12 min read

A pan-African utopia in the stars

Scientist and author Maurice Broaddus talks about the backstory to his new space opera Sweep of Stars — and where the series is headed.
A pan-African utopia in the stars

Any Star Trek will be familiar with the idea of using crystals to power a spacecraft. But what if that interstellar fuel source could be replenished not through mining, but by re-aligning used crystals with jazz music? It sounds like something Commander Riker would have approved of heartily — yet the idea didn't spring from the pages of a TNG script. It's from Sweep of Stars, a new space opera by Maurice Broaddus that blends the writer's loves of science, art, and religion in an intrigue-filled tale about a pan-African society called the Muungano that's forging a new future for itself across the Solar System.

To do so, the Muungano have to sever themselves — physically, culturally, and politically — from original Earth, or O.E. as it's known. That's not such a bad idea, because in the 22nd century O.E. isn't doing so great. Mired in endless wars and neofascist uprisings while straining under the burden of a poorly handled climate catastrophe, O.E. represents everything the Muungano people wish to leave behind in favor of a civilization that values human life, art, and exploration. But when a mysterious wormhole to a distant part of the galaxy appears beyond Titan, the scramble to explore it brings some of the most dangerous elements of O.E. and Muungano society into a headlong collision.

Sweep of Stars is a love letter to the world that could be if Black people in Africa and the African diaspora were finally free from the effects of centuries of slavery, colonialism, and ongoing systemic racism. It paints a picture of a people who innovate radically in the sciences and arts — often blending the two in unexpected ways that result in musical spacecraft and emotive AI  — while at the same time always centering the needs of the community in the development of new technologies. The result is an almost Star Trek-esque utopia, if the Star Trek future was built by Black people.

Sweep of Stars is the first book in Broaddus' new Astra Black trilogy, which the author describes as the culmination of every sci-fi story he's ever written. The Science of Fiction recently spoke with Broaddus to learn more about the origins of the Muungano, how the author's past career as an environmental scientist informs his worldbuilding, and why the discovery of intelligent alien life will likely only divide us further.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

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Maddie Stone: What are some of your favorite works of science fiction, or things that inspired you growing up?

Maurice Broaddus: Well, I grew up as a comic book collector. I mean, just flat out. I'm at school right now — I teach at a middle school. But if I was at home in my office, I would be surrounded by about 20,000 comic books I've amassed. Although, I amassed them 20 years ago. That's when I quit collecting, mostly because my wife said I could either keep collecting comic books or I could feed the children, but I probably couldn't do both. So after I prayed about it for a while, I said, 'Maybe I ought to give  up the comic books.'

Maddie: Fair trade-off.

Maurice: Yeah. But I grew up on comic books, Doctor Who, Star Trek. Those are my big entryways into sci-fi.

Maddie: Can you talk about where the idea for Sweep of Stars — and this larger Astra Black series you're embarking on — came from? Are there any particular works of sci-fi or space operas that influenced you?

Maurice: So I released a short story collection in 2017 called Voices of Martyrs, and the stories in that collection are divided into three sections. They're stories that take place in the past and the present and the future. And so when I was reading the reviews of the book, people kept describing my work, especially in that last third, as me being an Afrofuturist. And I'm just like 'An Afro what now?' I'd never heard the term before. And so, okay, apparently I'm writing science fiction stories, but I hadn't really thought about it. I was just writing some things that popped into my head. Actually, a lot of it was based off some religion stuff I was dealing with. So I'm just wrestling with what's going on inside of me.

So then, flash forward about three years or so. And I pitched the idea of a novel to an editor, where I just sort of imagined my sister and her friends out in space patrolling the universe with guns. And the editor was really intrigued by the idea. And so I was like, 'Well, what kind of world would they come from?' And that's when I started dreaming up this universe. Just imagining what things could look like if we won, you know? How would we do things differently? So I created this massive world. And I come from a game-playing background, so I love world building and I will world build just for the heck of it. But when I was ready to start writing Sweep of Stars, I was like, 'If I write this book and just focus on this one storyline I will get pilloried.' Because that's what happened last time I wrote a massive world-building short story called Pimp My Airship. A lot of readers were like, 'We love the story, we love this world, but we only get a glimpse of this world and we could tell there's a whole lot to this.' And I already saw the handwriting on the wall with Sweep of Stars. So I'm like, no, no, I'm going to design this book so that we can see all the different elements of this world. And as part of it, I realized, you know what? I think every story I've set in the future has been leading up to this. So then it became me tying together all of the sci-fi stories I had done to date as all being a part of this world, this universe.

Credit: Macmillan

Maddie: You have a background in biology. Could you talk a little bit about that and how that informs your world-building?

Maurice: Well, it's interesting because I got my degree in biology and I spent 20 years in environmental toxicology. So a lot of water quality testing, things along those lines. 2009 was when I quit being a scientist. And up until that point, I built up most of my [writing] career as a horror writer. So it was rare that biology or science even played a part in any of my stories. And then fast forward, I'm starting to write all of these different sci-fi books and I'm just like, 'God can I even pick a protein out of a lineup anymore? It's been a minute.' So I always feel a little shaky when I'm writing science. But luckily, I still have a bunch of scientists as friends, and so it makes for great excuses for us to get together and have dialogs over various topics.

But the thing that actually plays more of a part, science-wise, is the fact that physics was always my weakest subject in school. At least, the classical physics. Once you get to theoretical physics, then you got me. Let me bend the space-time continuum. This makes sense to me. And no physics teacher I had in high school or college could make heads or tails of it. They were like, 'How is it you failed basic physics, but you aced all the advanced stuff?' And I'm like, ‘Umm, Star Trek?’ Even once I was done with biology, I still read theoretical physics texts because that stuff always fascinated me. What's the nature of reality? How does spacetime work? And so, you will see threads of that definitely come into the book.

Maddie: In Sweep of Stars, Earth is in a pretty bad place. The planet underwent some sort of environmental calamity and has this ineffective global government with religious fundamentalist and neofascist elements. Maybe this feels like an obvious question given the moment we're in. But were there any elements of our current reality that led you to that dark place for Earth's future?

Maurice: Right, well what was it Octavia Butler said? When folks were talking about how prophetic Parable of the Sower was? And she was like 'Well, I just took what was going on right now to its natural conclusion.'

Maddie: Right. She was just reading the news.

Maurice: Exactly. And that's all I'm doing. I'm just reading the news and going, 'All right. So if this is where we're at, where's this leading us?'

Maddie: And in contrast to Earth, Muungano society is at least on its surface very peaceful and united. It's a community driven by desires to take care of one another, to create art, to explore. Why was it important that this community be fully separated from Earth, and how does that inform their identity?

Maurice: That was actually the big struggle point. How do we create something new — how do we even give ourselves that freedom to dream of something different — while we're still in the shadow of this history of oppression? It's hard to give yourself freedom to dream in that sort of setting. So, alright, let's carve out a whole new space. And it's not even space that's that far away. It's just the Moon—which, you know, that's a whole sentence right there. 'Just the Moon.' But the whole idea was 'Let's get to a place where we can carve out some time to just sit and think and just dream, essentially, about who we could be, what we want to be, how we want to do things differently.' And I think that dreaming process is the process of trying to shake off the weight of history. Can we shake off enough of the weight of history so that we can try and create something new?

Maddie: I was super interested by all the diverse technologies we see in Muungano society. Nanotechnology seems to be very big. I'm not sure if you've seen Star Trek Discovery, but the way nanotechnology is used in your book reminded me a bit of Discovery's programmable matter. The society also makes heavy use of artificial intelligence through the Maya systems that are integrated into the ships. And then you also have this emphasis on bioengineering and genetic manipulation, both for terraforming as well as human augmentation. Overall, I thought there was a really interesting blend of spirituality and science in a lot of the technology. Could you talk a little bit about what inspired this panoply of technologies — are there any driving principles behind it?

Maurice: So one, I grew up in a church background. I very much have that as a part of me. And so as I'm coming at this book, I'm bringing my full self to it, which is: I'm an artist. I'm a scientist. I'm a theologian. And all three aspects of me are all pursuing: What is truth? Who am I? Why are we here? And I have three different tools at my disposal in order to answer those sorts of questions, which are at the heart of this community. The question they keep asking themselves is 'Who are we and who are we meant to be?' And so that's what drives part of it. The other part is 'What do we value most?' And so, they start with the premise of, 'You know, what we value most? Each other.' And if we value each other most, then everything else should be driven by that. So what do our economic systems look like? Our economic systems need to support each other. Ok, so what is our schooling system look like? Well, it needs to be a space where people can be curious and follow their dreams and interests and learn alongside everyone else in community. Even the AI system Maya — this was something I wrestled with for a long time. If AI is even close to self-aware, and we're using it to run things, then is it just digital slavery at that point? Well, in this system, we couldn't abide that. And so, how is Maya then to be integrated into the community? Well, we just welcome Maya as a member of community. Every member of community serves the whole community. So Maya's role isn't any different than any other community member’s role. And then we wrestle with the repercussions of that.

And then there's just a bunch of nerd stuff, so half of it I'm just throwing in a lot of in-jokes and references to other sci-fi stuff that I love.

Maddie: One bit that I particularly loved is the way music is embedded into society. Not just through the love of music in Muungano culture and the high esteem for artists. But you have these kphrew crystals that power the ships.

Maurice: Yea, I work for an organization called the Kphrew Institute. And so that was one of those jokes that I sort of slipped in there. A big part of the book stems from my love of jazz music. And one of the founders of the Kphrew Institute is a huge jazz head, and he and I got in this discussion once about the importance of improvisation as a leadership skill. And how, if we're going to train up young leaders, we should train them in improv. The ability to think in the moment, to base your movements off the rest of your team — things like that. And so that whole conversation stuck in the back of my head. So then, I go from improv as a leadership skill to train our captains to, 'You know, we should have entire starships powered by jazz music.' That seemed like a perfectly logical progression.

Maddie: I love it. It's such a cool way for music to not take a background role, but to literally be the driving force behind cosmic exploration.

Maurice: Absolutely. So, you know, in terms of what the society values, we value art. We value education. The leaders of the community are the teachers. The people who are held in the highest esteem are the teachers. What could a world look like if we emphasize that?

Maddie: I wanted to ask you a little about the HOVA units. I thought it was a really interesting choice to have this explicitly peaceful, non-imperialist society. But then within it, there are these heavily gene altered super soldiers who are bred for combat, who've been reprogrammed down to the cellular level. Given how controversial the idea of human genetic manipulation is today, what does it tell us about the Muungano that they've embraced it to such a degree in the future?

Maurice: 'And that's a question that they have to continue to wrestle with,' he says, as he's wrapping up book two at the moment.

In the end, no society is perfect, because it's made up of people. So there's going to be these flaws. And frankly, I didn't want to write a perfect utopia because it might get a little boring. But it's just a very real wrestling with 'In order to get to where we want to be, are there compromises we have to make along the line? Are there times where we have to do bad things in order to further a great end?'

Maddie: The main drama of the book in many ways centers around the Orun Gate, this artificial wormhole to the other side of the galaxy out beyond Titan, and how the different societies of the Sol system are going to respond to what lies beyond it. I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that how humanity will respond to the discovery of intelligent life is an important theme here. And we see these two radically different approaches in how original Earth decides to do it and what the Muungano might have done differently left to their own devices. I'm curious: If intelligent alien life showed up on our doorstep, do you think it would divide us more than we already are? That's a little bit of what I'm reading here.

Maurice: You mean, how would society react if some Other entered it? Let's say that Other took the form of a virus? I wonder what that could do to our world and how we might react to it in totally different ways?

Maddie: Totally hypothetical experiment.

Maurice: Totally hypothetical. [Laughs.] But I think that's it exactly. Anytime you have an Other that enters the equation, it does seem like we do this automatic split. There is the split that says 'It is dangerous. It is an Other. Let us destroy, control, capture, study it.' Then there's a faction that's like, 'Hey, How about we adapt to life alongside it? What does that look like?' What does it look like to embrace its presence and then see about living life alongside it? And yea. I could only see it splitting us even more. I mean, thinking about even my circle of friends, they'd split right down the middle.

Maddie: There are a lot of balls in the air at the end of Sweep of Stars. What can readers look forward to learning more about in book two?

Maurice: So in book one, we've established the Muungano community, right? There's an ethos that they work by. There's an identity that forms all of their people. So in book two, as the people scatter and drift, how do they take that with them? The philosophies that have defined their identity — how do they take that to the various spaces they find themselves in, and what does that mean? That's a big part of what we're wrestling with in book two.

Maddie: Is there anything else you'd like to add, particularly for the science nerds out there, about this book?

Maurice: Oh, man. So, there were several times when I took a couple of physics friends out to lunch or for coffee and I was just like, 'All right, here's what I'm thinking about doing.' Let me tell you, there's nothing a scientist loves more than A, you coming to them for some expertise. But for expertise to put into a science fiction book? They were like, 'Lunch is on us! We got this.' Someone went to town on this whole idea of interface theory. I'm just like, 'I've never even heard of that before,' and they're like, 'Oh, well, in that case!' And then so all the napkins within vicinity became fair game for them to draw diagrams of everything. So it's been great just to flesh out some of these ideas.

Maddie: Every scientist does secretly want to be a science fiction consultant.

Maurice: Oh, absolutely. I mean, they were giddy.

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