Science Friday Book Club: Technology, Magic, And Afrofuturism
This is a part of our fall Book Club conversation about the short story collection, New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction By Writers of Color, edited by Nisi Shawl. Want to participate? Sign up for our newsletter or record a voice message as you read on the Science Friday VoxPop app.
The Science Friday Book Club continues this week, this time reading another short story from the speculative fiction collection New Suns. African-American author Andrea Hairston’s story ‘Dumb House,’ is about a woman named Cinnamon who finds herself pestered by a pair of traveling salesmen, who hope to persuade her to upgrade her house into something smarter.
SciFri producer Christie Taylor, Journal of Science Fiction managing editor Aisha Matthews, and speculative fiction author K. Tempest Bradford discuss trust and community in ‘Dumb House,’ the relationship between technology and magic, and other elements that contribute to the story’s Afrofuturist theme.
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Aisha Matthews is managing editor of the Journal of Science Fiction and the director of Literary Programming for the Museum of Science Fiction’s Escape Velocity conference in Washington, D.C..
K. Tempest Bradford is a speculative fiction writer and a creative writing teacher for the Writing The Other workshop series, in Portland, Oregon.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Would you trade your privacy for convenience? It’s a central question to consider as our world is increasingly online, increasingly smart. Depending on the devices you have, you know that AI is watching everything from what temperature your home is set to what you watch on TV. And it’s a question at the heart of the next story in this week’s book club, as we continue our discussion of the anthology New Suns– Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. SciFri Book Club Captain, Christie Taylor has more.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: If you’ve ever grappled with whether to add more tech to your life or felt pressured to upgrade before you felt ready, Andrea Hairston’s short story “Dumb House” is for you. The story follows Cinnamon, whose so-called dumb house is plenty for her. But nevertheless, she’s constantly pestered by traveling salesman who want her to upgrade to the latest in self-contained tech abodes. “Dumb House” was this week’s book club assignment from the collection New Suns, which was edited by Nisi Shawl.
And it’s a story that covers a lot of ground, from the ways technology can be used to spy on us, to how it can be part of spiritual practice, to this movement in art and culture called Afrofuturism, which we’ll talk about in a second. Joining me again is Aisha Matthews, managing editor of the Journal of Science Fiction and Director of Literary Programming for the Museum of Science Fiction’s Escape Velocity Conference. Welcome back, Aisha.
AISHA MATTHEWS: Hi, Christie. Good to be back.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, it’s good to have you back. So we’re talking this week about the story, “Dumb House.” It has a lot going on. We meet Cinnamon, who is this woman who just wants to be left alone. And she encounters to traveling salesman who are trying to convince her to upgrade her house from a dumb house to a smart technology driven, your toilet analyzes your poop kind of house. She says no a lot. And at the end of the day, the salesmen leave, but we like them now. Do you feel like I miss anything really important in getting to that summary?
AISHA MATTHEWS: So when I first read this, it felt a little bit abstracted. Kind of like it started in the middle of a story, because this is kind of an epilogue to Will Do Magic for Small Change, which was her 2016 book. It gives us a lot more kind of depth and nuance to how age and technology have changed things from this kind of techno-spiritual world that she lived in, in our current time. But I also found it interesting in thinking of its relation to Kelsey’s story, it feels like a different type of ghost story, there are the ghosts of her ancestors, but then there’s also the ghosts who fly below the radar of technological surveillance. And so while last time we very much had the spirits themselves being carried around, I thought it was interesting to look at what it means to be a ghost in a world where visibility kind of signifies presence.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, and I really liked also– So Andrea Hairston, she’s also a playwright, and you can see a lot of that in this story, everyone’s in costume, there are all these props and special effects. And it reads very much like a one act play for me, in a lot of ways too.
AISHA MATTHEWS: Definitely.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: That said, I don’t want to go too much farther without introducing our third accomplice in this conversation. K. Tempest Bradford is a speculative fiction writer. Some of her work includes steampunk about ancient Egypt. She’s also a lead teacher in the Writing the Other workshop series, which is a resource for writers who wish to write about groups they themselves do not belong to. Hey there, Tempest.
K. TEMPEST BRADFORD: Hey. Nice to be here.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Tempest, as you were reading “Dumb House,” what were you most thinking about, as you unpack the world of this story.
K. TEMPEST BRADFORD: I was keying into a lot of the conversation that was sort of being had about technology, and the needs of technology, and how Cinnamon was like, nope, I don’t need this stuff because I was taught how to live in a world where I didn’t need technology to do all these things for me. That really felt important because yeah, there’s a lot of conversations being had about that. Especially now, this year, around what do we do if this does become an apocalypse situation.
Because I think that our science fiction [INAUDIBLE] has primed us for this, to think about what skills we might need to have, what things you might need to know if all this technology just goes away. I just moved into a new place. And one of the things that I finally did when I moved to this new places is I got some smart plugs and somebody was like, it’s a slippery slope. You’re all the way down the slippery slope. And I was like, I know, it’s only lights. So I liked that this story was really digging into what it means to be a person, who is just saying no, no, no to this. But then it switches. It becomes a story about these characters and what these characters mean to each other. And I really love that.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Last week, Aisha, we talked a little bit about ethnic futurisms, about how futurisms are about giving us futures that are not whitewashed, that are not all white people living in this sort of clean, neat technological future. We didn’t really talk about Afrofuturism, but I would love for you to unpack that for us. So how would you define Afrofuturism and where it comes from, and what it’s doing?
AISHA MATTHEWS: In my work and my understanding of Afrofuturism, most people in the last few years, have looked up the definition and seen Mark Derry’s 1991 conversation of Afrofuturism. Used to be a lot more African-American centric, at least in some of its early iterations. So I think in the larger growth of the Afrofuturist movement it’s become much more Afrodiasporic. Which you do see a lot of, in Hairston’s work in particular, the African deities, the juju, what they call the hoodoo voodoo, all of these cultural artifacts that come from these African cultures.
And so what I believe she calls JuJu tech, is that kind of techno-spiritual blend, which is one of my favorite things about Afrofuturism, the idea that we are seeing a culture which has historically been deemed primitive that is organically integrated with advanced technology. And in this story in particular, there were a few hints of the ways that Black culture in the early 21st century kind of carries forward.
So in the beginning of the story she talks about how everyone essentially talks Black now, that English of the 21st century is heavily inflected by Black culture. She discovers they’re actually trying to sell her own technology back to her. So there are these clear kind of colonial vibes of the things that have been appropriated and taken, but at the same time she is still creating this culturally inflected technology.
K. TEMPEST BRADFORD: I think that the internet has brought together a lot more people from a lot of different branches of the African diaspora to start having conversations with each other, so that now there can be more recognition of what people from different parts of the diaspora and different parts of Africa have been doing with speculative fiction that we can put under the umbrella of Afrofuturism. For a long time there were people who were thinking of it in a very literal way. And they’re like well it’s futurism though, because Afrofuturism, right?
But Black Panthers, Afrofuturism takes place in that quote now. And it can apply to things that happen all throughout history. There are ways of looking at history and lenses through which you can write it in the speculative realm, that take on a very distinct flavor when a person who is of the African diaspora writes it. And it’s the same with other groups of marginalized people that fall under the BIPOC umbrella as well. It’s not even just about, here’s Black people telling Black stories about Black stuff. It’s a way of looking at the future and the now that’s inflected by our technology which is so futuristic to us, and a way of looking at the past, and what we could do with the past. And this is again, why I really love New Suns, because it brings in all these different voices from under this umbrella.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: It wasn’t necessarily a story about how technology is bad. It was not as simple as that. Her life rests on technology to a certain extent. She just wants to have agency over how it shows up in her life.
AISHA MATTHEWS: There is one quote, “Co-ops are a threat, dumb houses are a nuisance, a gateway drug.” And so it really highlighted in the conversation they have about that the idea that it is a threat specifically, because you can grow your own food, you have your own means of social communication. It was a very kind of corporate town idea that they’re trying to buy up every individual, so that everyone will be entirely owned by the system. And I think we see that in a lot of ways today, and a lot of dystopias go there. I found that idea really interesting, that the past is a gateway drug. Holding on to the past is somehow a gateway drug to revolution.
K. TEMPEST BRADFORD: Yeah, definitely. I think about it in terms of even stuff that’s going on right now, where there are certain entities that are always trying to control things. Where you’re like, why are you trying to control that? In some places it’s illegal for you to collect rainwater. It’s water that falls out of the sky. Why would that be illegal? But it’s tied into all these systems of, they need to control who gets the water, and when, and how.
And if you get your own rainwater, that disrupts that system. And it’s like if they can allow somebody to live in a way that is not sanctioned, that does not benefit the corporation, that is a threat to them. I remember where I saw that story about the rainwater. It was on twitter. in one of those threads, where somebody was like, what was the thing that radicalized you? And that was one of the stories that somebody told about how they found out their town had a prohibition against collecting rainwater.
And another person who was like, my mother used to keep a garden. And then suddenly keeping your own garden was outlawed, and they poured bleach all over the garden that she’d made in the community yard. I know a lot of dystopias go that way, but the only reason why it comes up in dystopia is because it’s something that’s happening right now.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: You mentioned the co-op, the co-ops are a nuisance quote, Aisha. And I don’t know that we see that much of Cinnamon’s sort of larger landscape, of where she’s living, but it’s implied that she’s part of a community. It’s implied that she is working with other people to meet needs, collectively in some way. And there is a sense too, that what is frowned upon in this corporate dystopia is that community is also part of the rebellion against surveillance.
AISHA MATTHEWS: Definitely. I think the term that would be used in disability studies would be interdependence. So interdependence, is in that regard seen in the same way some people see welfare, as we have to take care of others, as opposed to none of us get anywhere, entirely alone. All of us are in some way relying on others, and it’s a matter of how much we embrace that. And I thought it was interesting even thinking about the juju tech she has, and her sparkly dragon body suit, and these LED masks that she has. And it’s clear that she’s selling them to someone as part of her living. She was also at some point an engineer and–
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, she was in tech, herself.
AISHA MATTHEWS: Exactly. And so she’s still in the very real sense that all of us must face, she still has to eat at the end of the day.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Aisha, last week when we were talking about, even just the concept of an anthology like New Suns, and some of the stories that are told when we actually give storytelling platforms to racialized writers is the embodiment, the process of inhabiting a body, and how that is realized differently by people who are racialized in their society. Was there anything for you, that came up in this story, that felt like that was part of that conversation?
AISHA MATTHEWS: So definitely. I mean, there’s the disguise element with her friends. They have a whole Halloween-style face covering and modified voices, which is a whole lot. So I think Cinnamon in Will do Magic for Small Change, she ultimately ends up being in a kind of three-way relationship with these two friends, one of whom is white. And she never imagines that anyone like that would love her. So in this future, where she’s reunited with these people she used to love and kind of still does love, there’s a real sense of her coming back into her embodiment, in the context of her past life, that I thought was interesting. Because it’s both a polyamorous and an interracial relationship.
K. TEMPEST BRADFORD: Yeah, and another aspect of that is, how the theater of it does play into this. Because when they first come to her porch, she sort of recognizes them as people who are playing a role, in the fact that they were all in this theater troupe together. And then there’s a point at which they recite a line from this play that they had done together as part of a ritualistic magical thing that’s happening.
And I knew it was going to be important, when Cinnamon first thinks, these people are playing Rawls, like this is about to be important. The way that, that manifested through the story, and how they literally embody one type of person, and then suddenly these two people embody whole other types of people, and how that all plays into what’s going on with the techno-spiritual aspects of the story, and how it rolls into what happens at the climax. It’s all so interconnected, and all just again very specific to who the two people who come to her door embody when they first come to that door, and when they leave that door, are two so different things. And it just all rolls into that whole theatrical, ritualistic, spiritual stuff that Andrea is playing with, with this story.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Just a reminder, that this is Science Friday. I’m Christie Taylor. If we talk about science fiction or speculative fiction as a way to rehearse possible worlds, is there a takeaway, or is there a lesson learned, or is there something that where we’re practicing that this story gives us.
K. TEMPEST BRADFORD: There are so many things that this story is doing all at once, that it– Yeah, it’s hard to have a takeaway. I do feel like I want to make everybody read this story and have a conversation with me about, what are our needs going to be if everything really does fall apart. Going back to what I said in the beginning, and being like, look are we going to be able to build a house on some land with a greenhouse, and be able to grow some stuff that we can sell to the co-op, because if not we need to get together, these skills. That I think is a conversation, that I would really love to have with people because I feel like that’s one of the tangible takeaways. That is something that you can discuss and discuss how you could apply it to your life. Because I don’t know if we can all necessarily apply the techno-spiritual stuff to our lives, even though I personally am like, I need to get on this.
AISHA MATTHEWS: What I loved about this story, is the refusal to be assimilated and erased. And I think, while the story sends a good message at the end, that like she says, Taiwo points out, that it is good to have people tugging at your heart strings. It is good to have people that care about you and to not be withdrawn from the world. But she is willing to stand her ground and fight to preserve the culture that has been passed down through the generations. And so I think something good to take away from it is forcing us to challenge our ideas of how much participation is mandatory. If anything these stories can do, it is encouraging us to think about why are we so invested in everyone doing it our way. Why is it that when progress happens, everyone needs to get the new iPhone not just you. So I think it’s important and powerful to be reminded that the past does have value and that while holding on to the past can certainly hold us back, there are things worth saving.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And unfortunately, we are out of time. Aisha Mathews is managing editor of the Journal of Science Fiction and director of literary programming for the Museum of Science Fiction’s Escape Velocity Conference. K. Tempest Bradford is a speculative fiction writer and a lead teacher for the Writing the Other workshop series. Thank you both so much for your time today.
AISHA MATTHEWS: Thanks, Christie.
K. TEMPEST BRADFORD: Thank you.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: One last thing, we are giving away 10 free copies of New Suns this week, courtesy of the awesome folks at Powell’s Books. Go to our website for an entry form plus an excerpt from “Dumb House,” a chance to sign up for our newsletter, and much more. For Science Friday, I’m Christie Taylor.
IRA FLATOW: And like Christie says, for more information on participating in this SciFri book club, check out our website sciencefriday.com/bookclub. We’ve got all kinds of ways for you to get involved. Plus this week on the Science Friday VoxPop app, book club readers, what are you thinking about as you read dumb house and other stories in New Suns? Do you have a favorite story, yet? Tell us your reactions. That’s on the Science Friday VoxPop app, wherever you get your apps.