Secondary Catchup: Carrington and Kapur


Carrington, Andre. Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.  2016. Publisher’s website.
Kapur, Nick.  Japan at the Crossroads: Conflict and Compromise After ANPO.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.  2018. Publisher’s website.

Having spent a year doing primary work in Japan, now that I’m back, I can get caught up on some of the English-language secondary sources that have been on my radar for a while.  Some of that reading is in SF studies research that wasn’t included on my qualifying exams, and some is in keeping up-to-date on cultural and historical work on 1960s Japan in particular.  So today, I thought I’d do a quick double-post on two that I was particularly looking forward to reading, one from each category.  They were each really interesting in their own right, and I think both will really help me as I think through my dissertation’s argument. 

Andre Carrington’s Speculative Blackness takes up an issue that I’ve been having some trouble with, myself: how to talk about SF and blackness when there are so few black people represented in SF.  Can we still meaningfully talk about blackness in the context of SF when the genre has been so dominated in the US by white authors and characters?  And can we talk about blackness in a positive, reparative sense, rather than in the negative sense of talking about erasure and exclusion?  Carrington’s answer is a useful one.  Constructed through the rhetorical frame of “the whiteness of SF and the speculative fiction of blackness,” he asserts that blackness has influenced SF from the beginning, albeit often felt as a present absence.  He approaches his study in much the same way I’d like to approach mine, examining SF from the angle of both texts and fans, history and theory.  He takes up SF in a variety of media, from magazines to film to TV to fanfiction, and looks at practices of production, reception, and re-production.  With each case study, he examines how blackness is felt, portrayed, and/or suppressed in SF culture.  Whether white fans masquerading as black authors to accrue marginal status to themselves, black fanfiction writers expanding the inner lives of black supporting characters in their favorite properties, or the messy conflation of Blackness with science fictionality in the character history of Storm, Carrington demonstrates that Blackness has always been a multifaceted part of SF, even in places where no black characters or fans are present.

An interesting theoretical move to come out of Carrington’s argument is in teasing apart “genre,” “identity,” and “race.”  In short, he deconstructs the rhetorical slippage in which SF’s generic marginality is conflated with marginal identities, a slippage that underwrites racial erasure within the texts and communities of SF (“We’re all marginalized by virtue of producing SF, so clearly there can’t be any discrimination within SF!”).  He argues that SF texts are at their most effective when Blackness is not seen in the same way as, say, mutant powers, but rather as a pre-existing (because real) social category that must interact with the science fictional premise of the text in the same way that any other pre-existing social structure would.  Storm is most interesting, in other words, when her Blackness affects her Mutant-ness, and vice versa.

If this reading makes it sound as though Carrington has a personal stake in his argument, it’s because I think he does, and I think the book is the richer for it.  Throughout, he writes with a candid frankness that keeps his voice, his perspective, out in the open.  Nowhere is this more apparent than his final chapter on fanfiction writers whose works appear in the online archive Remember Us, which Carrington himself helps to maintain.  His commitment to the archive is clear, and he makes a passionate case for the scholarly and ethical value of the fans who are working within the underdetermination that so frequently attends characters of color in white-centric SF/F properties like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter.


Nick Kapur’s book, Japan at the Crossroads, meanwhile, takes up the ways in which the ANPO demonstrations in Japan in 1960 shaped Japanese society across the decade and beyond.  Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but I’ve never been particularly good at reading history monographs, I think.  I always have a lot of trouble grasping what’s being argued, and I think it’s because so much of history and historiography relies on demonstrating things through their presence in the archive.  History books, in other words, always seem to my brain as though they’re simply pointing out stuff in the archive that everybody already knows, and then cut off before where I think the argument is supposed to begin.  The truth, of course, is that something within that archival evidence is the argument, and I’m simply not well-versed enough in the archive and the foregoing historiography to understand what.

Happily, that wasn’t my experience of reading Kapur’s book! He makes his claim very clear: the ANPO demonstrations didn’t arise spontaneously, and their influence didn’t end when the treaty passed and the last of the protesters went home.  Over the course of six chapters, he makes a very compelling case for that argument as he looks at the fallout of ANPO across foreign policy, domestic electoral politics, the academy, and the arts.  By the end, he asserts that rather than the so-called “1955 System” by which the political present of Japan is commonly understood (and which is represented by a consolidation of Liberal Democratic Party rule and a very conservative Diet overall), it instead makes more sense to talk about the contemporary period under the moniker of the “ANPO System.”

Predictably, the chapters I was most interested in were those covering ANPO and the arts, but Kapur’s strong narrative voice throughout the book meant that even the driest of the chapters that discussed the internecine conflicts within a dizzying array of inter- and extra-parliamentary political groups were fascinating.  The counterargument against the book’s thesis that springs most obviously to mind would be to dispute how overdetermining an influence ANPO really was, and whether one could point to other strong motive forces behind social changes that would take place post-1960.  But Kapur isn’t really arguing that ANPO was the only thing that shaped Japanese society after the protests, just that it’s hard to find a level of society where it didn’t have some effect.  And for my money, he does that here, and in a way that is eminently “readable” (an imprecise word for a critical part of academic writing, in my view) and, dare I say, entertaining!

To bring these things around to my own work, we could say that they’re each books tackling the negative space around 1960s Japanese SF.  Just like blackness was always present in absence in American SF for Carrington, I would argue that Japaneseness is similarly (though not identically) present for Japanese SF writers and fans in the ’60s.  Along the same lines, despite the actively non-political stance of most SF in 1960 and after, I think the community would not have been able to ignore what was happening with regard to ANPO.  Indeed, Kapur’s analysis makes clear that non-alignment was a loaded political stance leading up to and during the protests, one that was greatly feared by American diplomats in Japan trying to avoid “losing” the country to the Soviets.  In short, both Carrington’s and Kapur’s books help me think through what is left unspoken around the edges of sci-fi, and I’m sure I’ll be coming back to each.


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