This edition of Omenana is late, over a month late.
It is our intention to publish a high-quality quarterly magazine, however, everything that could delay the production, did. It’s been a crazy four months, but we are happy that Omenana 7 is here now.
In the time between the last edition of Omenana and this one, we were reminded why it is of great importance to continue producing this magazine. Through it, we encourage more writers to look to the extensive materials we have on the continent called Africa for speculative fiction.
This month, we are happy to introduce stories from new voices and established writers of the speculative on the continent. We hope their stories speak to you as they did us.Also, we are spotlighting Sunny Efemena, who illustrated this edition and has worked on other editions in the past.This edition of Omenana closes with an essay on African sci-fi and literature and its impact on technological advancement on the continent by my co-editor, Chinelo Onwualu.
Meanwhile, we are very happy to announce the start of a partnership with Okadabooks.com, an online publishing portal. All editions of Omenana will now be available on Okadabooks.com, where you can access and download various formats of the magazine. No fear, Omenana remains free, and will remain that way for as long as we can manage.
I’ve never been one of those bright-eyed and bushy tailed people early in the morning, but there’s something about coming round to a completely white room that will wake you the heck up. It’s difficult to describe the place I found myself in, room is the best I can do… If a room could be kilometers long and completely featureless.
I was standing in the middle of the white expanse – not lying down or seated – nothing to show that I had previously been asleep. Yet, I was still in the same thick and unconventional clothes I normally wear to bed, and I remember going to sleep in my messy bedroom – turning off the lights and fading away as images of that hunky new guy at work played about in my head. Coming to in such a manner gave me the unsettling feeling that I might have been wandering around aimlessly, without even realizing it, for what could have been hours. My eyes kept trying to fixate on something, anything; a door perhaps, or a clear distinction between the firm white ground I was walking on and the white horizon before me, but there was nothing.
What if I was dead? If I was dead, good Lord, they’d find my body in my messy room, wearing those old makeshift pajamas and no knickers! What about the pile of dirty dishes in the sink? They’d know, know that I was not tidy and proper. Would Mr. HunkyWorkGuy find out what a sloth I’d been while I was alive? What about the debts I’d never paid off? Would my parents inherit them? But if I was already dead and that’s how I ended up in the expanse, then there was no reason why I would be worried about death. Perhaps I was waiting to be ushered into heaven.
I was a mess and the ridiculous thoughts racing through my mind were not helping. However, I recalled an article about lucid dreaming and how the dreamscape can sometimes be completely featureless unless the dreamer makes it otherwise. The “otherwise” part would need prolonged training, they’d said, and so I didn’t strain myself trying to imagine trees and hills around me.
Perhaps I was going mad and my brain was stuck on the last moment I remembered as a sane person? If I were trapped in a white cell somewhere in a psychiatric unit, it would make sense that I would dream of white, featureless expanses. Besides, it was much more comforting fixating on the idea that I was dreaming rather than that I might be trapped in some experimentation lab with my brain hooked up to some machines.
Yeah, when I panic, I really go to town.
With that, I set off… er… “exploring.” At first, I was running, and then walking after I got tired, and finally trudging along. I found no walls, no doors, not even a raised bit of ground that I could stumble on. It was hard to tell how much time had passed; as I trudged along I felt a weariness start to seep into my very being, like what I imagine my soul being sucked out slowly would feel. I was too frustrated and preoccupied with my thoughts to notice anything changing around me. When a voice sounded behind me, I promptly screamed in fear…to my endless shame.
I whipped around as fast as I could and found myself looking at a petite woman wearing a yellow sundress and sunhat, her face rather impassive except for one raised eyebrow that gave her dark eyes a rather irritated glint. The yellow stood out brilliantly against the bland background and I found that I couldn’t tear my eyes away from her form.
“Did you hear what I said?”
Her voice was warm as honey, even though her eyes were narrowed slightly in exasperation with me, and I realized that she’d asked a question that I was yet to answer. I felt embarrassment flood my system and I opened my mouth to respond but my tongue suddenly felt like I was made from lead.
“Y-yeah. Um, s-sorry, what did you say?” I hadn’t stuttered since I was a child.
This was all quite bizarre; I mean, how do you respond to a stranger walking up behind you in a featureless, white room? Had she even walked up to me; I couldn’t tell. She might as well have just materialized out of thin air.
Her eyes locked onto mine as she sighed and I knew, I just knew that she had seen my thoughts. I didn’t think the situation could get any freakier.
“Look, I mean you no harm but considering how paranoid you can sometimes become, Justine, I’ll leave the decision-making to you. You can either co-operate and find out why you’re here, or I could just leave you to go back to your ridiculous panicking: your choice.”
Her warm voice did not match the irritation that was clear in her words and I opened my mouth to speak, only to be startled silent as another figure appeared before us. I staggered back in surprise as my heart started pounding in my chest.
No poofs, or smoke, or dramatic sounds; one second there was the white endless horizon and the next, a man stood before my eyes. He wasn’t what you’d call a looker – but not ugly either – with dark skin, brown eyes, flat nose, and an unremarkable physique. He was wearing black slacks and a blue button-down shirt that hung loose on his frame, with regular-issue black shoes. Average in all aspects except for the fact that, much like the woman who had appeared earlier, the colors of his clothes stood out richly and brilliantly against the bland white I’d grown used to and his eyes held a knowing look that made me shift uncomfortably.
“Oh good, you’re finally here,” the woman spoke, her eyes still locked on my face.
She hadn’t even flinched or looked away from me for a second; it’s like she knew he was going to appear exactly when he did.
“Okay, what’s going on?”
My voice didn’t come out in the strong tone I wanted it to and instead I sounded breathy and scared. They glanced at each other before turning to look back at me.
“I guess we better start with it then,” the man said with a sigh and a wave of his hand.
There was a flicker and suddenly I was standing in a boardroom, just like that, complete with a long imposing table and a bunch of chairs. Large windows at one end let in sunlight and a rather impressive view of Kampala city. The change was sudden and I felt nausea begin to build up in my system; I looked down, trying to take in deep, steadying breaths.
“Always so formal, Jonathan. Try something a little more calming,” I heard the woman say in her honeyed voice.
Another flicker and I found myself looking at a field of grass as a cool breeze wafted around me and the sounds of birds chirping and trees swaying drifted to me. My body’s response was almost immediate: the nausea began to subside as I breathed in the fresh air. I hadn’t realized it before, but there had been no currents of air, or natural sounds, in the white expanse; perhaps that’s why I’d felt so trapped.
“See? Sometimes a woman knows,” the honeyed tone came again.
“You’re as much a woman as I am a man, Doreen,” the man…er, Jonathan said before I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Come, Justine, sit down.”
With the change in scenery, I felt almost euphoric and so I let Jonathan lead me to some garden chairs arranged around a marble table, with a jug of juice and some glasses on it. A giggle escaped me at the absurdity of the situation and I saw Jonathan look at the woman, exchanging a knowing look with her. Ignoring them, I sat down and took a deep steadying breath before I began my barrage of questions.
Jonathan, however, beat me to it.
“I’m sorry about this, Justine,” he began, eyes locked with mine, his expression sympathetic as he pulled a chair for himself opposite me. “I know you must be feeling overwhelmed.”
He paused, as if uncertain of how to continue.
“Perhaps before we begin, we should introduce ourselves. I am Jonathan,” he said with a small smile.
“I’m Doreen,” the woman said as she settled in a chair next to him. “We’ve been watching you for a while, my dear.”
“OK, that’s creepy,” I spoke, finally. My mind has a way of being inappropriate whenever I’m feeling uncomfortable. “Who are you and what do you want with me?”
They stared at me for a few seconds before exchanging another look. This was really beginning to irk me.
“We’re… celestial entities put in place to enforce specific, predetermined sequences,” Doreen said, smiling as if that was explanation enough.
“So, like aliens then,” I said, my voice surprisingly steady and flat.
I knew it!
“Goodness no,” she responded with a tinkling laugh, her teeth white and perfect. “Nothing like that; though I know that’s what you’ve been imagining since you got here.”
“We exist outside your universe and its laws,” Jonathan started before pausing. He looked around with a small frown on his face as if searching for inspiration before he continued. “We simply are, Justine. Birth and death don’t apply to us. Those are experiences tied to your reality, which is what we monitor. When I say ‘your’, I don’t mean you specifically, mind you, just the world… er… universe… reality which you come from.”
“So… not aliens, but like higher dimensional beings?” I suggested.
“Yes!” Jonathan said in excitement, clapping and grinning before he caught himself, and forced his face back to being impassive. “Not quite like that, but you’re getting the idea.”
“Well, if it’s not like that, then what is it like?” I asked irritably.
“Look, let’s not get hung up on the specifics otherwise we’ll be here for a while,” Doreen spoke up. “Like last time,” she added with a glance at Jonathan.
“Last time?” I asked, perking up.
“Right, we’ll get to that in a bit,” Jonathan said. “Let’s just say that we’re here to help you get your life back on track, Justine.”
“Excuse me? There’s nothing wrong with my life!” I couldn’t help the indignation in my tone.
The very nerve! I am a physiotherapist at a private hospital in Kampala and a damn good one at that. My work is often fulfilling and I enjoy it so where does this-
“He didn’t mean it like that, Justine,” Doreen spoke up, her warm voice interrupting my thoughts. “It’s just that you’ve been through a lot in the past few years and it has changed your outlook on life… changed what should have been and many people are going to suffer for that.”
Her words felt like a spear going through my chest. This was quickly turning into the kind of talk I didn’t want to be a part of.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” My voice was back to betraying me again, coming out weakly.
“You’ve become more nihilistic and uncaring… Cold,” Jonathan spoke up.
“That’s… That’s ridiculous. Where do you come off saying something like that?” I asked in indignation. “Even if that were the case – which it isn’t – my attitude affects only me. No one else suffers from it.”
“Except that’s not the case at all,” he responded, voice resolute and irking me further. “It has never been the case with anyone. Who you choose to be and what you do affects everyone around you and this is doubly the case with you.”
The discomfort within me was rising to a crescendo.
“I don’t think so.”
Yes, well, you’re wrong,” Jonathan said, not giving me a chance to utter anything else. “And you know that you are wrong. People look up to you, your fellow workmates value you highly, and your friends are always eager for your opinion. You’re a leader amongst your peers, Justine. Surely you know that.”
The rising discomfort coupled with the tone Jonathan was using, as if he was speaking with a petulant child, made me want to throw out a few curse words at him in anger. He hadn’t said anything antagonizing, not really anyway, yet there I was, wanting to punch him in his sympathetic face. Doreen took my right hand in both of hers, refusing to let it go when I tried to yank it back.
“We know this isn’t easy for you, Justine, but please, hear us out,” she cooed with an encouraging smile. “Your outlook on life has far-reaching consequences and that’s what we’d like to show you today.”
I forcefully extricated my hand from hers and glared at both of them.
“Fine, say what you want to say. It’s not like I have a choice anyway.”
They exchanged another look and I tried my best to not let it incense me further. I failed.
“You’ve grown up smart and talented… logical. That’s why you chose physiotherapy instead of going into math, because of the stability and versatility it granted you in Kampala, right?” Jonathan asked, looking at me with raised eyebrows like he expected an answer even though I could tell that he knew what I was going to say.
“Yeah. I didn’t want to become a teacher and I wanted time to work on my music,” I grumbled.
“Exactly, and that’s fine but I think that’s where the problem started – if I’m not wrong.” He hesitated. “Help me out here, Doreen.”
“Yes, you’re right, Jonathan. That’s where the problem began: With the idea that you couldn’t get all you wanted in life, that you had to compromise your deepest desires so that you could be happy.”
“That’s ridiculous!” I sputtered in shock. “It was the logical choice to make and look where I am, I like my work and I’m good at it. I’ve also had enough time to compose some songs I really like. There’s no problem with that!”
“The problem isn’t that you chose the medical route but rather, why you chose it, Justine,” Doreen continued, her voice as warm and honeyed as ever. “It was a simple idea at the time but you fed it and it grew into this ugly notion you have that you can’t have anything nice unless you sacrifice something important to you.”
“But that’s the way life works. There’s no guarantee that-”
“There are guarantees, sweetie, we make sure of that. Just like we’re here today trying to make sure that thousands of people don’t suffer simply because you don’t believe in yourself!” Doreen interrupted her tone sharper than it had been before. Her words burned a hole in my heart.
“You’re selling yourself piece by piece and allowing the hopeful, helpful, and human part of yourself to freeze into stone,” Jonathan said, his voice quiet.
“Look at the fiasco of a relationship you had with Bernard,” Doreen continued.
That got my attention.
“What do you mean ‘fiasco’? He is a nice guy and I pushed him away. Of course he had no choice but to break up with me and-”
“That relationship was never meant to happen,” Doreen said; her voice sharp again. “You had several unserious relationships and by the time Bernard came around, you just wanted to be loved. But there was something off. You could feel it and yet you ignored it – believing that you could never deserve more than him. Now look – look at how that relationship damaged you.”
Her words were tearing into me. All my secret thoughts spoken out loud and thrown back at me until I felt like my heart was bursting with the pain.
“You realize it now, don’t you? That he never really loved you? That he couldn’t love you the way you deserved to be, even if he tried. But he didn’t try, did he? Did he?!”
She was yelling at that point and my body responded the way it always did when these thoughts confronted me. I burst into tears.
“He did; HE DID!” I screamed; wanting to block her voice out. “He tried but I just wasn’t good enough… I just didn’t love him back enough! I’m just not good enough…”
I broke off sobbing. All the memories I’d tried to bury in the past eight months coming back fresh, tearing their way out of the boxes I’d packaged them in.
“He beat you!”
Flashes of him kicking me until I got a bruised spleen.
He was just frustrated with work and I had no right to deny him that night, no matter how tired I was. Also, he apologized for months after that and never hit me again.
“He stole from you!”
Flashes of the ATM telling me my funds aren’t sufficient.
He apologized and said he wanted the investment to be a surprise; that made sense.
“He manipulated you, Justine, for how long are you going to deny the truth?!”
At that point and I could barely see through the tears blurring my vision, but I heard Jonathan speak.
“Doreen, you’re taking it too far,” he admonished.
“Not far enough, Jonathan!” she snapped. “How many times do you want to steal her away at night as we try to convince her of the same thing over and over again? It’s time to try a new tactic!”
I saw Doreen’s form getting up and Jonathan yelled in warning, startling me for a second before I felt a hand close around my eyes as a sharp pain pierced into my head. I was sure I screamed in agony but I heard no sound and the pain disappeared as suddenly as it came. That’s when the images started flashing.
Hundreds of thousands of people with connections to each other and all of them leading back to me. People suffering because of actions I assumed were innocuous, all of which had their roots planted in my low self-esteem, or my inability to hope for the best. Life after life, flashing by me; some cut short before their time and others yanked from the paths they would have otherwise taken because I ignited some sort of self-destructive chain reaction.
Me refusing to apply for the promotion I knew was meant for me and someone without the right experience was promoted instead. Several clients suffered and the hospital got sued twice, as a result. Sheila, the nursing assistant in the surgical OPD. I’d had lunch with her almost every day, but didn’t think it was my place to comment on her depression until she attempted suicide but miscalculated the wrong dosage, and after having to live with severe kidney damage for a few months, died anyway. Natasha. She had been dealing with years worth of molestation as a child and alcohol had been her go-to pain relief. All the sexual jokes she kept making weren’t jokes at all but an attempt to depersonalize her fears. Oh God, and I’d practically yelled at her over her standoffish and unprofessional attitude at work. We’d even exchanged some unsavory words.
It was too much and it didn’t let up for a long while. I was not surprised that when the hand was finally lifted from my face, my cheeks were wet with tears and snot was freely running from my nose.
Jonathan cleared his throat and produced a handkerchief out of nowhere, handing it to me as he glared at Doreen. She, in turn, just walked back to her seat as if she hadn’t just completely devastated me. I worked at gulping in large breaths of air while Jonathan handed me a glass of juice which I took gratefully. They looked at me as I drank the juice, watching as tears occasionally slid down my face, and refusing to glance away. By the time the glass was empty, my nerves were frayed.
“What do I need to do?” I asked, my voice low and shaky.
“For starters, patch things over with Natasha. It’s important,” Doreen said, her tone back to being warm.
“She won’t resist, trust us,” Jonathan added with a small smile.
I nodded silently as another tear slid down my cheek.
“And be open to George.”
“Who?” I asked, frowning slightly at Doreen.
“You know who I’m talking about. You’ve seen him.” The image of hunky work guy entered my head.
“We just want you to be happy,” Jonathan said.
“I… I don’t think I can do that,” I began, my voice gaining some strength. “I understand what you’re saying but… I can be happy without a man, and you suggesting otherwise seems like the very opposite of everything you’ve just said to me.”
“He didn’t mean it like that. It’s just that there are certain paths that you ought to take, and well, George is one of them.”
It was hard to believe that the warm woman before me was the very same one who’d just devastated my world.
“No, thank you. What’s the worst that could possibly happen if I refuse him?”
I could feel irritation starting to rise again and Jonathan’s quiet chuckles weren’t helping at all.
“I’d really like to see you try and reject him. He was made for you and you were made for him,” he said.
“Actually, it’s not,” Doreen said, looking at me thoughtfully. “Situations like that are few but it’s true, you two were made for each other. He’s got massive game where you’re concerned.”
They were both grinning at that point and I felt a little unsettled. They couldn’t possibly be right.
“This is the most agreeable you’ve been all month,” Jonathan remarked after a short silence.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“We’ve been at this for almost a month now, trying to convince you that you needed to change certain aspects of your life and now… Well… Thanks to Doreen’s unconventional methods, you seem more agreeable.”
“But I don’t recall any of that,” I spoke up in confusion.
“Yes, well, our aim is to affect the convictions you have deep within, not change your mind for you. So we never really leave you with the memories of these discussions,” he responded.
“Then I won’t remember this when I wake up?”
“No…but if we’ve succeeded, you’ll instinctively know what to do,” Doreen said. “I’m feeling good about our chances this time though…”
She faded off and I frowned, wondering if I was going deaf. Perhaps I am passing out, I thought, as my vision began to darken and I felt like I was falling into an abyss.
I jerked awake at the sound of my alarm clock and quickly turned it off. Oh God, it was 6 a.m. already? Damn! I scrambled out of bed; I had about 40 minutes before the city’s traffic jammed up and made me late for work. I’d had another one of those strange dreams that I couldn’t remember. But where I would normally wrack my brain trying to remember even a single scene from the dreams, I now found that it didn’t bother me much anymore. Plus, I really wanted to talk to Natasha, and I wanted to send her a text before I chickened out again.
Moving quickly, I grabbed my phone from the nightstand and found the email icon flashing. I looked at my notifications and opened the one from work, quickly reading the body about the meeting we were having that day. There would be a short discussion about the new patient registration system the hospital had just installed, led by its creator, George…
My heart started pounding. The email barely registered as apprehension took a hold of me and I started feeling uneasy. Perhaps… perhaps I could call in sick for the day.
Twenty-five-year-old Ngentsa looked at her parents straight in eyes and said:
― I am in love with Nidji!
― Nidjiiiiiii? Are you sure? Her mother, Oula, asked.
― But… He is a robot! Exclaimed her father, Amasingue. Ngentsa, have you gone crazy? Oula, you see? You see? I told you to watch your daughter. Now, note for yourself; she’s in love with a robot!
Her mother began screaming and clapping her hands. Soon, she added frantic bouncing and shaking.
― Have we not been able to teach her the right way? God, please, come and help us! Oula shouted.
― I love him, papa. Ngentsa whispered. I love him, this is all I know.
― Ngentsa, Amasingue said. What people call love is a question of life and death, not a game. There are so many handsome, smart and kind human men in this country and you did not find one to become your husband, only this Nidji? You cannot even have kids. Think of what the entire family will say about your mother and me when they will hear about that…
― Is Nidji different from all these other men, papa?
― He is… He is–You know what I mean!
Her father lowered his face and stared guiltily at the handmade Tunisian carpet.
― A machine! This is what you think, isn’t it? Oh God, my father is a machinist! Is that how you see me also?
When she was a young girl Ngentsa lost control of her flying bicycle, hit a tree and fell headfirst to the ground from a height of six feet. Her parents were wealthy; they could afford to pay for cybernetic organ replacements, and Ngentsa survived. She now had an artificial eye, liver and right leg.
Her father looked at her with loving eyes.
― You know that it’s not the same thing. He is totally artificial, he has no soul…
― Dad! Please, stop! I don’t want to listen to any more.
Ngentsa left the house angrily. She needed some fresh air. She thought that her parents would understand. Her father was an intellectual, the scientist who had found the vaccine for the Hepatitis L Virus (HLV) which had affected a large part of the worldwide population, while her mother was a university professor of literature. But they reacted in totally the opposite way.
What was wrong with her choice? Ngentsa wondered. Suddenly her inner phone device tickled her ear. It was a call from Nidji.
― Hullo! She said faking a happy voice.
― Hi, my sweet! How are you? Nidji asked.
― I am fine, thanks. She feigned a little laugh, but actually tears were flowing silently down her cheeks.
― Have you told your parents about us?
― Not yet.
― I am so excited. Your parents are so understanding.
― Nidji, don’t be so enthusiastic, my parents are not perfect.
Her tears stained her blue shirt.
― Ok, I don’t have much phone credit. I will call you back. I love you.
― I love you too.
Ngentsa looked at the moon. It was shining brilliantly, full of peace like an angel. Only its soft light could soothe her pain now.
It might have been a day like any of those that preceded it, except I decided not to wear a bra. This was not a radical choice – just a small change. Yet I have come to believe it completely altered the tenor of that week, and with this, the history of my entire planet. What might have led to that seemingly trivial wardrobe choice? Perhaps it was the heat. And, if anyone had asked, I would have told them I only cared to carry breasts on Sunday afternoons. All my nice bras were unwashed. I wore a sweater to work on Tuesdays. The breasts themselves are rather negligible. There are certainly multiple maybes, perhaps, and if-this-then-thats we might attach to the version of me that did not wear a bra and altered history.
The only maybe of significance is this one: I woke up before the sun rose on Tuesday and the dark was a shimmering one, a dark that can only confer grandeur. And it was behind the lashes of this voluptuous dark that my daffodil revealed itself to me as the most expansive thing on the planet – so generous was it with its magnificence that I mounted my window sill and nearly fell out the open window inhaling its splendour. The daffodil in question was so flattered that it preened in response, which charmed me even more so I leaned in closer, and it plumed prettily, and I was even further bewitched, and Daffodil responded, as did I and on and on we continued, my flower and I.
Our delicate ballet was eventually interrupted by the national call to attention. Shaken out of my reverie, I ran out of my room and stood outside the door, waiting for the daily duties to be called out by the spokesperson of our section. My allotment for that Tuesday was delivering rations to each room for the single meal we ate each week. I couldn’t be bothered to list the benefits of a streamlined diet that day as I did my task; everything reached me through the veil of daffodil’s clean wonder. The very universe itself opened up before me, and its secrets lingered on my tongue long after the initial shock of understanding.
It became clear to me that womanhood is not a vocation to which I am called. Initially, I was not particularly sure how to put this insight to use. Of course, I would have to report to the Ministry of Genitals, stop by the local chapter of the National Wardrobe Committee, and change my gender details at the Statistics & Surveillance Bureau. This was all fairly straightforward, but really, I hadn’t inhaled enough of Daffodil to decide which gender captured all the versions of myself that I bore within me. And what does one do, when one finds oneself in the wrong body? I imagined one should take a lover maybe and, if necessary, take up arms because that’s what people did in the history files. Beyond that, I wasn’t certain.
I decided to seek counsel at the National Confusion Centre.
“Welcome to the National Confusion Centre. Sponsored by the Allied Lands of Africa – we think so you don’t have to.”
“I’m not a woman.”
“Which of the genders are you?”
“That’s the confusion.”
“You have none?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“We have a chart.”
“But you can’t-”
“And a scientific test.”
“There’s no such -”
“We can also fix you into one, if you’re determined.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
“Well, for registration and tax purposes, you must have one.”
“Daffodil wouldn’t agree.”
“Isn’t your number 59013? What is Daffodil?”
“Nothing. Can I just leave?”
“Actually, I need to update the records. So, please pick one.”
“Won’t it take a few years to change?”
“No, we’re efficient. Allied Lands of Africa – we move at the speed of light!”
I tried to tell the automated counsellor about my encounter with Daffodil, about the secrets of the universe which were revealed to me. That, no, I didn’t need to move at the speed of light, just to bloom, gently and quietly like Daffodil. At the speed of life, if possible. It was this dangerous turn in my overall temper that marked the beginning of it all.
“59013? 59013! Are you malfunctioning?”
“Yes, yes. I mean, no, no.”
“Good. The Patrollers are overworked this time of day.”
“I think I’ll leave now.”
“That will not be possible. I suggest you take on animorphous.”
“It’s a crowd favourite. Really.”
“Like I said, no.”
“Thank you, then.”
“Actually, 59013! Where are you going? No. Do stop. Please? 59013!”
They would send the Patrollers after me, of course, but I wouldn’t look back. And so I ran, genderless, my nipples nearly boring through my sweater with all the tension. It might have been the sight of my nipples, those impertinent little things, or the desperation with which I called for Daffodil that drove a crowd to form behind me, repeating, like a chant in monotone: Daffodil. Daffodil. Daffodil.
“For God’s sake, whatever you do, do-not-marry-that-woman!”
“Who the fuck are you?”
“I am your future self. You remember that idea you had for a time machine? Well, it worked, it’s going to work – gotta get my tenses right – and I’m here to tell you… to tell me, not to marry that woman.”
“You look more like my dad.”
“I was also going to say lay off the beers a bit and count your damn calories. And while you’re at it, a bit of exercise every now and again wouldn’t be such a bad thing, if you can be arsed.”
“No way you’re me, hombre.”
“Do you want me to show you the mole on my left butt cheek, or maybe we can discuss your rather disgusting habit of jerking off to Chantal Biya pictures?”
“I’m talking quickly because we’ve only got four minutes before I’m sucked back through the vortex to my own timeline, and, because of the parallax-duplicity problem, I can never come back to this exact moment again. Are you going to do as I say and leave that woman?”
“Because she’s no good for you. She’ll bring you untold misery and grief. Spare yourself, spare me, by cutting off all links with that woman. I can’t explain everything, but you have to trust me, trust us. Think of me as the gut instinct you never had, moron. It will hurt now, but – trust me – it will save you from so much pain, grief and anguish in the future, like an injection. Consider this a prophylaxis, a pre-emptive strike of the Gulf War II kind. Please, I am begging you from the bottom of our sclerotic heart.”
“Okay, I’ll do it.”
(Five minutes later)
“I need to talk to you urgently. This is a matter of the utmost importance.”
“What happened to your teeth?”
“We went through this five minutes ago, remember?”
“Ha? I’ve only just gotten here. Look, I’ve come to save you, my boy. There’s no time, you just have to trust me on this. I need you to get over whatever’s been bugging you and marry her. Forget these second thoughts you’re having.”
“You absolutely must propose tonight! Do you have any idea what I’ve gone through in order to come back here – across the fourth dimension – to save you from yourself? If you have any regard for what’s holy, then you absolutely must marry her.”
“But you said—”
“Life without her is cold and bleak and… It’s unlife. Four billion women on the planet and she’s the only one for you. She completes you, she completes us. I’ve searched everywhere, you’ve searched; we’ve spent the last thirty years of our life searching, and no one can replace her. That feeling called love, it’s in your heart right now, and you will never feel it again if you don’t marry her. Instead all you’ll have is bitterness, envy and loneliness. You will go through the rest of your life alone, comrade. At your age, you’re thinking bollocks, but trust me, there’s nothing worse in the whole, entire universe. Imagine the pain of having your teeth and fingernails pulled out over and over and over and over again. Please, I beg you…”
“Okay, I’ll do it. I’ll marry her. Fuck.”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you. Now listen, a few days after I’m gone, you will not remember having seen me, but the decision you’ve made right now will linger in your subconscious and take effect. Trust that instinct.”
(Five minutes later)
“Thank God you’re here. You may not know me, but I absolutely must speak with you.”
“You again? What happened to your nose?”
“I’ve only just gotten here. Anyway, there’s no time. It’s about that woman! Listen to me very carefully. Whatever you do, you-must-not—”
“Are you kidding me? The only thing I’m not going to do is build that bloody time machine. You hear me? No. More. Time…”
The heart of evil and truth –- and, just sometimes, a little bit of madness and lies.
Today, though, I might get the entire shitload.
I choke back unexpected dread as I prepare for immersion in my pod, the Doc wiring my scalp to the monstrous man lying comatose beside me. Out of the corner of my right eye I can sense his slumbering bulk, rising and falling with a slow and menacing snore.
No, Sledgehammer fucking Jones.
I wince as the Doc pulls on the scalp electrodes, stinging my right parietal area.
She gives me a slap on my exposed arm, “Stop being a baby.”
Like she’s the one going into the head of a brutal killer.
Straining against the head strap, I lift my head a few inches and turn to the right. Jones is a mountain of a man swelling under those blue sheets, a pale white egg-domed head laced with cables feeding the machine between us. A big man indeed, and with a temper to match, I’d heard.
Not that I’ve always been on the side of the angels myself. But then, my father had always taught me to be assertive, modelling it forcefully to me whenever he suspected I had lied to them.
Until mamma would step in, a protective pillow against his punches.
I lean back again, to avoid my eyes spilling.
Focus on the job ahead.
We go back a few years, Doc Lizzie Abasi and I – 27 missions in all – and I have a 96% hit rate – the best fucking Rider in the world.
But you probably know that, I’m all over the Wiki pages.
Dream Hunter One, they call me.
It’s almost countdown time now, I can smell the acidic, cabbage-like stink of the REM-inducing drip the doc is preparing and suck in my breath, readying to both fall and soar into Dream-Space.
“Hey Doc,” I call, “Give me some decent music to work to this time, none of your funny Irish shit.”
Doc smiles over me, the purple bag of Stim swishing in her gloved hands: “I’m not Irish, remember – and you put up with what I choose to play, Peter John Scott.”
Always, she uses my full name – and yes I know, she’s Peckham born and bred, third generation ex-Nigeria, so where does the yen for Irish music come from?
Fuck it, who knows where anything comes from, especially our nocturnal dreams seaming our lives with images that seldom cohere? And faces. Old women, vaguely recognizable, wrinkled, and dark – darker hued than me, dual heritage man that I am. Always staring at me, willing something from me.
Tip of my brain stuff, never quite named.
Focus, Scott, forget the phantom crones.
I groan, “So what’s it to be this time, Lizzie?”
She’s busy with the Loom™ – the machine that locks brains together, the drip already hanging between Sledgehammer Jones and me. This is always the point where my shivering increases and words start to freeze in my mouth.
My fifteenth year at this game and it only gets harder.
I hear the large man alongside me catch his breath, as if not fully asleep.
“‘Let’s Remember 1848’, by The Literal Leprechauns,” Lizzie says, moving onto my least favourite part, the needle in the arm. Her brightly beaded cornrows tickle my right cheek.
“Wh-Why?” I ask, looking up at her face instead, forcing words out, unable to hide their quiver, “That’s a f-f-fucking long time ago.”
Lizzie half-smiles – as if she doesn’t notice – and signals to me with a drop of her right palm; I’m going under soon. She tilts her head, squinting at me over her smart-specs with those brown eyes of hers. It’s as if there are still things she likes to look at directly, without hearing the verbal comments that attach like buzzing flies to her smart goggle visuals.
Or perhaps she just doesn’t like to hear what the Face-Rec sites continually say about me.
I’m not really that arrogant: I really do have me some damn fine parietal lobes. Perhaps I have my dead English dad to thank for my skills; I was raised on tales of his lucid breakfast dreams, but my Zulu mamma’s daily putu-pap and peanut butter toast always satisfied my stomach.
So it was that I learned to straddle both God and Nkulunkulu: science and myth, dream and reality.
I have not seen my mum since my divorce, more than ten years ago now.
She’d gotten on well with Shireen, my ex-wife.
Perhaps too well?
Mamma told me I’d turned into ‘him’ and then left me, going back to the other family I hardly knew in South Africa.
‘Him’ – my father with fists. Surely not, mother?
Surely, surely not?
“We need to know our past, in order to understand where we are going,” Lizzie says slowly.
“But neither of us are fucking Irish,” I say, the quiver in my voice gone, as my hurt and fear fades into the groggy, initial rush of the Stim.
Sledgehammer Jones is waiting, so I hold back from the pull of the dream, thinking thickly, focusing my gaze into the pulsating light overhead.
I have my plan ready, but know that means little sometimes, given the inherent surrealism of the domain. They never give me an easy ride either – I’ve had some mega-whacked out dream partners over the years. Those who refuse to talk – or who deny their crimes – have seriously fucked up dreams.
I get the choice picks, the hardest of the hard. As befits the best of the best, I guess.
My head sinks back and I watch the screen above the far wall struggling to make visual sense of Jones’s Imago-EEG, a cloudy and murky grey, he’s still some way short of REM state.
Time to let go. I slip into the barely charted space between waking and dreams and hover in hypnagogic flux, pulsing a Door to be walked through – but…
What – the – fuck?
The screen flickers, fuzzes and sharpens. A man stands: slim and sharply-suited in grey, a svelte version of the nude man lying on the medical trolley next to me. This thinner, virtual Sledgehammer Jones is ignoring the glowing green door behind him – avoiding my usually unfailing initial lure.
Instead, he seems to be peering out at me – and, and he, he’s fucking waving?
“What’s, uh, – what’s his status?” I ask, my voice fading distant, crashing. My vocal cords constrict as I start to slowly sink.
I can still sense Sledgehammer’s body alongside me — seemingly sedated by a drip infusion.
“Dream status reached,” Lizzie says, a vague shape now, floating between us. “He’s deep in REM sleep.”
How – the – fuck – is this – possible? I’m one of only a small batch of people in the world who have learned how to tread and weave the borders of dream and waking. We’re starting to knit together at the brainwave level, and it’s me who’s supposed to be holding the fucking threads — yet, somehow, this bastard is waving at me while dreaming, grinning like a skinny snake.
The pull into sleep is an intolerable tug at my being, but I focus on pushing my frontal lobes for just that little bit longer.
Is this just a hypnagogic hallucination?
“Up his sedation,” I grind out slowly; REM sleep locks the body muscles, to stop you doing daft things while you dream, like killing someone.
I see Lizzie’s shape swing towards the screen — and freeze.
And for no time at all.
She spins around again and hovers over him; I’m guessing she’s opening his Stim drip even wider.
On the screen, Jones has turned and opened my green door, blowing it red with a breath.
The Sledgehammer’s favourite colour.
He steps through.
As for me, I lose my grip to the torrent of sleep.
I am disembodied, a vague flash of fish in a raging unconscious river. Then I am there; gasping, wet and shivering, in a muted and pale cream bathroom. I have all the props ready, waiting – a bathroom, a bath, and several…implements.
The man himself is not yet here. I have time to strengthen this dream, to sculpt the images from many visits and forensic holograms – I sense Jones looping along my corridor just outside.
I twitch and tweak his synapses with fused will. There’s a part of the hippocampus where the memories beneath the dreams can be unlocked – with the right training and expertise.
He will enter soon, filling the bath with someone he knows and re-enact a scene from his unconscious that he has – until now – always consciously denied.
(Flowers and broken glass make a green rabbit jump.)
I breathe slowly to clear the crazy images and re-orient myself, even though I have no need to breathe. Then, with familiar dexterity, I climb the wall like Spiderman, sticking myself to the ceiling and making myself invisible.
The scene below starts to shiver and splinter into a myriad of dream fragments, a confused chaotic collage, disorienting me for eternal moments.
I forget…no, I …remember, I am Peter, Peter Scott, Rider. This is my dream. Reassert command; take control… With practiced ease, I re-clarify the bathroom walls, with matte beige paint and maroon horizontal stripes at chest height, as per forensic record.
Jones must be coming – and he is powerful. But he seems scattered and shattered in his dreaming thoughts. I only hope he is now fully immersed in my dream.
Distantly, I hear bathwater tinkling and I buzz myself back into being, hanging from a burning hot bulb on the ceiling, invisible spider-like legs scalding. Sledgehammer Jones must be disturbing the strands of this scene.
Steam and coconut scented bath salts saturate my nose from the water below; my eyes water with the sharp tang surging through my sinuses. Spiders don’t have sinuses, do they?
Focus, Scott. Stay alert — and watch out for the bursting of any irrational anomalies from Jones’s unconscious.
The dream steadies, seaming itself thicker, lacing itself with the richest of sensorial detail – and I sense Jones’s excitement as his dream throbs ahead of him, moving into the bathroom like a palpable, gloating force, ready to shake and shape events.
Here we fucking go, then. I ready myself too.
It is then that I see her. She is in the bath. Thickened and greying slightly with the approach of late middle years, she is bending forward, water dripping off her back as she scrubs her toenails with deft concentration.
Jones himself enters, and I am relieved to see he is in a red bathrobe that reveals his real, blossoming bulk – no longer able, then, to conjure a lucid and ideal dream-self; he is finally absorbed into the fabric of our mutual dreaming. She – his wife, Alice – hesitates and half turns to Jones.
“I’ve almost finished,” she says, covering her breasts with her arms.
“So am I,” Jones says, smiling.
Slowly, she looks up, and her sadness wafts up to me. A drop of water spools off her left cheek. I wonder, for the briefest of moments, if it is salty.
“Why, Alice?” Jones asks, standing squarely, stolid in his growing anger.
She seems unaware, shrugging with resignation and a hint of despair. “Barry does care for me, you know. And you haven’t really been here for a few years now,” she says, “Always — working?”
“Yes!” Jones shouts. “Working, fucking working – while you – you fucked!”
Shit, flashes of a bedroom scene intrude, another man with Alice, their limbs sprawled together, elsewhere. Take us back, back to my scene. There… I re-plaster the bathroom vignette, focusing intently on bringing back all pieces, including the implements.
Especially the implements.
Jones’s wife has her hands lifted, covering her eyes and, I’m now sure the leaking water dripping through her fingers is salty. Her shoulders are heaving and her voice is muffled, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I didn’t- didn’t mean to hurt you.”
But Jones has already picked it up.
One of the three implements in the bathroom at the time – toilet brush, hand vac and… a small sledgehammer. Propped behind the toilet bowl, it had been mistakenly left some few days past by builders completing the wall renovation. It was neither easily nor automatically available. And yet the man has stepped around the toilet to heft it, moving back to the bath and his wife, readying himself, hammer over head.
Alice drops her hands to the side of the bath and only gulps with a frightened rasping wheeze. Her pinkish eyes are dilated, huge, staring us down.
Eventually, her voice comes, raspy with fear: “John, what – what are you- what?”
He swings the hammer down onto his wife’s head.
Despite myself, I close my eyes.
She screams — and screams — and screams?
She is thrashing in the water, desperately, frenzied in panic. The bath water is… clear, foaming with her surging activity, but clear.
The large man stands, head down, hammer in both hands. He has stopped the swing just inches from his wife’s head.
But… in reality, he had not.
Dream-jacking always gets to the truth. Defences down, dreamers re-enact events – given the right steer, the right props from an expert Rider — and there are none better than I.
My prompts always spark a replay of actual events, dream or no dream.
Uh-uh, focus, Scott…
Sledgehammer Jones straightens and looks up then.
Straight at me.
“So. How much are the Crown Prosecution paying you for this?”
Jones’s wife is standing now. Water streams down her body, over her breasts, down her belly and thighs.
Jones looks back at her, but keeps speaking to me. “My name’s John. Just John Jones. I loved this woman dearly. I want to set her free.”
“What?” I whisper from the ceiling.
He looks up at me again. “I’m going to put the hammer down and let her go, so she can join Barry, like she always hoped.”
“But… that’s not what happened.”
“No,” he says, “But it’s what should have happened.”
I’ve never faced this dilemma before. What to do? If I just let him take hold of the dream, I have no doubt they will fire me. They get paid by the conviction – as do I.
John Jones puts the sledgehammer down. His wife has stepped out of the bath and is drying herself on a large white towel – she wraps it around her body and ties it over her left shoulder like a toga.
“I loved you, John,” she says.
She does not look at either of us; it’s as if she is no longer aware of us.
I can make the hammer larger, more enticing, red both in colour and nature – and wait for Jones’s hippocampal cognitive rehearsal to kick in with irresistible compulsion.
…But would this make me an accomplice? Will I then be guilty of murder too?
Alice hovers uncertainly by the door and Jones looks up at me again.
Fuck it; mamma had always told me to do the ‘right’ thing.
(Until she left me.)
“Okay,” I say, dropping down from the ceiling and fleshing myself. “Let her go, then, if that’s what you really want to do.”
Alice stays, though: frozen, immobile, her face contorting with the effort to move.
I turn to Jones. His face is dripping with sweaty exertion: “I can’t free her,” he says. “Help me, please.”
But, try as I might, I have no point of contact with her – she is not my dream imago to shift. I turn to shrug helplessly, but Jones has already picked up the hammer, now swollen and red, again.
“My name is John,” he says, “Just John Jones. Get that? Guilty – I’m guilty.”
He hesitates for a moment and then hands the hammer over to his wife. He bends forward submissively. “Do it,” he says.
I open my mouth, but I’m unable to scream.
“Do it!” he shouts.
“Lizzie?” I croak.
Alice Jones raises the hammer over her head and brings it crashing down on the large man’s head. The hammer bounces off his skull with a crackling, crunching sound, spraying a flash of blood across the room.
The blood laces my tongue – metallic, salty, explosive. I am falling sideways, grunting, winded, as I land on a crumpled and broken body.
John Jones’s wife looks down at me; the bath is empty and dry.
But she is not Alice anymore – she is Shireen, my ex-wife, whom I’d lost patience with -but only once or twice, I swear, mamma – until she left me.
This time though, Shireen is the one holding the hammer. She smiles, dark hair swishing across her face.
Shit, there is no dream-breath from this body beneath me. Jones’s head looks misshapen – splayed at an odd and bloody angle on the floor.
Shireen lifts the hammer over her head.
“Fuck it, Lizzie!” I scream, “Get me out of here.”
Shireen swings the hammer.
The bathroom walls start to shift externally, crumbling, roaring, as if an empty storm is sucking them inexorably outwards.
The bathroom cabinet and a wall explode and beyond, all I can see is a vast and complete emptiness. No sound, no shape, no colour.
And then I start falling sideways, sucked and stretched into the black hole beyond. I catch a flicker of images flashing past me – Old Man, Hero, Trickster, a flash of bleeding Jungian archetypes. Then dead-eyed animals, increasingly bizarre, mostly mute and long extinct.
I hurtle helplessly towards the empty hole at the heart of it all.
An old woman watches me from a place where everything has gone out. I think I know her, her hollow eyes are like burnt out planets.
“Mamma?” I call in desperation, flailing to stay away from the blackness above and beneath me.
Her head tilts, as if turning towards me – her face is creased with concern, brown eyes focusing on my face.
She holds her right hand out at me, clawed, but tendon-etched strong. “Ngibambe ngesandla,” she says.
“What?” I say, wondering if I should give in to the sucking darkness.
“Have you learned nothing of where’re you’re from, Peter – hold my fucking hand!”
But she smiles as she says it and I realise it is the only thing that might just save me. I scrabble at her, but miss.
The darkness desiccates words, drowning everything.
Something grips my arm and yanks me sideways.
Two hands are huge on either side of my cheeks. The woman seems to be holding my face up.
I recognize her and start to cry.
“Lizzie, thank God…”
“I’m here,” the Doc says. Her voice is warm and reassuring.
I continue to see hints of – fractured images and beasts, drifting in nothing with a vast void behind, the nothing that fudges the boundaries and certitude of everything I can now see — or perhaps it’s just that my eyes keep leaking, smearing my sight and sense of surety?
Jones’s words – were they meant for him – or me?
I’d certainly… hurt Shireen.
And yes, I remember mamma had told me, when I was still a teenager at secondary school, that even once was too much.
Lizzie holds me against herself; her shoulders are bony, but warm. “It’s okay, Peter,” she says.
“What- what the hell happened to Jones?” I choke.
And how can I turn this fucking face tap off?
“He’s dead,” she says. “Jesus, they’re going to crucify me for overdosing him on sedatives.”
“But,” I say and stop, unable to find words; it’s all I can do to focus on the warmth of her body and the strength in her hands, still cradling my shoulders and head.
Then she leans back and moves away, starting to decouple electrodes and tubes from the large, still body lying alongside me.
Exhausted, I lie back on the pillow and watch her, unable to move. She switches off the Loom™. The Doc is decoupling me with smooth professionalism and I can see her show of warmth and compassion is past.
My tears stop and dry, prickling my cheeks.
We had a legitimate court order to dream-jack him, but John Jones had already decided to face his guilt head on – and, unable to free his wife, had preferred to die.
Still, where the hell does that leave us?
I look across at Sledgehammer.
There is just the barest hint of a smile at the corner of the dead man’s lips.
The bastard had left me with my ex-wife and the hammer.
My body is starting to warm up, just the teeniest little bit, and words free up inside me. “Listen Lizzie, I will testify that Jones chose to die. They will see that for themselves too.”
Dream Justice, Inc. – that part of the privatised English Crown judiciary.
I pull the sheet off and stand up, my body – now well on the pudgy side of thirty, and sagging in readiness for forty – crackling stiffly in its jumpsuit. I stretch upwards, my blood needling harshly through arteries and veins again. Every year, my stretches get harder and harder.
Lizzie has covered Sledgehammer Jones’s torso and looks up at me with a smile. “Thank you – that may just help, Peter, a devastating nocebo effect, perhaps…”
I wipe my face with a forearm as I stiffly step across to the body next to my bed.
“I’m sorry… John,” I say. Given proper training and circumstance, it is clear that he would have been the greatest Dream-Rider in the world, not me.
Funny thing is; it suddenly didn’t matter to me anymore.
I’d made my own share of mistakes too – and I was no longer the best anything.
Dream-Hunter Two? Not quite the same ring to it.
More, I’d caught a glimpse of what lies behind both dreams and waking.
I open the door to leave and hesitate, “Bye, Lizzie.”
“Bye, Peter,” she does not look round.
“No,” I say, “I mean bye.”
She pivots slowly in her chair and looks at me again. Her eyes are a deep and penetrating brown. “You’re quitting, Peter?”
I nod. “Don’t think I can Ride again on the criminal justice system.”
“Bye Peter,” she does not get up.
“Did you see…her, at the end?” I ask.
“Who? I just saw you rising out of the darkness – as if dragged by hope.”
I close the door behind me.
Hope lives by the name of Precious Msimang; she has claimed back her old clan name, I remember.
I have forgotten her number but it takes my smart-watch only two seconds to patch me through.
The old woman from my dreams stares at me with apparent disbelief.
“Mamma!” is all I can manage.
“Peter,” she says – and then the line freezes.
I know why – she always hated to cry in front of me – especially after…he – had hit her.
It flickers on again – mamma looks old and worn, but with the faintest of smiles, watching me closely. “Why have you called now, what do you want?”
“To visit,” I say, “…and to talk about you and the family, and South Africa.”
“A good place, now that Rhodes Has Fallen,” she says. “This is my place to die.”
“Let’s not talk about death,” I say, “Ngibambe ngesandla, mamma.” (This time it is me who freezes the screen.)
I lie back and stare up at the numb white ceiling of my small flat.
I have taken women for granted, including the one who carried and birthed me, with both pain and love.
Guilty as charged.
It is time to start my redemption.
It will be a long, long flight home, to a place I hardly know.
I think it’s safe to say that 2016 has been a rough ride. In the space of a few months, we’ve lost a number of iconic entertainers from David Bowie, Alan Rickman, to Jab Adu that it feels like the ground is shifting beneath our feet. In concert with the growing impact of global climate change, a wildly unpredictable presidential election cycle in the United States and a cratering economy here in Nigeria, the world seems a deeply surreal place, and no one knows quite which way is up.
Like the year that birthed it, this edition can also be called surreal. Just like a Fulani warrior princess riding a leopard with a blaster in hand, its logic is dream-like; it is not afraid to throw together incongruous ideas and somehow keep them working. In fact, dreams make up the central premise of many of the stories in our edition, from the impossible dream of loving the wrong person to the idea that our dreams hold the key to our true selves – if only we would pay them more attention.
Our edition is special in many other ways as well. This is the first edition where we will pay our contributors – making us one of the few African literary magazines that do this. We want to thank the Goethe Institut, whose grant last year helped make this possible. However, the funds can only go so far and we will be running a crowd-fund drive before our next edition to try and raise funds for the rest of the year. We do hope you’ll give what you can to help keep this crazy project alive. This was also the first edition where we got the help of volunteers to help us sort through the slush pile. A big thank you goes out to University of Manchester students, Dr Jan Cabral-Jackson and Shaun Carter – and Geoffrey Ryman for hooking us all up.
It has been a confusing year so far and, as we always have, we turn to stories to help us make sense of it all. Like Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So” tales which gave us fanciful explanations for why the leopard has spots or why the hippopotamus’ skin is so wrinkly, speculative fiction may not have the answers, but they’re fun enough to get us thinking.
I don’t think any group of writers are called upon to justify and defend the existence of their work as often as science fiction and fantasy writers are. If you search online, you will find hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of essays and articles explaining with varying degrees of passion and eloquence, why the science fiction and fantasy genres (and indeed all the sub-genres that make up the continuum of the fantastic) are important, have literary merit, possess value. Well, as you may have guessed from the title, this is another one of those essays, but specifically for science fiction and for Africans – because Africa needs us to not just read, but create more science fiction.
Let me explain why.
Today, Africa is considered to be technologically underdeveloped1. We consume technology from other parts of the world, of course, but how many original, paradigm-shifting scientific and technological ideas originate from the African continent? Not many2. One could get into a lot of historical, political and sociological back and forth about why that is, but in the end what matters is – it is.
So what can we do about it? A lot. For example: we can try to increase literacy and improve the quality of education on the continent (there are already several initiatives such as the Literate Africa Project and UNESCO’s efforts), we can demand better governance from our leaders, and we can inspire the coming generations to aspire to a better Africa than we currently have. That last point is where I believe African science fiction can and should contribute significantly.
My father was a chemical engineer and my mother had a degree in English language and literature so one could argue that I was sort of genetically predisposed to enjoy science fiction. I watched Star Wars and Star Trek and Terminator and the other big sci-fi blockbusters. I also read encyclopaedias and classic English literature. I read Enid Blyton’s children’s stories and Ikebe Super’s raunchy comedies. I read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels and Frederick Forsyth’s political thrillers. I read Homer and H.G. Wells. But it wasn’t until I stumbled onto Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series that I became a ‘true’ science fiction fan.
Asimov’s story of Hari Seldon’s fictional new science of psychohistory – using mathematical models to predict the future of his galactic empire – inspired me beyond anything I’d read before it. It presented ideas of mathematics as a tool, a language for predicting things: flowrates, atomic radii, temperatures, planetary orbits, even human behaviour – given a good enough model. And not just that, but it did so in a highly entertaining way. Asimov’s Foundation played a big part in my decision to study engineering. And it seems I am not alone.
Two of the questions asked were: “Did you read Science Fiction while growing up?” and “Do you believe science fiction had/has any influence on your career/study choice?” When the number of respondents who answered “yes” to these questions was tallied, these were the results:
Fifty-six percent (56%) of people who read science fiction as children believe it influenced their decision to enter a STEMM field. Why is this important? Well, for one, STEMM careers are strongly linked to global economic competitiveness and growth. Many of us living in this wonderful digital age understand that the future of any nation depends heavily on science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine in order to address the many challenges that are and are to come. Science fiction can contribute to this effort.
Now, I’m not saying that the purpose of science fiction is to drive development. Far from it. Science fiction is, first and foremost, literature and its utility should be measured on the same scale as any other literary or artistic endeavour. I’m simply saying that science fiction, beyond its literary merits, can – and perhaps even should – be used in promoting, popularizing and inspiring science and technology development.
To support this, I’ll relay an anecdote that one of my favourite authors – Neil Gaiman4 – once told regarding his trip to China in 2007. He went to attend the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. Until recently, science fiction had been disapproved of in China so at one point he took a top official aside and asked him what had changed. Why was the government suddenly in favour of science fiction?
The official told Neil that the Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But on a large scale, many of them did not innovate or invent. They did not imagine. So the Chinese sent a delegation to tech giants like Apple, Microsoft and Google, and they asked the people there about themselves. They found that all of them had read science fiction when they were children.
In fact, there was a significant increase in China’s GDP per capita growth around 2005 – approximately 15 years after the first significant revival and popularization of science fiction literature in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Consider the red line and the change in slope shown on the chart below.
Fifteen years is just about enough time for the children and teenagers who read those revived science fiction magazines in the early 1990s to enter the workforce as young 20- and30-somethings. Then, armed with an appreciation for science and technology potentially nurtured by science fiction, they would begin to take advantage of the opportunities and technology available in their rapidly-changing country.
I present this without any claim of causality, I just find it interesting to note because one could argue that African science fiction seems to be undergoing a slow but certain revival5 of its own. Perhaps we can check back in 15 to 20 years to see if we have a similar increase in economic growth rate.
Another interesting result from the poll I conducted is that Africans already seem to know the importance of science fiction. When asked if they believe science fiction is useful to people in STEMM careers, 84 percent of all respondents, including those who said they had never read science fiction before and were never influenced by it, answered “yes.” When responses were restricted to only those currently living in Africa right now, it was even higher at 92 percent. And when they were restricted to only those who read science fiction as children, or who read science fiction now, that percentage spiked to a solid 100 percent. This from people across a fairly broad range of STEMM careers.
So if everyone more or less agrees that science fiction is important for inspiring people to STEMM careers, which in turn have tangible impacts on economic and technological growth, why aren’t there more African science fiction movies, novels, magazines, and conventions? Where is the critical science fiction eco-system of writers, scientists, directors, engineers, editors, and futurists interacting with and learning from each other?
Well, from where I stand, it’s coming. The Goethe Institute recently organised the African Futures6 festival in three cities across the continent – Lagos, Nairobi and Johannesburg. Slowly but surely, it’s coming. We are just currently distracted by foreign science fiction. We are consuming it as entertainment without considering the positive impact it could have on us as a society if we turned inward and also created our own.
Just last year, according to Box Office Mojo7, four of the top 10 highest-grossing movies in Nigeria were classified as sci-fi. That number is six in Egypt and five in South Africa. I don’t have similar numbers on books, but I don’t think it would be too different. That tells you Africans are no more averse to sci-fi stories than the rest of the world.
The problem may be, as I stated earlier, that we predominantly consume western iterations of the genre without thought of our own. This is something that author Tade Thompson touches on in the Q and A session between AfroSF contributors and students of Maria Barraza’s World Literature 202 class at Simon Fraser University8 when he says “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.” Dilman Dila’s story How My Father Became a God in Terra Incognita is an modern example of this kind of science fiction reclamation and creation.
In talking with Nnedi Okoroafor9 a few years ago, film director Tchidi Chikere said that “Africans are bothered about roads, electricity, water wars, famine, etc., not spacecraft and spaceships,” and that “only stories that explore these everyday realities are considered relevant to us, for now.” He had a point, but only when viewed through a certain lens. Science fiction is much more than spaceships and aliens. We can use science fiction to imagine our way out of these everyday realities. We can use science fiction to inspire our children beyond them.
We have been conditioned to only see a certain kind of science fiction – that from, or endorsed by, the West – and we disregard our own10.. Part of the problem, I think, is that it’s not a question of interest but of not believing in our own traditional sciences and our ability to extrapolate from them11. It’s not believing in our ability to use science in the unique ways Africans need it, not believing in our own ability to create a strange and wonderful future, not believing in our own ideas.
We need to read stories about Africans making a difference through science. We need to read about Africans leading international teams to terraform Mars. We need to read about An African doctor who combines rigorous scientific analysis with previously ignored traditional medicine to cure cancer. We need to read about the coming African technological renaissance and the kinds of technology that could drive it. We need to read about dystopian Africas so we can ask ourselves: is this really where we want to end up? We need to be able to imagine the future before we can begin to create it.
There is a great symbiosis I have observed in many parts of the world between science fiction and scientists or people in technology. Many of the people who read science fiction are scientists or engineers. They are entertained by it. They are inspired by it12. They also write it. It keeps their interest in and sense of wonder about science and technology alive. They take the ideas they have and spin stories out of them. They also use it to train themselves to think out of the box. Then they try to make these ideas real. It shapes the way they view the possibilities in the world.
This is a thing that should happen naturally in Africa too. Right now though, how many original science fiction stories are written in or about Africa? Not many. When asked who their favourite science fiction writer was in my poll, no respondent mentioned an African writer, and to be honest, neither did I. The hope is that in a few years, we will be able to. Not just because they are African but because they imagine genuinely amazing futures for Africa and the rest of the world. That’s the future I imagine. Now, let’s see if we can create it together.
Studies have shown that people are extraordinarily bad at predicting the future. What we often do is project the present and re-arrange the furniture a little – a flying car here, a spaceship there. However, the future is often both wilder and more mundane than we imagine.
Yesterday fans of the iconic movie Back To The Future II celebrated the day when Marty McFly and Doc travelled into the future. On the comedy talk show, Jimmy Kimmel Live, the original actors reprised their roles as clueless time travellers – except they arrive in the future as it is today, not as it was imagined in the 1985 film. They observe that even with all the technology at our disposal (“supercomputers in your hand”), we are doing no more than watching cat videos and taking selfies.
“The future kinda sucks,” they conclude.
But without wild conceptions of the future drawn up by speculative fiction in the past we wouldn’t have many of the innovations we take for granted today. Jules Verne dreamed up space travel and submarines, Aldous Huxley imagined genetic engineering and William Gibson’s drew the first conceptual ideas of the internet. Even when depicting dystopias, such as George Orwell’s idea of an all-powerful surveillance state in 1984, these works of fiction inspired scientists and activists in the real world to try and improve what they saw around them. And it worked.
We Africans need our own visions of the future. More than imagining cool devices and technologies we need to dream up solutions for our present-day problems such as inequality and environmental devastation that will inspire the scientists, politicians and leaders of tomorrow. We desperately need visions, both better and worse, that centre our experiences and concerns. A future that doesn’t treat us as side characters, extras or backdrops.
And so, in partnership with the Goethe institut, we would like to present you with 10 flash stories that imagine the futures of our urban landscapes as we see them. They are accompanied by art that bring these tales to vivid life. Displayed at the African Future_Lagos exhibition in Lagos, these works are funny, searing, frightening and hopeful, each one reveals in less than a 1,000 words a vivid slice of the nightmares and dreams that move us.
Humans may not be very good at predicting the future, but no matter what we do, we as thinkers, writers and artists always influence it.
He had been crawling, walking and running through the undergrowth for most of the afternoon and early evening. Now, his destination was minutes away – and he had run out of brush.
The next few minutes would be the most dangerous.
Crouching under the overhang of what was left of the Third Mainland Bridge, as it used to be called, he peered at the lone highway. The lights from the checkpoint winked and shimmered and he shuddered as he imagined the police standing there with their charge rods and body armor on the lookout for anyone who didn’t belong in New Lagos.
Outlanders. Like him.
The Mainland had become an abandoned wasteland as government after government insisted on relocating everything worth anything to New Lagos, formerly known as Victoria Island. Anyone who could afford it had bought property on the Island and moved – while the not-so-lucky ones had been left behind.
And when the sickness hit, there was no defense.
The man looked back the way he came. Mile after mile of forest, of sand and dust unrolled before his eyes. He hunkered down behind a small shrub and wrapped his scarf tighter across his nose and mouth before opening the dirty brown satchel that hung from his shoulder and pulling a wrapped parcel from it.
He squinted towards the highway, trying to pierce the rapidly-descending curtain of darkness. There was no movement – the police remained as they were, lights throwing red and blue patterns for miles around.
Good, the man nodded.
And then, crawling forward, he chose a spot hidden from casual eyes and unwrapped the parcel. The object inside was flat, sleek and shiny – it’s appearance in total contrast to the man holding it. He turned it over, looking over it carefully for any scratches and dents. Finding nothing, he turned it on.
“GOOD EVENI – “ the automated voice response started to say before the man’s scrambling finger pushed the mute button. He hurriedly crawled back to the edge of the bridge to look around.
Breathing heavily, he returned and whispered harshly to the device: “Show aerial view of the New Lagos Highway.”
Within seconds, a 3D hologram of his request rose from the screen. A small blinking blue dot showed where he was, and he looked carefully at the location of the security, taking extra notice of the 30-foot electrified wall.
“Show lower level.”
Decades before, around 2005 or so, Victoria Island had existed under the constant threat of floods. An intricate anti-flood waterworks had been built miles under the island for emergency flushing, but after the system failed, the government had simply filled in the surrounding water, pushing the ocean back towards the mainland.
The waterworks system was still there, intact, but he wasn’t sure if it was guarded or not. The original blueprints had been destroyed in one of the series of floods – along with plenty other things – and none of the builders were alive.
The man nodded and inhaled deeply. And then, with a slightly trembling voice he said, “Call Ayoka.”
The 3D image dissolved as his nine year old daughter’s face appeared on the screen – at least what she had looked like before the sickness had gotten to her. The same sickness had killed 30 million people within the first week of infection – sweeping the landscape like a vengeful angel – and then moved on, leaving behind dying strains that were uninfectious but deadly to their hosts.
Like his daughter.
“Where are you, papa?”
The man wiped his eyes of tears and smiled. “I’m at work, baby girl. But I’ll be home soon. How are you feeling?”
The little girl smiled bravely. “I’m just weak – but Aunty Salome said you are bringing something to make me feel better.”
“Yes, I am. So wait for me, okay?”
“Okay, pa – “
The loud humming of a moving vehicle drowned out her voice and quickly he powered down the tablet. The hum was coming from his left – from the highway, and it was heading towards the checkpoint.
Without hesitation he broke cover and ran towards the wall, keeping the checkpoint to his right as he moved. There was an abandoned swamp far enough from the wall to be ignored, but close enough to get someone who knew where he was going to the first of the access hatches.
That was his target.
Suddenly, the wall lights came on.
He was well out of their range, but the unexpectedness of it put a stumble in his stride – and he hit the ground hard. His loud “OOF!” and the clatter of stuff in his satchel alerted a policeman.
“Who goes there?” came the challenge.
The man crawled quickly until he was curled up against the highway wall. Looking up, he hoped he hadn’t been spotted. His heart was thumping, he was sweating –
And then, another light came on. This time, from the highway.
The man swallowed and held his breath as the narrow beam of light came closer. He started to scramble backwards, trying to part concrete with his bare hands –
And then his scratching hand sank into something and came up wet.
He had found the swamp.
“Nurse Ella, how is our patient?” the doctor asked the nurse as they made their way past the supply room.
Once they passed, a figure wearing a white lab coat quickly crossed the hallway and entered the room. The figure moved quickly along the shelves, stopping in front of one that held an endless row of vials of glowing blue liquid.