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DARK MATTER: A Century of African-American SF

By Denise Dumars     January 11, 2001

Dark matter is defined as 'a non-luminous form of matter which has not been directly observed but whose existence has been deduced by its gravitational effects.' Dark matter is thought to make up a huge amount of the matter in the universe, but because we don't see it, we act as though it doesn't exist. Editor Sheree R. Thomas uses this term as a metaphor for the situation of black people in our society in general, and extends it to black writers of science fiction; hence the title of this anthology. And what an anthology it is! Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora runs the gamut of types of speculative fiction, ranging from social science fiction to cyberpunk to dark fantasy, heroic fantasy and horror. African-American writers from the Caribbean, the U.S., and Canada are represented.

The antho also includes nonfiction, such as the article 'Why Blacks Should Read (and Write) Science Fiction,' from Canadian author Charles R. Saunders, known for his heroic fantasies featuring African characters. Samuel R. Delany, one of SF's grand masters, speaks about his life in science fiction and the sometimes-overt and sometimes-unintentional racism he has encountered. Walter Mosley talks about growing up reading SF; DJ Spooky explains why SF matters to the new generation of African-Americans; and Octavia E. Butler argues that too much reality is a bad thingwhich is why we need SF.

Now to the fiction.... If there's a unifying theme to the antho, other that what has already been stated, it's a theme of music: music as magic, music as technology, music as expression of the Black experience. If music is a theme, then some of these stories are Billie Holiday; some are Sun Ra; some are Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and some are Bootsy Collins and George Clinton. I think I see the spirit of Josephine Baker dancing here as well.

This is a big book, full of great stories. The standouts are perhaps the following reprints: 'The Evening and the Morning and the Night' by Octavia E. Butler is an amazing story of a horrifying genetic disease caused by a medicine used to prevent cancer; those who inherit the damaged gene are sure to go mad and mutilate themselves. How the story's protagonist finds hope amongst the horror of it all is beautifully done. 'Aye, and Gomorrah...' by Samuel R. Delany is set in a future where 'spacers' (i.e., long-term astronauts) are rendered sexless after birth and in adulthood are sought out and exploited by the sexually perverted. 'Gimmile's Songs' by Charles R. Saunders is in its own way a sort of vampire story; it's about a woman warrior in an unspecified future who meets a magical and musical man and learns of love and ancient African powers.

Other standouts include Nalo Hopkinson's 'Ganger (Ball Lightning),' a story that effectively combines cyberpunk and splatterpunk in a tale of a couple who use high-tech sex toys with frightening results. 'Twice, at Once, Separated' by Linda Addison explores the intersection of high tech and traditional culture in the life of a woman on what appears to be a Generation Ship. Tananarive Due gives us a very disturbing SF story of the consequences of child abuse and cloning in her tale 'Like Daughter.' Steven Barnes' 'The Woman in the Wall' is a dystopian story set in an unspecified future in an unspecified country where black Africans are kept in concentration camps. How a black American woman, who is captured and placed among them, is at first despised by them and then finally copes with the situation forms the basis of the tale. 'At Life's Limits' by Kiini Ibura Salaam takes an extraterrestrial energy being and places her in the consciousness of a Cuban, who is then thought to be possessed by the orisha who 'rules her head,' as is believed by practitioners of Santeria.

Classic authors are represented here along with the venerable SF writers and up-and-coming talents. Ishmael Reed's satiric 'Future Christmas' is set in a future where a corporation 'buys' the rights to Santa Claus and the North Pole. 'Black No More' by George S. Schuyler is about a scientist who discovers a way to make black people white. W. E. B. Du Bois, in 'The Comet,' writes about a black man and a white woman who are left virtually alone when a comet's tail destroys New York.

There's probably something for everyone who likes the speculative genres in this anthology. The variety of subject matter and writing styles speaks to the selection skills of editor Sheree Thomas. The essays and the introduction serve to reinforce the importance of the literature. This is one of the best anthologies I've seen in years. There will be a Dark Matter II. I know I'll be looking forward to it.

DARK MATTER, Sheree R. Thomas, Ed. NY: Warner Aspect, 2000. 427 p. $24.95. ISBN: 0-446-52583-9.

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