While reading about Black characters and authors within the speculative fiction genres, I came across two terms: “Afrofuturism” and “sword-and-soul”.
I was more familiar with the first term, at least in reading about how African-descended writers incorporated vivid and challenging mishmashes of aesthetics and cultural experiences into their science-fiction writings, including Samuel Delany and the late Octavia Butler. But the latter term – “sword-and-soul” – was something less familiar to me, but it appealed to me a bit more.
“Sword-and-soul?” As in, “sword-and-sorcery”, but with Black people in it, set in Africa?
Then I searched into it, found several articles which helped to explain what is meant by sword-and-soul: “fantasy fiction which involves African/African-descended people and their mythologies in the same way that ‘sword-and-soul’ revolves around people of European descent and their mythology.”
This intrigues me. Finally, a term for the type of fantasy fiction I was looking for, even though the genre has only been revived and expanded from just one writer – Charles Saunders – to an entire publishing label – MVmedia – thanks to an Atlanta-based professional chemist and part-time writer, Milton Davis, who has taken strategic advantage of the e-book era to publish Afrocentric SpecFic.
Finally, we have “sword-and-soul” as another fiction genre to geek out over!
Steamfunk and the Question of Continuity
While we’re on the subject of Black SpecFic, I looked at the subgenre of “steamfunk”.
Again, it’s similarly set in the “steam” era of the 19th and early 20th centuries, just like the pseudo-Victorian “steampunk”.
But that’s it, though. Unlike the striking visual difference between Sword-and-soul and Sword-and-sorcery, the art used in current works of Steamfunk largely harkens to Steampunk’s Victorian-era European aesthetics. Why?
Instead, shouldn’t there be a continuity between steamfunk and African-themed sword-and-soul?
I cite Nickelodeon’s Avatar franchise for its setting in a pan-Asian fictional universe. The first series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, takes place during an earlier period that’s wedged somewhere within ancient/medieval (“sword-and-sorcery”) Asia with a bit of steampunk mixed in at certain points. The second series, The Legend of Korra, takes place 100 years after the Avatar, in a world that is between steampunk and dieselpunk, but still within a very pan-Asian setting and with harkenings to the “past” of sword-and-sorcery.
I think the way that Nickelodeon’s Avatar franchise handles this historic continuity from the medieval to the steam era within a thoroughly pan-Asian fictional universe is a model that can be followed for an “Afrocentric” fictional universe. Avatar, which I guess could be described as “sword-and-chi”, has a sense of alt-history chronology and technological succession that those who write Afrocentric SpecFic really need.
Simply placing Black characters in pseudo-Victorian-era garb, or medieval armor, is not enough. Let’s start with the aesthetic of Sword-and-Soul and work our way forward.
Sword-and-Soul in Fantasy Art
Finally, when talking about aesthetics, I feel that Fantasy Fiction Artworks, especially works which are commercialized, are seriously lacking in the inclusion of People of Color (PoC). The artistic depiction of sword-and-sorcery themes, at least here in the U.S., are typically steeped in medieval European culture and aesthetics. But I think there is precedent in works like Avatar for the medieval aesthetic to be shaken up and made more diverse.
The issue raised by the Racebending.com initiative against the “whitewashing” of lead characters in Nickelodeon’s Avatar franchise brings to mind just how non-diverse that modern fantasy fiction tends to be, or at least the commercial challenge faced by artists and writers of fantasy fiction which is affirmatively diverse in skin color. Avatar is perhaps the most groundbreaking Western-authored fantasy fiction franchise in terms of PoC inclusion, as the story universe of the franchise is set in a highly-inclusive pan-Asia-Pacific setting, pulling together anagramic ethnicities, languages, kingdoms, topologies, geographies, climates, skin pigments, clothing, cuisine and so on from the entire continent and almost all ends of the ocean.
With its ongoing realization of a newer pan-mythos from the entirety and vicinity of Asia, Avatar and other similar franchises have ship-tons-plenty of written history and mythology to draw from.
Unfortunately, as a PoC of African descent, I feel incredibly jealous for this pan-Asia-Pacific setting. I don’t feel that Africa, as a continent, lends as well to such an expansive pan-mythos as does Asia or Europe. Africa doesn’t have the the sort of geographic or climatological expanse that is endemic to the Asian continent, nor does it have the heritage of written language which is endemic to both Asian and European peoples, nor do its peoples – including our ancestors – have the best experience or history of relaying their own mythological, spiritual or artistic canons on their own terms, nor do Africans have the history of mass settlement outside of the continent like Europeans (the slave trade still constitutes the primary historic source of the African diaspora in the Americas).
Hence, for developing a fertile space for fantasy art and fiction, African-descended artists and writers who are conscious about PoC inclusion have more of a reason to improvise and derive. I guess that’s where Sword-and-soul kicks in.
On the Internet
These galleries provide good sources for PoC-affirmative fantasy fiction, and I’ll add more links in the future:
And MVmedia, Milton Davis’ publishing label, is the premiere house for Sword-and-soul fiction. Please check it out.