Some time ago, I read in André Carrington's Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction a critical analysis of Steven Barnes' novelisation of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Far Beyond the Stars." In that episode, Avery Brooks and the other members of the cast appear as Americans living in the mid-20th century. Brooks is Benny Russell, a writer for a science fiction pulp magazine; the other actors play the roles of his colleagues at the magazine, and his acquaintances. The episode deals openly with racial issues, including race within the world of science fiction - the unlikeliness of a person like Benny Russell being seen as a writer of sf, the impossibility of him selling a story in which he imagines a black commander of a starbase in a distant future.
Carrington's description of Barnes' reworking of the episode intrigued me, and I made a note to myself to obtain a copy of the book to read.
It's an interesting piece of multiple recursion - a black science fiction writer retelling the story of an episode of a science fiction show featuring a black starbase commander - an episode in which the actor portraying that commander is also playing the role of a black science fiction writer telling the story of a black starbase commander. And so it had to be, for who but a black science fiction writer could give the character of Benny Russell the bone deep experiences of being multiply othered that a black man in America who is also writer of science fiction must live through?
Barnes' text gives Benny the depth, intelligence and passion that is inherent in Avery Brooks' creation of the live character, and a past that informs his resistance to the 'acceptable' roles and behaviours for black men in the 1950s. There's a flashback in the novel, to Benny's youth. It's 1939, and he and a few other kids from the Harlem youth centre he hangs out at have gone on a field trip to the World's Fair. The theme for that exposition was "the world of tomorrow" and they are exploring the exhibits in the General Motors Futurama building. Benny is excited by much of what he sees, but it's excitement with a bitter core: "Never in his life had he experienced anything like that, and only one thing could conceivably spoil the experience for him: Every last one of the thousands of little human beings shopping, working, playing, worshipping and living in the cities of the future had been white."
This, of course, presages the central moment of the script. Benny Russell, having written the story of Benjamin Sisko, star base commander, black man in a future where black men do exist, where humans of all races and aliens can live together, where the daily humiliations experienced by men of colour are truly a thing of the past, has his vision rejected because his publisher can't print a story where a black man is a captain. No one will buy it, no one will believe it.
It was a powerful episode, and Barnes has transformed it into a powerful novel.