Carnegie Mellon University

Fables of Difference: African American Science Fiction from 1931 Through 2006

Author: Geoffrey Glover
Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2012

To date, there has been no comprehensive study of the African American science fiction novel. Neither has there been an effort to incorporate African American science fiction authors into the literary histories of the African American novel. This dissertation fills these gaps. Fables of Difference: African American Science Fiction from 1931 Through 2006 is a literary history of the African American science fiction novel,  organizing a field of 72 novels into four periods. Each period is defined by a unique conceptualization of “alienation,” a concept common to both African American literature and science fiction, and emphasizes the relationship between identity and difference.

The periods include: Fables of Integration (1930s), Fables of Resistance (1962-1974), Fables of Identity (1975-1992), and Fables of Diversity (1993-2006). Specific novels define the literary borders of these categories. George Schuyler’s novels, Black No More (1931) and Black Empire (1936-8), introduce the problematic of racial alienation, solved through science fiction techniques, and anticipate some of the trends that come into widespread use 30 years later. Samuel R. Delany’s futuristic tale, The Jewels of Aptor (1968), inaugurates the beginning of contemporary African American science fiction and is a tale of resistance. His experimental novel, Dhalgren (1974), moves away from a nationalistic framework toward one that uses personal psychology, and signals a shift to fables of identity. In her novel Parable of the Sower (1993), Octavia Butler made the first shift toward the third conceptualization of difference, one rooted in models of community that capture the emergent focus on diversity at the time.

Each of these categories uses the formal elements of science fiction as a way to speculate on alternative paradigms of identity, that defines most African American novels. African American science fiction is a transgressive genre that generates new “speculative identities” by circumventing existing American identity conventions, and thus has a political dimension. The concept of “speculative identities” is the bridge linking two dissimilar kinds of literature by foregrounding the marginalized position of it subjects. This focus on alienation functions as both a limitation and an empowerment, and suggests that the goal of “speculative identities” is to imagine an identity beyond what is currently possible.  African American science fiction re-imagines the task as well as the tools needed to achieve social equity.