Island Futures

I once saw an older writer than I claim that they were the last generation to grow without TV, and explained this had a big impact on them and their writing. But I was thirty years younger and I also had no television growing up. I grew up on a boat in Grenada and the British and US Virgin Islands with some time spent on land, but often without cable as we couldn’t afford it.

With all the poverty and other places in the world that don’t have the advantages of the area I live in now, I bet I will not be the last SF writer to grow up without TV. 

I read a lot on the boat because that was just what you did with your downtime. I worked really hard to learn how to read at a very young age so that I could lose myself between the pages for hours. I wanted to read about raising the Titanic as Clive Cussler imagined, and I dug deep into John MacDonald’s Travis McGee books and Agatha Christie novels when my mother was done with them. But I tended to want to travel even further away, to other galaxies. I read any science fiction or fantasy I could get my hands on because they took me far away from where I was and my own tough childhood.

Grenada lies in the southern sweep of the Caribbean, those islands that begin to curve away from Florida out into the Atlantic and then on down to South America. Trinidad and Tobago are the southernmost islands, almost a part of South America if you’re looking at a small map. Grenada, and Barbados to the Atlantic, are basically next.

When I tell people I grew up in the Caribbean they always tell me how lucky I am. And I am, but not in any of the ways they are thinking. People assume I led some idealized vacation life that they aspire to when away from their own labors. Drinks on the sand, someone cleaning your room for you, and meals in an open-air restaurant with paintings of pirates on the wall, perhaps.

I did not live a perpetual spring break lifestyle of rum punch and sun on the beach, though I stood just over to the side and watched people come down to where I lived to get drunk and swim. The life around me was the people there to mix those drinks, deliver that food, and more. The people who went home to galvanized steel roofs and rough wood floors.

That was what it was like for many when I was growing up in the islands.

I tell a story about Christmas once, where one of the boys I played with took me home to show me what he got as a gift. My mom had given me underwear and socks, each individually wrapped. Hand me down toys came from my cousins on my mom’s side of the family. When I tell people this now, they feel bad for me.

But I always knew how lucky I was, because at seven, I went to this boy’s house, with its unpainted cinderblock walls, galvanized steel roof, and wooden shutters. The floor was packed dirt. And he showed me his Christmas haul: a single plastic windup walking toy. The sort of thing they shove in a McDonald’s kid’s meal that today I’d toss when we got home.

We watched it whirr and cross the mud floor and his mother fed both of us. What, I don’t remember. I just remember feeling guilty she was feeding me because I was worried I was being an imposition.

People really like that story because it’s humbling and offers a moment for us to consider how lucky we are. I usually offer it to break the vacation narrative, though, to pierce the visions of the tourist industrial complex, not to paint all of the folk where I grew up around as poor. I can tell stories of playing with bicycle rim hoops that we’d make roll around with a stick. I know how to make a kite out of twigs and plastic trash bags.

But at the same time, yes, I played on the same beaches that tourists paid their thousands to get to. I’ve stood under a waterfall in the middle of a rainforest. I’ve sailed to a private island with no one on it. I snorkeled reefs.

I went to a private school. My mother scrimped and sacrificed, as she saw education as important for her children. I grew up in the classrooms of all the middle and upper class students.

And I read my first science fiction novel, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, when on a booze cruise my father was captaining when I was somewhere between eight and ten years old. The aliens in the shapes of demons that challenged ideas about violence, religion, and even humanity’s place in the universe, all of that blew my mind wide open in a way other genres hadn’t and all I knew was after that I wanted more. I smuggled a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation back home with me.

My father was Grenadian. Born to a family founded by a runaway slave from up island who took up with a Scottish fisherman in the Grenadines. There in Carriacou (or Petit Martinique?), growing up, I heard children chant out the names of the tribes the folk had descended from.

I’d always known something of the far back history of that side of the family, so much so that when I did genetic testing and saw the map of my DNA I was not surprised to see that West African coast light up.

And then on my mother’s side, my fair skin. London-born, that side of the family wandered oceans on boats until hitting the south Caribbean.

Sometimes, when I was alone, I’d stick one of my father’s picks in my hair and wish it wouldn’t slide out and fall to the floor instead of sticking up so proudly into the air like it did when in his hair.

At ten, we were estranged, for good reason, when my mom left. Didn’t talk to him again until a few weeks before he died of lung cancer from all those smokes I watched him draw down as a kid. Right before he passed my Grenadian family reconnected with me. I have 37 cousins and a variety of aunts.

When you grow up outside the upper and middle classes, your world scrunches down into the immediate. I never thought about my future much or how much bigger the world could be as a child. People crossed through into my life from other countries, but I had no real sense of what that meant, until I read books where the Earth was just a place in a solar system in a galaxy of many galaxies.

My life suddenly had horizons that stretched far away from just the edges of the island I lived on. And that changed everything in the way that I could imagine futures.

My first science fiction was imitative. I wanted to replicate those visions. I wanted that exotic stuff. But I had two Damescene moments where I realized my own ignorance and scales fell from my eyes to the nature of my favorite genre.

The first came when I read a science fiction novel set, unlikely enough, in Grenada. Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net. I’d been born there, lived there until I was ten. The realization that a genre book could be set in the same place I had grown up was revelatory. Even though the author wasn’t Caribbean, it made me realize there was a gaping hole of a lack of SF that interacted with my world.

Where were the johnny cakes, beef patties, kallaloo soup, saltfish, and oildowns? Where was the music? The terrain? The post-colonial countries striking out to hold their own futures in hand? Where were the characters who were like my cousins I remembered playing with on the beach? Or my friends, East Indian, Chinese, white immigrants (they called themselves ex-pats, it’s something white people do so they don’t have to label themselves immigrants to another country), and black and brown and and and…

Where was the protest and talking truth to power in song?

I’d never seen that gaping hole until that moment. Could I blend these two things? It felt like a scary thing to do. Most people looked at me and made a judgement: that I was only white. That I didn’t have a strong tie to the region. Could I represent? Would I ever be welcomed back?

My second moment of realization came when I moved to the United States and came to understand that many of the things I’d assumed were exotic markers of originality were actually background culture. Moving to the US suddenly rendered a lot of the original-ness of the books I was reading seem less wild. I could see the primary influences. This item is a fantasy retelling of how the US saw its role in World War Two, another story is really about the desire to shoot poor people in inner cities, most robot uprisings come out of southern fears of slave revolt that have metastasized around a culture that was formerly plantocracy. They seemed like startling thought experiments when separated from the culture, but I realized that they weren’t thought experiments, the creators were repeating culture around them.

I don’t think I ever became “political” because that’s such an awkward framing. The music I listened to, and even the Bob Marley I hear people play in coffee shops, was often protest music. And sometimes just him playing with sound. Have you ever listened to the lyrics of Marley’s “Redemption Song?” Calling someone political is just a way of trying to shut down a perspective one doesn’t want to hear. I became political not because I stood up and shouted it, it happened because my first book Crystal Rain had a group of characters in it that hailed from a variety of peoples found south of the US, just like the world around me growing up. I didn’t think to label myself anything, but because I used the voices of my childhood, replicated the places and culture, to create a book I wanted to have read when I was younger, I was labeled political, that it was a stunt. I got told by serious readers that I was being silly, that Caribbean people would never be on other planets, for a variety of racist reasons that would follow.

None of my characters commented on modern American life, but by being different, I became the target of angry emails. For just being. And that, itself, pushed me into writing more things to grapple with that pressure aimed at me.

It wasn’t a hard leap. I grew up listening to songs express frustration from the day I was born. It’s life, it’s grist for creativity. I wrote my short story “Toy Planes” out of sheer frustration to engage people who would flood comment sections demanding India and China cancel their space programs because they weren’t “first world.” Or who made fun of the very idea of a Nigerian program. So I wrote about a Caribbean space program.

The islands seep their way into everything I do because I can’t help it. You can take the boy out of the islands, but can you remove the islands from him?

My most recent story, “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance” has been in many Year’s Bests. On the surface, it seems like my least “Caribbean SF” story yet. But I came up with the core idea for it by trying to write a story rooted in the reading I was doing about labor resistance in pre-Revolution Grenada and my desire to write a story that clapped back against Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” which was written to rehabilitate the image of a real life captain who murdered a black sailor and then jumped overboard to swim for safety when the rest of the crew wanted him brought to justice.

I don’t know how to escape the Caribbean. Nor do I want to. It suffuses everything, and I am grateful for my complicated background and life. And I bring it to my work because I deeply believe that if we don’t imagine our own stories and tales, someone else will. And their visions may not be healthy for us. Already there have been generations of colonial stories about the Caribbean. The Caribbean features as “paradise” to be vacationed on, developed by outsiders with little regard for local needs, third world failure, or colonial holding, wistfully recalling the times of domination while people act out piratical fantasies that ignore the plight of the black Caribbean experience in a literally Disney-fied fantasy history.

If other visions are not dreamed, then these narratives drive, colonize, and corrupt because they are the frames others come to the Caribbean with.

I’m not perfect at it, even in the islands I was stewed in a great deal of Western culture. The whole world is. But, as a writer, I deeply want to tell new stories.

Not the same old ones.

Tobias S. Buckell

Tobias S. Buckell is a The New York Times bestselling author born in the Caribbean. He grew up in Grenada and spent time in the British and US Virgin Islands, which influence much of his work.

His novels and over 60 stories have been translated into 18 different languages. His work has been nominated for awards like the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author.

He currently lives in Bluffton, Ohio with his wife, twin daughters, and a pair of dogs. He can be found online at TobiasBuckell.com.

Photo Credit: Marlon James

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