The term “Afrofuturism” was coined in 1993 by Mark Dery in an essay called “Black to the Future,” in which Dery interviewed authors and creators Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose on science fiction written by African American authors. Afrofuturism is not your boilerplate science fiction; it is the invention of a future, or alternate history, as seen through the lens of ancient African traditions and Black culture. It draws from the history of Africa and the African diaspora to imagine liberated futures commanded by Black leaders. This intersection of futuristic technology, science, culture, and the supernatural is explored in all forms of art, such as music from Sun Ra, opens a new window and Janelle Monáe,, opens a new window as well as Marvel’s Black Panther., opens a new window
Afrofuturism in literature, as in all forms of art, continues to grow with new authors and titles emerging all the time. It was challenging but necessary, to narrow my list down to just a few noteworthy novels to highlight. My recommendations include early influencers, such as Butler and Delany, as well as seasoned and newer authors of Afrofuturistic works.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
Hugo and Nebula Award-winner Butler is a must-read in the canon of African American speculative fiction authors, and her “Parable” series is a good place to start. In the near future, global warming, pollution, and racial and ethnic strife have triggered a worldwide descent into chaos. And in the Los Angeles area, struggling pockets of people hide behind flimsy walls from roving scavengers and violent pyromaniac addicts called “paints.” When paints overrun young Lauren Olamina’s neighborhood, she flees north with other refugees. Suffering from “hyperempathy,” a condition that causes her to experience others’ pain as acutely as her own, Lauren still feels hopeful for a better life and looks to build a new community through her religion, Earthseed.
The Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
An original alternate history taking place 15 years after the Civil War ends, where slavery is illegal in the Union but still reigns in the Confederacy, and New Orleans remains the only free and neutral port in the country. Teenage Creeper is an orphan barely surviving on the city’s fringes until she uncovers a Confederate plot to recreate the Black God’s Drums, an otherworldly weapon, and use it against the Union. Teaming up with airship captain Ann-Marie and the goddess Oya, Creeper must prevent Confederate soldiers from releasing an angry god’s wrath upon an unsuspecting city and nation.
Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
This Nebula Award-winning novel, written by another seminal Afrofuturism author, is an intricate tale of famous poet and code expert Rydra Wong. Rydra is determined to crack an enemy government’s code but discovers it is actually a secret language that is the force behind the enemy’s power. To accomplish her task, she must travel with an eclectic crew to the site of the next enemy attack. Babel-17 is intended to be followed by the short novel Empire Star, the story of a simple-minded teenager entrusted to carry a critical message to a far-off world.
The Conductors by Nicole Glover
In this exciting mashup of alternate history, mystery, and magic, Hetty Rhodes and her husband, Benjy, were Conductors on the Underground Railroad, ushering dozens of enslaved people to freedom. With the Civil War over, they use their skills--courage, cunning, and magic--to solve murders that white authorities would typically ignore. In Philadelphia's Seventh Ward, only Benjy and Hetty can solve the strange deaths or magical curses that crop up. When a longtime friend is murdered, their powers are put to the test as a web of secrecy and lies shakes up their neighborhood.
How Long 'til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin
It’s hard to pick just one N.K. Jemisin work to spotlight, but this collection of short fiction really stands out for exploring thought-provoking themes of destruction, rebirth, and redemption. Jemisin contrasts modern society with fantasy in her imaginative tales. Dragons and evil spirits haunt New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. From a parallel universe, a utopian society observes our world to try and learn from our mistakes. And a Black mother in the Jim Crow South must save her daughter from an otherworldly being that offers inconceivable promises.
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
Okorafor, another modern powerhouse of African American speculative fiction along with Jemisin, presents Binti, the first of the Himba people to ever be granted admittance into Oomza University, the galaxy’s most renowned institution of higher learning. But at what cost? Binti must give up her place among loving relatives to travel between stars with strangers that don’t share her customs or worldview. And it’s a life-or-death journey, as Oomza University has wronged a frightful alien race called the Meduse, sparking a war that Binti’s journey places within her reach.
Join Central Rappahannock Regional Library and the Stafford NAACP Youth Council for a virtual African American Read-In on Saturday, February 5, from 10:00-12:00 at facebook.com/crrlnews, opens a new window. Visit librarypoint.org/african-american-history, opens a new window for more information.
Tracy McPeck is the adult services coordinator at Central Rappahannock Regional Library. This column first appeared in the Free Lance-Star newspaper.