Saturday, February 9, 2013

African American characters in science fiction

FLAGS - a science fiction novelette by Tom Olbert, published by Lillibridge Press

"In this dark and dangerous view of humanity's future, mankind appears hopelessly splintered into religious, racial, and cultural factions. In the middle of all this violence and chaos, two men meet as enemies: Jamal, a seasoned military veteran, and Matthew, a young idealist. Soon they are forced into an unlikely alliance when their two embattled societies are attacked by an alliance intent on their mutual destruction.
Jamal lives, his inner strength sustaining him and his faith. Even though Matthew survives, he appears hopelessly lost. Together, they struggle to conquer both their enemies and themselves. With war on all fronts, how can they stand united under flags?"

In "Flags", I presented a grim picture of a future in which interstellar travel and extra-terrestrial colonization, in placing greater physical distances between people, succeeds in taking racial and cultural segregation to the ultimate degree:  genocidal interstellar war.  The story demonstrates how enemies can become allies, later even friends when faced with a common foe.  How racial identity can bring former enemies together.  And, how racial hatred can become an infectious evil, corrupting the soul and ultimately destroying the very fabric of human decency.  It holds out hope (though only a slim one) that something higher in Man can rise above the dehumanizing effect of racism.


“The name of that world is New Bethlehem,” Matthew cried out, his voice cracking, his throat still sore from the gas as he strained against the two grunts holding him.  “I’m sorry to say I wasn’t there, no.  But, I wish to God I had been, if only to send more of you stinking Muslims to a just end!”  The fat man kneed him in the stomach, hard.  He doubled over in pain, falling to his knees, spit dribbling to the floor.  The fat man grabbed him by the hair and yanked his head back, his wide, angry dark face staring into his.
            “I lost both my sisters in the first raid, you murdering piece of...”
            “Mohammed!” the captain barked, standing up behind the desk.  “Touch that prisoner again, and you will face court martial!”
            “But, sir...Jamal...” the man said with pain in his voice, turning to face his commanding officer.  “He killed those three men in the gunnery room and destroyed two of our landers.  Thirty-three men in all, dead because of this stinking...”
            “Fair kills.” the Captain said quietly through tight lips as he stiffly re-seated himself.  He stared at Matthew and gently shook his head.  “So much for the renowned Christian spirit of forgiveness,” he muttered sarcastically, drumming his long fingers together.  Laying his hands flat on the desk top, he spoke in the clear, hard tone of an officer.  “On your feet, corporal.”  The two grunts roughly stood Matthew up.  “Your homeworld, all other member states of the Black Christian Alliance and all galactic territories formerly under their sphere of influence are now protectorates of the Black Muslim Brotherhood.  You, corporal, are a prisoner of war and will be held here pending transport to our homeworld, Mecca IV where a military tribunal will determine your fate.  Take him to the stockade and book him on the next star transport out.”
            Matthew defiantly spat at the man’s desk as he was led away by the two soldiers.  A security alarm sounded, harsh and shrill.  The enemy captain swore under his breath and opened a com channel to his troops in the field.  The holo cube glowed and the terrified face of a Muslim ground force commander appeared, floating on the air, gray ripples of static passing through the man’s features.  “Lieutenant Achmed, Sector 5 reporting.”
            “What is it, Achmed?” the captain asked in an irritated tone, as if he had more important things on his mind.
            “Sir, we’re under attack!  All strategic sectors!  Landers and A.P.C.’s...we’re outnumbered and taking heavy fire!”  The sounds of artillery rumbled through the radio speaker, white flashes distorting the holo transmission.  Matthew’s heart soared with elation.  It wasn’t over!
            “Hold your positions, Lieutenant!” the captain ordered, his voice tense and angry.  “We’ll send for reinforcements from homeworld.”
            “Sir...” the static was getting worse.  “We’ve received offworld distress calls from our star squadrons.  Our home systems have fallen under heavy attack as well.”
            “What?!” the captain roared, rearing up behind his desk.  Matthew laughed out loud.  “That’s impossible.  The B.C.A. has no squadrons left!”
            “Its not the B.C.A., sir.  They’re bombing the Christian cities to hell!  And, ours as well!”  Matthew suddenly felt himself turning to stone.
            “Who the hell is?!”
            “See for yourself, Captain.”  The Lieutenant’s eyes looked down and the holographic scene changed to a ground level live-transmit image of invading troops disembarking from armored personnel carriers.  The words SECTOR 5 appeared in the lower left corner of the image.  The A.P.C.’s were marked with an emblem Matthew had never seen outside holotexts before:  An upraised white fist against the back-drop of a planet, a spaceship circling.  The emblem of the Darwinist Consortium.  Matthew stared in disbelief.  It couldn’t be.  As the armored shock troopers leaving the A.P.C.’s approached the transmitting holo camera, Matthew could make out their faces under their helmets.  Angry, screaming faces, pasty-pink in color.  There was no longer any doubt.  “Whites,” Matthew whispered in shock.
            The hologram scene changed again, the words SECTOR 12 appearing.  More invading white troops, more A.P.C.’s, but with a different emblem displayed on their flanks.  A bearded white head with a horned helmet, like the Vikings of ancient Earth.  The Odinist Empire, Matthew realized.  Was he dreaming?  The hologram changed again.  SECTOR 19 this time.  Same pattern of attack by white soldiers.  This time, the A.P.C.’s were marked with a white cross against a red background.  The White Christian Confederation.  How could this be, Matthew thought desperately.  Those three white nations had been mortal enemies for decades.  Why were they suddenly fighting under one command with a common objective?  Unless...Matthew’s blood froze.
            “Take the cuffs off that man,” the captain said, pulling on body armor and loading a plasma rifle.  “And, release those Christians in the stockade.  Issue them whatever guns we can spare.”
            His sergeant...the one named Mohammed...looked as though he couldn’t believe his ears.  “Sir...they’re the enemy.”
            “That is the enemy, moron!” the captain screamed, pointing at the holo projection as he ran towards the door.
            Matthew was too numb to think as they took the restraining cuffs off him and shoved a rifle into his hands.  All he could do was follow his enemy through the same door through which he had, a few short hours ago, followed the men that enemy had killed.  What now, Sweet Jesus?
As we enter Black History Month, let's reflect on how African American characters have been featured in science fiction over the preceding decades.  In the pulp sci-fi of the 30's and 40's and in the only slightly more contemplative SF of the 50's, hardly at all.  While science fiction was in its early days in many respects a trail-blazing genre, it was still, like any other marketed commodity, an avatar of a still segregated and bigoted society.  We could dream of bright, fantastic future adventures in interstellar space, but not of racial equality.  The imaginary heroes conquering the galaxy were as WASP-ish as they could be.

As society changed, SF reflected the changes.  STAR TREK broke daring new ground by introducing a weekly multi-ethnic, multi-racial cast to present the idealistic image of a completely integrated and diverse United Earth of the future.  The lead character, of course, the heroic order-barking Captain Kirk, was still as purely Anglo-Saxon as could be imagined.  The show's only regular African character was Lt. Uhura "whose name means 'Freedom'."  Memorable for her striking beauty and often outspoken independence, she did help to inspire a generation.  (Whoopi Goldberg, who decades later played the insightful space-traveling Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation said she was inspired by Uhura, since she was the only positive African role model she got to see on T.V. as a kid.)  But, when all is said and done, Uhura was allowed to be little more than a glorified telephone operator, and even Guinan little more than a bartender, though both characters had considerably more potential.  The Next-Gen character Geordi Laforge (played by Levar Burton of "Roots" fame) did break new ground both as an African American character and as a blind character.  But alas, not as a lead character.

Science fiction is what lets the next generation dream.  And, the historic absence of black faces among the pioneering heroes of popular science fiction is one more reflection of an evolving society that still has a long way to go.  Case in point, in the 70's, the parade of lilly-white faces in STAR WARS -- the blonde, boyish Luke Skywalker, the cowboy-like Han Solo, the venerable, bearded Obi-Wan Kenobi or the moral purity envisioned in the Caucasian looks of Princess Leia.  The dashing presence of Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian was, at best, a distraction.

In the 90's, the first African American Star Fleet commander in the STAR TREK franchise was Benjamin Sisko of Deep Space Nine.  A powerful and memorable figure, his character was introduced in bitter tragedy, in the aftermath of his wife's death.  Still grieving and unable to move on, Sisko is thrust involuntarily into the role of religious messiah on an alien world still recovering from its own great tragedy.  Watching the Sisko character evolve through the years of the show was interesting and unique.  In addition to being the first African American lead character on STAR TREK, he was also the first to raise a child on the show and undergo a religious conversion.  Though a very strong character, Sisko's potential was somewhat overshadowed by the fact that the show had more of an ensemble chemistry than other Trek ventures.  (Sisko did not make full captain until late in the series.)  Avery Brooks, the actor who portrayed Sisko once commented about the show, in context with African American history, citing the bitter irony of the racial discrimination his father had suffered "all so I can climb through holes and fight monsters."  (Progress of a sort, I suppose.)

And today, as we enter the second term of our nation's first African-American president, and science fiction is slowly making its way back into popularity after a long post-9/11 low, how do African American characters fare in the genre?  Will Smith has become a familiar face in the SF genre, both as one of the farcical "Men in Black" and as the brave, wise-cracking Air Force fighter pilot in the high-budget corn-ball War of the Worlds rip-off known as "Independence Day."  His strongest and most serious SF role to date was "Legend" the remake of the now-classic post-apocalyptic "last man on Earth" tale which has been remade again and again over the years.  This was the first time we allowed ourselves to see a black man as the last hope of humanity, and Will Smith gave a strong performance; a welcome departure from the smart-mouthed clowning for which he was previously well-known.  Mr. Smith's latest project in the genre is an offbeat-looking far-future action film known as "After Earth," in which he plays a father struggling to keep his young son alive in a hostile environment.  Again, it's one man against the universe, and the brave face of humanity is African.

Perhaps African SF is the current frontier of the genre that dares to look to the future.  But, I'm sure it won't be the last frontier.

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