While we've always been avid science fiction and fantasy readers, it's impossible to overlook one of the genre's most glaring problems—namely, its predominant whiteness. Luckily, there has been a surge in dialogue regarding this lack of diversity, and more and more voices are being heard, published, and given the praise they deserve. There is still a ways to go before our books reflect the heterogeneity of our off-page lives, but steps have been taken in the right direction.
Below, you'll find a list of black science fiction and fantasy authors whose work has left, or is currently leaving, a footprint on the genre we all love. It may be Black History Month, but appreciating writers like Octavia E. Butler and Samuel R. Delany should be something we do all year round.
Octavia E. Butler
Parable of the Sower
Read any “Best of SF/F" list, and you’ll inevitably find Octavia Butler’s name—regardless of race and gender. Butler began writing at the age of ten when, motivated to overcome her dyslexia, she penned a short story that would later become her Patternist series. By college, she was winning writing contests and, again, publishing the first seedling of another classic, Kindred. Raised by her widowed mother in a diverse but segregated Pasadena community, Butler often channelled her own experiences into her fiction. In fact, on the subject of Butler’s iconic novel, Parable of the Sower, author N.K. Jemisin says “she wrote...the world as it actually is,” offering "futurism" rather than "escapism." Parable follows a black 15-year-old refugee who creates a revolutionary philosophy, Earthseed, to ensure the survival of humankind.
Samuel R. Delany
William Gibson called Dhalgren an unsolvable riddle—a statement that Delany himself affirms in the video above. But while the novel’s complexity was praised by some and scorned by others, its contribution to the science fiction community is indisputable. Drawing from his stint at a mental hospital and the suppression of his homosexuality, Delany used Dhalgren to portray race, sexuality, and identity in ways the genre had never done before. It’s set in the mind-bending city of Bellona, which becomes a mecca for marginalized individuals after an near-apocalyptic disaster.
Walter Mosley has described his science fiction as being about “how humans want to be very important but, in the end are not very important.” Such is the theme running through his nine-story collection, Futureland, which depicts a society divided by technology and economic wealth. “Whispers in the Dark” is about a young POC genius who, because of his intelligence, can be lawfully taken by the government. The final story, “The Nig in Me,” shows the effects of a virus—one created to destroy the black race—that has unexpectedly backfired on its white supremacist engineers. Each story paints a picture of an America that is frightening, but at the same time seems far too close at hand.
Born in Jamaica and raised in Trinidad, then Canada, Nalo Hopkinson has been heavily influenced by her heritage. With both parents enjoying lit-oriented careers—her mother was a library technician and her father, a poet and professor—she was introduced to Afro-Caribbean folklore and Western classics at an early age. From her debut, Brown Girl in the Ring, to her World Fantasy Award-winning Skin Folk, Hopkinson infuses her science fiction with a long standing appreciation for Caribbean storytelling, in addition to using it as an avenue for addressing issues of race, class, and sexuality.
Though Ishmael Reed primarily wrote literary fiction, his foray into magical realism—this 1972 novel—belongs in every fantasy reader’s collection. As with all of his work, Reed gives underrepresented African Americans a voice—though Mumbo Jumbo features a unique twist. The story takes place in an alternate 1920s as a disease, “the Jes Grew,” sweeps across the nation and "plagues" people with the desire to dance. As white society tries to prevent the epidemic from spreading, another man steps forward—a voodoo priest named PaPa LaBas—and tries keep it alive. Reed’s ingenious blend of fiction, real history, and light fantasy has made this National Book Award finalist a part of literary critic Harold Bloom's Western Canon, which includes the 500 most important books in said canon.
The Broken Earth Series
The three-time Hugo Award winner hardly needs an introduction, but we’ll try anyways: N.K. Jemisin first burst onto the scene in 2010 with her critically-acclaimed short story, “Non-Zero Probabilities,” and equally praised first novel in her Broken Earth trilogy, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Often compared to the aforementioned Octavia Butler, she has since become the first African American author to take home the “Best Novel” Hugo Award—which she won for The Fifth Season. In 2018, she had another historic win when The Stone Sky, the third book in the Broken Earth trilogy, won a Hugo, making her the first-ever author to win three consecutive Hugo Awards, and to win a Hugo for every novel in a series. Jemisin's groundbreaking series "[focuses] on an oppressive society at the macro scale and what that society does to individuals," including an impoverished WOC living among privileged whites (New York Times).
Who Fears Death
After a devastating surgery limited her mobility, Nigerian author Nnedi Okorafor swapped her burgeoning track career for writing. It was a successful venture, to say the least. By 2011, she was already the winner of several awards, including the World Fantasy Award for her novel Who Fears Death, which Publishers Weekly called “emotionally fraught." Partly inspired by women’s stories from the War in Darfur, Okorafor sets her tale in post-apocalyptic Sudan where Onye—a “half breed,” sorceress, and child of rape—must accept and achieve her terrifying destiny. An adaptation of Who Fears Death is also in development at HBO, and will be produced by George R.R. Martin.
Sheree R. Thomas
Back in 1998, SF/F fan Sheree Thomas felt the genre’s black authors were grievously underappreciated. In response, she created Dark Matter—a groundbreaking showcase of black SF/F talent that, like the anthology’s namesake, existed but often went unseen. One of the most notable additions is W.E.B. Du Bois’ forgotten and racially-charged story, “The Comet,” about the survivors of a cosmic disaster. Also included in the anthology is a story by Charles W. Chesnutt—a trailblazer of the late 19th century—and other names that are, thankfully, now recognized due to Thomas’ efforts.
Redemption in Indigo
Among Karen Lord’s influences, which include Ray Bradbury and Terry Pratchett, is the rich history of oral tradition—something that inspired her “expanded folk tale,” Redemption in Indigo. The novel reimagines the Senegalese legend “Ansige Karamba the Glutton,” following a woman named Paama who, now free of her husband, is suddenly granted the power of Chaos. This piques the interest of the Indigo Lord who, as the former owner of this power, decides to steal it back ... Lord, a native of Barbados, is also the author of the emotional sci-fi epic The Best of All Possible Worlds.
The Palm-Wine Drinkard
After a difficult childhood and sporadic employment, Nigeria-born Amos Tutuola finally tried his hand at writing. His most famous novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, was the result of this initial experiment—a modern take on Yoruba folklore that Tutuola completed in the span of a few days. While it received mixed reviews in the 1950s, Drinkard is now regarded as a significant text of the African literary canon and charts the fantastical, almost hallucinatory, adventures of a boozy, Homer-style hero.
The Ballad of Black Tom
The winner of a Shirley Jackson Award—and a finalist for just about every other genre prize—Victor LaValle’s novella offers a new (and much-needed) interpretation of Lovecraft’s racist tale, "The Horror at Red Hook." While the Cthulhu mythos remains intact, LaValle has turned the rest of the story on its head, assuming the perspective of a black man working for the story's antagonist, Robert Suydam. The native New Yorker also recently published the full-length novel, The Changeling, which harkens back to the Brothers Grimm.
This post is sponsored by Open Road Media. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for The Portalist to continue publishing the stellar stories you love.
Featured photos of Octavia E. Butler, Walter Mosley, and Nalo Hopkinson: Alchetron