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”

The Speculative Turn in African Literature

Guest editorial by Michelle Louise Clarke that appeared in Vector 289

Vector289_Cover

“Over the last two decades, Achimota City’s fast new geography had devoured Accra almost completely while at the same time most of the rest of the country had inexplicably vanished, land and all. Thus, by the year 2020 Achimota was a truncated city bursting to survive and to find the rest of its country soon. The three elders of government, each with a beard the shape of X, Y or Z, had shepherded the city over this deep crisis, directing history as if it were mad traffic. They had rules which helped to form the new ways that the century demanded. Fruit was law: every street had to have dwarf banana trees in belts and lines, buckled with close groups of any other fruit trees, so many guavas and oranges. There was fruit in the toilets, fruit in the halls, and fruit in the aeroplanes, so that you could eat the city.”

Kojo Laing, Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars (1992), p.3.

Realism and Resistance

golden cockroach, a Grandmother Bomb, elders with beards shaped like letters of the alphabet, and a carrot millionaire are just a few of the eccentric characters which fill the pages of Kojo Laing’s surreal classic of African SF, Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars (1992). Laing’s novel is set in the distant future of 2020, at a time when the Ghanaian city of Achimota is locked in the Second War of Existence, battling Europe and South Africa, which have become a cyberworld where physical existence is deemed unnecessary. These virtual superpowers have decided that the ‘Third World’ is no longer relevant to their modernity, having been used as a toxic dumping ground, a place for germ warfare and genetic engineering and nuclear experiments. The city Achimota fights to recover the rest of its disappearing country, and to exist independently of Europe’s rhetoric and portrayal of it as primitive, reasserting its own worth and agency in the face of neocolonial domination.

The book has been praised as vivid and imaginative, but also characterised as unusual, complicated, and unclassifiable (Ryman, 2017; Klein, 2007; Ngaboh-Smart, 1997; Wright, 1996). T.R. Klein (2007) describes Laing’s work concisely: “Once the initially introduced ‘innocent’ reader decides against prematurely tossing away Laing’s difficult books and is willing to accept an encounter with cartoon-like images, allegories, and projections rather than full-fledged, realistic characters, s/he will be rewarded with the experience of a unique conjunction between technological and aesthetic modernity in African literature” (55).

It’s unfortunate that Laing’s work has so often been overlooked and underappreciated, as it has plenty to contribute to debates surrounding genre and ‘authenticity’ within African literature. He at once defies generic pigeonholing and challenges established norms of the Anglo-African literary canon. His unique prose “confidently defies simple reduction to a single larger theory, agenda or narrative” (Klein, 2007: 38), with its usage of words and phrases from across languages including English, Ga, Haussa, and Italian. He also addresses issues of science and technology before many Ghanaian authors had even begun to move away from nationalist rhetoric of post-independence Ghana (Klein, 2007).

In terms of genre, Laing’s work has been variously described as postmodern, utopian, or magical realism. Ngaboh-Smart (1997) identifies Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars as using “conventional science fictional motifs” to explore the effects of science and technology on humanity, and mentions the inclusion of “galactic travels” and “adventure.” This hesitancy and ambiguity is not uncommon in discussions of speculative fictions from Africa. Mark Bould (2015) suggests that one can come across science fiction from Africa mentioned by critical journals that refuse to use the term, or “would at least prefer not to, deploying instead a de-science-fictionalized discourse of utopia and dystopia, and labelling anything irreal as some kind of postcolonial magic realism or avant-gardist experimentalism”(13).

So SF from Africa faces contradictory challenges. It must fight on the one hand to be read as SF — and not just something SF-adjacent — to be given full use of the genre’s rich megatext of tropes and conventions. On the other hand, it must fight to be permitted to transform the traditional conventions of the genre, to make SF do new and different things. It must also often contest with the preconceived and reductive notions of Africa nurtured within the Western imagination. Jennifer Wenzel (2006) explains that Western readers who encounter ‘strange’ literatures from elsewhere often impose a binary between ”the West and the rest,” and between “a singular European modernity and multifarious worldviews, variously described as pre-modern, prescientific, pre-enlightenment, non-Western, traditional, or indigenous” (456). New readings of classic works such as Laing’s, alongside emerging work from Africa, are paving the way to a more nuanced map of Africa’s diverse speculative literature. This issue of Vector explores varying definitions, and showcases just a few examples from Africa and its diaspora across various mediums: from Nick Wood’s exploration of the South Africa’s comics scene and Joan Grandjean’s research into the Arab-futurist art of Mounir Ayache, to Jonathan Hay’s study of Afrofuturism in hip hop and its political aesthetics built on science fiction tropes of aliens and spaceships. Like artists everywhere, creators of African SF aren’t simply imagining worlds to escape to, but also exploring contemporary and historical reality through the lens of fiction. Gemma Field’s ecocritical reading of Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon acknowledges the slow violence of the oil industry in Nigeria. Masimba Musodza’s article opens up important questions about genre, language, and elitism within the African SF genre, through his experiences in writing and publishing his works in ChiShona. Definitions of Africanfuturisms and Afrofuturisms collide and converse in articles from Kate Harlin and Päivi Väätänen. Interviews with award-winning authors Dilman Dila and Wole Talabi give insights into the current movements within African SF directly from the creators’ perspectives.

Continue reading “The Speculative Turn in African Literature”

Living on Borrowed Time

This article was originally published in Vector #288.

TimeCity

By Erin Horáková

More than anything else, Diana Wynne Jones’ children’s science-fantasy novel A Tale of Time City (1987) is about the eponymous micro-civilisation: a city-state outside of time. Time City monitors the events of the whole anthropocene, trades with sufficiently advanced civilisations, and partakes of the best of every era. This article conducts a ‘world factbook’ style survey of this economy, to the extent that’s possible based on the information the book gives us (and with markedly less dodgy CIA involvement). We’ll look at the state’s sources of income, labour within it, economic immigration to the city, and finally the ultimate effects of Time City’s colonial trade relations with what its citizens call ‘history.’ Via this case study, I hope to provide a way into thinking about time travellers and other agents outside of time as economic actors. Continue reading “Living on Borrowed Time”

Digital Humanity: Collaborative Capital Resistance in Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway

This article originally appeared in Vector #288.

By Kirsten Bussière

Doctorow

Since the 2008 global financial crisis, social movements which once pursued scattered causes are increasingly united against a common enemy: capitalism. In his recent article “The New Combinations: Revolt of the Global Value-Subjects,” Nick Dyer-Witherford recounts how the “landscapes of globalized capital” are riven by scenes of political unrest. We have witnessed a decade crossed with an “ascending arc of struggles”: demonstrations across different cities “mark the convergence of a range of campaigns and activisms,” while coalitions of political groups “often exceed single issues and specific identities,” and find means to converge on shared anti-capitalist perspectives – pushing back against a society built on purposeful scarcity, a society that predicates the wealth of the few on the poverty of the many (Dyer-Witherford 156-158).

Capitalism, in spreading wealth at an unequal rate, “can set all its subjects in competition with each other.” This separation of the population ensures that the masses will not rise up against their oppressors. That’s why the mobilization of different political activism groups as one anti-capitalist multitude is particularly dangerous to the existing hierarchy. So what has changed? There are many factors, but one which stands out. Modern day demonstrations and protests take place not only in the streets, but also in the realm of cyberspace. Information technology allows resistance groups to communicate and co-ordinate as never before, and what starts as a hashtag can quickly sprout into a powerful movement for change. Plenty of cyberactivism isn’t even that overtly political, but nevertheless strikes a blow against capitalism by de-commodifying capitalist products through “piracy; open source and free software initiatives; peer-to-peer production; and gift economy practices” (Dyer-Witherford 175-180).

Building on the longstanding tradition of social science fiction, the 2017 novel Walkaway by Cory Doctorow explores the extension of the digital community beyond the realms of cyberspace and into the physical world. It imagines a symbiotic post-digital relationship between humans and machines. The communal nature of producing digitally rendered objects in the non-digital world provides a technotopian solution to the anti-utopian capitalist regime – unyielding in its commitment that there is no better world possible.

Continue reading “Digital Humanity: Collaborative Capital Resistance in Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway”

Science Friction

This article originally appeared in Vector #288.

By Robert Kiely and Sean O’Brien

This article examines a series of near-future SF stories that offer snapshots of an immediate future dominated by the intensification of contemporary economic tendencies, including increased automation and the rise of digital platforms. Much twentieth century SF tends to traffic in a certain techno-optimism in its outlook, not so much to suggest that technological advances would produce positive outcomes but that they would continue to develop and expand in their complexity and productivity. Today this utopian legacy is carried forward both by literary science fiction studies and by the uses of science fiction within contemporary political theory. In a different vein, and in tension with this outlook, is what we call ‘science friction’: a literary practice of slowing down visions of technological and social progress.

econSF

Two recent collections, Futures and Fictions (2017) and Economic Science Fictions (2018), look to SF to counter the dominant cultural narrative of what Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’—the Thatcherite idea that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism—with alternative visions of the future based largely on emerging technological innovations [1]. To puzzle over this position, as we’ll do below, is not to be fatalistic or to concede political ground on the terrain of the imaginary. Rather, it is to question the capacity of capitalist technology to usher in a postcapitalist future, especially under contemporary conditions of stagnation and precarity. As these works of science friction suggest, further development of capitalist technologies are likely to offer more of the same, but worse.

F&F

Critics such as Simon O’Sullivan, William Davies and Peter Frase have argued that a visionary SF can offer much-needed screenshots of a postcapitalist future, challenging the neoliberal status quo and bolstering a left that suffers from a perceived poverty of imagination. [2] In the discussion that opens Futures and Fictions, for example, O’Sullivan argues that ‘future fictions have a more general traction on the real, not least insofar as they can offer concrete models for other ways of life in the present.’ [3] Several of the essays in the collection suggest that the intensification of late capitalist technological developments will provide the means to realize a postcapitalist utopia if the economy were managed by a socialist state. Here, full automation and universal basic income (UBI) constitute transitional demands on the way to what Aaron Bastani brands ‘fully automated luxury communism’ [4]. Continue reading “Science Friction”

Surveillance Capitalism and the Data/Flesh Worker in Malka Older’s Infomocracy

This article originally appeared in Vector #288.

By Esko Suoranta

The cyberpunk dystopia is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. Western democracies appear to be in crisis. Populist nationalisms are on the rise, while an ever-so-free market tightens its grip on our everyday existence, building vast private siloes of personal data. Climate change is spurred on by the rise of new imaginary currencies, mined from pure mathematics and pumping tens of millions of tons of carbon into the sky. Technologies from space travel to nanotechnology take unprecedented leaps. Meanwhile, in fiction, nostalgia appears to be a prime directive. The imagined futures of the 198090s receive reboots which appropriate the aesthetics of the past, but often fail to update its politics in the process: see Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Ghost in the Shell (2017). Against such future-washed conservatism, a counter-project is also emerging. Critics and authors like Monika Bielskyte and Nnedi Okorafor sound the clarion for new ways to imagine the future, and to pave the path for a more equal and sustainable world.[1]

Infomocracy

In this context, Malka Older’s debut novel Infomocracy (2016) explores progressive political and economic alternatives in a near-future setting. Part political techno-thriller, part thought-experiment on global micro-democracy, the novel follows four protagonists in the 22nd century as the third global elections loom. In the micro-democratic system, each geographic “centenal,” a unit of 100,000 people, chooses their representatives from a myriad of parties ranging from PhillipMorris and Liberty, to Earth1st and YouGov. Nation states have practically disappeared and the global election process is governed by Information, a descendant of the internet giants of yore, seemingly fused with something like the United Nations. The organization strives for neutral and truthful management of information and a fair administration of the micro-democratic process.

Predictably, political rivals try to play the system for their own benefit, and much of the plot revolves around such schemes. Through their twists and turns, Older highlights the precariousness of information labor in highly networked societies as workers become interfaces of bodies and computer networks, producing a distributed subjectivity. These themes become clear through an analysis of Older’s treatment of her protagonists and her depiction of Information’s custodianship of networked data. Infomocracy conducts an optimistic thought-experiment on the future of what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.” I aim to show how, for Older, there are two keys to diverting surveillance capitalism in a more optimistic direction. First, the democratization of skills related to information work. Second, the not-for-profit management of data.

Continue reading “Surveillance Capitalism and the Data/Flesh Worker in Malka Older’s Infomocracy”

Lone Wolf Bioterrorists and the Trajectory of Apocalyptic Narratives

In this academic article, the authors explore a range of science fictional texts dealing with so-called ‘lone wolf’ bioterrorism, and ask what we might learn from them about dealing with the real bioterror threats of the future.

CAS_4qyz (1)
Type-I CRISPR RNA-guided surveillance complex (Cas, blue) bound to a ssDNA target (orange). By Thomas Splettstoesser

Abstract

The possibility of an engineered pandemic is one of the more terrifying new risks of the 21st Century. As technology lowers thresholds for developing bioweapons, even individuals with relatively ordinary knowledge and budgets could become responsible for extraordinary threats. Although several real-life bioterror incidents are known, no large-scale pandemic has yet occurred as a direct result of terrorism. Fiction, however, offers detailed scenarios of such events. Writers of these narratives find themselves at the intersection of modern science and deep literary tradition of pandemic narratives, originating with biblical accounts of plagues. This article examines portraits of ‘lone wolf’ bioterrorists in several contemporary fictional sources, focusing on how writers draw on counterterrorism discourse, particularly in their attempts to psychologically model the perpertrators. It flags up the dangers of a truncated speculative space, and concludes with a discussion of impacts these imaginaries might have, through influencing how emergent bioterror threats are perceived by scientists, policymakers, and the public.

Dr. Polina Levontin, Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London

Dr. Joseph Lindsay Walton, Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh

Prof. John Mumford,  Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London

Dr. Nasir Warfa, Centre for Trauma, Asylum and Refugees & Department for Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Essex

Continue reading “Lone Wolf Bioterrorists and the Trajectory of Apocalyptic Narratives”