Have you ever heard the joke about how the black guy always dies first in horror movies? As well as being a problematic film trope, it's also a pretty damning reflection of the way black people are represented in genre fiction. From Night of the Living Dead right through to The Shining and Alien, we're either the first to go, on the sidelines, or not there at all.
This lack of diversity is a problem that exists throughout the spectrum of speculative fiction. John Boyega in Star Wars notwithstanding, you don't see a lot of brothers in a galaxy far far away. The last time I tried to watch Game of Thrones, there was a white woman being carried on the shoulders of a horde of brown-skinned natives.
Speculative fiction, or SF for short, is the catchall term for science fiction, fantasy, and horror. In these films, books, and comics, we're invited to envision worlds different from our own. Worlds where reality is malleable and anything is possible. Except, it seems, for black people.
Mainstream culture tends to codify SF fandom as a white phenomenon, like golf, yoga, or tax evasion. The truth is that a lot of black people have always loved stories set in far-flung futures, far away lands, and distant planets, and there are plenty of black SF authors who write them. We just don't get to hear about them very often.
Independent filmmaker M. Asli Dukan is hoping to all change that with Invisible Universe, a documentary about the contributions black people have made to speculative fiction throughout history right up to the present day, and the genre's deep ties to African American diaspora.
Talking over the phone, Asli tells me that the seeds of Invisible Universe were probably sewn when she was young girl growing up in New Jersey. Watching foreign cinema on local satellite television and reading comics lent to her by her family helped her develop a taste for genre fiction: "Even at that young age, I realized that I really just loved the SF genre and the possibilities of it. But recognized that that love was a little hard, a little bittersweet."
It was a trip to the cinema with her aunt and being allowed to choose what to watch for the first time that made her realize something wasn't quite right with the medium she loved. Despite being excited, being given the choice between seeing Return of the Jedi and Superman, neither of which had much in the way of positive black or even female representations, made her think twice about things.
"Images of people who looked like me weren't exactly there, and some of the images of black people or women in these films that I loved were questionable. Even at a young age, I had this feeling where I loved SF, but felt that there was just something missing from it."
I could relate. These things sneak up on you when you're a black kid who loves science fiction. I tell her about a similar experience I had as a young child trying to figure out who I could dress up at as Halloween and realizing that none of my favorite characters looked anything like me.
Asli tells me that she began working on Invisible Universe almost by accident way back in 2003, when she went to along to a black speculative fiction conference at Howard University. Among those speaking at the conference was Octavia E. Butler, a Hugo Award–winning author whose work was ground breaking in its portrayal of black women and themes of race, sexuality, and gender. A longtime fan of Butler's writing, Asli took the opportunity to meet her hero and find out more about the other writers at the conference.
"I was fortunate enough to have discovered the work of Octavia E. Butler as a teenager. When I saw her name on the lineup I knew I had to be there. Once I got there I was like 'Oh, yeah, I'm a filmmaker… Maybe I should document this!'"
What started as a series of interviews quickly grew in to something much bigger: "While I was filming, I realized that a documentary about black science fiction writers could be an amazing project. After the panel, I went to up to all the writers and said, 'Hey, I'm making a documentary about black science fiction writers and I want you to be in in it.'"
Since then Asli has interviewed a who's who of people in the black SF community, from science fiction writers like Samuel R. Delaney and Steven Barnes, to actors like Wesley Snipes (Blade) and Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek's Lt. Uhura).
Over the years, she's also carried out what seems like several theses' worth of research into the representation of black people in SF literature past and present. Covering a period of more than 100 years, Invisible Universe delves deep into the history of African American SF writing that traces its origins to the early 19th century and what is known as the Black Utopianist movement through to the beginnings of Black Futurist movement in the 1960s.
"There's definitely a boom right now in the number of modern black people participating in science fiction as fans and as writers, but there were also moments in the past where this happened too. The late 1800s and early 1900s were the nadir of race relations in the United States, but there was still this emergence of black writers who were penning futuristic stories and fables. They used these stories as a way to better the lives of black people during a time where you had Jim Crow laws, lynching, and race riots.
"A similar thing happened when modern black science fiction writers like Octavia Butler emerged during the 1960s and 70s against the backdrop of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.," said Asli.
Indeed, the link between black struggle and the resilience of the black imagination is one of Invisible Universe's through lines. It makes sense that black people living through Jim Crow or the Civil Rights era would try to create a better would through storytelling and fiction. But if looking at the history of black people in America can tell us something about the rise of African American science fiction, what can it tell us about the way black people and the worlds they create have been represented in mainstream science fiction up until now?
"The interesting thing about mainstream speculative fiction is that it really kicked off around the same time that Europe started imperializing the world, especially Africa. You can read these stories set in past versions of the future and notice parallels between the way some of these books talked about aliens and the way that colonizers at that time would talk about Africans.
"In my mind, the origins of the genre go hand in hand with the origins of white imperialism and white supremacy. It's hard to separate the two. It's carried on to this day, because it's embedded within the genre.
"White supremacy, at least in the United States, is something that affects every area of our lives from the kind of schools we go to, our access to healthcare, the neighborhoods that we can move into," said Asli. "So it's no surprise that it invades our speculative literature and film. It's so embedded in culture at large that it makes sense that its also within speculative fiction."
With all that said, Asli remains fiercely positive about the future of black speculative fiction. While it's true that white supremacy has historically put up many barriers for black people in the genre, the advent and growth of the internet is helping to break many of them down: "Technology has definitely played a big part in helping more and more black people become involved in SF," Asli said.
True enough, Asli and I probably wouldn't have been speaking if it wasn't for the internet. And you only need to look at the phenomenon that is black Twitter to see how the internet allows typically marginalized groups of people to bond over shared interests. Fittingly, Asli believes that it's the spread of technology that will allow black people to see more of ourselves telling fantastic stories.
"All these new networks are forming and allowing us to communicate, share, and create our own worlds."
M. Asli Dukan is fundraising for post-production costs through her fiscal sponsor, Fractured Atlas. Visit Invisible Universe to make a contribution.