Steven E. McDonald is a Jamaican author who published a couple of stories in Analog and Asimov’s in the late 70s and early 80s. His first novel, The Janus Syndrome, was published in 1981.
I’m sure there were other SF or fantasy novels featuring a black male protagonist on the cover by 1981, but I can’t remember any. (F. M. Busby published Zelde M’Tana, featuring a black heroine on the cover, in 1980, and John Brunner wrote the first of his Max Curfew spy novels, A Plague on Both Your Causes, way back in 1969, but they weren’t science fiction.) As far as I know The Janus Syndrome broke the color barrier, at least among mainstream paperback SF publishers. It’s the first time I remember seeing a black hero so prominently on a cover, anyway.
Unfortunately, it didn’t sell. The Janus Syndrome did not usher in a new era of color diversity on SF paperbacks, and that’s a pity. There were no more novels featuring “the outrageous hero” Kevven Tomari from Bantam Books, or anyone else.
I’m sure there’s plenty of reasons for the failure of the The Janus Syndrome, but chiefly I blame science fiction fans — myself included. I was 17 years old in 1981, already spending a good chunk of my disposable income every week on science fiction paperbacks. I never saw a copy on bookstore shelves in 1981, and I assume that’s due to poor distribution. But even if I had, I doubt I would have bought it. I almost certainly would have seen a prominent black character on a book cover as a statement… and at 17, I avoided anything that looked like a statement.
Really, it was prejudice, plain and simple (although I would have been very insulted at that accusation in 1981). I think it took Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler to teach me that black protagonists in SF weren’t “statements” — they were just characters, as fascinating and flawed as everyone else. Embarrassing I didn’t really internalize that lesson until my late teens, but there it is.
We can accuse publishers, and the industry, of being slow to put people of color on book covers all we want (and there’s no question they have been, even today). But I’m enough of a capitalist to know that publishers follow the market. Change starts with buyers. I try to remember that when I’m picking my selections at bookstores, even in 2015.
It was sixteen years before Steven E. McDonald tried his hand at another science fiction novel. He wrote the novelization for Event Horizon in 1997, followed by two more media adaptions: Supernova (1999) and Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda #3: Waystation (2004).
The Janus Syndrome was published by Bantam Books in October 1981. It is 264 pages, priced at $2.50. The cover is by Lou Feck.
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