For years, Seattle author Neal Stephenson has argued that science fiction, in its long lean to the dystopian, has abdicated its responsibility to imagine positive solutions to humanity's worst problems.
Back in 2014, Stephenson joined a community of writers in an anthology of optimistic stories titled Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future. I read Hieroglyph when it was published, but I couldn't tell you now what any of the stories were about. It turned out to be a forgettable collection, and it certainly didn't succeed in its mission to reignite the optimistic golden age of sci-fi that inspired humanity to reach for the stars.
But here's the thing: it recently occurred to me that the optimistic sci-fi that Stephenson was lamenting as nonexistent actually does exist today. We've just been looking for it in all the wrong places.
Last weekend, I watched Black Panther for the second time. It really is more than a standard superhero movie — Black Panther addresses race and politics and commitment to community in a way that most popular entertainments do not. And more importantly, it creates in Wakanda an African nation untouched by slavery and colonialism. It imagines what the African imagination might have accomplished, had white people not ravaged the continent.
I think that Black Panther's Afrofuturism — and other important works like (Seattle Review of Books contributor) Nisi Shawl's novel Everfair, which decolonializes steampunk — is the optimistic science fiction that Stephenson has been clamoring for. It's been simmering under our noses all this time, but the science fiction mainstream didn't think to look for it.
Afrofuturism is the best kind of science fiction: it's aspirational, it's imaginative, it's optimistic, and it is interested in ideas that resonate with the real world. As I've watched Black moviegoers embrace the idea of Wakanda over the last few weeks, I've seen more than just movie fans gushing over a well-made film. By extoling Wakanda's achievements, they're creating positive change in our world. The Wakanda the Vote program, which registered voters at Black Panther screenings, is perhaps the most obvious sign of its real-world effects. But subtler signs, like actors giving each other the Wakanda forever salute at the Independent Spirit Awards, indicate that the symbol of Wakanda is going to resonate in and interact with everyday life in very interesting ways.
It's easy for longtime (and mostly white) sci-fi fans to lament the so-called golden age of the genre, when the stories were all glossy rocket ships and laser beams and bright-eyed exploration. But the truth is that the good old days were never so good as they seem — a whole lot of people were excluded from that golden age of sci-fi.
Meanwhile, Afrofuturism is new and optimistic and exciting, and it's creating the space to reimagine what the world is, and what our heroes can look like, and how our societies should behave. It's new and it's powering one of the most popular films of all time and it's changing the world. Seems to me that we're right now living in a new golden age.