Isiah Lavender: Dangerous Games With Artificial People

People of color die often and early in sf movies, an expendability reflecting society’s treatment of the group. And what group typically holds subordinate roles in sf? Again, people of color. Science fiction often demonstrates how social inequalities, discrimination, and prejudice will appear in the future, whether a future of absolute wonder or of obsolete junk. Yet, sf is filled with narratives that allow those from typically disenfranchised groups to transcend the limitations placed on them by society. Sf explores ideas with the potential to powerfully change the lived experience of humans. Sf explores identity alongside new ideas, new technology, new vistas for how humans will live.

Isiah Lavender, English Professor at Louisiana State University and author of Race in American Science Fiction (2011) and the forthcoming Classics of Afrofuturism, analyzes the role of race and racism in sf. Along with Adilifu Nama, his work has brought attention to how racial discourse has historically asserted itself almost unassumingly in sf. He discusses the work of sf writers that speak back to such institutionalized racism.

In Race in American Science Fiction, you note that sf has neglected issues of race or, at least, has applied levels of cognitive estrangement to represent other races as mutations, aliens, or some othered species. In other words, while the figures in sf might not appear as Native, Latin, or African-American, they read as if they are. So we have a resistance against representing characters as anything other than white and an additional problem that non-white characters generally fit into a monstrous or otherwise weird category. Since Race in American Science Fiction was published, the Star Wars franchise has altered this age-old approach. What do you make of the new sf cinema? Does it satisfy your call for ending the neglect and othering of issues of race in sf?

The latest installments of the Star Wars franchise prove to be a partial exception to the rule to my way of thinking. Finn, from The Force Awakens (2015), seems to be an essential character to the new trilogy and that's great, but why is he the only unmasked Storm Trooper that we see? Why don't we ever see a black imperial officer? What does it mean that the grunts appear to be people of color since only one of them has been unmasked?  While all the major players die in Rogue One (2016), Forest Whitaker's death is the most memorable, sacrificing himself for the rebellion after being a spent force, choosing to stay and die in the Death Star's initial test firing.

The new sf cinema hasn't changed all that much. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) barely features people of color and we are talking about a city composed of a thousand different worlds with knowledge from thousands of civilizations having to be saved by a white man, though Bubbles, played by Rihanna, predictably dies. In Alien: Covenant (2017), which I liked, all of the people of color die.  I'm sure there won't be a black replicant in the soon to be released Blade Runner 2049, and if there is, it will die. Of course, the live adaptation of the anime classic Ghost in the Shell (2017), features Scarlett Johansson and Michael Pitt as Asian characters that should have been casted as Asian actors in this amazing pop cultural phenomenon. I remember watching Ghost in the Shell with my Anime group at Southern University (an HBCU) in 1995 and being blown away by it.

The black scientists in both Interstellar [David Gyasi] (2014) and Life [Ariyon Bakare] (2017) die. In Kong (2017), Samuel L. Jackson dies; In Logan (2017) an entire black family dies. I don't recall any black actors in War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), though the racial allegory remains obvious even if all the primates are played by white actors. At least the character Sarah lives to the end in the post-apocalyptic disease thriller It Comes at Night (2017). Laurence Fishburne dies in Passengers as well (2016). For me, the true exception to the rule is Jordan Peele's Get Out(2017), strangely classified as a horror thriller. Listen, it's science fiction. Any time you have body swapping via techno-medicine you are talking sf. Of course, white folks bidding on black folks is certainly horror reminiscent of slave auctions, but the black guy wins at the end and kills the white female antagonist posing as his girlfriend to boot. That's crazy and daring for an American film to even touch on a lynch-able offense less than 50 years ago in our country's history. That's a science fictional "happy" ending if I ever saw one. To answer your question directly, NO, I do not think much has changed in the new sf cinema. Adilifu Nama could very easily write an extended sequel to his very important study Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film (2008). Of course, maybe Black Panther will change perceptions of the silver screen when it debuts in a few months’ time. I know I'm excited about it.

It's odd that 21st-century sf lags so far behind the novel form. Why are we stuck with Thomas Carlyle approved narratives of the Western colonizer as redeemer when writers like Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler write heroes that haven't yet appeared on film: the Rydra Wongs (right or wrongs) that comment on the double encoded nature of language or the Lauren Olaminas that sympathize with the suffering and trauma of others to the point of experiencing debilitating pain.

Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish philosopher/writer/historian/mathematician of Sartor Resartus fame, if not created, certainly tapped into the Victorian-era idea of the great man makes history that went hand-in-hand with colonization efforts in Africa, India, and other Far East locations. Other late Victorian/modernist writers like H. Rider Haggard, H. G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Sax Rohmer, and M.P. Shiel expressed this notion in their scientific romances rightly, if unduly, influencing the science fiction to come from the United States—if not the world itself. I would love to see film adaptations of Delany's work, though I cannot imagine what Babel-17 would look like on celluloid. I think Parable of the Sower and its protagonist Lauren Olamina would make for a fabulous film. In fact, I actually made an inquiry into the film rights along with Gerry Canavan of Marquette University and Mari Kornhauser, my screenwriter colleague at LSU, who wrote for the HBO show Treme, but the Butler estate already negotiated with some big figures in Hollywood. I know a film must be coming in the future or a TV series or something. I know black director Ava Duvernay of Selma and 13th fame has the rights to Dawn and is adapting Lilith's story for television. Likewise, George R. R. Martin has helped Nnedi Okorafor secure a contract with HBO for a Who Fears Deat series and that N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season is in development at TNT. The Silver and small screens are becoming interesting locations to explore race and racism again, only with black main characters, casts, and creators. Not that John Sayles's classic The Brother From Another Planet (1984) isn't cool.  

By the end of modernism, Arthur Miller turned the great man making history narrative on its head with The Death of a Salesman, but popular sf narratives have remained interested in the great man narrative or at least, tracing the development (bildungsroman) of someone not so great to their point of greatness (Ready Player One, Neuromancer). Could sf use a "Let us now Praise Famous Men" moment of turning focus away from the great or the destined to be great?

Willie Loman in Death of Salesman presents this façade to the world at least to his son Biff of being the number one guy until his son catches him in a hotel room with a woman not his mother! It shatters the family in a sense. Drama is a different medium. It's almost unfair. Hmm...but most of the characters we love end up great in some way, whether they're slackers, down on their luck, or anti-heroes. 

I really love Wade Watts in Cline's Ready Player One (maybe it's nostalgia for my childhood in the 1980s?). He ends up the richest person in the world by winning the reward in Oasis. Case fits that mode from Gibson's Neuromancer as an anti-hero to my way of thinking. Kim Stanley Robinson does so in his alternate history novella "The Lucky Strike," when Frank January decides not to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima.  Octavia Butler follows this formula in her Xenogenesis (Lilith's Brood as it's called now) books, starting with Lilith Iyapo in Dawn and follows suit in the Parable books with Earthseed founder Lauren Olamina and Shori Matthews in Fledgling.  I mean N. K. Jemisin does this "cometh the moment cometh the man" thing in her Broken Earth books as well with regards to Essun, and, likewise, Nnedi Okorafor in Who Fears Death with Onyesonwu and also the title character Binti of her novellas of the same name. This is a tough question. Perhaps, Tobias Buckell does this in his Xenowealth books, where his black cyborg Pepper features in each book but not as the main player? I think maybe Karen Lord achieves this feat in The Best of All Possible Worlds, where two people from different human descended civilizations fall in love as they try to help establish a new colony of Sadiri survivors, whose home world was destroyed. Well I'm making a hash of this question. I think people want characters with which they identify strongly, whether the characters are good or evil. We like to see them fail just as much as we like to see them succeed.  

There's a psychology behind the stories we tell. Traditionally, stories are supposed to educate and entertain, but, in practice, the business of storytelling skews toward storytelling as entertainment, to reinforcing the current cultural mythos. People want the stories they are told to confirm their biases, beliefs, anxieties, and so on. Can science fiction escape the imperative to tell the story people want to hear? How can SF challenge the assumptions we have about our culture, about who we are?

This is a tricky problem -- both on the level of political economy (the entire production apparatus of basically all culture is controlled by megarich corporations who implicitly or explicitly censor anti-system messaging) but also on the level of form: how do you sell people ideas that don't taste good or that even make them feel deeply or permanently unhappy? In the classroom, where I teach a lot of environmentalist literature, this is a gigantic pedagogical problem. The classroom has a sort of mandatory optimism where problems are only named because we already know how to solve them. The idea of a problem that has no obvious solution, or potentially no solution at all, is weirdly anathema to the whole project. Science fiction has a similar problem in that it can't always countenance a problem that can't be solved; maybe an individual or a society will "fail the test," but the idea of a tragic cosmos hostile to the human project in ways that can't be routed around seems somehow out of bounds, more akin to genre horror than genre SF. The book that exemplifies this for me is AURORA by Kim Stanley Robinson, which had a really troubled reception even though it's a terrific book about a generational starship told incredibly well, and gets the math right to boot; it just told a story that science fiction enthusiasts didn't want to hear, namely that a generational starship is a terrible idea and that there is no place in the universe that will ever be as friendly to life as Planet Earth already is.

Some discussions of sf and heroes skew to the "idea as hero." I last encountered it in a primer to sf by Sheryl Vint (Science Fiction: A Guide to the Perplexed, 2014), but it goes back to Kingsley Amis. Is that a theory as ideal that rarely resonates with readers or do you see the "idea as hero" as a vital feature of sf?

Yes, I think the "idea as hero" is a vital feature because it demonstrates the necessity of change depicted in these stories. Sometimes this takes away from characterization. This theme was prevalent in the pulp era and golden Age science fiction, roughly the 1920s up through the early 1960s and the beginning of the new wave. I think the theory resonates still because of the sense of wonder that science fiction can generate. Ideas motivate readers more so than characters, though I appreciate well thought characters too. The idea is what has the ability to blow people away and cause thought patterns to change.

Right. So, for example, Arthur C. Clarke's Rama, a fascinatingly benign big dumb object that cruises into the solar system, inspires wonder in readers. I wonder if Clarke was trying to soften readers to the idea that extraterrestrial life might well not be interested in conquering Earth so much as gathering enough information about it to add an entry in the Encyclopedia Galactica. Or if it was intended to inspire peace between world powers as a post-Cuban Missile Crisis reflection about averting potentially grave problems on our doorstep by largely ignoring them.

For its ability to potentially change thought patterns, what's one of your favorite novums in sf?

Exactly right on Clarke's Rama! I, too, think of the Strugatsky Brothers' Roadside Picnic in this light. It's a classic where the Earth is dumping ground for alien technological trash that humans sift through at their own peril more or less. I love that book.

To answer your question, any novum involving identity issues strikes a chord in me. So hyperempathy syndrome from drug abuse in Butler's Parable of the Sower works well for me. The creature's lack of name in Frankenstein works for me after Victor finds its appearance repugnant shortly after giving it life. Vergil Ulam's biologic and the destruction of humanity as we know it in Greg Bear's Blood Music feels very profound when we just melt away and create a new universe. Personality transference in Nalo Hopkinson's "A Habit of Waste" is amazingly well done and brings up body image issues as well as racial ones!

Pressing further on the topic of body and identity issues, what is your response to transhumanist discourse in sf--the Ray Kurzweils that prophecy our minds will one day exist in computer hard drives and the Bruce Sterlings that envision mechanist and shaping techniques to significantly lengthen human life and improve human intellect? How do you perceive transhumanism participates in the discourse of race in sf?

I would answer with Charles Stross's Accelerando The singularity or tipping point may or may not be near, but I think transhumanism ties into my notion of technologically derived ethnicities. We will fit old race paradigms onto our machine offspring and repeat dangerous games with artificial people.