This past summer, an auntie of mine dusted off an old cardboard box of books from a cluttered storage unit, and handed me a slim blue and gold paperback with soft, slightly frayed corners and a creased spine by Octavia E. Butler. I had never read science fiction that featured a Black girl being so undoubtedly Black while simultaneously doing things completely unrelated to her oppression. I had little context for Black literature outside of racial trauma. Like many young Black bookworms, I grew up on YA full of descriptions of fair blonde elves and moonlight-colored vampires, and avoided Black fiction to save myself from traumatic lessons in historical fiction.
While recent contributions to Afrofuturism have inspired a new age of artists to look to the future rather than the past, the role of Black writers, especially Black women writers and characters within the sci-fi genre, is almost as old as the genre itself. The term “Afrofuturism” has been around since 1994, when it was coined in Mark Dery’s essay, Black to the Future. While Black Panther was a wonderful introduction to Afrofuturism and to Black sci-fi, I’d like to point out the work of our foremothers who pioneered concepts of not only Black science fiction, but science fiction as a whole in order to build the foundation for what we see today. Here are ten sci-fi novels by Black women from the past five decades:
Mind of My Mind by Octavia Butler
It would be impossible to have a list of Black sci-fi authors without including Octavia E. Butler. By 1976 she was the most prolific Black woman novelist in North America. She started writing science fiction after watching a movie called “Devil Girl from Mars,” and realizing that she could contribute more to the sci-fi genre than that. Mind of My Mind pits 21-year-old Mary against a millennia-old immortal with the power to steal anyone’s body. This immortal, Doro, cannot be killed, and commands a network of telepaths who have no choice but to serve him or die. Mary is one of these telepaths, and has been raised knowing Doro would decide the course of her life. When her telepathic ability reaches maturity, she is expected to marry and produce offspring who will hopefully also be successful telepaths. But there is only so much that someone can obey.
With a little less than 200 pages, Butler weaves together a powerful story at a thrillingly swift pace. The world of the novel is complicated, yet is artfully explained with thorough imagery to allow the sci-fi concepts to sink in.
Bloodchild by Octavia Butler
Bloodchild is regarded as one of Butler’s greatest works, and is an exemplary piece of science fiction. This short piece published in 1984 is about the threatened extinction of an alien race, incorporates graphic body horror. The humans are sold to the aliens so that they can inhabit and eventually consume their bodies for survival. In an interview, Butler dismisses the idea of her story being an analogy to chattel slavery, saying she wrote Bloodchild as a deviation from the usual alien colonization story, where humans either violently overcome aliens or submit and become servants.
My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due
The horror and sci-fi queen, Tananarive Due, once commented in an interview that the Black writers that she admired were writing only urban or rural fiction. She had no way to know if there was a market for writing about Black people in suburban settings like herself. Like a true pioneer, she began writing My Soul to Keep on hope and faith that this new material would be received well. Now, as the author of the African Immortals, Due’s reputation is that of a master in unpredictable horror/thrillers.
The story begins with a woman named Jessica who meets the perfect partner named David, who happens to be immortal after he participated in a ritual 400 years ago where he traded his humanity for eternal life. Jessica and David start a life together, raising a daughter named Kira. However, the Ethiopian coven he originates from is demanding he return and leave his comfortable new life with a woman he loves deeply. This leaves it up to Jessica to survive the lengths that David will go to maintain his life with her.
Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
If anyone is going to be the expert in how human beings can so badly mistreat each other to the point of creating a dystopia, it would be a Black woman. Brown Girl in the Ring follows Ti-Jeanne, a young woman living in a future inner-city Toronto that the wealthy left to crumble: “…investors, commerce, and government withdrew into the suburban cities, leaving the rotten core to decay. Those who stayed were the ones who couldn’t or wouldn’t leave. The street people. The poor people.”
Ti-Jeanne and the other inner-city inhabitants must learn to survive the way people did in simpler times—farming and bartering. But the inner-city dwellers are not alone in their challenges of post-apocalypse life; the wealthy return to harvest the bodies of the poor as well, to ensure their own survival. Hopkinson includes elements of Caribbean magical realism as Ti-Jeanne taps into an ancient power to take her fate into her own hands.
Published in 1998, Brown Girl in the Ring still reflects current realities of gentrification and run down infrastructure in majority Black neighborhoods, like Flint, Michigan and more recently, Jackson, Mississippi. It is certainly one of those science fiction narratives that is spookily close to becoming reality.
Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson
Midnight Robber is a tale of Caribbean magical realism set on a high tech planet that centers a mysterious Black woman as a Robin Hood figure. Tan-tan is the young daughter of a corrupt politician on the Carribean planet Toussaint, but once her father’s reign comes to a violent end, she is forced into less developed and dangerous lands. While she used to dress up as the robber queen during carnival, Tan-tan is now forced to don the disguise for more than just festive pageantry. Hopkinson tests the depths of the human capacity for evil in an unforgiving setting, while also illuminating the capacity for love and healing.
Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora by Sheree Renée Thomas
Published at the turn of the millennium, as the world was looking to the future more than ever, Sheree Renée Thomas created Dark Matter with expectation that it will be the age of Black fiction. In her introduction, she explains the parallels between the African diaspora’s artistic contributions to literature and the scientific phenomena called dark matter. After the 1998 Hubble Space Telescope discovered that the expansion of the universe was accelerating rather than slowing, the mysterious invisible substance inflicting gravity on its surroundings called dark matter became a topic of discussion. While dark matter can’t be seen, its gravity betrays its existence and scientists have found that it is what is keeping our galaxy intact. However, its influence on our galaxy has still, twenty years later, not been fully explored and understood. Thomas asserts that the African diaspora’s contribution to science fiction is the same way; its presence is known, but its influence has not been studied. At the time, Octavia E. Butler was the leader of Black science fiction, but the contributions of other Black authors had yet to rise to the mainstream. Thomas’s hope was that this would shed light on the mysterious forces of Black literature.
Dark Matter contains short stories from Black authors such as W.E.B DuBois’s The Comet and Henry Dumas’s Ark of Bones. It begins with Sister Lilith by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers, which reimagines on the Adam and Eve story from the point of view of Lilith, Adam’s first partner who was rejected for complaining too much. This collection of short stories is a great jumping off point down the rabbit hole of Black sci-fi authors.
Mindscape by Andrea Hairston
In the sci-fi spirit of forward thinking, Andrea Hairston creates a different take on alien invasion tropes. While many sci-fi alien narratives use the physical presence of alien beings, Mindscape is centered around a barrier that slams down onto earth, dividing regions and throwing the world into chaos. The world comes to be dictated by gang-run states. People called Vermittler are the only ones who can safely cross the barrier, and allow others to do so as well. One Vermittler named Celestina creates a treaty to unite the divided realms, but is assassinated on the same day that it is signed, leaving her apprentice, Ellina to finish what was started.
Mindscape is a blend of magical fantasy and paranormal sci-fi told from the perspective of several characters. For a novel published in 2006, it is unapologetic in its inclusion of queer characters, however it does take a bit of an outdated outlook at transgender identity.
Who Fears Death by Nnendi Okorafor
Onyesonwu was born as the result of her mother’s brutal assault during a time when her people were experiencing a genocide in post-nuclear-holocaust Sudan. The Nuru have decided to destroy the Okeke in order to carry out the goddess Ani’s divine punishment for the Okeke’s hubris in their technological advancement. But Onyesonwu is given her name lovingly by her mother, its meaning a fierce challenge in the face of their eradication: “Who fears death?” As the last living member of the Okeke people after the genocide, it is up to Onyesonwu to end the violence against her people. She is brought up by a mysterious shaman who introduces her to magic.
With a name that challenges death itself, it’s clear from the start that Onyesonwu is not a protagonist who is going to bend easily. She won’t accept the fate that the Nuru attempt to force upon her, nor that of their goddess. Nnendi Okorafor gives us an incredibly strong young African woman to root for. My caution for readers is that because Who Fears Death is honest about the brutal nature about violence against women in during times of intense conflict, there are uncomfortable scenes depicting graphic sexual violence.
Love is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Published in 2014, Love is the Drug almost seems to predict the COVID-19 pandemic six years in advance. Emily Bird, who is called “Bird” by most, is an affluent Black high schooler at a prestigious private school in Washington, D.C. She has a fabulous life with the perfect boyfriend, and a beautiful future at an Ivy League university. But after a mysterious encounter with a homeland security agent named David, she finds herself waking up in the hospital missing her memories from her evening. Even more disturbing, martial law has been instituted as a deadly virus rages on, forcing quarantines and curfews. Bird’s parents are involved in secret scientific work, which puts Bird under David’s suspicion. Pursued by the titans of the U.S. government, young Bird only has her conspiracy-loving classmate, Coffee, to rely upon.
Bird and Coffee remind me a lot of Chiamaka and Devon from Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé’s Ace of Spades, being two Black kids from different sides of the socioeconomic fence forced to work together against a seemingly unbeatable oppressive force. Similar themes of mistrust and betrayal arise in this mystery thriller, and Alaya Dawn Johnson’s use of a science fiction plague brings the story in a unique direction.
The Blood Trials by N.E. Davenport
As an English and biology teacher, as well as an advocate for diverse literature, N.E Davenport blends sci-fi and fantasy beautifully, with a Black girl with eyes set to kill at the helm of the narrative. The Blood Trials takes place in the fictional Republic of Mareen, where Ikenna, granddaughter of the former military leader Verne Amari, is training to be an elite fighter. But Verne taught her more than the martial skills she would need to fight—he taught her how to use the magical gift that flows within her blood, and the importance of keeping it secret. When Verne is murdered, Ikenna knows it was someone of the Praetorian guard who ordered it, and she becomes set on vengeance. She joins the Praetorian guard to uncover the truth of his murder, knowing she will face racism and misogyny because of her mixed heritage. In the long-held tradition of Black women around the world, Ikenna sets forth to disturb the peace within a corrupt system.