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  • "All Is Always Now"Slavery, Retrocausality, and Recidivistic Progress in Samuel R. Delany's Empire Star (1966)
  • W. Andrew Shephard (bio)

The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., paraphrasing Theodore Parker

In many ways, slavery can be considered the central issue of the African American literary canon—even works that don't address it directly are in some way grappling with its legacy. Though contemporary blacks have no direct experience of slavery themselves, they nonetheless continue to be affected by it—both psychologically, due to the awareness of the suffering of one's ancestors, and more materially, due to the impact of historical contingency upon one's own personal circumstances in the present. This, however, creates a significant formal problem with regard to literature—namely, how does one adequately represent such a fraught relationship to the past? [End Page 1]

I contend that while realistic modes of representation can sometimes struggle with the abstraction of such concerns, the speculative genres, such as science fiction, fantasy, and horror, provide a way of rendering these concepts into more concrete or accessible forms. Such critics as Maisha Wester and Teresa Goddu have noted how Afro-diasporic authors have drawn upon the Gothic as a useful idiom for expressing the horrors of slavery.1 A notable example of this phenomenon would be Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), a novel whose characters are literally haunted by slavery in the spectral form of the title character. While that tradition is certainly a significant one, this article wishes to address a different set of texts, narratives that resort to unusual modes of temporality to effectively represent this tortured relationship to history.

A prime example would be Samuel Delany's early novella Empire Star (originally published in 1966), a revisionist space opera that uses the science fictional trope of the bootstrap paradox and Einsteinian theories of relativistic time as metaphors for the recurrence of slavery and imperialism throughout history. The story concerns a young man named Comet Jo, native to a backwater mining colony on a distant moon at an indeterminate point in the far future. He is called to action upon encountering a downed spacecraft whose passengers entrust him to deliver a vital message to Empire Star, the seat of power for the Galactic Empire in which he lives. Along the way, Jo encounters several allies and enemies, is educated in both elocution and intergalactic ethics, and, most eventfully, becomes caught up in the struggle of the Lll, a race of alien beings enslaved throughout the empire for their preternatural feats of engineering. Upon reaching Empire Star, he discovers that one must pass through a black hole to seek an audience with the government, in the process becoming violently dislocated in time and space—as a result, one may end up many centuries in the past or future from when one initially arrived, as well as many lightyears away.

The story is revealed to be a time loop, one in which the events of the narrative double, triple, and even quadruple upon themselves. As Peter Alter-man describes it: "Everything has already happened. [Jo] meets the same people, including himself, at various points in their lives" (Alterman 1977, 26). Delany's projection of chattel slavery into the far future allows him to estrange the reader from a historical phenomenon that is both all too familiar and [End Page 2] incomprehensibly alien to gain a better understanding of it. Moreover, in configuring his own contemporary moment as a "prehistory" to such a future, he suggests that we may not currently be as free of such behavioral patterns as we would like to believe.2

In "About 5,750 Words," Delany's famous explication on the reading protocols native to science fiction, he states that "a sixty-thousand word novel is one picture corrected fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times" (Delany 2009, 5). Using the science fictional image of "The red sun is high, the blue sun is low," he goes on to illustrate how such a correction process might look, starting with the word "The" whimsically described as "a grayish ellipsoid about four...


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