something on TV or in the movie theater, it is white beyond all comprehension.” As a counterpoint, this anthology is not much different than the movies, which, as we’ve already mentioned, are more colorful in at least the past two decades than the press release would have us believe.

Afrofuturism, as coined and defined by Mark Dery, means “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture—and more generally, African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.” The word is not an empty catch-all.

Though this collection purports to expand on the speculative fiction genre by infusing it with more color, the anthology has the feel of one that has lost its way. There are stories here that have little to nothing to do with Afrofuturism—or beyond; some have little to nothing to do with speculative fiction. Yes, there are good and relevant stories as well. Most of them have been seen before. To support its “dynamic, genre-expanding” premise would require that the cultures and characters in these stories—not just their authors—be consistently and meaningfully aligned with Afrofuturism or whatever is imagined to be beyond it. That is not the case here.Thirty-nine stories in this anthology, only eleven of them never-before published. Of the reprints, some of them are available for free on the Internet.

A version of this review appears on the Tangent Online website.

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