I am part of a group on Facebook called State of Black Science Fiction. Many stellar authors, artists, filmmakers and fans are part of this Blacknificent group and many contribute, making it one of the more intriguing and informative groups on the internet.

Recently, a question was posed by renowned novelist and writer for television, Steven Barnes – “How  do members of this group define ‘science fiction’? As opposed to mainstream fiction? As opposed to fantasy? “

Only two people even dealt with the question. I suppose it is because most writers and fans of science fiction find it difficult – if not impossible – to define it and among those who have attempted to define what the genre is, they rarely fully agree with each other.

Many authors – in an attempt to make sense of what they do and to explain themselves to friends, family and fans – lump fantasy, horror and science fiction together under umbrella terms. One such term is fantastika. Fantastika? Really? That may work for some, but as far as Black Speculative Fiction is concerned, that term is, honestly, just too corny.

Another term, The Fantastique,  is a French term for a literary and cinematic genre that overlaps with science fiction, horror and fantasy. While it sounds better than fantastika, the fantastique deals with  the intrusion of supernatural phenomena into an otherwise realist narrative. It evokes phenomena which are not only left unexplained but which are inexplicable from the reader’s point of view. While this would fit some works, it does not fit all.

Afrofuturism is defined as “a literary and cultural aesthetic that combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western cosmologies in order to critique not only the present-day dilemmas of Black people, but also to revise, interrogate, and re-examine the historical events of the past”. This term has not really taken off because futurism confuses people. When we read or hear futurism we think future, not really the present and certainly not the past. Personally, though, I like the term.

The most widely used term, by Black authors – not to be confused with readers, who are still confused by this term – is Black Speculative Fiction. Speculative Fiction is used as an umbrella term for the genres of fantasy, horror and science fiction, however, speculation is the stuff of science fiction, but generally not fantasy. To speculate is to ask “what if”. “What if faster than light space travel was possible?” “What if an alien race populated earth before humans and had now returned to reclaim the planet?” “What if people of African descent all possessed a gene that gave them extraordinary abilities and could be awakened by an enhancement of their melanin?” Rarely does the fantasy author ask “What if magic was real?” It is a given in most fantasy that magic is, indeed, real in that world. In fantasy and even horror, there may be instances of “what if”, but it is not the dominant question. Thus using the term speculative puts a great deal of importance on science fiction and sort of delegitimizes fantasy and horror.

Furthermore, we must ask why we would call our work Black speculative fiction. Is it for us to better understand what we do? Is it to make what we do more understandable by the “three F’s” (Friends; Family; Fans). If so, the term speculative fiction is no help because you still have to define that for them. So you might as well be specific about what you read and write, because you’re going have to explain it anyway. If you write and / or read Sword & Soul, dang it, call it Sword & Soul. If you write or read Science Fiction, call it Science Fiction! If you write or read it all, say so! If someone has asked you, they will give you the few seconds it takes to tell them what you read / write. In fact, it takes less time to say “I write fantasy, science fiction and horror” than to explain what speculative fiction is. Go ahead…try it.

See. Told ya!

About Balogun

Balogun is the author of the bestselling Afrikan Martial Arts: Discovering the Warrior Within and screenwriter / producer / director of the films, A Single Link, Rite of Passage: Initiation and Rite of Passage: The Dentist of Westminster. He is one of the leading authorities on Steamfunk – a philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or steampunk fiction – and writes about it, the craft of writing, Sword & Soul and Steampunk in general, at https://chroniclesofharriet.com/. He is author of eight novels – the Steamfunk bestseller, MOSES: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman (Books 1 & 2); the Urban Science Fiction saga, Redeemer; the Sword & Soul epic, Once Upon A Time In Afrika; a Fight Fiction, New Pulp novella, Fist of Afrika; the gritty, Urban Superhero series, A Single Link and Wrath of the Siafu; the two-fisted Dieselfunk tale, The Scythe and the “Choose-Your-Own-Destiny”-style Young Adult novel, The Keys. Balogun is also contributing co-editor of two anthologies: Ki: Khanga: The Anthology and Steamfunk. Finally, Balogun is the Director and Fight Choreographer of the Steamfunk feature film, Rite of Passage, which he wrote based on the short story, Rite of Passage, by author Milton Davis and co-author of the award winning screenplay, Ngolo. You can reach him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Afrikan.Martial.Arts; on Twitter @Baba_Balogun and on Tumblr at www.tumblr.com/blog/blackspeculativefiction.

4 responses »

  1. Of course I have to comment on this in-depth, and I will…later this week. Suffice to say for now, Black Speculative Fiction very useful as an umbrella term…particularly in understanding a kind of collective production within the genre (of course, I am an academic). I think that it a more appropriate umbrella term than science fiction which is a misnomer for a lot of what is being produced within the genre (because quite a bit of it has little to nothing to do with science). Also, I think that Speculative fiction is a really useful term for authors like Butler, whose writing was diverse in terms of subject matter but all within the speculative realm.
    But it is an umbrella term and when I talk about my own writing, I say that I write fantasy…most folks know what that is. As a fantasy writer, the question of “what if” is central to my work. What if Panteria exists? What if shape-shifters are real? What would they look like and where would they come from?
    To be continued…

    • Balogun says:

      Thanks, L.M.!
      I too ask what if in my fantasy writing. However, I do not think that is a major convention of most fantasy writing. It is nearly a must with sci fi though.
      I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on this.

  2. Milton Davis says:

    Interesting observations. I use speculative fiction as more as an ‘umbrella’ term, although I see what you’re saying when you focus on the word ‘speculative.’ Actually, I usually don’t define my genre unless asked. I learned from a veteran writer to focus on what the story is about, not the genre. Most readers will see the genre as secondary if they like the story. If someone asks, I say sword and soul, science fiction, steampunk, etc.. The categorizing is more of a marketing tool to me than anything else.

    • Balogun says:

      Thanks for your comment, Milton. I agree, the categorizing is – most definitely – a marketing tool. If calling it “Pimp Lit” will get more of our people to read our work, then…well, maybe not. 🙂

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