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27 February 2003




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Steven Barnes: White & Black March 2003

Steven Barnes's first published fiction, 1979 novelette "The Locusts" written with Larry Niven, was a Hugo nominee. He's collaborated on numerous novels since then, including Dream Park (1981) and its sequels with Niven, and The Legacy of Heorot (1987) and its sequels with Niven and Jerry Pournelle. His solo novels include near-future Streetlethal (1983), SF martial arts novel The Kundalini Equation (1986), dark fantasy Blood Brothers (1996), and alternate history Lion's Blood (2002) and its sequel Zulu Heart (2003). Barnes has also written for television, including episodes of the '80s version of The Twilight Zone, the '90s version of The Outer Limits, Stargate SG-1 and Andromeda. He lives with his wife, author Tananarive Due, in Longview, Washington.
Photo by Beth Gwinn


Excerpts from the interview:

“I believe fiction is not frosting -- it's meat and potatoes. There have been studies that say people who read fiction in emergency rooms, waiting for their loved ones to come through surgery, deal with the stress better. The arc of fiction, which is present anywhere in the world you go, has that same set of tropes Joseph Campbell talked about in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Those images and events are so consistent because they mirror the course of our lives.

“When you exclude one group of people from your culture's dramatic iconography, you're saying, 'We're gonna keep our secrets to ourselves. We're not gonna let you be the heroes, let you empathize with the heroes fully, so you're not gonna learn how to be victorious. We're incredibly careful to give this emotional nourishment to our own children a thousand times a day, but you and yours can starve.' Most of the black films and black books that have been popular or promoted as wonderful are about black people mired in misery, or at the very best, black people born into misery and getting to be OK. But what we don't get is Horatio Alger -- the 'start small and end big, on top of the heap, king of the world.' Every other ethnic group on this planet has a mythology that says they're connected directly to God and they are the center of the universe. Black Americans may be the only people in the world whose mythology was hammered into them by the dominant group in whose interest it was to keep them servile. We've been fighting for equality -- and frankly, that's a losing position. Everyone else wants to win, and here we are struggling to be 'equal.' It's a bad joke. If you want to make it, you have to believe deep down inside that you're the best; that's the only way to take your brakes off. When I was a kid, my mother actually told me that if I let people know how smart I was, I would be killed. I looked around and realized that young black men who often did not have fathers in their homes had nothing and no one to teach them how to deal with stress and prevail, succeed, kick butt, and win.”


“My dad could perform in Las Vegas but he could not stay at the hotel. My life has been a miracle in comparison to that. Every generation of human beings progresses because the previous generations made sacrifices. I love this country, love the dream of freedom that defines this country. We have every reason to be extraordinarily proud of who we are as a nation, but need to simultaneously understand that there's additional work to be done. Science fiction is a dream, a dream of dreaming, the mythology of the 19th, 20th, and now the 21st century. If I add my voice to that chorus, I get to help direct which way the vehicle goes.”


“Science fiction is to a large degree a celebration of northern European logic systems, religious systems, belief systems -- Christianity and democracy and so on -- and all you have to do in order to succeed to a degree is build upon that pre-existing structure. Coming in from outside, if I use those tropes I am in essence reinforcing the very system that has worked so hard for so long to keep people like me in their place. So I have to create new images, a new emotional language, and bridges of understanding. ... What I chose in Lion's Blood was to use alternate history, invert the relative positions of white and black by creating a world in which Africa developed faster than Europe. I could have done that by doing the 'Butterfly flapping his wings in Siberia' bit, saying, 'Well, a meteor hit 20 million years ago' or 'a dinosaur sneezed out of his left nostril instead of his right....' No, no, no. That would not anchor it into the existing mythology, and would allow readers to dismiss it if the emotions grew too painful. So I used Socrates not drinking the hemlock back in 400 BC, Alexander the Great taking the throne of Egypt, because everyone knows them. By using established tropes and images, then constructing my own literary edifice with them, I was able to build a bridge from the ordinary experience of white Americans to the experience of black Americans, and simultaneously create a work where black Americans could read for the first time about a world in which they were the winners.”


“None of my editors have ever told me to change anything in my books for racial reasons, but most of my editors have been women. The problem isn't with women. It's about 75% with men, a sociobiological sexual competition thing. Note that black and Asian women are sexualized in films, while black and Asian actors barely get love scenes at all. That's a male-competition thing. What has happened is -- when I wrote Streetlethal with a black guy and they put a white guy on the cover. My editor at the time was utterly mortified. Her editor-in-chief told me it was an art department decision, and the art department said it was marketing, and the marketing department said the truck drivers who put the books on stands would think it was some kind of 'Get Whitey', 'Shaft in Space' thing and refuse to handle it. No one would take responsibility. That's happened to tons of writers, black and white -- publishers wouldn't put a black character on the cover. Especially not a man. For Octavia E. Butler, I remember clearly when they would change her characters' race, would put green people on the cover, but not black people.”

The full interview, with biographical profile, is published in the March 2003 issue of Locus Magazine.


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