Book review

Speculative blackness: The future of race in science fiction, by andré m. carrington

Susana Morris

Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Fandom; Media studies

Morris, Susana. 2019. Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction, by andré m. carrington [book review]. In "Fans of Color, Fandoms of Color," edited by Abigail De Kosnik and andré carrington, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 29.

andré m. carrington. Speculative blackness: The future of race in science fiction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. Hardcover, $87.50 (304p) ISBN 978-1452949758; paperback, $25 (292p) ISBN 978-0816678969; e-book, $14.50 (2717KB), ASIN B01CTOJSOI.

[1] andré m. carrington's Speculative Blackness is a provocative examination of race, fandom, media, and speculative fiction. Rather than focusing on the most common subjects of Black science fiction study, such as the much-lauded work of Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany, carrington more often attends to Black figures whose work has been underexplored, left on the margins, or escaped critical attention altogether. When he does consider popular figures such as Star Trek's (1966–69) Lieutenant Uhura or Storm of the X-Men, he does so by asking unusual questions, in turn prompting fresh, original answers. Engaging with works as varied as the legacy of the Carl Brandon hoax or the significance of fan fiction featuring minor Black characters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1996–2003) and the Harry Potter series, Speculative Blackness offers up keen analyses at the nexus of genre and Blackness in speculative fiction. carrington's painstaking exploration of race and the speculative is fascinating and invites readers to question their own previous readings of the overwhelming Whiteness of science fiction.

[2] The book is divided into six chapters, bracketed by an introduction and a coda, that explore race and the speculative from several angles. While a cohesive argument flows throughout, the subject matter of each chapter is distinct enough that each could be read on its own, making it an ideal book to teach. In addition to providing detailed archival research and critical analyses in each chapter, Speculative Blackness includes several striking images in each chapter. Pieces published in obscure early fanzines, panels from comics, stills from science fiction films and television shows, and the like are interspersed throughout the text. These images are captivating, but they are also vital to the persuasive close readings carrington performs in the chapters.

[3] The chapters pay close attention to the significance of popular culture in the social construction of identity, with particular attention to the construction of race in science fiction across a variety of genres. To that end, its introduction outlines that the study that follows investigates "the Whiteness of science fiction" and "the speculative fiction of Blackness." carrington uses Sedgwick's notion of reparative reading while "employing a chiastic formulation that juxtaposes the Whiteness of science fiction with the speculative fiction of Blackness to invoke the ways in which we can frame the meaning of Blackness in speculative fiction and media through a rhetorical structure characteristic of Black speech" (21). The juxtaposition of the Whiteness of science fiction and the speculative fiction of Blackness provides a productive point of departure for carrington's textual analysis, giving him space to probe questions of racial identity in unexpected places.

[4] To that end, carrington's study of the Carl Brandon hoax in chapter 1 exemplifies this notion of the social construction of race in strange places. The chapter looks at science fiction fanzines from the first half of the twentieth century, specifically focusing on how they understood and constructed notions of racial identity, and to a lesser extent gender identity, in fan spaces that were overwhelmingly white and male. Brandon was a Black science fiction fan and editor who was popular among a small circle of fanzine participants—except for the fact that Brandon was the creation of white Bay Area fan writer Terry Carr, and not a real person at all. Before Carr revealed the hoax, Brandon seemed to exemplify that science fiction circles were liberal and inclusive despite the seemingly small number women or people of color. carrington notes, "Although Carl Brandon emerged to inoculate fans against the charge of racial exclusion, the fact that he did not exist and disappeared before another fan identified herself as Black left the presumptive Whiteness intact. By understanding the means of producing Brandon's Blackness, however, we can recognize its continuity with the race thinking in science fiction fandom, rather than treating it as a lacuna" (64). carrington's reparative reading delves deep into what the Brandon hoax invites us to consider about race and genre rather than dismissing the deception out of hand.

[5] Chapters 2 and 3 explore the role of Black womanhood in the examples of Lieutenant Uhura of Star Trek and Marvel Comics' Storm, respectively. carrington persuasively argues that Nichelle Nichols's portrayal of Uhura has been undertheorized despite the significant critical and popular attention to the series. He asserts, "Because of the ways in which Black women have been marginalized in the production of popular culture, including the relative alienation of Black women from the SF genre's conventional ways of envisioning race, gender, and sexuality, Nichelle Nichols…has yet to be recognized for her transformative contributions to the public interrogation of questions at the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and utopian discourse" (69). carrington mines the series, Nichols's post-Star Trek collaboration with NASA, and Nichols's autobiography in order to excavate Nichols' agency as an actor and advocate. When carrington turns his attention to Storm of the X-Men, he notes, "The X-Men comics offer a revisionist interpretation of Black womanhood through the character Storm…to construct an account of Black womanhood amenable to the utopian ideals characteristic of SF works in the era" (90). By tracing the various trajectories of Storm's story lines—such as her origin story, the root of her claustrophobia, and how she compares to other Black women in Marvel comics, such as Misty Knight—he convincingly makes the case that Storm does more than represent the limits of racialized thinking. Instead, he insists Storm's characterization offers opportunity for the transformation of ideas of race in the genre. The panels he includes from various issues of the X-Men comics skillfully assist in the chapter's close readings. In both chapters, carrington cogently invites readers to reexamine what we think we know about two of the most recognizable Black women figures in science fiction.

[6] Chapters 4 and 5 move away from Black science fiction figures who primarily appear in white settings to analyze the significance of Black characters enmeshed in Black settings from works produced in the 1990s. Chapter 4 focuses on Black-owned Milestone Media's short-lived comics production, with particular attention to Icon (1993–97), its flagship title. carrington suggests, "Icon makes the fantastic discourse of superhero comics subject to the critical insights and political priorities ascribed to Black youth in the urban United States" (118). carrington profiles Black superheroes that encounter racism and deal with other mundane issues, such as teen pregnancy. In this chapter, as others, the inclusion of images is key. carrington includes several full-page panels reproduced in crisp detail that helpfully bolster his analysis. Chapter 5 returns to the Star Trek franchise with an in-depth look at the 1993–99 spin-off series Deep Space Nine. carrington's analysis is most fully realized in this section, and his close reading of the 1998 episode "Far Beyond the Stars" and its related novelization is especially adept and compelling. Captain Benjamin Sisko, portrayed by Avery Brooks, was the first Black protagonist of a Star Trek franchise, and Brooks also directed this important episode. carrington argues that the episode was a departure for the franchise in that it "replace[d] allegory with history" (161). More specifically, carrington notes that "Far Beyond the Stars" "and its adaptation by [Black science fiction writer] Steven Barnes represent the fullest expression of the series's potential to signify the meaning of Blackness for an era shaped by generations of print speculative fiction and genre television" (161). By foregrounding the role of history instead of allegory in the series, carrington makes the case that Deep Space Nine performs transformative work for the genre.

[7] The book's final chapter ends where it begins: with a study of fan culture, and specifically attention to the role of fan fiction in recuperating the stories of minor Black British figures in major science fiction texts. carrington contends, "Contemporary understandings of racial and national identities…and theories of desire that have animated studies of fan fiction mutually benefit from an archive grounded in the reimagined media histories of people of color" (195). carrington's personal connection to the fan fiction site Remember Us helps flesh out the importance of fan participation in constructing meaning in contemporary science fiction culture. Analyzing fan creations that reimagine or extend the stories of characters, such as Kendra in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angelina Johnson in the Harry Potter franchise, assert that despite these characters' marginalized status in their original series, viewers can and do have the power to make further meaning of their presence. carrington ends Speculative Blackness with a forward-looking coda that invites his readers to "refer to this book as the point of departure for revisionist interventions of their own" (238).

[8] Speculative Blackness makes significant interventions in several arenas; however, a few areas truly stand out. In particular, the monograph's study of fan cultures is outstanding. While his attention to fan culture is present in every chapter to some extent, chapters 1 and 6 really highlight carrington's sophisticated understanding of cultural production in science fiction specifically and pop culture more generally. Another significant aspect of carrington's text is its attention to reparative readings. Rather than pointing to deficits in the portrayals of Blackness, his analyses always return the reader back to what a particular character, comic, or series does accomplish. That is not to say that carrington's readings are Pollyannaish; rather, his attention is so keenly fixed on meaning-making that he draws the reader's attention to the presence of Blackness even when there is ostensibly only absence.

[9] carrington engages Black feminist theory among other critical apparatus, and thus the work will primarily be of interest to scholars and graduate students of a variety of fields. Speculative Blackness is in conversation with Afrofuturism, Black studies, science fiction studies, studies of fandom, genre studies, and literary studies. Yet his diligent attention to the workings of fandom and genre will also likely invite in the most ardent of fans. The text is remarkable for both its breadth and depth; it never reads as if carrington is a jack of all trades and master of none. Instead, Speculative Blackness exemplifies a critical and robust interdisciplinarity that is a model for those interested in engaging multiple fields with precision and complexity.