Look, I want to read Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters. It sounds like a good book. A book set in an alternate universe where the Civil War never happened, so slavery is still legal and U.S. Marshals chase down runaway slaves? Sign me up! And an ex-slave–turned-Marshal is the conflicted main character? Pass the damn popcorn already.
But Alexandra Alter’s New York Times profile on Winters and his book managed the seemingly impossible: It made me want to avoid a book with a dynamite premise, one right up my combo sci-fi–nerd/history-geek alley. And I’m not the only one. Twitter and Facebook lit up over the story, with science-fiction writers and readers weighing in, mostly outraged about the profile’s tone-deafness to the history of slavery and sci-fi.
Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians book series, calls Winters “fearless.” Black author and screenwriter Attica Locke signs off on his book as “everybody’s history.” The article makes sure to mention how brave and controversial the book is, so controversial that one publisher passed on it. Winters talks about being inspired by the death of Trayvon Martin and other black men and women killed in recent years. The profile checks all of the right boxes.
Reading the profile, you might think that Winters is the first writer ever to tackle slavery through science fiction. Winters hat-tips Philip K. Dick’s and Philip Roth’s alternate history novels, with passing nods to Zora Neale Huston, Toni Morrison, and other black writers. But neither Winters nor the Times’ Alter brings up black science fiction.
The name that goes unmentioned in all of this is Octavia Butler, whose 1979 book Kindred is directly about slavery, seen through the eyes of a time-traveling woman from modern times thrust into the antebellum South. The cost and toll of slavery hangs over all of her work, from her Patternist books, a series about godlike immortal aliens, to her final novel before her untimely death, Fledgling, about the symbiotic relationship between a race of vampires and their human partners. Butler’s shadow looms large over black sci-fi and Afro-futurism, as well as in mainstream science-fiction circles. For the Times, and Winters, to completely ignore her existence is not only foolish, given their seeming desire to inoculate Winters on issues of race—it’s a huge affront to Butler’s work and her fans.
Black science-fiction writers, like most writers of color, struggle mightily to be heard and seen; even within their genre, their work is shunted into a tiny corner. Would a black author writing this book have received a splashy profile in the Times, or have a TV pilot in the works already? Unlikely; fans have been clamoring for an adaptation of Kindred for decades. That the publishing industry is rife with privilege and institutional barriers keeping writers of color on the fringes is no surprise, really. But it’s rare to see that privilege on display so openly. Of course white writers can, and should, tackle race. Locke is right: We should all find ways to engage with the legacy of slavery that persists to this day. But when a white writer gets called “fearless” and “brave” simply for going where black writers like Butler have been for decades, it’s an insult. It smacks of exploitation and erasure. Especially when you game it out. Is a black writer, writing about slavery and race, less brave, somehow?
So. Am I going to read Underground Airlines? Maybe. But maybe I’ll check out some writers of color who haven’t gotten profiled in the Times first, like Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemisin, Sarah Kuhn, Daniel José Older, and Paul Krueger. They shouldn’t be invisible.
Update, 6:00 p.m.: Ben H. Winters has responded via email. We've reprinted his response below with permission:
I saw your piece on Slate. Thank you for writing it.
All of the feedback to that Times article has been hard to read, particularly in regard to Octavia Butler. When I was asked my influences I directed the Times reporter to a blog entry I had done a couple weeks earlier, which specifically highlighted Kindred. It breaks my heart that people think I am ignoring Butler, or ignorant of her work, or just plain ignorant.
While we're at it, I agree with those who scorn the idea that writing this book required some sort of "courage" or "daring" on my part. I am acutely aware of the privilege I have in my country and in my industry, wearing the skin that I do. This book grew out of my own distress about systemic racism in America. Like I said in this Kirkus interview, “I wanted to explore a painful history and a painful present. And I wanted to ask white readers to think about these things as deeply as black people are forced to think about them.”