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Eon Harry, of Somerville, a fan of science fiction, says that it has traditionally been a safe genre in which to address race and culture. (Wiqan Ang for the Boston Globe)

Race, the final frontier

Black science-fiction writers bring a unique perspective to the genre

arlier this month at Readercon, a convention for fans of fantasy/science fiction at the Burlington Marriott, Marlin May was one of perhaps two blacks in the room. But that didn't intimidate May. He had just made arrangements to meet a science-fiction writer for dinner, showing how much comfort this fan had found in this world.

"They're the most accepting group of folks I've ever been with," says May, 47, of Lowell.

But Eon Harry, a black man who lives in Somerville, has had a different experience. "I don't feel particularly embraced," says Harry, 41. No sense of community enveloped him when he attended Readercon for the first time last year, though he's not sure whether race or some other factor is to blame.

"I find that readers are an insular lot," Harry says. "It may have had as much to do with the fact that I was a new face."

The June release of "Acacia," the first of a planned trilogy of fantasy books by black historical-fiction writer David Anthony Durham, brought attention to the small number of black writers toiling in what is sometimes called speculative fiction, and the people who read their work. The media took note of Durham as one of only a handful of black authors in the genre. That small group includes veteran Samuel R. Delany and the late Octavia Butler, as well as younger voices such as Nalo Hopkinson, Steven Barnes, and Tananarive Due, and respected writers who have also dabbled in speculative fiction such as Walter Mosley and the late W.E.B. Du Bois.

It's an area of fiction that has allowed writers to tackle sensitive issues of race and culture.

"It has always been the safe genre to talk about those issues," Harry says, "or it had been for years until there was a lot more tolerance for bringing those things up in the mainstream."

But some in the speculative-fiction community complain that a number of their white contemporaries no longer tackle these subjects. Durham, a former Shutesbury resident, was inspired to move into fantasy writing because he saw potential there that others failed to tap into.

"In epic fantasy," says Durham, 38, whose novel is populated by a diverse crowd that includes blond warriors and olive-skinned beauties, "there is a lot of racism and sexism I don't think the good people who are writing it are aware of."

In the last decade, sci-fi/fantasy fans of color have begun creating their own communities. These spaces are necessary in a world where they stand out as geeks among blacks, and as "the other" in the speculative-fiction world. There are conferences such as 2004's "Black to the Future: A Black Science Fiction Festival" in Seattle, and Web communities such as SciFiNoir (groups.yahoo.com/group/scifi noir2), the Carl Brandon Society (carlbrandon.org), and Afrofuturism (afrofuturism.net). The books "Dark Matter" and "Visions of the Third Millennium" show that the black contribution to science fiction goes beyond the well-known names of Delany and Butler. M. Asli Dukan is finishing a documentary about this unique community called "Invisible Universe: A History of Blackness in Speculative Fiction."

"It's tiny," says Nalo Hopkinson, 46, from her Toronto home, of the black sci-fi community. "And it's happening in an environment in which, particularly in the US, to talk about race is to be seen as racist. You become the problem because you bring up the problem. So you find people who are hesitant to talk about it."

It's also complicated. In his essay in "Dark Matter" titled "Racism and Science Fiction," Delany writes about how race constricts black writers. He describes being paired with Hopkinson during a book signing at Readercon in 1998, and how grouping blacks together can affect how they're perceived. "One of [racism's] strongest manifestations is as a socio-visual system in which people become used to always seeing blacks with other blacks and so -- because people are used to it -- being uncomfortable whenever they see blacks mixed in, at whatever proportion, with whites," he wrote.

The tendency to lump all black speculative fiction writers together also fails to acknowledge that these authors don't always tackle racial issues in their work. Robert Devney, 55, a longtime fan who attended the Readercon convention, calls Delany's "Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand" one of his favorite novels. But Devney, who is white, says of Delany's approach to race, "It's occasionally a point he wants to make and many times it isn't a point he wants to make."

But it's hard to ignore the impact that perspectives of color bring to the genre.

"There's not all that many writers yet who can write from the perspective of another race," says Lis Carey, vice president of the New England Science Fiction Association, "and really capture the different kinds of experiences and the different perspectives. If someone is using characters of a different race than themselves and it matters, there's a good chance of it feeling slightly off."

Harry discovered the world of black sci-fi writers accidentally. Friends suggested that he read Butler and Delany, but he hadn't heard about Durham's "Acacia" or about the various websites catering to black sci-fi fans. Harry believes part of the problem is that bookstores often don't prominently display the works of non-white writers in the genre.

"I sort of felt like, 'Wow, I would actually read these people if, A, I knew they were black authors and, B, they were given some shelf space,' " says Harry.

"Black authors bring certain elements into their writing, be it a black protagonist or the situations they find themselves in or even their backgrounds [that] I find easy to relate to," says Harry. "It's not only the blackness of it . . . they often strike really familiar chords that the other authors, because those things aren't part of their own experience, don't hit for me when I'm reading them."

He offers as an example Butler's "Parable of the Sower," whose strong black heroine, Lauren Olamina, battles the ills of society by creating a new faith. "When I read it," says Harry, "I remember thinking the way [Olamina] spoke and the way she held herself reminded me of my aunt and a lot of her opinions."

That connection may not be felt when reading white writers in the genre. While Ursula Le Guin populates her books with diverse characters, writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Heinlein have been castigated for depictions that some consider racist. "The main mythic story is going to a foreign culture and colonizing it," says Hopkinson. He adds that blacks are part of a growing speculative writing community that includes gays, women, the working class, and other people of color, all of whom offer new takes on the colonialist perspective.

In fact, "Acacia" had been in the back of Durham's mind since the late 1990s. What spurred him to embark on the project was "The Lord of the Rings" films. Durham watched the three movies multiple times, and became increasingly irritated by the almost mono-racial cast of characters.

"I did not love it," Durham says, "that the only people of color who didn't have speaking lines were the minions imported for the dark lords."

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