Sci-Fi Comes to the ‘Hood
by Gary Phillips
... or I bet the Brother in the Red Tunic Dies First on the Alien Planet
In 2008 Chris Chambers and I co-edited a collection of edgy prose super-hero stories called The Darker Mask. Text versions of these sort of stories are a departure from the usual way they’re told in sequential comics form. But given the fantastic nature of such tales, we were published by Tor, a large (they are part of Macmillan) New York house who puts out science-fiction fare. As is the custom at Tor for certain books, DM was issued in hardback and tradepaper simultaneously. We had some big guns giving us their take on the genre including Walter Mosley, Lorenzo Carcaterra, husband and wife writers Steve Barnes and Tananarive Due, Mat Johnson and our late friend, Jerry A. Rodriguez.
As you might ascertain from the anthology’s title and the line-up, people of color as the main characters was the emphasis of the book’s stories. Understand, the stories weren’t about taking it to the man, down with whitey or passages of burly black men schupting nubile blondes—indeed there wasn’t too much schupting in the book at all. For the most part what me and Chris set out to construct, good ol’ well-written escapist stuff, was what we got. Tor, and it’s fair to say all of us, had high hopes for the book. Despite some positive reviews and several of the writers getting interviewed on podcasts aimed at the comics and sci-fi audiences, knowing there’s plenty of overlap, the book bombed. But a lot of books bomb despite the best of intentions. Did the fact that a good number of the characters in the book were black create a barrier of disinterest among the majority white comics and sci-fi readership? Maybe we should have had more schupting.
I don’t know. Conversely it’s not like the book took off among black readers either. I was told secondhand that there had been a particular editor of a well-known sci-fi journal who refused to run an upbeat review of the book because he’d allegedly said, and I’m paraphrasing here but not his use of the Big N, “Niggers can’t write science fiction.” His not running the review is not the cause of Darker Mask tanking, but it may indicate an undercurrent that continues in the sci-fi universe.
In his 1998 essay, “Racism and Science Fiction,” Samuel R. Delany, the godfather of black sci-fi writers, opines on this subject and recounts some historical, and hysterical, examples of past African American penned sci-fi-ish work. In 1931 George Schuyler wrote a satire called Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933-1940. In the book Max Dasher and his sidekick Bunny use a device described as a cross between a dentist’s chair and a electric chair, to turn themselves white and in Delany’s words, “… make their way through a world made topsy-turvy by the spreading racial ambiguity and deception.” The two white creators of the machine are lynched toward the end of the book by a group of whites who conclude these two are really black men in disguise.
While the book was reviewed in the black press, apparently the sci-fi pulp mags of the day did not do so. Though it’s not as if “message” sci-fi like Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come was ignored by such presses. It’s worth noting too that Schyler practiced what he preached, at least as far as his daughter Philippa was concerned. Her mom was white and the parents raised the daughter as an example of their belief that racial intermarriage would produce not an inferior race, but a superior one. The daughter was a child prodigy who gave piano concerts playing classical music. She also embraced her father’s conservative values. Though she did play out the Tragic Mulatto trope as well, ducking at times her racial identity. She died as a war correspondent covering the Vietnam war. A biography was written about her, Composition in Black and White: The Life of Philippa Schuyler, by Kathryn Talalay in 1995. In 2004, piano woman and composer Alicia Keys was set to play her in a bio-pic, but it hasn’t been produced as of yet.
But race, like it is in all of American society, has been the third rail in sci-fi as well. Delany goes on in his essay to note that even after winning a Nebula for his novel Babel-17 from the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1967, his attempts at serializing a new novel, Nova, in the famous Analog Magazine was rejected. The head editor John W. Campbell, Jr. rejected it and called his agent to say he dug the work, but he didn’t think his readers would relates to Nova’s black (albeit mixed-race with a Senegalese mother and a Norwegian dad) main character.
On January 10, 1969, Star Trek broadcast in its third season “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” from a story by the show’s producer-director Gene L. Coon, with the teleplay by Oliver Crawford—based according to Wikipedia on an outline by Barry Trivers. Impressionist (he did a great Burt Lancaster) and actor Frank Gorshin—known then for his portrayal as the cackling villain the Riddler on the campy Batman TV show, and Lou Antonio, played the guest stars. They were the survivors of a war ravaged planet still fighting for their side when they’re beamed up to the Enterprise. Each has literally a half-black and half-face, the two mirror opposites on which side their colors are on their angry visages. The story plays out as a metaphor about race relations and the caustic effects of what can happen if, well, we don’t all learn to get along.
Original Trek also gave us The Kiss, also broadcast in the third season. The episode was “Plato’s Stepchildren” and it first aired on November 22, 1968. Written by Meyer Dolinsky, Captain Kirk and crew are held in thrall by beings with telekinetic powers whose society is a parallel to Ancient Greece. Our heroes are made the playthings of these beings. At one point, using their wicked mind control, Kirk and female black Lt. Uhuru are forced, forced I tell you, to kiss.
NBC execs got nervous about this segment. There had already been some stations in the South that wouldn’t air the show due to having a reoccurring black character in Uhuru to begin with and now this business. Forget that Kirk had gotten down with Asian-looking alien chicks, green women … this was too much. According to various versions from the two principals, they were directed to do a take where they touched lips and where, you know, using their will and shit, they did not—or could be the camera would just cut away. They did the kiss, with a head turn as you can see below, and then supposedly on purpose messed up any other take so the kiss had to be used.
I recall too watching a Trek in the 70s and my Aunt Margaret was over at the house. Kirk and a couple of supernumerary crew members beam down to an unknown planet. My aunt cracked that the black cat holding the phaser in the red shirt was going to die first and sure enough, the aliens pop up and the brother got turned into a cube if I recall correctly. Thus the old adage of the black character dying first in a sci-fi or horror outing being upheld.
When the first Star Wars movie hit the big screens with better sets and production values than Original Trek enjoyed, the then developing franchise was criticized for its absence of color in the future. Billy Dee Williams was thereafter cast as the roguish Lando Calrissian in the other two of the first trio of movies. Samuel L. Jackson shows up in the next trio of Star Wars movies as Jedi Council member Mace Windu and there are a series of Star Wars novels with Calrissian as the main character.
In syndication we got Star Trek: Voyager with a woman captain and a Latino playing an American Indian first officer. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine with a black captain, Avery Books, but not channeling Hawk—though how cool would that have been? “You Klingon bastards got two minutes to get the hell off my space station, or I start blasting.”
Back in the Star Wars realm, we also got the retrograde the Jar Jar Binks alien character in The Phantom Menace. The character engendered a lot of heated online discussions about his Stepin Fetchit like speech and mannerisms. This Binkism is what bugged me about the sci-fi film District 9. As I noted on our allied blog, Dr. Pop last year, this flick about aliens stranded in a shantytown outside Johannesburg, South Africa while attempting to be, like that old Trek episode, a commentary on racism I found to be racist in its depiction of the so-called “Prawns.” I guess the point was that white and black folks shat on them equally as they always remained alien to humans. Still District 9’s insensitivity can’t compare to what went down on Rickety Rocket from Ruby-Spears animation in 1979.
Rickety Rocket was a series of cartoon shorts in the future where four black teenager who run the Far Out Detective Agency and their big-lipped talking rocket comically solved crimes in space. One of the characters was named Sun Stroke. And yes, the kids and the rocket all talked in broad, exaggerated black speech. I imagine Ruby-Spears didn’t call in Mr. Delany as a story consult fearing he would no doubt set fire to every print of that damned show.
Interestingly, it’s two of the Predator films, Predator 2 and the first Alien vs. Predator, that give us two black heroic leads in a sci-fi action setting. It was a man (Danny Glover in the former) and the lovely Sanaa Lathan (in the latter, and far more deserving than being the voice of Donna Tubbs in the Cleveland cartoon show) who the dreadlocked rockin’ Predators have admiration for after these characters kill off some of their fellows.
Props also go to the sci-fi action UK film, Attack the Block. Written and directed by Joe Cornish, Attack is about a rooty-poot bunch of would-be teenaged gangstas in a South London estate, a housing project. They’ve just braced one of the residents, a nurse, in the middle of the night for her shit when a blazing meteorite slams into a nearby car. Only it turns out to be a creature and the gang, ignorant and fearful as humans are wont to be, kill it. More aliens descend onto the project similarly like falling meteors—a riff on how the Martian flying saucers look when they come to Earth in the 1950s War of the Worlds. Soon like in Super 8, it’s these kids versus the aliens—well in that film there’s only one, big nasty human ass flesh eating alien to wrassle. Block’s aliens are deceptively cute; they look black furry teddy bears only with double sets of blue glowing teeth that can rip your face off.
Moses, who is black, is the leader of the rooty-poots, a mixed-race crew. He, the others and their white female mugging victim must band together to defeat the aliens. Attack the Block in the tradition of great little B sci-fi flicks like 1950s The Thing from Another World (based on the short story “Who Goes There?” by the John Campbell who tuned down Delany’s novel) works as scary fun, while not shortchanging on the clever dialogue and dimensional characterizations.
What Campbell didn’t learn from being in the sci-fi field, like that racist editor who wouldn’t run the Darker Mask review, is that sci-fi is not only about strange situations and a speculative future, but its about characters who reflect us—all of us. It’s grown more than just the days of the blonde blue-eyed Flash Gordon and the Asiatic Ming the Merciless as the yellow peril villain. How could it not grow when sci-fi at its best is visionary, far-reaching and inclusive, not simply an old boys outpost on some distant planet where blacks, other people of color, and women aren’t allowed.