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Race in SF

Entry updated 8 May 2023. Tagged: Theme.


Racial matters have long been a very highly charged category of Politics. Early science-fictional discussion of the problems of race relations would often distance the issues by a metaphorical transfer to the imaginary or Alien societies of Lost Worlds and other planets, since serious speculation tended to be swamped by anxious fantasies – notably the spectre of the Yellow Peril – and by the kind of unthinking racism and antisemitism which were for many years endemic in popular fiction of all kinds.

Such (relatively) open-minded works as Herrmann Lang's The Air Battle (1859) remain anomalies in a nineteenth century dominated by the racist ideologies which found virulent expression in King Wallace's The Next War (1892) and Louis Tracy's Anglo-Saxon-supremacist The Final War (1896). Tracy's worldview was echoed in M P Shiel's early Yellow Peril novel The Yellow Danger (5 February-18 June 1898 Short Stories as "The Empress of the Earth"; 1898), but Shiel repented of it in such later books as the misleadingly retitled The Dragon (1913; rev vt The Yellow Peril 1929), in the same way that he reassessed and reversed his occasional knee-jerk antisemitism in his Messianic political fantasy The Lord of the Sea (1901). Another white-supremacist work is Blood Will Tell: The Strange Story of a Son of Ham (1902) by Benjamin Rush Davenport.

The United States inevitably produced a considerable number of political fantasies about Black/white relations, an important early landmark being Martin R Delany's separatist Utopia Blake, Or the Huts of America (January-July 1859 The Anglo-African Magazine, part only; 26 November 1861-24 May 1862 The Weekly Anglo-African, full text; all surviving portions 1970) – the first novel to be published by a Black person in America. Also of note, from the very early twentieth century, is Pauline Hopkins's Of One Blood; Or, the Hidden Self (November 1902-January 1903 The Colored American Magazine; 2004). Other thoughtful works include Robert Gilbert Wells's Anthropology Applied to the American White Man and Negro (1905) – introducing the frequent sf theme of being able to change one's skin colour at will – T Shirby Hodge's The White Man's Burden (1915) and George S Schuyler's Satire Black No More (1931). David H Keller's four-segment story "The Menace" (Summer 1928 Amazing Stories Quarterly) depressingly begins with a Paranoia-laden Black Peril plot against the USA, with foreign gold financing plans to destroy the country via a serum that turns Black people white (the protagonist, in a speech concluding with the n-word, insists that "Your race can change the color of their skins but they cannot change the color of their souls."); the next stratagem, still more horrifying to Keller's hero, threatens wide deployment of an adapted serum to make white people black, the colour of their souls here offering no consolation.

Echoing Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal (1729 chap), George P Elliott's "The NRACP" (Fall 1949 The Hudson Review) – whose title initials stand for "National Relocation Act: Colored Peoples" – sets out a US programme of transporting Afro-Americans to reserves where they are slaughtered for meat. In "Dark Interlude" (January 1951 Galaxy) by Fredric Brown and Mack Reynolds, Time Travel from the Post-Holocaust future to mid-twentieth-century USA is fatal for the visitor who, initially welcomed, proves to be of mixed race. Harry Stephen Keeler's The Man Who Changed His Skin (written 1959; trans into Spanish 1966; 2009) centres on Identity Exchange between a white and a Black American in 1855. As the Civil Rights movement began in the 1950s and reached its first climactic phase in the 1960s, several notable futuristic fantasies of race relations were produced by mainstream writers, including A Different Drummer (1959) by William Melvin Kelley, The Siege of Harlem (1964) by Warren Miller, The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1969) by Sam Greenlee – filmed as The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973) – and several novels by John A Williams beginning with The Man Who Cried I Am (1967). Such direct treatments, however, seemed too sensitive to most genre-magazine editors, who preferred their writers to use Aliens in parables whose arguments were conducted at a more abstract level. A notable exception is the series by Mack Reynolds begun with Black Man's Burden (December 1961-January 1962 Analog; 1972 dos), set in Africa rather than the USA. Harry Harrison's barely science-fictional "Mute Milton" (February 1966 Amazing) features an unrecognized Black genius who has invented a new, fuelless Power Source; when he is shot (and his Invention destroyed) by small-town US police pursuing another man, nobody cares about the fate of this second-class citizen. "The Space Traders" (in Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, coll 1992) by US lawyer and civil rights activist Derrick Bell bleakly proposes a Thought Experiment in which Aliens offer the USA solutions to its problems of Economics, Pollution and Power Sources in exchange for the entire Black population: the deal is eagerly accepted. America is divided by strict apartheid in Howard Means's C.S.A.: Confederate States of America (1998).

More typically Genre SF would deal sympathetically with the aspirations of, say, an Android underclass, as in Clifford D Simak's Time and Again (October-December 1950 Galaxy as "Time Quarry"; 1951; vt First He Died 1953). Cordwainer Smith's underpeople (Uplifted from animals) pervade his Instrumentality of Mankind sequence and, recalling attitudes to African-Americans in times when they were denied political power, are credited with deeper spirituality than "normal" humans – as for example in "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" (August 1964 Galaxy). Frederik Pohl performs a neat if routine sf reversal in "The New Neighbors" (May 1983 F&SF) as a community of nice middle-class Robots reacts to the arrival of humans in their apartment block – only two, but: "Did you forget they're organic? What are we going to do if they start to reproduce?" The film Alien Nation (1988) transposes the well-worn buddy theme of a Black and white cop learning to work together into an Alien-plus-human team; Terry Pratchett's Men at Arms (1993) replays the Cliché to comic effect with a dwarf and a troll, whose inter-species hatred is a Discworld tradition.

In the 1950s and early 1960s the mere appearance of an ethnic-minority character in a positive role was faintly unusual, with the exception that Native American ancestry was remarkably common in spacemen and other sf heroes; two examples of very many are the lead characters Kade Whitehawk in Andre Norton's The Sioux Spaceman (1960 dos) and Two Hawks in Philip José Farmer's The Gate of Time (1966; exp vt Two Hawks from Earth 1979). It is frequently noted that Eric Frank Russell's Men, Martians and Machines Men, Martians and Machines (May 1941-October 1943 Astounding; exp as coll of linked stories 1955) offers a characteristic vision of multi-racial harmony – tentacled Martians, though not women, being included on equal terms – on a Spaceship whose highly competent doctor is Black. Robert Heinlein quietly indicates that the narrator of Starship Troopers (October-November 1959 F&SF as "Starship Soldier"; 1959) is a Filipino, but is very much more coy with hints that the female lead of I Will Fear No Evil (July-December 1970 Galaxy; 1970) may be Black. The original Star Trek series famously includes the Black communications officer Uhura: her and Captain Kirk's kiss (albeit under the influence of Alien mind control) in the episode "Plato's Stepchildren" (1968) was seen as a groundbreaking moment, the first interracial kiss in a science fiction series on US television (though by no means the first when other genres are considered).

Robert A Heinlein's uncompromisingly brutal Farnham's Freehold (1964) describes a Far Future America where Blacks rule whites as slaves and consume their meat (see Slavery); conversely, southern US troops forced by circumstances into cannibalism in Thomas M Disch's Echo Round His Bones (December 1966-January 1967 New Worlds; 1967) preferentially slaughter the Black soldiers. Frederik Pohl, in "The Day After the Day the Martians Came" (in Dangerous Visions, anth 1967, ed Harlan Ellison) shows white Americans gleefully transferring an entire tradition of racist slurs and jokes to unlovely Aliens found on Mars; the punchline, spoken by a Black man, is that the coming of this new underdog/scapegoat is "going to make a difference to some people." Norman Spinrad tackles US racial politics, though incidentally and with a broad brush, in Bug Jack Barron (December 1967-October 1968 New Worlds; exp 1969): this features a Black separatist state of Mississippi. Octavia Butler's Kindred (1979) thrusts her Afro-American heroine via Time Travel into the harrowingly depicted slave-state Maryland of 1815, which can only be endured.

Films in which white men become Black are Change of Mind (1969) – which achieves the effect by Identity Transfer via brain transplant – and the comic Watermelon Man (1970) (see Psychology). A US general subjected to involuntary Identity Exchange in Thomas M Disch's Camp Concentration (July-October 1967 New Worlds; 1968) dies of sheer horror on realizing he is now Black.

In Britain, two 1930s role-reversal Satires in which a future England's degenerate white primitives have given way to Black Catholic colonists from Africa are John Gray's Park: A Fantastic Story (1932) and Evelyn Waugh's "Out of Depth: An Experiment begun in Shaftesbury Avenue and Ended in Time" (December 1933 Harper's Bazaar). The other familiar form of racial role-reversal is central to W Douglas Newton's The Black Arab (February-July 1928 Cassell's Magazine; fixup 1933; abridged 1944) as by John Halstead, in which the titular character devises a means of turning his country's white exploiters black. Further UK sf novels bearing on racial problems include Margot Bennett's The Long Way Back (1954); Robert Bateman's When the Whites Went (1963); John Brunner's The Jagged Orbit (1969); Christopher Priest's Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972; vt Darkening Island) – by far the boldest of its period; Peter Dickinson's Satire The Green Gene (1973), in whose Alternate-History UK the Celts are green-skinned and subject to discrimination; and Barry Norman's End Product (1975), which echoes the slaughter theme of Jonathan Swift's Satire A Modest Proposal (1729 chap) and George P Elliott's above-cited "The NRACP". An example of a more distanced treatment is "Dumb Martian" by John Wyndham (July 1952 Galaxy; vt "Out of This World" in Space Movies II, anth 1996, ed Peter Haining), whose titular female Alien is in effect a Black slave (see Slavery) whose stupidly cruel human master "knows" she cannot be intelligent and is dumbfounded when she takes well-deserved revenge. The internal racial harmony of a near-Utopian future Earth in John Brunner's The Long Result (1965) is balanced by a residue of irrational prejudice against Aliens, fostered by an all too plausible human-supremacist movement calling itself The Stars Are For Man League. Malorie Blackman's Young Adult Noughts & Crosses sequence beginning with Noughts & Crosses (2001) reprises, strongly, the inverted situation in which Blacks oppress whites.

South African political fantasies on the theme include Sydney G Attwell's minatory Drifting to Destruction (1927), Arthur Keppel-Jones's anti-apartheid When Smuts Goes (1947), Garry Allighan's pro-apartheid Verwoerd – The End (1961) and – a more oblique "anti" treatment – J M Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians (1980). The highly visible injustice of the old South African apartheid policy offered a safe target for UK and US writers: civil rights are denied to the white minority at the outset of Arthur C Clarke's Childhood's End (April 1950 Famous Fantastic Mysteries as "Guardian Angel"; much exp 1953; rev 1990); an African in Margot Bennett's above-cited The Long Way Back expresses mild concern about lions "loose in the nature reserve" which might "get through the fence and eat all our Boers, and then what'll happen to anthropology?"; an unpleasant fate befalls the expelled whites in Vernor Vinge's "Apartness" (June 1965 New Worlds). The South African film District 9 (2009), set in and around Johannesburg, nods to the country's history of racial strife before sideslipping into action-adventure.

Like Native Americans, Romanies (also known as Gypsies [now deprecated], Roma or Romani) are often romantically treated, appearing as lovable rogues in many works of Fantasy. Examples include: The Cornish Trilogy by Robertson Davies (1913-1995), beginning with The Rebel Angels (1981); And Eternity (1990), concluding Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality sequence; and Philip Pullman's Northern Lights (1995; vt The Golden Compass 1996), where the alternate-world term for the travellers is "gyptians". The notorious wanderers preserve the human heritage through Post-Holocaust times until non-travellers are ready to resume their usual ascendancy in "The Star Gypsies" (July 1953 F&SF) by William L Gresham; regain their lost Earthly country (removed as an Alien experiment) in R A Lafferty's "Land of the Great Horses" (in Dangerous Visions, anth 1967, ed Harlan Ellison); and find a new planetary home in Robert Silverberg's Star of Gypsies (1986).

Some Jewish issues are explored in two notable Alternate-History novels of the twenty-first century, Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2004) – in which US antisemitism rises sharply during the imagined 1940s presidency of aviator Charles Lindbergh – and Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007). Earlier Jewish-themed stories are assembled in Jack Dann's anthologies Wandering Stars (anth 1974) and More Wandering Stars (anth 1981). Avram Davidson's many stories flavoured with this theme, mostly non-genre, were posthumously collected in Everybody Has Somebody in Heaven: Essential Jewish Tales of the Spirit (coll 2000). A late and particularly unpleasant example of antisemitism in sf is Serpent's Walk (1991) by M A R Barker (whom see) writing as by Randolph D Calverhall; besides presenting the Nazi SS as long-suffering good guys, the author repeatedly indulges in holocaust denial (see Holocaust Fiction).

All too frequently, as real-world racial hatred and fear remains intractable, the tendency of Genre SF has been either to ignore the issue or to sanctimoniously take for granted its eventual disappearance. Overly easy "solutions" to long-established frictions include the ability to choose one's skin colour – the premise of George S Schuyler's sardonic Satire Black No More (1931) and of Christopher Anvil's "Devise and Conquer" (April 1966 Galaxy), in which Soviet provocateurs find it impossible to stir up racial hatred in the no longer colour-coded USA – and alter other racial indicators at will. Sometimes deep-rooted prejudice vanishes with similar suspicious ease, as in Robert A Heinlein's Double Star (February-April 1956 Astounding; 1956), in which a long-standing racial phobia (here safely about Martians) is cured by a single session of Hypnosis. Ursula Le Guin includes a Satire of such easy fixes in The Lathe of Heaven (March-May 1971 Amazing; 1971), where reality is malleable and an expressed wish to abolish race prejudice has the effect of turning everyone the same leaden shade of grey.

A whiff of racism thinly disguised as marketing savvy persists in sf cover art: even now, many Black or otherwise non-Caucasian protagonists have their distinctive characteristics blurred or entirely removed when depicted on the book jacket, a process often referred to as whitewashing. [DRL/PN/BS]

see also: M.A.N.T.I.S.; Taboo; Urban Legends.

further reading

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