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Notes on Futureland and afro-futurism - Inane Ramblings [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Christopher Bradley

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Notes on Futureland and afro-futurism [Dec. 5th, 2008|09:41 pm]
Christopher Bradley
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I just got done reading Futureland by Walter Mosley. I first encountered Mosley after seeing the movie Devil in a Blue Dress, a noir about a black private eye in 40s LA. The movie was based on the book and I liked the movie so I read the book. The book is the first in a series about Easy Rawlins and his adventures in LA. Mosley's work generally has a great deal to do about race. I knew I liked Mosley when I was reading Devil in a Blue Dress and the protagonist walks into a whites-only apartment complex and is challenged by a janitor. Because the janitor was a white man in a uniform, Easy Rawlins - this intelligent, capable man - is reduced to talking mumbo-jumbo. The paragraph ended, "I hated him for it, and I hated myself for it, too." I was hooked. Mosley rocks.

Futureland is a near future - everything takes place in the middle of the twenty-first century, about, y'know, fifty years from now - and is a collection of nine short stories that take place in the same setting. It is definitely afro-futurism . . .

Which is, for those in my audience who do not know, science-fiction written from the perspective of black Americans. They really do bring an entirely different set of presumptions with them to the table, at least in my experience, which involves - so far - Walter Mosley and Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. So, y'know, three books. It doesn't make me an expert by any stretch, but I definitely feel a difference between these three afro-futurist books and mainstream science-fiction.

In particular, I feel the effects of race, class and gender in a way that I do not feel in mainstream science-fiction. One of the stories, for instance, was about a female heavyweight boxing champion. Another was quite literally about a prisoner. Most science-fiction is told from the point of view of people in some way invested in the system or above the system. There are exceptions, of course, such as Farenheit 451 - which is mentioned quite explicitly in Futureland - but all of the characters in Futureland are in some way victims of the system, and even as they try to change it the power of the system is ever-present. They are all constantly aware, beyond the specific incidents of the stories, of the nearly unlimited power of the system in their lives.

Cyberpunk literature toyed with this - but, I feel, never very successfully. It's like in Gibson's work. In some sort of grand theoretical sense the protagonists were "from the street", but their interaction with the system was essential one of equals. That is, I believe, an attitude that is quite natural for white men to take - that the system, even if stupid and corrupt, nevertheless recognizes them as human and acknowledges their ability to challenge or destroy that system. It is my experience, so far, that in afro-futurist works that assumption is not there. The system often does not recognize the legitimacy of the humanity of the protagonists. I feel that even in science fiction where humans are regarded as backwards, and I am reminded of David Brin's Uplift novels, the author tries very hard to assure the readers of the inherent specialness of humans (generally, we are either stronger of will or more adaptable than the aliens - it's pretty predictable), and afro-futurism doesn't seem to deal much with aliens, but the evils that people do to each other. There is no confidence that the specialness of the protagonists will win out (and, indeed, in several of the stories that is not the case).

Earlier today I tried to compare my current understanding of afro-futurism relative to mainstream sci-fi this way: that mainstream sci-fi takes a hawk's view of things, the characters are almost always intensely competent, always in the society's dominate culture or at least equal to it, and because of their competence and social standing allowed to act on the antagonist in direct ways. Afro-futurism is a ground view. It is about fairly ordinary people caught up in events often quite a bit beyond their ability to truly effect, belonging to socially inferior ethnicities, classes and organizations. (The person I said it to, for what it's worth, didn't seem to believe that the difference was legitimate and claimed that many sci-fi novels were about various underdogs. I said that was an illusion and if you looked more carefully you'd see that wasn't honestly the case. But then the subject drifted away to other things, alas, without a real conclusion.) In afro-futurism, I feel the distinctions of class, race, education and gender much more than in traditional science-fiction.

So, given the above, I liked Futureland. Occasionally, Mosley's science-fiction is a little . . . well, I guess rough would be a polite way to put it. Occasionally comic. I mean, a big bad guy named Dr. Kismet? That said, I found the stories to be intelligent, interesting and meaningful in a way that most science-fiction writers miss entirely. Very often - too often - I feel that science-fiction is like this emotionally hurting person who, rather than discuss the pain they're feeling, talks about grand designs as a way to distract others from their suffering, for which they feel shame. It's like honest emotions in science-fiction is a little dirty - that the characters can pose and strut but not feel, much less feel "negative" emotions like shame or impotent fury. Mosley's got nothin' to do with that. He brings to the table a deep bond with emotions of, well, weakness but in a way that doesn't invoke shame or pity. Which is absolutely wonderful to see in science-fiction.

So, I can wholeheartedly recommend Futureland. You should read it. Right now.