The white writer’s misimagination of Black characters in science fiction
Where Science Fiction flattens us, Afrofuturism imagines us whole.
by Inigo Laguda
This essay contains spoilers for Another Life (2019) and Annihilation (2018)
For a writer, I read astonishingly little. I chalk my aversion up to over-inundating myself with books as a boy and filling all my curious voids with grand words and fantastical tales. It’s almost like I nauseatingly engorged myself on literature and now can’t take another bite. I like to spin it as “thoroughly satiated.”
Still, I urge myself to read. Mostly essays and articles and, if I’m lucky, I manage to sneak the odd book past my own defences. But in the stead of literary works, I find my captivation has transferred seamlessly to TV and Cinema. The visual narratives of them. The beauty of their movements. The imaginations behind them.
But the ability to turn imagination into film doesn’t make the medium exempt from the society of global anti-Blackness that the film itself is imagined in. And despite its propensity to explore futuristic possibilities, utopian and dystopian alike, and recent success with compelling Black characters like Michael Burnham from Star Trek Discovery, science fiction remains unexempt also.
As the newly released Netflix show, Another Life, introduced its first mixed-raced Black character, I felt an eeriness wash over me. Niko (Katee Sackhoff) – the captain of the Salvare, a spaceship that is attempting to reach an alien world – is awakened from her cryo-sleep and anxiously calls twice for, “William.” He appears and she asks him to explain why she’s awake. As the spaceship thrashes about, Niko is thrown towards him. We expect him to catch her, but instead she phases right through his body and we discover that William (Samuel Anderson), though he appears to be a Black man, is not a human, but a sentient AI projecting a holographic form.
What follows is a swirled combination of the master/slave dynamic and the human/machine dynamic; blending together to demonstrate how normalised the pathology of whiteness is when it comes to forcing others into subservience to preserve itself.
We see this fascinating example of a sentient, virtual being who can think independently, feel loneliness, happiness, anguish, adoration and even love, incarcerated in the confines of a mechanical, interstellar vehicle.
William is simultaneously the most imperative part of the crew’s mission, perpetually responsible for the safety of their lives, and encoded to be totally beholden to them. He disobeys one order and later states that it’s only because it was not issued by Niko. The whole crew’s fate rests on his ability to function and his ability to function is wholly dictated by their commands.
Another Life creates William as a highly intelligent, state-of-the-art, digitally-constructed, holographic magical negro, whose wants, needs and desires will always be over-ridden by his responsibility to be a vessel for the characters he carries inside him. He is cruelly given access to the conceptualisation of autonomy but never the means to fully exercise it and there is something truly unnerving and insidious about that to me.
Later in the series, Niko asks William to morph his holographic form to look like her husband. The two become intimate and, in the succeeding morning, Niko admits that she took advantage of him and asks him to erase his memory of their night together. It sends him spiraling, overloading with new sensations and emotions which render him totally unable to fulfill his duties as a communal spaceship. He retreats to the cryo-sleeping realm to anaesthetise his pain while the Salvare falls into utter chaos in his absence. Niko eventually follows him in.
“I ruined our friendship,” she says, her face contorting in pain as tears struggle to flow. “And I will regret that for the rest of my life. But I need you. We need your help.”
“You need me? What about what I need?”
“It matters. Oh, god it matters so–“
“Alright, just stop. Stop manipulating me!”
As he booms into the misty wilderness, it becomes clear that manipulation is an inalienable clause of his very existence. In the virtual roleplay of the previous night, William explored his emotions whereas Niko utilised William’s abilities to rid herself of loneliness. It doesn’t matter how thunderingly or soothingly Niko says, “I’m not!”, William will always be manipulated, he will always be in service of Niko. She is the vessel’s captain and William is the vessel.
When left in the hands of white writers, science fiction will ensure that we remain in the periphery of the story, an accessory to its finish line, and in doing so, will leave some of the most interesting characters and storylines unexplored, underdeveloped or misrepresented.
This is especially true with Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) in Alex Garland’s haunting film adaptation of Annihilation.
After an unknown, extra-terrestrial object strikes a lighthouse, an otherworldly environment emerges from the point of impact. The environment is given the name, “The Shimmer.” People, animals, and drones are sent in by the US government to investigate. Nothing returns except for Kane (Oscar Isaac) who, after 12 months, comes home as a distant shell of his former self before falling into a coma. Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist, former soldier, and Kane’s wife, decides to journey into The Shimmer with a small team of specialists to find answers.
Immediately after entering The Shimmer, the entire team falls unconscious for approximately four days, which rightfully makes everyone apprehensive. They set off towards the lighthouse and study their first anomaly: a bouquet of different types of flowers that are all inexplicably growing from the same plant. “It looks like someone’s about to have a wedding,” Josie says, blissfully. Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) calls it a pathology.
As they head deeper into The Shimmer, Lena and Cassie (Tuva Novotny) talk about the rest of the group. “We’re all damaged goods here,” Cassie says. “Josie wears long sleeves because she doesn’t want you to see the scars on her forearms.”
“She tried to kill herself?” Lena asks.
“The opposite. Trying to feel alive.”
Soon after, Josie theorises that The Shimmer is an alien prism that refracts everything; from radio-waves and light-waves to genetic DNA. After examining her own blood through a microscope, Lena confirms Josie’s theory and, after a series of deeply disturbing events which end up claiming the lives of two group members, Lena and Josie talk candidly about abnormalities that are happening all around them.
We see Josie wearing a vest as tiny seedlings sprout from the self-harm scars on her arms. Calmly and pensively she says, “Ventress wants to face it. You want to fight it. But I don’t think I want either of those things.”
She walks off towards a field. Lena follows her, but loses sight of her for a split second. As Lena makes it to the clearing, Josie has vanished, and all that is left is a scattered set of humanoid trees.
Josie represents a character we rarely ever get to see. She is a brilliant Black woman who achieves transcendental solace after being deemed “damaged goods” in a world that she clearly feels displaced in and disenchanted by.
I find her resolve reminiscent of Melanie from The Girl with all the Gifts. A radical character that is accidentally stumbled upon. But rather than choosing herself and destroying the world, Josie peacefully succumbs to advent of this strange, refracting, newly indigenous world. A world where the plants grow aggressively from the abandoned buildings and daintily from the horns of deer-like animals. A world with unpredictable and ethereal natural vicissitudes.
There is an entire history of white science fiction that would have us believe that simply by way of things being alien, they are evil or malicious and therefore need to be stopped, killed, or conquered – a reasoning that always feels closely related to the European concept of Manifest Destiny. But The Shimmer just… is. It is growing. It is terrifying. It is environmental. It is violent. It is wonderful. It operates just as chaotically as the natural world that we marvel at in documentaries. And Josie knows this.
She doesn’t wish to understand it any more than she already does. She doesn’t wish to thwart its progress, undo its effects or resist its influence. She simply wishes to welcome it and be welcomed by it and I can’t help but feel like the film would be far more compelling if it centred her personal journey rather than Lena’s.
Both Another Life and Annihilation create cinematic universes where the most overlooked characters end up being the most interesting to explore. With that said, I wouldn’t trust a white storyteller to explore their narratives either. Which is why films like Black Panther are so important, even if they don’t go as far as we want them to. Because where Science Fiction flattens us, Afrofuturism imagines us whole.
The movement of Afrofuturism is yet to grace our screens on a grand scale of Sci-Fi but that doesn’t mean that ideas aren’t being brought to life everyday. From legendary works of Octavia Butler, to the unstoppable, award-winning fiction of N.K. Jemisin, to the Black Quantum Futurism works of Rasheeda Philips, the realm of literature is proving to be the perfect playground for the Afrofuturistic imagination to roam free. It looks like I have a plethora of new curious voids to fill.
Inigo Laguda is an artist, storyteller, and musician currently residing in London, England. He is particularly interested in deconstructing the common conceptions of “normal”. His focus is centred on Blackness and mental wellness. His intimate thoughts can be found at @SaveInigo.