Science Fiction Belongs to All of Us: On Joy Sanchez-Taylor’s “Diverse Futures”

IN 1993, MARK DERY coined the term “Afrofuturism” to describe a subgenre of speculative fiction that “appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future” as it “addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture.” Since then, Afrofuturism has come to be considered a broader artistic movement: the term has been retroactively applied to artists and musical groups such as Sun Ra and Funkadelic. Nominated for eight Grammy awards in the last decade, Janelle Monáe has famously embraced the Afrofuturist label. As Isiah Lavender III points out in his introduction to Extrapolation’s 2021 special edition on Afrofuturism, a Google search of the term proves its increasing visibility in recent years, yielding over a quarter billion results. And in literary and cultural studies today, Afrofuturism is hot. Rightfully so, as the true credit for Afrofuturism’s popularity in this realm belongs to a cadre of Black scholars such as Ytasha Womack, Kodwo Eshun, Alondra Nelson, De Witt Douglas Kilgore, and Lavender, who have fruitfully expanded its parameters not only as a genre designation but also as a hermeneutic, a praxis. Afrofuturism is the underground railroad’s engine, linking the revolutionary spirit and utopian dreaming of Black peoples across time.

The immensely productive explorations of racial landscapes in Black-authored science fiction serviced by this critical lens have inspired scholars to codify other futurisms, such as Grace Dillon’s Indigenous futurisms, Catherine Sue Ramírez’s Chicanafuturism, and Cathryn Josefina Merla-Watson’s Latin@futurism. Joy Sanchez-Taylor’s 2021 monograph, Diverse Futures: Science Fiction and Authors of Color, puts these scholars (and many more) into conversation, taking up the subject of ethnic futurisms in a comparative approach unmatched in its scope. Sanchez-Taylor’s ambitious work spotlights a score of science fiction texts by American and Canadian authors who represent a range of ethnic and cultural identities, drawing out the shared experiences of displacement, diaspora, and marginalization at the heart of their work.

The chapters in Diverse Futures function as standalone essays—useful resources, therefore, for readers interested in a specific SF trope, author, or work—but Sanchez-Taylor’s broader contribution to the study of science-fictional futurisms becomes clearer when reading the monograph as a whole. Sanchez-Taylor celebrates the various ways that ethnic futurisms provide new critical approaches to BIPOC science fiction, and while she draws on futurist scholars in her analysis, she argues that we must consider the works in question above all as science-fictional objects. Her explicit stance, seen in the introduction, is that such a reading practice underscores the immense and diverse scope of narratives working to broaden conceptual definitions of science fiction; this is a unifying argument throughout the chapters that centrally informs her textual analysis.

Diverse Futures places Sanchez-Taylor amongst a band of contemporary scholars who are pushing against some of the foundational elements of SF studies, consecrated in Darko Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Considered the alpha-and-omega of SF genre theory since its English edition’s publication in 1979, Metamorphoses defined SF as “the literature of cognitive estrangement.” Science fiction’s political utility, he contends, revolves around its presentation of unfamiliar worlds that “estrange” their readers. However, the foreign elements in science-fictional worlds must be governed by empirical laws and the rational discourse of science. Suvin draws a line in the sand here, dismissing fantasy, whose foreign elements—essentially, supernatural phenomena—do not follow “cognitive logic.” Suvin’s conflation of the “cognitive” with the “empirical,” though, betrays the very issues with the genre today. It is reasonably clear to most contemporary scholars that literary genre designations have largely been determined by the Eurowest and that they are fraught with its epistemological biases; science fiction is no exception. Diverse Futures sees Sanchez-Taylor trying to tackle SF’s problematic exclusions, and it exemplifies her fierce dedication to “expanding the boundaries of what constitutes science fiction by challenging the Eurowestern privileging of the Western scientific method and rational thought over non-Eurowestern forms of science and logic.”

Sanchez-Taylor has no interest in offering her own definition of SF, which is far too often a self-serving gesture in the realm of literary studies. She does coin her own term, though, joining a band of scholars proving that the golden rule of SF theory is not inviolate: her notion of “double estrangement” remixes Suvin’s definition in an innovative contribution to the field that colligates “cognitive estrangement” and W. E. B Du Bois’s “double consciousness.” Double estrangement describes both the SF author of color’s artful appropriation of SF tropes and its precondition, namely, the fact that “peoples of color are always forced to view themselves through a lens of whiteness.” Turning SF’s functions on its head, these authors present “the unfamiliar as familiar [in order] to estrange their readers.” As these narratives draw attention to the authors’ experiences of racism and violence writ large, they simultaneously critique the genre itself, juxtaposing SF tropes with specific cultural references.

In so doing, they also write a love song to their community, their home place, the ephemera that shape their day-to-day lives. Sanchez-Taylor notes, for example, how a can of Aqua Net becomes an unlikely weapon against otherworldly invaders in “Chanclas and Aliens,” Gina Ruiz’s reclamation of the “urban Chicana ‘ghetto’ stereotype […] as a marker of ethnic pride.” As a first-contact narrative, “Chanclas and Aliens” subverts the science fiction trope most visibly analogous to colonialism. Ruiz emphasizes the effects of colonization from the perspective of the colonized, clapping back against a long list of white-authored narratives that appropriate the experience of colonized subjects in depicting encounters with the science-fictional other.

Sanchez-Taylor’s work is clearly informed by John Rieder’s important 2008 book Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, and she’s at her best when her engagement with genre politics seamlessly opens into a larger critique of colonialist discourse and practices. The juxtaposition of technology and myth, a genre-blurring move Sanchez-Taylor identifies as a common feature in BIPOC science fiction, further serves to resist the primitive/civilized binary. Implicit here is also a refutation of “progress” as predicated on technology use, and a limited definition of technology at that.

Unsurprisingly, Grace L. Dillon (Anishinaabe) makes several appearances in Diverse Futures. Dillon’s “Indigenous scientific literacies” reconfigure spiritual traditions and medicinal and agricultural practices as technologies. And while Dillon coined this term in 2012’s Walking the Clouds, an anthology of SF by Native American, First Nations, Aboriginal Australian, and Māori peoples, Sanchez-Taylor mobilizes it more broadly, such as in her readings of Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring (1998) and Carlos Hernandez’s “The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria” (2016). Being careful not to homogenize different cultures and ethnicities, Sanchez-Taylor acknowledges commonalities in Indigenous—that is to say, precolonial—cultures. These include, among others, practices in environmental sustainability and conjure science that together work to promote balance.

There is a palpable optimism here about the ability of these texts to “teach Eurowestern culture how to adapt and survive.” A reminder that cancer still hasn’t been cured and an excerpt from a scientific study about the use of dandelion root extract in the treatment of colorectal cancer follows a passage from Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts (2017) featuring the protagonist’s clever use of dandelion root. And if this reads a bit polemical, we might point the finger at Diverse Future’s advocatory stance, which seems to seduce Sanchez-Taylor into a tangent, positioning the texts in terms of rhetorical purpose in the chapter’s thesis (they “argue that […]” and “demonstrate the limitations of relying solely on the Eurowestern scientific method [emphases added]”).

But given the stakes, it’s hard not to become heavy-handed. BIPOC science fiction consistently reminds us of the extensive measures that colonizers deployed to quash Indigenous practices. Even a passive observer of current events can see the renewed threats to Indigenous cultures today: the various onslaughts on BIPOC histories, the damage posed by the Keystone XL Pipeline to Native American land, the insidious efforts on the political right to make critical race theory a cultural bogeyman, and the laws preventing education on our racial history that those efforts engendered. We thus find an emphasis in these texts on “retaining, recovering, and recording the histories of enslaved and colonized peoples.” Sanchez-Taylor’s contribution here is highly important, for in a genre so associated with the future, BIPOC science fiction is unique in how often it lends its focus to the past, a trend that is still criminally underexplored in SF studies.

It is not uncommon, then, for BIPOC SF authors to leave historical Easter eggs for perceptive readers. As Sanchez-Taylor notes, Nnedi Okorafor names one of the many characters subjected to genetic experimentation in The Book of Phoenix (2015) HeLa, a clear reference to Henrietta Lacks, a Black American woman whose cells were harvested without consent in the 1950s. The Book of Phoenix extrapolates from an innumerable list of Black people made victim to medical experimentation, and Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (2006) proves a useful supplement to Sanchez-Taylor’s discussion here.

Authors of color shoulder a valid apprehension about the racial implications of genetic science in countries still governed by racism and white normativity—and in another fine example of Diverse Future’s analysis of SF tropes subversively wielded by authors of color, Sanchez-Taylor turns her attention to some of the post popular SF tropes today: genetic experimentation, genetic mutation, and genetic engineering. The debates about scientific ethics common to these narratives manifest as distinct racial allegories in the texts explored here, whose authors—exemplifying a nearly universal trend in BIPOC science fiction—present their speculative writing within an ongoing history of racialized violence.

Such work services a larger assault on post-racial discourse, but apocalypse narratives provide particularly fertile ground for this kind of commentary. In depicting post-apocalyptic worlds governed by the maintenance of the status quo, SF authors of color reverse the postapocalyptic narrative script and its underlying assumption that people will shuck their racist ideologies for the good of humanity in the face of disaster. Despite what some of Hollywood’s finest wanted us to “Imagine” in their misguided musical performance at the start of the pandemic, in times of catastrophe, the world does not resemble a John Lennon song.

The suspension of legal protocol, for instance, allowed by invoking a “state of emergency” can be used to reduce the rights of certain groups of people. Authors of color frequently draw attention to the many ways in which BIPOC citizenship is attenuated by white power structures. The apocalyptic scenarios imagined in this chapter’s texts magnify the reality that Black people and those marked as “immigrant” are continually criminalized. Sanchez-Taylor offers the example of Ling Ma’s Severance (2018), in which a pregnant second-generation immigrant is deemed unfit to care for her baby. Similarly, the queer female protagonists of color in Gabby Rivera’s “1.0” (2019) are identified as “dangerous,” facing increased surveillance among other limitations to their rights as citizens. To be less-than-citizen, these authors remind us, is to be less-than-person. And as can be said of all the chapters, Sanchez-Taylor’s intersectional approach here enriches her analysis.

Apocalypse narratives, as my students would say, hit different today. During the height of COVID-19 and in its wake, the social issues represented in these texts have been playing out before us. We see immigrants criminalized, the right to seek asylum revoked, Asian Americans subjected to scapegoating and violence. Our postpandemic discourse—saturated, as Sanchez-Taylor points out, with calls to return to normal—betrays at best an ignorance toward the experiences of people of color, many of whom will find no comfort in returning to the status quo. “[N]ormal,” as Sanchez-Taylor enumerates in a moving and forceful conclusion, is “the whitewashing of Eurowestern history” and the refusal to acknowledge or accept non-Eurowestern knowledge. Normal means people of color being denied access to STEM opportunities, prevented from helping to develop some of the very technologies—such as surveillance apparatuses—weaponized against them. Normal amounts to the continuation of “the cycles of violence and systemic racism” that will not cease to oppress people of color, in all their intersectional positionings, without systemic change.

Some may see the sheer volume of texts featured for analysis in Diverse Futures as Sanchez-Taylor biting off more than she can chew, and indeed a few texts are left wanting more critical attention. But Sanchez-Taylor is less interested in producing an exhaustive close reading of her featured narratives, many of which have enjoyed their place in the literary spotlight, at least in SF circles. You will find no distanced, sterile elucidation within these pages. Rather, Diverse Futures is a passionate call to democratize the system of categorization at the heart of literary study. And more than that, it’s a call to shake up the norm.


Julia Lindsay teaches surveys in American literature, multicultural American literature, and first-year writing at the University of Georgia. Her research interests include contemporary science fiction and Afrofuturist literature, African American literature and culture, and Southern studies.

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