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  • The Unspeakable Speculative, Spoken
  • Rebecca Wanzo (bio)
Racial Worldmaking: The Power of Popular Fiction, Mark C. Jerng. Fordham University Press, 2018.
Posthuman Blackness and the Black Female Imagination, Kristen Lillvis. The University of Georgia Press, 2017.
Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women's Spectacular Fiction, Sami Schalk. Duke University Press, 2018.

Fantastic fictions are omnipresent in mass media in the twenty-first century and cannot be considered part of a niche audience. As the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Game of Thrones (2011–2019) television series demonstrate, audiences have a hunger for these genres. Detractors of superhero narratives and other fantasy texts argue that they romanticize violence, present simplistic moral binaries, and offer limited character development. Such arguments are common reductive critiques of popular fiction as adhering to a set of narrow genre conventions, setting such works apart from so-called literary fiction. The irony, of course, is that fantasy and science fiction writers have imagined spectacularly innovative worlds, although the most radical texts have not traditionally been embraced by Hollywood. Or if they are produced, their more challenging ideological concepts do not make it through the process of adaptation.

Periodically, I read that science fiction writer Octavia Butler's works will soon be adapted for television or film, but she is a perfect example of a writer who offers such ideologically transgressive and complex texts that it is hard to imagine the most interesting concepts of her work remaining intact after adaptation. Take, for example, Butler's last novel, Fledgling (2005), which features a 53-year-old vampire who must recover her memories after a brutal assault. She eventually discovers that other vampires attacked her family because she was genetically engineered to be black and more resistant to the sun. Her enemies were concerned about the greater advantages she would have as a vampire who could function better in the daylight. Like Butler's other protagonists, Shori strategizes to gain power through alliances and alternative family structures. She binds people [End Page 564] to her through sex and her venom, creating a new community to replace the one she lost. As is characteristic of many of Butler's other works, the novel meditates on biological determinism, discrimination, consent, and power in addressing the question of what it means to be human. Her mechanism for pushing against the commonsense notions of human relationality in this particular text is through the body of her protagonist, who, despite her mental age, appears to be a ten-year old black girl. The depiction of Shori having sex with adults is disturbing, but Butler's representational choices are consistent with her tradition of having her protagonists do the unimaginable and unspeakable in order to survive—no matter how politically transgressive their actions might be.

That feature of her work is one of the reasons there has been a Butler scholarship renaissance in the last decade. In the turn to black speculative fictions, scholars have been compelled by narratives that speak to alternative world orders and reject the traditional call to speak to the realist commitments of African American literature as a counter to the deadly fantasies of white supremacy. So it is not surprising that Butler's Kindred (1979) was the gateway novel that introduced many literary scholars to her work and remains the most widely taught. It is the least like science fiction generically because Butler is uninterested in exploring science and the mechanisms of the time travel that propel the plot. As one of the most important neo-slavery novels of the 1970s and 1980s, it spoke to the commitment to represent black life-worlds that were invisible and unarchived.

But the turn, as Isiah Lavender III suggests, toward other works of Butler and other black speculative fictions reflects a recognition that speculative fiction uniquely taps into the creative and fantastic project that black creators must embark upon to imagine worlds outside of black ontology that white supremacy overdetermines. He suggests that Afrofuturism posits that all black cultural production is science fiction, as the black body was made into a technology by slavery and the act of imagining black worlds and futurity in any genre...


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pp. 564-574
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