7 Books Centered on People of Color and Technology
Claire Stanford recommends novels and poetry about decolonized technological futures, government surveillance, and more.
In the past few years, as I’ve been working on my own book about technology, I’ve been reading books about technology—critiques of Silicon Valley, of internet culture—and wondering: where are all the people of color? Sure, Silicon Valley is known as the home of the tech bro—a white man, probably wearing a Patagonia jacket and a pair of Allbirds. But still. People all around the globe, of all races, use the internet every day, use social media every day—where are these stories about technology?
I was thinking about other questions, too: What is the experience of a woman of color in a world of tech bros? How does the algorithm try to standardize us as people—to suggest that there’s one way to be? How does it feel to be a person who doesn’t fit into the algorithm?
These are some of the questions I grappled with in writing my debut novel, Happy for You, which follows half-Japanese half-Jewish Evelyn Kominsky Kumamoto as she leaves a PhD program in philosophy to join the third-most-popular internet company, where her team is developing an app that objectively measures user happiness. Even as she tries to convince herself that the project is worthwhile—that she is doing good—she confronts the limitations of technology in understanding the nuances of race and cultural context, and, more generally, the algorithm’s general push to make all of us conform to a single standard of success and of happiness.
For this reading list, I wanted to include books that center people of color in stories about contemporary technology, as well as books that center people of color in considering how the way we relate to technology could be different in the future. I’ve also included two books of poetry that I’ve found deeply impactful, works that defamiliarize our contemporary technologies, using programming code and Google Translate to new and surprising linguistic ends. Spanning past, present, and future, these books prompt us to consider the ways technology perpetuates racial biases and injustices—and how we might liberate ourselves from its insidious control.
Edge Case by YZ Chin
Edge Case is narrated by Edwina, the sole female employee at a AInstein, a New York City startup that is developing a joke-telling robot. She is also an immigrant from Malaysia with a work visa that will soon expire. When the novel opens, Edwina’s husband—also a Malaysian immigrant, also working in tech, and also on a work visa (that is similarly about to expire)—has gone missing, and the novel follows Edwina as she tries to track her husband down and cope with the possible dissolution of their marriage while simultaneously trying to figure out how to get a green card before she has to either move back to Malaysia or remain, undocumented, in the United States.
Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang
This funny, deeply-thoughtful novel is narrated by Alexandra, a 25-year-old Chinese American writer who —at the novel’s start—works as a reporter for a prestigious tech publication in San Francisco. As she grapples with her relationship with her white boyfriend, J., she simultaneously grapples with her predominantly white newsroom and reporting on the predominantly white companies of Silicon Valley. The novel’s fragmentary narrative covers microagressions at the workplace, pay disparities, interracial relationships, and histories of anti-Asian discrimination, forming a kind of collage of thought that is always grounded in the narrator’s specific longing to find her place in the world.
Soft Science by Franny Choi
This collection of poems expresses what it feels like to be an Asian American woman—to be objectified, to be fetishized—both in real life and in the virtual world. Choi writes about technology and incorporates technology itself into her poetry as a formal device; in “The Cyborg Wants to Make Sure She Heard You Right,” for example, she runs a series of tweets that were directed at her through Google Translate, showing the startling persistence of Orientalizing language even as it moves through multiple rounds of translation. Another poem inhabits the voiceless android Kyoko from Ex Machina, writing back to the film’s techno-Orientalized vision of the future and insisting on an Asian woman’s right to speak and to be heard.
Travesty Generator by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram
In Travesty Generator, Bertram uses computer code and programming to create poetry that responds to the hidden racial biases of coding, algorithms, and digital technology and to offer new narratives for the relationship between Black lives and technology. As Bertram writes in the afterword:
“I use codes and algorithms in an attempt [to] create work that reconfigures and challenges oppressive narratives for Black people and to imagine new ones.”
High Aztech by Ernest Hogan
Originally published by Tor in 1992, this cult science fiction novel was reissued by Strange Particle Press in 2016. It’s 2045, and the journalist Xólotl Zapata is living in Tenochtitlán, formerly known as Mexico City. The U.S. is in decline while Africa and Latin America are ascendant centers of technology. The story follows Xólotl after he is infected with a highly-contagious virus that can download beliefs into the human brain; it can instill any kind of beliefs, but in Xólotl’s case, it has made him into a carrier for converting everyone he meets to the Aztec religion. Antic and fast-moving, filled with Spanish, Spanglish, and Nahuatl, the novel upends the typical U.S.-focus of science fiction and technology-driven narratives, offering a vision of a decolonized technological future.
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
Built on an epic scale, The Old Drift weaves together the stories of three Zambian families (Black, white, and Brown), spanning the course of more than a century (1903 to the near future) and mingling multiple genres (historical fiction, surrealism, fantasy, science fiction). The final section considers an array of technologies, both real and speculative: nanorobots and microdrones, gene-editing and CRISPR, and devices called Digit-All Beads that are implanted in users’ hands and work similarly to smartphones (with similar problems of surveillance). Serpell traces the connection between past colonialism and present-day government control, looking toward a future when technology no longer forces people to submit, but allows them to revolt.
Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai
Moving between 19th-century China and the near-future Pacific Northwest, Salt Fish Girl centers on two female characters: Nu Wa, who escapes her Chinese village after an arranged marriage goes awry, and the teenage Miranda, who lives in the corporate-controlled city of Serendipity on the coast of what used to be Canada in 2044. Dissolving the borders between myth and science fiction, Lai creates a mash-up of genetically-engineered beings, shape-shifting, creation stories, reincarnation, virtual reality, and a mysterious sickness called the Dreaming Disease, whose sufferers ultimately voluntarily walk into the sea and drown themselves. Like Serpell, Lai draws a connection between past and future, destabilizing the primacy of Western science and technology. The book is not an easy read; rather, it is poetic, mystical, and sometimes confounding, a kind of fever dream of the body, feminism, and queer intimacy. Its narrative chaos and sensory overwhelm are part of its beauty.