DARK MATTER: A CENTURY OF SPECULATIVE FICTION
FROM THE AFRICAN DIASPORA
Sheree R. Thomas, Editor

Warner Books, July 2000
Review by Joy Calderwood
 
Science Fiction Short Stories
 
Editor Sheree Thomas took the title DARK MATTER from a scientific term for something which radiates no light or energy and therefore cannot be seen. Thomas plans for black writers of science fiction to be seen, and this book is published as a radiation of light and energy. She has brought together short stories from 1887 to the present. They cover a wide and many times inventive range of topics, but rather than make a  disconnected comment on each of these thirty stories and five essays, I have introduced a few categories and will not mention every story.
 
Beginnings
 
DARK MATTER begins appropriately with two Adam and Eve stories. “Sister Lilith” by Honoree Hanonne Jeffers was released in the year 2000 and discusses Adam, Eve and Lilith at the beginning of time. “The Comet” by W.E.B. du Bois was written in 1920 and speculates on an Adam and Eve of the future. This bracketing is a good indication of the wide range of possibilities that Thomas offers.
 
Love
 
 “Chicago 1927” is the only vampire story in this collection. Gilda is a warmhearted female vampire who is happy to be doing good – in her own vampire way. In this story she is joins a group of friends centered around a music club. I liked the kindness and family feeling of this story so much I went out and special ordered author Jewelle Gomez’s book THE GILDA STORIES.
 
An X-rated exploration of love, Nalo Hopkinson’s “Ganger (Ball Lightning),” vividly mixes technology with a couple who need to know each other. Hopkinson shows her talent for sharing with us her deep understanding of seemingly small everyday feelings.
 
In Steven Barnes’ “The Woman in the Wall,” an ambassador’s family finds itself scooped up into a concentration camp. The description of concentration camp life carries an appalling sense of authenticity, but the focus is on family.
 
“Twice, At Once, Separated” is one of only two stories in DARK MATTER to take its characters into space. Linda Addison creates for us here a beautiful setting, multi-dimensional and balanced, then leaves it empty. She appeared to bite off more than she could chew when she brought these people together from such a distance and had them attempt to communicate.
 
Recovery
 
Tananarive Due wrote one of my favorite stories in this collection. “Like Daughter” is a moving story of trying to revive a ruined life, using some options we don’t have yet. Due has a special talent – she has created these worlds and these people in full, and some of her phrasing is inspired.
 
Experimental
 
Some writers in this book are doing what the nineteenth century Romantic school did for painting. Their prose is imprecise and depends on poetic imagery to convey an overall concept. The theme of “Buddy Bolden” by Kalamu ya Salaam is the rejection of everything of earth life except music and sensuality. The impact of Ishmael Reed in “Future Christmas” comes from Reed’s ability to hand his pen over to his imagination and put no limitations on his sense of the absurd.
 
Dialect
 
A half dozen of these stories are written in dialect or partial dialect, and were hard work for me to read. In one I found treasure. Nalo Hopkinson’s “Greedy Choke Puppy” is a story of the love between a grandmother and granddaughter. Looked at another way, it is the story of a parasite and a premonition, a tragedy with a sting in its tail. Hopkinson is another find for this reader: Both the stories she contributed to this book struck me as outstanding.
 
The Stars
 
This category refers not to the stars in the skies but the stars in the award lists. I was pleased to see that Samuel R. Delany had contributed to DARK MATTER, because his Nebula Award-winning BABEL-17, one of my long-time favorites, is a brilliant book both visually and conceptually. His short story loaned to this collection, “Aye, And Gomorrah...” seems to me a minor effort, a speculation on sexual perversion in a possible future, not particularly well thought through. I was surprised to learn that it had won a Nebula Award for short story. In contrast, his essay “Racism and Science Fiction” is thoughtful and thought-provoking; I was trying to discuss it with him in my mind as I read.
 
The other star of this book is another multiple award-winner, Octavia Butler. Far and away my favorite story in DARK MATTER is Butler’s “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” in which a young woman learns to cope with and even make valuable a life dominated by a hereditary disease. Butler brought to full believable realization all of her characters and the fictional disease itself. This story dated 1987 has the same title as an out of print book by Butler; my research has been unable to confirm that it is a book of short stories, but it seems likely. Amazingly, this is not the story that won her Hugo award for short story.
 
Racist Issues
 
In this category are the last three stories in the book. Derrick Bell’s “The Space Traders” is a professorial but sweeping advocacy of racism. It assumes, with chosen statistics, that non-white people will always be sacrificed for the benefit of white people (ignoring the fact that exploitive people of any race have just as commonly sacrificed people of their own race as another.) In “The Pretended” by Darryl A Smith, the main characters are robots who were created with limited programming, emulating the no-longer-extant black race, to give their builders someone to look down on. The story is loaded with self-pity. The last fiction in the collection is “Ama Patterson’s “Hussy Strutt,” in which abused little girls find apocalyptic vengeance against bullies.
 
Essays
 
I mentioned Samuel Delany’s “Racism and Science Fiction” earlier. It is a account of his encounters with racism and the consciousness of racial difference in the science fiction world. While I disagree with his interpretations at many points, I see the value of his thinking; and I salute his expressed intention not to warp his life with blame and to recognize good intentions when he meets them. He is both honest and balanced about his own emotional reactions. This is wisdom.
 
Charles Saunders’ “Why Blacks Should Read (And Write) Science Fiction” is a challenge to blacks to step farther into the creation of the culture and mythology of today. He takes the opportunity to recount the substantial achievements of individual blacks in science fiction already, and points out that black culture and viewpoint will enrich a field that depends on the exploration of alternatives.
 
In the following essay, “Black to the Future,” Walter Mosley says that this is already happening, and “Yet Do I Wonder,” by Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid proves that alternatives are already being explored. Miller’s essay belongs by rights in the Experimental category. Octavia Butler concludes the book by wondering at the concept that if we faced the aliens of science fiction in real life, it would bring all humanity together. Ending on a cynical note she says, “What will be born of that brief, strange, and ironic union?” We must trust that a more hopeful mood will triumph.
 
The Purpose
 
DARK MATTER fulfills its purpose admirably. Black writers of quality are showcased and their talents offered to a wider audience. It samples a black cultural setting that can make some readers feel at home in a way a white cultural setting cannot. A very valuable message is given: “Do not let your race stop you from trying to achieve. See what we have done so far.” The black pride movement that I remember from my youth – whatever it may be called now – is well served by this book
 
Personally, I could not care less how much pigmentation an author has. Did I enjoy the writing? Did it challenge me and broaden my thinking? Like all books of short stories this collection has its high points and its low ones. I found here authors whose work will interest me in the future. There are stories whose cultural differences were jarring to me, other stories that helped me bridge the gap into another culture, and more that showed the human feelings we have in common. This is a book for science fiction readers of any race.
 
Aug 2000 review first published by the Independent Reviews Site

 

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