Book Review: Black and Brown Planets: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction edited by Isiah Lavender III

16 Oct

In his introduction to this collection of essays, Isiah Lavender III explains that Black and Brown Planets continues a conversation started in the science fiction community with Elisabeth Leonard’s 1997 anthology, Into Darkness Peering: Race and Color in the Fantastic. The cultural and literary criticism found here in looking at works of the recent past become particularly significant as we comprehend a future where, as Lavender III puts it, “the Western world ceases to be dominated by the white majority”:

SF has charted a few of the alternatives for this unknown territory, and the change presents both opportunities and challenges for society to establish new values. In short, skin color matters in our visions of the future…[To] transcend various repetitions of the color line – black, red, and brown – we must be conscious of these repetitions.

Black and Brown Planets edited by Isiah Lavender

As subtitled, Black and Brown Planets focuses on the politics (the strategy of obtaining a position of power/control) of race in science fiction with the essays divided into two parts. As with any criticism, it can be most fully appreciated if you are intimately familiar with the material being discussed. Yet, while helpful, I wouldn’t consider it essential for several of the essays here; they still have relevance that can be conveyed to interested readers.

Part One focuses on the portrayal of Black identity in science fiction from the African-American to Afrofuturism to postcolonial analysis in general. Living in the United States, having traveled to Africa, and having studied some French postcolonial literature, I personally found this part of the collection to be more approachable and comprehensible due to familiarity.

In this Black Planets part, essays by De Witt Douglas Kilgore and Gerry Canavan consider the simple but profound “Far Beyond the Stars” episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which addresses racism and gender bias in the history of science fiction publication. Simultaneously, as Kilgore points out, the episode marks a contrast of the past to a present-day vision of the future where a Black man is a Starfleet captain, station commander, and a political and spiritual emissary to another race:  an Afrocentric politic where “people of color determine human destiny” (as put by Lavender in his intro).

Though I’ve seen “Far Beyond the Stars”, I haven’t read The Star Pit, the other focal point of Canavan’s essay. Similarly, I haven’t read The Evening and the Morning and the Night discussed in Lavender’s contribution. However, I have at least read enough works by Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler to be familiar with their style and themes, permitting me to appreciate the general critiques. In a way, extending Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor criticism, Lavender’s essay considers Butler’s story of disease as metaphor for race where “those suffering from [a] fictional genetic illness…are in fact victims of cultural racism.” I look forward to reading these stories and returning to their discussion in these essays anew.

The final essay in the Black Planets portion of the book by Marleen S. Barr is noteworthy for offering appreciation for the power and potential the science fiction genre has had — and can achieve — to promote positive change from a young age. Yet, it also servers equally as a warning of how perpetuation of racial dominance or the ‘erasure’/’disregard’ of the Other’s presence in the genre can be dangerously manifested.

Brown Planets makes up the second part of the collection and includes consideration of Hispanic, Amerindian (indigenous), and, briefly, Oriental identity in science fiction. The specific discussions of these essays were admittedly harder for me to grasp, but their overall themes of addressing the effects of colonization and postcolonial recovery (return to the traditional) should be clear to all.  Likewise, the connection of this process to the apocalyptic genre is intriguing.

The second portion also contains interesting reflections on the science fiction themes of technological and/or corporate dominance and how these are used in plots and settings to alienate and repress. This analysis for me was clearest in Malisa Kurtz’ essay — again because of my familiarity with the subject, in this case her focus on the works of Paolo Bacigalupi. Bacigalupi’s works are intentionally disquieting in terms of technology, class, and environment. But for some reason, I had not recognized their equal critique of racial inequity that continues to be violently perpetuated in the bleak futures that many of his stories serve to paint.

Lavender concludes Black and Brown Planets with a “coda”, an essay by Robin Anne Reid that is one part criticism and one part data compilation/statistical analysis. Subtitled “The Politics of Race in Science Fiction Fandom”, it begins equally with the politics of gender.

Reid reviews the formation of the Carl Brandon Society at “the oldest and only feminist science fiction convention”, WisCon, in 1999. Forming in response to Delany’s 1998 article, “Racism and Science Fiction,” in The New York Review of Science Fiction, the group took its name from a 1950s fictional black fan invented by Terry Carr and Peter Graham. Its mission is “to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the production of and audience for speculative fiction,” and its vision is “a world in which speculative fiction, about complex and diverse cultures from writers of all backgrounds, is used to understand the present and model possible futures; and where people of color are full citizens in the community of imagination and progress.”

She then proceeds to relate the online fan ‘call-out’ dubbed The Wild Unicorn Check-In, where fans of color responded to a generalization by Lois McMaster Bujold by ‘calling out’ the white science fiction community for remaining ignorant of their existence (both present and past) in this “community of imagination and progress.” Bujold’s comment was viewed as a form of erasure, similar to one that can occur in alternate-history forms of science fiction where exploitations or non-dominant cultures are glossed over or excised.

After the historical background is established, Reid sets out to present an ontological study of this fan ‘call-out’ through a series of tables that illustrate the diversity of terms that were used by fans as self-identification:  racial, ethnic, national, etc.

I found Reid’s essay particularly relevant in light of another fictional fan (in this case an invented reviewer persona that served as social critique/performance art) and the questionable behaviors in reaction to her recent identification online. This incidence reinforces the points of Reid’s critique and The Wild Unicorn Chick-In itself. Namely, that “erasure of entire cultures based on racism exists, as do erasures of women and queer people” and that both the politics of race and gender continue to rear their ugly heads as individuals either willingly or unwillingly act/react to maintain dominance and control, perceived or actual.

The coda thereby serves as a fitting close to the collection, illustrating that the concerns of Black and Brown Planets extends beyond the physical pages of science fiction publications to the social interactions of the community itself, even online. Though it is the end to Lavender’s collection, he speaks in the introductory acknowledgements of additional essays that he couldn’t include, presumably due to length and publication costs. I recommend checking these essays out and will hope that this collection’s success will permit a follow-up, including discussion of African literature which is beyond the scope of this collection.



“Coloring Science Fiction” by Isiah Lavender III

Part One – Black Planets:
“The Bannekerade: Genius, Madness and Magic in Black Science Fiction” by Lisa Yaszek
“The Best is Yet to Come; or, Saving the Future: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as Reform Astrofuturism” by De Witt Douglas Kilgore
“Far Beyond the Star Pit: Samuel R. Delany” by Gerry Canavan
“Digging Deep: Ailments of Difference in Octavia Butler’s The Evening and the Morning and the Night” by Isiah Lavender III
“The Laugh of Anansi: Why Science Fiction is Pertinent to Black Children’s Literature Pedagogy” by Marleen S. Barr

Part Two – Brown Planets:
“Haint Stories Rooted in Conjure Science: Indigenous Scientific Literacies in Andrea Hairston’s Redwood and Wildfire” by Grace L. Dillon
“Questing for an Indigenous Future: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony as Indigenous Science Fiction” by Patrick B. Sharp
“Monteiro Lobato’s O presidente negro: Eugenics and the Corporate State in Brazil” by m. Elizabeth Ginway
“Mestizaje and Heterotopia in Ernest Hogan’s High Aztech” by M. Rivera
“Virtual Reality at the Border of Migration, Race, and Labor” by Matthew Goodwin
“A Dis-(Orient)ation: Race, Technoscience, and The Windup Girl” by Malisa Kurtz
“Yellow, Black, Metal, and Tentacled: The Race Question in American Science Fiction” by Edward James (updated with additional reflections ‘Twenty-Four Years On”)

The Wild Unicorn Herd Check-In: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction Fandom” by Robin Anne Reid



2 Responses to “Book Review: Black and Brown Planets: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction edited by Isiah Lavender III”

  1. Joseph Nebus October 17, 2014 at 1:55 am #

    Thanks for the review. The book seems rather interesting.


  1. Black and Brown Planets: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction, Edited by Isiah Lavender III | Reading 1000 Lives - October 16, 2014


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