Friend of OMNI Reboot Martine Syms has published a powerful, hilarious, completely necessary manifesto for Rhizome.org advocating “Mundane Afrofuturism.”
A little context: Mundane Science Fiction is a school of thinking about the future pioneered by the writer Geoff Ryman, who—in a much-cited manifesto that has now all but disappeared from cyberspace—detailed the central tenets of a science fiction without the bells and whistles we ordinarily associate with the genre. Ryman, and his adherents, believe that faster-than-light travel, communication with extraterrestrial beings, alternate universes, and distant hospitable planets—all standard décor in the canon—are unrealistic. Instead, “the most likely future is one in which we only have ourselves and this planet.” Science fiction’s usefulness as a critical engine is much more effective when leveraged towards this near-term, pragmatic future. Despite its emphasis on realism, Mundane SF has lofty ideals—namely to be a literature which is actually in conversation with the world.
Afrofuturism, on the other hand, is a less restricted space. Coined by the cultural critic Mark Dery in a 1994 essay called “Black to the Future,” Afrofuturism is a broad term for a range of mediums and practices which envision black futures stemming from Afrodiasporic experiences. Afrofuturism is both spectacular and academic. It has tentacles in music—think Sun Ra in his UFO headpieces, the intergalactic mythoi of Parliament and Funkadelic, the contemporary android pop of Janelle Monáe—as well as in literature, where it’s present in the work of Samuel Delany, Octavia E. Butler, N. K. Jemisin, and many more.
Literature can empower us to write ourselves into the future—but when the future it illustrates takes place a million light-years away, that power is more escapist than it is disruptive.
Syms has staked a claim on the sliver of Venn Diagram where these two divergent systems for speculation overlap. Her portmanteau movement borrows from the rigor of Mundane SF to accomplish Afrofuturist goals—a “future of black imagination” with no Martians, Venusians, platform shoes, references to Sun Ra, and above all “no inexplicable end to racism.” Syms, an artist, has a distaste for the aesthetics of Afrofuturism, pegging it as a “fantasy bolt-hole” populated by “flying Africans to whisk us off to the Promised Land.”
Geoff Ryman has a similar distaste for space-fantasy, comparing it to an “adolescent desire to run away from our world.” Such escapism engenders a dismissive mentality towards the home planet, which, coupled with fantasy for more fruitful worlds, encourages a dismissive attitude to the abundance, and injustices, of Earth. Mundane sci-fi places its stories in the near future, and emphasizes the creative development of solutions for the actual problems facing us on Earth. As one of those problems is racism, Mundane Afrofuturism isn’t so esoteric an idea.
Syms observes, rightly, that outer space will not save us from injustice, and that we can’t just wake up in a better tomorrow; the dismantling of the white patriarchy, among other social changes, will be complex and violent. Literature can empower us to write ourselves into the future—but when the future it illustrates takes place a million light-years away, that power is more escapist than it is disruptive. When the future is close, however, its implications shade onto the present. Why not apply the imaginative force of science fiction into near-term speculations that might actually help us live better? After all, what is science fiction but a laboratory for the imagination of alternate social, sexual, cultural, and technological realities?
Following her manifesto, Syms is working on a new audio work called Most Days, which takes the form of table read for a science-fiction screenplay. The story considers what an average day looks like for a young, black woman in 2050 Los Angeles—Mundane Afrofuturism in action. For another taste of thoughtful mundanity, re-visit Syms’ essay for OMNI Reboot, “Future Late Capitalism,” which explores the future-history of money in science fiction cinema.
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• The Smithsonian has added two video games—Halo 2600 and Flower—to its permanent collection. This is just the latest in a slow institutional sea change regarding video games as artistic and cultural documents, which began when the MoMA added 14 games to its collection in late 2012.
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• Wikileaks has released 14,000 emails from the late Steve Jobs to everyone from Steve Wozniak to the Pope. He was man of few words; according to the website Scoopertino, “88% of his messages contain three or fewer words, with 84% of those offering only one: ‘No.’”