AfroSF edited by Ivor Hartmann, StoryTime (E-book edition), 2012.
The publication of this long overdue first anthology of science fiction (SF) by African writers – from across Africa and from African writers who are abroad – is a landmark event. The singling out for special attention of African SF is, however, a slightly uncomfortable notion: the specific strengths of African SF writing do of course need to be recognised, but future volumes, for which African SF is inseparably part of the broader community of SF writing, will be even more welcome.
SF has always been a rogue discourse, snapping at the heels of the epistemological and espousing the ontological. From the outset an antagonist to Enlightenment rationality, SF has been consistently marginalised, though it has shown through its development that marginality can have its advantages, as postmodernism welcomed societal discourses which were openly alternative, fragmented and challenging. As Brian McHale says, “Science fiction … is to postmodernism what detective fiction was to modernism: it is the ontological genre par excellence” (16). Darko Suvin believed that SF had become “a diagnosis, a warning, a call to understanding and action, and – most important – a mapping of possible alternatives” (66). But we are down to the nitty-gritty now, and, of late, SF has had the overwhelming task of helping us face the possible ontological void of our future.
African SF has a specific contribution to make to the genre, demonstrating the ability to incorporate deep-seated strategies and belief systems which are purely African, enriching and extending the frame of reference of the field as a whole. There are references in AfroSF to current and past African historical and economic issues, such as the ongoing warfare in North Africa, as well as issues of oil exploitation and endemic poverty. But, much more powerfully, these SF writers use aspects of religion and magic which connect with technology in a seamless manner, drawing on a panoply of themes and images which are either distinctly African in nature or which emerge as SF themes organically embedded in an African context: the figure of the zumbi, traditional initiation rites and other rites of passage, voodoo, the ancestors, trickster figures, extra-sensory perception, chimeric narratives, a belief in ghosts, and references to visits from outer space bringing technology to Africa millions of years ago. This builds on the already existing contributions of African writers such as Ben Okri and Wole Soyinka who, with their magic realism, have long known how to draw on African cultural and religious well-springs of human understanding.
These aspects of border transgression and creative violation are described by Carstens and Roberts as being “rich in migratory mythology that ties in with contemporary science-fiction, drawing strongly on motifs of transformation, hybridity, gender-blending and extra-sensory perception and offering viable alternatives to destructive techno-capitalism” (1). This is a formulation that takes us away from the common Western myths of African powerlessness and affirms African SF as a powerful syncretic tool for change, re-evaluation and exploration.
While all the stories in AfroSF are deeply involved with the general concerns of current SF writing, their overarching social concern is with the dehumanisation of the human spirit. “The Gift of Touch” by Chinelo Onwualu is a finely written piece, one of the more optimistic ones, in which ordinary people do have some limited degree of agency against the demands of bare-faced power and the demands of religion for human sacrifice, and for some of the characters the ending is romantic. But “The Trial” by Joan de la Haye is a short and brutal tale about a world in which old, poor or incapacitated citizens are forced to show in court that they are worthy to stay alive, in the face of widespread famine and water shortages, and the protagonist in this story is duly beheaded. “To Gaze at the Sun” is one of the bleakest stories, alluding to the wars fought in North Africa, and showing how they have led to dysfunctional societies in which children are not born (they are referred to as “installations”) but manufactured, and having a son to send to war has become a status symbol. Another such tale is Efe Okogu’s novelette about the abuse of power, “Proposition 23”, which describes a society suffering oppression of Orwellian proportions, but in this story the robots that serve the society have ambitions too, attempting to gain power so they can evolve into gods.
The stories from South Africa have a particular flavour. “Brandy City” by Mia Arderne is set in a run-down version of Bellville in which desperate people value performance-enhanced cars above love, while others work in degrading ways in the sex industry, and all are finally wiped out by a vast conflagration. “Heresy” by Mandisi Nkomo deals with a South Africa that has become a major international power, but is shown to be ineffectual. There is quite crude satire here, with the government at loggerheads with the Mail & Guardian newspaper because it is exposing scandals in the administration, and the president’s frustrated response to his difficulties is “Nuke them, it, whatever. Nuke them.” Another South African tale is set in the Wynberg branch of the Department of Home Affairs, in Cape Town. In this satirical scenario all interactions at the counters are with robots, and for those people who persist in asserting their humanity or demanding logical explanations, the floor literally opens up, they are dumped in the cellar and lose their standing as citizens. Pendi – the protagonist – is officially restored to human status by a corrupt robot which is kept next door by an ex-member of the Home Affairs staff, and, in a bleak send-up of the entire system, this robot is the only efficient worker in the administration.
While the stories based in South Africa concentrate on various critical and interrogatory modes such as satire, irony and savage lampoonery, most of the others have some allusion, direct or otherwise, to the African past, with its legacy of slavery and oppression. Rafeeat Aliyu’s “Ofe!” – a real thriller, very gripping, in the mould of Ian Fleming – refers to issues of slavery and white oppression. The fabulously wealthy Matthew Halliday, representing the colonial past, invites a group of young African women to a party in Abuja. But he turns out to be a scientist obsessed with pre-cognitive powers and teleportation. Some of his guests show evidence of having such powers, and he aims to subject them to experiments deriving from his knowledge of aliens having landed in West Africa centuries previously and mating with humans, thus passing on these gifts to large numbers of people. He wants to develop a superior kind of artificial intelligence (AI), no doubt for gain, but he is defeated – ironically – by the very powers he sought to harness and exploit. Another story, “Five Sets of Hands”, explores the marginalisation of particular groups in Africa, but also shows how crucial they are to society, as it is a marginalised person who frees a group from captivity by finding the “Transposer” which eventually leads to their rescue. Nick Wood’s “Azania” – one of the best stories – contains a strong critique of colonialism, as well as an interweaving of African elements. Gender issues are addressed, and there is a fine balance here between human and technological issues. Finally, there is Tade Thompson’s “Notes from Gethsemane”, a finely-wrought tale, set up and unfolding in the true, laconic SF style – edgy, credible, and satisfyingly unpredictable.
Aside from this, the volume remains admirably loyal to its space-opera origins, with the battle scenes written out more than satisfactorily, the characters exploding into action with their overblown technological weapons spreading death far and wide with the necessary flair, savage determination and occasional witty asides. While the stories in AfroSF are broadly in line with the current SF trend to avoid sexist attitudes and allow women to be aggressive, there is no-one here to match female fighting machines such as, for example, television’s Dark Angel or Michonne and Andrea in The Walking Dead.
The tales in AfroSF constitute a breath of fresh air. All the stories score high on intensity, commitment and imagination, remaining true to their own cultural ground rules, while stretching their boundaries in impressive ways. They have energy and focus, and they embody an enrichment of the texture of science fiction writing as a whole. The writing effortlessly negotiates the SF-African divide, providing models for straddling boundaries and working with ontological faultlines. This is a new way of writing, which might send some non-African SF writers back to the metaphorical drawing-board in search of how to use the subterranean resources hidden in the myths and sorcery of their own cultures.
By their very nature, appearing at this time in the history of the earth, these stories are fraught with creativity and challenge, and many of the tales in this volume have more than a hint of desperation to them. SF is the only literary genre that consistently wrestles with the fact that humankind is not exempt from the consequences of Darwinian dynamics. The daunting task of postmodern SF in general is to help humans understand that with the passing of every day the extinction of our race becomes increasingly imaginable; and our successors, if any, are likely to be inconceivable. As Carl Sagan says, “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves” (395).
Carstens, D. and Roberts, M. “Protocols for Experiments in African Science Fiction”. Scrutiny 2: The States of Popular Culture 14.1 (2009): 79-94.
McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. London: Routledge, 1989.
Sagan, Carl. “Pale Blue Dot”. Ed. Richard Dawkins. The Oxford Book of Modern
Science Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Suvin, Darko. “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre”. Ed. Rose. In Science
Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1976.
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