Reviewing the Problem

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Credit: Will this be a problem'

Title: Will This Be A Problem? The Anthology: Issue 3

Publication Date: January 11, 2017 

62 pages 

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Reviewer: Wole Talabi

I was very pleased when I found out about the Will this be a Problem? anthology. As Chinelo Onwualu notes in her essay Emerging Trends in African Speculative Fiction, the numbers seem to indicate that the African speculative fiction scene at present is dominated by South Africans and Nigerians. I may be Nigerian, but I don’t like this state of affairs, and I have been actively seeking speculative short fiction from outside Nigeria and South Africa.

Will this be a Problem? Issue 3 is a collection of seven speculative stories by African writers (six male, one female) from Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria (again). With a title like that, the anthology seems designed to invite a response. But while I was tempted to respond positively, that would have been dishonest.

In his review, Brainstorm’s Michael Onsando does this. He felt that time, magic and power were the fragmented, but unifying themes of the anthology. I see his point, but I found his analysis a bit loose and don’t quite agree with it.

To my reading, the collection offers a wide range of speculative stories about death, revolution, loneliness, power, and responsibility that never quite cohere into a whole, but has no real connective tissue. This almost appears intentional since the anthology does not contain an editor’s introduction to frame it. So in this review I will focus on the anthology’s individual stories.

First, however, I must praise the beautiful cover art by Kenyan digital artist, animator and illustrator, Peter Marco, which illustrates Andrew Dakalira’s “Rise of the Akafula” perfectly. His art is sharp, well-composed and lovely to look at. I hope to see more of his work illustrating the African speculative in the future.

Now, the Stories…

The anthology opens with its best foot forward, presenting the story “Rise of the Akafula” by Andrew Charles Dakalira of Malawi. In the story, the earth is largely uninhabitable following years of havoc due to climate change, except to the Akafula who are a race of short people native to the Chikangawa area of Malawi. The other tall, technologically advanced people called the Chintali have fled to bases on the moon and bunkers underground. From the safety of these locations, they enslave the Akafula, using them as a domestic, maintenance and foraging labour force on the barren surface, which is now overrun by wild mutant dogs. The enslaved Akafula however, are silently and patiently plotting their liberation.

The story is crisp, clever and enjoyable, with great world-building and descriptions. Dakalira, who previously appeared in AfroSFv2 with the novella “VIII” is no amateur and there are small touches of cleverness and SFnal extrapolation that are used to buttress the story’s environmental and social message. For instance, the Akafula are described as being from ‘Chikangawa desert.’ Chikangawa is actually a forest in the northern region of Malawi which is currently being decimated by excessive logging. I also think Tilinde, the main character especially shines – he has a quiet resolve that comes across within a few passages – and the story concludes with a satisfying end.

The only weakness I found was in the level of Chintali technology presented. If the Chintali have technology advanced enough to allow them make the hopelessly barren moon habitable, why can’t they make the damaged earth habitable again? Also, for a society with such advanced technology, using the Akafula as slaves makes little sense since robots would surely be able to do more and survive longer. It seems inconsistent. Still, it is a very good read and I recommend it.

The plot of “The Mortuary Man” by Mark Lekan Lalude of Nigeria is simple enough:  a young, sexually frustrated mortuary attendant sees a ghost one night and is allowed to keep seeing and interacting with the other ghosts in return for his silence. Soon after, he resorts to necrophilia, and eventually loses his mind when, at the height of his passion, he promises his heart to the ghost of a young woman whose corpse he violated. The plot works overall but there are two main issues I had with this story.

One, the language is excessively flowery. Take for example this passage describing Tao’s love-life:

“Away from the morgue, Tao’s life was a loveless mess. His scandals of young girls who were about to step into the trap of his squalid den of a room littered from time to time with cigarette stubs and small bottles of locally brewed gin and the morbidness of being a mortuary man was enough to make the young women that he liked to ogle often tell him no, and hiss when he promised them love. The women who wiggled buttocks so large they trembled in fleshy deliciousness despite the stretch-marked thighs, from bum shorts to raunchy music at the seedy blue-lit hotel around the corner were quite expensive to keep. And so Tao went around containing the rise of his longing, he bore the rock-hardness of the insistence of his maleness.”

The language works in a few places but more often than not, it’s just too much, distractingly overwritten. This story needed an editor to tame it before it was published.

Two, Tao is an unlikeable character who does despicable things with no real motivation for doing them beyond being horny and ignored by women. Because of this, the character and the main plot elements – his sexual frustrations, the apparitions, his necrophilia, and his eventual madness – never come together to make a bigger statement. At least not to me. They are just a series of unsettling events. This is a pity because I think the piece has the skeleton for a much better story.

The third story, “The Last History” by Kevin Rigathi of Kenya, is conceptually grand. When humans find one day that they are unable to die, Amina Amaru rises to the head of the East African Republic by finding a way to bring death back to humanity, at least for children. But it seems she is being manipulated by a powerful force and her actions are only part of a larger war between the living and the dead that may eventually lead to war between the gods themselves.

This story has an epic scope and I was impressed by the sheer scale of the concept. But the actual execution is weak. Major plot points are unexplained or make no sense: for example there is no explanation for why the dead think the living attacked them. Also, once we get past the halfway point of the story, no character has any clear motivation for what they are doing anymore, and things just seem to occur.

It also doesn’t help that there is almost no dialogue or physical description, so it is difficult to picture things. Except for the interjected ‘excerpts’, the whole story comes across as one large infodump (or detailed background and context with no story).

To its credit, the story does invite some considerations on the importance of death and its purpose to society and humanity. But while I found some of its philosophical digressions interesting, they were not enough to elevate the story beyond its structural weaknesses. This is a story with a lot of brilliant ideas, but which I feel was ultimately unable to string them all together cohesively.

Now this one, “The Real Deal” by James Kariuki, also of Kenya, is a fun story about magic. The story follows Juma, a witchdoctor who may or may not have supernatural powers, as he is arrested by the police and forced to help them find a missing politician. There are moments of seriousness followed by straight comedy, all leading up to a great, hilarious, open-ended punchline at the end.

Despite the humour, the story is paced pretty much perfectly, with the tension is always kept high, and just the right amount of information presented in context to allow the reader to figure out the dynamics of what’s going on.

I particularly enjoyed this story because of its ambiguity regarding Juma’s powers – sometimes he is simply being practical, and other times he seems to genuinely have otherworldly abilities. Take for example this conversation where he describes his approach to keep straying husbands at home with their complaining wives.

“I gave them a potion to keep their husbands at home over the weekends. That was the problem they wanted me to solve.”

“So it was a love potion?”

“It was something to give them diarrhoea.”

In the end, it is left for the reader to decide if Juma is the real deal or not. While some readers may not care for this open-endedness, I personally think it all works very well, given the style and subject matter, and I happily recommend this story.

In “Future Long Since Passed” by Lausdeus Otito Chiegboka of Nigeria, life in Nigeria has improved through a pragmatic combination of infrastructure development, smart tax policy and good governance focused on improving technological capacity. Dr Izima, the co-founder of a medi-tech startup which is solving some of medicine’s larger problems, has an accident and is confronted by the spirits of his ancestors in the place between life and death.

There are some very interesting ideas here about the technology, politics and history of this potential Nigeria, as well as the doctor’s own past.  However, I struggled when reading the story because there were many places where the author just stops the story cold to build the world. The world-building should have been merged with the narrative, in context.

This is sometimes unavoidable with speculative fiction. The real sin here is that the story goes nowhere. Nothing really happens. We meet Dr. Izima in his office, we are told of his world, then he has an accident, meets his ancestors who call him to the traditional role of priesthood, and then… Nothing. He just wakes up. The doctor does not decide anything or do anything.

By placing Dr. Izima at the nexus of life and death, the story seems to want to say something about the relationship between past traditions and future developments, but whatever it is remains unclear. This makes the story seem incomplete and I felt unsatisfied at the end of it.

At the start of “The World is Mine” by Kris Kabiru of Kenya, we meet Stan, who seems to be the last person left after everyone else on the planet mysteriously disappears. He wanders the suburbs of Nairobi, foraging in supermarkets and exploring his neighbours’ vacant homes to satisfy his curiosity about their lives as well as to maintain a connection to other humans, however tenuous. On one of his explorations he meets another left-behind person, a girl, they have a tense exchange but come to a sort of understanding. Even though she robs him while he sleeps and runs off, he looks forward to meeting her again.

While all the previous stories in the anthology are noticeably African, either in description of setting or characters, this one is the first story which could easily have been set anywhere or featured anyone of any background. Even the dialogue is free of any local stylings and the character’s name, Stan, is non-specific. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but since the story presents a post-apocalyptic narrative, this failure to take advantage of the setting cripples it somewhat in my eyes.

The best post-apocalyptic stories use setting and atmosphere to buttress the narrative, usually to great effect (for movies, think Mad Max’s signature dusty, red Australian heat, or the grey bleakness of England in Children Of Men; for literature, think of the dilapidated and decayed landscape of the American south in Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 The Road or the crumbling, lonely Los Angeles cityscape of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend or even, for a lesser example, the ruined Lagos of my own short story The Last Lagosian).

Still, I found Stan a mostly interesting character. His need to search houses for some kind of human contact is understandable, and works with his humorous outlook to give the story some nice character moments that illustrate Stan’s humanity despite his dire situation. I did find it unbelievable that the girl would rob him, considering the fact that the situation only seems to have been ongoing for three months and food and supplies are not presented as being scarce. There seemed to be no point to her theft.

The story is passable but ultimately too derivative of typical post-apocalyptic fare. Not tapping into the atmosphere of its post-apocalyptic Nairobi, or having anything new, or even uniquely Kenyan (or African) to say, renders it inert.

Full of wonderful, fantastical imagery, “What Happens When It Rains” by Michelle Angwenyi of Kenya, follows a young girl who one day, when she is caught in the rain, learns from the spirit of her mother that she is not fully human. She is part of a spirit world that exists in parallel with our own and has a responsibility to defend our world from the evil ‘elementals’ ensuring the connection between the two worlds is not lost.

The vivid imagery and description is demonstrated in sections such as:

My mother, the two male and the female elementals had begun to violently scratch their skin. Giant flakes of dry, burnt skin fell onto the ground and vanished in a hiss of mist as soon as they touched the ground. Their bodies began to mist and hiss as well. And then they were gone, in a flash of colour and black light.

However, the imagery is the only thing I found enjoyable about this story. The narrative is needlessly complicated for what is an essentially simple plot, and the dialogue and exposition are so clunky, they took me out of the story a few times.

Perhaps even worse, is that the characters do not seem real. For example, there is no sense of the emotional connection between the girl and her mother – even when her dead mother materializes in front of her to deliver a large chunk of exposition, they do not hug, or express surprise or joy or any other recognizable emotion. They just talk as strange things continue to happen around them. Some readers may not see as this as a problem and consider the lack of human emotion to add to the supernatural, dreamlike sequence, making it more effective, but for me, it didn’t work. The story ends on a hopeful note though, which I think is a good way to end the anthology.

In Conclusion…

Having read all the individual stories in this collection, I feel that ultimately, Will this be a Problem? Issue 3 is both an interesting and frustrating new member of the African speculative canon. Interesting for the range, cleverness and comfort with the coexistence of conflicting ideas that I see in much of African speculative fiction. Frustrating, because most of the stories possessed at least one great element but lacked several others – they are bursts of raw speculative thought. I wonder if a clearer, narrower theme would have helped the anthology since it’s even its weak individual parts could have seen as supporting the overall impact and purpose of the work. Either way, I’m glad I read the anthology, I enjoyed parts of it and I commend the efforts of the authors, editors and publishers. I look forward to seeing more work from all of them in the future because while there may be things lacking in this collection, talent is definitely not one of them.

WOLE TALABI is a full-time engineer, part-time writer and some-time editor from Nigeria. His stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Omenana, Lightspeed, Terraform, Abyss & Apex, The Kalahari Review, the anthologies Imagine Africa 500, Futuristica Vol. 1 and a few other places. He edited the anthologies These Words Expose Us and Lights Out: Resurrection and co-wrote the play Color Me Man. He likes scuba diving, elegant equations and oddly-shaped things. He currently lives and works in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.