America is going through another paroxysm of racially tinged violence, reminding everyone of our failure to reconcile our history with our ideals. In my own lifetime, the country has experienced urban riots (e.g, Watts in Los Angeles), violence after the Rodney King verdict, and last week, two more in a long string of deaths of black men at the hands of police, followed by the mass murder of five Dallas policemen by a African-American assailant with a military-style assault rifle. It’s as if a murderous virus is spreading through the culture.
The news has left the country morose and pessimistic. People feel that the issues of race, as well as related issues of immigration and income inequality, will never be resolved or mitigated. As citizens of a democracy, we’ve entered a time of madness when everyone whom we don’t know and don’t agree with is The Other. We’ve lost the ability to listen to and respect other views. Demagogues such as Donald Trump say out loud what many people feel, forgetting that civilized behavior in the public sphere requires a certain suppression of thought and feeling in order to get along without fearing someone will strike back in anger. Respect and tolerance are out of style.
Speculative fiction writers have long tried to tell stories of race. In an genre dominated until recently by white men, only a few black voices have stood out, among them Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delaney, and N.K. Jemisin. Less well-known in the sci-fi mainstream is Kelvin Christopher James, whose most recent novel, Augments of Change, takes the myth of race, as well as it taboos and tropes, and turns it on its head. His unique voice brings a new clarity to race as an illusion that influences daily thought.
The protagonist, Whitney “Whitey” Fording, a member of a southern “redneck” family, falls in love with a black woman, setting up one of several satires of race. Their baby, Ndella, changes her skin tone whenever she touches another person. This is only one of the novel’s thousand pieces, and it takes a while for the reader, like someone working a jigsaw puzzle, to get enough of the border made and chunks of the inside assembled to begin making sense of the whole. In the meantime, James takes on business oligarchies, the breakdown of democracy, climate change, and eco-destruction.
It isn’t until halfway through the 312-page novel that he introduces the grand trope—alien invasion from outer space—though the invaders aren’t little green men. They’re the tiniest of self-replicating molecules, RNA (a cousin of DNA), and they spread from the tropics to the temperate zones, wiping out most of humanity while transforming the survivors internally and externally. These mindless though purposeful critters are the engines of adaptation by the planet to the new conditions created by its (sometimes) equally mindless and purposeful critters: humanity.
James makes an effort to hold two opposite thoughts at once in his mind: that the construct of race is meaningless, that is, the “colors” of creamy white to ivory black in homo sapiens are simply endpoints on a continuum, while acknowledging race is sometimes a critical component, even driver, of culture. No doubt James has witnessed this paradox. The native of Trinidad captures the unique phrasing of his country’s people while leavening his narrative with the Euro-American culture of science and technology.
James’ novel feels salient at this moment in time. Issues of race won’t go away soon, but they’re on people’s lips as we watch the parade of funerals in Minnesota, Louisiana, Texas, and so on. The drumbeat suggests no solutions in the near future; it’s likely things will get worse before they get better. In James’ world, an off-world force behaving like a virus, taking advantage of humanity’s carelessness, brings about change. In the real world, it’ll take humans learning to listen to one another and recognize that we share more in common than we experience in difference.