The Pause That Makes You Human
Write-up by Andrew Wallace
Tade Thompson is the author of acclaimed SF novel Rosewater, which won the 2017 Nommo Awards for African speculative fiction. His short story The Apologists was nominated for a BSFA Award in 2017, and his novel Making Wolf won the Kitschies Golden Tentacle. Liz Williams is a novelist whose Philip K Dick Award-nominated novels include The Ghost Sister and Empire of Bones, while Banner of Souls was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award.
As a child in Nigeria, Tade Thompson read whatever he could find. Often, the texts were mashups of American comics like the Fantastic Four, or British reprints made of cheap newspaper. He quickly graduated from comics to novels, although his genre tastes were not restricted to SFF – at one point his sister convinced him to get into romance, after which Tade read forty Mills & Boon novels. After that he read Ian Fleming, the Saint and tried War and Peace when he was about ten, although part-way through he fled back to the fantastical, devouring works by Frank Herbert and Lewis Carroll. Tade also wrote his own versions of these stories, many of which featured the Mock Turtle in a kind of Alice-inspired Extended Universe. He got back to Russian literature in his teenage years, starting with Dostoevsky.
At times, his mother would only allow him to buy two books at a time, which was a problem if you were reading a trilogy. Tade solved the problem by purchasing book two and three while writing book one himself, and the imaginative discipline required to keep such long narratives in mind was a valuable introduction to story structure. It enabled him to make choices regarding linear narrative, which he believes is over-rated, preferring thematic or other structural links to hold a story together.
During the BSFA interview, Tade explained that this approach extends to the belief that science fiction is best when people work harder to understand a book. He disagrees with editors who want him to be kind to the reader, because he has faith in the reader’s intelligence. Tade wants his books to stay in the reader’s mind, as books do when people put maximum thought into understanding them. In his novel Rosewater, for example, the protagonist is presented as two separate characters: one young and the other old. The story looks at similarities found in each life stage, and the inevitable bleed-over.
Rosewater has an authority figure in the person of the Section Head, who is female.The Section Head’s gender is of interest. During the interview, Tade said he felt women had more of a grasp of what is going on: a capacity to perceive and understand the bigger picture. He grew up in a house of women. The women around Tade were competent at a lot more things, from the social relationships that keep a family together to the responsibilities men are conventionally associated with, such as the time Tade’s mother put out a fire in the house before the fire brigade got there. When creating such female characters, Tade says: ‘I am writing what I know.’
This concept of diffused but effective power finds another expression in the alien entity of Rosewater, which was inspired in part by The Andromeda Strain. Michael Crichton’s novel describes how an extra-terrestrial virus is collected by accident by an orbital probe and then released on Earth with devastating results. Tade liked the idea of aliens who don’t arrive by spaceship, ascribing agency to the alien spores, and considering what kind of bugs they would be. Rosewater depicts a biological invasion: a cellular preparing of the way. It is delivered with a scattershot approach to include as many worlds as possible, rather than choosing Earth specifically; indeed, the aliens might not even know Earth exists.
At the BSFA, Tade explained he was not interested in traditional ‘fight the invading aliens’ narratives. He believes war stories reflect earthly rather than alien concerns, particularly the failure to imagine a scenario involving a meeting of cultures that does not end in fighting. Perhaps the idea of the devastating alien invasion comes from history, because our first contact narratives have always been evil; in Nigeria for example, the British wiped out entire villages. The War of the Worlds scenario is an expression of guilt as much as paranoia.
Tade also explores the subject of a territory as defined by porous boundaries in his novella The Murders of Molly Southbourne. Instead of projecting problems psychologically, which everyone does all the time, the book is about what happens when these metaphors come to life and try to kill us. The story concerns our daily mental battles, and an unwillingness to confront difficult psychological truths.
These ways of defining individuality relate to Tade’s views on world building. At the BSFA, he explained how he thinks the SFF community fetishizes world building because of the success of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, despite the book’s problematic depiction of subjects like race. In his own work, Tade prefers to focus on character, building each person’s subjective world around them instead of imposing a single over-arching realm.
He believes the ways we are treated by society change how we see that society, and his experience bears this view out. In Nigeria, he is not part of an ethnic minority; in London, he is the same person, but needs to be careful where he goes, particularly on match days. There is a shift in perspective that is not a choice he makes, but which is imposed upon him. In America, these conditions are even harsher; Tade describes merely existing there as a black person is an ‘extreme sport’.
The next Rosewater book deals with the US, or rather the lack of it given that in a previous volume the country was wiped out. Tade describes the difficulty of reaching an audience that cannot conceive of a situation where it is not the centre of everything. Even negating America is talking about America, not least because the book features American refugees.
He plans to write a novel set in a future Africa – a contemporary fantasy based on Yoruba creation myths, whose Earth Magic-inspired stories have not yet been represented in genre fiction.
In the interview, he said that selling any kind of fiction is about educating the audience, and the audience is better educated now than in 2001. He recalls the cringeable scene in Independence Day with the alien spaceship in flames behind some Africans who were carrying spears, as if they’d used those instead of nukes to bring the invader down. We are less likely to get that kind of scene now, so there has been some progress, and SF readers are happier to look at genre stories inspired by different Earth cultures.
There is inevitable pushback due to what Tade said is a result of the old conservative guard feeling threatened; that old atavistic behaviour will spike before it changes. He feels this process is quite normal, and is not worried about it. He explained how the opinion that black people don’t read and write SF was prevalent as recently as 2009, even though writers like Nnedi Okorafor had already published a significant body of work.
Attitudes like these seem to Tade to be part of the same ‘there can be only one’ narrative. In 2008 Tade was told that although his submission was good, the editor already had work by eight black people and, by implication, that was enough. This experience stopped Tade writing for a while; fortunately, Lavie Tidhar contacted Tade and requested the inclusion of a story in the World Science Fiction Blog. It is significant that Tade’s way back was a blog, because technology has democratised publishing and enabled a wider variety of voices, rather than the tokenistic inclusion of a small number of ‘representatives’.
Challenges remain, however, not all of them in the West. At the BSFA, Tade described how the publishing industry in Nigeria can be neither fair nor supportive of new writers. A friend sent him a contract and asked for advice; the contract was atrocious, with the publisher retaining all rights including subsidiary rights in perpetuity for a tiny advance. The decision was not straightforward, however, because Tade could not think where else the work could be sent. If you write professionally, then whoever is selling your book dictates what you write, so the West still influences what African authors write simply by controlling a large share of the market through its more established publishing system.
The BSFA’s Monthly London Meetings are FREE!
Where: The Artillery Arms (upstairs), 102 Bunhill Row, London, EC1Y 8ND
As technology gets smarter and smarter, the human brain is forced to reflect on itself in the mirror of the future and question what value it will have in a world in which wet tech, cerebral hacking and commodified consciousness could reign. A world not of enhancement or augmentation, but replacement. Authors will enquire what the future of our most precious organ will be, while they still have one. Virtual Futures
The Skull Is More Transparent Than We Think
Science fiction theatre at Hampstead Downstairs, London.
Bea meets Aaron. He’s intelligent, handsome, makes her laugh and, most importantly, has a high rating on his genetic profile. What’s not to like?
Char is on the brink of landing her dream job and has big plans to start a family – but her blood rating threatens it all.
In a world where future happiness depends on a single, inescapable blood test – which dictates everything from credit rating to dating prospects – how far will people go to beat the system and let nature take its course?
Apparently, some of the technologies that The Phlebotomist presupposes are already here, it was disconcerting noticing the Tube ad for a blood testing company called Medichecks right after seeing the play:
Andrew Wallace will be interviewing Dr Susan Gray about the power of science fiction theatre, interactive poetry and writing for augmented reality at the British Science Fiction Association this Wednesday 23 May at the Artillery Arms, 102 Bunhill Row, London, EC1Y 8ND; doors 6.30pm for a 7.15pm start. Entry is free.
Virtual Futures: Tomorrow’s Wars – 17th April 2018
Inspiration & Terror by Andrew Wallace
Virtual Futures began in the early 1990s, when writers, thinkers, performers and scientists got together at Warwick University to grapple with the implications of technological changes sweeping society. Now that we are in that feared and fabled future, a new incarnation of Virtual Futures has been taking place in London. At the inception, one of the most popular elements of the events, or ‘salons’ as they are known, proved to be a short piece of science fiction written and read by science fiction author Stephen Oram. These pieces were so popular that science fiction got its own night within Virtual Futures, with Stephen as the curator. Mixing fiction specially written around the evening’s theme with keynote introductions by noted speakers often prominent scientists in the relevant field, the nights are unlike any other science fiction event in London.
April’s Salon explored the future of warfare, asking these crucial questions:
War has, so far, been inevitable throughout human history – but what will the future of conflict or cooperation look like? Will the discoveries of the future lead us to a world without violent disagreement, or just result in us killing one another in more creative ways? Continue reading “Virtual Futures: Tomorrow’s Wars”
Here are a few of the recent history of science fiction overviews that are available in audio format.
Gary K. Wolfe’s 24-lecture series as also available as video lectures. David Seed’s introduction is the most succinct – it is about 5 hours as opposed to about 12 hours for each of ‘The Great Courses’ series.
By Dilman Dila
Last year, after a long wait, I got a chance to see Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s Naked Reality, which he describes as an afrofuturistic/sci-fi. Shot in black and white, it is a time-travel tale in which the protagonist searches for her identity, this being allegorical for a continent’s search for its identity. Like his earlier films, including Les Saignantes (2005), it does not use visual effects or mise-en-scène to portray the future. But while strong storytelling with an offbeat style carried his previous works, Naked Reality turned out to be difficult to watch. Its website suggests it “is a new science-fiction interactive and collaborative cinema concept where we make feature films with a story as usual but take out certain aspects like sets, music, dialogues, costumes…” While there is a call for collaboration, it is not clear if it would mean re-editing this film. What made it drag was the miming, the near complete lack of sets, and the attempt to compensate using overlays, where two video clips are blended together – kind of the cinematographic equivalent of Instagram filters – creating a style more suitable to music videos. If ten years ago a lack of props or effects could be a consequence of low budget, today, more resources are available to a filmmaker, especially in a collaborative venture, and there is free software to achieve photorealistic visual effects.
One such software is Unity. In 2016, the company behind it made a short film, Adam (available on YouTube), to showcase its cinematic creation tools and to test out the graphical quality achievable. Adam is short and sweet to look at, though does not have much of a story. The main protagonist, a prisoner, wakes up in a robot’s body along with scores of others. They meet a mystical figure, who leads them away into a bleak horizon. In 2017, Unity partnered with Neill Blomkamp – the South African director well-known for District 9 – to make two sequels to Adam, where we learn of a government called The Consortium, which harvests the body parts of prisoners but, rather than kill them, puts their brains in robots, for unknown but possibly legal or even mercantile reasons. I like the series so far, and although both plot and character development are still thin, it is a visual joy.
Neill will be making more episodes of Adam alongside other short films in his own Oats Studios, which he set up to develop ideas without years of waiting for Hollywood. The first film he made was Rakka, set in a dystopian, post alien-invasion world. The obsession of seeing aliens as the evil other echoes colonialist era fears (e.g. H.G Well’s War of the Worlds) but also resonates with anti-immigration sentiments of today. Rakka features Sigourney Weaver, whose great performance failed to save the film from a clichéd plot that does not add anything new to an alien invasion narrative.
I thought other Oats Studios films would be similar, but was pleasantly surprised. Firebase starts off like an alien-contact film, and ends up something like a revenge-ghost story, with US soldiers in Vietnam encountering something called the River God. Like the other shorts from Oats Studios, Firebase could develop into a feature film, and a recent tweet from Neill suggests he is planning to crowdfund its production – this might explain its abrupt and unresolved ending.
Zygote is the film I liked the most. Though it also seems to be the first twenty minutes of a feature, it works beautifully as a stand-alone short. It’s a sick horror, a good old-fashioned monster tale redolent of Frankenstein, and it may be difficult for some people to watch. I liked the monster very much because it reminded me of Amos Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and the awesome “flash-eyed mother,” which is a ghost made up of “millions of heads which were just like a baby’s head,” each with two hands and two eyes that shone day and night. Zygote gripped me right from the start, and the suspense did not relent. It is set in an asteroid mining operation, and the story opens with two survivors from a catastrophe that is never fully explained, though we deduce it coincided with the creation of the monster. One survivor is a slave, an orphan bought in her infancy, and the other a synthetic human, who sacrifices himself to help the orphan escape. Like most of Neil’s films, this one is very entertaining, and yet still packs in social issues, in this case genetic engineering and a critique of corporate capitalism.
DILMAN DILA IS THE AUTHOR OF A CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES, A KILLING IN THE SUN. HE HAS BEEN LISTED IN SEVERAL PRESTIGIOUS PRIZES, INCLUDING THE GERALD KRAAK AWARD (2016), BBC INTERNATIONAL RADIO PLAYWRITING COMPETITION (2014), AND THE COMMONWEALTH SHORT STORY PRIZE (2013). HIS FILMS INCLUDE WHAT HAPPENED IN ROOM 13 (2007), WHICH HAS ATTRACTED OVER SIX MILLION VIEWS ON YOUTUBE, AND THE FELISTAS FABLE (2013), NOMINATED FOR BEST FIRST FEATURE AT AFRICA MOVIE ACADEMY AWARDS (2014), AND WINNER OF FOUR MAJOR AWARDS AT UGANDA FILM FESTIVAL (2014). HIS SECOND FEATURE FILM IS HER BROKEN SHADOW (2017), A SCIFI SET IN A FUTURISTIC AFRICA. MORE OF HIS LIFE AND WORKS ARE AT DILMANDILA.COM
From How to Suppress Women’s Writing, by Joanna Russ
I HAVE A VISION. The streets of midtown Manhattan are filled with all of the professors, professional critics, editors, and judges of award panels. They are all dressed in their ill-fitting suits—they could afford better tailoring but that of course would indicate to their audience that something like beauty is important—but they are tearing them off to replace them with sackcloth. They are on their knees, they are decorating themselves in ashes.
Slowly they crawl out of their blue glass skyscrapers, their suburban commuter rail stations, their off-campus housing to join the mass. It’s not a howl that you hear but a low, unceasing moan. A few, the more dramatic and in need of attention of the group, flog themselves with branches and nylon rope. All of these men, all of these white men, every man who ever told a publishing assistant at a party while pinning her to the wall “you know I am in an open marriage,” every man who ever used the word “histrionic” to describe a woman’s memoir, “articulate” to describe a black man’s performance, or spent two paragraphs speculating about the body of a trans writer in what was supposed to be a review of their work, every professor who used Kanye lyrics in a lecture to show he was with it but taught an all white syllabus, every man who has referred to a Bronte or Emily Dickinson or James Baldwin as a “minor” writer, they are all here.
They have come to atone. They have come to ask for absolution. They have been forced into an encounter with their unconscious, they have finally seen the truth of their bias, the need they have had to believe anyone not of their demographic was a charlatan or a bore, and they have been laid low by this information.The sidewalks are crowded with all they have dismissed and betrayed. Everyone who has been marginalized and written out of the history of literature. They are interested in the spectacle, but skeptical. They have seen this type of performance before, this display of “how could I have been so wrong?”—it was always followed by either a return to previous behavior with slight modifications or an attempt to get laid. But they are transfixed by the image, and they find themselves disappointed that they are still capable of hope, hope that finally they will be seen for their true selves and not through these men’s projections.
When the men finally reach the water, they toss their clothes onto the bonfires that have been burning all night. The stench of burning polyester fills the air. “Forgive us,” they cry, as they hand over their positions to the spectators and write letters of resignation. “We didn’t realize.”