What’s Really New About Black Panther

Martin Rezny
Words of Tomorrow
Published in
6 min readFeb 19, 2018


The overlooked alternate history of science outside the west



Reading reviews of the newest Marvel movie, you’ll learn that Black Panther is apparently one of the best movies ever made, which is perhaps a bit overblown, that it’s notable for its predominantly black cast in a blockbuster movie, and that it discusses some pretty radical political issues. While all of that’s interesting, I’d like to look at a different aspect of the movie which doesn’t get as much attention, but is arguably more significant as a contribution to the genre of scifi — its use of afrofuturism.

In case you’ve never heard of the term, as I never have before doing research for this article even though I’m a lifelong fan of all things scifi, it’s a subgenre of scifi that has been coined in the nineties by Mark Dery, a cultural critic. It includes nothing I’ve ever read, seen, or heard (until Black Panther), except for my passing familiarity with the existence of the most notable author of this subgenre — Octavia Butler. On this level alone, Black Panther is a needed introduction of this subgenre to the whole white world.

There’s a chance that you might have an instinctive “so what” reaction to such a development, thinking that what that means is just another bunch of scifi stories, except with black people in them. That it of course should matter to black people, and good for them, but that’s that. The problem with such dismissive attitude is the assumption that we all know what science and technology are, how they work, what they can do. That science is singular.

The Sciences Undeveloped

Given the historical circumstances of how advanced technology appeared on our planet, the general idea of what it is or should be is heavily colored by the baggage of western culture — individualism, exceptionalism, imperialism, colonialism, militarism, racism, speciesism, etc. White scifi stories have a very hard time escaping those, which is why you have your wars of the worlds, your supermen, your fascist or communist -topias.

Even time travel is fundamentally a white male fantasy if you really think about who’s welcome and who’s not at most times throughout history, as a number of comedians have noted. In the white scientific historical view, the cultures that hadn’t given rise to modern science are inevitably viewed as primitive, either as brutal or noble savages. That’s why when you get their hidden realms of any sort, they tend to be fantastical, magical, not technological. Unlike Wakanda, which has developed its own modernity.

I have first encountered this notion of non-western alternate history of science by accident when I played Empire Earth, where one can play as the Meso-American civilizations (Maya, Inca, and Aztec) all the way into the 20th century. The notion is not particularly developed in the game, but the mere possibility of this was intriguing to me. So much so that in the scifi universe that I’m building, I have created a deep-future faction of united African and South American post-nations that I call the Green Communion.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, Wakanda already was very close to what I had in mind, and what a great potential an idea like this has. Scifi is at its core about asking compelling “what if” questions, and in the case of alternate histories, this means “what if history had unfolded differently”. What if the first civilization to develop modern science and technology hadn’t used it for conquest? Is colonialism backed by technological superiority a historical inevitability, or was it a choice? A choice which is at the heart of the radical political discussion in the Black Panther movie.

Literally Reinventing History

Looking back at history, the steam engine that kick-started the technological revolution realistically could have been developed first already in the ancient Greece or Rome, but also in China, and that’s just based on our particular roll of the historical dice. Very likely, a number of historical accidents have determined the outcome at least as much as any individual or cultural efforts — accidents that didn’t have to happen.

Some evidence suggests that there was an advanced civilization in the Mediterranean before the Greeks that literally exploded, and perhaps the only reason why the British developed the steam engine first was that unlike China, their coal (needed for the smelting of iron) was in mines close to the sea, which meant that they needed to be continuously drained. The rise of the Dutch in the modern era was also because of the difficulties posed by them existing under the sea level that they had to overcome.

And this all presupposes that true scientific technological advancement is tied exclusively to the amount of energy that can be turned into work that one has at their disposal, or to the speed of transportation or information exchange that can be achieved, or to the blowupiness of one’s boom booms. That’s certainly one historical narrative of progress, specifically ours — the white, western one. But a possibility exists, a “what if” that scifi should explore, that maybe, this view is just an amplification of savagery.

Maybe there are multiple pathways of scientific progress, multiple possible modernities — paths that still can be tread in the future. It’s not like we’re not enjoying today the literal fruits of the millennia of the American cultivation efforts. I dare you to argue that making pizza possible isn’t a major technological accomplishment. It’s not like most of our storytelling and spiritual concepts owe nothing to non-western cultures like ancient Egypt, India, or Persia. It’s not like modern music isn’t largely African in origin. To be able to take stuff by force, it has to be invented first.

The Equality of Peopleness

However, it’s important to point out that I’m not suggesting that non-western cultures never had any attributes of the western culture. In all likelihood, among the multitudes of nations on any continent, one could find all of the possible kinds of ideologies, including a warlike, exploitative streak. It’s quite possible that if modern science and technology were developed by some African nation, it too would have used them to spread its empire and colonize the whole rest of the world. That’s not my point.

My point is that science fiction can be used to explore what the world could have been like if some other than the imperialist streak first got possession of modern technologies and used them differently, which could include even an alternate western history in which some other historical western idea won over while modern weapons were only used to defend it. After all, my nation, Czechs, have been the first to use modern warfare tech and tactics (pistols and de facto tanks in the late middle ages), but only to defend our own ability to maintain our humanistic version of Christianity.

In our case, the alternate history could have started if we hadn’t betrayed ourselves soon after, as that was the only way to defeat us militarily at that time. Who knows what would have happened. It’s of course exponentially more difficult to accurately or believably extrapolate the alternate history the further back in history the divergence takes place, but fortunately in the case of modernity, the divergence is more plausible relatively recently.

In fact, I believe there’s a new opportunity to start modernity over at every major technological level (on the scales of energy, travel speed, and information processing), much like the concept of ages works in historical strategy games. Scifi of this genre is therefore potentially crucial in laying the foundation for how major technological upstart civilizations in the future may decide to conduct themselves. If we fail to imagine anything other than colonization and wars of races in space, that’s all we’ll ever do.



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