Pushing Boundaries In Fantastical Fiction
Watch the full live Zoom conversation with Nisi Shawl, Aisha Matthews, Christie Taylor, and SciFri Book Clubbers!
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.
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The Science Friday Book Club has spent all of October immersed in short stories by Indigenous, Black, Chicanx and South Asian authors. But at the end of the day, where do these stories fit in the bigger picture of fiction writing in 2020?
In the final conversation of this fall’s speculative fiction focus, SciFri’s Book Club joins writer and ‘New Suns’ editor Nisi Shawl in a conversation about the expanding footprint of writers of color in science fiction and fantasy, and the ways both science and science fiction can be re-imagined and redefined when you look outside of the perspectives of white, Western authors who have dominated these genres in the past.
Shawl suggests broadening what stories we call science fiction. What happens when we think of writing, or even religion, as forms of technology?
SciFri producer Christie Taylor and Journal of Science Fiction editor Aisha Matthews join Nisi Shawl in front of a live Zoom audience for this conversation about the diverse and dynamic future of science fiction.
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..
Nisi Shawl is a speculative fiction author and editor of New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction By People Of Color (Solaris, 2019). They’re based in Portland, Oregon.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, can floating nuclear power plants be part of a carbon-free energy solution? But first, the SciFri book club is back for the final conversation about New Suns, Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. You’ve been reading and listening with us all month. You’ve helped us stretch the boundaries of what science fiction is, and joined us in imagining diverse futures.
And this week, we talked to the book’s editor Nisi Shawl about why that work matters. Producer Christie Taylor, unofficial captain of Team Book Club, hosted the interview with a live listener audience on Zoom. Take a listen.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: With the Science Friday Book Club the premise is pretty simple. We pick a book. We read it. And then we talk about it with other book nerds, and maybe some scientists, for a few weeks. This season we picked a collection of short stories called New Suns, Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color.
And in this book, we’ve got aliens, we’ve got transdimensional horror stories, we’ve got reanimated dead tearing apart conquistadors, and simple ghost stories about letting go of our past. Here to talk more about this collection– the making of it, and why we should all keep seeking out new suns, is Nisi Shawl, speculative fiction writer, and editor of New Suns. Welcome, Nisi.
NISI SHAWL: Glad to be here.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: It’s good to have you. On the scholarly side, we’ve also got Aisha Matthews she is managing editor of the Journal of Science Fiction, and literary programs director for the Museum of Science Fiction’s Escape Velocity conference. Welcome back, Aisha.
AISHA MATTHEWS: Hi, Christie. Good to be back.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Good to have you.
Nisi, I’m going to start with you because you edited the collection that has been sort of the star of Science Friday for the last month. This is a collection that explicitly centers writers of color. Why did you say yes to this particular project?
NISI SHAWL: Because it’s a burgeoning area of science fiction and speculative fiction of all sorts. It’s a movement. It’s happening.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Say more about that. What is the shape and arc of this movement?
NISI SHAWL: Well, I am 65 in a couple of days. And I’ve been writing speculative fiction of one sort or another, and attending conventions, for decades. And up until about 10 years ago, I could go to a science fiction convention and shake the hands and greet every single person of color that was at a convention. There would be 1,000 people there, and there would be 10 people of color.
And then that changed. That changed so dramatically. And there were all these authors, there were all these readers. We would call ourselves, sometimes, unicorns, because we were supposedly rare. But actually, we were not that rare. But we were suddenly visible.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Mm-hmm. You wrote in your afterword to this book, if the New Sun– and we’ll talk a bit more about this metaphor to Octavia Butler a little bit later. But you wrote, we’ve been here a long time. We’ve been shining a long time. So it’s not that people haven’t been writing or telling these stories. Where did everyone come from, I guess, or what has changed?
NISI SHAWL: Oh, a few things changed. There are a couple of organizations that got involved in promoting the presence of people of color in the speculative genre. I helped to found one back in 1999, The Carl Brandon Society. We got together and decided we need to support this, and we need to expand it. And that’s what we did. There is an organization called Con or Bust. And Con or Bust raised money and then gave scholarships to people who wanted to attend conventions.
I should say that in the world of speculative fiction, the gathering together– virtually now, or physically– of people of like mind was always really important. And it was something that was out of reach financially for many people of color because of class and economic issues. And it was also out of reach, in certain ways, because sometimes you would go to this space and it would feel really unwelcoming– really unwelcoming. So there are a bunch of people who decided to change that.
I should also mention RaceFail, which was an online controversy that sort of surfaced all these issues. People saying that you don’t need to put people of color in science fiction stories. You don’t need to hear from them, as they have nothing to say. They don’t care about it.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, I think that’s a great pivot to the question I was going to ask next, which is, what do we lose when we don’t have the voices of people of color being published in books of science fiction? What perspectives get left out? What ideas don’t come to the surface?
NISI SHAWL: We don’t know. And that’s the point. We don’t know what we’re missing. The field is just blindingly white, well then, we are blinded by what’s coming in to our senses. We are overwhelmed. We’re dazzled. And we don’t know what we’re missing.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Aisha, I introduced you as sort of the scholarly presence in the room, because you publish journal articles about what you see in science fiction. And you have already– we’ve talked about this already– but the ways in which, for example, inhabiting a body gets read differently when the writer is a person of color. Talk a little bit more about how this plays out, and what else you see in books like New Suns that we might not see in a Robert Heinlein story.
AISHA MATTHEWS: Yeah, absolutely. So I think the nature of embodiment for people of color– like the rise of intersectionality as an idea, looking at these axes of identification– has really highlighted how we all walk through this world so differently. And I think there are a lot of people, as we’ve talked about in the past, that have this vision of a future that has, in its advancement, become very monochromatic.
And so I think the beauty of anthologies like this is, A, reminding us, as Nisi so rightly pointed out, that these stories and these writers are here. But also, really giving voice to the sensation of being a person of color. Imagining a future in which these people of color– our technologies, our cosmologies, our spiritual beliefs– are built in to the technological presence.
I think that is what makes so many of these stories so interesting is it really resists the traditional idea of science fiction, which is very digital technology. And I think this book makes an excellent case for the fact that there are so many other technologies– spiritual, social– all of which can really enrich our lives.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: You noted at one point, Aisha, writing is a technology, for example. Just the idea putting words down in visible form. Nisi, I think you have a response to what Aisha just said. But I wanted to add– in a piece you wrote a while ago, you wrote that science is easier to define than fiction. And I wanted to throw that quote into this question that Aisha just posed.
NISI SHAWL: Yeah, science is a way of approaching the world. It is not necessarily confined to test tubes. A friend of mine, Kim Stanley Robinson, was a guest of honor at a science fiction convention called WisCon. And his guest of honor speech was all about social technologies. And I think that this is an important idea of a lot of the writing that comes out of people of color, out of the African diaspora, the various Asian diasporas– is that the way that a culture is constructed, the way that a community works, is a form of technology. It is a way of approaching the world, and using the tools of observation and testing that are given to us by science. Am I right?
AISHA MATTHEWS: I think so.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I think that’s a really fun question to explore. And actually, before we go to that, we have a question from an audience member. Joanne from Montclair, in New York, had a really interesting question just about identifying who wrote these stories.
JOANNE: After reading this book, I was wondering– this collection of stories, and they’re all identified as being written by people of color. I was wondering if there WAS anything within the stories and how they’re written, or whatever, that makes them identifiable as such. For me, the answer was no. A good story is a good story, as far as I’m concerned. But I’d like to hear your opinions on that.
NISI SHAWL: I can answer that. As I was putting this together and reading the stories, I wasn’t focused on finding a common thread between them that identified them as the work of people of color. I would agree with you that a good story is a good story. What I did find was a couple of things. There was a strong tendency in all of these stories to question the normal narrative of colonialism. And that was something that I saw over and over again.
And the other thing is, again, not so much from the stories but from the authors that kept telling me, I’ve written this but I have no idea how to get it published. I don’t think it’s going to sell. No one is going to want this. So I don’t know that that’s something that is in common with the stories, or if it’s something in common with the authors being told that the stories were to be suppressed.
AISHA MATTHEWS: And kind of to add to that, to your point, I second the notion of the colonial legacy kind of being at the center of these. Because it seems in so many ways, whether it’s an alternate history, or whether we’re looking in a far future that has the consequences of colonialism and capitalism, it seems that all of these stories kind of touch on, or intersect with, the idea of Western rationality, and varying levels of challenge to that.
So given that rationality in and of itself has often been an instrument of enlightenment, an instrument of Western thinking, I think it’s really interesting to see how far-reaching the effects of this colonial past truly are. And I think it’s highlighted in a way, in this anthology, that might easily be overlooked by certain people who don’t know what to look for.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Last week we talked about The Shadow We Cast Through Time, which is a story by an Indian writer, Indra Das. And that was a story that was literally about colonizing another planet. But there are already people there– these aliens, or that this fungal colonial organism that the human settlers just decide to adapt to. There’s no hostile war with the other species. It becomes a symbiosis instead, which felt very different from other stories I’ve read about humans going to other planets.
I often have encountered stories where there’s at least a moment where it seems like there might be interspeciel war. And in this case, it felt very much like, well, this is here, but they were here first, and we’re just going to have to figure out how to live on the same planet.
NISI SHAWL: A lot of what I see in that vein is with Tobias, but tells a story which opens up the anthology. And with, let’s see, the one by Steven Barnes.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Oh yeah, Come Home to Atropos.
NISI SHAWL: It’s all about being colonized, rather than being the colonizer. So there’s that, too. Interesting question.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: We have to take a short break. When we come back, more with speculative fiction writer Nisi Shawl, and the Journal of Science Fiction’s Aisha Matthews.
This is Science Friday. I’m Christie Taylor. We’re continuing our discussion of this fall’s Science Friday Book Club pick, New Suns, Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. This discussion was recorded on Zoom with a live audience. And my guests are Nisi Shawl, editor of the collection, and a speculative fiction writer, and 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.
I do want to take a moment and stop and ask about genre, because Nisi, again, as you said, science is easier to define than fiction, so I am assuming you’re implying that fiction is hard to define. If we’re going to talk about whether a story belongs in the fiction category, or even in the science fiction category, how do we start to weigh that, and does it matter? Like, should a story just be a story? Should a good story just be a story?
NISI SHAWL: All fiction, as an ex of mine used to say, is speculative. It’s all stuff that you’re just wondering about it. Unless you’re a journalist, you’re not reporting what actually happened. So all fiction is speculative. But what I think makes these stories more speculative, is that they are questioning and looking differently at things that are accepted wisdom for the world. So they’re speculating on sort of the underpinnings of reality.
AISHA MATTHEWS: Honestly, one of the stories in the collection– The Robots of Eden– kind of spoke to me to that. For the listeners who maybe haven’t read it, the idea of a world in which they’ve created this sort of brain that operates to override emotional responses, and to keep you kind of healthy. And one of the main characters, who is also a writer of fiction, talks about Adam and Eve having what they did by biting the apple was creating fiction.
In this idea of– at least how I interpreted it– this idea of empathy and the human experience being so much of what we’re putting into fiction. And so in that light, I would see speculative fiction as new ways of learning to emote and empathize, fundamentally, whether we’re looking at technology, family and kinship, which rises again and again. Yeah, just kind of trying to resolve that, I think, is really what speculative fiction comes down to.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: We have a question, actually, about Robots of Eden from Andrew Stone, who’s in Albuquerque. He said that he read Robots of Eden, and he was very moved. He said it’s the only fiction that contains its own book inside of it. And with one in five Americans on some kind of mood-stabilizing drug, isn’t this a story that’s kind of about now?
NISI SHAWL: All science fiction is about now, because that’s where we are. We can’t, actually, write so much about the future. We can speculate about the future, but where we’re speculating from, is from now. So yes, yes, you’re right.
AISHA MATTHEWS: And I also say, it seems like the idea of rationalism in opposition to emotion is kind of something that is a historical challenge. And so as we face as a country, particularly in America, a very divisive kind of political environment, I think it’s really the question of how to, as I said, how to emote in new ways. How to empathize in ways with beings or people who we would believe have nothing in common with us.
And I think in many ways, part of what television does is shows us and normalizes new configurations that would otherwise have been really hard to get people to accept. So I think speculative fiction just pushes that envelope a little further, and tries to normalize things that seem way out there. But so did cell phones 100 years ago. So it’s really a matter of how quickly we adapt to that impending future.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I want to talk about Octavia Butler, whose work as an early Black science fiction author helped create some of the space that other writers are now expanding into today. Nisi, the title of New Suns is a reference to a quote of Octavia Butler’s, “there’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.” How did Butler lead to work that we’re seeing today? What lineage would you draw in connecting her to what we can read now?
NISI SHAWL: She was just so focused and so determined to get her stories out there, that she was going around creating legacies wherever she went, really– and deliberately and consciously. I don’t know if you realize this, but Octavia and I were actually friends. So there’s that sort of personal connection too.
AISHA MATTHEWS: I’m jealous.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Aisha, you’re a Butler scholar.
AISHA MATTHEWS: I am.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: You obviously made a choice, based on her work, to focus on her. What do you attribute to Octavia Butler’s influence in the work that you see coming out now?
AISHA MATTHEWS: So besides the broader Afro-diasporic influence, I see the most in Butler’s work in the discussions of hybridity and change. Her work is just so– in the type of cognitive estrangement that we talk about of science fiction, this hybridity is so estranging to us. It kind of puts us at a distance. And yet her constant insistence is that change is the only way for humanity to survive into the future.
And so I think as we look at environmental climate change, all of the things that are coming, this idea that we will have to adapt. And I’ve seen a lot more writers looking at what that adaptation looks like, and really living in the discomfort of what it means to let go.
So I guess if I had to sum that up, I would say, really, like, the discourses of post-humanity. She has advanced those greatly by just helping us imagine, and really redefine for ourselves, what we’re holding onto in the term human, and what we might be able to part with.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: As a writer of science fiction, Nisi, is this what you set out to do? Are you trying to predict the future? Or are you– what is the importance, that you see, in the work you’re doing?
NISI SHAWL: I’m not trying to predict the future. I’m trying to extrapolate hope, actually, is what I personally am trying to do– is create these blueprints. Someone has compared science fiction stories to thought experiments. If you keep going in this direction, where will you wind up? Maybe in a world of altered carbon. Maybe not. Hopefully not.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: We have a question from Jennifer.
JENNIFER: It seems like a lot of the stories in the book were more fantasy-oriented than science fiction-oriented. I’ve read a lot of science fiction. And I wondered if the whole thing is just muting together, and if there’s really a difference from sci-fi to fantasy, like it used to be– like, so different.
NISI SHAWL: What a great question. I think that there is a tendency to label something as fantasy if there are certain elements in it, despite the presence of science elements. The example that I will use is Nnedi Okorafor’s novel, Lagoon, which has an alien invasion. There’s, like spaceships and stuff, but there’s also incidents where, say, a road becomes haunted and rises up and eats the people who travel along it.
Another example, my novel Everfair– I was really, really trying to be hard-crunching the numbers as to how much loft do you get in this dirigible, what kind of fuel can you use to go this amount of distance. But I had people also putting their consciousness into cats, riding cats.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: That sounds great.
NISI SHAWL: So the idea that there’s a dividing line between fantasy and science fiction, to me, calls into question the idea of a dividing line between science and non-science. And the science that I use does allow for people to put their consciousness into cat bodies.
AISHA MATTHEWS: One of the other things we talked about over the course of the last couple weeks was the term of speculative fiction, and why it’s useful. And at least in my study, I’ve seen speculative fiction as kind of a larger umbrella that encompasses science fiction, horror, fantasy. So I would, generally speaking, say that science fiction is a genre of speculative fiction. And so in the sense where science fiction kind of has the supremacy, particularly because it has historically portrayed science, and white guys using it.
Speculative fiction has a little more flexibility in its traditional boundaries. So rather than throwing out the definition of science fiction, attention to speculative fiction might be a way to kind of elide that problem. That’s where we have the ability to incorporate those fantastic elements into a traditional science fiction.
NISI SHAWL: And I just want to add that there are elements that are used in science fiction stories that have no basis in the extrapolation of current scientific knowledge. One example, faster than light travel– there are so many stories of intergalactic empires where they’re knit together by people traveling faster than light. That’s fantasy.
AISHA MATTHEWS: Yes, it is.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Are you calling that magic? I mean, is that what we should say– that Star Trek is a magical show?
NISI SHAWL: You know, that is why I am I am concerned about these terms, and why I’m so glad that someone is asking about them.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So I have, I think, one more question for both of you. And that is– maybe two questions. But the first is just what’s on your recommendation list for things we should read if we want a experience unconfined by genre, that still manages to stretch our perceptions of what reality can be– especially by Black, Brown, or Indigenous writers.
AISHA MATTHEWS: Excuse me, as I turn to my bookshelf.
NISI SHAWL: I was fine with that until we got into unconfined by genre, because I experience the science fiction and speculative fiction and fantasy and all of those genres as unconfining. So I would recommend anything by Ted Chiang, for instance. A neighbor of mine, a friend of mine, he wrote the short story that became the movie, Arrival.
And all of his short stories, all of his novellas, are mind-blowing. They’re very carefully constructed to fit within the parameters of science though. There was a panel of interstitial writing– writing that goes between different genres, like, breaks the boundaries. And he told everyone that his writing was entirely stitial.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I love that.
AISHA MATTHEWS: I would say, in terms of two of the more prevalent authors that I’ve read that kind of fall into that space, would be Nnedi Okorafor, particularly in Binti, the Binti series. And Nalo Hopkinson, in Midnight Robber, in particular, as well as Brown Girl in the Ring. But very much she does– both of these authors do such an amazing job of melding the magical– the inheritance of African religion– into clearly technologically advanced societies.
And I think, if you’re looking for ways to imagine how, essentially, how things might have been, either without colonialism, or if it had had a different effect, I think a lot of those works, by not being centered in America, really give us a wider perspective that is still very relatable to Americans. But a lot of things in America, I feel like, are often conscribed within the history of chattel slavery in a way that sometimes forecloses other possibilities.
So by opening up to the diaspora, these authors are really giving us very generative new ways to look at science and techno-spiritualism, as we’ve been talking about these past few weeks.
NISI SHAWL: Oh excellent, excellent. I love Midnight Robber. And I would add that– another N author, Nalo, Nnedi– Nora, Nora Jemisin– NK.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yes.
NISI SHAWL: She went to an astronomy camp, and the science that she learned there was the basis for her fantasy trilogy, The Broken Earth series.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, we had her on for– she was actually our last fiction book club, though that was about a year and a half ago at this point. We read the first in the series, and talked about disasters.
Just a quick reminder that I’m Christie Taylor, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking to speculative fiction author and editor Nisi Shawl, and the Journal of Science Fiction’s Aisha Matthews, about new frontiers in imagining the future.
I have, actually, one last question– from Paul, in our audience, who just wants to know what are some of the biggest takeaways from this collection, New Sons, or even some of the individual stories, especially for readers who are not of color.
NISI SHAWL: People of pallor, as we say.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: People of pallor, yes.
NISI SHAWL: The takeaway would be there’s so much out there, and you get to experience it for the first time.
AISHA MATTHEWS: And I would say, two of the things that I think this collection does well– one of them is reckoning with what we’d call historical racial trauma. So in this moment, there are a lot of people, well-meaning people, who want to understand the history of racism. And obviously, why I would point them to some more nonfiction books first. I think there’s a way in which a lot of these stories reckon with the emotional toll that we’re still paying. So a lot of people who can’t see the connection between colonialism and today, and the protests they see, and the anger, I think, can find some answers to speculate on in here.
And also the idea of the ghost story, and different ideas of ancestral influence. These stories have a really good way of pointing us to different ideas of foremothers and forefathers, especially from the American sense. And kind of what there is to be learned from them, rather than treating them as the kind of stagnant pedestal upon which everything is built. Looking at other ways that ancestors and history are just another part of the continuum of past to present.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I really like that. And as Nisi said, every story is also a story about now.
AISHA MATTHEWS: Absolutely
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: That’s the end of our time. Thank you both for joining us today.
AISHA MATTHEWS: Thank you, Christie.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: 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, based in Washington DC. And Nisi Shawl, author of many books and stories, and editor of the collection, New Suns, Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, joining us from Portland.
Join us also in future live recordings by visiting sciencefriday.com/livestream, or signing up for our newsletter. And if you’re looking for past interviews from our book club, our online discussion community, or anything else, you can find it all on our website. Again, sciencefriday.com/bookclub. For Science Friday, I’m Christie Taylor.