I suppose there’s an impression that black writers should write about black issues: after all, that’s the life they inhabit. But it’s no more the case than the idea that writers of any other particular group should write exclusively about that group.
Steven Barnes is a case in point, because the science fiction he’s most famous for writing belongs right in the core of the genre. In fact, much of his work has been written in collaboration with Larry Niven, starting with his very first published story, “The Locusts”, which was shortlisted for a Hugo Award.
Since that auspicious debut, he has written 10 novels in collaboration with Larry Niven, two of them with Jerry Pournelle added into the mix. These include all four of the Dream Park novels (Dream Park, The Barsoom Project, The California Voodoo Game and The Moon Maze Game) in which games are played out using holograms and other near-future technology. The earliest of the books were an influence on the development of live-action role-playing games.
Their other collaborations include The Descent of Anansi, a hard-sf novel in which super-strong nanowire is used to construct orbital tethers that allow payloads to be boosted into higher orbit, and which becomes a spider’s web used in a battle between spacers and the Earth government. Achilles’ Choice is set in a future where artificially boosted athletes compete for the chance to join the world’s elite, and where one competitor hopes to save humanity. Saturn’s Race is a technothriller set on an artificial city-sized island, where the discovery of the grizzly truth behind the glittering facade turns into a desperate race for life. Most recently they have collaborated on the sword-and-sorcery fantasy, The Seascape Tattoo.
In addition, Barnes, Niven and Jerry Pournelle collaborated on the two Heorot novels, The Legacy of Heorot and Beowulf’s Children. These follow the human colonisation of a planet that at first seems idyllic. Unfortunately, the mental abilities of the colonists have been impaired as an unforeseen consequence of the suspended animation they experienced travelling to the planet, and when an unexpected danger emerges from the planet’s native wildlife they are initially ill-prepared to deal with it. In the second volume, the threat has been largely neutralised, but now the children of the colonists find themselves increasingly at odds with their own parents.
Barnes seems to like collaborating; he has also co-written a series of mystery novels with his wife, Tananarive Due, and the actor Blair Underwood.
It is, however, his solo work that is probably more interesting. This ranges from a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novelisation (Far Beyond the Stars) and a Star Wars novelisation (The Cestus Deception) to the gritty, urban, cyberpunkish Aubry Knight sequence beginning with Streetlethal. While The Kundalini Equation begins as a quest for perfection in martial arts (a field in which Barnes has considerable expertise), but turns into a study of the costs of such an obsession.
The best of his novels, though, are those in which his own experience of being black comes into play, usually through a form of role reversal. For instance, in Lion’s Blood and its sequel, Zulu Heart, the setting is an alternate history in which Islamic Africa is the dominant world power, America has been colonised by Vikings in the north and by Africans in the south, and white races from backward Europe are sold as slaves in the southern parts of America. An even more telling exploration of the same theme is in his standalone novel, Blood Brothers, in which two sorcerers, one black and one white, are killing their descendants in a quest for immortality. It is down to a racist former Green Beret and the black cousin he never knew he had to come together to defeat them.
Barnes has a new novel, Twelve Days, due out later this year
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.