Imagining the Decolonization of Science Fiction

One of the most disappointing things about popular science fiction is how often it fails to imagine a decolonized future. From Doctor Who, The Expanse, and Star Trek to I, Robot, Minority Report, and Gattaca, sci-fi that comes from a modern-Earth setting rarely challenges the assumption that Western science and culture will be at the forefront. We know that technology is being developed all the time, simultaneously, and independently, in different parts of the world. In the ancient and current world, the Americas and Europe are not always leading these advancements. Yet, whenever we see depictions of the future in film and television, the visual language suggests a Western setting or a pastiche of America and some other culture they’ve bastardized, a la Firefly or Blade Runner. Even if science fiction accurately reflects the diversity of the population, it often fails to decenter Whiteness.

Afrofuturism, to me, is a decolonized view of the future that centers Black (diasporic African) culture and technology. It is sci-fi and fantasy that answers the question, “what might the world look like without African colonization?” Like Wakanda in Marvel’s Black Panther, Afrofuturism can be something completely untouched by Whiteness. It can also ask, “what might the world look like if Black people reclaimed their ancestral heritage and created art and technology that reflected their cultures?”

I find myself looking for an answer to the second question. In sci-fi, time travel and alternate universes exist, and storytelling can explore the potential outcomes of altered histories. But what I find more compelling is the idea that we build a future from the present we have, with all of the historical baggage. I envision a future where Blackness excels in spite of colonization. I like the idea of an Afrofuturist future based on the present reality versus one that requires a rewriting of history. This is the kind of future I wish modern science fiction would explore.

In Doctor Who, the Doctor travels through both time and space, and yet the majority of their time on Earth is spent in present-day UK or, near-indiscernible future UK. When the TARDIS lands on board a human-occupied planet or ship, it looks like… the UK. In a show that can go literally anywhere, why is it so hard to imagine the Doctor in present-day South Africa or on a future colony ship that launched from the Carribean? Why is it so hard for the show’s writers to imagine a future where humans don’t launch into space with the same caste systems and systems of oppression that they’re escaping?

There is also a failure of imagination in sci-fi with regards to how we would utilize technology as we developed it. In many imagined futures, humans develop the technology to manipulate DNA on a molecular level, yet I’ve never seen that understanding of genetics used to trace ancestry for the millions of Black folks who are descendants of enslaved people. There are a myriad ways Black folks would use technology, including to discover and connect with our ancestry, and that is something that remains largely unexplored in popular sci-fi. 

One problem with science fiction is that it believes the answer to humanity’s hate problem is global cultural assimilation. If we’re all effectively the same, there are no reasons for us not to get along. The future is always overwhelmingly integrated — though still somehow majority white — and the world looks very Western (with usually-Japanese influences), but otherwise indistinct. Even when stories challenge this faulty premise, they fail to fully appreciate that segregation is a valid alternative.

When we hear the word segregation, especially in the United States, we think of whites-only bathrooms and colored entrances in the back of establishments. But the issue with segregation was never the separation between Black and white folks, it was the inequality between the two. Black folks wanted to be able to exist in white spaces because white folks were given better spaces. And when Black folks created those spaces for themselves, white folks did everything to tear them down.

I like to envision a future where Black folks create spaces for us by us. Exclusive spaces, culturally specific spaces that flourish. Where whiteness doesn’t attempt to intrude or exert itself. I see this for all cultures. I don’t see conformity as the vision of human potential, I see decolonization, and the acceptance of Otherness as the necessary way forward. The future I imagine is segregated, but cooperative. Clans, tribes, states, nations, planets, galaxies. Where people are allowed to advance outside of the rigid Western framework; and architecture, technology, and culture are all reflections of the people and the places they come from.

The past is fixed and can’t be changed, but it can be escaped. Systems can be dismantled, attitudes can be changed, the world can move forward. So much of what is being created doesn’t engage with the basic question of what human evolution and expansion looks like without Whiteness. Afrofuturism allows us to explore that. The only limitations are the ones we impose on ourselves. If sci-fi envisions our full human potential, it should not only recognize our capacity to outgrow oppressive and limiting structures, but actively work to dismantle them.