Dark Matter: Reading the Bones has a somewhat freer structure than Cosmos Latinos by virtue of being the sequel to its equivalent, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000). Dark Matter: Reading the Bones is therefore able to avoid the necessity of a chronological overview (though it does have some “historical” stories) and concentrate on much newer stories, as well as a more cohesive focus on the themes in the subgenre. Thomas does a fantastic job of bringing together the many themes, concerns and approaches in African-American spec-fic into one anthology.
Probably the best story in the anthology, Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Glass Bottle Trick” (2000) takes a well-known European fairy tale and sets it so seamlessly in Caribbean society that you will wonder how it could have originated anywhere else. The original (Bluebeard) is about the Bad Husband, or (depending on how misogynistic the reader is) the Disobedient Wife. Hopkinson’s story gives the Bluebeard character a much better motivation than just abusive OCD for wife-murder. Hopkinson’s version is ashamed of his dark skin, so he always marries light-skinned women. Everything is fine until they get pregnant…with his dark-skinned babies. That’s when his insecurities come roaring back and things get really ugly. Hopkinson also leaves the story on a Lady-and-the-Tiger ending that should be frustrating, but isn’t.
In a reversal of this appropriation from European lore, Douglas Kearney’s “Anansi Meets Peter Parker at the Taco Bell on Lexington” (2000) cheerfully asserts that Spiderman is a rip-off of Anansi, the West African trickster who takes the form of a spider. In this hysterical tale, Anansi gives a few pieces of advice to Peter Parker, who promptly turns around and plagiarizes Anansi’s M.O. for his Spiderman persona.
Meanwhile, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s “The Magical Negro” gets tired of always being the token ethnic guy who gets killed defending the white protagonist in heroic fiction. He sets out to make his own mighty tales–after casually tossing said white protag, dimwitted Thor the Brave, off a cliff. That should give Conan and his literary descendants some pause.
In Ibi Aanu Zoboi’s “Old Flesh Song” (2004), an aging witch (a soucouyant) sits on a street corner of New York City and calls the babies of rich white people who have nannied them out to immigrant caregivers. She wants to eat them, as in Hansel and Gretel. But an unexpected obstacle shows up in the person of an experienced nanny who knows exactly what the old witch is up to. She’s a younger, stronger witch who is worried that the old witch will alert the outside world to what is going on, and she has no intention of giving up her own territory…or food sources.
Thomas works carefully to include the various themes in African-American spec-fic, as well as important older authors like SF writer Samuel Delaney (“Corona” from 1967) and heroic fiction writer Charles Saunders (“Yahimba’s Choice” from 2004). Delaney’s story feels a bit conventional now, with its white-trash narrator watching the brilliant young black girl from a distance, but it points up just how few African-American characters populated spec-fic in the 1960s.
Saunders’ tale comes from his series (mostly showcased in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress anthology series) about Dossouye, a former Dahomey Amazon-turned-freebooter and Woman-without-a-Name heroine. Dossouye remains more unique in heroic fantasy than she perhaps should be–a black female Conan in a fantasy version of early modern Africa.
Some stories seem better suited to literary magazines. Jill Robinson’s “BLACKout” (2004), for example, is about the chaos that erupts when the U.S. government agrees to pay reparations for slavery, but refuses to extend it to the descendants of later African or Caribbean immigrants. However, the Mundane SF speculative element is often overwhelmed by the clumsily overt literary element of exploring what it means to be “African-American”.
Other stories have been done in other media. Keven Brockenbrough’s vampire-ridden New York in “‘Cause Harlem Needs Heroes” (2004) feels a lot like the film Blade. John Cooley’s “The Binary” (2004), with its butt-kicking martial arts hero and Japanese mythos, seems to come straight out of Blaxploitation or Asian cinema. Yet, though these character types appear in films and comic books, they hardly seem to show up in spec-fic. All the vampire-hunters seem to be white.
Some stories, like Henry Dumas’ “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” (1974) lose some pretty cool concepts in the enthusiastic bashing of their white protagonists. Not that there’s anything wrong with a little bashing, except when it takes away from the point of the story.
“Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”, for example, is about a new type of horn (the “afro-horn”) whose potent Black Power sound can kill white people. Racist, sure, but still an interesting idea that allows the author to include some evocative description of jazz. Unfortunately, the writer then tells the story mainly from the viewpoint of the three hapless white would-be hipsters whom the afro-horn inadvertently kills. This makes the story more about them and their boring foibles than the afro-horn and its unique sound. Too bad.
There are story parallels between the anthologies. Dark Matter‘s last story, “Trance” (2004) by Kalamu ya Salaam and Cosmos Latinos’ “The Day We Went Through the Transition” (1998) by Ricard de la Casa and Pedro Jorge Romero are both about time travel. Specifically, they both involve small groups sending people backward or forward in time to cause or prevent change that will improve their ethnic group’s position in their present time. In “Trance”, the world is rapidly turning into a communal society (whether smaller groups like it or not) that still, somehow, discriminates against those with dark skin. The group in question seeks its independence by maintaining an experiment in observational time travel.
In “The Day We Went Through the Transition”, Catalan time cops in the 21st century try to keep the timeline pure, despite repeated attempts to change history in the immediate aftermath of fascist leader Francisco Franco’s death. The story, like “Gu Ta Gutarrak”, celebrates a threatened minority culture in Europe and reminds us that before Europeans moved out to suppress other cultures, they first homogenized their own by suppressing all inconvenient minorities. But it’s also a love story and a meditation on why it’s important to keep a timeline in which democracy recovered from fascism pure, and how far one will go to keep or regain a lost love when you can meet him or her in an infinite number of timelines.
Dark Matter has other stories that turn on ethnic minority differences. One of the most effective, W. E. B. Du Bois’ “Jesus Christ in Texas” (1920) steers around the popular “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” cliché of turning the African-American characters into Christ-like martyr figures. The lynching victim at the end is actually a parallel to the thief on the cross who joined Christ in Heaven. Instead, Du Bois brings Christ himself to Texas, in all his glory. Du Bois’ bitter satire on white Texan society turns on the probability that while the Texan white elite of the time might be too awed at Christ’s majesty to shut him out completely (even if they weren’t actually aware of his true identity), the historical Jesus would be a little too dark-skinned to pass as acceptably white in segregation-era Texas. More conventional is the conceit that the downtrodden in the story recognize Christ immediately, while the smug elite only feel an unease around Him. That said, this social comment was probably far more original in 1920 than it is now.