Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora. Edited by Zelda Knight and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora by [Zelda Knight, Marian Denise Moore, Eugen Bacon, Nicole Givens Kurtz, Dilman Dila, Rafeeat Aliyu, Suyi Davies Okungbowa, Michael Boatman, Odida Nyabundi, Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald]

Reviewed by Fiona Moore

It’s become almost a cliché of conversations in sf circles: someone says that they would love to read more works by authors from non-Western, non-White, and/or postcolonial origins, but, they add, “I don’t really know where to start.” While the recent rise to prominence of African and African-diaspora authors like NK Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor and Tade Thompson has been welcome, potential readers might still wonder where to look for writers in other sub-genres of sf, such as horror, Weird fiction, or post-apocalyptic fiction. 

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora provides a suitable answer to this question, being a sampler of a diverse range of stories by established African and African Diaspora authors, covering a startling range of genres that provides something for everyone. At the same time, however, there is plenty for those with a good understanding of Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism to appreciate.

All the stories were, however, at the very least interesting and in most cases very enjoyable to read. Some fit comfortably within familiar sf categorisations. “Trickin’”, by Nicole Givens Kurtz, is a Hallowe’en-set horror piece which develops both the vampire and demonic-possession subgenres. “Sleep, Papa, Sleep” by Suyi Okungbowa Davies is also on the conventional horror spectrum, a Lagos-set story involving necromancy and revenant corpses to explore family relationships.  On the science fiction side, “Red_bati” by Dilman Dila, about a former robot pet now repurposed as a mining robot after the death of its human owner, fits into the growing genre of stories exploring the morality of creating AI for human use; this example does a good job of handling the balance between making the AI sympathetic and not obscuring his non-human mindset.

Other stories engage more directly with colonialism and postcolonialism. “A Maji Maji Chronicle” by Eugen Bacon is a fantasy about a mage who meddles with African colonial history, exploring questions about power, corruption and legitimate leadership. “To Say Nothing of Lost Figurines” by Rafeeat Aliyu is a mixed genre SF/fantasy, giving us a wizard from Earth tracking a magical object to an alien society and retrieving it with the aid of a half-human-half-alien woman. The idea of magic-as-science, a feature of much postcolonial sf including that from Africa and its diaspora, arises both as an embracing of the indigenous logics dismissed as superstition in a colonial context, and a challenge to the idea of “Western” science as hegemonic and objective. Here, it is counterpointed by the narrative of a mixed species character finding an escape from her oppressive birth society. 

“The Unclean” by Nuzo Onoh is a genuinely terrifying horror fantasy about an Igbo woman in the 1950s in an abusive marriage; the best horror for me is always that which works as a metaphor for real-life issues, and the way in which the protagonist struggles against not just her husband and his family but the patriarchy of 1950s Nigeria in general is both reflected and amplified by the supernatural terrors she encounters (and sometimes brings into being herself). Mame Bougouma Diene’s “The Satellite Charmer” engages directly with Chinese neo-colonial activities in Africa, the background involves two Chinese mining companies using satellite technology for resource extraction in Senegal, our foreground is the life of one man, Ibrahima, affected by the satellites in unexpected ways and how he, and they, converge to an explosive meeting.

History, and more specifically the loss of (and recovery of) history, also emerges as a key theme. “A Mastery of German” by Marian Denise Moore is a near-future hard-science story whose protagonist is an American project manager tasked with evaluating (and possibly cancelling) a project meant to enable the transfer of human memory for profit; at the same time, we have the counter-narrative of the protagonist’s father attempting to trace the family history, thwarted by the invisibility of Black, enslaved and working-class people. The end result explores the meaning of individual and social memory not just in the USA, but any postcolonial country. “Emily,” also by Marian Denise Moore, is the shortest piece in the book, a poem starting with a historical advertisement for the return of an escaped enslaved girl and imagining different parallel futures for her, picking up on the theme of lost history in Moore’s earlier piece for the volume. “Thresher of Men” by Michael Boatman is a deeply satisfying revenge narrative: as a goddess takes vengeance on the White residents of an American town for past atrocities, we see the hidden history of the seemingly idyllic community emerge, beginning with a recent police shooting of a young Black man but going deeper into the past as the story unfolds, revealing the murder as one horror in a long chain of atrocities extending back decades, if not centuries.

Finally, some stories in this collection cross genres or defy classification. “Convergence In Chorus Architecture” by Dare Segun Falowo is a strange and surreal Weird fiction piece involving quests, boneships, human-arthropod fusions; the prose is beautiful and haunting and the imagery lingers. “Clanfall: Death of Kings” by Odida Nyabundi is a post-human post-apocalyptic adventure story, which reads like the setup to what could be a very interesting series, and one hopes the author develops this universe further. Finally, “Ife-Iyoku, The Tale of Imadeyunuagbon” by volume coeditor Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald tells the story of a society undone by its own essentialism; as the narrative twists and turns unexpectedly, so the story shifts genre, beginning as an epic heroic fantasy, before shifting into a postapocalyptic story with echoes of The Chrysalids, and shifting again into another divine revenge narrative.

Dominion is a worthy addition to volumes like Walking the Clouds and So Long Been Dreaming which serve as introductions to postcolonial and indigenous science fictions and fantasies. The interesting range of stories, genres and themes provides a clear guideline for people looking for new work by African and African Diaspora writers in their favourite subgenres. However, the exploration and development of themes of colonialism, history, and memory, as well as the re-interpretation of colonialist sf tropes such as vampires and AI through African and/or Afrofuturist lenses, means that the volume also contributes to the ongoing dialogue on decolonising science fiction. 

Emerging from vibrations: An interview with Juliana Huxtable

A sneak peek at Vector 292, the contemporary art issue. Juliana Huxtable’s groundbreaking postdisciplinary artistic practice encompasses cyberculture, portraiture, performance, poetry, transmedia storytelling, critical making, fashion, happenings, and myriad other modes and magics. In September 2020 Vector took the opportunity to chat with Juliana about her work, especially the role played by science fiction

What were your early encounters with science fiction like?

My father, in particular, was obsessed with science fiction, and so we had a lot of science fiction lying around the house, games, films, magazines. He was really into Heavy Metal magazine, which featured this sci-fi soft-core pornography. For my dad, who was not a religious person, it was as close to a religious practice as we came.

My mom on the other hand was highly religious. But both of my parents really saw technology almost as this necessary gateway to liberation, to cultural and social advancement. There was a strong racial aspect to that. So that was the context in which I grew up, and what’s funny is that when I went to university, I almost had this kind of adolescent “I need to define myself!” moment. I pulled away from science fiction, and would feign disinterest.

How long did that last, that feigned disinterest?

It really was when I moved to New York that I started to develop my own interest in science fiction. Possibilities related especially to gender are so interesting to me. So I found myself naturally drawn to subjects that heavily relied on science fiction, or that were actually a form of science fiction … even if they might not be formally classified as part of that cultural sphere.

For instance, there was my interest in the Nuwaubian Nation. The merger of Ufology and Egyptology, and the literature and contemporary almost pseudo-science which that produces, is essentially a form of science fiction. That reanimated my interest in science fiction more generally. I started engaging with it again almost as a form of art research.

“Maybe the goal is that gender doesn’t have any meaning, because there’s less ascribed to that tethering …”

This morning I saw this tweet where somebody was like, “Describe your gender in five words or less or more, and you can’t use words like masc, fem, androgynous.” People were replying with song lyrics and so on. I guess my question is, Juliana, what is gender?

For me, the struggle for gender that I’m interested in, and the work for gender that I’m interested in, is about expanding beyond inherited gender structures. That means expanding the signifying space that floats right above the concrete materiality of sex. So if ‘sex’ is this literal form of inherited embodiment, whose essence supposedly can’t be modified, then ‘gender’ is the directly corresponding world of cultural, religious, linguistic, and social meanings. Meanings that are, it’s assumed, birthed from that materiality. 

The struggle for gender and the work for gender that I’m interested in is de-linking those two, and then expanding that field, ideally to a point where maybe it doesn’t have any meaning any more. Maybe the goal is that gender doesn’t have any meaning, because there’s less ascribed to that tethering, both of the two parts of a binary to each other, and to the idea of gender as it’s tethered to sex.

And until gender does evaporate, it’s exciting what its transformation might concretely encompass next. At least, in queer studies, queer theory, and queer activism, and probably more broadly too, the questioning of norms around sexual desire can expand into the questioning of all norms. I could be wrong, but it feels a very distinct logic and temporality from, in particular, anti-racist theory and activism?

Gender operates on the fantasy of being more universal. People make these statements all the time: “Well, the original form of oppression was men against women, and the original act was the reproductive act.” So I think even if it’s not necessarily true, there is a pretty widespread belief in the transhistoricity of gender, as opposed to race. Even people who believe in race, and believe in cohesive races organised in a hierarchy, ultimately they still think that there was a point at which the races were separated. The claim is that contemporary racial conflicts are birthed from interacting with each other and throwing ourselves against each other for years. You know what I mean? 

Definitely! I hadn’t thought of it that way.

Even among the white supremacist separatists, there’s some understanding that it’s contextual. Race, and the problems of race, are understood as socially and culturally contingent. I think gender, for me, has been the most generative and the most interesting, because it doesn’t have that kind of widespread perception. It’s quite fun to play with, because it always does something. At least, this is why I’m interested in gender.

“She takes a lot of colloidal silver”

I wanted to ask you about the novel you’re working on. It’s pretty science-fictional, right? What’s the premise?

It’s not fully science fiction, but it contains a lot of elements of science fiction. I haven’t decided how far in the future it is. It’s not so far where it’s like technology is completely unrecognizable. I didn’t want to go too far that way, writing this first novel, because anything I do is going to have some elements of science fiction anyway. It’s about a character who is really, really obsessed with body modification. I was thinking of the archetype of the body-mod goth. She takes a lot of colloidal silver. She’s obsessed with consuming colloidal silver, because it turns your skin blue if you consume too much of it.

She’s also always been obsessed with bats. Also they’ve now developed this surgery where they can essentially use your own cells, and then merge them with an animal’s, so you can develop body parts, essentially, that can be then attached to your own. We’re still at the point where these surgeries are presumably cosmetic. It’s not like they’ve merged human beings and other animals, they’ve just been able to affect the way that bones and skin can grow. So they can develop wings and attach them to you, but those wings aren’t fully functional.

I’ve also been really fascinated by genetic engineering, epigenetics, and food modification. The way a corporation like Monsanto might think about genetics, if a roach has a capability to fight off a certain type of pest that’s attacking their fruit crops, they will essentially extract whatever gene is responsible for that, and insert that into the fruit, so that the fruit then has this naturally occurring pesticide that repels this type of predatory insect.

Essentially the starting point is that she comes from a family of orange farmers. I also got really fascinated with orange juice! Brazil and the United States produce the most orange juice globally, and Brazil basically outpaced the United States at some point in the mid-2000s. The Brazilian crop is now the global standard, partly because it grows the fastest and it’s the most pest-resistant. The theory that the novel proposes is that these orange trees have been engineered using genetic material from this insect that fruit bats consume, and my character’s family has been consuming this for at least twenty years. So there’s a tentative relationship between essentially these bat genes that she’s been consuming and the large amounts of micro-RNA slowly altering her genes and slowly influencing the way that her body is producing itself. 

That sounds amazing.

So it’s about orange juice, and bats, and genes, and also dreams, because it also starts to influence her dreams. She has these terrifying dreams, that essentially take her to Brazil, and take her through space and through time. She has these dreams where she’ll be on an orange plantation where they’re effectively using bonded labor. She doesn’t recognize it as Brazil, because she’s not aware of this connection. She’s trying to understand what the relationship between all of this is, because she’s also obsessed with bats, and has been identifying herself as kind of a midnight-blue bat-like person.

“So it’s about orange juice, and bats, and genes, and also dreams, because it also starts to influence her dreams. She has these terrifying dreams …”

It sounds like it might have evolved a bit out of your exhibition that was part of Transformer, the recent show at The Store X in London?

The show at 180 The Strand was just a stripped-back version of a part of my solo show, my second solo show at Reena. That’s where I first developed these characters. I think I’m interested in the human-animal encounter because, at least in this popular imagination, that’s the limit of so many forms of identity politics, especially as they relate to gender and sexuality. For example, the expansion of sexual rights, overturning sodomy laws, overturning persecution surrounding certain types of non-marital sex. The conservative argument is oftentimes, ‘Well, if we keep allowing and expanding the category of what a legitimate form of sexual interaction is, we’re going to end up fucking animals.’ 

Juliana Huxtable installation at Transformer: A Rebirth of Wonder, 180 The Strand

Sure, and you can understand why you might want to reject that argument really forcefully. But at the same time, and this is a tricky point, when you do confront those reactionary politics, you run the risk of colluding with a whole set of oppressive and violent assumptions about the human, about the non-human, about gender, which deserve to be challenged. Can we unpick that a bit more?

For example, maybe the argument goes, for example, ‘Well, if we let human identity expand, and start including all these things as legitimately human, well then, I might as well just end up as a fish!’ So it’s the kind of … either the nonsensical point, where it’s just the horizon of meaning, or it’s the absolute taboo. And that’s what interested me first. ‘Okay, well, why don’t we take that and run with it, instead of trying to find ways of separating ourselves from animality?’ 

It really opened up quite an interesting new direction for my work. I love Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance. The way Sheldrake imagines natural forms and systems as inherited memory and repeating themselves through morphogenetic fields just became a really fruitful way of reading genetic science, medical science, reproductive science. I almost see morphic resonance as somewhat akin to epigenetics. 

Definitely! I’m fascinated by thinking around extended or distributed phenotypes, and the way genes never just express themselves in a void, but always in a context that is itself characterised by all these complex patterns, and path-dependencies, and inheritances. Epigenetics, for any readers who aren’t familiar, is all about heritable traits involving how a gene is expressed, rather than differences in actual DNA sequences

Or at least, epigenetics would be compatible with that way of thinking about systems, and information, and genetic inheritance, and species or whatever? But I think that the Sheldrake was much more science fiction-adjacent to me. It’s been so fascinating to me, to think about forms resonating through time in conjunction with technologies literally implicated in the production and reproduction of forms, especially biotechnologies and the reproductive technologies surrounding industrial farming. So, I developed these characters. One is this cow, this bovine persona or avatar. And then there was the bat. And then I did a reptile character. And then a pig. That’s all of them.

I feel like they should all get a whole cinematic universe. 

The bat is getting a novel. I don’t know if all of them will, but the bat character is at least getting one.

“It’s been so fascinating to me, to think about forms resonating through time in conjunction with technologies literally implicated in the production and reproduction of form …”

I want to ask more about pseudo-science. It has such an interesting relationship with science fiction. You’ve got the kind of Star Trek style technobabble, where the deus ex machina is a type Q phase discriminating amplifier or whatever, where we’re not really supposed to take it seriously. And then you’ve got hard science fiction that aims for credibility, but is always necessarily somewhat pseudo-scientific insofar as it pushes toward speculative implementations, even if it does its best to maintain a credible technoscientific idiom. And then there’s all that pseudo-science whose status is contested, and often politically fraught. I’m interested in how pseudo-science relates to conspiracy theory, which is another big theme of some of your work. I don’t know, would you describe conspiracy theory as a kind of science fiction?

My instinct is to say that not all conspiracy theory is necessarily a form of science fiction, or even adjacent to science fiction. But I do think that most science fiction is conspiratorial in some sense. So yes, oftentimes there’s overlap between the two. Something like the Five-Percenter Movement can be seen as an almost science fictional response to the pseudoscience of scientific racism, for instance. 

“We’re in an era when many new forms of political and economic exploitation are paranoia-inducing because they’re so difficult to quantify.”

How does that play out in your work? For instance, can you talk about A Split During Laughter at the Rally?

That was my first solo show. Actually, that’s an example of where not all conspiracy — or at least what I was engaging with as conspiracy — necessarily is science fiction. But also, I was really interested in new forms of paranoia, and new speculative imaginations that arise in response to technological transformation. We’re in an era when many new forms of political and economic exploitation are paranoia-inducing because they’re so difficult to quantify. 

Absolutely. Sometimes the best you can do, epistemologically speaking, is to be paranoid, or to be speculative.

Data systems, hormonal systems, financial systems. These are all forms of capital, units of political control. Information and power is being distributed worldwide, but often in ways that are imperceptible to us. Or at least they’re not so tactile. So there’s this wave both of base cultural paranoia, but also I think of speculative writing and thinking, that comes from that place. It’s interesting to me to think about how emerging technology has that direct influence on how we deal with our ideas of the future. 

That’s so interesting. It’s tempting to think of new technology solely as a potential harbinger of the future that features that technology more widely. Which it can be. But technological transformation is also constantly re-calibrating culture in other ways as well, surfacing certain things and endowing them with certain saliences, while making other things more invisible, more silent.

And that idea was very central to that show: the imperceptible. Things moving into the imperceptible, the untouchable. You can’t feel it. At most, it’s a vibration, and a sort of paranoia emerges from that vibration.

The logic of paranoia might obfuscate the world, but it’s also sometimes what we need to know the world around us. That logic might even be reparative, sometimes. Because what is important to know is so often imperceptible. So deep in the vibration. 

Right. One book that’s not all science fiction, but has influenced the way that I read science fiction and other things, is Testo Junkie by Paul Preciado. It lays out these theories relating networking systems to endocrinology to developments in wireless technology. It’s really been illuminating to read the world through that new perspective.

“… the distinction between how you navigate the world as a rights-bearing citizen, and how you navigate the world as a consumer, is increasingly collapsing …”

OK, I think I’ve come across that. I need to check it out properly. When you think ‘What is capital?’ you might think about finance and land and machinery and so on … but you might not necessarily think of the biochemistry in our bloodstreams, because it’s harder to clearly point to who owns and controls that. Or when you think ‘What is technology?’ you might think about AI and automation and so on … but you might not necessarily think of pornography as a kind of technology that shapes desire and identity. A gender technology, maybe.

This has affected a lot of my thinking on conspiracy too. We’re at a point at which the distinction between how you navigate the world as a rights-bearing citizen, and how you navigate the world as a consumer, is increasingly collapsing. If something is now a source of capital, it is also, in a certain way, a space in which new rights and affordances can be granted or negotiated. 

Hormones are not only a source of capital, but also have literally expanded the possibilities for ways of embodiment. So what’s been happening is that new potential has opened up for somatic modification, while that potential itself is also opening to new forms of transaction, of enclosure, of contestation. It’s radically changing what embodiment means, and how much sway and influence one can have over that. Imagining where that could go is really interesting to me. That’s partly what the novel is, thinking through embodiment from those inter-species, trans-species angles.

Can we talk a bit about humour? That show at The Store X was really unsettling. You see the images, and they’re tragic, they’re angering, they’re funny, they’re beautiful, they’re horny. They’re kind of cartoonish and they’re also kind of visceral. Art gets described as ‘provocative’ way too often — but I felt like it was provocative in the sense that it offers me these responses, and which response I go for is going to say something about me? I feel like when people talk about your work — from what I’ve seen so far — they don’t talk about the humour enough?

If I have a gripe with the kind of art-critical-industrial complex, it’s that. I think that writing about cultural production, especially cultural production that doesn’t present itself as immediately trying to be super-wide-appeal, often really doesn’t know how to process humor. Humor is so important for me, just in my life generally, and it animates my work. I’m always like, ‘I hope it’s coming across. Are people just taking this all seriously?’ 

It’s getting better and better gradually. I think sometimes you just have to establish enough work for people to see it in conversation not just with itself. Especially when you are offered the very easy and seductive lens of identity, I think that people generally want to jump to a kind of literal interpretation, because the literal animates whatever kind of ethical posturing that comes along with that. 

I saw you talking somewhere about how sometimes the attribution of the theme of identity can actually be a way of limiting what the art is doing. Not that it’s necessarily not about identity. But to the extent that it is, that doesn’t mean it’s inviting me to sort of ritually recapitulate ideas I’m already familiar with.

There was one write-up that basically suggested the whole show was just about my tragic life as a trans woman, and I’m like, ‘What? There’s a cow being forcefully milked, with Playboy aesthetics. What is going on?’

Clearly this is straight-up sincere, confessional life writing.

It surprises me, but I think it’s like what you were saying. That says more about other people than it does about than what I’m putting into the work. This is one reason why also I really love being able to have a show up where I can be there. Because when people are in the show, there’s a lot of humor. I remember A Split During Laughter at the Rally, people were just … I loved hearing laughter, or seeing people laugh, or even seeing smiles on people’s faces. It’s almost a more vulnerable way of engaging what I’m doing, I think.

Just to finish, can we talk a little bit about parties? I guess it’s a similar question to the earlier one about gender. What is a party? I feel I have been where there’s people, there’s music, and there’s drinks, there’s fun, and no shade but it’s not a party. It’s ontologically a different thing.

I love to go to parties, I love to throw parties of all varieties. For me, the difference between a party and a gathering is that there’s almost a vibrational threshold that the collective energy has to surpass. And whether that threshold is passed by virtue of the number of people there, or that the threshold is passed by virtue of the music escalating a certain energy, or by some other dynamic, I do feel like a party has a sense of heightened energy that engenders a different way of being social, and a different way of engaging with people, and a different sense of possibility.

One of the first nights that pubs were opened up here, I did a little drive around, partly because I was just curious what the atmosphere would be like. It was small groups only, so mostly people who were out that night weren’t supposed to meet anyone new.

I don’t think you necessarily have to have new people, for me. I think most of my friends, one of the things I like about them is that there could be a party even with just five of us. It could fully be there.

“It’s an opportunity to be a contextually specific entity …” 

I was just like, okay, is there going to be that sense of danger that creates a really unhinged, voluptuous atmosphere? Or is the risk in this case actually an uncomfortable subtext, that renders everything flat and try-hard? I suppose I’m interested in the role of risk.

So I don’t know if it has to be risk. A sense of risk is part of the appeal of a certain type of nightlife. I think of the Berghain: that’s an almost, at this point, globally-recognizable branded clubbing experience. Berghain I do think is about performing risk, or giving the markers or ornaments of a kind of risk. But I also love a forest rave! I love to just be in the middle of the woods, or in the mountains, dancing, and I don’t feel risk associated with that, just a really dynamic sense of possibility.

I guess I should say for any readers who are new to your work, I’m not just asking randomly about parties! Your artistic practice has encompassed nightlife in various ways, in connection with music, fashion, and performance. And as I understand it there was an important phase in your career, in coming to understand and present yourself as an artist, that was about going out?

Yeah. It’s an opportunity to be a contextually specific entity. I at the time felt really disconnected from art-making. I had a very normal day job, working with lawyers, so it was just like … in terms of an artistic sensibility, something completely unrelated. I really felt that nightlife offered the possibility for me to be something that only existed in that moment. I wasn’t the person tethered to my job. I wasn’t the person that was walking down the street. I wasn’t the person that was in the cab on the way to the party.

When I entered that space, something about that radical shift in energy and the sense of possibility that comes with being essentially untethered from so many aspects of my life really became a space to think through concepts, and to deploy those concepts in all the different forms of enacting sociality, so dancing, talking, playing music. Even just my relationship with the lights, or something like that. In that environment, everything can become a sort of art form. There’s an art about the way that you carry yourself in a party. There’s an art about the way that you establish conversation, how you move through ideas, how you navigate what type of things to address with what type of person, and what type of atmosphere you engender through the music that you’re playing. It enabled and lubricated my imagination, in ways that would also then come out as writing, or videos, or other things. But the genesis of them, or at least the setting free of them, happened in the context of parties.

Part of the artistry of parties and nightlife is to do with agency. You talked about becoming perhaps a version of yourself that is untethered from the kinds of systems that you have to participate in on an everyday basis. I’m wondering if that’s also something that, in a little way, comes out in performance generally?

Well, I’ve always been a performer. As someone that has generally felt slighted or shortchanged by the behavioral expectations that I grew up in, I think I naturally was attracted to performance. I was attracted to it less as something that I understood as such or by name, than as a space to create a degree of intentionality, to distinguish myself from normal behavioral modes, and to enter this space where I could then play. I was a policy debater in high school, which was probably my first encounter with that space. But then it was at the encouragement of my friend Patty in New York, who had seen me doing poetry readings. She’s a curator, and she organized a performance showcase and asked me to be a part of that. It just kind of just grew from there. It’s funny. Even though I am a performance artist in practice, I’ve never sought that out. It’s because there is some sense of necessity.

Juliana it has been such an honour and a delight. And I can’t wait for the novel.

Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow’s Architecture

Edwina Attlee, Maria Smith, and Phineas Harper, eds.  Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow’s Architecture (London: The Architecture Foundation and Oslo Architecture Triennale, 2019)

Reviewed by Carl Abbott

Cover of Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow's Architecture. Stairs and columns against a backdrop of mountains, under a huge sun or moon, everything soaked in bloody light

To understand Gross Ideas, start with the Oslo Architecture Triennale to which this book is a companion. The Triennale is “a member organization that unites the major architecture and urban planning networks in Norway” for conversations and public programs about the role of architecture in society. Participants and supporters include national associations of design professionals, architecture schools, Norwegian government agencies, and international architecture firms with Norwegian roots. The 2019 Triennale in the fall of 2019, was the seventh iteration.

Some of the contributors identify as writers and some as architects, and a few work both sides. There are two poems, one graphic narrative, and fourteen prose narratives of widely differing character …

The book itself is a miscellany of contributions that is more a curated exhibit in verbal form than a tightly edited collection, a characterization that I suspect the curator-editors would find quite acceptable. Some of the contributors identify as writers and some as architects, and a few work both sides. There are two poems, one graphic narrative, and fourteen prose narratives of widely differing character. Some of these latter are stories that could easily find homes in science fiction magazines. Others range from Will Self’s takeoff on Invisible Cities to Lesley Lokko’s essay on women and transnational remittances that includes a fictional vignette, a short factual summary, and scholarly endnotes (it is quite effective). 

Architects have long delighted to imagine grand buildings and building schemes—Arturo Soria y Mata’s Ciudad Lineal, the arcologies of Paolo Soleri, Walking City and other thought experiments of the Archigram group, a linear supercity from Michael Graves, the mile-high skyscraper of Frank Lloyd Wright (even Burj Khalifa gets only halfway there). Science fiction has appropriated the taste for the grandiose from Trantor and Coruscant to countless artists’ depictions of imagined urban futures full of soaring towers in shimmering color. 

What naïve readers might expect from the “architecture” in the subtitle is often absent …

There is no such here. What naïve readers might expect from the “architecture” in the subtitle is often absent. Instead we get one story in which the largest building is a village house (Sophie Mackintosh, “Placation”), a second set in a caricature of a dusty, unchanging town of the old American Southwest (Joel Blackledge, “Fountainwood”), and another in derelict and abandoned Edinburgh (Camilla Grudova, “Deliberate Ruins’). The only story to center a single building uses an unfinished and abandoned Persian Gulf skyscraper (Deepak Unnikrishnan, “Cat”). The other entry in which architecture is the explicit focus is the graphic narrative “Exile’s Letter” by Mill + Jones, which chronicles efforts to build in a low-technology future (temple, town, giant fishing pier) that are laid low by fire and flood and end with the triumph of unbuilding in a sort of Nature-driven  version of the Tower of Babel. 

Some of the entries posit future engineering rather than architecture—a distinction that the curators and the Triennale folks would likely disregard anyway. For example, Robin Nicholson projects the green retrofitting of London in 2039. I had the most fun with “The Aqueduct,” which presents a scenario for replacing Britain’s rail and road transportation with a set of canals. It is a fascinating think-piece that painlessly introduces elementary physics to extrapolate from Britain’s current restored canals. If he hasn’t, author Steve Webb should look up Railroads and American Economic Growth by my old graduate professor Robert Fogel, which includes a long counterfactual to test whether the United States might have had the same robust economic growth had it invested in canals and river improvements rather than railroads in the nineteenth century.  

As she starts work and experiments on her own small house, she finds herself slowly absorbed by the microbes …

The contributors took to heart the theme of the 2019 Triennale—“Enough: The Architecture of Degrowth.” Some stories imagine the built world in decay (Grudova, Unnikrishnan), others the natural world actively triumphant (Mackintosh).  Lev Bratishenko, “You Wanted This,” reports a future United Nations conference at which national representatives offer their own favored ways to drastically reduce the world population—the Russians want to use thermonuclear bombs, the Japanese want to weaponize the Internet of Things, the Americans want to drug everyone to euphoric death (cue up Serenity). One of the most powerful stories is Rachel Armstrong’s “Bittersweet Building.” A new architecture graduate in desperate need of a job catches on with a Norwegian firm that is trying to incorporate bacteria as part of a building’s metabolism (waste into clean water, heat, oxygen). As she starts work and experiments on her own small house, she finds herself slowly absorbed by the microbes into their own complex world and finally merging fully into the “metabolic community of the landscape.” It is both a chilling and a comforting variation on the natural process of bodily decay. For the theme of degrowth, score a big one for the Earth.

Having considered the “architecture” half of “tales of tomorrow’s architecture,” what about the “tales” part? To no surprise, the pieces run a wide span from interesting but undramatic speculation to engaging story. For an example from the didactic side, Edward Davey, “Oli Away,” uses the mechanism of a report on a gap year journey to explicate some favored energy and transportation options. The entries by Nicholson, Bratishenko, and Webb are additional examples of scenario-building rather than storytelling. They have a lot of information without much surrounding story, which is not to say that we should not think about the ideas they present. After all, nobody read Looking Backward for its compelling characters and plot, but it had enormous influence. 

Several of the contributions that are strong as stories are, not surprisingly, by people with lots of writing experience who know how to create engaging characters. For many Vector readers, the biggest name in the collection is Cory Dotorow, who contributes an interesting variation on his Disneyland obsession with “Materiality.”  He posits a theme park in which high school classes spend a week inhabiting reconstructed towns from different eras. Think Main Street USA meets the living displays of colonial “savages” found at early twentieth century world’s fairs (also see the living diorama in Colson Whitehead’s fantastic alternative view of American history in The Underground Railroad). The theme park contrasts with a present in which recycling and three-dimensional printed make the objects of everyday life ephemeral if not immaterial. Doctorow’s teenaged protagonist indirectly confronts the lasting imprint that seriously stupid Old Timey People left on the landscape by considering whether his favorite old tee shirt is still cool (it is). 

… architecture as a practice of designing individual buildings should be and is being swallowed up by the all-consuming impacts of climate change and necessary transformations in global energy systems.

Maria Smith in “Lay Low” uses the familiar frame of singles gossiping in a bar to introduce a society of scarcity in which everyone has monetized allowances for necessities like water, food, and electricity.  Her variation on a familiar science fiction future is a new way to get ahead on your budget—perhaps—by going into hibernation for a few months to lower your consumption levels and build up points. The women in the bar, who are just learning about the new option, don’t think that monetizing unconsciousness is going to go well.

Jo Lindsay Walton contributed the longest, most complex, and perhaps most readable story (no, there was collusion with your book review editor).  “In Arms” is cleverly constructed with two parallel threads—a woman waiting for a date to show up and an ecoterrorist launching an operation—that slowly grow more complex and intertwine in unexpected ways. Radical changes in building styles are slipped in as background, including the cool idea that rising seas have forced the seat of British government to shift to a mobile seastead platform nicknamed Wetminster.  

Without the subtitle and the wraparound material describing the Triennale, someone who casually reads through Gross Ideas would think it is about economic transition and “degrowth” in general, with architecture one of many avenues of exploration. The overall message is that architecture as a practice of designing individual buildings should be and is being swallowed up by the all-consuming impacts of climate change and necessary transformations in global energy systems. Some contributors see a complete devolution to a nonindustrial future, others a society of scarcity, and still others an adapting world. Tomorrow’s architecture, the book suggests, will be valuable to the extent that it is subordinated not just to social needs—an architectural truism, if not always heeded—but rather to fundamental institutional and social transformation. 

Carl Abbott is author of The Metropolitan Frontier: Cities in the Modern American West, The New Urban America: Growth and Politics in Sunbelt Cities, and Political Terrain: Washington, D.C., from Tidewater Town to Global Metropolis.

Cargo (Arati Kadav 2019 Hindi) reviewed by Abhishek Lakkad

Cargo (Arati Kadav 2019 Hindi): A meandering rumination about the weightlessness of human existence

Reviewed by Abhishek Lakkad

Please note that this review contains spoilers.

Death can be understood as a scientific/biological phenomenon, but its gravity is experienced as a spiritual phenomenon. Both the scientific and the spiritual perspectives allow one to contemplate death. But when the makers of Cargo (2019) choose science as merely a veil for religious/spiritual ideas in order to comment on alienation and abandonment rampant in contemporary societies, they could have made sure that the film is passionate (or at least compassionate) enough to sustain its slow-paced narrative. Cargo (now available on Netflix) is the first feature length film of Arati Kadav, although she has written and directed several science fiction shorts in the last decade. Cargo highlights the theme of ‘loneliness’ in these times of pervasive social media that creates the impression that one is always connected and hence never alone. Hindu spiritual/religious ideas about karma and the cycle of life, death and rebirth are central to the narrative. The action mostly takes place on a spaceship orbiting Earth where human-like demons called rakshasas are essentially technicians enabling the transition from death to rebirth in a mundane, technocratic and institutionalised process — reminiscent of an airport security checkpoint, medical lab or a prison admissions office. The film terms this process as “post-death transition”, supervised by a department called Post-Death Transition Services (PDTS) that operates under the aegis of Inter-Planetary Space Organisation (IPSO) that has been established by the rakshasas. Owing to the film’s stance of deriving its fictional futuristic technology from elements of Hindu spirituality and mythology, the film has a distinct retro-futuristic feel. Perhaps the datedness of the film’s visual effects is meant to reinforce the 80s inspired aesthetics. 

Continue reading “Cargo (Arati Kadav 2019 Hindi) reviewed by Abhishek Lakkad”

Fragmented dwellings: ontology and architecture in The City and the City (2009) and Learning the World (2005)

In this article, Alexei Warshawski explores themes of architecture, fragmentation, and ontology (in the sense of existence or Being as such) in two speculative fiction novels, China Miéville’s The City and the City (2009) and Ken McLeod’s Learning the World (2005).

The relationship between architecture and its inhabitants is a powerful one which can be liberating or repressive, inclusive or exclusive, reflective or reductive. These relations are neither cohesive with one another, nor mutually exclusive, so they problematise our relationship with architecture in spatial, temporal and ontological terms. Examples may be found in China Miéville’s The City and the City (2009) and Ken MacLeod’s Learning the World (2005). Miéville’s The City and the City follows Inspector Tyador Borlú as he investigates the murder of a foreign student whose body is found in Besźel, a city which is topographically twinned with another city called Ul Qoma. These two cities are on the same physical site and their residents are expected to ignore the city which they don’t live in, ‘unseeing’ any elements that they accidentally notice. Ken MacLeod’s Learning the World follows a future human race’s attempts to find a new planet to colonise as they travel on their planet-sized generation ship, and grapples with the problems they face in understanding a temporary architectural construct as a seemingly permanent and homely environment. Both novels engage with one of postmodernism’s key architectural concerns – the question of fragmentation, which this paper will argue is a necessity in sustaining the architecture of the worlds of both texts. While The City and the City explores fragmentary architecture through its twinned cities, Learning the World presents architecture as an inherently fragmentary construct, both in spatial and temporal terms. This paper will suggest that the ‘necessary fragmentation’ of the architecture in these texts proves the untenability of postmodern, neoliberal architecture as something permanent or fixed, in both spatial and temporal terms. Furthermore, this paper will argue that the idea of necessary fragmentation in this context give credence to Martin Heidegger’s understanding of ‘building’ and ‘dwelling’, a distinction he outlines in ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’ (1951) which suggests that ‘dwelling’ as an ontological condition is not a guaranteed effect of building or settling within architectural constructs, and that the ability to ‘build’ in an ontologically authentic manner requires one to possess the capacity to ‘dwell’ in the first place. This paper will outline how these paired concepts of building and dwelling can affect the formation and occupation of architecture, as well as architecture’s relationship to nature. Drawing together the fragmentary elements of architecture and their relationship to Heidegger’s thinking in both texts, this paper will conclude with an analysis of the reflective properties of architecture – in both literal and metaphoric senses – to demonstrate the extent to which architecture can affect not just our social and domestic lives, but our ontology itself.

Continue reading “Fragmented dwellings: ontology and architecture in The City and the City (2009) and Learning the World (2005)”

Amazofuturism and Indigenous Futurism in Brazilian Science Fiction

This peer-reviewed article was first published in Vector 291.

By Vítor Castelões Gama and Marcelo Velloso Garcia

This essay will explore two contemporary movements associated with the literature and art of the Amazon region: Amazofuturism and Indigenous futurism. We hope that it will increase the visibility of these two interconnected movements, in order to enrich diversity within the art world, and contribute toward a broadening of cosmologies and worldviews beyond dominant Western imaginaries [1]. 

But to do so, let’s start by trying out some definitions. First, Amazofuturism is a subgenre of SF where the Amazon region is represented in a more positive light, often with an aesthetic akin to cyberpunk and solarpunk. Indigenous futurism, on the other hand, focuses on Indigenous worldviews in the context of the SF megatext, and, while doing so, challenges ingrained colonialist assumptions about Indigenous people. Ideally it is also created by Indigenous people. Finally, Brazilian SF, the broadest of these three terms, is simply science fiction from Brazil. It does not necessarily represent either the Amazon region nor Indigenous people at all, and when it does, may do so either positively or negatively [2]. Now, let’s expand a bit on these definitions. 

Continue reading “Amazofuturism and Indigenous Futurism in Brazilian Science Fiction”

Us: A film about ‘Them’?

By Dev Agarwal

Us (2019) - IMDb

Currently, the horror renaissance sweeps through mainstream cinema and television at a pace that’s hard to keep up with. Horror narratives have always been out there, lurking in popular culture, but until recently they felt like a niche interest, ghettoised with fantasy monsters played by actors in thick make-up and rubber suits, tucked alongside the bug-eyed aliens of science fiction.

However, like science fiction, by the mid-2010s, horror is everywhere, reaching huge cinema audiences and, through Netflix and terrestrial television, coming right into our homes. The horror genre, appropriately enough, has now infected a wider host body, and it is mutating, challenging viewer expectations as to what horror is and what it is capable of. I would suggest that horror as a genre has always carried the power to challenge our thinking, to make us consider what defines a monster, and to pull back the veneer of everyday life to expose what’s going on underneath. However, you once had to be a horror aficionado to appreciate that the genre was more than just jump scares and screams. What’s new is that, by busting out of its culturally marginal position, horror is now expanding its narrative, satirical, and critical powers in front of the very mainstream society that it challenges.  

Continue reading “Us: A film about ‘Them’?”

Afrofuturism: A WorldCon Recap, and Some Thoughts

ConZealand Recapconzealand-logo

By Eugen Bacon

‘On Afrofuturism’ was an important topic at the virtual 2020 WorldCon in New Zealand. The conversation paid attention to the term generally applied to embrace literary works that use the frame of science fiction, fantasy or horror to re-imagine the past and present experiences of the African diaspora, and to explore what black futures could look like. 

On the panel were Suyi Davis Okungbowa—a renowned Nigerian author of fantasy, science fiction and horror inspired by his West-African origins, including David Mogo, God Hunter; Brandon O’Brien—a writer, performance poet and game designer from Trinidad and Tobago, also the editor of Fiyah Magazine; Ekpeki Oghenechovwe—a Nigerian writer with honourable mention (twice) by the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest, and an award-winning best story in the Nommo Awards for speculative fiction by Africans; myself; and skilfully moderated by Maquel A. Jacob—a multi-author and owner of MAJart Works—who propagated stimulating questions, many from the audience, across the panel. 

The introduction to the session stated: 

According to Yes! magazine, the concept of Afrofuturism may only go back to 1966, when the Black Panther first appeared in a Marvel comic and Lt. Uhura appeared first appeared on Star Trek.  The recent MCU movie, Black Panther, shone a bright light onto this subgenre. Our panel explores its origins, what it encompasses and what works they recommend for getting more familiar worth the subgenre.

I was enthralled to enter this hearty dialogue, taking in the divergent views on the term ‘Afrofuturism’ from my fellow panellists. Continue reading “Afrofuturism: A WorldCon Recap, and Some Thoughts”

Solidarity Statement

Vector would like to express our solidarity with the anti-racism protests currently occurring in the USA, UK, and around the world. The BSFA Chair will be doing the same, in the newsletter this week, on behalf of the BSFA.

For those of us in the UK who would like to find out more ways of offering practical support, but don’t know where to start, a few useful resources relating to anti-racism, policing, courts, and prisons are:

See also: #BlackOutTuesday