11 Black Authors Who Were Some of The OG Pioneers of Sci-Fi/Fantasy (And I’ll Fight You If You Say Otherwise)
No, this is not up for discussion.
One of the most prevailing historical issues of science-fiction and fantasy is the way it’s been so ridiculously whitewashed and skewed towards the cis male demographic. What this has caused, even up to today, is the prevailing notion that other demographics, other people with varying identities, gender-expressions, and walks of life aren’t interested in the genres—or worse yet, never even participated in the first place.
As mentioned in my Octavia Butler piece, while Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Tolkien and countless others have long become household names in SFF, many of their Black counterparts have been swept under the rug and long-deprived of their well-deserved accolades until very recently. It’s created this unfair notion that the writers and stories we’re seeing now emerge in the science-fiction and fantasy landscape are simple “virtue signaling” or “PC SJW” pandering, which … firstly, LOL, and secondly, couldn’t be further from the truth.
Each of the writers included in this list have been writing sci-fi and fantasy since long before renewed efforts for inclusivity resulted in this current renaissance we’re witnessing in the genres. Some of these writers were even the peers of the household names I mentioned, and have discussed the barriers to accessibility and subtle racism that they’ve had to face firsthand in order to tell the stories that reverberated in their hearts.
While it’s so important to recognize and support the immensely talented authors we’re seeing now, I think it’s also equally important to give warm kudos to the veterans, greats, and pioneers that beautifully paved the way. I guarantee you’re bound to find a new favorite book — and author — in this list below. Enjoy!
Alaya Dawn Johnson
What you should read first: The Summer Prince
Alaya Dawn John’s worlds are so immersive, they take my breath away each time I dive into her stories! Subverting the genre and incorporating the lush setting of Brazil, the Summer Prince is a complex sci-fi tale of prophecies, love, and the sentient cities that commandeer it all.
The lush city of Palmares Tres shimmers with tech and tradition, with screaming gossip casters and practiced politicians. In the midst of this vibrant metropolis, June Costa creates art that’s sure to make her legendary. But her dreams of fame become something more when she meets Enki, the bold new Summer King. The whole city falls in love with him including June’s best friend, Gil. But June sees more to Enki than amber eyes and a lethal samba. She sees a fellow artist.
Together, June and Enki will stage explosive, dramatic projects that Palmares Tres will never forget. They will add fuel to a growing rebellion against the governments strict limits on new tech. And June will fall deeply, unfortunately in love with Enki. Because like all Summer Kings before him, Enki is destined to die.
What you should read first: The Fifth Season
Words cannot even begin to describe the creative genius that is N.K. Jemisin. There’s a reason her Broken Earth trilogy became the first in history to win back-to-back-to-back Hugo Awards for Best Novel. The breathtaking tale of The Stillness and the orogenes who live within is some of the most compelling fantasy in years, and is sure to live long after Jemisin as a revered classic. Don’t believe me? Read it for yourself.
This is the way the world ends. Again.
Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.
What you should read first: Brown Girl in the Ring
Nalo Hopkinson is a veteran in the science-fiction/fantasy sphere, and her novel Brown Girl in the Ring is definitely a book that is memorable both in imagination and scope. Blending elements of fantasy with science-fiction, Brown Girl in the Ring invents a vivid new mythology centered in family bonds, magic, and coming-of-age- during the end of the world.
The rich and privileged have fled the city, barricaded it behind roadblocks, and left it to crumble. The inner city has had to rediscover old ways-farming, barter, herb lore. But now the monied need a harvest of bodies, and so they prey upon the helpless of the streets. With nowhere to turn, a young woman must open herself to ancient truths, eternal powers, and the tragic mystery surrounding her mother and grandmother.
She must bargain with gods, and give birth to new legends.
What you should read first: My Soul To Keep
Borrowing from the familiar and beloved Faustian myth, My Soul To Keep masterfully crafts a multi-dimensional tale of the price that must be paid to ensure ever-lasting life. Unlike most immortality tales, Due’s tale evokes Ethiopian culture and notions of gender, race, and power set against the backdrop of the supernatural, which makes for a truly engaging and spine-tingling read!
When Jessica marries David, he is everything she wants in a family man: brilliant, attentive, ever youthful. Yet she still feels something about him is just out of reach. Soon, as people close to Jessica begin to meet violent, mysterious deaths, David makes an unimaginable confession: More than 400 years ago, he and other members of an Ethiopian sect traded their humanity so they would never die, a secret he must protect at any cost. Now, his immortal brethren have decided David must return and leave his family in Miami. Instead, David vows to invoke a forbidden ritual to keep Jessica and his daughter with him forever. Harrowing, engrossing and skillfully rendered, My Soul to Keep traps Jessica between the desperation of immortals who want to rob her of her life and a husband who wants to rob her of her soul. With deft plotting and an unforgettable climax, this tour de force reminiscent of early Anne Rice will win Due a new legion of fans.
What you should read first: Babel-17
The winner of the 1967 Nebula Award for Best Novel, Delany’s novel Babel-17 introduced an entirely new interpretation of science-fiction—and also directly influenced a new generation of writers, such as Ursula Le Guin, China Melville, and Ted Chiang. Exploring the idea of language as a tool for power—or better yet, a weapon—Babel-17 is an incredible epic of war, language, and the way in which words shape the very reality we inhabit. A classic in every sense of the word.
Babel-17 is all about the power of language. Humanity, which has spread throughout the universe, is involved in a war with the Invaders, who have been covertly assassinating officials and sabotaging spaceships. The only clues humanity has to go on are strange alien messages that have been intercepted in space. Poet and linguist Rydra Wong is determined to understand the language and stop the alien threat. (Paul Goat Allen)
What you should read first: Who Fears Death
Nnedi Okorafor is an Africanfuturism writer whose stories have made waves throughout the SFF for years, and her novel Who Fears Death is one of the pinnacles of her beautiful storytelling. Set in a post-apocalyptic Africa, the story follows Onyesonwu, a child of rape with hair and skin “the color of sand” as she journeys across the continent to fulfill her destiny of end the genocide that has plagued her people.
Along the way, she comes face to face with magic, death, and the true nature of herself—a spectacular read that’s in development to be produced into a Live-Action series at HBO. (Executive produced by George R. R. Martin!)
In a far future, post-nuclear-holocaust Africa, genocide plagues one region. The aggressors, the Nuru, have decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke. But when the only surviving member of a slain Okeke village is brutally raped, she manages to escape, wandering farther into the desert. She gives birth to a baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand and instinctively knows that her daughter is different. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, which means “Who Fears Death?” in an ancient African tongue.
Reared under the tutelage of a mysterious and traditional shaman, Onyesonwu discovers her magical destiny – to end the genocide of her people. The journey to fulfill her destiny will force her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture – and eventually death itself.
What you should read first: Mindscape
Andrea Hairston is a gifted writer who beautifully crafts worlds that vividly entice the senses and make you feel as if you’re right there with the protagonists. Mindscape is no different, as it is an intense character-driven novel that explores the altering cultures that emerge after a earth-changing even known as The Barrier. A stunning examination of spirituality, interconnectedness, and the strange magic that emerges in the wake of a starkly unfamiliar, fever-dream like future.
MINDSCAPE takes us to a future in which the world itself has been literally divided by the Barrier, a phenomenon that will not be ignored. For 115 years this extraterrestrial, epidimensional entity has divided the earth into warring zones. Although a treaty to end the interzonal wars has been hammered out, power-hungry politicians, gangsters, and spiritual fundamentalists are determined to thwart it. Celestina, the treaty’s architect, is assassinated, and her protegee, Elleni, a talented renegade and one of the few able to negotiate the Barrier, takes up her mantle. Now Elleni and a motley crew of allies risk their lives to make the treaty work. Can they repair their fractured world before the Barrier devours them completely?
What you should read first: Dawn (Lilith’s Brood)
The Godmother of Afrofuturism! Octavia Butler almost needs no introduction—but I’ll give her one anyway, because Lilith’s Brood (Book #1 of her Xenogenesis Trilogy) truly stands up there amongst some of the most powerful and compelling science fiction I’ve had the pleasure of reading. A unique take on the classic alien invasion and kidnapping story, Lilith’s Brood examines issues of identity, sexuality, and what lengths one will go to adapt, survive—and coexist, in the face of a new reality.
In a world devastated by nuclear war with humanity on the edge of extinction, aliens finally make contact. They rescue those humans they can, keeping most survivors in suspended animation and begin the slow process of rehabilitating the planet.
When Lilith Iyapo is “awakened,” she finds that she has been chosen to revive her fellow humans in small groups by first preparing them to meet the utterly terrifying Oankali, then training them to survive on the wilderness that the planet has become.
But the Oankali cannot help humanity without altering it forever. Bonded to the aliens in ways no human has ever known, Lilith tries to fight them even as her own species comes to fear and loathe her.
What you should read first: The Comet
A surprising addition — but only to those who are unfamiliar with W.E.B. Dubois’ foray into science-fiction! The influential activist and gifted writer dazzled readers with this stark short story about the relationship that emerges between a Black man and a white woman after a comet desolates their city—and humanity as they know it. A somber but memorable read that brings powerful social commentary about race relations, humanity, and the man-made ways we force disconnect between each other.
The Comet is a science fiction short story, written by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1920. It discusses the relationship between Jim Davis and Julia after a comet hits New York and unleashes toxic gases that kill everyone except them.
What you should read first: Lion’s Blood
Before The Man In The High Castle, there was Lion’s Blood: an Alternate History Fantasy tale that vividly imagines a world in which Europe is a continent of disparity, and North America has been colonized by Africa and the Vikings. What emerges then is a tale of slavery where the roles are switched—white people are enslaved, and it is Black people who are colonizers—in a thoughtful, nuanced way that leaves you coming away from the book with more perspectives on our history and the cruelties and complexities that shape it, and our world today.
Steven Barnes is a talented writer who instantly made a splash in the genre with this novel — and he’s also married to Tananarive Due, which I think is the absolutely cutest thing. #SFFCoupleGoals
In the year 1863, a primitive village is raided, the men killed, and the women and children captured. The survivors find themselves chained in the dark, filthy hold of a ship crossing the ocean to the New World, where they are sold into slavery. The powerful master of a vast Southern plantation purchases the 11-year-old Irish lad Aidan O’Dere. Yes, you read that right–in this alternate America, the South was colonized by black Africans, and the North by Vikings, who sell abducted Celts and Franks to the Southerners. Through his brilliant inversion of our history, author Steven Barnes examines the complex evils of slavery in a new light with Lion’s Blood, an intelligent and exciting novel of freedom and bondage, battle and intrigue, sex and love, set in an America threatened by total war as Aztecs, Zulus, Moors, and whites clash.
Milton J. Davis
What you should read first: Meji: Book One
An immersive fantasy in the vein of Dune, Meji introduces readers to a vividly beautiful world of magic, and twin brothers who uphold a prophecy that shapes their cultures, families, and the greater world they live in. Steeped in vibrant African mysticism and mythology, the interwoven stories of Ndoro and Obaseki make for truly a fantastic, poignant, and memorable read.
On the Sesu grasslands of the continent of Uhuru, Inkosi Dingane is granted his wish. His Great Wife Shani bears him a son, and heir to his growing empire. But the ancestors have plans of their own. Shani bears him meji, twins boys considered an abomination among the Sesu but a blessing to Shani’s people, the Mawena. Thus begins the story of two brothers destined to transform their world. One brother, Ndoro, fights for his place among the Sesu hoping to shed the stigma of abomination. The other, Obaseki, grows to a man among the Mawena, struggling with a gift that alienates him from his family. Both are forced to seek their destiny, travelling through teeming savanna, mysterious forests, haunted cliffs and torrid deserts, fulfilling a prophecy that changes them and their world forever.
(featured image: Goodreads, Wookiepedia, NAACP)
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