Ten Years, Ten Books

By Paul Kincaid.

What a long strange decade it has been. Ten years ago it looked as if social democracy was in the ascendant around the world; today, populist, nationalist, right-wing governments are in power in Britain, the USA, Australia, Israel, India, Hungary, Italy and elsewhere. The world has become a scary, unwelcoming, unpleasant place to live. Politicians took the voters for granted, and voters became tired and disdainful of the politicians, so real life is coming more and more to resemble the dystopias we used to read. Which may be why there are no dystopias on my list of the ten books that I have chosen as representative of the last ten years in science fiction.

Which is not to suggest that politics is absent from the list. Far from it, in fact I begin with what is, I think, the most politically acute novel science fiction has produced this decade: Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson (2014). Published two years before the Brexit referendum, it captures with uncanny prescience the mood of fragmentation and disintegration that Brexit embodies. Startlingly, the three subsequent volumes, which I don’t think Hutchinson had even conceived at the time he wrote the first book, maintain the awareness and the quality of the first. And in the final volume, Europe at Dawn (2018), there is a passage set among refugees on a Greek island that perfectly encapsulates the damage that fear of the other has done to Europe.

If the political reality of contemporary Europe is the fracturing of the body politic (as Brexit marks the detachment of Britain from Europe and threatens the detachment of Scotland and, perhaps, Northern Ireland from the disunited Kingdom); so the political reality of the USA seems to be the fracturing of the body, period. The resurgence of white supremacism and the growing attacks on America’s non-white citizens and communities (black, Hispanic, Jewish and Islamic) is the painful reality that lies behind The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016). After a bravura account of the realities of slavery, that festering sore on the soul of America, the novel takes us on an almost hallucinogenic tour of the various battlegrounds between white and black America. It is a disturbing book, but one it is impossible to look away from.

The Whitehead novel represents another feature of the past decade: the way that writers within the mainstream have become adept at using themes and motifs drawn from the fantastic. Examples include Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru (2012), The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (2014), and my particular favourite, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013). The way this novel has lodged immovably in my memory since I first encountered it means that it is a serious contender to be my book of the decade. The way the protagonist lives her life over and over again, struggling to survive and at the same time struggling to remake her world is extraordinarily powerful and moving. It was one of a number of novels around the middle of the decade, all by women, in which alternate history is made personal rather than political, about the way the individual encounters, changes and is changed by the world.

The fact that the Whitehead and the Atkinson were not published as science fiction, were perhaps not even perceived as science fiction by either author or publisher, is an indication that we need to keep our eyes on the margins to spot some of the more innovative and engaging works out there. One such, for me, was Radiomen by Eleanor Lerman (2016), a first novel from an American poet not previously notable for any engagement with genre. Set amid the grimy apartments, the unsocial hours, and the crackpot late-night radio shows of the New York working class, it is a story of tentative first contact with aliens as afraid, as uncertain, as downtrodden as the humans who learn of them. 

Lerman’s book is beautifully written and emotionally moving, but it is very straightforward in structure and voice. But I also take great pleasure in books that play with our expectations of structure and voice. Two very different works from the very beginning of the decade serve, for me, as an object lesson in how this can be done. The first is a slim volume called Kentauros by Gregory Feeley (2010), which is a collection of three short stories and three essays which are thematically linked around the legendary figure of the centaur. The staccato alternation between fiction and non-fiction demands a constant re-examination of what it is we are being told.

Another way of undermining our expectations, and forcing a constant critical re-examination of what we are reading, is on display in The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011). The novel presents itself as a gazetteer of the islands of the Dream Archipelago, but the more we trace echoes between the different entries the more impossible the book we are reading becomes. Characters are seen to be alive after they have reportedly died, others apparently fived 250 years in the past and in the present, add to this more jokes that we have previously encountered in any of Priest’s novels and it becomes a book that constantly catches us out.

The Islanders marked a late flowering that has seen more works from Priest than any decade since the 1970s; his contemporary, M. John Harrison, has been slightly less productive, but the decade did see the conclusion of his extraordinary Kefahuchi Tract Trilogy. Empty Space: A Haunting by M. John Harrison (2012) is an astonishing work that ties the three novels together while at the same time making us question everything we have previously been told. It takes the traditional form of a space opera, yet may have nothing to do with space at all. Like The Islanders and like Radiomen, it has the appearance of science fiction while jarring us out of the comfortable familiarity of science fiction.

Much the same can be said for The Rift by Nina Allan (2017), a novel that offers a series of explanations for the mysterious disappearance and reappearance at its heart, and then systematically undermines every one of them. Whether this is science fiction or crime or a story of psychological damage is entirely in the eye of the reader. At the heart of the novel, for instance, is a wonderful account of mundane, everyday life on an alien world that is utterly convincing and may not have a shred of truth. 

It is probably obvious by now that I have a particular taste for novels that make the reader work, that force us to question our assumptions, that lie somewhere in an ambivalent hinterland away from the safe familiarities of genre or mainstream. These are novels that do not take the expected turn, and that therefore are constantly fresh and new. I have re-read The Islanders several times in the decade since it appeared, and each time there is some novelty that takes me by surprise. For that reason, I was sorely tempted to include in this list The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts (2016), though I realised that I would probably end up saying exactly the same things that I said about Nina Allan or Gregory Feeley. Instead I turn to The Black Prince by Adam Roberts (2018), based on a script by Anthony Burgess, it is a curious vivid, bloody and exhilarating mix of historical novel and high modernism, filled with a sense that the boundaries of the real world are being breached at every turn.

Finally, we mustn’t forget that this has been a memorable decade for non-fiction about science fiction, from Pardon This Intrusion by John Clute (2011), perhaps his most essential collection of essays, to The History of Science Fiction by Adam Roberts (2nd edition, 2016), but the one I want to pick out is The Cambridge History of Science Fiction edited by Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link (2019). It has its flaws (with 46 essays in 800 pages, that is perhaps inevitable), there are errors of fact and what I would consider errors of interpretation, yet it is the most comprehensive history yet that treats science fiction as a truly global, multilingual literature. This is an important first step towards a very necessary reinterpretation of science fiction, and it is pointing the direction that the literature needs to take.


Paul Kincaid is a widely published critic, author, and editor. His recent books include Iain M. Banks (University of Illinois Press, 2017), and a collection of essays and reviews, Call and Response (Beacon, 2014). His next book, The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest, will be published by Gylphi in Spring 2020.

The Decade That Women Won

By Cheryl Morgan.

When the history of science fiction fandom in the 2010s is written, the key event to be discussed will doubtless be the Puppy War. That a group of right-wing fans should attempt to take over the Hugo Awards is perhaps not surprising. The 2010s are, after all, the decade in which it was conclusively proved that democratic systems are vulnerable to attack by malicious actors. That the attack failed is perhaps a testament to the strength of community sentiment within the SF&F community. But what is really surprising is what happened afterwards.

For the last three years of the decade, every single written fiction-related award in the Hugos was won by a woman.

Screenshot 2020-01-12 at 14.21.19
Hugo Winners

With any such exercise it is necessary to explain the methodology. My data comes from the Science Fiction Awards Database, maintained by Mark R Kelly for the Locus Foundation. The chart shows the percentage of awards won because the number of awards changes from year to year. The Hugo Award categories I have included are for Novel, Novella, Novelette, Short Story, Series and Graphic Story. In addition I have included the Astounding and Lodestar Awards. Although they are not Hugos, they are voted on by the same people through the same process and can therefore be assumed to be influenced by similar fan sentiment. With Graphic Story I have looked only at the person(s) credited as writers. Where more than one is credited I have recorded fractional data: so when Phil & Kaja Foglio won they got 0.5 wins each.

Dealing with gender is a little more complex because not everyone is public about their identities and there are no firm rules governing trans identities. I have counted people as non-binary if they show non-binary pronouns as an option in their Twitter bio. Binary-identified trans people have been included as men or women accordingly.

At the beginning of the decade most years showed a predominance of male winners, which has been the norm since the Hugos started. The main Puppy year is easily identified at 2015 because the total winners do not add up to 100% thanks to the use of No Award to prevent Puppy wins. And then, within a couple of years, women take over.

Men are still in with a chance. A look at the finalists data shows that they are there. It also shows the presence of non-binary finalists for the first time in the post-Puppy world.

Screenshot 2020-01-12 at 14.17.02
Hugo Finalists

However, we can also see that from 2017 onwards the majority of finalists are women. This is different from the early years when the numbers are roughly equal, or men dominate. 

In addition to the non-binary finalists listed there are a significant number of binary-identified trans people who have been finalists in the 2017-19 period. Charlie Jane Anders remains the only openly trans/non-binary person to have won a fiction Hugo (all of mine being for editing or fan writing). In the 2017-19 period trans and non-binary people made up 10%, 13% and 10% respectively of the finalists, which is well above the usual estimates for the number of such people in the general population.

The reasons why there has been this dramatic change in gender balance in the Hugos are impossible to discern without other data. Has the gender balance of the voters changed? Have publishers changed the gender balance of their output? Have more men suddenly started reading books by women? We can’t possibly say based on this data alone.

However, it is very clear that there has been a dramatic change. Back in the 1960s, only one fiction Hugo was won by a woman. That was “Weyr Search” by Anne McCaffrey in 1968, and she shared the Novella category with Philip Jose Farmer’s “Riders of the Purple Wage”.

So next time that someone tells you that science fiction is only for boys, show them these charts, because that very clearly isn’t true anymore.

Based in Bristol, Cheryl Morgan is a critic, author, editor, and publisher, and a winner of several Hugo Awards herself. Among the many splendid things Cheryl does are the fanzine Salon Futura and the SFF press Wizard’s Tower Press. She’s on Twitter as @cherylmorgan.

2019

By Ian R. MacLeod

It was a pleasure and a privilege to attend this year’s Worldcon in Dublin, and find myself surrounded by friendly, intelligent and well-informed people from across the globe, and in a European city which has clearly risen far above the sour heritage of its theocratic and colonial past. It was also great to meet the many Americans wearing I’m From The USA But I Didn’t Vote For Trump ribbons on their lanyards. What a shame so much of the rest of humanity doesn’t seem to be heading along the same path!

SF for me has always had its heart in the liberal values of the enlightenment, but perhaps right now, with truth seemingly regarded as a mere matter of opinion, and science as just another way of looking at the world, and with our planet heading toward ecological catastrophe as us humans stand passively by in a way which would never convince in any self-respecting novel or disaster movie, it’s time to speak to the future and the things that should matter with an even stronger and angrier voice. If this isn’t the signal for a new New Wave or Golden Age in the genre, I don’t know when we’ll ever get one.

Vector 290

Vector 290 is out:

Vector 290 version 8M

The last two issues of Vector had themes — #288’s ‘Future Economics’ and #289’s ‘African and Afrodiasporic SF’ — but this issue is once more a Deck of Many Things. Andrew Wallace reveals all about judging the Clarke Award. Christina Scholz recounts linguistic revolutions in Milton and Miéville. Stephen Baxter reflects on AI and Thunderbirds and Paul Kincaid discusses the late great Iain [M.] Banks. Katie Stone reviews Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now, while Vector Recommends brings you Paul Graham Raven on Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon and Nick Hubble on Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. We’ve got interviews with Emma Newman and Yoon Ha Lee, and glimpses from SF fandom around the world with reports from WorldCon 2019 and IceCon 2018. We hope you enjoy. 

Cover by Andrea Morreau.

A personal perspective on South African Comics: From Superheroes to Ordinary heroes

By Nick Wood 

The sun darkened and the sky burned. 

Sirens and smoke filled the air. 

I stood in my family’s garden in Pinelands, Cape Town, watching the red horizon blaze and shift, as the neighbouring black townships of Athlone, Langa, and Nyanga were consumed by bullets, tear-gas, and flames. The Soweto Uprising had swept down from Jo’burg in 1976, from a nationwide youth protest opposing the teaching of Afrikaans in schools – which had been met with brutal police killings.

To me, then, as a young white teenage male, facing military conscription, it was as if the whole world could go up in flames.

Not known to me at the time, though, was that the destruction in Soweto included the burning down of the publishing house Africomic. Africomic was the home of South Africa’s first black comics superhero, Mighty Man. 

The Mighty Man stories unravelled over seventeen issues, featuring the exploits of a policeman called Danny Ndhlomo, who was injected with a secret alien serum. The serum gave him superhuman strength and speed … and he became Mighty Man. 

Superheroes often have secret identities. In the case of Mighty Man, there was a lot more than met the eye. Mighty Man was funded by the Apartheid government, with money shifted from the Defence budget [1].

Continue reading “A personal perspective on South African Comics: From Superheroes to Ordinary heroes”

Afro- versus African futurism in Nnedi Okorafor’s “The Magical Negro” and “Mother of Invention”

By Päivi Väätänen Vector289_Cover

This article first appeared in Vector 289

Adilifu Nama notes how “[i]n America, there is a dubious history of presenting Africa as a primitive and backward nation in books, television and film” (137). But with the emergence of writers like Nnedi Okorafor and films like Black Panther, the association of Africa with technology is changing rapidly. In this article, I discuss two short stories by Okorafor, a Nigerian-American who has based much of her fiction in Africa and has also written for Marvel Comics (most recently as the sole writer for Shuri). The two stories I will discuss are “The Magical Negro” (2004) and “Mother of Invention” (2018). “The Magical Negro” is a comic vignette in which the central character rebels against his subservient role, referred to in the title, and is revealed by the end of the story as a powerful Afro-Caribbean spirit. “The Magical Negro” subverts stereotypes and exposes racist conventions in the speculative genres of fantasy and science fiction. “Mother of Invention,” on the other hand, severs ties with the Anglo American historical context by moving its storyworld to the futuristic, technologically advanced Nigerian city of New Delta.

During the fourteen years between the two stories, much has changed in the field of speculative fiction, and these stories reflect it. Okorafor insists in a recent Native interview that what she does is “Africanfuturism, not Afrofuturism” (Okolo et al. n.p.). Whereas “The Magical Negro” can be read as an Afrofuturist text in its engagement with American culture via direct critique of stereotypes and racist genre conventions, “Mother of Invention” more strongly suggests the newer designation of Africanfuturism, rooted both geographically and culturally on the continent.

Africa and Technology in American SF

Africa was a marginalized presence within ‘Golden Age’ Anglo-American science fiction, and to a large extent the decades that followed. African countries are seldom mentioned at all, still less in connection with novel social or technological developments. In a canon dominated by white Americans and Europeans, Africa was taken to represent an exotic and alien place. Mike Resnick in his 1993 introduction to Under African Skies, a collection of short stories about Africa, typifies this attitude when he writes that Africa “now provides thoroughly documented examples of some of the most fascinating people and societies any writer, searching for the new and the different and the alien, could hope to find” (qtd. in Saunders 402). Charles Saunders, a Canadian speculative fiction writer, criticizes Resnick’s exoticization of Africa and urges black writers to take control: “We blacks have more than made our mark in the Western world’s popular culture. […] We need to provide alternatives to the stereotypes that continue to plague us within that mythology. After all, if we don’t unleash our imaginations to tell our own sf and fantasy stories, people like Mike Resnick will tell them for us” (404). This is what Africanfuturist writers like Okorafor are doing. As the cultural producers of SF grow slowly more diverse, people of colour have finally begun to populate narratives of the future, some of which are firmly centered on Africa.

According to many definitions of science fiction, science and technology are fundamental to the genre (see e.g. Roberts 2). It could well be that the perceived disaffinity between technology and Africa (and the African diaspora) in the racist Anglo-American imaginary also played a significant part in the exclusion of Africa from Anglo-American speculative fiction. As Samuel R. Delany notes, “[t]he flashing lights, the dials, and the rest of the imagistic paraphernalia of science fiction functioned as social signs — signs people learned to read very quickly. They signaled technology, and technology was like a placard on the door saying, ‘boys club! Girls, keep out. Blacks and Hispanics and the poor in general, go away!’” (Dery 188.) Delany himself, though, has frequently incorporated technology into his science fiction, becoming one of the progenitors of cyberpunk with his visions of cyborg bodies and neural interfaces. In addition to technology being a distancing factor, the association of science fiction and the future itself could have had a similar effect: Delany ponders that African Americans may have been “impoverished in terms of future images… because, until fairly recently, as a people we were systematically forbidden any images of our past” (Dery 190-1).

During the last couple of decades, though, some progress has been made in countering these stereotypes and misuses. Isiah Lavender speculates that “[p]erhaps the ultimate dream science fiction holds out for African Americans is the prospect for freedom of social transformation through science fiction and technology” (63). This is manifested especially in Afrofuturism, an aesthetic movement in which technology, Africa, America, and science fiction all constructively converge. Africanfuturism is more independent of American discourse and hence Okorafor nowadays describes her work as belonging to this tradition. Let us first explore the concept of Afrofuturism in the context of Okorafor’s earlier story “The Magical Negro,” and then consider a shift in her work that illuminates ideas behind Africanfuturism.

Consider the question that Namwali Serpell asks in her discussion of Afrofuturism: “Whence the ‘Afro’ in ‘Afrofuturism’?” (n.p.). The term Afrofuturism is often attributed to Mark Dery, who first used it when interviewing Samuel Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose in the early 1990s. Dery described Afrofuturism as “[s]peculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture — and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future” (180). In Dery’s definition the “Afro” prefix thus actually refers to African American, and not necessarily to the continent of Africa. Some later scholars of Afrofuturism, however, have included Afrocentrism in their definitions. Ytasha Womack, for example, describes Afrofuturism not just as a mode of signification but as basis for a critical theory:

an intersection of imagination, technology, the future, and liberation […]. Both an artistic aesthetic and a framework for critical theory, Afrofuturism combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs. In some cases, it’s a total reenvisioning of the past and speculation about the future rife with cultural critiques.

(Womack 9).

According to Womack, the theory’s aim is to “redefine culture and notions of blackness for today and for the future” (9). Even though Afrocentricity, as Womack mentions, is an important part of this artistic movement, Afrofuturism is nonetheless located in the diaspora and entwined with its histories, turning to science-fictional tropes of alienation, for example, to discuss the trauma of slavery in America (Eshun 298-300).

It is also worth noting that Afrofuturism applies to a wide range of cultural production, often wider than what is considered science fiction. As Isiah Lavender points out, “Afrofuturism is its own aesthetic register that ‘merely’ borrows from the sf tradition by adopting some science-fictional motifs such as the alien encounter of time travel to explore black life — past, present, and future — as well as how technology impacts black people” (38). Afrofuturism is found in many genres, artistic mediums and critical frameworks. Science fiction is just one of many fields where Afrofuturism has reached its roots. As Womack notes, in addition to science fiction, Afrofuturism is nourished by fantasy, history, magic realism, science and traditional belief systems.

Peter J. Mauritz contemplates in his article “The Emergence of African Science Fiction” the relationship between decolonization and African science fiction, wondering whether the proliferation of African science fiction could “be understood as facilitated by a form of decolonization of SF” or, conversely, whether it could be thought of as an act of “decolonization of SF” (10). Decolonization of science fiction involves more than inclusion of new voices: it also involves recognition, criticism and dismantling of stereotypes (and ways of reading) that echo and assist (neo)colonial projects, and aims to bring forth a reconstruction of new identities and frameworks. Therefore decolonization of SF is also a relevant context for the two short stories discussed here. I’d like to suggest that Okorafor’s “The Magical Negro,” with its unflinching commentary on the genre’s lack of diversity, is actively facilitating the decolonization of genre by attacking narrative expectations in need of dismantling, whereas “Mother of Invention” is a manifestation of an Africanfuturist, decolonized narrative that offers a reconstructed identity.

“The Magical Negro”

Okorafor’s story “The Magical Negro” plays primarily on epic fantasy tropes. As such, there is little in the way of advanced technology, and references to Africa are oblique. Nevertheless, it invites an Afrofuturist reading, especially in the sense that this story is “redefin[ing] culture and notions of blackness” (Womack 9). In her treatment of stereotypes, Okorafor employs an artistic strategy described by Shawan M. Worsley as “strategically employ[ing] pre-existing, typically racist narratives of black identity in order to dislodge them from their position of dominance” (3). The titular character is introduced to the story as an embodiment of the racist stock character, which, according to Hughey, “often appears as a lower class, uneducated black person who possesses supernatural or magical powers. These powers are used to save and transform disheveled, uncultured, lost, or broken whites (almost exclusively white men) into competent, successful, and content people within the context of the American myth of redemption and salvation” (544). The trope is problematic not because of the stock figure’s impeccable insights or magic powers per se, but because of their one-dimensionality, and their compulsory auxiliary status. Okorafor herself describes this stock figure as one who “seems to have nothing better to do than help the white protagonist, who is often a stranger to the Magical Negro at first [and then] disappears, dies, or sacrifices something of great value after or while helping the white protagonist” (“Stephen King’s” n.p.). However, the Magical Negro in Okorafor’s short story revolts mid-way through the narrative, refusing to be defined by the racist stereotypes or his subservient role in a stereotypical narrative. The short narrative of “The Magical Negro” depicts two very stereotypical but different fantastic characters: Lance the Brave (called Thor in the first publication), and the Magical Negro, at first depicted from Lance’s perspective and referred to as “the African.” From the opening line, there is subversion: Lance the Brave’s bravery is immediately undermined as he is seen “panicking” on the edge of a cliff, pursued by dark shadows. He holds his long, silver-handled sword high, waiting for the shadows to reach him, but then we see “a tear falling down his rosy cheek” (91) — an image more reminiscent of a princess in distress in a fairytale than of a legendary knight or potent god preparing for battle. Later on in the story, he is described as vain and rather simple-minded, not knowing how to operate the magic amulet he possesses.

While the white hero’s mediocrity is being established, the narrative also focuses on derogative stereotypes concerning blackness. First, it exposes and exaggerates to the point of parody the negative associations of darkness that are commonly found in epic fantasy: in addition to a graphic description of the horribly painful way of devouring their victims, the dark shadows are characterized as “horrible black things,” springing from “the heart of darkness in the forbidden zone” (91) and “leaving only rotten, filthy blackness behind them” (92) as they progress towards Lance. It is at this moment that the Magical Negro appears, and the blackness of his skin is equated with the darkness of the shadows: when Lance opens his eyes after saying his last prayer, he is startled to see that “[s]tanding before the approaching shadows was an equally dark figure” (92). Lance perceives the Magical Negro with a racist gaze, equating dark skin with darkness and evil. Seen through Lance’s eyes, the narrative describes the Magical Negro’s appearance, his lips, skin and hair as “horrible,” “deformed,” and “corrupted” (93).

At first, true to his stock character role, the Magical Negro stands between the approaching dark shadows and Lance, and tries to help the white protagonist by explaining how to use the amulet. Lance is unable to concentrate or understand what his savior is telling him, and, due to his inaction, the shadows reach the Magical Negro, and start to devour him. This is a turning point. Instead of sacrificing himself for Lance, the protagonist gets rightfully angry: “My ass comes here to save his ass and after I tell him what he needs to do, I get sixed? Whatchu think I am? Some fuckin’ shuckin’, jivin’ happy Negro still dying for the massa ‘cause my life ain’t worth shit?” (93). Saving his own life, he shoves Lance off the cliff.

The linguistic shift at this point in the narrative is significant: as long as the Magical Negro was in his conventional narrative role as a minor self-sacrificing character, he spoke in Lance’s variety of English. The moment of mutiny is reflected in the switch to AAVE, and a sense that the Magical Negro is using language to express what he wants, how he wants it. As he takes over the narrative that was initially focalized through Lance, he becomes the one who defines his identity and its context. He picks up his black coat, top hat, smokes his cigar and “laugh[s] a wheezy laugh” (94) — all characteristics typical of a Haitian Vodou spirit Baron Samedi (Hanna 70).

To liberate himself from the role of the Magic Negro, the protagonist paradoxically embraces the title and flexes the powers of the Magic Negro. As Shawan Worsley suggests, stereotypes can be reclaimed: deployed in an elusive, resistive, détourned, and generative ways, to create works that “embody and revise stereotypical and demeaning imagery […] to present a counter-narrative that empowers contemporary black people” (3). The Magic Negro may not have completely transcended the system of racist stock figures, but he has come into his own as a spirit too powerful and free ever to be controlled by how others perceive him. Throwing the role of the idealized and subservient Magical Negro into the abyss with Lance, he walks away as a vodou spirit, not only replacing the white protagonist as the main character of the narrative, but orchestrating a shift in the mythological basis of the narrative’s storyworld; whereas “Lance the Brave” suggests an Arthurian mythos (and “Thor the Brave” perhaps a Scandinavian one),  the story ends by hinting at a collision between Afro-Caribbean mythology and the Tolkienian world of “hobbits, castles, dragons, princesses, and all that other shit.” (In the first published version, this collision is less pronounced, with the epic fantasy world already mixed with modernity: “Hobbits, castles, Rastas, dragons, juke joints, princesses, and shit”).

Just before he strolls away into the forest to begin adventures of his own, the Magical Negro breaks the fourth wall. In a metafictional turn, he makes a direct address, giving the reader heads up that the genre world with its racist tropes will soon be made over: “All this bullshit you readin’ is ’bout to change. The Magical Negro ain’t getting his ass kicked around here no more” (94).  Okorafor is implying through this character that the time for the racist stereotypes is up and that African and Afrodiasporic traditions will be marginalised in the genre no more.

“Mother of Invention”

“Mother of Invention” (2018) narrative shares several features with the “Magical Negro.” It too begins with a character in mortal danger: this time it is Anwuli, a pregnant Nigerian woman confined inside her AI enabled house. Instead of ‘dark shadows,’ the lethal danger comes in a form of quickly approaching storm bringing clouds of pollen. The grass pollen to which pregnant Anwuli, and others, are fatally allergic is an unintended consequence of genetic modification experiments. Anwuli has been betrayed by her lover, who turned out to be married with children, and who ran off as soon as he learned she was expecting his baby. The heavily pregnant Anwuli knows that “she and her baby would probably be dead by morning” (n.p.). Like the Magical Negro in the beginning of the short story, Anwuli is marginalized by her community, ostracized and looked down upon by her family and neighbors alike because of her affair with a married man. The unlikely salvation here too comes from a character that sheds a subservient role, breaks with prevailing SF stereotypes, and assumes independent, positive agency; but in this case, the character in question is Obi 3, the AI that is controlling Anwuli’s smart home. It is possible to draw parallels between the Haitian Vodou spirit that becomes embodied in and thus saves the Magical Negro and AI ‘spirit’ of the house that rescues Anwuli. The epigraph to the short story is from Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin: “Error, fear, and suffering are the mothers of invention,” which sets the expectation that this short story will be about mistakes and hardship resulting in something new — and to a great degree this expectation is fulfilled. The inventions that save Anwuli and her child are made by the human and the AI working creatively together in desperate circumstances. Obi 3 has predicted the worsening of Anwuli’s allergies and also her stubbornness to leave the city of New Delta for a safer climate, and had made contingency plans.

The narrative first centers on Anwuli’s marginalization in her community. Her neighbor hurries away when he sees her, and “her friends [had] stopped talking to her. Even her sister and cousins who lived mere miles away blocked her on all social networks. When she went to the local supermarket, not one person would meet her eye” (n.p.). When she goes into labor and calls her parents, they do not pick up. It becomes clear that Obi 3 is the only friend and support Anwuli and the baby have. While Anwuli is certain that she and her baby will die in the storm, unbeknownst to her the smart house has prepared to protect her with fortifications and air filters, as well as modifications enabling them to rise above the storm on new “mechanized cushioning beams” and move to safety.

Technology in the short story is definitely African and specifically Nigerian. Both the GMOs and smart houses are represented in a way which firmly grounds them in local ecology and local history. There is no sense in “Mother of Invention” that any of the technology is an invention or an import from the West. When Star Wars is mentioned, it is only to reject its relevance as a cultural context: “Obi 3 was one of her now ex-fiancé’s personally designed shape-shifting smart homes. He’d built one for himself, one for his company, and this third one was also his, but Anwuli lived in it. And this house, which he’d named Obi 3 (not because of the classic Star Wars film but because obi meant “home” in Igbo, and it was the third one), was his smallest, most complex design.”.

What makes this story Africanfuturist is that Africans in the “Mother of Invention” are in charge of their own technological advances and their own technological mistakes. When international collaboration is invoked in the context of combatting the poisonous GM grasses, it is with China and not any of the European or American nations. Furthermore, “Mother of Invention” does not need to engage in redefining notions of blackness, as in the African context of the narrative, blackness is the default.

As the title of the short story suggests, technology is presented as closely tied to the feminine, and, in the case of smart homes, acting on behalf of women even when built or owned by men. The smart houses that have been built by Anwuli’s ex-fiancé Bayo turn out to be more sensitive to their female inhabitants’ needs; he realizes “almost every aspect” of the house’s mechanisms is “tuned to his wife’s preferences because it was she who spent the most time here” (n.p.). The short story ends with an ominous rumbling and shaking as Bayo’s marital home rises on its cushioning beams. We are left with Bayo regretting “mak[ing] these goddamn smart homes so smart,” holding on “for dear life” to his couch. The ending presents the AI of Bayo’s wife’s house as a new threat to Anwuli and her newborn: it has taken on the jealousy of Bayo’s wife and has started to pursue Anwuli’s house in vengeance.

Polina Levontin notes that in Nigerian science fiction there is a notable gender imbalance between male and female scientist characters (76). On a surface level, “The Mother of Invention” contributes to that imbalance, since both of the AI houses and the technology that underpins them are attributed to a male character, Bayo. However, “The Mother of Invention” is also a story in which the significance of technologies far exceeds the intentions of inventors and owners, as they interact with one another and with society in generative and unpredictable ways. The AIs are loyal not to Bayo but to his wife and to Anwuli. “I’ve listened to you,” Obi 3 says to Anwuli, “One day, you said you wished someone would protect you like you protected the baby.” Thus, in “Mother of Invention,” it is not a question of who has the technological knowledge, but whom the technology itself chooses to serve — one is tempted to use the word empathy, as there seems to be an emotional bond between Anwuli and Obi 3. Anwuli is taken care of, nurtured, empowered and saved by the smart house. Obi 3 even suggests a middle name for the baby, forging a still closer bond between the two. Obi 3 is a gendered technology; it is identified in the story as female, and hence we can also read the “Mother of Invention” as a feminist narrative about female friendship, companionship and survival in a patriarchal society.

Conclusion

Okorafor’s two short stories explored in this article illustrate the differences between Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism. “The Magical Negro” (2004) utilizes the ‘white gaze’ through the character of Lance and weaponizes stereotypes in American culture and uses them to expose — and explode — racist genre conventions. In the “Mother of Invention” (2018), written a decade and a half later, it is only Nigeria that matters. In the world of “Mother of Invention,” the West is left entirely outside the frame.

Ytasha Womack celebrates Afrofuturism as a force that “stretches the imagination far beyond the conventions of our time and the horizons of expectation, and kicks the box of normalcy and preconceived ideas out of the solar system. Whether it’s sci-fi story lines or radical eccentricity, Afrofuturism inverts reality. Afrofuturists write their own stories” (16). Africanfuturist narratives like “Mother of Invention” take one step further: when writing their own stories, they can cut ties with the West, with the “reality” that needs to be “inverted,” and establish a new normalcy that is not dependent on comparisons with Eurocentric, racist and colonialist traditions of Anglo American science fiction. By replacing the (Anglo) American context in their fiction with an African one, africanfuturist writers like Okorafor are expanding and radically transforming the worlds of speculative fiction to be more representative of the world we live in.

References

Dery, Mark. “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.” Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994. 179-222.

Eshun, Kodwo. “Further Considerations of Afrofuturism.” The New Centennial Review 3:2 (2003), 287-302.

Hanna, Judith Lynne. Dance, Sex, and Gender: Signs of Identity, Dominance, Defiance, and Desire. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Lavender, Isiah III. Race in American Science Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.

Levontin, Polina. “Scientists in Nigerian Science Fiction.” The Evolution of African Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ed. Francesca T. Barbini. N.p.: Luna Press, 2018. 71-95.

Maurits, Peter J. “On the Emergence of African Science Fiction.” The Evolution of African Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ed. Francesca T. Barbini. N.p.: Luna Press, 2018. 1-28.

Nama, Adilifu. “Brave Black Worlds: Black Superheroes as Science Fiction Ciphers.” African Identities 7:2 (2009), 133–144.

Okolo, Edwin, Toye Sokunbi and Tomiwa Isiaka. “The NATIVE Exclusive: Nnedi Okorafor on Africanfuturism and the Challenges of Pioneering.” November 5, 2018. thenativemag.com/interview/native-exclusive-nnedi-okorafor-Africanfuturism-challenges-pioneering/

Okorafor-Mbachu, Nnedi. “The Magical Negro.” Dark Matter: Reading the Bones. Ed. Sheree R. Thomas. New York: Warner, 2004. 91-94.

Okorafor, Nnedi. “Stephen King’s Super-Duper Magical Negroes.” Strange Horizons. 25 October 2004. strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/articles/stephen-kings-super-duper-magical-negroes.

“Mother of Invention.” Slate.com slate.com/technology/2018/02/mother-of-invention-a-new-short-story-by-nnedi-okorafor.html

Roberts, Adam. The History of Science Fiction. 2nd ed. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Serpell, Namwali. “Africa Has Always Been Sci-Fi: On Nnedi Okorafor and a New Generation of Afrofuturists.” Literary Hub. 1 April 2016. lithub.com/africa-has-always-been-sci-fi/

Womack, Ytasha L. Afrofuturism : The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2013.

Worsley, Shawan M. Audience, Agency and Identity in Black Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 2010.


Päivi Väätänen
is a doctoral candidate at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and she is currently working on her doctoral dissertation on genre and identity politics in African American science fiction. She has published on narrative ethics and the phenomenon of Afrofuturism.

Vibranium, Nigerium, and the Elements of a Pessimistic Afrofuturism

By Kate HarlinVector289_Cover

This article first appeared in Vector 289.

In his debut short fiction collection, We Won’t Fade Into Darkness, Nigerian writer TJ Benson imagines a post-apocalyptic Nigeria. Several of the stories trace the apocalypse to the same inciting moment: the release of a previously unknown element dubbed Nigerium into the air, after its discovery deep beneath the Nigerian soil where crude oil had been completely extracted. Taking a single story from Benson’s collection — “Jidenna” — as my example, in this essay I will explore WWFID’s technologically advanced but politically pessimistic vision of an African future. Furthermore, I will use another ostensibly Afrofuturist work from 2018, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther adaptation, to consider the place of Afro-pessimism within the paradigm of Afrofuturism.

We Won’t Fade Into Darkness was released by Parrésia Books, a small Nigerian press, in 2018. Benson, a writer and photographer based in Abuja, has gained notoriety within Nigerian literary circles, but is not (yet) known to an international audience. His collection is specifically located within Nigeria, rather than a vague or fictionalized African city, and this specificity of place is especially crucial to his story “Jidenna.”

Pessimistic Afrofuturism?

“Jidenna” is titled for the young man at its center, but the story’s true protagonist is Jidenna’s unnamed “Father.” The two live in an improvised shelter built into the crumbling Nyanya Bridge in a post-apocalyptic version of the Nigerian capital of Abuja. The story-world is in many ways a hyperbolic imagining of inequality and social segregation in an African city: post-apocalypse, futuristic technology coexists with poverty and political tyranny. In the case of “Jidenna,” women have gained control of and developed reproductive technology to the extent that men are rendered biologically unnecessary. The matriarchal regime, led by a series of woman rulers referred to only as “Mama,” has subjugated men into mainly domestic and reproductive roles within The Citadel, forcing those men who do not comply (including Jidenna’s father) into hiding. Struggling to cope in this post-apocalyptic society, Father has grown addicted both to alcohol and to his Zivini, an augmented reality helmet that infuses the user’s blood with a less dangerous form of the Nigerium isotope, allowing him to travel to the past, apparently by using their genetic material.

There are two distinct and potentially contradictory terms that can both be useful in understanding “Jidenna,” Black Panther, and the resonances between them. Afro-pessimism is a critical paradigm that values the interrogation of racist and imperialist structures in society, but is skeptical as to whether dismantling them is an achievable goal. Jared Sexton explains it thus:

“Afro-Pessimism is thus not against the politics of coalition simply because coalitions tend systematically to render supposed common interests as the concealed particular interests of the most powerful and privileged elements of the alliance… [But also] because coalitions require a logic of identity and difference, of collective selves modeled on the construct of the modern individual, an entity whose coherence is purchased at the expense of whatever is cast off by definition.”

In other words, Afro-Pessimism seeks to critique politics based around a “we” — even the best kind of “we,” made up of marginalized people united in the pursuit of justice. In any identity-based coalition there will almost always be some contingent that is relatively marginalized, so that even when the coalition succeeds, it simply succeeds in replacing one unjust system with another. Moreover, each of us has many aspects to our identity, and a coalition always demands a suppression of some of these aspects so that, as Sexton puts it, “there is in effect always another intervention to be made on behalf of some aspect of the group excluded in the name of the proper.” Nevertheless, the Afro-Pessimist paradigm is not defeatist. Nor does it argue that working together is futile. However, it is a powerful tool for analyzing the shortcomings of movements predicated on liberating marginalized people, especially global Black populations. Continue reading “Vibranium, Nigerium, and the Elements of a Pessimistic Afrofuturism”

Afrofuturism in clipping.’s Splendor & Misery

By Jonathan Hay10-Splendor Misery-and-Clipping

This academic article first appeared in Vector 289.

This article examines the manner by which clipping.’s 2016 album Splendor & Misery—a conceptual hip-hop space opera—freely enlists and reclaims texts from the African cultural tradition in order to manifest its Afrofuturist agenda. A countercultural movement characterised by a dynamic understanding of the narrative authority held by texts, Afrofuturism rewrites African culture in a speculative vein, granting African and Afrodiasporic peoples a culturally empowered means of writing their own future. The process by which Afrofuturism reclaims and rewrites culture is paralleled within Splendor & Misery through the literary device of mise en abyme; just as the album itself does, its central protagonist rewrites narratives of African cultures and traditions in an act of counterculture.

Introduction

In the sixty-five years since the Hugo Award was established, only two albums have been nominated to receive the prestigious science fiction accolade, and neither has won (Heller, 2018). One of the albums to have been nominated is clipping.’s Splendor & Misery (2016), an Afrofuturist concept album. It is especially fitting that this particular album was considered for an award traditionally dominated by literature and film, because, as an Afrofuturist text, Splendor & Misery problematises conventional conceptions of narrative authority. Through its Afrofuturist mode, the album can even be seen to transcend conventional Western considerations of medium altogether.

As John Cline concludes in a discussion of music and science fiction, aside from the soundtracks of films in the genre, Afrofuturist music is intriguingly the only facet of science fiction music ‘that has shown sustained critical investigation’ (Cline 261). Although the term Afrofuturism was coined in the 1990s, artists such as Sun Ra, Janelle Monáe, George Clinton, and Parliament-Funkadelic, have used music as an Afrofuturist medium for decades. Like many of these earlier Afrofuturist albums, Splendor & Misery extends and reimagines traditions of African and Afrodiasporic oral culture. At less than forty minutes in length, the album is crammed with language and narrative. Paul Gilroy suggests that the ‘power and significance of music’ in attempting to confront the terror and trauma of slavery has grown in ‘inverse proportion to the limited expressive powers of language’ (Gilroy 74). The rapid, semantically dense delivery on tracks such as ‘The Breach’ complicates this suggestion. Rather, Splendor & Misery fuses the powers of language with the powers of music, creating a new form of virtuoso, technologically-enabled storytelling, which employs a variety of flows and vocal performative techniques, and augments the human voice with a vast range of instrumental elements and production techniques. Its status as both a hip-hop album and a speculative narrative is further enriched by a cinematic element, both through immaculately sculpted soundscapes, and its frequent invocation of a visual imagination shaped by science fiction cinema. Continue reading “Afrofuturism in clipping.’s Splendor & Misery”

‘We have come to refuel your future’: Asphalt Afrofuturism and African Futurities

By Gemma Field

Vector289_Cover

An academic article that first appeared in Vector 289. It has been slightly updated since the print version.

This article takes as its starting point the wildly popular and commercially successful African science-fiction novel Lagoon, written by Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor. Lagoon is an ideal site in which to explore the environmental and political concerns that are common themes in the fantastical literature of West Africa, and to demonstrate the efficacy of broadly Afrofuturist aesthetics, both in problematising and reimagining environmental politics in modern Nigeria.

Lagoon tells the story of an alien invasion that unfolds on the shores of Lagos, Nigeria. The novel playfully subverts the structures of alien invasion science fiction, revitalising tired tropes by synthesising them with West African mythology and fantastic futurism. Against the backdrop of the ultra-urban, somewhat dysfunctional metropolis of her native Lagos, Okorafor draws attention to the consequences of neocolonial developmentalism in Nigeria. Lagoon examines in particular the toxic politics surrounding the country’s oil industry, politics that are bound up with what Rob Nixon refers to as “slow violence” (3). In these respects, Okorafor’s novel draws from a rich tradition of non-realist Anglophone African engagement with the consequences of neocolonial developmentalism: Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (1991), in which spirit-human interplay is complicated by the socially and environmentally disruptive imposition of a road that takes on a dangerous life of its own, is perhaps Lagoon’s closest antecedent; works such as Pepetela’s The Return of the Water Spirit (1995) and Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952) are also worth noting.

Lagoon follows the alien ambassador Ayodele as she establishes contact with an assortment of aquatic and terrestrial Earthlings. Ayodele promises that her people have no malevolent designs for Earth, asking only to assimilate while offering miraculous technology. Intersecting plotlines follow various characters (human, animal, and supernatural) who undergo fundamental changes because of the “radical new possibilities” (Okorafor, 269) that Ayodele and her people bring.

The aliens are a catalyst for change in the city of Lagos and its waters, plunging both into chaos while also bringing forth new forms of life and possibilities. Folkloric forces emerge in brief narrative interludes throughout the novel: the spider-trickster Udide and the mythical living masque Ijele are the most prominent. These ‘super-humans’ apparently discover Ayodele’s nature, and overcome a variety of fantastic and institutional obstacles in their attempts to resolve the crisis, eventually recruiting the President of Nigeria to their cause.

We also meet other non-human characters with their own rich histories, quirks, and agendas, including a “monstrous” (Okorafor, 21) swordfish, determined to destroy an offshore oil rig and given the power to do so by the aliens, and a sentient, predatory highway that calls itself the “Bone Collector.” It is these two characters I will focus on in this article. But before I turn to them, I first want to offer a very brief overview of Afrofuturism. Although Okorafor herself has rejected the label, certain aspects of Afrofuturist theory nevertheless remain a useful lens on her work. [See endnote.]

Continue reading “‘We have come to refuel your future’: Asphalt Afrofuturism and African Futurities”