A West Philly collective aims to elevate underrepresented voices in science fiction literature and beyond
On a frozen night in February, about 50 people stand in the corner of LAVA (Lancaster AVenue Autonomous) Space in West Philly, bobbing their heads to the sounds of performance artist Razed by Wolves’ ominous organ effects as he reads aloud his story of a lost space traveler.
“This is the sound of matter,” he pronounces. The organ drones on. The sign on the back of the door reads, “LAVA SPACE SECURITY PROTOCOL: IN SITUATIONS INVOLVING POLICE, DO NOT OPEN DOOR!!!” Books coded according to theme — anarchism, art, music, biography, communism, socialism — line the wall.
The event was co-sponsored by queer sci-fi collective Metropolarity. At once a fundraiser, live reading and dance party showcasing a score of local artists, it aimed to raise money for the printing of the next edition of the group’s zine, as well as to support a local D.I.Y. (unsigned bands in unofficial venues) show house.
Metropolarity is a group of friends who identify as queer, enjoy writing science fiction in and about Philly and host live readings, dubbed “Laser Life.”
More than that, though, it is a grassroots cultural movement providing a stage for underrepresented voices in the media, specifically those of queer people and people of color.
“When we look at the mainstream, there’s a legitimate movement to keep queer people, lesbian, gay, transgender people out of science fiction literature,” says founding member Alex Smith, referencing the anti-gay politics of Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card. “When it comes to people of color being represented in science fiction, it’s usually just background characters and story fodder, and we’re trying to become the stars.”
The four-member group, made up of Smith, Maggie Eighteen, Ras Mashramani and Rasheedah Phillips, has developed a solid fan base over the past two years. The first Laser Life reading at the A-Space Anarchist Community Center on Baltimore Avenue was attended by around 30 people; this past January’s reading, held in the same place, had attendees squatting wherever there was open floor.
Part of the event’s popularity may be because the group’s writings aren’t your typical top-down tales of intergalactic drone wars. Stories are set in urban environments — and, often, explicitly Philly — with realistic characters.
“[We] really use sci-fi as the metaphor for the imaginative tropes to get at these everyday, real issues that we have dealt with in our lives, or that other people deal with,” says Phillips, who also runs the North Philly-based organization Afrofuturist Affair, which promotes African-American-centric sci-fi.
“Ras, for instance, often uses aliens in her stories as a metaphor for rape or those sorts of traumatic body experiences. I use time travel as a way to explore memory and history. Maggie uses cyborgs, Alex uses superheroes,” Phillips says.
Their February fundraiser’s multidisciplinary approach is indicative of the larger cultural D.I.Y. movement in West Philly. Metropolarity often collaborates with political activists and musical acts with similar ethos to produce events like panels, plays, workshops, movie screenings, media conferences and performance art, many of which feature explicitly queer themes.
These other artists do not necessarily use science fiction in their own work, but are “speculative and futurist” in their subject matter, says Smith.
Smith believes that it makes cosmic sense for such a scene to be happening here and now.
“Philly has really deep roots in speculative work, like Sun Ra, [John] Coltrane, the MOVE organization. West Philly has a good combination of progressive politics and actualizing those politics, and artistic community,” he says.
All of Metropolarity’s members are lifetime writers — Mashramani is an Apiary fiction editor, and Phillips has penned a forthcoming, full-length, self-published book of Afrofuturist stories. The fact that the group’s writing is really good is perhaps not surprising. Not that they need your approval.
“When I first started doing Laser Life, it was like, ‘OK, I don’t care if no one comes to this,’” recalls Smith. “But people came. You can complain about not having queer people in the arts represented, but if you’re not actively participating and trying to make a difference, what’s the point in complaining? You’ll level the playing field just by creating.”
The next Laser Life reading will be April 11 at 7 p.m. at the A-Space Anarchist Community Center, 4722 Baltimore Ave.