I Went Looking for AfroSF 

In this article, Eugen Bacon reflects on her journey of discovery into AfroSF. Meanwhile, Ivor W. Hartmann’s groundbreaking AfroSF anthologies are currently included in the African Speculative Fiction bundle from Story Bundle.

By Eugen Bacon

It was a love and hate relationship with M. The brusque and direct nature of this editorial colleague of mine every so often came across as pomposity, and I knee-jerked. So much that I nearly fell in wonder when M approached me asking for a favour. 

“How about a pitch?” he said. “I’ve seen this AfroSF thing on Amazon a couple of times, it would be great to write an article.” 

M was offering an olive branch. He wanted me to write for his nonfiction section of a popular magazine. And I had just the title for this piece: “What is AfroSF?” To put it in context, this was a few years ago. 

It was a journey of discovery that led me to a community. The African Australian in me was curious to unearth AfroSF, an inquisitive quest to decipher this literary movement, this subgenre of science fiction—what was it exactly? Yes, I anticipated that it had some derivation from hard or soft science fiction, cyberpunk, mutant fiction, dystopian or utopian fiction, pulp, space opera, and the like, and that it had something to do with Africa. What else would I discover?

An online search steered me to a 406-paged anthology published in December 2012 by StoryTime, a micro African press dedicated to publishing short fiction by emerging and established African writers. The StoryTime magazine was formed in 2007 in response to a deficit of African literary magazines.

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Some readers described it as a ‘ground-breaking anthology’ of diversity and hope, an ‘African Genesis’ that was intense and varied in its fresh viewpoints. Editor and publisher Ivor W. Hartmann spoke of his dream for an anthology of science fiction by African writers, and his realisation of this vision in a call for submissions that birthed original stories published as AfroSF. Illuminating his fascination with the collection, Hartmann said, ‘SciFi is the only genre that enables African writers to envision a future from our African perspective.’

Bravo, I thought of this Zimbabwean writer, editor, publisher, visual artist and author of Mr Goop (2010)—an award-winning post-apocalyptic short story of a boy who struggles with coming-of-age concerns like bullies and scholarly performance, in a science fiction society called the United States of Africa, guarded by robots and chaperoned by humanoid genoforms.

Like most anthologies AfroSF showcased some great stories and some ordinary ones, some by first-timers having a crack at a published story, others by established award-winners like Nnedi Okorafor, with her offering ‘Moom!’—a story of a swordfish attacking the oil industry, making these snakes (pipes) bleed black blood. Stand-outs include Biram Mboob’s ‘The Rare Earth’—a dark tale of pilgrimage, exploitation and annihilation in the Congo, where there exists a black messiah in a male-dominated world; Liam Kruger’s ‘Closing Time’—a cynical monologue of booze-driven time travel; and Joan De La Haye’s ‘The Trial’—a futuristic world of human culling that targets prisoners, old people, artists and writers, poignantly told from the perspective of a fated author. Some stories started off very promising but dithered, like Chinelo Onwualu’s ‘The Gift of Touch’—a space odyssey with African passengers, whose back-story of priests, human sacrifice and a gift of healing failed to deliver for me.

A commonality that bound the anthology was an aspect of ‘culture’ in worlds bounding with African characters, suns and horizons. The stories embraced a bit of everything sci-fi: teleporting, futuristic worlds in African landscapes, artificial intelligence, iris scanners, data mining, body irrigation, child regeneration, cyberpunk, space opera, aliens … and came along with themes that touched on matters such as war, crime, poverty, and pandemics …

Back to my quest of AfroSF, I looked up some books and came across Camara Laye’s The Radiance of the King (1971).

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I contemplated this African literature, and wondered if it further showcased, in addition to the anthologies, the essence of AfroSF. I immersed myself in the story of a white man, Clarence, shipwrecked on the coast of Africa, his longing to see the king that found no fruition when he wound up sold to a harem as a sex slave. At the end of Clarence’s disturbing exile was a revelation of his own humanity in the magnificence of the king. I pondered how closely the philosophical, existential, postcolonial themes worked well in Laye’s book to align it with soft science fiction. Indeed, I found the book comparable to works by Ray Bradbury, for example his short story ‘The Man’ in The Illustrated Man (1951) and its science versus religion theme. But nobody was promoting Laye’s book as AfroSF—in fact it was selling hotly as a literary classic, an epic African novel of the colonial period. The New York Times called it, ‘Allegorical, Kafkaesque and African in a unique way’. Nobody was claiming it as AfroSF.

As I pondered the term AfroSF, and questioned whether it was broad-reaching, I stumbled across the African Speculative Fiction Society (ASFS), whose membership included writers, editors, comic and graphic artists and filmmakers in the fields of speculative fiction such as fantasy, science fiction and horror, and whose stories drew on tradition, philosophy and science. To become a member, the welcoming and inclusive definition of who was African, stated:

  • citizens of African* countries 
  • people born on the continent and raised there for substantial periods of time 
  • citizens or people born on the continent who live abroad 
  • people who have at least one African parent or 
  • Africans without papers, and 
  • some migrants to African countries.

*‘African country’ is defined as any country or contested area on the Continent of Africa, ending at the Egyptian border, and including islands such as Zanzibar and Madagascar.

Notably, the society administered the Nommo awards, ‘an African SF prize for Africans by Africans that honours our stories and how we choose to tell them’. Eligible entries to the Nommos were by authors who met the society’s definition of an ‘African’ as stated, where works were not eligible on the strength of African subject matter or locale. ‘A story set in Bosnia by an African is eligible,’ stated the entry rules. The location or nationality of a publisher was of no consequence: ‘A story by an African writer published in an American journal is eligible.’

Riveted to realise that a swathe of ASFS members featured works in the original pan-African anthology AfroSF, I scanned the society’s website to see if members deemed their individual creative artefacts outside the anthology to be ‘AfroSF’; it seemed they did not. The complete website bore no mention or definition of (or identification with) AfroSF.

Just about then the tri-monthly magazine Omenana came up in online search results. A prominent English language speculative fiction magazine in Africa, co-founded by Chinelo Onwualu whose fiction ‘The Gift of Touch’ appeared in AfroSF, the journal accepted submissions for art, fiction and non-fiction from artists and writers from Africa and the African Diaspora. It demonstrated a close affiliation with the African Speculative Fiction Society by guiding its readers to the society’s definition of who was an African. In its submission guidelines Omenana sought speculative fiction or art, classifying these into fantasy, science fiction, horror or magical realism, and required only characters, settings or themes directly related to the African continent. The magazine stipulated it sought ‘works that explored alternative futures for Africa and people of African descent’. Curious, I scanned to see if any of the works published in Omenana were labelled AfroSF. Nothing—the term ‘AfroSF’ did not appear anywhere on the site.

With this knowledge, I settled to a conclusion in my article ‘What is AfroSF?’ published in Aurealis #111: while there existed African-themed or African-cast or African-set science fiction, fantasy and horror, and broader speculative fiction of diverse themes, cast or setting written by African writers, AfroSF was not a literary movement, or a subgenre of science fiction. It was a series of anthologies. Period. The term solely referred to the specific anthology (and its sequels) of science fiction by writers or African heritage. Nobody else was calling anything else AfroSF.

But I gained something from the hunt … I became a member of the African Speculative Fiction Society and felt affiliation with this community. My curiosity was also rewarded in another way. I came across other terms like black speculative fiction, Africanfuturism and Afrofuturism (noun | Af·​ro·​fu·tur·​ism​ | \A-frō-fyü-chə-ˌri-zəm\). A sprouting of scholarly essays on Afrofuturism, since the term’s creation in the 90s by Mark Dery, embraced literary works that used the frame of science fiction, fantasy or horror to re-imagine the past and present experiences of the African diaspora, and explore what black futures could look like. The African diaspora—as in the ASFS definition—referred to people whose ancestors migrated or were snatched from the continent, or were still there, and included anyone of African descent in Europe, North America, South America, Asia, the Antarctica, Australia, Oceania and Africa itself. Unified by a shared heritage, each had their unique languages, cultures and stories that rendered diversity to their critical imaginations of a re-imagined Africa. 

Today, Afrofuturism is expanded and extrapolated beyond literature and music to the visual arts, religion, even philosophy in its gaze at possibilities and probabilities. There are problems with definitions, and some will insist on distinctions between Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism, or other terms associated with black speculative fiction. French literary theorist Gérard Genette in his book Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (1997) by Cambridge University Press explored the liminal devices and conventions, within and without a book, that form part of the complex mediation between the book, its author, its publisher and reader. But, where titles, forewords, epigraphs and the publisher’s jacket, as part of the book’s private and public history, can help endow the work’s significance, once the reader picks it up and engages with it their own way, the text is unchained from its origin. The reader—as reviews will show—deconstructs the text and assigns their own interpretation. 

Today, renowned writers like Nisi Shawl continue to think of works on black experience at the centre of the speculative universe as Afrofuturistic. In the Black history month lecture: ‘Afrofuturism 101 with Nisi Shawl’, the introduction tied director, writer and producer Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), author Octavia Butler and singer-songwriter Janelle Monáe as having one thing in common: they create work one can classify as Afrofuturism. The event celebrated Black Americans, past, present and future, and their important contributions to art, literature, science, music, film and more. In his paper ‘Everfair: Afrofuturist Alternate History’, originally presented at the Worlding SF conference in Graz, Austria in December 2018, critic, writer and editor Sean Guynes analyses Shawl’s novel Everfair (2016) as a conceptual space for thinking about Afrofuturism’s relation to history, temporality, and the political present, drawing upon the relationship the narrative indexes between afrofuturism, alternate history, and history itself.

I’m drawn to the words of P. Djèlí Clark in ‘How to Spite A Racist Troll: Support Black Dreams – he says: 

One of the ways speculative fiction can work against racism and [colonization] is to re-imagine our past, altering the power dynamics that we are accustomed to in order to illuminate hidden histories and silenced voices. 

In the end, M’s unusual request, and my research for it, reconfigured our relationship—he was genuinely interested in black writing. M wasn’t that much of a dick after all. And setting me hunting for a feature article to define AfroSF was a gift: suddenly I was unblinkered and began to easily spot black people’s stories of social movement, technology, artistic expression, critical embodiment, postmodernism and more. I discovered black speculative fiction, an umbrella term for speculative fiction that pays attention to the peoples of the African diaspora, and their cultures. 

I noticed Afrofuturism and stories of black speculative fiction in ideas I went on to pitch to M, and he loved them for publication. Together, we found curiosity in cyberfunk (centred on transformative effects of computers, networks and information technology); in sword and soul (rooted in sorcery and the sword); in blacktastic (fantastical adventures where black hero/ines find reward); in steamfunk (based on 19th century technology e.g. with steam-powered guns and machines); in dieselfunk (prioritising elements of the industrial revolution, for example the internal combustion engine); in black-tech (science fiction experimenting with technology); in Rococoa (alternate history e.g. with a slavery or piracy backdrop); blaxploitation (mostly in film, featuring black stereotypes and superhero/ines e.g. Black Lightning (TV series), Luke Cage (TV series), Black Panther (film), in Blacula (film)); in black horror (specific to that which might frighten people of the diaspora), and more.  

Summing up these subgenres are the anthologies AfroSFv2 (2015) and AfroSFv3 (2018) out on the market, and AfroSFv4 now active in a call for submissions—yet another multicultural anthology, this one with a call for futuristic submissions on the state of Earth and a theme of climate crisis. I just might write a story for it, and M, you’re welcome. 

The Author: Eugen Bacon

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Eugen Bacon, MA, MSc, PhD, is African Australian, a computer scientist mentally re-engineered into creative writing. She is a board director of the Australian Society of Authors. Her work has won, been shortlisted, longlisted or commended in national and international awards, including the Bridport Prize, Copyright Agency Prize, Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Award and Nommo Award for Speculative Fiction by Africans. Publications: Claiming T-Mo, Meerkat Press. Writing Speculative Fiction, Macmillan. In 2020: Her Bitch Dress, Ginninderra Press; The Road to Woop Woop & Other Stories, Meerkat Press; Hadithi, Luna Press Publishing; Inside the Dreaming, NewCon Press.

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