Why Zanzibar?

Recently, Fabulous Publisher Babe™ had her annual Chocolate and Wine Party, where we invite her friends (mostly writers), my friends (mostly rednecks) and other folks we like. I got into a discussion with several other folks, some of whom were familiar with the various pieces that make up the Alexandria Station universe.

One of them was honestly confused (as opposed to playing devil’s advocate or just being an asshole, like other folks might have) about why Kiswahili would be one of the languages spoken in a distant, science fiction future. (Bulgarian also confuses people, but that’s a different story and a personal preference unrelated to broader sociological explorations.)

As we got to talking, I realized that for her, white privilege was something so ingrained as to be invisible. Her science fiction is always white, possibly with a few “ethnic” characters thrown in to be “progressive” but dominated by a White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture (what we call WASP in the states). And usually male.


Until the last quarter of the 20th Century, all prominent American culture tended towards the WASP. Catholics were given some shrift, but they were still strange, loud creatures from the southern frontier of the general European ancestry that make up middle-class culture here. Put simply, they were generally poorer and less well educated, and relegated to ethnic ghettos in large cities, from which their children or grandchildren might escape and normalize into the broader American (read: WASP but not losing their Catholicism) culture.

Similarly, Asian immigrants were third class citizens for the first two-thirds of the 1900’s, with strict regulations on Chinese and Japanese immigration and legal rights.

Part of the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s was to give blacks in this country the right to vote (1964 & 65), to move wherever they wanted (red-line laws and housing covenants), and to marry whoever they wanted (Loving v. Virginia, 1967).

But the movement also had much broader repercussions.

What this meant before that was that most of the prominent science fiction was written by white, male authors. It wasn’t that women and minorities of various flavors didn’t write really good science fiction, but there was a hard, glass ceiling above them keeping them from getting the sorts of accolades and recognition that white men could expect. (As someone explained to me recently, they published, and then they were disappeared.)

I might be a little bit of a Social Justice Warrior, but that’s mostly because I really don’t give a shit about someone’s color, or religion, or sexuality when I’m reading their work.

I care that they’ve written me an engaging, entertaining story, preferably either keeping the axes they want to grind to a minimum, or using the best parts of science fiction philosophy to explore the “What If?” aspect that makes me and others think about how we might perceive the world differently than it is today. To say: “here is a different way of seeing and thinking about the world than what you know.”

So (shaggy dog story cut short): Why Zanzibar (the planet in the Alexandria Station universe)?

It goes back to the fact that Zanzibar is an island off the south east coast of Africa, a little north of Madagascar. In the old days, the natives had a reputation as merchants, explorers, and traders, ranging all up and down the coast of Africa and all around the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese weren’t the first explorers to reach India and China by sea, just the first Europeans to do it.

Big difference.

In many ways, I see them culturally similar to the inhabitants of the British Isles, explorers happy to jump in a boat and go looking past horizons. What I’ve seen of history tends to bear this out.

Give the people of Zanzibar access to a star-drive, and I see the same damned thing happening.

They went out, found a world to terraform, warm with lots of water, so that it kind of reminded them of home, and set down such roots as these sorts of folks might.

Today, the United States has a population of around 325 million. The EU is similar, if a touch larger. India is a billion. China a bit larger, although both are facing serious collapse risks in the next three generations, due to demographic and cultural pressures too large to go into here.

But Africa is huge, both as a place and as a population. They would go to space just as readily and happily as all the white people that make up the science fiction television and books you normally encounter. (Seriously, who can’t envision Idris Elba commanding the bridge? He and Robbie Aeliaes do look remarkably alike, you know.)

In my expected vision of the distant future, the universe is more than just white people.

Some planets will be “ethnically homogenous” in the sense that the vast majority of the population will be of a single type (Finnish, Vietnamese, Nigerian, something) by nation of origin. But many worlds will be an interesting cross-section of humanity, like you tend to find in major urban centers on the West Coast (think LA, the Bay Area, or Seattle). Those folks are culturally all American after a generation or two, regardless of their ethnicity or the place where their great-grandparents might have been born.

So let’s talk about Zanzibar the planet, since I’ve only ever written a couple of stories around the time period of Doyle Iwakuma.

Zanzibar and Ballard are relative neighbors in space. They make up two of the four gems on The Story Road. Both places had never really fallen below steam technology when the AIs wiped out Earth and other planets and caused the Concord to collapse.

When the factories that make the parts are all wiped out simultaneously, you have to invent the machines to make the parts to make the machines to make the parts. Given years of lead time, you can do it. Given weeks, the factories grind to a halt. Throw in fleets of AI starships intent on killing anything they think of as the enemy, which is pretty much everything, and you have space dragons. Or sea monsters.

Zanzibar is a blue world. 85% ocean, with a number of large and small continents. When they lost star travel, space became less interesting, but they retained enough technology to handle steam and internal combustion. As a result, they did not fall into the sorts of barbarism that beset other planets when the regular shipments and freighters stopped bringing in crucial supplies.

Ballard was the same way.

At some point, Zanzibar reached a tech level that allowed them to repair/rebuild one of the ancient star-drives, in a rough and dangerous way.

Explorers took this fragile vessel and leapt into the darkness. Ballard was among the closest planets. So the Zanzibari went there first.

Because Zanzibar is a mostly aquatic world, they built their first ship like any other ship, landing it on water rather than land.

The first explorers to Ballard landed their ship in the bay at Ithome, the brightest set of lights visible on the dark side of the planet from orbit: proof of technological civilization.

Ballard is also a land of explorers, settled by a strange combination of Finnish and Japanese folks.

When the Zanzibari came, both sides found much in common, beyond their shared humanity. What they all have in common is a love of the sea.

But Zanzibar isn’t white. Ballard is kinda, but that was intentional on my part in order to have a strange and interesting crew.

The first Zanzibari Ambassador to Ballard was Vanick Nkya. He brought his thirteen-year-old daughter Vanessa with him. She met and later married Thorson Iwakuma, son of Artur (known a Papa Artur in the clan). Vanessa’s children are daughter Ajali, the oldest, and three sons: Jakaya, Thorson, and Doyle.

Sixty years ago, I couldn’t publish a story where a main character like Doyle Iwakuma was half-black African and half-white Finnish. Especially not as dark as his skin is and him being The Captain. Traditional publishing wouldn’t dare touch such a story, especially since race wasn’t that big a thing to this crew, to say nothing of Doyle’s niece Piper, oldest daughter of Ajali, being married do a big Finnish white guy named Bjorn.

Remember, it was illegal for blacks and whites to legally marry in many states (mostly the old traitors of the Confederacy), until the Supreme Court handed down Loving v. Virginia in 1967.

Let me repeat that, in case you missed it: IT WAS ILLEGAL.

Kirk kissing Uhura on national television, a white man and a black woman, was a scandal. A SCANDAL. Seriously, people.

Let that be your history lesson, next time you open a book written today. Shoulders of giants, and all that.

When I write science fiction, not only do I not presume that WASP males will be in control, but I actively look at my characters and ask if there is anything about them that requires them to be of a particular ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. If not, I won’t automatically make them white. I’ll go play.

Fabulous Publisher Babe™ tells me I have a tendency to write stories where someone is sticking it to the man. Sue me.

It isn’t necessary in this day and age to toe a line drawn by those in Traditional Publishing who don’t believe that women or minorities can write good science fiction. I’m not saying that all of Traditional Publishing felt that way, or that all readers did. But some did, possibly still do.

And if you don’t believe me, let me feed you to several of my female and minority science fiction writer friends and see how well your arguments hold up. M’kay?

Instead, I believe that the future will be a lovely rainbow of folks. All ethnicities. All religions. All colors. All sexualities. Everyone.

They will be human.