by Norman Spinrad
SWEEP OF STARS
by Maurice Broaddus
* * *
THE CITY WE BECAME
by N.K. Jemisin
* * *
by Nnedi Okorafor
* * *
By now “science fiction” has come to be used as the moniker of any fiction that speculates around the nonexistent but possible and does not violate the known scientific laws of mass and energy.
But in reality science fiction does not necessarily focus on science or technology, and that which does is called “hard” science fiction by its literary devotees.
Both of these subgenres are generally called science fiction, but what they really both are is speculative fiction. And the so-called New Wave writers and critics who wanted to combine it with so-called “serious literary fiction” called their version “Speculative Fiction,” but were thus able to keep “SF” as the logo for commercial reasons.
SF has likewise been gobbled up by films, TV, computer games, comic books, and so forth—worse still, there is the odious “Sci-fi”—to the point where “Science Fiction” and “SF” have lost all literary meaning.
So I use the logo SF inclusively to refer to all science fiction, hard or otherwise, as well as all genuine speculative fiction, and try to clean up “SF” as a needed useful literary meaning.
Okay, so that is what I mean by SF writers, and anyone knows that “arising” is the opposite of falling.
There are many more successful female SF writers and writers of color than there were way back when the major readership was dominantly male, and so-called “fandom” at that. And there was and is a complex circle between who is reading it and who is writing it.
And back then Octavia E. Butler and Samuel Delany were really the two major SF writers of general note who were people of color. Both of whom were excellent writers, and generally acknowledged as such. But now some writers of color who did not come to reading and writing SF via fandom, and therefore are beyond the restraints of commercial genre, are raising SF toward part of a more encompassing general literature. Through their work, we see SF becoming the dominant literature of our culture, an opening to what is becoming SF and what SF is becoming.
For example, consider The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin, Noor, by Nnede Okorafor, and Sweep of Stars, by Maurice Broaddus.
Jemisin is an SF writer of color, and of proven talent in more traditional SF, which is no longer as it once was. But more importantly than color or race, she is not a born daughter of New York City.
But New York is the city in which her five New Yorkers do become the city: avatars of the five boroughs, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island.
Yes, the majority of them are people of color, and a majority are women. That sort of thing has become normal by now, is deliberately making a political point.
But that isn’t a major point that Jemisin is making in The City We Became. The major point is that Jemisin, who was not born in New York, has gotten the cultures, the consciousnesses, the economics, the music, the food, the clothes, the very beings of the five boroughs down pat, and this is being said by a born and bred New Yorker.
There are the complex colors, religions, cultures, local realities, of the reality of the city in which they indeed do become its avatars, and by which they eventually become the combined avatar of the city, E pluribus unum in spades. This aspect of the novel is as mimetic as SF can get in realistic terms.
But the story would seem to open as utter fantasy, with monsters from another literary nonreality invading New York City and science fiction. The five borough avatars must save both, a la H.P. Lovecraft.
However, Jemisin slowly and logically reveals that there is a kind of rubber science connecting the “fantasy” element to the SF mimetics. Outrageously, to be sure, in terms of any conventional science fiction, but literarily well done enough to suspend disbelief and create a new literary aspect of a more openly speculative fiction.
A fantasy element, yet presented as if it was not exactly denying the rules of mass and energy.
But rules of the mass and energy of whose reality? These days there is less agreement upon the supposedly universal realities of mass and energy even within the sciences themselves.
And “fiction” is not required to be anything at all, because whatever it is, it is literature, whether fantasy or science fiction, mimetic or not. SF literature, when it knows that it is ultimately literary speculative fiction to the core, doesn’t have to be defined by any genre rules. It can use fantasy elements, just as so-called “serious literature” has been freeing itself to include SF elements.
What does this have to do with SF writers of color raising SF by opening it to such expansions? Particularly SF writers of color?
Well, SF at least in the genre mode, was more or less born in the English language, and published in America and Britain to a predominant readership of young white men. Like it or not, the politics and culture of the time meant that SF largely ignored people of color, and likewise women.
But unfair as it was at the time, there was a positive result to this that is only revealing itself now. In part due to such TV shows and films as Star Trek and Star Wars, there are larger readerships of women, of color or not, and of all people of color of any gender. Readers and writers of color today by and large have not arrived at SF via fandom and genre SF. And so they have been freed of the literary restraints that define genre SF.
Such as the commercial requirements of white Anglo heroes and, secondarily, heroines. And even of dominant Anglo American cultures and geographies.
Perhaps the strongest example of this is Noor, by Nnedi Okorafor, an SF novel published in America, as with a number of Okorafor’s works, that takes place entirely in Nigeria. A future Nigeria. Written by a Nigerian American of color and released as straight SF by a genre SF publisher.
As a white American SF writer who has never visited Nigeria, I nevertheless wrote Osama the Gun, a novel that partly takes place in a future Nigeria.
But it was not a future like Nnedi Okorafor’s future Nigeria. Which, among other things, though it was published in the United States in English, reads as if it were written directly for a Nigerian readership—indeed, a Nigerian SF readership.
Does such a readership already exist in Nigeria? From the publication of books like the anthology Africa Risen, it’s clear that such a readership is building. But should this novel be published in Nigeria it will arise even more. And not as a SF fandom, because a Nigerian readership would regard Noor as a literarily, culturally, and politically serious general novel.
Because such a novel, such an SF novel set in such a Nigerian future, has, at least to my white American knowledge, not before been published in either Nigeria or elsewhere. Nothing like this vision of a future of Nigeria, or probably any such SF future of an African country. And not only that, Noor is by any definition hard science fiction.
Nigerian hard science fiction.
The story takes place a century or so in our planet’s future, a future in which current climate changes have affected Nigeria, now the biggest nation in Africa, and of course not to its geographical benefit. Southern Nigeria, like the rest of the planet, has its problems, but Northern Nigeria, something of a desert to begin with, has been hit harder.
But this future Nigeria, which Anglo-American readers would probably not expect, is a scientific and technically advanced Nigeria, and perhaps the most advanced nation on the planet.
In Northern Nigeria an enormous windmill has been built to capture the mighty winds and create more electricity than anywhere else on the planet. And Nigerian high-tech technology has created a means of sending this electric power to much of the planet directly via the internet.
And this is not sci-fi bullshit, or even SF rubber science—this is scientifically credible hard science fiction. And even more is Noor herself, the first-person heroine storyteller. In this high-tech future, some people, mostly Southerners, have robotic hands, arms, legs, and so forth, even internal improvements—some of necessity, some by choice, some, like Noor, both.
Noor was born without two usable arms, hands, and legs, and with biological problems that would have probably have killed her without artificial replacements. And these replacements, at least some of them, are superior to the natural kit, stronger, faster, and so forth. Which is why some people without such natural problems choose nevertheless to get the replacements.
There are still tribal differences between the predominately Muslim and nomadic tribes of the north and those of the more urban and high-tech south, but beings like Noor are often regarded by both as not really human, soulless even, and sometimes treated as such.
Noor is attacked by a group of thugs for no other reason and has to easily kill some of the assailants, becoming a murderer on the run chased wherever she goes via the internet. She eventually meets a nomad who is a similar innocent fleeing a murderer, up North toward the great windmill.
Without disclosing too much, Noor learns that she was, or still is, the result of an experiment, which has given her some kind of direct contact with everything and everyone via the internet, and also with a certain power toward everyone and everything on line.
All this and more, mind you, is done as credible hard science fiction, or perhaps at least as good as rubber science, and this is true and successful SF. And more, very good SF, acceptable hard science fiction—but there is an interesting something else, a literary something else.
While this novel is narrated in first person by Noor, Okorafor does something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Noor sometimes has her first person narrator remain in first person while listening to other characters tell their personal stories to her in their first person literary voices. This is very clever, to be sure.
I think there is something here for all writers, definitely SF writers, to learn. Just as so-called serious non-SF literary writers have now started using SF in their otherwise non-SF novels, this is a way in which SF writers can use fantasy in their novels without really denying the speculative rules of known mass and energy.
After all, all literature, whether mimetic or not, fantasy or SF, is to some extent speculative, existing entirely in purely literary reality, or it wouldn’t be fiction at all. And both fantasy and SF are the only fictions that know and admit that they are fiction.
* * *
Maurice Broaddus, author of The Knights of Breton Court trilogy, Pimp My Airship, and two YA books, is a middle school teacher and a community organizer. His latest novel is brilliant, complex, deep, and also somewhat confusing.
Sweep of Stars is the masterly work of a mature and serious novelist with high literary and political intentions. And one who is apparently well read and with general sophisticated knowledge of everything from human histories to sciences, cuisines, clothing, philosophies, architecture—what used to be called a Renaissance Man, and one who knows it with a reasonable pleasure.
The novel is set in our Solar System something like a few centuries after a complex history of wars, with more subtle political back and forth struggles still going on. The Earth, the Moon, Mars, the moons of the gas giants are the stage. In other words, everything in the Solar System that can be colonized has been colonized, all of them have governments of various kinds, and while there is still a rather backward and still would-be white overlord tribe, most of the tribes of most of the Solar System are Black.
I call them Black because Broaddus does. And not only that, he describes everyone by exact shades of black or brown colors, and even beyond that, the darker the hue the better. This would seem to be a sardonic take on the days when Americans believed the lighter the skin the better—a white racialism, or something of the same racialism within peoples of color.
This sort of thing is, or hopefully was, something very American.
But paradoxically or not, Broaddus describes everyone by what tribal clothes they wear, their cuisines, their music, and such, and not only in great detail, but in beautiful detail.
And paradoxically or not, this American SF novelist creates a multicultural, multiracial, multi-political Solar System that is not so much simply Black, but African.
I happen to have a cookbook that calls itself A Taste of Africa—Traditional & Modern African Cooking. The different and yet connected cuisines of ten major African cultures, as well as six other non-African cultures whose cuisines have collected African flavors.
Sweep of Stars has the same overall African flavor, and obviously deliberately so.
An SF novel set in more than a Black American future, defined as a Solar System by its triumph over white supremacy, but a dominantly African future with all of the present cultural complexities of current Africa.
Sweep of Stars is full of words and names from many African languages. This doesn’t exactly make it easier to read, but it does announce Broaddus’ intention and makes the novel that much more authentic.
And curiously or not, none of these states and tribes are really what we could call democracies. This would seem to be both a comment on Africa’s current political situation and something more politically revolutionary.
The deep histories of Africa begin with rule by tribal chieftains, none of whom were elected by the whole of the people, and then evolving into ruling royalties as in Europe. And there are those who would contend that such is the natural African way, which is why democracy is not, and therefore is a frail overlay.
Not that current European democracy is not. But Broaddus gives us Muungano, a sort of imperfect but workable utopia knowingly grown out of this African manner.
Though I wonder, or indeed rather almost have to believe, that Broaddus, who after all is a teacher, was influenced by Plato’s Republic. That work is not only skeptical of democracy because it will tend to degenerate into dictatorship by the majority of the mob, but because supposedly the best rulers are chosen by small groups of lesser rulers who have proven to each other that they are intellectually and morally suitable.
That is more or less the method of Broaddus’ Muungano, but unlike Plato, he makes his case than this will make a more moral and loving people, because Muungano is also a kind of philosophical religion, and visa versa. And while it is nothing like democracy, it does take from the Platonian idea that political decisions should be made by debate among those who are well chosen.
There are many interesting characters in Sweep of Stars, well created to the point where not many really stand out, likewise the intrigues and battles. There may be somewhat too many of these, although this may be deliberate. But all in all this is a great novel that should waltz into the Nebula and Hugo, if these awards still have any meaning.
But therein lies a difficult decision for SF writers of serious intent and good or even great talent, such as Maurice Broaddus, N.K. Jemisin, and Nnedi Okorafor. And color, race, and gender in these generally enlightened times have nothing to do with it.
Both Jemisin and Okorafor have published series novels successfully, and the two of them at least ended their so-called freestanding novels with endings that openly promise that they are, or will be, the first novels of series.
The City We Became was announced as the first part of a two-novel story, but when the second novel came out, it was called the second novel of a three-novel series. And if there is a third series novel, maybe it will be announced as the third novel in an open series. Easy enough to do, because there are enough major cities to keep the series going indefinitely. Given the ending of the story, a Noor series seems unlikely. But who knows? The character Noor has her possibilities.
But Maurice Broaddus’ Sweep of Stars is as an extreme example of a literarily great novel, indeed a literarily great novel openly trying to become the first novel of an open series. Broaddus has ended the novel with at least three openings for turning a completed novel into an open series by spraying characters from this novel beyond our own Solar System via the all too common rubber science of wormholes.
Beyond that, way beyond that, after the end of the novel Sweep of Stars, the book has five pages of character notes and glossary, as if Maurice Broaddus is not merely announcing the opening of a novel series, but pitching for a Sweep of Stars TV series on Netflix.
And Broaddus, being a great SF novelist, may very well succeed in becoming a master SF novelist, a la George R.R. Martin.
A decade or so ago, a fellow whose intelligence and knowledge I respected, and who was drinking nothing stronger than tea, declared that “science fiction” was dying, if not already dead. This seemed ridiculous then, and all the more so now.
But now I can see there is something to it, and perhaps understand what he had meant, but didn’t quite understand or didn’t have the right words for because they didn’t exactly exist then. But they do now.
“Science Fiction” is not dying. “Speculative Fiction,” “SF” is not only not dying, but is being expanded as a potent chosen element in serious fiction in general.
What is dying is genre sci-fi.
Because any genre is defined by its requirements and censorships. There can be great genre fiction, there can be crappy genre fiction, there can be cynical genre fiction, there can even be sincere genre fiction, but there cannot be first amendment freedom genre fiction. Genre fiction is the production of the publishing business wherein the bottom line is the bottom line because it has to be.
And, as you may have noticed, writers, all writers, successful or not, idealistic or not, are in the publishing business. Harlan Ellison had a sign in his house that read “I am an artiste and I should be free of business.” But Ernest Hemingway said “When I write, I’m an artist, when I finish it, I become a son of a bitch.”
Jeff Bezos declared that Amazon would become publishing. Things having become what they are, as a critic I have to be a journalist, and to keep track of what this has done to the genres of both SF and sci-fi.
Fifty thousand sci-fi and SF books on Amazon, and almost all of them are in series.
Think about that, would-be SF writers. What do you want to become? Who do you want to read it? Worshipping fandoms? The general public?
I have perhaps all too often written that the price of freedom is taking care of business.
True enough, but all too often taking care of business can cost you your freedom.
“You think you’ve won the octopus, but the octopus has won you.”
Bye, bye sci-fi, long live SF.
Copyright © 2023 Norman Spinrad