Monday, November 11, 2013

Charisma by Steven Barnes

(Originally published at BET Online. But I had a falling out with them and they removed all the reviews. So I'm returning them here.)

 Steven Barnes
 TOR Books

As a matter of record, let it be stated that this reviewer enjoyed the Harry Potter books and the Lord of the Rings movies very much. This is despite the belief that their writers live or have lived in what could only be called very White White White White White worlds. Tolkien could be forgiven. Afterall, those were the times. Not only that: any attempt by him to handle the race matter would turn out like Kipling’s patronizing romantic view of colonialism anyway. But J.K. Rowling? Hasn’t modern Britain turned into an island full of Indian and Jamaican immigrants? Don’t tell me Rowling never saw them, like Woody Allen’s missing black and Hispanic New Yorkers for all those years, with her modern eye. Her perceptions must have been dimmed by a devilish incantation. 

Surely, someone can write a good fantasy novel and have people of color play a significant role. Turns out that the ever prolific Steven Barnes has already written that good book and as you might imagine: It’s a bit darker than anything that Rowling has ever come up with, not just in tone, but casting. Or at least I don’t remember private assassins—partial to using hit and run techniques on bicycling kids—murderous drug dealing bikers and gay body builders with a mean streak ever taking a ride on Harry Potter’s magic train. Here’s a hint of Charisma’s NC-17 tone: an angry gang of male gay body builders aren’t just content to kick your butt silly. I’ll leave it at that.  

Charisma’s premise is actually pretty interesting. What would happen if you took the genetic structure of what we could call African American super people (Your Alis, Robert Johnsons, Oprahs and so forth) and genetically transferred their traits into young children from poor backgrounds. And what if it turns out that the book’s fictional black super achiever, Alexander Marcus, a black billionaire Rupert Murdoch with a military background, has a ruthless streak that the scientists didn’t know about? You would get some very ruthless and intelligent mutant kids (The X-Men are even mentioned.) who seem to live an ethic that Machiavelli or Sun Tzu would admire. You could argue that their murders are all self-defense, but it’s still grisly. The kids are such effective machines that at the book’s denouement—where the assassins, armed with their big guns and their Nam tactics, slowly unfold their plans to make the genetically altered kids summer Camp Charisma experience a fatal one—you might find yourself feeling a kind of precognitive pity for the assassins. Turned out to be right. It’s not unlike reading the “The Wrath of Khan: The Pre-Teen Years”, for those of you who get Star Trek references.

 The big thrill here is that you get your science fiction with a varied cast of color. Black folks are represented at almost every level of society doing interesting cool things. There’s the hack reporter looking for one last great headline, the struggling business owner mother of one, the ex-jock, the street kids, even the super achiever. Barnes even manages to touch upon class differences within the black community itself. These are insights missing from the movies these days, a lot of science fiction television, and even genre books for that matter. 

All in all, a very satisfying read. Don’t be surprised to find yourself racing through the final 100 pages even though you can see what’s coming. It would be nice to see this on screen, just as affirmation that black people can be included in Great Fantasy and it can still be a cool story as well.

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