Why you should care
Because this unique literary genre has a new voice for and about people of color.
It’s a rare thing for a speculative fiction writer whose initials aren’t GRRM to secure a six-figure book deal. It’s even rarer when said deal involves a genre as obscure as Afrofuturist steampunk — science fiction or fantasy worlds set in Victorian-era technology and dress, but where Black protagonists take central stage.
And yet that’s exactly how it’s played out for Indianapolis author Maurice Broaddus. Last year, Tor Books, an imprint of publishing giant Macmillan, paid out $175,000 following a multiday auction for a space trilogy that Broaddus, 49, had yet to write. “This is basically what I’ve been working for the whole 20 years,” he says with a broad smile, recalling the tension-filled days.
The author of around 100 short stories and more than a dozen books, Broaddus writes for and about people of color struggling to survive and thrive in industrial dystopian worlds dripping with intrigue and adventure. He’s one of the first writers to successfully combine the worlds of Afrofuturism, popularized on the big screen by Black Panther and Get Out, and steampunk writing. “When I first started reading steampunk literature, it felt like a very systematized erasure of Black people,” he says. “Maybe not in a deliberate way but if you’re like, ‘Uh, wow, remember the good old days of the 19th century?’ And I’m like: ‘No! They weren’t good old days for us.’”
In steampunk, he says, race “almost became this elephant in the room” not to be talked about. His response: “I can’t not talk about that.”
The results are fueling growing acclaim.
Kirkus Reviews magazine named The Usual Suspects by Broaddus a book of the year for 2019, highlighting how its “clear-eyed narration describes an unjust system too many kids know intimately.” It has also been selected among the Chicago Public Library’s top 2019 books for kids.
New ground equates interesting stories.
Jason Sizemore, Apex Magazine
Broaddus’ novel Pimp My Airship is set in an alternative Indianapolis but deals with real-world issues such as police violence and racism. “I’d never read anything quite like it, and for good reason: it’s one of the earliest works of steampunk that centered around [people of color],” says Jason Sizemore, whose Apex Magazine published a version of Pimp My Airship as a short story several years ago.
Buffalo Soldier, a tale about an ex-agent from Jamaica and a gifted, threatened boy named Lij set in a world of mechanical horses, wolves and steam men was highlighted by The New York Times in its “best of new science fiction and fantasy.” In the book, Jamaica (the birthplace of Broaddus’ mother) is a Western Hemisphere power while Native American nations have managed to carve out a utopic yet threatened homeland.
Industry experts say a variety of issues are contributing to the rise of Afrofuturist literature. “It’s fun; it’s exposing many readers to history that’s been whitewashed; and it’s a young, evolving genre meaning that much of what is written is breaking new ground,” says Sizemore. “New ground equates interesting stories.”
Broaddus isn’t alone in the drive to create more inclusive steampunk literature. Observers say critics such as Jaymee Goh and Diana M. Pho have been arguing for multiculturalism for a while. “Part of the reason for this is obviously equality and representation of diversity,” says Claire Nally of Northumbria University, “but it is also the case that replicating Victorian or 19th-century paradigms without any critical engagement with colonialism and imperial discourses means you are simply reproducing inequality. So, it’s about fracturing that default Whiteness too.”
That racial inequality is something that Broaddus –– who is as much a community activist as he is an author –– seeks to highlight in his everyday life as a middle school teacher (working with kids who struggle in mainstream classes) on Indianapolis’ north side. He is also lead organizer with the Kheprw Institute, an entrepreneurial incubator that works with young people to develop their leadership, creative and other skills.
Broaddus was born in London to a nurse mother from Jamaica and military father from Indiana. Raised in the Midwest on a diet of comic books, his literary taste was fueled and sharpened by the racial and other inequalities that colored everyday life in Indianapolis.
While Broaddus’ current literary rise may be merited, it’s taken two decades of slogging over a desk to get here. What’s more, with the publishing world’s tastes (and Hollywood’s) always evolving, success in a genre as specific as Afrofuturist steampunk is continually threatened by the next big thing.
Still, Broaddus has a keen eye for collaboration. In 2006, he invited a small group of writers, agents and editors into his home for food, drink and to chew the literary fat. The gathering soon became known as ‘MoCon’ and was turned into a weekend-long conference that was relocated to a co-working space in Indy’s hip Fountain Square neighborhood, a move that, in turn, helps local businesses. Today, the conference is an Indianapolis mainstay, drawing Hugo Award winners and up-and-coming local writers alike.
Almost three hours into our conversation, Broaddus suggests a drive through Indianapolis. We stop by a newly renovated school where the basement will serve as a space for community thinkers (including Broaddus), artists and entrepreneurs to work together in an initiative called Cafe Creative. Such efforts have seen him draw plaudits including a 2,700-word profile in Indianapolis Monthly which lauded him for “changing” the Indiana capital.
With books due last month and again in February, Broaddus has his hands full. But the mischievous, broad grin painted across his face tells you he wouldn’t have it any other way.