Black to the future


Diversity-themed sci-fi/fantasy convention highlighted African American writers

The late science fiction novelist Octavia Butler was a “posthumous guest of honor” at Diversicon, a science fiction/fantasy (also called speculative fiction or SF) convention held in Bloomington August 3-5. Diversicon, presented annually for the past 15 years by SF Minnesota, is a unique SF convention in that it focuses on aspects of diversity in SF literature, films and television shows, including ethnicity, gender and sexuality.

Programming at this year’s convention included panels on gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender characters in speculative fiction, racial and cultural diversity (or lack thereof) in superhero comics, and male and female gender characters in Japanese anime and manga.

When Octavia Butler’s first novel, Patternmaster, was published in the mid-1970s, the only other African American SF author of note was Samuel Delany, best known for his novel Dhalgren and his short story “Aye and Gomorrah.” Today, a growing number of Black writers are producing works in science fiction, fantasy and horror.

For example, Walter Mosley, best known for his mystery novels, has written three books of science fiction. Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (Aspect-Warner Books, 2000), edited by Sheree R. Thomas, was the first book to collect SF literature by people of African descent. It contains a short story written by civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois, Delany’s “Aye and Gomorrah,” and the essay “Black to the Future” by Walter Mosley.

This year, Diversicon welcomed as a living guest of honor Andrea Hairston, whose novel Mindscape (Aquaduct Press, 2006) is excerpted in Thomas’ second SF anthology, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones (Aspect-Warner Books, 2004). The novel has been nominated for two prestigious SF literature awards.

Other notable African American writers of SF who have appeared at Diversicon include Sheree R. Thomas; Tananarive Due, author of the vampire novel My Soul to Keep; and Due’s husband Steven Barnes, author of the alternative history novel Lion’s Blood (Aspect-Warner, 2002).

In a public interview at Diversicon, Hairston credited her late brother as the spark that lit her interest in SF: “My brother…had boxes and chests of comic books. He was the comic book maven… My cousins would come over to our house to read his comic book collection… And so I would read whatever he read. And he read science fiction, so I read science fiction.

“But also…I was going to be a physicist. When I was five, six, I encountered Albert Einstein; I thought he was great, and I wanted to be him! …I also wanted to just do anything that was possible, and to me that was what you read in science fiction; it was all the stuff that was possible…

“In my community at the time, in the ’50s, there weren’t people doing a lot of the things people are doing now… So in my mind, at five and six, literally I was going to college to be a physicist — maybe a writer too, that was not that important at that moment — and I would do great things.”

Years later, Hairston did attend college as a physics major, but she ended up switching to studying theater. “[I became] an artist and [did] that writer thing that wasn’t as important when I was five and six,” she explained.

“Theater is a speculative art… In theater, you deal with what we call the ‘magic if.’ So, it’s about ‘What might happen if…?’ …And you view the stage as an experimental space on which you ask, ‘What if this?’ …Most of theater around the world is not about realism… A lot of my plays were actually speculative [fiction] and I didn’t know it, because theater doesn’t divide those things up into neat categories.”

Hairston made a conscious decision in the 1990s to write science fiction, but she was discouraged from doing so by a college instructor: “You know those horrible writing teachers who early on say, ‘You can write anything in this class — just don’t write science fiction!’ …I thought, ‘Why did they tell me that? I’m actually going to write science fiction.’”

Like Octavia Butler and many other Black SF writers, Hairston uses the issues and difficulties of diversity as material for her work. Mindscape is set in a future earth divided by a “barrier” that separates factions in conflict with each other. Hairston drew many of her ideas for the novel from having spent time in Germany before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The division of the country into “East” and “West” nations was accepted as an essentialist difference between the citizens, but to Hairston, “From my perspective, these were just Germans… [Because of] this dividing line, this wall, the people decided [that] they were very different… Even though they were cousins, or brothers and sisters, suddenly the East Germans were very different from the West Germans magically because there was this wall between them.”

Currently a professor of Afro-American studies and theater at Smith College in Massachusetts, Hairston participated in a number of panels at Diversicon, most notably one dedicated to Octavia Butler, who died in 2006. In an essay Hairston wrote about Butler for the 2006 anthology Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century (Wesleyan University Press), Hairston gives tribute to the importance of the late sci-fi icon.

“Whenever I agonize about how hard it is to get anything done in this world, how even small change seems impossible; when I whine about the backlash, the backsliding, the men and women who believe that we have long since arrived at the Promised Land and all the ‘isms’ — sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism — are way behind us now…I pick up an Octavia Butler novel or story and find hope.”

For more information about Diversicon, call Eric M. Heideman of SF Minnesota at 612-721-5959, or go to

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