Make Mine Wakanda

Let the Dance of Friendship begin!
Fantastic Four 53, August 1966. In the previous issue, Black Panther had invited the FF to Wakanda to test his skills against them. Also, STFU Ben.

My senior year of college, I had a part-time job in the student union. It involved being something like a facilities manager, only I wasn’t an actual manager. I made rounds through the union to keep it clean and functional. If a bulb was out or something was broken, I filed a maintenance request; but if somebody had spilled coffee, I broke out the mop. I counted rolls of toilet paper in utility closets and removed outdated announcements from the bulletin boards. Sometimes I manned the information desk. Those kinds of things.

My shifts began at an awkward time in the evenings after I had eaten in the union dining hall. The difference in time, usually less than an hour, wasn’t long enough to be useful — not enough to study in earnest, although sometimes I would catch up on my assigned reading. Besides, who wants to prep for work by doing work?

Instead, I would watch TV. The union had two TV lounges. At that time of day, one was usually dark and silent. The other was packed so solid some people had to sit on the floor.

The first time I ducked into the popular lounge, I froze in my tracks. The entrance was to the right of the television, so I saw the entire audience illuminated by the glow of the screen in three-quarters profile. Every single face was black.

Now I have to confess what threw me off wasn’t just the black audience — it was also the show they were watching. It was Star Trek: The Next Generation. It had been Patrick Stewart’s baritone, overheard in the hallway, that lured me into the lounge in the first place. I thought to myself, Black people like Star Trek?

In hindsight, it’s not at all strange when you consider Trek history — even Martin Luther King, Jr. was a fan — but this was my first encounter with black fandom, or what’s sometimes called black nerd culture.

Watching TV with this group became a regular habit during my senior year. After dinner I would often stop by the TV lounge, wade deep into the room, and (usually) find a seat against the back wall to watch. Alas, since I arrived after the show began and departed before it finished, I never spoke to anybody. We were all too busy watching.

And this audience didn’t just watch Star Trek. Oh no. There was commentary.

What transpired in that lounge was essentially a live version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, only a thousand times funnier. Before me was the screen broken by the anonymous silhouettes of the people in front, all of them cracking wise at the perils faced by the crew of the Enterprise-D. Imagine watching TV with a room full of your favorite comedians — that’s what it was like. I learned to chew gum while watching so I could bite down sometimes to keep from screaming with laughter.

While they often made fun of the interior Star Trek, the crowd also criticized Star Trek the TV show. There’s one episode I remember in particular. Picard and the gang had beamed down to a planet inhabited by blonde, blue-eyed people. It might have been some kind of shore-leave episode. The natives wore flowey garments and were very friendly to the off-worlders — theirs was a perfect, utopian world, full of beautiful white people with blonde hair and blue eyes.

The room went off.

“Oh, they on the Planet of the Aryans.”

“It’s the Hitler World!”

And on and on. They shredded that episode. I think I might’ve been crying in the back.

But you know what? I had a little epiphany in that TV lounge. The Enterprise crew flew hither and yon across the galaxy encountering all sorts of extraterrestrials with sagittal crests and bumpy nose prosthetics, and yet usually those aliens only had one skin color. Black actors would turn up as Klingons like Worf but even that wasn’t consistent because some Klingons were just white actors wearing shoe polish. Just as every alien planet mysteriously looked like southern California, likewise the aliens themselves always coincidentally had pink skin.

So when I see stories about Black Panther breaking records for advance tickets or Presidents’ Day weekend openings, I get it.

Fantastic Four 52, July 1966, was the first appearance of both Black Panther and Wakanda. Stan Lee wrote the script with Jack Kirby’s artwork at full throttle.

If you’ve read my previous thoughts on Black Panther, it may not surprise you that I was very excited to see Wakanda’s realization on the big screen. I didn’t have to wait long. Early in the film we experience a flyover of the countryside before piercing the shield dome to encounter Wakanda’s main city. The skyscrapers have none of the gloomy spires of Gotham or even the blocky pyramids and temples of Egypt (which might be expected since BP’s tribe worships Bast, the Egyptian cat goddess); instead the rounded organic forms of the skyline strongly reminded me of the beehive structures and asymmetrical curving walls of Great Zimbabwe. There are too many details I could geek about — the dragonfly VTOL ships, the throne rooms, the five tribes’ distinguishing customs and clothing and palettes — but suffice to say, Wakanda makes every Star Wars planet look gray and ho-hum by comparison.

Black Panther is unique in comics in that the character is inexorably entwined with his setting. Even Batman can’t share that claim: the Gotham of the Bob Kane era is indistinguishable from any generic cityscape, featuring none of the Gothic art deco we now associate with the Dark Knight. Meanwhile, the very first appearance of BP in the July 1966 issue of Fantastic Four takes place in his home country. Wakanda and its mashup of African culture and super science was baked into the mythology of Black Panther from the very beginning.

Often the settings in fiction are interchangeable; the action can be switched from city to suburbs to rural country without much trouble. In others, the setting is intrinsic. In much the same way as cutting a major character changes a story, moving a Western to New York City radically transforms the original intent into a very different work. Setting, in other words, itself becomes a main character, a silent player on the stage — excise the character, and the original concept is wounded or at least altered so drastically it becomes something else.

Black Panther would not be as successful a character (or now, a franchise) without Wakanda, and the tightly written script by director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole understands that. A major theme of the film asks what responsibility does Wakanda have to the rest of the world, and more specifically, to the black world. When you are rich and powerful, is hermitism and quietude a valid strategy of self-preservation or is it complicity with evil? If engagement is preferred, what shape should it take? The film’s plot is an internal monologue of Wakanda the character, expressed through T’Challa and Killmonger. More than just visually depicting the country, Coogler and Cole perfectly communicate the tension inherent in the whole concept of Wakanda.

Jungle Action Featuring the Black Panther 8, January 1974. What’s funny is that this map differs from the map printed just two issues prior in which the Atlantic Ocean is shown in the lower left-hand corner. Now it points to the Indian Ocean, which means north is south and vice versa. This whole geographical slipperiness just adds to Wakanda’s mystique — it’s like the place is so damn secret, even Marvel doesn’t know where it is.

Black Panther is a solid film with strongly defined characters and great acting (I couldn’t decide which antagonist I loved watching steal scenes the most: Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, Andy Serkis’s Klaue, or Winston Duke’s M’Baku). Is it the best MCU film yet? I’m still partial to Winter Soldier, but Panther is definitely at the top of my list. I suspect that with its box-office success and the difficult job of introducing a whole slew of new characters behind it — and assuming Marvel keeps Coogler and Cole onboard — the next Black Panther may be the next Winter Soldier. In the meantime, I’ll just have to be patient and go see this one again.

All images taken from Black Panther Epic Collection: Panther’s Rage. Copyright © 2016 Marvel. Fair use! Discussion purposes!

Update: The capital city of Wakanda, so I’ve learned, is Birnin Zana, and Chadwick Boseman has said the cinematic version of Wakanda is based upon the real-life kingdom of Mutapa, the 15th-century successor state to the kingdom of Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe, which was built beginning in the 11th century, was the capital of the Zimbabwe kingdom.

If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be New Colonia

The hubbub over Confederate has spurred Amazon to reveal that they’ve been developing a new alternate-history series of their own which likewise has its point of divergence in the 19th century:

In the back story of “Black America,” the Confederacy was defeated. But instead of enduring the painful eras of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, African-Americans received reparations. The former slaves and freedmen claimed Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, a nation known as New Colonia.

That nation has a “tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship” with the United States, which is described as both an ally and a foe.

Black utopianism? Now that’s what I’m talking about!

I have to wonder if Black America is a replacement for The Man in the High Castle, which is entering its third (and final?) season. Regardless, the possibility of independent nations occupying the geography of the real-life Lower 48 is an alt-hist concept I adore — I’ve used it more than once in my short fiction. Amazon, you had my curiosity but now you have my attention.

Black to the Future

Over at Electric Literature, you can read about my childhood fascination with Marvel Comics’ Black Panther, and more specifically with his native land of Wakanda:

Black Panther is a hero in the Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark mold, a super-wealthy bachelor who uses science and athleticism to pound on bad guys. There are no secret identities — everyone knows who BP is: he’s T’Challa, the king of the African nation Wakanda, which is a mix of grass huts, deep jungle, and 1970s futurism.

The essay is a departure from my usual stuff, very loose and free floating, a sepia stream of consciousness about comics and growing up in a household where futurism was literally just laying around on tables or bolted to the roof. Whereas Panther’s color resonated with many black readers, it was the setting that captured my imagination, and still does: I nearly jumped out of my seat at the brief glimpses of Wakanda at the tail end of this year’s Captain America: Civil War.

As of this writing my essay has received 20 retweets and a dozen likes on Twitter, more than my book ever did, suggesting maybe I should write about pop culture more often. Unfortunately I’m poorly qualified for the job: I generally hate TV (some exceptions may apply), I can count the frequency I go the movies in a year on one hand, and the number of video games I’ve played to completion since 2011 tallies at exactly three. I love music but not being a musician myself I feel I lack the vocabulary to adequately speak about it. Which leaves book blogging, something I’m hoping to do more of in the new year.

Rereading my old BP comics within the full and complete context of “Panther’s Rage” has been gratifying, with Wakanda coming across as smaller than I remember (the sci-fi technology is largely confined to T’Challa’s palace) and yet bigger (more dinosaurs! snowy mountain wastelands chock full of yetis!). It’s interesting being at an age now where I can experience a phenomenon both as contemporary futurism and as retrofuturism. Something like Vernean steampunk will forever be out of reach as a potentiality and exists only for us as a quaint, even naive, vision of how things were supposed to be; but by simply living past tomorrow we can experience both the very real possibility and the hindsight of existing in what invariably turns out to be a different future.

I was recently talking to my dad about the solar panels on his house, which are solely for heating water. When I asked him whether photovoltaic panels were available in the 70s, he told me no, not commercially — the technology was in its infancy. And yet as we spoke while driving through the streets of his town, we spotted several houses with PV arrays on their roofs. Wherever you go there you are, but almost never where you thought you’d be.

I’ll be there on opening day in 2018 when the MCU Black Panther movie drops, and I’m sure I’ll have many opinions about it. Maybe I’ll even write some of them down. Meow.

BioShock and Philosophy

A funny thing happened in 2015: people began reading this blog. More specifically, people began reading this blog and sending me free books in response to what I’d scribbled here. The result by year’s end was a pillar on my desk which in gratitude I feel some obligation to read and discuss. Here’s the first.

BioShock and PhilosophyBioShock and Philosophy
Luke Cuddy, ed.
Wiley Blackwell (180 pp, $17.95, June 2015)

My relationship status with Ayn Rand is It’s Complicated. On one hand, I’ve never been able to progress deeply into, let alone finish, any of her books; her heavy and mechanical prose is what a robotic arm on a Detroit assembly line would write upon gaining sentience. Her ideas, which she believed novel, were better articulated by others. For example, Rand criticized progressive taxation as punishing success and innovation, and believed it was motivated by envy of the rich rather than logic. I agree. But these weren’t new ideas: a century beforehand, Frederic Bastiat concluded that tax policy is less about paying for roads and bridges and more about the political class rewarding its friends and punishing its enemies, while Nietzsche observed that under Judeo-Christian slave morality, poverty and the hatred of wealth is virtuous (Mark 10:25, Matthew 19:24). You would never know these two existed if you listened to Rand or her followers — to them, these thoughts sprang like Athena from her head alone; I might have more respect for Rand if she had occasionally included some footnotes and a bibliography. There is also the sneaking suspicion that Rand was a manipulative so-and-so who used rhetoric to rationalize her bad behavior, and that the main draw for Objectivists today is simply to justify theirs.

On the other hand, I can’t deny Rand’s influence on 20th-century political thought. This one time, at Ithaca College? A classmate mentioned Rand and our professor — who was the chair of the philosophy department — rolled his eyes and dismissed her. It’s amazing that I was awarded a four-year degree in philosophy and yet that incident is the entirety of my formal exposure to Rand. Love her or hate her, for good or bad, Rand’s name is thrown around too often today to be rejected with a shruggie.

It may be a little surprising to learn that a book titled BioShock and Philosophy isn’t cover-to-cover Ayn Rand. Instead, editor Luke Cuddy presents 16 essays that use the BioShock games for a variety of philosophical entrances, from Oliver Laas’s exploration of the characters’ free will to Simon Ledder’s introduction to transhumanism through plasmids and vigors. In fact the closest we get to an Objectivist tour of Rapture occurs via Rand’s aesthetics on art, whereby author Jason Rose concludes that Objectivists — who generally don’t like the game — should feel redeemed by it because Andrew Ryan is a bad Objectivist (to be fair, Cuddy may have approached hardline Objectivists for contributions but was probably rebuked with insults, accusations of irrationalism, and demands to sleep with Cuddy’s wife).

For me the strongest appeal of the BioShock games was their theme of utopianism, and because of that I have to thank Rick Elmore for my introduction to Carl Schmitt’s theory of political foundation. Schmitt believed that nations or political communities are founded in opposition to some other assemblage, that group identity coalesces through hostility to another group — it’s us versus them. It’s sort of like Nixon’s quip, only writ large, that voters vote against the candidates they hate, not for those they like. Elmore uses Schmitt’s theory to explain the utopian experiments of Andrew Ryan and Zachary Comstock. Both create new societies that are antagonistic to others: for Ryan, it is parasites and socialism, while for Comstock it’s sinfulness and a disturbing lack of faith in white supremacy. This idea is relevant today and explains a great deal why nations inflate threats (America’s fear of Muslim terrorism) or constantly vilify other countries (the pathological obsession the Iranian and North Korean governments have with the US). The flames must be stoked long after the inciting spark has burned out, and defining group identity as being at war with another does exactly that. Schmitt also happened to be an unrepentant Nazi who used his theory to substantiate the Third Reich — which is again appropriate here, considering Hitler’s dream of utopia collapsed as surely and completely as Ryan’s and Comstock’s.

BioShock and Philosophy is not without some misses. A repetitive, vapid essay on Marxism and the Vox Populi revolution — written by two Ithaca College grads, natch — rehashes the game to make no-shit-Sherlock conclusions; the ink would have been better spilled on, say, analyzing Columbia through the lens of Edward Bellamy’s utopian socialism, or a Marxist/leftish critique of the Fraternal Order of the Raven and real-world Lincoln demonization (particularly by paleolibertarians). Absence of a thing is not a valid criticism of that thing, but along those lines I was surprised that neither BioShock 2 nor the Burial at Sea DLCs are mentioned much; BioShock 2 reimagines Rand’s feud with BF Skinner, while Burial at Sea apparently negates the ending of Infinite (something that would undoubtedly intrigue Scott Squires and James McBain, who didn’t care for Infinite‘s deterministic universe). Including that content would have provided richer interpretations to some of the essays.

CC BY Omarukai
CC BY Omarukai

The fact that I have invested waaaay too much time and thought into the BioShock games is a testament to how immersive they are. I never played the games in order; I was first sucked into BioShock Infinite primarily on the basis of a trailer, and immediately became absorbed by its mashup of steampunk with Colonial Revival architecture, quantum physics and all its implications, themes of American Exceptionalism and evangelical millennialism, and its leitmotif of guilt, penance, and absolution. Also, there were the parts where I could swing around on skylines and blow up zeppelins. Later I became intrigued by the setting (and not so much the game itself) of the original BioShock, and I only wish I could have submitted an essay to Cuddy on the historical utopianism of man-made islands and undersea habitats (because from Jules Verne to the Neolithic crannogs of Britain and Ireland, the idea of a better society has very often been wedded to water). No doubt contributor Laszlo Kajtar feels me. As he points out, it is not the book that matters so much as the reading of it; it is not the painting but rather our viewing of the painting that affects us. Like all art, games are necessarily subjective — it is our experience with them that provokes and seduces. And some of them, like a syringe full of EVE, get under the skin.

Beyond the Sea

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

J.D. Tuccille of Reason.com has rounded up the latest denunciations of seasteading — the concept of autonomous man-made islands:

Criticism of seasteading now takes on an oddly strident tone, and from unusual sources.

A week after reporting on DeltaSync’s Seasteading Implementation Plan, Global Construction Review, an online publication of Britain’s Chartered Institute of Building, ran an attack on the idea as an abandonment of social responsibility. The publication’s editor, Rod Sweet, took time away from the business of covering engineering and construction to “to lay bare the motivation behind the movement—the libertarian urge for the freedom to profit without having to contribute to the social conditions that make profit possible.”

In recent years there’s been a trend toward attacking Information-Age developments based not on the deficiencies of the technology or issues but rather on the perception that said plans are libertarian schemes to avoid taxes. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies? Libertarian criminality. Secession — not from the US, but into smaller, more responsive state or municipal bodies? Perfidious libertarian tax evasion. Seasteading? A misguided dream by “adherents of ‘libertarianism,’ that peculiarly American philosophy of venal petty-bourgeois dissidence.” This last written by none other than China Mieville, the Marxist don who moonlights as a successful science-fiction writer.

Any news story about seasteading invariably descends into Rapture jokes in the comments but there’s nothing inherently libertarian about man-made islands. You could just as easily use the technology for a floating kibbutz as for an art-deco Galt’s Gulch. Even one of seasteading’s major advocates has said, “We can’t build libertopia … Whatever we build will have to have security forces who will bust in your door if they think you’re designing nuclear weapons or funding terrorism.”

Regardless of seasteading’s practicality (while cautiously intrigued, I have several unanswered questions about it myself), it is disturbing that scientific futurism is met so reactionarily — especially by readers and writers of speculative fiction (to see examples by readers, check out the comments sections of any io9 article on these subjects). Setting aside the questions of when and why did libertarians become bogeymen to the left (Radley Balko keeps a list), what the hell happened to sci-fi? Are Martian colonies not dismissed as libertarian conspiracies because they are decades away while Bitcoin, etc. are happening now or very soon? When did imagining a better world of tomorrow go from Heinlein to thought-crime? After all, the first proponent of oceanic utopianism was the 19th-century hero of the left, Jules Verne, who inspired those seeking an escape from the -isms of capital and czar:

“Also,” [Nemo] added, “true existence is there; and I can imagine the foundations of nautical towns, clusters of submarine houses, which, like the Nautilus, would ascend every morning to breathe at the surface of the water — free towns, independent cities.”

I think it’s more likely that, in the words of another 19th-century author, these same writers and readers, so eager to throw out the old gods, have sworn loyalty to another idol, and to turn your back on it is heresy.

Down on the Rio Grande

Altered AmericaMy story “Rio Grande” appears in the new alternate-history anthology, Altered America. Gambling gunfighter Lorenzo seeks vengeance against a card sharp in the Republic of the Rio Grande, an independent country based on the economic principles of Frederic Bastiat:

“When the Republicans defeated the Mexican army at Morales, everyone knew it was only a matter of time before Mexico tried again. They realized our little breakaway estado could only be held by force. Force means men. So they encouraged homesteading to grow the population. They tried various policies for a few years but nothing worked. Everyone wanted to go to California instead. Finally President Jordan discovered the writings of a French philosopher named Bastiat. This philosopher advocated free exchange. No taxes. No tariffs. No customs. A strictly confined government. ‘Law is organized justice,’ said the philosopher — anything beyond that is perversion. So they scrapped everything and started over with a new constitution based on his writings and principles. They advertised it in all the eastern newspapers. Cheap land. Live tariff free. Women can vote. And where there are women, there are men and soon enough children who grow up to defend against Mexico. Then there weren’t enough branches in the trees to beat back the settlers.”

“But how do you pay for the judges and the marshals? Who builds the courthouses?”

“The philosopher wasn’t against taxes so much as their unfair and arbitrary application,” said Valasquez. “So to keep everyone honest, there are none to begin with. Citizens can make donations. But that’s exactly how Jordan managed to convince his caudillo supporters to agree to the constitution. It meant only self-sufficient people could afford to be judges and marshals.”

“Only the wealthy, you mean.”

“How is that worse than America?”

Alien Space Bats maybe, but I’ve often wondered why banana-republic rebellions usually take such a distinctly left-hand turn. The answer, I suppose, is Marxism’s empty pledge to eliminate the elite classes, a mistake based on the assumption that class derives from economic systems rather than being a natural by-product of state-level civilization.

In any event, “Rio Grande” isn’t for or against libertarianism so much as it is a stab at that most pernicious of modern ideologies, utopianism. Earlier this week at Reason.com, author Anne Fortier noted the power of historical fiction:

To the freedom-friendly novelist, one further advantage of historical fiction is that the entire history of mankind is jam-packed with tragic examples of what Hayek called “the fatal conceit” and the corrupting effects of power — especially state power.

It’s worth reading her whole essay, though I’m not sure what business Fortier has throwing speculative fiction under the bus after writing a whole book about a mythological matriarchy (for all of her self-satisfaction, it seems Fortier hasn’t learned that genre — the difference of where you’re shelved in the bookstore — is simply packaging). But she’s right: history shows that power disparities are inevitable once a certain complexity of social organization is reached, and the key is not a false promise of eradicating those disparities but rather blunting power so that it does the least harm.

You can purchase the whole anthology here — I’m happy to report the Kindle edition has seen a steady burn of sales since its release — or read my complete story for free here. And if you enjoyed the antho, please leave a review at Amazon or Goodreads.