Native Authors Invade Sci-Fi: Indigenous Writers are Reshaping Speculative Fiction

Hoskie is the creation of Rebecca Roanhorse (Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo), a rising superstar in the world of fantasy and science fiction or, as some prefer, speculative writing. During the past three years Roanhorse has won every major award in the genre. But she writes from a thoroughly Indigenous view. Her characters live in the Sixth World during the near future, successor to the Fifth World of Diné cosmology, our present. In this postapocalyptic world, rising sea levels combined with a second New Madrid earthquake have submerged most of the central United States in the Big Water. The Dinétah, the Navajo homeland, has survived, protected by a vast Wall constructed with the help of the Holy Ones. The cataclysm has summoned back the Diné pantheon, who now live side-by-side with humans and provide Roanhorse with some of her most vivid characters.

This blend of traditional and postapocalyptic viewpoints works brilliantly in the first two books of the Sixth World series, “Trail of Lightning” and “Storm of Locusts,” (published by Saga Press in 2018 and 2019). However, Roanhorse is by no means the first Native writer to breach the largely Eurocentric world of sci-fi. The venerable Anishinaabe writer and critic Gerald Vizenor set his 1978 picaresque classic “Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles” in a near future of economic collapse. (The date of his pilgrimage, 2034, is the same as the onset of the Big Water, which Roanhorse insists is an eerie coincidence.) Sherman Alexie (Spokane), Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguno Pueblo), Stephen Graham Jones (Piegan Blackfeet) and Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel (Mohegan) have all written in the “speculative” genre.

The University of Arizona Press published the first anthology of Indigenous science fiction (I-sci-fi), “Walking the Clouds,” in 2012. In it, the Anishinaabe scholar Grace L. Dillon identifies five subgenres of what she calls “Indigenous futurisms.” Looking at her themes, the intersection of sci-fi and Native writers makes a lot of sense. “Contact” is a big issue, as seen in the first meeting of humans and aliens as well as the first meeting of Natives, the “Real People” in the tribal perspective, and European aliens. “Native apocalypse” is also frequently depicted, but writers like Roanhorse say that, for the Indigenous inhabitants, the world-changing cataclysm has already happened. “What if I told you there had been a zombie apocalypse?” she asks the dominant culture. “What if I told you that you were the zombies?” In this setting it’s tempting to imagine alternate futures and universes, or what Dillon calls the “Native slipstream.”

These themes rise from a subconscious layer of much of the mainstream sci-fi—the encounter of Europe with unknown others. It’s been said, most recently by John Rieder in “Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction,” that the genre of science fiction, which often features the conquest of alien species and the settling of new worlds, is an emanation of 19th-century colonialism. But sometimes putative guilt inspires writers to envision the reverse scenario, in which aliens with superior technology invade hapless Europeans, as in H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.” In a story in the December 1962 issue of “Galaxy”, the unsung genius Kris Neville even wrote of a colonial terraforming enterprise being called to account for genocide against a Native population.

But Dillon, and Roanhorse herself, reject an obsession with colonialism. Dillon’s final theme is “Biskaabiiyang,” the Anishinaabe word she translates as “returning to ourselves.” Roanhorse says she refuses to be defined by the colonial experience and rather seeks to recover the Native place in the universe. In her essay “Postcards from the Apocalypse,” she states, “We are rising from the apocalypse, folding the past into our present and writing a future that is decidedly Indigenous.”

The Sixth World

The road Roanhorse took to her Native sci-fi future had a few detours. She was raised in Fort Worth, Texas, but looked to the Northeast for college. “I wanted to get as far away from Texas as I could,” she said. On a scouting trip to Brown with her father in 1988, they stopped in New Haven, Connecticut, and realized that Yale University was only a few miles away. Although they hadn’t considered it at first because of “its conservative, blue-blood reputation,” Roanhorse was awed by its neo-Gothic buildings and entered the next year, graduating in the Class of 1993. She majored in religious studies and earned an advanced degree at Union Theological Seminary. She worked as a computer programmer for 10 years and then decided to enter law school to work on tribal issues. She earned a law degree at the University of New Mexico School of Law. But boredom set in. Since she was in grade school, she had amused herself by writing sci-fi. About five years ago, friends encouraged her to find a publisher. To her surprise, a contract followed quickly.

Since then, her writing career has entered warp speed. Her 2017 short story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” swept the major sci-fi writing awards. She is a regular in anthologies, both print and online. She has spanned the sci-fi market with an entry in the Star Wars novel franchise. (Her contribution, “Star Wars: The Resistance Reborn,” out in November, is appearing as a prequel to the next blockbuster movie installment that is scheduled to be released December 20. Roanhorse has observed that, in spite of Princess Leia’s Hopi-style hairdo and other deliberate Indian references, the Star Wars movies have “no American Indian characters.” She says she “has snuck a few” into her novel.) She has announced a three-book deal with her publisher, Saga Press, for an unnamed novel, the third installment of “Sixth World” and the start of a new series, “Between Earth and Sky.” The last is an Indigenous-inspired (with Anasazi or Ancestral Puebloan influence) “epic fantasy that breaks out of the European mold.” These books are scheduled to be published in late 2020.

For now, however, her reputation rests securely on the Sixth World, a richly imagined setting that resurrects the Diné pantheon in a gritty, near future centered on the survival of the Dinétah. The term “postapocalyptic” seems inadequate for this new age. Another approach could be to borrow Donna Haraway’s coinage Chthulucene, from the Greek term for Earth-born with a touch of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror-story “The Call of Cthulhu." The term describes the geologic era after the human-influenced Anthropocene, in which Earth and its monsters take their revenge.

The physical reappearance of the old gods, and other beings, gives Roanhorse dramatic possibilities harking back to Greek mythology. Maggie Hoskie, her main character, deals constantly with gods and immortals. Maggie plays a traditional Diné wagering game with Nohoilpi, the Gambler, who maintains a pristine casino in the anarchy beyond the Wall. She alternately clashes or cooperates with Ma’ii, Coyote the Trickster, who dresses like an 1880s Indian Agent out of the television series “Deadwood.” Overarching all is her past as protégé and lover of Neizhgáni, the immortal Monster-Slayer, who trained her in his occupation. These interpersonal (interentity?) relationships are difficult and ambiguous. Part of the problem is the difference in perspective between a human with a limited lifespan and a being with a very long existence. But another part is that gods, in this literary tradition, are also flawed beings, with irrational passions and personalities limited by the traits and functions they personify.

This tradition is even stronger in the work of N.K. Jemisin, a school counselor from Brooklyn, New York, who is having a supernova of a sci-fi career. Although she selfidentifies as African-American rather than Indigenous, she has helped blast an opening in the sci-fi universe for women of color, including Roanhorse. Rather than drawing on an established pantheon, Jemisin invents her own gods, her own cosmogony and even her own theology. Like the Greek and Roman deities, however, her divine characters show a full range of personality defects and faulty judgements, with infinitely more dangerous consequences because of their power. She devotes great attention to the sexual attractions between gods and humans, reviving a Greco-Roman tradition of deoeroticism.

Roanhorse says she began reading Jemisin only after her own Sixth World series was underway. “I am not influenced by Jemisin,” she says. But the two have independently been expanding the fantasy and sci-fi sub-genres that reflect a deep interest in religious traditions. This focus is evident in Roanhorse’s education and in an eclectic list of influences Jemisin describes in a “self-interview,” an appendix to her 2012 novel, “The Killing Moon,” in which she answers her own questions. Starting with Freudian dream theory, Egyptian medicine and a smattering of Hinduism, Jemisin adds, “Zoroastrianism, and Greco-Roman and Norse mythology, and American Indian trickster tales, and the loa of voudoun and the Christian Holy Trinity.” At the end, she calls herself Agnostic, “in the sense of doubting the capability of any human religion to encompass the divine.” Roanhorse and Jemisin are continuing a style of spiritual fantasy dominated in an earlier generation by C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, a genre that perhaps could be described as theology–sci-fi.

The Puppies Push Back

Roanhorse and Jemisin both approach theo–scifi with an irreverent and sometimes humorous twist that has not been universally appreciated. Roanhorse says she is grateful to Jemisin for taking the brunt of a backlash in sci-fi against the rising prominence of women of color. In 2015, a clique of lesser-known sci-fi writers organized to repel what they apparently saw as a threat to the male, Euro-centric domination of the genre. Jemisin describes their Medievally fixated style of writing as “Simplistic British Isles Fantasy Full of Lots of Guys with Swords and Not Much Else.” A group calling itself the Sad Puppies and an offshoot called the Rabid Puppies managed to game that year’s nominations for the Hugo Awards, using targeted voting to exclude “feminist” and “ideological” entries. As Connie Willis, author of the wonderful Oxford Time Travel series and a two-time Hugo emcee, explained, a small group of people “took advantage of the fact that only a small percentage of Hugo voters nominate works to hijack the ballot. They got members of their group to buy supporting memberships and all vote for a slate of people they decided should be on it.” A leader of the Rabid Puppies, who later made a career as an “alt.right” Internet provocateur, singled out Jemisin for racist abuse, calling her “half-savage.”

But the Puppies’ success was short-lived. Prominent sci-fi writers condemned the rigged nominations. Willis refused an invitation to be a presenter, and George R.R. Martin offered to set up his own more inclusive awards. In three of the Hugo categories, voters chose the alternative “No Award.” In the following years, the barriers collapsed. Jemisin won the Hugo Award for the category Best Novel for her book “The Fifth Season” in 2016 and then again in the next two years for “The Obelisk Gate” and “The Stone Sky.” This Broken Earth trilogy made her the first writer to win this prestigious science fiction honor three years in a row. In 2018, Roanhorse received the Hugo and Nebula awards for her short story, as well as the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her novel “Trail of Lightning” was also short-listed. Roanhorse says she thinks the controversy turned out to be good for the sci-fi genre: “It forced a lot of prejudice out into the daylight.”

The spectacular failure of the Puppies’ resistance and the brilliant breakthroughs by Jemisin and Roanhorse are heralding a bright future for others previously excluded. Roanhorse is promising four installments each for her Sixth World and Anasazi series. “Four is a sacred number for Indians,” she says. And Jemisin might lead the way to another level. The TNT network has been exploring a television series based on the Broken Earth novels.