Speculative Fiction by Black Women I Read in 2016

So, after writing this post, I made a goal for myself of reading 10 books of speculative fiction by black women in 2016. Here are the ten that I read:

1. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010) by N.K. Jemisin
2. Of One Blood, or the Hidden Self (1902) by Pauline Hopkins
3. Lagoon (2014) by Nnedi Okorafor
4. The Broken Kingdoms (2010) by N.K. Jemisin
5. The Summer Prince (2013) by Alaya Dawn Johnson
6. To Terminator with Love (2016) by Wes Kennedy
7. Filter House (2008) by Nisi Shawl
8. Joplin’s Ghost (2005) by Tannarive Due
9. Midnight Robber (2000) by Nalo Hopkinson
10. Breaking Free by (2012) Alicia McCalla

Why didn’t you read anything by Octavia Butler?

Actually, I have read a couple of novels by Octavia Butler a long time ago, back when she was still alive (wow, time flies). I decided that I would rather read novels by writers I was not familiar with.

But you had read some Nnedi Okorafor novels before 2016!

Okay, I had. I just really wanted to read something new by her.

And you read TWO books by N.K. Jemisin – why not include a tenth writer instead?

Because I wanted to read the sequel.

Why did you include read only ONE book from the ENTIRE TWENTIETH CENTURY??!!!

That was not entirely by choice. I wanted to read at least one other book of speculative fiction from the 20th century by a black woman, but … if one excludes Octavia Butler, it’s not easy. As in, it is not easy to get my hands on physical copies. I put one on hold the library from one and … the library cancelled my hold because they could not find the book in their stacks. Yes, I could have ordered a used copy over the internet (I could not have bought new because it’s hella out of print), but it was simply easier to just read newer books.

I expected getting a copy of Of One Blood would have been easy because it’s public domain. HA HA HA HA. Instead of finding a high quality ebook edition (such as one can get via Project Gutenberg), the only way to get Of One Blood online is here. Fortunately, I discovered that the library did have a print copy which I could borrow. And according to the introduction of that print edition, Of One Blood had spent over 80 years out of print.

The lesson here is that, not only were there not-so-many works of speculative fiction by black women published in the 20th century, but the ones which were published (with the exception of the works of Octavia Butler) are surprisingly difficult to obtain.

Well, what did you think of Of One Blood?

I liked it. It’s not the best novel ever, or even the my best book on this list, but it’s very readable and different from anything else I’ve read.

What is the best book on this list?

It’s not easy to decide, but in my opinion, the best book on the list is Midnight Robber. Of course, space opera is one of my 2-3 favorite subgenres of speculative fiction, and Midnight Robber is the only space opera on the list, so that’s my bias.

What is the worst book on this list?

That is easy to decide – Breaking Free. It’s plain terrible in a way which not of the others on the list are. It’s in the ‘so bad it’s good’ zone, which is why I mildly enjoyed reading it.

Even in the 21st century, two-thirds of the books you read are from this decade, as opposed to the first decade of the century.

Again, there is much greater choice (and it is easier to find) speculative fiction by black women from this decade rather than the previous decade. Yes, I could have filled this list entirely with books from the previous decade, but I went with the path of least resistance.

What do all of these books have in common?

Aside from being speculative fiction? Non-white protagonists. Not always black protagonists, but certainly non-white. Which is not surprising.

What common themes did you notice?

Half of these books draw heavily from African or African-diaspora history/folklore/etc. However, they drew different African/African-diaspora traditions. Of One Blood incorporates the ancient city of Meroë into the story. Lagoon is set in Lagos and draws from Nigerian folklore (which, given that Nnedi Okorafor is Nigerian-American, is not surprising). Filter House is a short story collection, and some of the stories are clearly inspired by African folklore (I’m not sure which traditions). Joplin’s Ghost features Scott Joplin as one of the major character’s (he’s the ghost after all) so there is much history of African-American music and political struggles (such as ragtime and the beginning of Jim Crow, and hip-hop and police shooting African-American teenagers – and yes, it was published in 2005, not 2015). Midnight Robber draws from the Afro-Caribbean tradition (which, given that Nalo Hopkinson was born in Jamaica, is not a surprise).

The Hundred Kingdoms and The Summer Prince do not incorporate African heritage to the same extent that the above books do, yet the deliberately draw from other non-white cultures. N.K. Jemisin herself says that she is careful to get inspiration from many cultures and then weave them in such a way that the readers can no longer obvious which cultures are being referenced. The Summer Prince is set in a cosmopolitan futuristic Brazil.

Did Scott Joplin read Of One Blood?

Since he was alive when it was first published, maybe he did read it. However, I don’t think anyone alive today has a clue whether he ever read it or not.

Sara, have you been edified?

Probably. I don’t think reading these books gave me any particular insight into black women which I didn’t already have. However, they are (mostly) good books, and reading more good books is good. They also, overall, feel different from most of the English-language speculative fiction I’ve read. Most of the English-language speculative fiction I’ve read has been from the 20th century (but not the first decade of the 20th century), so it’s not necessarily easy for me to tell whether these books feel different from most of the speculative fiction I’ve read because they are by black women as opposed to white people, or whether they feel different because they were written in a different era (1902 / 21st century as opposed to 20th century).

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