This academic article first appeared in Vector 289. It examines the manner by which clipping.’s 2016 album Splendor & Misery—a conceptual hip-hop space opera—freely enlists and reclaims texts from the African cultural tradition in order to manifest its Afrofuturist agenda. A countercultural movement characterised by a dynamic understanding of the narrative authority held by texts, Afrofuturism rewrites African culture in a speculative vein, granting African and Afrodiasporic peoples a culturally empowered means of writing their own future. The process by which Afrofuturism reclaims and rewrites culture is paralleled within Splendor & Misery through the literary device of mise en abyme; just as the album itself does, its central protagonist rewrites narratives of African cultures and traditions in an act of counterculture.
In the sixty-five years since the Hugo Award was established, only two albums have been nominated to receive the prestigious science fiction accolade, and neither has won (Heller, 2018). One of the albums to have been nominated is clipping.’s Splendor & Misery (2016), an Afrofuturist concept album. It is especially fitting that this particular album was considered for an award traditionally dominated by literature and film, because, as an Afrofuturist text, Splendor & Misery problematises conventional conceptions of narrative authority. Through its Afrofuturist mode, the album can even be seen to transcend conventional Western considerations of medium altogether.
As John Cline concludes in a discussion of music and science fiction, aside from the soundtracks of films in the genre, Afrofuturist music is intriguingly the only facet of science fiction music ‘that has shown sustained critical investigation’ (Cline 261). Although the term Afrofuturism was coined in the 1990s, artists such as Sun Ra, Janelle Monáe, George Clinton, and Parliament-Funkadelic, have used music as an Afrofuturist medium for decades. Like many of these earlier Afrofuturist albums, Splendor & Misery extends and reimagines traditions of African and Afrodiasporic oral culture. At less than forty minutes in length, the album is crammed with language and narrative. Paul Gilroy suggests that the ‘power and significance of music’ in attempting to confront the terror and trauma of slavery has grown in ‘inverse proportion to the limited expressive powers of language’ (Gilroy 74). The rapid, semantically dense delivery on tracks such as ‘The Breach’ complicates this suggestion. Rather, Splendor & Misery fuses the powers of language with the powers of music, creating a new form of virtuoso, technologically-enabled storytelling, which employs a variety of flows and vocal performative techniques, and augments the human voice with a vast range of instrumental elements and production techniques. Its status as both a hip-hop album and a speculative narrative is further enriched by a cinematic element, both through immaculately sculpted soundscapes, and its frequent invocation of a visual imagination shaped by science fiction cinema.Continue reading “Afrofuturism in clipping.’s Splendor & Misery”→
An academic article that first appeared in Vector 289. It has been slightly updated since the print version.
This article takes as its starting point the wildly popular and commercially successful African science-fiction novel Lagoon, written by Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor. Lagoon is an ideal site in which to explore the environmental and political concerns that are common themes in the fantastical literature of West Africa, and to demonstrate the efficacy of broadly Afrofuturist aesthetics, both in problematising and reimagining environmental politics in modern Nigeria.
Lagoon tells the story of an alien invasion that unfolds on the shores of Lagos, Nigeria. The novel playfully subverts the structures of alien invasion science fiction, revitalising tired tropes by synthesising them with West African mythology and fantastic futurism. Against the backdrop of the ultra-urban, somewhat dysfunctional metropolis of her native Lagos, Okorafor draws attention to the consequences of neocolonial developmentalism in Nigeria. Lagoon examines in particular the toxic politics surrounding the country’s oil industry, politics that are bound up with what Rob Nixon refers to as “slow violence” (3). In these respects, Okorafor’s novel draws from a rich tradition of non-realist Anglophone African engagement with the consequences of neocolonial developmentalism: Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (1991), in which spirit-human interplay is complicated by the socially and environmentally disruptive imposition of a road that takes on a dangerous life of its own, is perhaps Lagoon’s closest antecedent; works such as Pepetela’s The Return of the Water Spirit (1995) and Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952) are also worth noting.
Lagoon follows the alien ambassador Ayodele as she establishes contact with an assortment of aquatic and terrestrial Earthlings. Ayodele promises that her people have no malevolent designs for Earth, asking only to assimilate while offering miraculous technology. Intersecting plotlines follow various characters (human, animal, and supernatural) who undergo fundamental changes because of the “radical new possibilities” (Okorafor, 269) that Ayodele and her people bring.
The aliens are a catalyst for change in the city of Lagos and its waters, plunging both into chaos while also bringing forth new forms of life and possibilities. Folkloric forces emerge in brief narrative interludes throughout the novel: the spider-trickster Udide and the mythical living masque Ijele are the most prominent. These ‘super-humans’ apparently discover Ayodele’s nature, and overcome a variety of fantastic and institutional obstacles in their attempts to resolve the crisis, eventually recruiting the President of Nigeria to their cause.
We also meet other non-human characters with their own rich histories, quirks, and agendas, including a “monstrous” (Okorafor, 21) swordfish, determined to destroy an offshore oil rig and given the power to do so by the aliens, and a sentient, predatory highway that calls itself the “Bone Collector.” It is these two characters I will focus on in this article. But before I turn to them, I first want to offer a very brief overview of Afrofuturism. Although Okorafor herself has rejected the label, certain aspects of Afrofuturist theory nevertheless remain a useful lens on her work. [See endnote.]
I’m just back from Productive Futures, a three-day conference organised by the LSFRC (London Science Fiction Research Community1) at Birkbeck University.
Productive Futures was definitely an academic conference rather than a fan convention, but it was an academic conference with several twists: there were plenty of engaging presentations by non-academics; there was a little table with freebies and merch; writing workshops from Verena Hermann and Oliver Langmead + Thomas Moules; discussion with Jordi Lopez-Botey about the Senate House Boycott and his other work with the IWGB (a new kind of union representing traditionally non-unionised workers such as low paid migrant workers and workers in the “gig economy”); a panel of publishers and literary agents discussing both economics in SFF and the economics of SFF publishing which was a lot better than it sounds2; an associated not-really-part-of-the-conference-but-kind-of event at the Science Museum; Sinjin Li‘s conference booklet and ephemera that added up to an immersive work of art; a roundtable with two SFF author Guests of Honour, Aliette de Bodard and Zen Cho3; and probably more I’m forgetting. The excellent keynote lectures from Joan Haran and Caroline Edwards reinforced the inclusive, outward-facing, and politically engaged ethos.
The theme of the conference was economics and SFF (coincidentally also the theme of a recent Vector (#288)). From the intro to the conference booklet:
The history of Science Fiction is a history of unreal economics. Spanning asteroid mining and interstellar trade, robotic workforces and post-scarcity futures, SF offers ways of reimagining the economics of this and other worlds. Oscillating between the tragedies of neocolonial technocapitalism and the utopian futures made thinkable by a radical redistribution of resources, the novels, films, exhibitions and thought experiments that we will discuss across these three days establish SF as a genre which can and must be understood in economic terms.
So yeah, you might be forgiven for imagining economics just means money and trade, but the conference put paid (pun intended) to that notion: ecology and climate also became a huge theme over the three days; so did work, including unpaid forms of work; so did kinship and family, including polyamory and consensual nonmonogamy; so did infrastructure, including the digital infrastructure of the internet.
If you have a twinge of FOMO, there is some good news: LSFRC also stands for the Live-tweeting Shockingly Fast in Real-time Community. The absolute virtuosos of the art of conference live-tweeting are … well, you’ll see: check out the #unrealE hashtag, with a smattering of tweets under #productivefutures and #lsfrc2019.
A few more things:
We don’t have a conference report lined up for Vector, but if anyone would like to write one, or just share less formal impressions and thoughts, Vector will be very happy to host.
The LSFRC is an organisation of SF scholars and fans, led by graduate students based at Birkbeck and Royal Holloway. The LSFRC organises conferences, events with guest speakers, film screenings, and a monthly reading group in London. The best place to keep track of them is Facebook, and they’re also on Twitter, and have a website. LSFRC was formed in 2014 by Rhodri Davies, Andrea Dietrich, and Aren Roukema, and the current directors are Rhodri Davies, Tom Dillon, Francis Gene-Rowe, Katie Stone, and (as of now!) Sasha Myerson. In a short time LSFRC have really established themselves as an amazing force in SFF studies in the UK and around the world. Productive Futures was a seriously international conference, with attendees from the US, China, India, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, and elsewhere, as well as one or two remote presentations from folk who couldn’t be there in the flesh. The organisers also worked to make the conference accessible and inclusive — although there is always more than can be done — with essentially a “pay what you or your institution can afford” approach to attendance fees.
The LSFRC’s theme for this year was political economy. The theme for the coming year is borders.
(1) AKA the Large Science Fiction Community, apparently. Also Lustrous, Livid, Lionhearted, etc. I should probably also mention that I played a very minor role in organising the conference, which mostly consisted of emailing “Haven’t read this properly but I agree” from time to time, and on one occasion messing up the travel budgets while very merry on Rhodri Davies’ homebrew.
(2) I have been to some boring publishers’ panels, okay? This one was great: it was deftly moderated; most of the panellists arrived well-prepared; there was nimble hat-juggling as pretty much everyone spoke both as professionals and as fans of SFF; there was nuanced consideration of different kinds of publishing; there wasn’t the assumption you sometimes get that the audience is hungry for tips on “success,” or that commodified and commercially successful SFF is the SFF that really matters. For me, the only bum note was Jo Fletcher’s response to a question about the representation of working class voices in speculative fiction, which didn’t really address the specific question, and also definitely edged toward disheartening “I don’t see colour” territory. It was however good to hear from Jo about Hachette’s Changing the Story initiative, which is reflecting critically on the industry’s lack of diversity and creating concrete opportunities for BAME people and others. (Diversity, of course, isn’t yet decolonising, and diversity-oriented thinking can even sometimes impede decolonisation! But the tensions between diversity and decoloniality should be seen on a context-by-context basis, and my hunch is within contemporary publishing a focus on diversity is still extremely useful to the wider and deeper projects of decolonisation).
(3) The third Guest of Honour, Tade Thompson, had to drop out. Maybe next year?
When and why did you begin writing speculative fiction and where did you get your inspirations?
I’m not sure when exactly I started writing speculative fiction. I think I’ve always loved the genre. When I was about twelve, I thought about writing a story with a character inspired by ninjas. At that time, a certain type of shoe had become popular in my small town, Tororo. They called it North Star (I think), and it was fashioned like a boot made of cloth. It was a cheap shoe, maybe a pirated brand, but seeing something that looked like a ninja costume made me think about a ninja in the town. I did not get down to writing it. I only played with the idea, but every time I walked in the streets I saw my ninja running on the rusty iron-sheet roofs.
I wrote my first speculative story in my early twenties. At that time, speculative fiction from African writers was frowned upon. Writers like Amos Tutuola did not get as much attention as Chinua Achebe because the latter wrote ‘realistic’ stories, often those that could be taken as a social or political commentary. It became expected of African writer to tell stories that were anthropological in nature. Even today, some blurbs do not say what the story is, but rather tell how a book talks about this African city or that African culture or the other African country. Though the first stories I published were ‘realistic’, the pull to the fantastic was very strong, and elements of it kept slipping in. Like A Killing in the Sun, which I wrote sometime in 2001 or 2002. I wanted it to be a mundane story about uncontrollable soldiers, something that had scourged the country for decades, but it turned out to be a ghost story. Finding a home for these stories was very difficult, and it left me frustrated and hopeless.
Then I discovered the internet and its plethora of ezines willing to publish spec-fic, and that’s when I ditched everything my education had taught me about what it means to be an African writer.
I can’t say why I write speculative fiction. Maybe because I have an ‘overactive imagination.’ My brain is always cooking up fantastical things and creating magical backstories to every mundane thing I see. I love to daydream. It’s one of my favorite pastimes. Today, I love to spend hours in my bed, doing nothing, just staring at the ceiling and dreaming up fantastical worlds. When I was a little boy, I did not have this luxury. People would see me sitting idle somewhere and they would chase me to go and find other children to play with. Being a recluse was frowned upon, staying alone for long hours was frowned upon. Yet I loved to do it, to wander away to magical lands, and so I would look for any place that gave me absolute privacy to daydream. The bathroom was one such place, the only one I remember spending a lot of time in. It was a room at the back of the courtyard, and we shared it with four other families. Sometimes there was a long queue to use it. I avoided bathing in the evenings, when the queue would be long, and preferred afternoons. Whenever anyone saw me go into the bathroom, they would say, “Let me bathe first. If you go in, you won’t come out.” It was not a nice place. It had a broken water heater, and the window shutters were wooden, and the taps were not working, and the floor was a little bit slimy with dirt, but I loved it for the privacy it gave me to daydream, and I think allowing my brain to wander away in that bathroom was training ground for me to write speculative fiction.
Why do you think speculative fictions from Africa and the African diaspora have become more popular in recent times?
There’s been a push for diversity in fiction and in films. We all know the majority of readers are people of color, yet the majority of speculative fiction works are by white people, and so people wanted to see themselves in these artworks.
But I think many Africans are simply finding the stories they love to read in written form, and stories that are about them. Most people still enjoy oral stories, and these are often fantastical in nature. Not in the classic way of sitting around the fire and telling folk tales, but some of these stories end up in newspapers, with headlines like ‘Witchdoctor sues Parliament Speaker for failure to pay him.’ (This is a recent case, of a traditional healer who claimed the speaker of the Ugandan parliament owed her success to him, and she did not pay him for the charms he gave her to succeed). I think people on the continent are beginning to appreciate reading these kinds of things in good fiction, not just in hearsays.
You are both a writer and filmmaker — how do these creative processes feed into each other?
I am more than just a writer and filmmaker. With an overactive imagination, there’s always a story lurking in my subconscious, and if I stick to one media I wouldn’t cope. I’ve written radio plays, stage plays, poetry, and recently I went into digital arts and fell in love with it at once. I love telling stories and it does not make sense to stick to one format. Whether it’s a book, or a poem, or digital art, the uniting factor is story, and I believe I’m a storyteller.
From the idea stage, I know whether a story will be prose, or film, or radio play. Only recently have I started to think of multi-platform stories, like the one in AfroSF v3, “Safari Nyota,” which I want to be prose, a web series, a video game, and a graphic novel, each platform with a slightly different storyline.
I started as a writer, and it taught me a lot about developing characters, for with prose, you have a lot of freedom to give the reader a character’s backstory. Writing radio plays and stage plays helped me master dialog. When I went into film, I learned a lot about plotting, since films are time-bound. This kind of made my prose writing sparser than it used to be, and led me to develop a visual style. As I go more into digital arts, I’m beginning to pay a lot of attention to details. There are things I used to ignore in my writing, especially when describing characters, but now, when making a piece of digital art, I have to think about the minute details, and I find myself thinking about this when writing, and I believe it will help me grow.
“Science Fiction is the only genre that enables African writers to envision a future from our African perspective.”
– Nnedi Okorafor
The future of Africa, as imagined and portrayed by African writers, is every bit as vibrant and glossy as that seen in any Hollywood sci-fi thriller. We have the robots, bio-hackers, cyberpunk badasses, cyborg implants, and brain-computer interfaces that let you access cyberspace or pilot a vehicle with the pure power of thought. But this is also Africa, a continent where the supernatural is just as real and palpable as the natural (and sometimes even more so). So of course science and technology are interwoven with the material and spiritual worlds — education; spirits; infrastructure development; magic; healthcare; the gods; jobs; prayer — to create a new third world that is its own unique blend. In this way, African science fiction brings its own distinctive sense of where the boundaries lie between the real and the unreal, and of how those boundaries blur.
Not only does it have its own unique realities, it also has its own unique temporalities. For example, African science fiction can challenge the standard narratives of development and progress which Western culture imposes. In the myriad futures which African writers envision, there are plenty that refuse predictable progression from one stage to the next, and instead imagine a kind of ‘leapfrogging’ — as though the tech-tree were inhabited by a tech-tree-frog. By leveraging technologies developed elsewhere, and through our own innovations such as mobile money or other localized solutions, African countries can compress development life-cycles and jump several rungs up ladders of economic and technological advancement. For example, the leap from using kerosene as a source for light to solar-powered electricity in a few short years, completely bypassing grid-based power generation. Economic and technological development also needn’t follow the same paths as elsewhere, but can discover new directions and new opportunities missed by highly developed countries.
In some of these future Africas, thought-communication, robotic companionship, holograms, radio frequency identification (RFID) chips wired into human synapses, and the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in everyday life, may exist and thrive alongside the slums, poverty, oppression, ethnic rivalry, and corruption that are today the hallmarks of many African societies. Rapid technological advancement can help to improve economic inequality, but it can also worsen it, or simply transform it in unpredictable ways which stymy other efforts at progress. Furthermore, technology is no quick fix for bad governance or deep-rooted colonial legacies. The existence of this duality can create even more complex and contradictory worlds. On the one hand, intelligent and developed, as seen in the application of advanced technological systems for interconnectivity and social regulation. On the other hand, lagging behind the rest of the developed world, as demonstrated in the failure of the system to properly address the provision and maintenance of basic infrastructure and services.
Science fiction allows Africa to portray its many futures: sometimes in dialogue with academia, and its perspective on Africa’s challenges and accompanying solutions, and sometimes far removed from those perspectives. Science fictional visions of Africa are interwoven with the fabric of the history, culture, spirit and norms of the continent. They may paint African futures antithetical to Africa’s current self, albeit from a technological perspective, while embracing aspects of that current self — its citizens’ exuberant appetite for life and largeness of spirit.Continue reading “Looking Forward Through the Imagination of Africa”→
Stu Jones and Gareth Worthington are authors of It Takes Death to Reach a Star(2018) and In the Shadow of a Valiant Moon (2020) — fast-paced, action-packed, post-apocalyptic thrillers set in the 23rd century — as well as various solo works. It Takes Death to Reach a Star was a Dragon Award Finalist, a Cygnus Award First Place Ribbon recipient, an IPPY Award Winner, a New York Book Festival Sci-Fi Award Winner, and a Feathered Quill Gold Award Winner. Vector caught up with Stu and Gareth to ask them about their collaboration …
In the Shadow of a Valiant Moon is out early next year, is that right? Tell us a little bit about it.
Gareth:Moon — as Stu and I refer to it — is the sequel to It Takes Death to Reach a Star. It’s set four years after the events in Star. Star was dark, but Moon is darker. Even the team at Boilermaker Entertainment — they’re the ones we’re working with to bring this series to the screen — commented on how much darker it is, compared with the first book.
Stu: And yet, even with all the bleakness and despair, there is this central thread of hope. Just the flicker of an idea that maybe, just maybe, humanity is worth saving.