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Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora.

Sheree R. Thomas, ed. Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora. New York: Warner-Aspect, 2000. 427 pp. $24.95.

In his 1999 essay "Black to the Future," which is reprinted in Sheree Thomas's groundbreaking new anthology Dark Matter, mystery and recent science fiction writer Walter Mosley writes, "The power of science fiction is that it can tear down the walls and windows, the artifice and laws by changing the logic, empowering the disenfranchised, or simply by asking, What if?" The stories in this anthology are artful representatives of this power, asking not only "what if?" but "how?" "why?" "when?", and perhaps most importantly "whom?" The response to this final question seems, according to this particular collection of short fiction, to be "black people" -- along with black culture and black traditions -- for these pieces are not merely science fiction or fantasy writing, but African diasporic literature as fine as any being produced today.

That Thomas uses "speculative" fiction, rather than science fiction, or SF, in her title, is significant; while both conventional SF and fantasy writing fall under the umbrella of the speculative, that umbrella can be expanded to include what is commonly called "magical realism" as well as almost any work which contains elements of the supernatural or merely the unbelievable. By this definition, as African American expatriate and Canadian resident Charles Saunders notes in his essay "Why Blacks Should Read (and Write) Science Fiction," also anthologized here, a work like Toni Morrison's Beloved could easily qualify as a speculative piece. Indeed, the writing in this collection ranges from work which, like the bulk of Morrison's fiction, is seemingly based in our contemporary existence--perhaps altering that existence just enough to make the familiar feel strange, enchanting, or horrifying--to work which deals in the implausible and utterly fantastic.

On the realism end of the spectrum, the ailment suffered by a singer in Leone Ross's "Tasting Songs" is an extreme version of a rare, but very real, physical condition; similarly, Steven Barnes's "The Woman in the Wall," a grim tale of a woman and her stepdaughter caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, resembles many present-day (or recent-past) experiences all too closely. Conversely, stories like Kiini Salaam's "At Life's Limits," Nalo Hopkinson's "Greedy Choke Puppy," Jewelle Gomez's "Chicago 1927," or Amiri Baraka's short-short, "Rhythm Travel," challenge what are commonly understood as the limits of space and time, and suggest the existence of otherworldly beings who observe and shape human lives or who choose to walk among us--ancestors and demons, vampires and angels.

Baraka is one of several well-known African American writers and scholars anthologized here who have not primarily been viewed as science fiction or fantasy authors. Others include Charles Chesnutt, whose 1887 story "The Goophered Grapevine" is reprinted in the collection; Ishmael Reed, who offers an excerpt from The Terrible Twos; and, perhaps most surprisingly, W. E. B. Du Bois, whose fascinating story "The Comet" was forwarded to the editor early on in the process, by the aforementioned Charles Saunders. Saunders's 1984 "Gimmile's Songs," a fantasy based in African mythology, is also included in the anthology, as are previously published stories by the two African American giants of the SF genre, Octavia Butler (who in 1995 received a MacArthur "genius" grant for her work) and Samuel Delany. Both also have essays reprinted in the volume.

Butler's and Delany's stories are, of course, not the only traditional science fiction pieces in the book, though even stories that would generally fall under the SF rubric (because they take place in the near or distant future, include spacecraft or extraterrestrials, or consider scientific concepts like cloning) tend, in this collection, to be driven more by character and theme than by technology. Evie Shockley's "separation anxiety," for example, is a moving tale about family relationships and the many ways that home can be both secure and stifling; Tananarive Due's "Like Daughter" chillingly recasts childrearing's nature-vs.-nurture debate while telling a poignant story of lifelong friendship. Derrick Bell's controversial piece "The Space Traders," which first appeared in his 1992 Faces at the Bottom of the Well, is as much a commentary on contemporary U.S. race relations and political circumstance as it is a story about the arrival of "aliens from outer space."

Indeed, what seems to draw all the work in the collection together is its deeply black sensibility. This assessment arises not from a simple assumption of racial homogeneity, but from the sense that these stories, in a variety of ways, possess a common interest in African diasporic culture and understanding of shared black experience. Many, even most, of the stories' characters are of African descent; the settings of the pieces include rural Southern towns, inner-city high-rises, and island nations in the Caribbean. More importantly, however, these stories--like a great deal of non-speculative African diasporic fiction--question or rewrite African history, and the history of Africans in the Americas. Indeed, like much of the best black literature, the stories in Dark Matter also invite readers to re-envision the present, and future, for black people and for human beings in general. These new visions of present and future are profoundly influenced by past and present cruelties, injustices and oppression based on racial (as well as ethnic, class, and gender) difference.

As such, Dark Matter is more than a needed black intervention into the SF and fantasy genres, long dominated by white authors and editors; it is also a reminder that the black literary tradition has a rich history of speculative writing, a great deal of which merits attention as literature rather than simply genre fiction. Indeed, some might insist that the nature of blacks' involuntary transport to the shores of America and the Caribbean, as well as our subsequent experiences on these shores, itself borders on the fantastic, presses the limits of the "real," and thereby demands the wider scope and expanded artistry of speculative narrative. Thomas's anthology meets, and exceeds, that demand. There is writing for the avid science fiction or fantasy reader here, certainly, but there is also a deeply literary foray into black culture and tradition. Dark Matter does capably what all fiction should do--leaves its readers with more questions than answers.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Jenkins, Candice M.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2000
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