The New Frontier for Native Literature

Jun 30th, 2014 | By | Category: Opinion, The Inquisitive Academic, Web Exclusive
By Ryan Winn

ROBOGENESISIts name is Archos and if you’ve read Cherokee writer Daniel H. Wilson’s 2011 novel Robopocalypse, you’ve likely reconsidered the virtues of technology. Archos is a supercomputer that turns a not-too-distant world’s proliferation of docile robots into an onslaught of killing machines. Governments are wiped out, millions perish, and urban areas are helpless to stop the robots’ “New War.” Humankind’s best hope for survival is an off-the-grid Osage stronghold where humans resisting the assault find sanctuary. The book is a terrifying, engrossing thriller written by a man with a Ph.D. in robotics and a gift for creating rich characters with distinct voices. It is a New York Times bestseller that Stephen King called “terrific page-turning fun,” and Stephen Spielberg is creating a movie based on the novel. Robopocalypse’s sequel, Robogenesis, hit the shelves in June, and the two books—along with his 2012 standalone novel, Amped—have proven Wilson to be the leading voice in the proliferation of Indigenous science fiction writers. American Indian storytellers across the nation are causing a paradigm shift for authors and characters within science fiction, and tribal colleges and universities should ensure our students are exploring the imaginative worlds that many mainstream readers have already discovered.

Science fiction readers have a wealth of American Indian texts to devour.All of Wilson’s novels are captivating. So is the late Choctaw writer D. L. Birchfield’s 2004 novel Field of Honor, which speculates about a high-tech Choctaw community that lived and thrived under the Ouachita Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma for the entirety of the twentieth century. Cherokee writer Blake Hausman’s 2011 novel, Riding the Trail of Tears, also must not be missed.It imaginesa future where tourists can use virtual reality to partake in the Cherokee removal. The Cherokee’s tricksters, known as the “Little People,” highjack the technology, and aim to revise history. The most diverse collection to date is Walking the Clouds, in which editor Grace L. Dillon has compiled the “first-ever anthology of Indigenous science fiction.” The collection contains 19 stories and novel excerpts from celebrated and emerging Indigenous writers, capturing the wealth of potential for Native writers in the genre.

One of the most underappreciated novels in American Indian literary history is a precursor to the current groundswell of sci-fi and speculative fiction, and that’s The Indians Won, by Pueblo and Yaqui author Martin Cruz Smith. Smith weaves an alternate history where the Lakota and Cheyenne band together after the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and, with support from some wealthy Europeans investors, form their own nation west of the Mississippi. Of course, the continental cohabitation is hardly peaceful, and tensions come to a head in 1970.

Still, Daniel H. Wilson is in a league of his own, and Robogenesis confirms he’s a novelist at the peak of his game. The book begins in the seconds following Robopocalypse’s conclusion, as the survivors from the first novel soon learn that the New War is far from over. Like its predecessor, this novel is told from multiple points of view and the characters we loved in the first book are back—Cormac Wallace, a reluctant leader and chronicler of the human resistance; Mathilda Perez, a teenager whose eyes were replaced with a technological upgrade; and Lark Iron Cloud, a jilted Cherokee youth who heroically led the Osage resistance. Wilson’s knowledge and expert descriptions of robotics are matched by his talent for capturing both the grit of the conflict and the veracity of humankind’s desire to survive with their humanity in check.

We’re living in a time that’s witnessing a range of American Indian voices unlike any other in history. These artists are challenging, and thereby changing, the boundaries of what constitutes a Native text and nowhere is that more prevalent than in the world of science fiction. Last year, George Lucas’s Star Wars: A New Hope was dubbed in Navajo, and the fact that this endeavor was so well-received shows that American Indian audiences are unified behind mainstream media that depicts their individual cultures in a positive light. If current book sales are any indication, the sci-fi community is united behind the movement. Let’s work to ensure that tribal college students find these texts. A new frontier for Native fiction is upon us, and they should be exploring it.

Works Cited

Birchfield, D. L. (2004). Field of honor. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Boone, S. (2013). Star Wars in Navajo. http://www.rogerebert.com. Retrieved June 2014 from: http://www.rogerebert.com/balder-and-dash/star-wars-in-navajo

Dillion, G. L. (2012). Walking the clouds. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Hausman, B. M. (2011). Riding the Trail of Tears. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Schaefer, S. (2014). Steven Spielberg’s ‘Robopocalypse’ May Be Moving Forward Again. http://screenrant.com. Retrieved June 2014 from: http://screenrant.com/steven-spielberg-robopocalypse-start-date/

Smith, M. C.(1981). The Indians won. New York: Leisure Books.

Wilson, D. H. (2011). Robopocalypse. New York: Doubleday.

Wilson, D. H. (2012). Amped. New York: Doubleday.

Wilson, D. H. (2014). Robogenesis. New York: Doubleday.

Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communications at College of Menominee Nation, where he also serves as the Humanities Department chair.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

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