Continuum

Continuum

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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31 Comments

  1. Science-Is Fiction 4 months ago

    This whole article and the piece you are profiling shows a very serious and dangerous misunderstanding of what afrofuturism is and isnt. I suggest doing some more research before you attempt a scathing critique of an entire complex genre that includes, among other things, “mundane” afrofuturism and stories and imaginations of Blackness that take place in the present. Thats part of the whole point of afrofuturism – african traditions of time dont look anything like western traditions, and so our notion of a future is different than traditional scifi. There are LOTS of mundane afrofuturistic stories, aesthetics, creations. Please, please, please do your research before you go around spreading untruths about an established genre that includes not just literature, but art, fashion, music, and other aspects of culture and community.

    The things that pass for journalism these days…

    • David H 4 months ago

      I found the position of this piece to be actually one of wholehearted support of the movement– “Mundane Afrofuturist” being a self-adopted identifier by Martine Syms, rather than a criticism.

  2. Science-Is Fiction 4 months ago

    A good place to start, by the way, is the book called “Afrofuturism” by Ytasha Womack. I suggest getting a full picture of what it is before attempting to be anti.

  3. Science-Is Fiction 4 months ago

    P.S. Here is an excerpt I wrote from an article over a year ago that talks about how afrofuturism is, in and of itself, mundane and present:

    The word “futurism” embedded in the term Afrofuturism denotes a forward-looking aesthetic or theme that envisions the prospective future of humanity. If popular media, literature, and film are any indication, the images that people typically draw to mind when thinking of the future generally involve either 1) post-apocalyptic scenery 2) highly-advanced technology or 3) interplanetary and outerspace travel.

    Afrofuturism as a genre, however, does much more than pay lip service to some far-flung future that we can only access to in our imaginations, futures that are so drastically different from anything we know in contemporary times that we cannot possibly have any direct link to it, or futures that only our descendants will be able to enjoy or suffer in. I believe that, distinctive from other notions of genre-based futurism, Afrofuturistic concepts of sci-fi, fantasy, myth, and speculation bind both the past and future, delivering them to a Now in visual, literary, musical terms (and any other mode of expression that one sees fit to attach the Afrofuturistic lens to). Afrofuturism is visionary and retrospective and current all at once, in that it recognizes that time cycles and revolves. In this way, we can all participate in Afrofuturism daily, in everyday life, to allow for a perpetually accessible bridge between ourselves, our ancestors, and our descendants, between our futures and our pasts.

    Moreover, Afrofuturism seems to recognize that the future can be as spaced out or as close as one chooses to define it, telling us that “it’s all relative”. The future is the next second, the next day, and the next decade. Before we lived through yesterday and found ourselves in today, the future was today. Afrofuturism empowers the work of our ancestors by reminding us that we are their future, we are a part of the future that they helped shape because their experiences remain embedded in our experiences and give context to our choices. Afrofuturism is the conduit through which they can continue to speak and inform us. Under this interpretation (upon which reasonable minds can and do differ), I find Afrofuturism to be a potent platform upon which I can launch my own science fiction/science possibility stories and practices.

  4. Archie Edwards 3 months ago

    Ryman’s argument seems based on the assumption that the sci-fi he is opposed to is always set in distant utopias where everything is great and better than the earth we know. this is not the case in what I have read. I think a literary canon without such imaginative settings and situations would have resulted in an incredibly dull culture compared to the one we have. There is no reason why stories set in completely fictional worlds can’t have resonance with and relevance to the real one, through metaphors and allegories and basically just a tiny little bit of abstract thought to relate a story to one’s own situation. we all live and really know only this world, so however ridiculous a story’s setting is, we can’t help but relate it to the world we know best. I think taking the view that sci-fi and fantasy are purely for the sake of escapism is missing the point of most of the greatest stories in those genres. I think mundane sci-fi is equally valuable, but there is absolutely no reason to belittle the rest of sci-fi in order to promote it. a haman race that doesn’t explore the furthest reaches of its imaginations is boring indeed. and in exploring those reaches, I think we learn a great deal about ourselves and the nature of the animals we are. Ryman is, in my opinon, a very short-sighted man. If someone needs a story to be set literally in as similar situation as possible to their own in order for it to be relatable, then if you ask me, that person doesn’t know how to engage with a story. Mundane sci-fi, hard sci-fi and sci-fi-fantasy are not mutually exclusive. They are all equally valuable and equally capable of shedding light on the problems of the modern world.

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