By Wole Talabi. This article originally appeared here.
2021 was full of them. And as we say in Nigeria, problem no dey finish. But not all problems are created equal. Take for example the good problem of African SFF, or to be clearer, the good problem of keeping up with African SFF. I try to maintain a working list of (almost) all African SFF published for the ASFS at this LINK (I’d also like to encourage you to please fill THIS FORM with any works that might have been missed out) and this may have been the hardest year to keep up with especially with constraints on my time forever tightening. There were so many good stories put out in 2021, it’s an uptick in both quantity and quality and is something I am particularly glad to see. This is especially true in the short fiction category which I have repeated multiple times is the category I enjoy writing, reading and keeping up with most because I basically grew up on SF short fiction: Asimov’s Hugo winners collections and Dozois’s Years Best SF, etc. I have been working on a novel but also finally returned to publishing short fiction myself in 2021 with two stories, after a dry 2020:
You can take a look at my ELIGIBILITY POST for details on those, my own contribution to the good problem of Short African SFF.
And now for another contribution: as it is now basically tradition, I’d like to highlight the African speculative fiction short stories I read and enjoyed most from the year gone by.
[Before we begin, as always, a few notes: these are my personal favourites, those that left a lasting impression on me based on my own tastes – for example, I lean more Sci-Fi than Fantasy although I love both. Also, while I’ve read a lot of the African SFF short work put out this year, I’m sure I haven’t read everything. I am also really restricting myself to just 10 in this list, as difficult as that is so naturally many stories I enjoyed just missed out. So, without further ado, here are my 10 favourite African speculative fiction short stories of 2020, in no particular order.]
“Undercurrency” by Sam Beckbessinger (South Africa), UPSHOT: Stories of Financial Futures
This is one of my favourite stories in an exceptionally strong anthology. Edited by Lauren Beukes, for the investment services company, RisCura, working with their investment experts and a star-studded team of African authors, the anthology explores a range of important financial and economic concepts through science fictional, near-future extrapolation. I enjoyed every story in this anthology and I really recommend you read them all but this one stood out to me. A brilliant story focused on climate change, energy transition and sustainable investment, “Undercurrency” follows a South African woman’s attempt to build her company, growing underwater kelp for biofuel on the coast while falling in love and learning about the complexity of doing the right thing in a world of complex and competing drivers. The voice in the story is strong, the description of the romance, while quick, feels natural and the descriptions of the science and the diving are vivid, accurate and wonderful. Full disclosure: I am an engineer in the energy industry and an avid diver, therefore naturally biased or as we say in Nigeria, I am the story’s target market. Consider me sold. Highly Recommended.
Thanks for chatting! How are you? Are you working on anything at the moment?
Well, I haven’t gotten COVID and my son didn’t get COVID and my parents didn’t get COVID and my sister didn’t get COVID. I am purposefully not working on anything at the moment. I’m watching deadlines crumble like empires.
Back in the past, you wrote on Livejournal: “A subculture is not a counterculture. A consumer culture is not a subculture. We are not all in this together.” Recently there were ripples in SFF writer communities over the term “squeecore.” Raquel S. Benedict and JR talk about it on an episode of Rite Gud. They weren’t expecting their words to get fine-toothed, so their description of squeecore is a grab-bag of gripes and jibes, not some kind of elaborate legal case. But the core of squeecore, as I understand it, is something like a “subculture that thinks it’s a counterculture.” What do you think of the term?
Squeecore seems to be a name for the commercially published writing created by authors who got interested in writing by participating in post-fanfiction.net fan fiction cultures. So, it reads differently from previous writing, including previous fanfic-inflected writing from, say, the K/S photocopy generation. I think the podcasters were essentially right, but made the error of creating a taxonomy in order to dismiss a particular taxon as bad and their own stuff as good.
Yes, there was a lot about the episode I liked — and I fully get why they would want to move from critique to pointing out alternatives — but I did find the recommendations list a wee bit less convincing. To their credit, they are upfront about the personal connections.
This is every new writer’s impulse. I was teaching at an MFA program a decade ago, and had to sit through a meeting of students pitching their academic theses. They had to write one academic thesis, and one creative thesis. Every thesis was “Why do all these books suck, except for the ones that inspired me?” I once asked Rudy Rucker why he created “transrealism” and he said that it was because he was just starting out and hadn’t been published much, so he wanted to get some extra attention. It works every time!
I used to invent a new genre every Wednesday, and none of mine caught on. So not every time. Can squeecore claim to any countercultural credentials?
This article reframes a prefatory essay that was first published in Fafnir – Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research
Notable Black Speculative Fiction
More than two decades after the publication of Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000), an anthology of short stories, black speculative fiction continues a powerful conversation in genre fiction on culture and identity, and increasingly tackles themes pertaining to colonialism, as well as feminist and queer themes that engage with difference.
Anthologies and collections have become instrumental in the proliferating Afrofuturistic writing that heroes black people in stories from Africa and the diaspora, stories whose visibility is increasingly evident in award nominations and reading list recommendations. For example, Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora– with its stories of gods, demons, magicians, dead children, refugees, taboos, apocalyptic worlds, and more – saw nominations, finalists and winners in the Hugo, British Science Fiction Association, British Fantasy, and Nommo Awards….
This warm reception of black writing in the speculative-fiction industry and readership could be attributed to the calibre of stories and authors, as well as the continued response to global events, including Black Lives Matter, that demand radical new stories. In 2018, the New York Times determined N. K. Jemisin as the most celebrated science fiction and fantasy writer of her generation, with the staggering success of her Dreamblood duology, and the Broken Earth and Inheritance trilogies, all books that have received recognition in Hugo, Locus, Nebula, World Fantasy, Tiptree, and British Science Fiction Association (2020 BSFA) awards.
Second, Fission, the new annual fiction anthology from the BSFA, will shortly open to submissions. Editors Eugen Bacon and Gene Rowe say:
We’re excited to read your original science fiction stories (genre benders welcome)! The submissions window opens at midnight on 1 February, and closes at 11:59 pm on 15 March. Please submit to email@example.com and put “Fission #2 submission” in the subject header. We invite original stories of up to 5,000 words, and offer a contributor payment rate of 2 pence per word. You don’t need to be a BSFA member to submit. We will also be inviting submissions for cover art.
Timothy Morton is best known for their writing on ecology and as a philosopher who gave us the concept of ‘hyperobject’. While Spacecraft (2021) is only a small book of 129 pages, including index and notes, Morton has nevertheless written a dense but enjoyable book with a glittering insight on almost every page. Reviewing any book crammed with so many ideas is a challenge. Spacecraft is a heady mix of pop culture and philosophy, where it is difficult to pick out the unifying theory amidst the glare.
On one level, Morton has written a performative history of spacecraft, both speculative and real, in the media, with a particular focus on Star Wars. The book examines the role played by these vehicles, not the method of portraying them or the nuances of their design. While the principles may apply to all spacecraft, Morton’s sources are primarily drawn from within Western cultures, especially American. Essentially, spacecraft representations, according to Morton, performed one of the following functions:
the ark, carrying all remaining life forms, such as in Silent Running or the Jupiter ship in 2001
the juggernaut, destroying all before it, such as the Death Star and Imperial Cruisers in Star Wars or the militarized version of the Enterprise from Into Darkness
the frigate, a standard SF warship
the fighter, small military vessels such as the X-wing and TIE fighter
the explorer, such as scouts or shuttles
the machina cum dea, Morton’s phrase inverting the traditional deus ex machina, meaning an alien vessel that sweeps in to dispense justice. Examples being the UFO at the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian or the TARDIS
the coracle, where the spacecraft is a spiritual craft on a mystical journey, such as the EVA pod in 2001 or the real Voyager I probe.
Morton makes a distinction between spacecraft and spaceship, for example, with respect to size, with starships being much larger. Furthermore, starships such as the Enterprise and an Imperial Cruiser are part of an established fleet with a large crew in a fixed hierarchy. In contrast, spacecraft are smaller, often with a fluctuating crew roster: people simply climb aboard one and fly away, such as happens repeatedly with the Millennium Falcon over many films, or The Heart of Gold in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Morton notes the “craft” aspect of the name, reflecting the skill required to fly the vessel. There is also a sense that these ships are being crafty, meaning cunning.
While Spacecraft draws on many sources, the book is at its heart a love letter to the Millennium Falcon. Morton clearly sees this vessel as the archetypal spacecraft as each chapter casts the Falcon in a new light. Spacecraft highlights the Falcon as a feminist vessel because when the revolutionary feminist robot L3-37 is damaged beyond repair, her data and personality are incorporated into the Falcon’s electronics in the Solo prequel: “The Falcon is then really a ‘she’ insofar as the Falcon is a feminist robot keen to liberate other robots from their status as slaves.”
The Millennium Falcon is also the third important non-human to appear in A New Hope. Moreover, the Falcon is adept at defying the forces of gravity in a film series all about the use of the force. Morton also highlights how the Millennium Falcon is the plot pivot in The Empire Strikes Back. Once the Falcon functions properly and engages the hyperdrive, with the help of R2-D2, the film is emotionally “over” and we await the sequel.
Spacecraft includes only four chapters and an introduction. Each chapter explores one aspect of spacecraft and the Millennium Falcon in particular. In the first chapter, Morton notes a recurring trait of garbage, or the “found-ness of objects”: “we need to consider the Falcon as pure contingency, as something that just happens to you, garbage or not”. The Falcon demonstrates this trait when Rey initially refuses to escape on a ship located off-screen in The Force Awakens, dismissing it as “garbage”. When her first choice spacecraft is destroyed, she concedes “the garbage will do” and we see her and Finn escape on the Falcon. Indeed, through the whole franchise the Falcon is repeatedly found just when it is needed.
Morton specifically notes the role of dirt in the Star Wars series. Unusually, all the good vehicles in these films are dirty, a notable difference from the Imperial vessels or a spaceship like Star Trek’s USS Enterprise. Dirt seems to be used as a signifier for the rebellion, while at the same time making the setting appear more real. After all, what actually is dirt? Morton shares the definition given by Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger of “matter in the wrong place”. How often is the Falcon in the wrong place? Taking the viewpoint of the Empire, the Falcon is forever in the wrong place, typically waiting to be found by one rebel faction or another.
This aspect of stumbling upon the Falcon is a focus of chapter two of Spacecraft. Here Morton explores the concept of spacecraft as winnings, such as how Lando won the Falcon in a card game. More broadly, spacecraft are often outright stolen and become the trophy of the escape. Once again, the Falcon is the epitome of the getaway vehicle, repeatedly evading Imperial entanglements in almost every appearance. Other stolen spacecraft include The Heart of Gold, The Liberator in Blake’s 7 and the TARDIS. Yet, so often these thefts are justifiable and necessary to escape the crimes committed by the state.
Morton’s third and longest chapter deals with hyperspace, that common avenue of escape. One example of a coracle is a passage from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where the Mariner is taken through the netherworld. To Morton this netherworld reads a lot like hyperspace:
And soon I heard a roaring wind:
It did not come annear;
But with its sound it shook the sails,
That were so thin and sere.
The upper air burst into life!
And a hundred fire-flags sheen,
To and fro they were hurried about!
And to and fro, and in and out,
The wan stars danced between.
Modern film depictions of hyperspace turn “fire-flags sheen” into a familiar visual, argues Morton. The dominant method arose from the slit-scan technique of computer animation pioneer John Whitney for Hitchcock’s Vertigo in 1958, that impressed Douglas Trumbull who made similar visual effects for To the Moon and Beyond, which in turn brought Trumbull to Kubrick’s attention. Trumbull was thus engaged to create the stargate sequence for 2001. A similar slit-scan technique was developed by graphic designer Bernard Lodge for Doctor Who and was applied in Nolan’s Interstellar in the tesseract scene.
In Morton’s view, hyperspace is a place of bliss and sensuality. Hyperspace is an expression of Gaussian geometry – the term Morton uses for not Euclidean (but euphoric) space-time. When the Falcon “makes” hyperspace, it is catapulted into a whirling, glittering realm of beauty. The visuals of hyperspace are a liquid tunnel that whisks spacecraft off. Morton invokes the feminist term circlusion, coined by Bini Adamczak to describe these visualisations in the media as circlusion of a spacecraft by hyperspace. The verb circlude was defined by Adamczak as describing any process of enveloping one thing with another: “Indeed circlusion is an extremely common experience of everyday life. Think of how a net catches a fish, how gums envelop their food, how a nutcracker crunches nuts, or how a hand encircles a joystick”.
This random, democratic and almost chaotic nature of hyperspace is contrasted in the conclusion with the precise orderliness of the Death Star or the Enterprise. These spacecraft resemble giant, open-plan offices in space. Such “middle class” workspaces seem so unlike the rogue-ish Falcon and its crew of misfits.
There are so many ideas in this small book that I have barely scratched the surface in this review, and I am sure that rereading it will uncover new ideas each time.