Academics who study science fiction have typically been fixated on what they see as its privileged relationship with futurity. By imagining a possible shape for the future that will someday arise out of the present—however prescient, realistic, or patently ridiculous a particular author’s imagination of that future might be—science fiction narratives help restore to us a sense of radical historical possibility that can feel lost in an era once infamously called “the end of history.”
This is why the genre’s ruminations on time, technology, and personal and social transformation have been seen by so many of its authors, critics, and fans as a subspecies of utopian literature, even or especially when the science fictional imagination is so often dark and disturbing; whatever hopes or nightmares it cooks up, whatever heavens or hells it envisions, science fiction reminds us that things were different once, and that they will soon be different again.
The genre of “alternate history,” despite its superficial closeness to science fiction, fits somewhat uneasily within the genre’s usual politics. Alternate history narratives often produce the same sense of historical possibility as science fiction, but not necessarily in terms we can activate from our position in the present. To imagine that Columbus might never have reached America, or that the South might have won the Civil War, or that Hitler might never have been born, is ultimately to produce a vision of a place that we can’t get to from here. If science fiction speculates—because its objects might yet be made real, in whatever form, to whatever extent—alternate history can only conjecture on lost possibilities that can never be recovered or redeemed.
In this sense alternate history is actually much closer to the genre of fantasy than it is to science fiction, at least as the three genres have come to be understood by their academic critics; in terms of its achievability, in terms of drawing any path from here to there that human society might actually traverse, an alternate history is much more like Westeros than the Federation. We already missed that train. Thus, where science fiction tends to produce a sort of philosophical optimism about human history, alternate history narratives tend to carry a much more negative affective charge; the imaginative leap that shows us the other world is always also an impermeable barrier keeping us from ever crossing over.
This generic distinction (however fine-tuned or hair-splitting) comes to a head in Ryan Coogler’s transcendent 2018 contribution to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther. Imagining Wakanda, a hidden African superpower that has never been colonized, and T’Challa, its superpowered, hereditary monarch, the Afrofuturist, techno-optimistic Black Panther reads quite differently to a critic who sees it as a science fiction than to one who sees it as an alternate history. What are we to make of the Wakandans’ incredible technology, including wondrous cures, wearable personal supercomputers, radical human augmentation and enhancement, anti-gravity hovercraft, flawless hologrammatic illusions, and so much more? Does their eradication of poverty and pollution augur some possible socialist ecotopia for our own society, somewhere in our future? Does their independence from capitalism, and from European-American structures of colonial domination and white supremacy, promise a revolutionary new future for Africa, a black anticapitalist utopia that might yet be made real? Might their technological synthesis of science with the supernatural even offer a new way forward for our own increasingly hypersecularized, depressive culture?
Such structures certainly look like science fiction—and surely the film’s inspiring status as a global cultural phenomenon, inspiring widespread adoption of the Wakandan salute and the “Wakanda Forever!” slogan among other markers of its success, would encourage us to hope it could someday be. But narratively the film complicates its sense of hope by locating its sense of historical difference not in the future, nor in human ingenuity, but in a random cosmic coincidence in the deep past: the arrival of a meteor containing the fictional compound vibranium many thousands of years ago.
That Wakanda escaped colonialism, and that it has since invented an inspiring vision of a future for black people that is outside white control, becomes thus doubly endangered by the interior logic of the narrative: not only did the vibranium not arrive in time to save us, but nothing like vibranium actually exists. Vibranium may be described by the movie’s characters in materialist terms, but outside the narrative we know it is just magic—and so the once-utopian assertion of historical difference that first attracted us to Wakanda is thrown bitterly back in our faces, and the impossibility of Wakanda becomes proof that the nightmare of history could never have turned out any other way, not really. A Wakanda that takes an impossible event as its foundation is not blueprint but mere dream, dissipating as we wake.
The principle of historical difference that makes the inspiring vision of Wakanda so tantalizingly real is thus always disciplined by the dialectical counter-assertion of its status as pure fantasy. From a historical materialist perspective—from the perspective that values science fiction over alternate history—everything Wakanda achieves, from its fierce independence to its ecologically rational zero-waste economy to its contact with the spirit realm and the deep past, is in some basic sense fruit from a poisoned tree. However much we may long for it, Wakanda does not and can never exist—because the moment of its emergence has already long been eclipsed, and the conditions for its possibility were sadly never real to begin with.
The slim wedge between science fiction and alternate history thus provides Black Panther with two very different affective charges, depending on which of its two possible genres takes interpretive priority; in the end the film becomes either a radically utopian or a radically anti-utopian text, depending on what we decide it means that the miracle of their vibranium meteor never fell in our skies.