By K. Tempest Bradford

Dirty ComputerThe science fiction genre digs its allegories. Scratch the surface of any piece of literature, movie, or TV show that features alien races, advanced or mutant humans, robots, androids, or other forms of technology-based intelligence, and you will find a parallel or three to real-world marginalisation, oppression, and bigotry. SF writers love to create characters and entities that stand in for ‘the Other’ and craft scenarios that allow them to explore hatred and hierarchical attitudes a step or two removed from reality. As a speculative literary device, allegory has the power to open minds and change culture if done well. However, narratives that use robots and androids to represent the Other often don’t interrogate the assumptions about humanity at their core because they fail to answer one question: Why are so many androids white?

In books, movies, and television—from 1927’s Metropolis on down to 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War—most androids depicted visually have facial features that code as Caucasian (Bicentennial Man, 1999; I, Robot, 2004) or straight-up look like humans of European descent (Blade Runner, 1982; the Alien franchise, 1979–2017). There are a handful of exceptions to this which serve to highlight the problem and do little to alleviate it. Too often, when science fiction creators imagine artificial beings made in the image of humans, Human means white. So what happens when androids get to be Black? Allegory gets much less allegorical.

The work of two artists comes to mind when talking about the intersection of speculative fiction and Black-centric imaginings: Janelle Monáe (Metropolis Suite, Dirty Computer) and Chesya Burke (“Say, She Toy”). Both have explored the Afrofuturist reality of androids with Black bodies. Their sensibilities differ, and one offers a more optimistic view of the future than the other. They emerge from the same Afrocentric wellspring, and both of their visions are necessary to understanding the present and using it to build a better future.

“Electric Ladies: Will You Sleep? Or Will You Preach?”

Over the course of three albums, Janelle Monáe has slowly spooled out an epic Afrofuturist science fiction story called Metropolis. The songs and videos from Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III), and The Electric Lady (Suites IV and V) tell the story of Cindi Mayweather, a Platinum 9000 model android from the far future. At the beginning of the narrative, Cindi is being hunted for breaking a law imposed on androids that criminalises falling in love with a human. Over the course of the story, Cindi goes from simply wanting her own freedom to fighting for the liberation of all androids and embracing her role as a messianic figure. Monáe has stated her allegorical intentions for this project on multiple occasions.

From an interview with the Evening Standard:

“I speak about androids because I think the android represents the new ‘Other.’ You can compare it to being a lesbian or being a gay man or being a black woman… What I want is for people who feel oppressed or feel like the ‘Other’ to connect with the music and to feel like, ‘She represents who I am.’”

Speaking to Elle Magazine, she said:

“When you think about the android you think about the other, and sometimes the other is discriminated against. In this particular instance you have an android, Cindi Mayweather, who has fallen in love with a human, and the love that they have between each other is considered to be queer. There are so many parallels that can be drawn from that…”

With her most recent album/emotion picture Dirty Computer, Monáe takes a half-step out from behind Cindi to tell another Afrofuturist story, this one seemingly about humans. The connections between the world of Metropolis and Dirty Computer haven’t been fully explained—the central character, Jane 57821, bears the same registration number as Cindi—but it’s clear that this new narrative is steeped in the same themes. The fact that people are called Computers (a callback to Monáe’s role in Hidden Figures?) and that said Computers can be labelled Dirty (“You were dirty if you looked different… if you refused to live the way they dictated… if you showed any form of opposition at all.”) and their memories can be viewed by others and then erased, points to the people in this case being android-like, if not fully artificial creations.

As much as Cindi’s stories are that of struggle and overcoming oppression, they are also overt and joyful celebrations of Blackness. All four albums showcase an impressive array of musical genres and modes, with Monáe effortlessly moving between hip-hop anthems, club-friendly dance tracks, 90s-era slow jams, disco, grunge, and R&B. Her influences are apparent from the jump, and it’s clear how deeply rooted her artistry is in 20th- and 21st-century African-American popular music. In interludes between tracks on The Electric Lady, Monáe gives us deeper glimpses into Cindi’s world; we hear from android radio DJs that sound exactly like the DJs you’ll hear on any Black radio station across the US. The androids in these clips speak African-American Vernacular English, broadcast from the local chrome polish/barber shop, and debate whether violence has a place in their liberation movement, directly referencing current Black culture and discourse. In the music videos set in Metropolis, all the androids we see are played by Black actors. Even the videos that don’t seem to be part of Cindi’s story on the surface (such as Electric Lady) are steeped in recognisable markers of American Black experience.

The story Janelle Monáe is telling is ultimately a hopeful one. No matter how hard the oppressive forces of The Powers That Be try to crush Cindi and her growing movement, she always perseveres. The Powers That Be try to erase everything that makes Jane 57821 a unique individual, and they fail. The message to humans and computers and androids—to the dominant culture and those that culture considers the Other—is about the power of love. And the power of really danceable music.

“I Was Created For This”

As rooted as Metropolis is in Black sensibilities, the androids are still an allegorical representation of many types of Other. Strip the allegory away completely and you get stories like Chesya Burke’s “Say, She Toy” (Apex Magazine, April 2017).

At the centre of this short fiction is Cloe, an android who, like Cindi Mayweather, is designed to look like a Black woman. She is programmed to act and respond as humanly as possible to the clients who pay large sums of money for the opportunity to abuse her. This abuse comes in multiple forms from the verbal to the physical to the sexual, and is always racialised. The point of Cloe’s existence is hammered home by every interaction and every degradation she’s designed to endure. But she must act as if she is suffering and hurt by the abuse—this is key to the clients’ satisfaction. They must believe that she is capable of feeling pain, shame, and worthlessness even though, as an android, she cannot.

This story is tough to read and takes a dark view of humanity. Some might call it cynical; I see it as realistic, if bleak, in the same vein as Octavia E. Butler’s Parable and Xenogenesis series, or Derrick Bell’s “The Slave Traders”. Burke takes the idea of androids as the ultimate Other to a logical place and, through the story, asks: Is it okay to torture an artificial being as a way to act on fantasies of hurting a real one? Or, more precisely, is it okay for a white person to torture an android that looks like a Black person as a way to act out on their racist fantasies? Does allowing this make for a better world, or a more depraved one? Does it eliminate racism, or allow it to fester and grow?

Also reminiscent of Butler’s body of work is the way “Say, She Toy” takes the entire allegorical approach to task. Cloe is not an abstract Other. She is not presented in a shape that mimics what Western culture promotes as the default. To engage with the story you have to visualise her as a Black woman. To answer the questions posed by the text you have to consider questions of identity and confront current issues around race, gender, and class.

“Whether You’re High Or Low, You Gotta Tip On The Tightrope”

Both Janelle Monáe’s vision of an android that will lead the way to peaceful co-existence and Chesya Burke’s vision of an android that reflects humanity’s basest instincts are powerful and valid ways of presenting the android as Other. They both challenge speculative thinking on how to approach androids and allegory, and they both open up more paths to exploring our present through envisioning our future. They are Afrofuturist messages and warnings to those of us who strive for a future shaped by Cindi’s ideals that we must also recognise how much our present is shaped by the same forces that keep Cloe in bondage.

K. Tempest Bradford is a speculative fiction writer by night, a media critic and writing instructor by day, and a podcaster in the interstices. Her short fiction has appeared in multiple anthologies and magazines including Strange Horizons, Electric VelocipedeDiverse EnergiesIn the Shadow of the Towers, and many more. She’s the host of ORIGINality, a podcast about the roots of creative genius, and contributes to several more. Her media criticism and reviews can be found on NPR, io9, and in books about Time Lords. When not writing, she teaches classes on writing inclusive fiction through LitReactor and Writing the Other. Visit her blog and her Patreon.