Mosquitoes, mushrooms, magic: Africanfuturist SF for nature’s futures

Charne Lavery [1,2], Laura Pereira [3,4], Bwalya Chibwe [4], Nedine Moonsamy [1], Chinelo Onwaulu [5], Naomi Terry [4].

1 Department of English, University of Pretoria, South Africa

2 WiSER, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

3 Global Change Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

4 Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden

5 Independent author and editor of African speculative fiction

  1. Introduction

The future is African: by 2100 one in three people are projected to be from the African continent (Council on Foreign Relations 2020). And yet the stories that the world tells itself about this future are decidedly not African — or at least not of a prosperous, plausible future Africa (Pereira et al. 2021). In a post-colonial world, Africa continues to be colonised by dominant perspectives that dictate what to aspire to and which values are important (Oelofsen 2015). This is to the detriment not only of the continent but the world. It misses the diverse possibilities that local cultures and traditions could offer in terms of preferable futures, drawing on pasts that are deeply connected to the land and ancestors. Addressing this marginalisation of knowledge systems and the people who practice them is of critical importance in the shift towards a more equal development agenda that values diversity (Tengo et al. 2014). The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of objectives set up by the United Nations to improve quality of life around the world, protect the environment, and promote peace and prosperity. There are seventeen SDGs, including the eradication of poverty and hunger, the spread of health and wellbeing, quality education, gender equality, and climate action. Governments, businesses and non-profits use the SDGs as a framework for understanding their broader purpose and impact. Are the SDGs fit-for-purpose? It’s a controversial question, but one thing is for sure: as the world struggles to meet these goals, fresh ideas, and bold pathways away from current trajectories, need to be explored.

Speculative fiction has a role to play in this. How we think about and imagine the future is an important aspect of decision-making in the present (Vervoort and Gupta 2018). As Lao Tzu says, “if you don’t change direction, you may end up where you are headed.” When we are continually confronted by stories of doom and gloom, these can often be self-fulfilling (Evans 2016). We end up where we are headed.  We are currently experiencing overlapping global environmental crises. The most recent is the  Covid-19 pandemic (zoonotic diseases are fundamentally linked to human-environment interactions). The most existentially threatening is climate change. The most ethically compromising is, arguably, the human-induced sixth mass extinction. A business-as-usual trajectory is suicide for humanity. However, what are the futures towards which we do want to navigate? And how might we begin to imagine them?

Part of the answer lies with how we value nature. Calls are growing to reimagine transformative futures for nature using more than just positivist science (Wyborn et al. 2020). Traditional environmental policy has often treated nature as a realm whose laws we can know and master, to maximise its economic benefits to humans. In recent years, there has been more recognition that economic benefits are interconnected with social, cultural, and even spiritual benefits. The beauty and abundance of nature give inspiration and solace to humans in ways that are hard to quantify, let alone control, ways that are grounded in the diverse values that people find in nature. Yet perhaps this still doesn’t go far enough. There is now growing interest in futures that value nature in its own right, independent of the many benefits that nature provides to humans.

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Old and New Worlds in Octavia Butler’s Parable Novels and Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods

By Lois Eastburn

From the holding cell was it possible to see beyond the end of the world and to imagine living and breathing again? 

Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route[1]

It’s after the end of the world. Don’t you know that yet? 

  The Last Angel of History[2]

 

In science fiction writing, the future is both a territory for extraction and a site of resistance. Through what cultural theorists Kodwo Eshun and Mark Fisher have called ‘sf [science fiction] capital’, capitalism extracts value from futurity.[3] The financialisation of the economy is one way that sf capital colonises the future.[4] The hyper-commodities of the Star Wars franchise are another.[5] At the same time, the future of the planet — the future of the human species — is threatened by the rapacious extractivism that capital demands. Further, the futures of the peoples most subjugated and exploited under capitalism have always already been under threat. Kathryn Yusoff writes that the ‘Anthropocene might seem to offer a dystopic future that laments the end of the world, but imperialism and ongoing (settler) colonialisms have been ending worlds as long as they have been in existence’.[6] This dual vision — both proleptic and retrospective — is present in the novels Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) by Octavia Butler and The Stone Gods (2007) by Jeanette Winterson. Both authors envision futures of the Anthopocene that are discursively (and recursively) engaged with colonial pasts, a conception of the future that finds it is, as Henriette Genkel argues in her anthology Futures and Fictions, ‘already implicated in the different dimensions of time’.[7] Both Butler and Winterson’s texts unsettle the narratives of empire and capital by orienting themselves in the alternative temporalities of speculative fiction.[8] They fiction futures to produce a ‘significant distortion of the present’, something that Samuel Delany considers a central technique of science fiction.[9] Their texts wonder at the possibility of other worlds and other futures, while grappling with the neoliberal fiction that such possibility is already foreclosed, that we are at the ‘end of history’.[10] 

In science fiction writing, the future is both a territory for extraction and a site of resistance.

        In John Akomfrah’s The Last Angel of History, his documentary-cum-science-fiction film about afrofuturism and the entanglements of ‘space, music, and the future’ in late-twentieth century black culture, the time-travelling narrator declares that the:

first touch with science fiction came when Africans began playing drums to cover distance. Water carried the sound of the drums, and sound covered the distance between the Old and the New World.[11] 

Butler, who features in the film, writes from a similar position of awareness that, since the violence and displacement of the Middle Passage, science fiction has been a black technology of resistance, of establishing relationships with the ‘Old and the New World’, and of sense-making beyond the end of the world.

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Viking Fever – Vikings in Fantastika

By Kevan Manwaring

Ink: when Viking Fever goes viral

The Northman (2022) – Director: Robert Eggers; Writer: Sjón/Eggers.

Vikings are very much in vogue again, with a slew of releases in recent years reaching fever pitch in 2021-2022, many of which draw laterally, rather than literally, upon Viking culture: MCU’s Loki and Thor: Love and Thunder; Vikings: Valhalla; The Last Kingdom; The Northman; The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power... Readers and viewers are perhaps more adept at perceiving the loose historicity of such retellings than scholars credit them; and are drawn to the new tales largely because of the storytelling, the characters, and the aesthetic. For some, such texts are a ‘gateway drug’ to the hit of history, the fix of the source material, the Gothic allure of the archive. 

Yet for many, it is perhaps something more visceral. Martin Amis said novels come from the ‘base of the spine’, but maybe the appeal of narrative flights of fancy do also. 

It is perhaps not surprising that tales of warriors and their warrior gods are in favour in such tumultuous times (it could be argued we live in a new Viking Age, where the mask of civility has been forsaken and the strong take what they wish from the weak, or at least try), but Viking culture and Norse mythology has had an especial appeal to writers of Fantasy for a long time. Mike Ashley defines ‘Nordic Fantasy’ as ‘That body of FANTASY which draws its heart from the MYTHOLOGY of the Scandinavian and Teutonic races and incorporates the stories retold in the SAGAS.’ (1999: 691) 

In this article (from an author and academic who has written two Viking-inspired novels of his own), I explore this phenomenon. What is Viking Fever? When and how did it go viral? And is this latest ‘wave’ just a variant of a long-running cultural mutation that originates in the birth of Scandinavian and English literature, and perhaps even in the very foundations of storytelling?

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