Black authors have always been part of the long history of science-fiction and fantasy novels. But they don’t often get the credit that they deserve. However things are slowly changing in genre fiction. A new wave of exciting writers of color are making their voices heard. In celebration of Black History Month, we have compiled a list of notable authors within genre fiction.
This list is a mix of early black authors in the genre, and the newer voices emerging in contemporary sci-fi & fantasy. It is not strictly a ranking, but a good place to start if you are looking to expand your genre fiction beyond the standard western european white male version of sci-fi & fantasy. Much like our list that we made for Indigenous People’s Day, this list is meant to be an entry point to authors of color who deserve to be read all year round.
10) Samuel R. Delany
Photo by Kyle Cassidy via the Author’s Website
A pioneer of speculative fiction, Delany published most of his genre work in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He was a published science fiction author by the age of 20. His work often deals with issues of class and race, with recurring themes of mythology and memory woven throughout. Sexuality is another big part of Delany’s work, and he has written openly about being a gay black author in genre fiction. Delany’s work is often experimental, and this can be highly polarizing among genre fans. However there is no doubt that Delany’s novels set the stage for other black genre authors in years to come.
In a 2011 interview with The Paris Review, Delany described his views on the genre. “Science fiction isn’t just thinking about the world out there. It’s also thinking about how that world might be—a particularly important exercise for those who are oppressed, because if they’re going to change the world we live in, they—and all of us—have to be able to think about a world that works differently.”
Where to start? With the book that has been hailed as Delany’s masterpiece, and described by William Gibson as “a riddle that was never meant to be solved.” Start with Dhalgren.
9) Nalo Hopkinson
Photo by Tania Anderson via the Author’s Website
A speculative fiction author who draws from her Carribean roots for inspiration, Nalo Hopkinson has been writing since the 90’s. Her work deals with themes of race, class, and sexuality. Her first novel, Brown Girl In The Ring won the Locus award for new writers in 2001. Since then she has been writing urban fantasy and science fiction, drawing from African storytelling traditions, like the gods of the Yoruba religion that influenced her 2013 novel Sister Mine. As a black author in genre fiction, Hopkinson also delves into issues of homosexuality and gender in her work. Hopkinson is also the editor of several sci-fi anthologies and has been writing graphic novels in the Sandman universe since 2018.
Hopkinson once said about genre fiction that “when people ask me to define science fiction and fantasy I say they are the literatures that explore the fact that we are toolmakers and users, and are always changing our environment.”
Where to start? With the book that won the Locus award, start with Brown Girl In The Ring. Or if you’re a comic book lover, try House of Whispers – Hopkinson’s first graphic novel in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman universe.
8) Tade Thompson
Photo by Carla Roadnight via Macmillan Publishers
Tade Thompson has had an interesting career trajectory from psychiatrist to celebrated author. His work covers the spectrum from mystery to horror, but his science fiction novel Rosewood won the Arthur C. Clarke award for best novel in 2019. Rosewood is a story of alien invasion in Africa and has been described as a “cyberpunk-biopunk-Afropunk thriller, zombie-shocker, an off-kilter love story and an atmospheric portrait of a futuristic Nigeria.” Thompson has been writing short stories and novellas since 2005, and his work has a tendency to mix genres and defy categorization.
In a conversation with fellow author Sofia Samatar (profiled below), Thompson describes his feelings on the genre. “It is not the case that SFF is exclusively about the future. It is about the present, and it is about reclaiming narratives of the past, something urgently needed in African and Diaspora literature.”
Where to start? With the award-winning Rosewater, that begins the Wormwood trilogy.
7) Karen Lord
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Karen Lord is a woman of many skills, she has been a physics teacher with a PhD in sociology of religion, and has worked for the Foreign Service. She brings all of these skills to bear in her evocative fiction, often inspired by folktales. Lord is another author who draws from Caribbean storytelling traditions in her work. Lord’s writing is rife with humor and vivid details. Her debut novel won five different awards between 2008-2012 and though she has not yet come up with a sequel, she has written several other noteworthy novels including her most recent book Unraveling.
“For some in my audience, a tale is like a riddle, to be solved at the end. To them I sail the best tales leave some riddles unanswered and some mysteries hidden. Get used to it. For others the tale is a way of living vicariously, enjoying the adventures of others without having to go one step beyond their sphere of comfort. To them I say, what’s stopping you from getting on a ship and sailing halfway around the world? Tales are meant to be an inspiration, not a substitute.” From Redemption in Indigo.
Where to start? With her first book, the acclaimed Redemption in Indigo. You can read an excerpt of the novel over at Tor.
6) Sofia Samatar
Photo by Jim C. Hines via the Author’s Website
A relatively new voice in the genre, Sofia Samatar published her debut novel A Stranger in Olondria to great acclaim in 2012. Since then she has written a book of short stories called Tender, and a companion novel to her first – The Winged Histories. An American author of Somali/Muslim and German/Mennonite descent who has lived all over the world, Samatar is a bit different from the other black genre authors on the list. Her fiction is often meta, containing stories within stories and writing about about the power of writing. She is an incredibly lyrical author whose prose unfolds smoothly and elegantly upon the page.
In an interview with Bloom, Samatar describes her writing process. “I do tend to gravitate toward experiments with narrative, simply because I get exasperated with conventional, linear storytelling—although I also find that compelling and keep going back to it. My relationship to form is a dance, you could say, or a succession of moods. I don’t see it as defiant, necessarily, but rather unstable or flickering—unpredictable.”
Where to start? With her debut novel that won the World Fantasy award, start with A Stranger in Olondria. You can read an excerpt of Samatar’s debut novel at Tor.
5) Marlon James
Photo by Mark Seliger via Penguin/Random House
Marlon James is one to watch. He has been writing fiction since the early 2000’s, and won the Man Booker Prize for his 2015 novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. Last year he made a committed leap into genre fiction with the novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf. This novel is the beginning of his Darkstar trilogy, and draws upon African history and folklore along with traditional oral storytelling to create a series of unreliable narrators all telling their own version of the same story.
Reviewers often compare Black Leopard, Red Wolf to Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings due to its epic scope. But James has made it clear that he wants to establish a new kind of fantasy canon. One that pays tribute to the rich mythology of African history, and all of the unique stories that can come from it that are not typically found in epic fantasy.
James also gives credit to comic books for his inspiration. In an interview with The Guardian he says: “A lot of what I write about in terms of the fantastic I picked up from comics, particularly Marvel comics. And even that idea of a group of people banded together, which people think I got from Fellowship of the Ring, it’s more like X-Men or one of those anti-teams like Doom Patrol or Suicide Squad. Because comics were easier to get hold of than books.”
Where to start? With the first book of the ongoing Darkstar trilogy. Start with Black Leopard, Red Wolf.
4) Tomi Adeyemi
Photo by Larry D. Moore via Wikimedia Commons.
Tomi Adeyemi burst onto the scene in 2018 with her bestselling novel Children of Blood and Bone. A new author in the genre, she has two books in her Orïsha Legacy trilogy published with a third on the way. Lucasfilm has already picked up the option to adapt the trilogy into film.
Adeyemi is a young Nigerian-American author with a lot of promise. She has already hit the bestseller list before the age of 30 with her debut novel. A student of West African mythology, Adeyemi weaves that education into her work in compelling and innovative ways. Her work often confronts the abuses of power from institutions. In an interview with Time magazine, Adeyemi discusses this idea. “There are entire systems built on oppression and class. There are things you will probably never get enough wealth and power to topple. But what I believe you can do is move the needle. If you look in the book, you can get magic back—but the problem wasn’t really magic. It was the institution.”
Where to start? With her New York Times bestseller and the first book in her trilogy. Start with Children of Blood and Bone.
3) Nnedi Okorafor
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Nnedi Okorafor has won a slew of awards for her work since she started publishing novels in 2005. She classifies her work as ‘Africanfuturism’ and ‘Africanjujuism’ rooted in African history and mythology, with an optimistic eye on the future. Okorafor also writes across a wide variety of the genre, and has penned several graphic novels including titles for Black Panther. Her novel Binti is currently being adapted by Hulu into the streaming network’s first epic sci-fi television series. Another of her novels Who Fears Death is also in the works for adaptation at HBO. She is also currently working on an adaptation of Octavia Butler’s novel Wild Seed for Amazon. A woman of many talents, Okorafor is one of the foremost science fiction authors of our time. She consistently challenges genre norms to create worlds that are highly original and unexpected.
In an interview with NPR, Okorafor speaks to the importance of young women of color seeing themselves reflected in the books they read. “A lot of my stories are often based on several things, but their foundation is in the stories of the women and girls around me and also within myself.”
Where to start? With the novella that won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, the first in a trilogy. Start with Binti.
2) N.K. Jemisin
Photo by Laura Hanifin via the Author’s Website
N.K. Jemisin is an author that breaks boundaries, both in her fiction and in the genre at large. She was the first African-American to win a Hugo award for best novel in 2016 with The Fifth Season. And then she repeated that feat for the next two years for each subsequent entry in The Broken Earth trilogy, making her the only author to ever win for best novel three years in a row. Not only does she write genre fiction, but she is currently working on a run of Green Lantern comics for DC. Jemisin is also the author of a book of short stories called How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? The title reinforces the idea that alongside black history, we should be looking towards black future as well.
Jemisin first started writing through an involvement with online fandoms and fanfiction. She maintains those roots through her Twitter where she writes thought-provoking commentary on pop culture. Her work reflects her real-world ideals in a variety of ways. She writes complicated female characters who find themselves surrounded by abuses of power and corrupt institutions. Her novels reflect real-world issues in other ways as well, with The Broken Earth trilogy concerned with environmental destruction and the irresponsibility of mankind. Her work is beautiful and sublime, and so very relevant.
Where to start? I have previously recommended The Broken Earth trilogy and while this is an excellent place to start, I would like to take this opportunity to endorse my personal favorite. If you’re a fan of epic fantasy, start with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the first book of The Inheritance trilogy.
1) Octavia Butler
Image via Octaviabutler.org
For many years, whenever people spoke of prominent black authors within genre fiction there was one name that came to mind. Perhaps the only household name on this list is legendary speculative fiction writer Octavia Butler. She was a pioneer in the medium, and paved the way for all of today’s exciting young black authors in the genre.
Octavia Butler published her first novel in what would become her Patternmaster series in 1977. A contemporary of Samuel R. Delany, for many years they were the only black authors invited to speak on genre panels or at conventions. Butler was a bold and innovative writer, she imagined strange and wondrous worlds alongside dystopian fiction long before it became popular. Her work often deals with themes of xenophobia, race, gender, and sexuality. Butler challenged the norms of both the genre and society at large. She is a literary legend that is enjoying a bit of a comeback due to the new wave of young black genre authors such as N.K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor who cite her as a direct influence. With an adaptation of her novel Wild Seed coming to screens in the near future, hopefully a new generation of sci-fi & fantasy fans will discover her work.
Or at peace,
More people die
Of unenlightened self-interest
Than of any other disease.”
—Parable of the Talents
Where to start? There are many entry points to Butler’s work, but I would recommend starting with a novel that works as a standalone (and only has one sequel). Start with the timely and relevant Parable of the Sower.
(Featured image via NeedPix)
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.