Writer. Lecturer, Creator, Inspiration… These are just some of the words that I can use to describe Mr. Steven Barnes, truly a living legend in the world of Science Fiction. With writing credits on shows like The Outer Limits, Stargate and Andromeda Barnes has touched millions with his creative genius. We were incredibly fortunate to get a few minutes with the award-winning novelist for an in-depth discussion on sci-fi, Hollywood, race relations and the future of Black creatives in the Sci-Fi genre.

Read below for the transcript of our in-depth conversation with the legend himself.

 


SB: I always enjoyed action adventure/science fiction/fantasy/horror. I was just pulled to ideas like that. And I started writing stories that seemed to me to exclude people who looked like me. If you watched a movie like When Worlds Collide, none of the people who were saved from the destruction of the world were brown-skinned. That chafes a little bit. So I would write about black heroes and things of that nature, even though I wrote about white heroes too at the time.

If I had been living next to — if I had been able to meet Ian Fleming or Leslie Charteris (who did The Saint) and a number of other writers and they had agreed to work with me, I might have very well have written spy stories, or action stories, or detective stories, because I loved those too. But as it happened, the person I was able to find who would mentor me was Larry Niven, who was a science fiction writer, and so I focused my attention there. I’ve always had a mind for the sort of “what if” — the three major questions of science fiction are, “What if?” “If only…” and “If this goes on…” And I thought naturally along those paths.

Griots Republic (GR): That’s definitely interesting to hear how mentorship played a role in the direction that you ended up going in.

SB: Yes. I deliberately sought him out. I went hunting for somebody to help me. Everything that I’ve accomplished in my life has been a matter of finding someone who was already doing it, and asking them how they did it. If I could meet them in person, all the better; if not, reading books about people who accomplished different things [sic]. I’m not into reinventing the wheel. It’s much easier to find somebody who has already established a path and walk along that route.

We spoke about the lack of characters represented in the genre. Do you feel that there are — maybe I should actually ask why, in your opinion, do you think there are not as many writers of color within the science fiction space? What do you attribute that to?

SB: Well, there’s two different things. One of them is racism and tribalism. Tribalism is preferring your own people; racism is actually thinking your people are superior. And human beings are inflicted with this, so it’s not surprising that white people, who control the country, control the image system — movies, television, everything else — would do everything that they could to confine the most positive image systems to themselves. Everybody does that. As far as I know, every group of human beings in the world has a belief system that says God made them first and loves them best. So that’s not surprising.

But the other side of that is that because poverty and deprivation were epidemics in and among black people. You have a progression from being slaves to being sharecroppers, to being business people, to being teachers, to being doctors and lawyers, a generation at a time. As the doctors and lawyers and teachers, you could afford for some of your children to be artists.

But even then, science fiction is a fraction of that. So if you’re going to be a writer, you’re probably going to be most successful if you write mimetic fiction – the world that people see around them. In order to write science fiction, you not only have to be able to write, but you have to understand technology. You have to understand science. It’s a very specific discipline. A fraction of the group that’s interested in writing overlaps with the group that’s interested in technology. Those are the people who could possibly become science fiction writers. So you’ve got those two things that are functioning together, the fact that we literally had to develop enough of a foundation to be able to put our dreams in that particular form.

An awful lot of science fiction is actually fantasy with scientific image systems. It’s not really grounded in technology. It’s not really grounded in an understanding of the sciences. It’s an attempt to dream, but it doesn’t really understand the rules of the game. I think that we’re getting a lot more writers now that can do that. Samuel Delany, real science fiction writer. Octavia Butler, real science fiction writer. But there are a lot of people who do it are basically just playing with the image systems.

So it’s growing up. Afrofuturism, black science fiction, is a lot more mature now than it was just a few years ago, and that’s a really heartening thing to see.

Definitely. And I love that explanation in terms of the actual science details of science fiction versus the look and the style and the feel and the imagery that so many of us are familiar with.

SB: Star Wars is not science fiction. It is fantasy with science fiction image systems. Star Trek is science fiction. They actually try to explain the universe. Even though the movies got fluffier and fluffier as they went on, and so did the series, it’s always grounded in physics. It’s grounded in what we understand of physics, which leads to astronomy, which leads to geology, which leads to biology, which leads to cultural anthropology, which leads to the science of civilization and so forth. There’s a continuum, and science fiction is grounded in physics in a way that it asks very specific questions about what the universe is from a very specific philosophical point of view.

Going into a more specific work of yours, The Cestus Deception — I’m curious how that initially came about, and what was the research that went into that to make sure that the storyline flowed, that the continuity was preserved? Are you even entertaining the idea of any more Star Wars-themed works?

SB: No. Basically, Betsy Mitchell, who was the editor on that, wanted me to write some books that were Afro-historical, that were like The Clan of the Cave Bear set in Africa. Now, I told her that I could not write those books unless I had enough time to research them properly and that I actually needed to go Africa. I needed to go and have feet on the ground. So she got me a two-book contract for two of those books, and she got me a contract for a Star Wars novel. So the Star Wars novel was to fund the other books.

Now it happens, I love Star Wars. I’ve loved every single one of them. I’ve seen every one of them on the first day except the first movie. The good, the bad, and the ugly of them, I love them. But when I wrote the book, I was flown up to Skywalker Ranch in Marin and spent several days there talking to them and pitching ideas. And I came up with an idea that they liked, and I developed it, and they gave me the okay.

So I wrote the book. I did not read a lot of other Star Wars novels; in fact, I didn’t read any other Star Wars novels. I did read a collection of Star Wars short stories, Tales from the Cantina Bar or something like that. And I watched Star Wars movies incessantly. But I created a contained universe where I could deal with some of the thematic elements that I cared about, and where I could do some of the things that I enjoyed, but at the same time be hopefully true to the characters.

So that’s where that came from. I started with the question: well, the stormtroopers are clones, but they’re human beings too. What would happen if one of them became awakened to his humanity, began to feel? What are they like, in essence? So by creating a little corner of that universe where I was able to dig in and ask some interesting questions, I think that I was able to do something that was fun.

I’ll be honest, even with my own research and knowledge, this is incredibly educational.

Speaking about the corner of space that you were able to create for yourself and having that particular niche that you carved out within this already established universe, you have works like The Outer Limits, Stargate: SGI, Andromeda — I’m just curious from your own personal perspective and looking over what it is you have done and what it is you represent to the genre, how does it feel to have work that is so well known, so greatly acclaimed, so important to the well-known sci-fi universe, what does that mean to you?

SB: Well, I look at it a couple different ways. The real blessing is simply that I’ve been able to spend my life doing the thing I wanted to do when I was a kid. To be honest with you, I have achieved every dream I ever had when I was a kid. I wanted to have a family that I could love. I wanted to be a martial arts master. I have an eighth-degree black belt. And I wanted to have a writing career, a million words. Now there’s all kinds of things that I’ve never done and that I’m not good at. But I was able to get the things that were most important to me. So that’s the biggest thing.

Separate from that, I am proud of the work that I’ve been able to do. It’s not like everything that I’ve done has been classic. I don’t even think that everything that I’ve done has been done has been particularly good. But I’ve always tried. I always gave it my best shot. I always cared. So there is that. I feel that there are — just to ask me, out of all the stuff that I’ve done, what do I think in terms of my best stuff, I think that I could find ten things that I’ve done that I could say that I was totally proud of, that I feel like it really, really did it right. My dear friend and mentor Harlon Ellison would say that the writing the pulls the plow, that does the job.

That’s separate from being a pioneer, which is very hard. For almost 20 years, I was the only Black male science fiction writer in the world. Delany had retired, he wasn’t there. He hadn’t been able to make a living in the field. Octavia Butler was as poor as a church mouse until she won the MacArthur genius. She was a better writer than I ever was. And it was scary. It was scary. But I stuck with it. I stuck with it partially because I refused to let the system beat me. I had this sense that if I could hang in there, the culture would change; America would go browner, and we would get enough generations beyond slavery and beyond Reconstruction, beyond segregation, that the guilt and the fear would no longer drive people’s need to try to keep us at a distance and demonize and treat us like we’re not human. And that is exactly what has happened.

I thought that if I could keep my enthusiasm for 30 years, that the culture would change enough, that it will be ready. Could I do that? Can I possibly protect my heart enough to keep myself going that long so that I could tell these stories?

You have a generation of black people right now who aren’t playing that, who are standing up, who are saying, “Why exactly do you think my children don’t deserve all the rights your children deserve? And if you would like, we could step outside and discuss it.” This is new. This is different.

 

But also — my dad was a backup singer for Nat King Cole. I was in the studio when they did the background vocals for “Ramblin’ Rose,”  a little kid sitting on the couch watching my dad. And I still hallucinate, and I can hear his baritone on that song every time I hear it on the radio. He could perform in venues, in hotels in Las Vegas where he could not stay. And I realized that to a certain degree, the freedoms that I’ve been able to enjoy in my life are because I’m standing on the shoulders of giants; people who came before me, who have struggled and hoped and dreamed.

And I realized that for all of the stuff that I had gone through in my life, finding out that my work was blackballed by the biggest science fiction magazine in the country on racial grounds — after the publisher died, his editors said, “Steve, you’ve got to know this.” Despite that, I have managed to live my life my way; I have managed to write these things. I have managed to get them published. I have managed to be successful, get on the New York Times bestseller list, win some awards and stuff like that. And more important than that, the younger writers coming up now look at me as a pioneer.

I realize that my ancestors would not be ashamed of me. I did the best that I could. I realize that my generation and the generations to come after me, your generation, we are the hope and the dream of the slave. We were the one that they were praying for. And this is the time that they were looking forward to, that they died dreaming would come. So it’s really important to hold these dreams sacred and close to our hearts. And to remember what it costs to get here and to not allow ourselves to be consumed with hatred or fear and resentment. We and every other human being on this planet are just doing the best we could [sic] with the resources we had. It’s a new century and new millennium, and it’s time to have new dreams.

That’s really powerful. One of the reasons that I was pegged for this interview was that I worked with a couple of close family friends and we had been putting together a fictional novel for a couple of years based on an old comic book that we had. We finally just got the edited draft yesterday. And hearing the things that you’re saying right now, I’m curious, not simply now from a sci-fi perspective, but just from the position of a creative, and knowing the different barriers of entry that you had to deal with, and now seeing how the landscape has evolved in terms of independent avenues, and the internet, and direct streaming — Really the question that I want to know is — what do you think about these opportunities that the next generation of creatives have with so much at their fingertips? What do you look forward to seeing? What do you hope to see? What would you tell an upcoming —

SB: Well, I’ll give you an example of something that I thought that I’d never see that I saw for a few years now. I didn’t think I’d see Django Unchained. You realize that slavery is the third rail of American fiction or history; that before Django, I could argue that there had never been a serious dramatic theatrical film in American history that dealt with the issue of slavery from the perspective of the slaves. Beloved had no slaves in it; it had ex-slaves in it. Amistad had no slaves in it; it had captured Africans on their way to being slaves in it. Glory had no slaves in it; it had ex-slaves fighting to end it in the South.

You couldn’t talk about it. The dominant image system concerning slavery was Gone with the Wind until Django.  And then Twelve Years a Slave came, and we started getting more realistic depictions. So I look at that.

But then just a few months ago, we got something absolutely remarkable: we got Luke Cage. Luke Cage is the blackest show I have ever seen in my life. I’ve never seen a show that every frame, every sound, the music, the rhythms, the editing, everything, my God — I sat there, and I realize, this is something that I could not write. I could not have done Luke Cage. And Cheo Hadari Coker, the creator of the Luke Cage show on Netflix, is one of the guests on our Afrofuturism webinar, which is one of the reasons that — we are doing some remarkable things there with some remarkable people. I’m so excited about it.

What we have is — I want the new voices. I want voices that I was … when I was 20 years old, I wasn’t hip. There are voices; there are young voices out there who are steeped in the rhythms of the culture, who have their own perspectives, their own courage, who are seeing this world, who grew up without the same fear. There was terror in earlier generations that shut down the emotions. When I was ten years old, my mother told me, she grew up in Georgia, during the times of Klan lynchings. She told me, “Steve if you let white people know how smart you are, they will kill you.”

You have a generation of black people right now who aren’t playing that, who are standing up, who are saying, “Why exactly do you think my children don’t deserve all the rights your children deserve? And if you would like, we could step outside and discuss it.” This is new. This is different.

And I think there’s no telling what is going to come out of it. For God’s sake, people like Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler? Dear God. The things, we’re about to get Black Panther. Holy crap.

Finally.

SB: Yes, finally. But you saw what they did with Black Panther in Civil War. That is phenomenal. That was not Falcon. That was not Iron Patriot. That was not some Black American who doesn’t know his ancestral name, who is following, doing what some white guy tells him to do. That’s one of the most powerful human being images who has ever appeared on screen. And he was black. And I thank Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Bless them for creating that.

But I want to see what young brothers and sisters are going to do now. Stand on my shoulders. See further. Show us your dreams. I would tell you, what I recommend to people that you do not start with novels. Start with short stories. If you want to run a marathon, you do not start by going out and running 20 miles. You run a few laps, and you see how it feels. And then you run some more laps, and then you slowly begin to increase.

The number of writers who I’ve known who broke themselves trying to go directly to novels, whereas they could have had a wonderful career if they had been willing to build up smaller pieces. I suggest that with all my heart. After you get finished with this novel, get it out there. But if it doesn’t do what it is you want it to do, don’t do another novel. Start with smaller pieces that are small enough that you can do a lot of them. If you want to join the Life Writing group over on Facebook, we talk about this a lot. That’s where I coach young writers.

At any rate, that’s what I think. Does that answer your question?

Perfectly. That leads into how I’d like to wrap things up with this interview, which again, I want to thank you for your time, having expressed what it is you see and what you want to see within the current generation. I definitely want to know what is on your plate for the year 2017 and beyond. What do you have in store for us?

SB: I’ve got a novel coming up called Twelve Days. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s coming out in June. I have a couple of science fiction short stories; one is coming out in an anthology that the University of Arizona did with NASA on near-Earth space exploration. And I’ve got another one coming out in two Best Science Fiction of the Year anthologies called “Fifty Shades of Grays.”

I’m working on a television pilot over at Fox; a movie script; another book with Niven and Pournelle. I would love it; I would really appreciate it if you let your people know about the Afrofuturism webinar, this workshop we’ve got coming up. If you could let people know about that. We’ve got a special price on that until the end of the month, and I don’t want your readers to lose out on that if it’s possible for you to communicate with them.

We’re working on movies and television and lecturing and all sorts of different things, all at the same time. I feel like this is a real time when progress can be made. And like I said, there are ways in which I have been waiting for this moment my whole life. I just hope that there’s enough left in me to have some fun with it.

 

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