On Race in Science Fiction with Aaron Thorpe
Footnotes and figures

  1. Herbert George Wells (1866–1946), known by his family as 'Bertie' was a British writer from Bromley and is by most accounts considered the grandfather of Science Fiction literature. His novel 'War of the Worlds' was originally published by Pearson's Magazine in 1897 and follows a so-called everyday man entangled in the events of an alien invasion.

    Thorpe is referring to the perspective shift that switches the position of the coloniser and that of the colonised, and the political commentary that would have signified at the time.

    In his book Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, writer John Rieder comments:

    "The colonial gaze distributes knowledge and power to the subject who looks while denying or minimizing access to power for its object, the one looked at. This structure-a cognitive disposition that both rests upon and helps to maintain and reproduce the political and economic arrangements that establish the subjects' respective positions-remains strikingly present and effective despite the reversal of perspective in The War of the Worlds."

  2. An experimental physicist of many talents, Gerard K. O'Neill (1927–1992) proposed theories of how people could live in and colonise space and how industrial activity could be migrated away from "Earth's fragile biosphere" (.space.nss.org). In his writings such as 'The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space,' O'Neill details the techniques and materials that could be used to achieve Human settlement in space such as matter extracted from asteroids and the Moon. This concept follows similar concepts proposed by scientists such as Hermann Oberth in 1954 and Science Fiction writer Larry Niven in the 1970s.

  3. O'Neill cylinder exterier created by Rick Guidice courtesy of NASA

  4. Frank Rudolph Paul (1884–1963) was an Austrian-American illustrator who created much of what we consider Science Fiction art today. His designs for various authors and magazines including Amazing Stories (a Science Fiction magazine established in 1926) are so ubiquitous it's hard not to imagine Science Fiction without the dramatic compositions and garish-coloured imagery all of which he created.

  5. Visualizing Race, Identity and Change with photography by Martin Schoeller for National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/article/visualizing-change

  6. Darwinism is the biological theory of evolution by natural selection endorsed and further developed by English naturalist Charles Robert Darwin (1809–1882). It has come to be closely linked to the term 'survival of the fittest'. Darwin's theory has historically been used to encourage imperialism and social inequality.

  7. American TV show host Charlie Rose asked Octavia E.Butler 'What is it about writing for you?' to which she responded 'You've got to make your own worlds, you've got to write yourself in, whether you are a part of the greater society or not'.

  8. 'This Machine' is an original short story by Aaron Thorpe. It follows a young man who wakes up one day and seems to have an allergy to technology. The mere sound and sight of a TV, being in a subway causes him to convulse and vomit.

  9. According to writers Frank B Wilderson III, Saidiya Hartmann and various African American and Black Studies, Afro-Pessimism or Afro-Pessimistic thought proposes that society depends on anti-Black violence to function. It highlights the specificities of American slavery as a structural framework by which Black Americans still suffer today.

  10. William Gibson is an American-Canadian speculative and Science Fiction writer who is largely known for coining the term Cyberpunk and ushering in Cyberspace themes in Science Fiction.

  11. Gibson's Neuromancer trilogy set against a backdrop of advanced technology centres a hacker hired by an AI to complete a final job.

  12. Rastafari is a political, social and spiritual movement that began loosely in the 1930s following the coronation of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, and the previous prediction of a Black Messiah in Africa by Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey.

  13. In Western philosophy, literature and anthropology, the noble savage refers to moral superiority, yet progressive inferiority imposed on colonised and indigenous peoples. This trope ethnocentric and racist at its core idealises a concept of an uncivilised person of often distant lands and binds them to impossible moral and social standards. Examples of the noble savage in Science Fiction literature and media are John the Savage in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and James Cameron's Avatar (2009 and 2023).

  14. Tweets by Head of Publishing at Buzzfeed UK Tobí Rachel Akins (@TobiRachel_), American feminist writer Michelle Taylor (@FeministaJones), writer Taylyn Washington Harmon (@TaylynHarmon) and senior editor of USAToday Felicia D. Wellington (@FDWellington)

  15. New Pop Culture Trend Alert: the Black Lady Therapist: From Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to You’re the Worst, they seem to be everywhere by Aisha Harris https://slate.com/culture/2018/03/black-woman-character-actors-are-popping-up-on-your-favorite-shows-as-therapists-to-white-characters-video.html

  16. 29-year-old Tyre D. Nichols was violently murdered during a traffic stop by Memphis police. Though the officers named; Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills, Jr., Emmitt Martin III and Justin Smith among others have been identified and face charges including second-degree murder and aggravated kidnapping, this case is emblematic of a large issue that affects Black people in the US.

  17. Sherida Kuffour's Master thesis titled 'Examining Black Bodies in White Institutions', completed at the Design Department at Sandberg Instituut details the ways that art and design schools encourage the reproduction of anti-Black conditions and perpetuate colonial strongholds. https://www.academia.edu/36828492/Examining_Black_Bodies_in_White_Institutions

  18. Chicago native Emmett Louis Till was a 14-year-old African American boy who after the accusation of flirting by Carolyn Bryant was abducted and killed by a racist mob in Drew, Mississippi.

  19. The Unwoke Reading List

  20. Black Panther is a 2018 and its subsequent part two release in 2023 is a Marvel Studios movie writer by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole.

  21. George Floyd was murdered on May 25th 2020 by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His untimely death marked by his last words "I can't breathe" spurred global outcries for police reform and in some cases, total police abolition. Chauvin was convicted on two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter and was later sentenced to 22.5 years in prison.

  22. The Black Lives Matter is both a decentralised social and political movement as well as an American anti-police brutality network founded by Patrice Cullors, Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza.

  23. Finding Utopia Through Building Community: In Conversation with Iyo Bisseck, Eunice Tchitchiama, Hélène Alix Mourrier, Estelle Ndjop Pom, Senakirfa and Loraine Furter https://bravenewlit.xyz/works/finding-utopia-through-building-community/

  24. Aaron Thorpe runs the Twitter account @Borgposting, a page that posts retro Science Fiction art with book covers and magazine spreads by the likes of Frank R. Paul, Noriyoshi Ohrai, Walter Velez and more.

  25. Tweets by Aaron Thorpe (@Borgposting), media critic and youtuber Stevie Matt (@Stevie_Mat) and @MiQL.

  26. The US detonated two Atomic Bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. In some ways, H.G. Wells in his 1914 novel 'Set The World Free' is considered to have first thought of the idea of a Uranium-based grenade although similar ideas had somewhat been explored in the Edwardian age. British prime minister Winston Churchill and physicist Leo Szliard are thought to have been inspired by Wells' ideas of creating atomic technology. In the Pall Mall Gazette, a British evening newspaper founded by British publisher George Murray Smith, Churchill penned the following: "Might a bomb no bigger than an orange be found to possess a secret power to destroy a whole block of buildings - nay to concentrate the force of a thousand tons of cordite and blast a township at a stroke?"

  27. Adam Rowe is a writer who runs the 70s Science Fiction account @70sscifi. His book 'Worlds Beyond Time: Sci-Fi Art of the 1970s' is now available for preorder. https://www.abramsbooks.com/product/worlds-beyond-time_9781419748691/

Further reading


AT  Aaron Thorpe
Thinking about the Golden Age of science fiction, and of course, there were exceptions to this, but I think of H.G Wells' 'War of the Worlds'1 and how it was a critique, an indictment of British imperialism and the British Empire. But sometimes, you know, I make a joke. It's not even really a joke, that whenever there are aliens, say from the 1930s to the 80s, they're either fashioned like black people or they're communists. 

Warwick Goble's illustration for H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. Published in Pearson's Magazine 1897.


I think it's why science fiction as a theme became so interesting to me. The typical thing of Black people being absent from this genre but also very present in an alternate form. It's interesting how the unknown and the idea of 'The Other' permeates this genre so much, one could even say it's all about that. 

Even someone like Gerard O'Neil2, a fairly progressive guy who came up with these futuristic space habitats known as O'Neill cylinders3, truly did believe in this kind of post-racial almost post-political technological utopia in space with not only interracial couples but same-sex couples right but it was very apolitical in a way where he seemed to be decentering struggle and wanting to normalise his idea of Utopia. 
But even when I look at the images he presents, all I'm thinking of is 'yo, where the fuck are all the Black people?'.


 Painting by Rick Guidice for NASA to accompany their reports for living in space. The image above depicts the interior structure of one of Gerard O'Neill's cylinders. Guidice says "One of my earliest Space Colony paintings was based on the giant 'Model 3' cylindrical habitats envisioned by Gerard O'Neill. I imagined the clouds forming at an 'altitude' around the rotation axis. At this time the scene is bathed in the ruddy light of all the sunrises and sunsets on Earth at that moment as the colony briefly enters the Earth's shadow, out at the L5 Lagrangian point where stable locations are easily maintained. 


SK Sherida Kuffour
Which begs the question; where are Black people in the future? Do we even exist in the future? 

AT Exactly, and this is not drawn by somebody like Frank R. Paul4, who illustrated a lot of fucking pulp magazine covers from his fairly conservative mind. This is about somebody who is supposed to be at least a little bit progressive.

SK That reminds me of those articles5 that were constantly being circled online about what humanity would look like in the future, that everyone would be mixed at some point.

AT Yeah, I remember that. We're all going to be brown, beige coloured, like some form of today's conception of white.

SK  And that we were all going to possess variations of blue and green eyes. You know, I remember looking at the images and thinking, well, there are definitely some caucasian looking people here still, and there's variety in hair types in terms of straight or ringlet curls, red hair, blonde hair, variations of beige and pink skin and light eyes but nobody was darker than a paper bag. In essence, it meant to me that Black people or at least darker-skinned people were going to be wiped out in favour of the idea of human progress. 

AT Which is such a fucked up thing and I guess a sobering realisation of how racist idealogy continues even in literature as progressive as O'Neil's.

"Honestly, it was so cathartic to be able to flex my muscles and get back into writing and develop wider concepts about the way I think of the world as a Black person." 

SK I think we shouldn't underestimate how different ideologies like Darwinism6 and subsequent colonial and imperial conquests have impacted Science Fiction. I mean it's easy to deduct how these narratives of progress function as the foundation of Western conceptions of science and reason. 
This is why when Octavia Butler says to 'write yourself in'7 I take that seriously, and why your story8 from a few days ago resonated so much with me. It felt so crucial to read a story that exemplified writing yourself in so well.   

AT Honestly, it was so cathartic to be able to flex my muscles and get back into writing and develop wider concepts about the way I think of the world as a Black person. 

Next to that, what also appeals to me is Afro-Pessimism9, and not necessarily only having this negative outlook on the world, but very much understanding that at every single level, or at every juncture of society, Black people's exploitation and oppression is needed for this entire system to fucking work. 

I mean, this is just straight up the facts, and so it's almost like, yo, even people who are ostensibly thinking about these post-racial utopias are still operating under Afro-Pessimism because either black people do not exist or there are strange conditions attached to our existence.

SK Like us being aliens.

AT Exactly dude. Even for writers I enjoy—I'm thinking of William Gibson10, I do like him a lot and I do like 'Neuromancer'11 but in this book, he talks about these "Rastas"12 who leave Earth and they have their own space station. 

At first, I thought these were the coolest characters in the book because they're just these spacefaring Rastafaris who smoke weed and are just chilling, they never seem pressured but they're also never properly explored and they're just happy-go-lucky. It's almost like they're presented a bit like 'The Noble Savage'13, depoliticised beings. 

SK In a lesser way, it reminds me of how on Twitter, I want to say like two weeks ago, there was chatter about why Black women are now always presented as therapists in media14—these soothing but tough but well-meaning characters who really never have flaws nor bite. It's like creating a 'neutral' character that you never really have to address. 

And I feel a little bit, of course, not having read Neuromancer, that that's what those Rastafaris represented. They're almost there to denote the writers' leftist inclusionary take but further than that they don't really dare to address the implications of including Black people in the main narrative and all the history that'd entail. 

AT I made a promise to myself, that if I was going to write Sci-Fi or speculative fiction, I'd straight-up write in Black characters that hopefully have integrity and actual storylines and convincing character arcs. 

Because there is sometimes the fetishisation that comes out of a lack of understanding or an unwillingness to go any further in exploring these characters. And it seems like that therapist thing is just a step up from the nanny trope we've had all these years.

SK Right, it's the same thing, honestly, it's the same thing!

AT Like a maternal caretaker15 who takes care of other people, you know what I'm saying?

SK I completely agree with you.

AT It's weird because what can be done, that only Black people should write Black characters? Maybe that is the thing; I guess let black people write black characters. 

SK You know what— yes and no. I'm also of the opinion that not all Black people can write Black characters well. Ultimately not everyone can write characters well, and that goes beyond any sex or race. 
I also say yes and no because, at the end of it all, we're all living in this fucked up capitalist, anti-Black system and everyone, even Black people participate in its upkeep. 

"I do want to talk about capitalism, racism and about police brutality, but the question for me is always how do I do it without having my characters preach to someone [...], but at the same time, I'm trying to work around this obsession with "awareness." 

I think it takes a lot of awareness, skill and narrational integrity to break out of that, or at the very least to not reproduce that. To write in a way that Black characters are partakers in popular narrative is important, which I feel like your work really does. 

Speaking of which; that short story you sent last week...'This Machine'—fam.  I've read it a few times and the thing that always strikes me when I reread it is this, you know if we're talking about characterisation and Black narrational integrity, in your short story, it does not notably cross my mind that the main character would be anything than Black. Not because there was a huge racial statement, obvious colloquialisms, mannerisms or that you explicitly mentioned it anywhere but there were little things I picked up. 

There was a particular apathy the characters in the story witnessing police brutality possessed. Which is sad but I think subconsciously when I was done reading the story, the people I imagined in my head were definitely Black. 

AT We're desensitized. I think a lot of us are aware that this is a thing that happens to us, not that we don't sympathise but I think a lot of us have hit a brick in the road. I mean going back to that whole Afro-Pessimistic understanding that the world works off the backs of Black people and we know that. 

It's almost like when white people see police brutality happen and they're— I'm not saying their reactions always performed, but they're always really horrified this thing of 'Oh my God I can't believe this'.

SK My favourite one is I can't believe this is still happening.

AT Exactly, and I'm happy you said that about the characters in 'This Machine'—thank you, because science fiction literature a lot of the time uses these long diatribes to express their political thoughts. And they'll just throw it in the middle of the books whereas I really didn't want to do that.

And you know, I do want to talk about capitalism, racism and about police brutality, but the question for me is always how do I do it without having my characters preach to someone, I do feel strongly about these issues, but at the same time, I'm trying to work around this obsession with "awareness". 

There's this idea that if we are aware enough about an issue that'll solve the problem. And secondly, this gratuitous spectacle of violence as if its, you know, and then the immediate desensitization is it's like, as if like, Okay, again, if we see this horrible thing enough times if we see Tyre Nichols16 getting his ass beat by the fucking cops. It'll horrify enough people and people in power and it's like, no.

SK Because that's not how it works. I've been saying this for years. In my MA thesis17 I wrote about how Black people are constantly forced to prove how racism is still a thing— to show the brutality of white physical violence; the lynches, the scarred arms, the fingerless hands, the battered bloated face of a 14-year-old in the 50s18, all of it has always been shown.

Not for our benefit but for theirs, in a sick way, I feel like it's a continuation of power, and the payment is desensitisation like you said. 

And that's why all these awareness campaigns can only ever be; 'bodies', not people, not personalities—just 'bodies. To be honest, that thesis was the last time I centred awareness in that way. It harmed nobody but me, and this imagery stuck to nobody else in my class but me, because growing up in Liverpool and going to school in Garston, having to deal with physical racial violence, that shit was super real to me. 

On top of that, it's not like I'm not saying anything new. The work has been done over and over and over and over again. Sometimes I laugh thinking of myself back then, I was making all these reading lists, I think I called the last one I did 'The Un-Woke'19 reading list, and like, what made me think that people were suddenly going to stop being racist because of a fucking reading list? I don't know,  okay I'll stop because I think I'm just being bitter now.

But yeah, that was the last time that I did anything like that, I'm not spending any more energy trying to convince people to behave a particular way or to not think of me or other people in a particular way. Because there's no point. 

I'd rather be here speaking with you about these topics, and it brings something more than shock value. But what do I do? What do I do with other people when you're constantly starting at the beginning? I don't want to start at the beginning anymore to prove that my head is shaped properly or that I too bleed.

AT I totally appreciate you saying that. On the flip side, there is a counterculture that is happening, of completely switching off criticality—of rejecting this imagery in favour of some other intellectually dishonest bullshit. 

SK Do you mean people pushing back against the media about Black suffering in favour of...I don't know how I'd label it but, like a Utopian future of some kind?

AT Yeah along those lines. There was a Black speculative fiction publication I was trying to submit to a while back. But when I read the submission guidelines, and this is where I think the whole afro-futurist themes and politics of Marvel's Black Panther20 has seeped into serious literature and Black discourse, especially post-George Floyd21 and Black Lives Matter22 movement, the whole thing was quite uncritical. 

They'd presented this whole idea of a multiverse, that term has come to annoy me anyway—but a multiverse where Black people aren't judged and where they belong—and I'm not saying this isn't a part of what Black liberation is about, but we have a real problem when huge publications with real power start parroting unradical elevator pitches, even when they say they do the opposite. 

SK It reminds me of a talk I hosted on Brave New Lit., around Utopias and communities23, where Iyo Bisseck ask the very poignant question 'What happens after the dream?'. I found it a beautiful way of acknowledging what futures were possible whilst being aware of the ways marginalised communities need to mobilise. 

But when you talk about how self-confessed critical publications end up not being very critical—it also has to do with the very real thing of funding. It's insidious because the imagery is needed to convince funding bodies and institutions how real these problems are, but open calls like the one you mentioned are vaseline that takes out the sting or let's say air out of the subject. 

I feel like we've been in this whirlwind of conversation and I completely forgot to contextualise this conversation, but I want to address how I found you. I found your account Borgposting on Twitter24, that godforsaken car crash of an App I can't seem to peel my eyes away from.

AT That's hilarious, I've had like eight accounts, and I keep getting banned so I don't post about politics as much anymore.

SK So the person tweeting says that humans are intent on their own destruction25.


AT Right, and he goes on to say something about Science Fiction needing to grow up. But the thing that gets me with that take is that dude goes on to mention Marvel as a measure of Science Fiction. 

I think I said that I understood people being tired of dystopian and science fiction literature but when you understand that these genres became especially important after humans developed a means to destroy ourselves, i.e. the atomic bomb26, you understand that this subgenre has always been a critique of power and technologies in the wrong hands, and I find these themes are now more relevant than ever.


SK I've been following different Sci-Fi accounts for a while but how you've connected the graphic language of Sci-Fi books and media to a myriad of themes is what made you intriguing to connect to. 

I have to say I also like that you source the illustrations and covers you find. It makes your account less about the fast consumption of graphic art and also about learning. In a way, I consider you some kind of digital archivist. From your postings, I've gone on to discover other illustrators and writers I wouldn't have found so quickly otherwise.  

AT These things are really important to me. What's the point of posting some cool shit nobody knows about? So yes, I try to make sure I always have the date, illustrator's name and writer's name on everything I post. 
Adam Rowe27 does the same thing, he runs the '@70sscifi' Twitter account, and we're good pals.

He's actually coming out with a book this year about Sci-Fi art from the 70s with interviews with illustrators and artists in this genre, you should definitely grab it if you can.

SK Oh yes, I follow Adam on Twitter too—I didn't realise he had a book coming out, I'll check it out after. Speaking of which, with what I've seen you do with 'This Machine', I hope—to quote Octavia Butler, that you continue to write yourself into Science Fiction. 

AT I've made it my goal this year to delve properly into Science Fiction writing again, whether it be short stories or essays. I'm grateful for the opportunity to work with you in kickstarting my own creativity in the literary sense. Wish me luck with that.



This conversation between writer Aaron Thorpe and Brave New Lit. editor Sherida Kuffour aims to explore the various visual and subsequent social implications of Science Fiction art. From explorations of 'The Other' to the absence of—yet hyper-visibility of Black people in this genre, Thorpe and Kuffour use the works of various Sci-Fi authors to explore topics relating to Afro-Pessimism, police brutality and colonialism. Through this conversation, Thorpe details his methods and thoughts on his writing processes as a result of these subjects, as well as his dedication to sharing archival Science Fiction material.
Note From Editor

I'm always split between making the interviews I conduct narrationally accessible, that is that it should make sense to the reader immediately—you know, starting with some contextualisation of the conversation with 'how are yous and thank yous', and staying true to what the conversation actually was—a dumpster truck of laughter and 'oh my gods'— in essence less formal and more like happenstance gossip. The balance is difficult to straddle and I don’t yet possess such skill to find the right temperature between truth and formality if there is such a thing to be achieved. Still, there are some conversations you fall into at the cusp of first hellos. I find that with some people a whirlwind of excitement takes over, leaving no time for build-ups and niceties and one immediately dives into the meat in the pot. Such was the case with Aaron Thorpe—a lover of Science Fiction and a writer with Jamaican parents and a Ghanaian in-law—a commonality we both chewed up instantly; he'd been to Accra, I'd only ever enjoyed Kumasi and had hoped to visit Jamaica one day. I talked of Liverpool, and he filled in with an understanding of its industrial past and poverty and politics. So our conversation flowed from one thing to another, from this reference to that reference, it was carnivorous and filled with talking over each other, nevertheless understanding each other. Not even a minute had passed and my mouth beget with “we must do this again, Aaron! Again and again!”. In the midst of it all, I’d forgotten to press record on our Zoom meeting cutting out whatever hints of niceties might've marred our thoughts and dropping you, dear reader, right into the thick of it.
About this author

New York native Aaron Thorpe is a science and speculative fiction writer based in Atlanta, GA. He runs @BorgPosting on Twitter where he posts retro Sci-Fi posters, journals and book covers. Thorpe also makes up 1/3 of the 'Everybody Loves Communism' podcast along with co-hosts Jamie Elizabeth and Jorge from @LineGoesDown. Further, Thorpe has contributed to various podcasts including the @Trillbillies and @Strugglesesh. The image featuring a person's face covered in foil is by Izumi Inoue (1984) and originally accompanied Thorpe's speculative short story 'This Machine'.