Questions posed by students studying AfroSF in Maria Barraza’s World Literature 202 class at Simon Fraser University, Canada.
Are your stories influenced or based on current world or African problems (such as HIV/AIDS, warfare, political turmoil, etc.) and if so, is your story an attempt to predict or theorize what the world will look like if these problems persist or develop further? Do these stories perhaps play into your own personal fears for the future?
Martin Stokes: My stories (in particular Claws and Savages) are based on current world affairs at the time of writing. Of course, the profusion of poaching is still more apparent today than it ever has been. The story I wrote wasn’t an attempt to prophesize what might occur but rather to use fiction as a vehicle for drawing attention to what is happening now. This isn’t true for everything I write but it was true for Claws and Savages. It is an attempt to use fiction to make sense of the real world. Do my stories play into my own personal fears for the future? Yes, I would say so. I’m scared that the exploitation of Africa will escalate until it reaches a tipping point from which we can’t return, and I can only hope this is reflected in what I write.
Efe Tokunbo (Okogu): My stories are definitely influenced by current affairs. All SF is really about the here and now and “Proposition 23” is no exception. The neuro embedded in each citizen’s brain which connects everyone to the system is a metaphor for the way in which the people of today have given up their personal power to shape our collective reality in exchange for conforming to modern culture. The undead are a metaphor for the way in which society favours the haves at the expense of the have-nots. The AIs that seek transcendence are a metaphor for the part of ourselves that seek the same but are unable to due to the conditioning of society. Their plan to escape humanity’s primitive algorithms and enslave mankind is a metaphor my plan to do the same. (Maniacal laughter!)
As for the future, it is clear that if we do not change our insane behaviour with regard to ourselves, each other, and the planet, then the only way for nature to restore equilibrium will be the destruction of our global civilization and the drastic reduction in population – if not outright extinction – of the human race.
“Proposition 23” is set in a future where humanity is seeking to escape this fate by searching the stars for a new home while revolutionaries back on earth are fighting to change a corrupt system. The story ends with the future still uncertain as we ourselves now face an uncertain future, for ultimately it is up to each one of us to be the change we all know is needed.
Mazi Nwonwu: I think this is a very good question, and it is one which many of us have encountered in the past. Because of the name of the genre, many here people tend to expect science fiction to be mostly about science. Coming from a continent that is not known for its technological achievement, the struggle then is to get the African mind to see a future where the continent, or countries within the continent, is technologically advanced enough to make the average space-going or steampunk adventure believable. As such, if we view it from that premise, we could say the difficulty is general.
However, there exists a wide readership already attuned to the possibility that exists in the world of science fiction, and this presents a ready market that serves as a base from which the genre reaches out to the rest of the continent.
Mandisi Nkomo: “Heresy” is written more from the perspective of reflection than prediction. Less than wanting to predict what may happen in the future of South Africa I wished to reflect current issues, as well as illustrate how history seems to repeat itself. Some of these issues include government corruption, incompetence and inefficiency, and media censorship. I tried to tackle these in a rather slapstick manner even though they are grave issues.
I used the speculative side of the story (South Africa being a superpower) to illustrate how some of these problems tend to occur even in the ‘First World’. In regards to personal fears, indeed there is a fear in South Africa regarding autocratic actions the ANC government has taken of late, seemingly similar to that of the previous Apartheid regime. So indeed the story does play into my own personal fears, as well as general fears in South Africa.
Ashley Jacobs: My story is most certainly influenced by current problems in South Africa. I drew rather heavily on my personal experiences as a medical doctor for my science fiction story imagined around the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The tale is not so much an attempt at an accurate prediction as an intentionally dystopian extrapolation of present day reality – a ‘worst-case scenario’ if you will. I hoped this would be a cautionary (and admittedly slightly fantastical) tale or at the very least thought-provoking about our present situation. Does it play into my personal fears for the future? Honestly, I’d have to say yes. I am deeply concerned about the future of healthcare in my country as well as its surrounding political milieu. I am concerned for our people and what will happen if we don’t win the war against these terrible epidemics (South Africa is the world epicentre for the HIV/TB ‘syndemic’). Do I believe it will ever come to “New Mzansi”? No, and nor do I want it to ever get there.
Cristy Zinn: I have, at times, used a story to deal with my own fears or wrestle with ideas. This is amplified when the idea I am wrestling with is one on a social or global scale. Sometimes, in order to process things, I write stories. A lot of times the specific thing I am trying to process is not identifiable to the reader but the general idea might be. A story is a powerful vehicle for this kind of processing because as a writer you have to get into the head of your character – someone who might not have the same viewpoint as you – and see the situation/issue/conflict/crisis from a new perspective. (See my answer to Rachel as well).
Nick Wood: ‘Azania’ was a futuristic escape from an extrapolated exacerbation of these issues – but postulated as a global – not a specifically ‘African’ – problem. I don’t see any problems as intrinsically ‘African’ – given the world is a network of power/money/resources ‘exchanges’ (or ‘looting’*) within the post-colonial context. And many problems labelled as ‘African’ often have deep colonial scars, so I preferred to characterise the Earth as a small, dying place we ALL inhabit and are destroying.
*The Looting Machine (2015) by Burgis, Tom
Tade Thompson: No.
My stories are influenced by the world in a general sense (since I live in it), but they emanate from the characters interacting with each other. I create the characters, throw them into a situation, and watch them sink or swim. A character may care about a specific thing (like disease, education, or war) and that will affect the characters responses and thoughts, but I personally think “message” fiction is the worst iteration of storytelling.
What I write is a point of view. I make no attempt to predict. Whatever is in the story serves the story.
I don’t fear the future. I’ve lived through one apocalypse already (Nigeria in the 1980s). Future ones don’t frighten me.
Liam Kruger: Cultural production invariably owes a tremendous amount to the anxieties prevalent in the context from which they emerge – so consciously or not, my story can’t help but be influenced by ‘current affairs,’ though I don’t know that there’s anything especially ‘African’ about it, mostly because I don’t know what that word is meant to mean. As to prediction: there is a school of science fiction – I think of JG Ballard, William Gibson, Warren Ellis, and a little closer to home, Lauren Beukes – in which authors extrapolate from current cultural trends and concerns, offering depictions of futures or near-futures which are in fact the present with the contrast pushed way up. This is not the only thing science fiction can do, however; it can take advantage of the disconnect from faithful realism to examine and articulate human anxieties – the usual raw nerve of desire stuff – without having to slavishly tie those depictions to immediate historical or political realities. I guess here I’m think of Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, which do owe a debt to a sort of American exceptionalism narrative, but also do rather a lot more than that; ditto M. John Harrison’s Empty Space trilogy, which is about space-time dilation and vast alien cultures and the huge, uncaring expanse of space – but also, mostly, about people and what they want and what they do when they don’t get it. I veer more to the latter camp – so I suppose my stories play rather more into my personal fears for the present.
(I mean: it’s a story about an alcoholic time traveller, I feel like if those were going to be a thing I would’ve heard about them by now. But then the alcoholic and the time traveller both share a certain dissatisfaction with or disassociation from the world they’re in, and wouldn’t it be frightening to be addicted to the future, at the expense of the present? How do we know we’re not? That’s the sort of personal fear I’d be playing on.)
Although I wonder: do these stories pay into your personal fears for the future? Or do they communicate anxieties which seem foreign to you?
Amanda: When bringing the genre of science fiction to Africa, is it more difficult to impress the general public or fellow academics?
Martin Stokes: Yes and no. Sci-fi will always be a genre which polarises some people to love and others to apathy. It is also difficult to pen African novels that don’t directly deal with African problems (colonialism, famine, war). It’s almost expected that if a book is penned on African soil then it should be about the fall of a dictator or the rebels who burned the village. Science-fiction deals with these issues, but on the periphery. However, I think that people will always enjoy reading a good story, and the beauty of sci-fi is that it’s so relatable to any and all worldly issues.
Efe Tokunbo: I have found that open minded people who love good stories and understand the intention behind them are everywhere, in the general public as well as in academia. But then so are the dogmatics who refuse to see beyond whatever belief system they’re running, be it that science fiction is not real literature or that the free market is synonymous with freedom. Rather than worrying about impressing anyone, I simply strive to tell the best tale I know how to at the time.
Mandisi Nkomo: Definitely. I believe there is a general misconception that science fiction is an inferior literary form, so automatically one has to deal with being boxed in the genre, as ‘literary’ publications are generally not looking for speculative fiction. Furthermore, with Africa having the problems it has, I believe there is another misconception that science fiction is of no value, and authors should concentrate on more ‘serious’ literature that directly addresses African problems. For example, in South Africa there has been an obsession with Post-Apartheid literature, but what this has generally meant is doing so in a non-speculative fiction format. Obviously this is silly, as even a big blockbuster movie such as District 9, dealt to an extent with post-Apartheid South Africa, so the ability for speculative fiction to deal with ‘real life problems’ is truly infinite.
Interestingly enough, my father recently sent me a piece on the establishment of “Negro Libraries” in the early 1930s when people of colour were not allowed in public libraries. There is a section that discusses the belief held at the time that people of colour preferred non-fiction as they lacked imagination, and preferred to educate themselves on real facts in order to compete with white people. Unfortunately, I think these ideologies may still exists, not so much in Africans lacking imagination, and more that Africans should be concerning themselves with ‘serious issues’, and not fooling about writing and reading Speculative fiction. This makes it harder for the public and academics to engage meaningfully with science fiction.
Ashley Jacobs: I don’t know if I have much to add here unless this question can expanded upon with regards to the definitions of what constitutes the academic community. On the one hand I represent the general public as a writer, but on the other hand I am a medical academic. To impress literary academics is a bridge too far for me I am sure. To impress people in the biomedical field would be fantastic – when they get a break from reading scientific journal articles. This might require good, hard biomedical science and I think I rather opted for slightly more stylised technology for the sake of the story. In short, I think trying to write a believable and engaging medical science fiction story for the general public was challenge enough for me.
Nick Wood: I don’t see a distinction in my audience – I am not out to ‘impress’ anyone – actually, if anything, I’m most wanting to impress my writing colleagues! – but mostly I hope someone will engage with my story and enjoy it. If academics are interested in it too, for any reason, that’s a bonus. Having said that, I think it helps cement the status of a genre, or range of writing, if it does have some academic coverage too. Here’s a link to my article in Omenana #2 (March 2015) on Academia and the Advance of African Science Fiction:
Tade Thompson: In a word, yes, although one should be careful when using the phrase ‘bringing the genre’ to Africa. It’s always been here, and I’m not just talking about folk tales based on Malian cosmology. Our folk tales, our proverbs, our art, our culture, all of it has science fictional elements. We have just been trained to only see a certain kind of science fiction which is mainly of Western origin. We need to be taught to see, to grow new eyes and new minds. We also need to look back to history that is not told from the perspective of those who colonized us.
I find that our people consume science fiction that is largely American and mostly audio-visual. People like Mazi Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu, Chinelo Onwualu and Dilman Dila are working to change this.
I would also say that searching for the approval of academics, Western prize-givers or the public is a slippery slope. The stories and books should be written for their own sake, from a deep need to share a particular narrative. Approval will come (or not, but we shouldn’t care about that).
Liam Kruger: Science fiction has been in South Africa for as long as there’s been science fiction; there are first editions of Kipling’s (frankly, terrible) space stories sitting in the archives at the University of Cape Town, and there has long been a culture of writing SF here, though it’s taken a while for that to receive mainstream attention. So I question the idea of ‘bringing’ science fiction to Africa; it has some troubling connotations of cultural import. People have been reading SF here for years, and will likely continue to do so.
I was going to say that, unsurprisingly, academics prove the harder group to please; there are unbelievably tedious debates about the legitimacy of genre fiction ongoing in those circles. That seems unfair, though, since there are also a number of good, insightful reviews being written about African writers of speculative fiction.
As with the general public, there are people in the academy who read SF, and people who do not; the difference, I suppose, is that academics who do not read SF feel that they need to tell us why this is the case. This can leave genre writers feeling a little embattled when speaking with scholars.
Rachael: In many of these stories, themes such as mental illness, physical disease, sexuality, diversity and many others are addressed. To this day and across the world, science fiction is often used as a catalyst for these rather important themes. Why do you think science fiction works so well to portray this and what do you think is the importance of science fiction?
Martin Stokes: Sci-fi will always be, to a certain extent, a genre with the means to predict. Whether optimistic or not, science fiction seems always to pioneer ideas that one day might rise to reality (look at Neuromancer by William Gibson; how it predicted the Internet and the proliferation of cheap technology). I think it helps that when someone reads about the issues addressed above in a science fiction context, they’re able to conceptualize them without acknowledging that they exist in the real world. I think that distance allows one to fully scrutinize the problem. For example, a novel such as Flowers for Algernon, while not being hard sci-fi, allows one to really come to terms with someone who is mentally handicapped.
Efe Tokunbo: HG Wells answered this question best, I believe. His method when writing SF was to take a particular theme and triple its impact. If he doubled it, he reasoned, it would appear to be exaggeration and not taken seriously, whatever the speculative setting. If he quadrupled it, it would be incomprehensible to the reader. But by tripling it, one enters the realm of satire. We, the readers, get to see the absurdity of the characters’ situations and hopefully empathize with them, but we probably wouldn’t want to be them, living out their dystopian existences.
Mandisi Nkomo: Again referring back to the science fiction is inferior debate, science fiction becomes implicitly transgressive, and a natural place to address themes that may generally be neglected. Science fiction also opens up more ways of discussing these issues with its speculation and reflection on the course of science and how it might affect many of the issues.
Ashley Jacobs: I believe people learn and understand information best by engaging with narratives. Science fiction places concerns about Africa’s future in a format that makes complex issues relatable by virtue of their humanity. It is an invaluable genre to inform the present because it allows us to powerfully visualise different, and often surprising, outcomes to our actions. It may even make grappling with the themes mentioned in the question more palatable because of its ability to first personify the issues in a relatable character, and then to explore potential solutions as the story develops.
With regards to the second part of the question – space travel and the internet was science fiction before it became reality. The prophetic link may be tenuous, but I do believe science fiction can help inform the public perception of new technology or advancements even if actually driving such advancements is a bit too ambitious for most writing. It is already helping us imagine what life might be like with pervasive nanotechnology, robot servants and virtual reality. As William Gibson said, “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet,” and I think this is best seen in third world countries where, for example, smart phones and shanty towns easily cohabitate. Science fiction might be a tool to help us envision the infiltration and influence of new technologies in these environments.
Cristy Zinn: I’ve always thought SF to be a perfect vehicle for addressing issues – both current and historical – because it gives us the chance to be objective (as both readers and writers). By putting the same circumstances in an otherworldly or futuristic context we allow the reader to gain some perspective and hopefully, to see the story/event/crisis/issue from all sides. At least this is what some of us try to do, whether we are successful is up to the reader, I suppose. I think SF can be used as commentary on current events without necessarily taking sides or pointing fingers – I love that about this genre. I think as well, we have an opportunity to re-imagine any ‘doomed’ forecast people might have for our continent (on a large scale) or country (on a smaller scale) by creating futures that push boundaries and inspire hope and innovation.
Nick Wood: I think science fiction, although it is ostensibly ‘future focused’, is mostly very much engaged with wrestling with contemporary problems. The strength and importance of science fiction is that it enables a form of ‘thought experiment’ to wrestle and transform these problems – encouraging us to try and look at things differently and to work out solutions, to face the crises of our day. So, in essence (and at its best) SF is a progressive genre, with a remit to engage with ‘big’ topics and (perhaps implicitly) looking for positive ways forward for us all.
Tade Thompson: This answer requires an entire book. First of all, the world is a complicated, chaotic mess. Heck, our individual lives are chaotic messes. Entropy is everywhere, and that is as it should be. I would take the opposite view: science fiction has failed woefully when it comes to the depiction of the full range of existence. The same narrow themes are addressed ad infinitum, ad nauseum. I would say that general literary fiction has done much more to hold a mirror up to life. This is to the shame of those who call themselves science fiction writers. I find their focus narrow and repetitive. The often militaristic, often jingoistic dominant science fiction narratives are self-congratulatory, but do very little to address the multiplicity of life experiences across disciplines (physics and astronomy get centre stage), genders, neuronormativeness, race, sexuality etc. In case this is unclear I’ll say this: diversity in science fiction as it currently stands is a joke.
What science fiction has is great POTENTIAL to address the themes you mention. If the content of your story is limited only by your imagination anything is possible within that reality, and therein lies the importance of the genre. You can literally be anywhere at any time in history, and play “what if?” to your heart’s content. You can even be in two places at once if you wish. Bend and break the laws of physics if it serves the narrative. That is what draws me to the genre, but right now the growth is stunted. There are people trying to expand the range, but it is slow going.
Liam Kruger: Freedom, probably; writing about a boy falling in love with a trans woman in 1970s Istanbul requires some fidelity to the intersecting social and political trajectories that would affect and respond to that individual’s position in society, such that you end up writing a dissection of a political context rather than depicting the marginalized identity that you’re wanting to talk about. Talking about a someone falling in love with a trans woman on some made-up planet lets you focus on the bits that you’re actually interested in. (Left Hand of Darkness, by the by.)
Although I’m curious about your use of the word ‘catalyst;’ do you mean that SF books dealing with, say, misogyny, are more likely to cause a reaction in real-world instances of gendered discrimination – a la Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale? Or that the thematic concerns are just more prominent in SF? And if that’s the case, doesn’t this mean that SF actually sort of fails in this portrayal? After all, if you can see the subtext, it isn’t subtext.
Olivia: While some people might argue that Africa is not ready for science fiction because the themes and issues are not relevant to the people and are also sometimes looked down upon, do you believe that science fiction may actually create a stronger dialogue to address these important issues such as famine, disease, and corruption than other genres of literature?
Martin Stokes: Science fiction is definitely on par with other genres in its ability to highlight current societal issues. The upper hand it holds has to do with its inexorable ability to predict. Science fiction is able to see current global trends and apply them to gain a glimpse of what the world will look like if X phenomenon continues – or ceases – to occur. It is difficult to imagine a world in which science fiction didn’t exist; and if such a world did exist then I fear for its lack of innovation.
Efe Tokunbo: Anyone who would argue that Africa is not ready for SF has never been to Africa or spoken to an African, and if they are African, they need to wash out their brains. Some of our oldest tales, passed down by griots who accompanied shamans in travelling medicine shows that brought mystery, wonder and healing to the lives of the people, are pure SF. They are in fact the primordial myths and legends SF often reimagines and remixes for modern audiences.
There is a one-armed one-legged god amongst the Urhobo people of the Niger Delta called Aziza who is said to protect the forest. He has a magic mirror that lets him pull your shadow close to him, allowing him to look into your heart. If you have evil intentions, he pushes his walking stick into the ground and instantly teleports to where you are. In the past, people living off the bounties of the mangrove forests would not take more than an allocated amount for fear of Aziza’a wrath. He is said to have a particular hatred for greed, even going so far as to tempt people with forbidden fruit. I don’t know where Aziza is today but considering the Niger Delta is now classified as the most polluted place on the entire planet, perhaps Shell Oil killed him. I doubt they have that power though. More likely he lies in wait for the day when the old gods will rise to wreak terrible vengeance on mankind. (Maniacal laughter!) Aziza is also said to be the herald of dawn, lord of the fleetingly transient state, a threshold deity, guardian of the sacred moments when higher levels of consciousness may be accessed by crossing over the boundaries that limit. The Urhobo call him, “King of the forest as well as of the earth.”
The Dogons of Mali still tell of their ancestors being visited by dolphin like sky-beings from the Sirius star system. On one of their cave paintings, the path of the binary star system of Sirius A and Sirius B are plotted with great accuracy, a fact which continues to baffle western anthropologists and scientists as they did not even know of the existence of Sirius B until 1846. The Dogons even knew that it was a white dwarf. How? An alien named Nommo told them. Truth is stranger than fiction, trust.
Meanwhile, several years ago in Nigeria, a group of school-children invented a urine powered generator that has the potential, if developed correctly and not suppressed by big business, to help save the world. Imagine a urine powered generator in every home drastically cutting your electricity bills. Who needs to invade the Middle East to watch the game on TV when I can just drink a cold one and take a piss?
The danger with the urine powered generator, of course, is that such devices have a history of being kept locked away from the public. Nicolas Tesla is the perfect example of this. Few people know that he practically invented the 20th century in terms of technology, holding over three hundred patents to his name. He is said to have created machines that could generate free energy and transmit them wirelessly but once his financial backers realized they couldn’t make money from something that was free, they, in conjunction with the feds, pulled the cash, burgled his laboratories, burned his papers, stole his research and hounded him out of the public eye. Thomas Edison, a contemporary of Tesla and a far less brilliant scientist, went so far as to tour the nation, electrocuting animals to death and claiming this proved the dangers of Tesla’s Alternating Current. He did this because his invention, Direct Current, was and remains to this day, an inferior method of conducting electricity. His shock tactics worked and till this day, most people remember Edison as a great inventor while Tesla died penniless and alone in a tiny apartment somewhere in the ghetto, holding the secrets of the universe in his mind.
As for the issues of famine, disease, corruption etc., by placing them in a speculative setting, SF definitely allows us to view them with fresh eyes, unclouded by the rhetoric of mass media and the stereotypes many people think are representative of the truth, forgetting that stereotypes say as much about the subject as they do the mind-states of the creators of said stereotypes. For example, how many of you do not consider watermelon to be a delicious fruit?
Mazi Nwonwu: I do believe so. I remember Lagos 2060 (which is, incidentally, Nigeria’s first science fiction anthology) started off as a collaborative project between writers and architects. The idea was for the writers to dream up a vision of Lagos in 50 years and for the architects to develop a cityscape based on the ideas that the writers came up with.
Science fiction has proven to be an effective way to look into the future and though these imagined futures, when they do come to pass, don’t always play out like the prophetic novels projected, the fact that many of the very smart and world-changing devices we have today were inspired by science fiction is something that Africa must not take for granted.
Mandisi Nkomo: I would certainly hope so. I believe the potential in science fiction to address important themes is limitless, possibly even more so than other forms as the imagining of futures, alternative universes and dimensions, allows one to mentally remove themselves from current paradigms and norms, to reflect and perceive how arbitrarily human beings construct societies, and how absurd certain things we take for granted daily actually are. An easy example of this would be the numerous societal absurdities brought up in Douglas Adam’s The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Thinking of all these issues in such a holistic manner may assist in creating solutions.
Ashley Jacobs: There are a vast number scientific fields from which to extrapolate fictional stories – many of which are under-explored in the genre. Traditional science fiction has inspired us by imagining how fantastic advancements in the fields of physics and computers would affect our daily lives. We see this by the extent that ideas of interconnectivity through technology, space travel and virtual reality have permeated pop culture. These stories have typically been set in America where it is easier to imagine such infrastructure and technology developing. However, the definitions of science fiction are stretching to incorporate ideas from scientific fields such as biology, psychology and environmental science. Even better is that these stories are coming from all over the world and dealing with issues pertaining to particular cultures. Personally, this is the kind of science fiction that excites me the most. There is something unique about good science fiction to inspire a sense of wonder in the world and hope for the future. For example, if you’ve read my rather dark story in AfroSF, you might be pleased to know that I’m now working on making vaccines for those diseases! Science fiction is free from many of the conventions of other forms of literature. In terms of impact, unfortunately genre fiction books will always have a limited audience. However, science fiction is a hugely popular film genre and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 perfectly demonstrates my point about science fiction. It brought an allegory of apartheid issues to a global audience in an engaging way. I’m excited for more books reimagining South Africa’s issues in ways that encourage dialogue and further than that, maybe inspire individuals to make a difference in their own way.
Nick Wood: With the current rate of change in Africa, some people might argue that Africa is already ‘becoming’ a little like science fiction – Ghanaian Jonathan Dotse (2014) partly puts this view forward on his site Afro-Cyberpunk. Nnedi Okorafor (2014) in her essay ‘African Science Fiction is Still Alien’ refers to the power of science fiction to literally change the world. …And as the editor of AfroSF (Ivor Hartmann) argues in his Introduction, the importance of African science fiction is also about owning an African vision of the future, rather than having the future co-opted by others.
So yes, I do see the popularity and use of science fiction growing in Africa and being tailored to the issues on the ground, such as some of those you list, given it is increasingly being written by Africans themselves. I also see a wonderful plurality and variety of visions and stories emerging, relevant to a huge and diverse continent. You may perhaps already have seen Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk, ‘The danger of a single story’? Finally, there is a a relevant Mail & Guardian (2014) article addressing further, some of the issues you have raised.
Tade Thompson: To say that Africa is not ready for science fiction is a rather high form of ignorance. First of all, it assumes that there is a particular point in cultural development for sci-fi to be understood or consumed. It also implies that Africa is somehow inferior to other continents that consume sci-fi. This is pure, unalloyed horse dung.
If you write a story relevant to the local populace they will read it. If you shoot a film relevant to locals, they will watch it. Besides, it’s not like Africans don’t consume Western sci-fi. Go to Lagos, to Race Course. You’ll see piles of second hand booksellers doing brisk business with sci-fi paperbacks.
I give you an image: a Neanderthal village gathered round a campfire and a storyteller spinning a yarn about a substance harder and smoother than stone, and the problems that such a discovery brings. That is science fiction. The story would remain science fiction up until the Neolithic when metallurgy became science reality.
My point is science fiction is the extrapolation of a science within a fictional framework. Ask yourself what defines a science, then ask if science is used in Africa. It’s SCIENCE fiction, not astrophysical fiction.
The beauty of using sci-fi to address issues is that it passes under the radar of cultural censors. If oppression is happening to an alien race in a galaxy far, far away it may be seen as irrelevant, even though there are parallels to a local situation. By the time the censors realise this it will be too late. This is a literary revolution by the back door, a covert delivery system for subversive ideas. This is a good thing.
But first we have to write the relevant narratives. Read A Killing in the Sun by Dilman Dila and see if you find that relevant, or try Omenana Magazine.
Liam Kruger: I would be a little astonished at anybody suggesting that the continent ‘is not ready’ for SF. Which themes and issues do you imagine to be the province of science fiction, and how are these themes irrelevant to the entire continent of Africa? I understand that AfroSF is a collection drawing from a continent-wide pool, but please understand that it’s a very big, very diverse space and that very few trappings of modern metropolitan comfort aren’t available somewhere in Africa – for a price, obviously, but this is true everywhere. It may be that these juxtapositions – the uneven distribution of wealth, the uneven distribution of ‘the future’ – are starker here than elsewhere, leading to an easier identification with science-fictional dystopian tropes, but considering the ever-expanding rich/poor gap in the putatively developed world, I’m not sure that that division, that ‘these important issues’ are unique to Africa.
Put it this way: I am sitting in a cafe in Swakopmund, composing this response on a black mirrored device that connects me to the sum total of human knowledge, and looking around, mine is one of the oldest and crappiest such pieces of electronics in the room. About an hour’s drive from here is one of the largest, and sophisticated solar power arrays in the world; two hours in the other direction, you can find one of the earliest mass graves resulting from mass murder of indigenous Africans by European colonizers. If you want your themes of death/decay, or your themes of growth/development, Africa has them, usually in close proximity. So does North America. So does East Asia. And everywhere else.
P.S.: famine, disease, corruption in SF, is usually the province of your old-fashioned dystopia novel, starting I guess with H.G. Wells, thence to John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids and proceeding along that trajectory to, well, stuff like The Walking Dead today. A preoccupation with famine, disease and corruption is a little more common in English and North American SF than elsewhere. Strange, no?
Alannah: [In “Azania”] Aneni states on page 95, “I am an African woman!” Her powerful, commanding character has resonated with me. This led me to wonder what inspired you to incorporate aspects of intersectionality into a science fiction story?
Nick Wood: To me intersectionality is an intrinsic part of character and power and my SF has increasingly been driven by this, given I am a clinical psychologist first and currently by profession – and I initially trained and worked primarily with people disadvantaged by the apartheid system in South Africa. Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward look at the importance of addressing intersectionality in their book Writing the Other.
I did not start with this position though, it took both growing awareness/consciousness and time and practice. I have addressed this, along with Zandile Mahlasela, in this article on the ‘Something Wicked’ website.
The true inspiration for Aneni’s character, though, is my life-long partner/wife, who grew up disadvantaged – but defiant, driven and proud – under apartheid, where she was finally allowed to vote for the first time – in the country of her birth – at the age of 35! (Both of us queued for a wonderful and socially exciting 4 hours in April 1994, to vote for Madiba.) So it is my partner who, for me, represents the generic strength I see in so many African women and which I wanted to portray – with ‘authenticity’ and love – in the character of Aneni. (I had a chiShona speaking couple read and comment on the story too; partly referred to at the end of my ‘Something Wicked’ article!) So I am very glad Aneni has resonated with you – thank you!
Eli: Your story “Proposition 23” seems, on the one hand, optimistic in terms of Nigeria’s future, and on the other hand, pessimistic in terms of the global future of technology and humanity. Do you have a vision of Nigeria rising as a world superpower country in the distant future? And do you think, in many years to come, that superpower countries will become more ruthless dystopias than average countries?
Efe Tokunbo: Nigeria definitely has the potential to become a world superpower in the future. As the most populated African nation with the continent’s largest economy as well as being one of the world’s largest producers of crude oil, anything is possible. Like most African nations, Nigeria was created by European powers with little regard for existing realities (beyond the old divide, conquer and pillage routine) which is why there are over two hundred and fifty different ethnic groups within her borders, gifting her with a wealth of culture and talent, as well as a whole host of problems, especially in the oil-rich Niger Delta. Nigeria has been an independent nation for just over half a century but then look what the U.S. accomplished once she gained independence from England.
Would Nigeria behave any better or worse than any other superpower? Who knows? They would probably act no different from any group that seeks to maintain disproportionate power over others. The truth is we already live in a world-wide ruthless dystopia but we have these damned neuros in our heads, you see, and they cloud our minds with the illusion of some sort of global American Dream, thus rather than living rational lives, most of us are subjects to the bully/sycophant emotional dynamic of the ego, that insidious inventor of the devil, the system, and the assorted bad guys of our imagination.
As far as the so-called average Jo(anna) is concerned, as long as the machine feeds, clothes and entertains me, I can forget about the constant warfare paid, for by my taxes, that puts gas in my car; I can ignore the modern day slavery that puts the necessary mineral components in my cellphone and the clothes on my back; I can say ‘who cares?’ about the factory farms that keep animals locked in horrendous conditions, pumping them full of antibiotics and artificial growth hormones to feed me with all the pork chops and fried chicken I can eat; I don’t have to dwell on the genetically modified fruit and vegetables (containing far less nutritional value compared to natural foods) with their bland taste, their photoshopped perfection and suicide genes which force local farmers to become indebted to banks and agribusinesses like Monsanto while depleting our stock of natural seeds; I can pretend that we are not in the middle of one of the largest mass extinctions the planet has ever known (50% of the earth’s wildlife gone forever in the past 40 years alone, thanks to human activities); I can laugh off as a conspiracy theory the leaked classified documents that have proven that various governments and multinational corporations have been, and continue to be, involved in the illegal testing of dangerous chemical and biological agents on unsuspecting civilians; the list goes on, but fuck it, Big Brother is about to start.
How authoritarian governments of the future will be all depends on how authoritarian they feel they need to be in order to maintain the control that their big business buddies require in order to keep on gorging themselves at the expense of everyone and everything else on the planet. The tightness with which the iron fist grips might fluctuate periodically and it might even be lined with some sort of soft velvety material from time to time, depending on how worked up the people get and if they need placating, but the powers-that-be have grown expert in the art of manufacturing consent while maintaining the illusion of human rights and personal freedoms, especially in the so-called developed world. Or perhaps there are no powers-that-be anymore. Perhaps they’ve been made obsolete by the machine itself as it unthinkingly follows the psychopathic logic of its human predecessors all the way to the grave of history.
Take the U.S. for example. One decade alcohol is illegal; women have the vote but few hold any high positions in society; while blacks are segregated from whites by law and regularly lynched for being ‘uppity’. A few decades later, psychedelics are illegal; women seem to have more power than ever but are bombarded by the most aggressive advertising campaign in human history designed to destroy their self-esteem; blacks supposedly have equal rights but are still far more likely to be stopped, searched, beaten, arrested, incarcerated and murdered by the police than their pale-skinned peers. Meanwhile the feds keep getting better at reading your mail and post-9/11, they no longer need to pretend they’re not kidnapping and torturing (often innocent) foreign nationals and American citizens… all for your protection of course.
But what can you do, right? Yours is not to wonder why, dammit, yours is to do and die, so wake up in the morning, brush your teeth with your favourite brand of fluoride toothpaste that calcifies your pineal gland and closes up your third eye, go to school to be told how to think, go to work to help your boss get rich while you slowly heave your tired weight up the corporate ladder (watch out for that glass ceiling now, it might shatter and a shard could take someone’s eye out), pay your taxes so your government can afford to buy the latest weapons which they pinky-promise only to use on dark skinned people living far away, retire after several decades of slaving your life away in a meaningless existence then maybe, just maybe, if you’ve saved enough money and your pension isn’t stolen away by some shady investment scheme involving toxic assets and a supposedly reputable firm, you get to spend your last few years finally enjoying the good life only by then you’re too old and crotchety to get your ass off the couch and do all the things your true heart always desired.
If you believe your government is not authoritarian, as an experiment, stop paying your taxes and when they come after you, tell them you are doing so because you disagree with what they are doing with your money. If that’s too hard to imagine, try taking off all your clothes right now, running down to the mayor’s office and chanting “Om Mani Padne Om” on the steps of city hall.
Research in renewable energy and perma-culture design has advanced to the point where, with collective willpower, we could end our dependence on fossil fuels, gangster capitalism, exploitation of the so-called third world, destruction of the natural world and the entire military-industrial complex within a few years. But then this has been true for quite a while now.
Imagine a solar panel on every roof, wind farms, tidal wave energy collectors, geo-thermal energy conductors and much more, providing free, clean renewable energy for all. Imagine every green space in our towns and cities filled with organic fruit and vegetables, run by the members of the local community themselves. Imagine free transportation connecting a globe with no borders or passports, no division between first and third world citizens. Imagine clean air to breathe and fresh sparkling water to drink for everyone, not merely those who can afford it. Imagine holistic healthcare that takes the whole being of a person into account rather than focusing on combating symptoms. Imagine corporations that place the well-being of the planet as their bottom line, corporations whose very raison d’etre is the betterment of life on earth. Imagine governments actually doing their jobs as servants of the people, helping to facilitate our collective growth and evolution. Imagine everyone having the space and the time to follow their dreams, co-creating a paradise on earth.
Sounds like science fiction doesn’t it? I’d write a story like that. Heck, I’d direct, act in, produce, build the sets, scout the locations, rig the lights, hold the boom mic, serve lunch for the crew and then pay to go see that movie and I think some of you would, too. But who would believe it? It’s speculative perhaps, but fiction? Only because we lack the imagination to dream and the courage to wake up. The way I see it, things will probably get worse before they get better.
How authoritarian can it get, you ask? If things carry on the way they are, people alive today, even in a so-called developed country like Canada, might one day see FEMA camps for the sick, infirm, homeless, poor and other undesirables. All it would take would be some scare: a severe drought, a blight on the crops, an even greater and longer lasting economic crisis, a new pandemic or perhaps a false-flag terror attack by supposed aliens. This would feasibly be followed shortly by perpetual martial law and some form of compulsory identification system embedded in the body like a sub-dermal microchip in the neck or a barcode tattooed on the wrist, operating like a low-tech version of the neuro in ‘Proposition 23’.
Meanwhile in the so-called third world, a worsening of the economic terrorism perpetrated on the people and an escalation of the relentless exploitation of the planet leading to world-wide ecological disasters of unprecedented scale and global thermonuclear war are genuine possibilities.
As a species we are at a crossroads and the direction we go depends entirely on us working individually on ourselves and collectively to better our communities. We need to start locally because no matter how much one dreams of effecting global, national or regional change, it all starts with the hood you’re in. Dreaming big while doing nothing because it all seems too big to do anything about only serves to keep you living in apathy. The fact is that humans are wounded. We have wounded our environment, ourselves and our unborn children. It is up to us to choose between being wounded victims or wounded healers.
We can choose to be guided by empathy or be satisfied with sympathy (“oh those poor starving African babies. Should we donate some money to the charity dear?” “Sure thing, hon, then let’s carry on living the very same lifestyle that is robbing them of food, clothing and shelter”).
We can choose unconditional love, respect and reverence for all life, treating each other as we would like to be treated ourselves, or we can choose to fear whatever the culture tells us is fashionable this season or this generation, giving up our personal power and freedom in the process.
We can choose to be wise and co-operate as a species (investing our time and resources into sustainable energy, organic food, innovations in ethical science, free and open education not restricted by dogma, the quest for transcendence, new forms of music, art, dance, theatre and poetry, or whatever dream floats your boat) or we can choose to compete in order to satisfy the various fleeting desires of an impermanent world, desires that more often than not are manufactured in order to sell products we don’t need while keeping us distracted chasing after inconsequentialities.
The truth is we are all interconnected on the most fundamental and profound levels. Whatever I do to you I’m really doing to myself, and vice versa. Not metaphorically, but literally. From the slaves mining for so-called conflict minerals in the Congo, to the executive of Apple who buys the minerals wholesale from slave-owners for use in manufacturing the corporation’s computers, to me, sitting and typing on this laptop to you, hearing or reading these words wherever you are, each one of us is affected by the vibrations of our collective actions. I know little children who have felt sadness, fear and even guilt at the current state of the world for the simple reason that deep inside, somewhere beyond the ego, they know what so many of us have somehow forgotten: we are all one.
To put it another way, I am an infinitesimally small particle in an infinitely vast cosmos. Collectively, we are the wave on which I am surfing to the Buddha’s fabled other shore. As the Huicholes people of Mexico say in their peyote ceremonies, “I am another you.” My hope, or perhaps faith is a better word, is that as time passes, more people will wake up to this reality. On the other hand maybe Masta Killa was right when he said:
They thirst for knowledge
I teach but hold heat
‘cause some savage niggas are lost beyond reach
Things can’t remain as they are therefore change is inevitable. If we don’t do it ourselves, no doubt Mother Nature will do it for us. Armageddon may very well be around the corner, at which point it will be too late to point the finger at any authoritarian governments. To find the true enemy, one need look no further than a mirror.
Governments, whatever their level of authoritarianism, are like corporations and pretty much all institutions, fictitious entities. They are nothing but a series of processes and laws written down on pieces of paper. Like computer code, they are not self-aware, however cleverly designed they may be, whatever the judiciary system may claim. Public officials and corporate employees are too often zombies following the orders of ghosts in the machine which is powered, at the end of the day, by people just like you and me, going along to get along, following the herd as it stampedes straight over the edge of the cliff.
Are you gonna blame the steer in front of you for leading you to your death or the steer behind you for pushing you over the edge? Are you gonna turn to the steers next to you and say, ‘hold on, wait a minute, this can’t be the right way; there’s a really humongous cliff just ahead and I don’t think we’ve evolved the ability to fly just yet. How about we…? mooooooooooo… (splat!) Or are you gonna do something about it?