Science fiction writer Hannibal Tabu doesn’t buy the popular concept that science fiction is a bastion for nerds or the socially inept, much like comic books, superhero culture, role-playing games, and other pursuits outside the mainstream. “From the hood rat with the thickest braids to the brainiest chess player from Pyongyang, everybody can find some element of wonder in stories of the fantastic,” Tabu says.
A decade’s long aficionado of the field, Tabu points to the increased impact “sci-fi” has made on recent popular culture. To say that this is a genre reserved for pointy-headed devotees of the esoteric is, for him, nonsense.
“It’s as evident from the billion-dollar box office take of ‘The Avengers’ to the recent story about a North Carolina lawmaker trying to mandate inclusion of science fiction in education to develop more creative thinkers,” he says in a reference to the medium’s potential as a stimulant for abstract thought.
Tabu’s own plunge into the realm of the fantastic started when his mom, caught up in the frenzy swirling around the then just-released “Star Wars” in 1977, took her 4-year-old son to see that landmark “space opera.”
“She ultimately took me to see it 40 times, and I’ve probably seen it 1,100 times since then,” he remembers.
The mark of a true classic, be it music, drama, or the visual arts, is longevity, and Tabu, like legions of others, was swept up in the cultural phenomenon of George Lucas’ mega-franchise.
This awakening launched a passion lasting throughout his journey from his native Illinois through maturity in Tennessee and Washington State, and completion of a degree in creative writing from USC. Today, Tabu is a true renaissance man, proficient as a web designer, poet, published novelist, newspaper editor, graphics artist, and comic book collector par excellence. Every Wednesday, he selects titles to review in his weekly column, “The Buy Pile” at Comic Book Resources.
In terms of his life-long zeal for “sci-fi,” the emotions stirred up by his initial viewing of “Star Wars” continue to sustain the attraction that fueled his imagination as a child of color in Memphis.
“… it promised a finer world, one with hope and promise; one a long way from growing up in the shadow of the Lorraine Motel (site of Martin Luther King’s demise) and Graceland (Elvis Presley’s estate),” he continues. “The clean lines of star destroyers, the visual crispness of phalanxes of storm troopers; the authoritative baritone of James Earl Jones …. I’ve been hooked ever since.”
Spawning the seeds of creativity
Science fiction has served as an inspiration for a wide range of the reading public, and particularly the scientific community. The adventure literature of Jules Verne, especially “From the Earth to the Moon,” “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” and “Around the World in Eighty Days,” stimulated the imaginations of pioneers in space travel, submarine and deep-sea exploration, and the first steps towards manned flight. The emergence of cinema as a medium prophesying societal change has also been profound in recent years, with “Rollerball” (1975) and “Blade Runner” (1982) being prime examples.
This potential for sparking the seed of innovation is not lost on governments seeking an edge in international competition. Recent history includes the 1980 consortium of astronauts, engineers, military personnel, and writers assembled to consult with President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) “Star Wars” program, and the Department of Homeland Security’s commissioning of a group of “sci-fi” writers (dubbed “SIGMA”) to serve as advisers on technological applications for future security in the on-going “war on terror.”
Tabu offers another example: “(Science fiction and horror) writer Neil Gaiman was invited by the Chinese government to keynote a literary festival focused on fantasy and science fiction. Once he’d cashed the check and made sure travel was secured, he asked why they invited him. The Chinese official pulled out an iPhone and said something like they could imitate, but they couldn’t innovate, and part of why was because they hadn’t opened themselves up to possibility. They’re serious about it now, and science fiction is part of that. That’s no accident.”
“Since the first scimitars sliced across the Sahara, since the first anchors fell off the West African coast, we in particular have wanted to escape from the brutal realities of this tedious world,” believes Tabu. “Science fiction offers the concept of freedom in terms yet to be imagined by even the most powerful among us: A way out. What could be more attractive to a populace in chains, both virtual and material?”
Those interested in Tabu’s take on the fantastic and other worldly can purchase his novel “The Crown: Ascension” from Amazon.com. In it, he ponders the question of how a 20-something-year-old everyman can pursue a relationship with a woman thousands of years his senior. Throw in some African mythos, a good mix of fight scenes, suspense, paranormal enchantment, and technological swashbuckling, and you have an enthralling tale.
Tabu regularly expounds on the fantastic and other things that interest him on his personal website, www.operative.net.
The formula for imagination
For some future storytellers, the germ of creativity is spawned by childhood illness, which might include forced isolation and the opportunity to cultivate a fertile imagination. Filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese suffered from polio and asthma, respectively, in their childhoods, prohibiting full participation in comparatively “normal” youthful pursuits like athletics. For them, this imposed seclusion nurtured a refuge in the alternative realities of the theater and cinema.
New York native Tony Puryear shares a similar background of isolated youth.
Taking a cue from his artist parents, Puryear filled the void with a regime of drawing and trips to the cultural smorgasbord that only exists in a city like New York. He absorbed the vibrations of these museums and other bastions of high- and low-brow culture, however. His parents, like most of that generation, took a dim view of comic books, considering them a corrupting influence at best.
“I bought them anyway, hid them, loved them,” he remembers.
Comics became a significant inspiration for Puryear’s (and a host of other aspiring creators) fledgling artistic efforts.
“Jack Kirby, Jack Kirby and Jack Kirby,” he said quickly offering up his paramount inspiration.
“Any pantheon of 20th-century masters that includes Louis Armstrong, Frank Lloyd Wright, Hemingway, Picasso and Chaplin has to include Kirby.”
Unlike the numerous kids who grow out of their youthful infatuations, Puryear crafted a career out of these artistic pursuits as an advertising executive (working under future superstar novelist James Patterson), then as a director of music videos for the emerging Hip Hop genre. A Disney Minority Writers’ Fellowship brought him to Hollywood in 1990, and four years later he hit pay dirt with the script for “Eraser,” a tale inspired by the “Wise-Guy” stories about the inherent corruption within the Witness Protection Program he’d heard about as a bartender while attending college at Brown University.
“I thought, yeah, but what if there was a special guy, an incorruptible super-marshal? One who’d protect you no matter what?”
This yarn was made into a 1996 sci-fi action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Vanessa L. Williams.
His recent efforts include the graphic novel “Concrete Park,” which he describes as “a sprawling, sci-fi epic, created by my wife, actress Erika Alexander, her brother, Robert and me.”
Even with their successful track records, the path towards “greenlighting” a project in the perilous entertainment field is, at best, an iffy proposition. Alexander, a show biz veteran with some 46 acting credits under her belt, attests to this uphill struggle.
“I wish I could say being a showbiz veteran and well-known actress makes it easier to be a writer, Black, White or otherwise,” she says. “That is not the case. Writing is a tough racket and good writing is a back-breaking, lonely task,” she laments.
Her husband agrees. “I made “Buck Rogers” into a thriller for (legendary producer) Jerry Bruckheimer,” he notes. “That script is still in development hell.”
Reality spawns fantasy
Many purveyors of speculative fiction use their own backgrounds as launch pads for their yarns into the unknown. Brandon Easton, whose credits include writing for the animated series “Thundercats,” used his Catholic background as a key plot device in his acclaimed graphic novel “Shadowlaw,” set in the year 2353.
In this scenario, the church is the principle governing body opposing a demonic vampire force sowing the seeds of political revolt. Far removed from the Gothic tradition commonly associated with the typical vampire yarn, its influences include the landmark film “Blade Runner,” the “Transformers” franchise (Easton is a writer on the spin-off, slated to be released on Discovery’s Hub cable channel) and the Catholic history of his native Baltimore.
Easton offers his own take on the specific appeal science fiction has for minority audiences.
“First off, the method of unifying the African Diaspora to combat generations of colonialism, self-hate and mis-education is to unravel the psychological bondage caused by our geographic displacement throughout history,” he says. “There are any number of science-fiction novels that discuss the nature of colonial mistreatment of native populations ….”
The blockbuster film series “Underworld,” now in its fourth incarnation, is another scenario with roots in the experiences faced in contemporary life. The germ of this saga came from events in the life of writer Kevin Grevioux, who also appears as a werewolf henchman in the films.
With a degree in microbiology (from Howard University, where he pledged Alpha Phi Alpha) and graduate work in genetic engineering, Grevioux tapped into his academic background in the pursuit of his creative endeavors.
“Since I majored in microbiology, I try to use some of it in my work,” he explains. “By that I mean, where some things in horror make use of mysticism,” he continues, “I like to twist it around and base it on science instead.”
The plot line for “Underworld,” hinges on a vampire played by Kate Beckinsale, who is attracted to Scott Speedman, a man bitten by a werewolf and thus infected by the Lycan virus. This in turn, aggravates the centuries-old feud between vampires and werewolves, especially Beckinsale, whose family was slaughtered by the Lycans.
Grevioux remembers the factors that motivated his original concept/premise, which also borrows from William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
“It was an amalgam of various things,” he says. “Interracial dating. A love for monsters. And looking at what hadn’t been done in cinema before.
“What ‘Underworld’ is, at its core, is an analogy for race relations. White vs. Black. Master vs. former slave. And how the conflict has evolved over the centuries. So I took that and replaced the two sides with monsters of lore and the rest is history.”
The possibility of indirectly examining civilization’s more unpalatable facets is one reason why science fiction has attracted such pre-eminent storytellers like Rod Serling, who used the genre to skirt the restraints of television censorship in the 1950s. Themes such as ethics, gender, intolerance, racism, sexism, and the pains of technological advancement may thus be explored at a distance, clinically.
“Sci-fi will always be a metaphor for the things that ail us as a society,” Grevioux believes.
Future projects in the works for Grevioux include a re-imagining of Mary Shelley’s gothic tome, “Frankenstein,” initially in comic form, and now a major motion picture featuring Aaron Eckhart in the title role.
Glimpses of a Black Cinema
“I went to see a movie of the future called ‘Logan’s Run.’ There ain’t no n!@#$rs in it. I said, “Well, White folks ain’t planning for us to be here.”
—Richard Pryor on the absence of Blacks in science fiction movies.
In Black music, there are several prominent examples of musicians with sci-fi concerns (see Afro-futurism side bar).
In spite of the seemingly concerted effort by the powers-that-be to exclude people of color, there have been notable examples of an African presence in speculative fiction.
In cinema, “Son of Ingagi” (1940) is of historical interest with its largely Black cast, although the story line is more in keeping with the horror field. Nearly two decades later, “The World, the Flesh and the Devil” (1958) stands out because it starred (and was co-produced) by Harry Belafonte, making it the first sci-fi film starring a Black character.
The seminal space-age prophet and avant-garde pianist Sun Ra made a celluloid splash in 1974 with the 85-minute curiosity “Space Is the Place,” with a story line as bizarre as any concieved by oddball auteur Tim Burton. Ra and his cohorts land their spaceship in the middle of Oakland where he urges the populace to recognize the folly of their earth-bound ways and relocate to a new planet via the transformative mode of music. In the process, he engages a villainous pimp-overlord in a game of cards to decide the fate of the Black race.
Those curious about these and other atypical tidbits of speculative Africana are encouraged to visit the website of the Carl Brandon Society, a specialized group within the general science fiction community “dedicated to addressing the representation of people of color in the fantastical genres such as science fiction, fantasy and horror,” according to its mission statement.
Other websites of note include: www.africanamericansciencefiction.com, http://afrofantasy.wordpress.com, www.blacksci-fi.com, www.blacksciencefictionshowcase.com, http://blacksciencefictionsociety.com, http://blacksciencefiction.wordpress.com, http://blackspeculativefiction.tumblr.com, www.carlbrandon.org, and http://octaviabutler.org/