Growing up as a non-white kid who read science-fiction and fantasy almost exclusively, finding books with characters who looked like me was not an easy task. Ursula Le Guin’s famous protagonist Ged (A Wizard of Earthsea) was brown-skinned (although you wouldn’t know it from any of the many whitewashed adaptations), and Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress brought us a proudly multi-racial society, as embodied by narrator Manuel Garcia O’Kelly-Davis. If you wanted a science-fiction book actually written by a black author, and aimed at kids, however, you were down to exactly one series, Virginia Hamilton’s Justice Cycle.
The basic problem with writing genre fiction as a black writer, or for that matter, (say) releasing indie-rock as a black recording artist, is a basic one of numbers. African Americans make up a small percentage of the total American population, so anything produced by a black artist needs to either cross over to a non-black audience or appeal to a large, mainstream black audience or both, if it is to reach any numerically great level of popularity. If, in a group of 100 people, 1 of every 10 is black, and if, in that same group, 1 of every 10 is a science-fiction fan, then there will be 10 science-fiction fans, and 10 black readers, but only 1 black science-fiction fan. The book won’t make it far if that’s the only person who reads it.
This explains, to a large extent, while the Justice Cycle has been all-but-forgotten, despite Hamilton’s status as one of the most highly awarded and critically acclaimed children’s book writers of all time. It isn’t always the easiest series to love, but it is a brilliantly original and unorthodox saga that deserves to be remembered and rediscovered, both on its own merits, and for its status as a groundbreaking and pioneering work, by an author who refused to stay in the boxes audience demographics built for her.
The series itself varies widely in tone and subject, despite having a consistent core cast of characters. The first book, Justice and Her Brothers, starts things off in a realist mode, introducing us to protagonist Justice “Ticey” Douglass, a young black girl growing up in a rural town. As the story begins, Justice’s main preoccupations are dealing with her twin older brothers, “good twin” Levi, and “evil twin” Tom, whose aggressive brotherly contempt for Justice and unhealthy dominance over Levi provides most of the first book’s dramatic tension. Justice’s first tentative steps towards adulthood are complicated by her dawning awareness that she, both her brothers, and their best friend, Dorian, all possess powerful but undeveloped psychic powers.
The series probably lost the science-fiction audience early in this first volume, due to its slow pace, realistic setting, and family oriented drama. Nor was the tale of a young, female, black protagonist in a functional, two-parent family likely to appeal to a crossover white audience, which typically demands from black literature titillating stories of abject poverty, family dysfunction and casual violence. The rural setting was unlikely to be relatable to the urban black audience, and the psychic elements were doubtlessly off-putting to the pool of potential readers who remained. So this really was a case of a book aimed squarely and solely at that one reader in a hundred, and even for that one reader, there was a lot that was challenging between those two covers.
Arguably the strongest and most successful of the three books was the second in the series, Dustland. The mostly squarely identifiable as science-fiction of the three, it picks up where the first book left off, as Justice wrests control of the group of children and unites their gifts together, with the result that they travel through time and space into a strange post-apocalyptic Earth of the far future. Human beings, as we know them, have long vanished, but their mutated descendants still exist, scraping out a hard-scrabble existence in a radioactive desert. Here, Justice and her brothers must overcome their powerful sibling rivalries in order to survive, and make it back home.
In the final book, THe Gathering, the children return to the future, where they befriend a young group of mutants, and help them defend themselves against a powerful and malevolent entity. They eventually find their way to an advanced city, where the meet a robot and a sentient computer, and learn the sacrifice they will have to make in order to heal this damaged future world.
Although the series cannot be considered uniformly successful, it is richly and resonantly imaginative, filled with indelible images of striking originality. Like Samuel Delany, and Octavia Butler, fellow members of the very small society of well-known black science fiction authors, Hamilton writes more in a mythopoeic than a technological mode, crafting narratives that humanize technology and bring out the social and interpersonal aspects of her imagined futures. Like her characters, she was ahead of her time, and this is a work that deserves to be rediscovered. Be that one-in-a-hundred and go read it.