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”

‘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”

Looking Forward Through the Imagination of Africa

By Anwuli Okeke

First published in Vector 289.Vector289_Cover

“Science Fiction is the only genre that enables African writers to envision a future from our African perspective.” 

– Nnedi Okorafor

The future of Africa, as imagined and portrayed by African writers, is every bit as vibrant and glossy as that seen in any Hollywood sci-fi thriller. We have the robots, bio-hackers, cyberpunk badasses, cyborg implants, and brain-computer interfaces that let you access cyberspace or pilot a vehicle with the pure power of thought. But this is also Africa, a continent where the supernatural is just as real and palpable as the natural (and sometimes even more so). So of course science and technology are interwoven with the material and spiritual worlds — education; spirits; infrastructure development; magic; healthcare; the gods; jobs; prayer — to create a new third world that is its own unique blend. In this way, African science fiction brings its own distinctive sense of where the boundaries lie between the real and the unreal, and of how those boundaries blur.

Not only does it have its own unique realities, it also has its own unique temporalities. For example, African science fiction can challenge the standard narratives of development and progress which Western culture imposes. In the myriad futures which African writers envision, there are plenty that refuse predictable progression from one stage to the next, and instead imagine a kind of ‘leapfrogging’ — as though the tech-tree were inhabited by a tech-tree-frog. By leveraging technologies developed elsewhere, and through our own innovations such as mobile money or other localized solutions, African countries can compress development life-cycles and jump several rungs up ladders of economic and technological advancement. For example, the leap from using kerosene as a source for light to solar-powered electricity in a few short years, completely bypassing grid-based power generation. Economic and technological development also needn’t follow the same paths as elsewhere, but can discover new directions and new opportunities missed by highly developed countries.

In some of these future Africas, thought-communication, robotic companionship, holograms, radio frequency identification (RFID) chips wired into human synapses, and the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in everyday life, may exist and thrive alongside the slums, poverty, oppression, ethnic rivalry, and corruption that are today the hallmarks of many African societies. Rapid technological advancement can help to improve economic inequality, but it can also worsen it, or simply transform it in unpredictable ways which stymy other efforts at progress. Furthermore, technology is no quick fix for bad governance or deep-rooted colonial legacies. The existence of this duality can create even more complex and contradictory worlds. On the one hand, intelligent and developed, as seen in the application of advanced technological systems for interconnectivity and social regulation. On the other hand, lagging behind the rest of the developed world, as demonstrated in the failure of the system to properly address the provision and maintenance of basic infrastructure and services.

Science fiction allows Africa to portray its many futures: sometimes in dialogue with academia, and its perspective on Africa’s challenges and accompanying solutions, and sometimes far removed from those perspectives. Science fictional visions of Africa are interwoven with the fabric of the history, culture, spirit and norms of the continent. They may paint African futures antithetical to Africa’s current self, albeit from a technological perspective, while embracing aspects of that current self — its citizens’ exuberant appetite for life and largeness of spirit. Continue reading “Looking Forward Through the Imagination of Africa”

Vector 287: Best of 2017

Coming soon to BSFA members!

 

Cover Vector287_Final Small
Cover image: Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind, from ‘In the Future, They Ate from the Finest Porcelain’

 

Inside Vector 287:

An interview with Larissa Sansour by Polina Levontin and Jo Lindsay Walton, plus a review of Larissa Sansour’s work.

TV in 2017 by Molly Cobb and So Mayer.

Film in 2017 by Nick Lowe, Andrew Wallace, Dilman Dila, Cheryl Morgan, Ali Baker, Paul March-Russell, Amy C. Chambers, Lyle Skains, Gary Couzens, and Dev Agarwal. 

Ricardo Suazo reflects on SF inspired trends in fashion, and Martin McGrath takes a close look at three panels from Avengers #8.

Games and AR are covered by Erin Horáková, Susan Gray, and Jon Garrad.

With also have an extensive section on audio and podcasts in 2017 with Peter Morrison, Erin Roberts, Laura Pearlman, Victoria Hooper and Tony Jones.

And of course three Recurrent columns with Paul Kincaid, Andy Sawyer and Stephen Baxter, plus the Torque Control editorial by Jo Lindsay Walton.

This one’s a bumper issue — 80 pages! If you’re not a BSFA member yet, why not sign up now?

Friday essay: science fiction’s women problem

Image 20160915 4972 gqonsw.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
We need women to participate equally in science fiction’s conversations about humanity’s future.
MsSaraKelly, CC BY-SA

Bronwyn Lovell, Flinders University

Since 1953, the Hugo Awards have been one of science fiction’s most prestigious honours – past winners include Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clark and Ursula Le Guin. The 2016 results were recently announced, and women and diversity were the clear winners.

However, if you saw the list of titles in contention for the awards, you’d have noticed some oddities, such as Chuck Tingle’s Space Raptor Butt Invasion and My Little Pony’s The Cutie Map. That’s because the awards – nominated and voted on by science fiction writers and readers – have been targeted by two major voting blocs: the Sad Puppies, who started their campaign in 2013, and the Rabid Puppies, who appeared the year after and have been growing stronger ever since.

The Sad Puppies wanted more traditional, mainstream popular science fiction on the ballot. The more extreme Rabid Puppies, who have ties with the Gamergate movement, were about creating chaos. So their bloc included ridiculous-sounding works: both to mock the awards and stack the ballot to prevent more diverse books being nominated.

Both groups’ gripe is with contemporary trends in science fiction toward more literary works with progressive themes. Vox Day, leader of the Rabid Puppies, complains that “publishers have been trying to pass off romance in space and left-wing diversity lectures as science fiction”. Last year’s leader of the Sad Puppies, Brad R. Torgersen, likewise complains about “soft science majors (lit and humanities degrees) using SF/F as a tool to critically examine and vivisect 21st century Western society”. The Hugos, he says, are being used as an “affirmative action award”.

A significant number of those “soft science majors” writing “left-wing diversity lectures” are, of course, women. Female authors have dominated science fiction awards of late.

This year, women (and people of colour) did very well at the awards. Ironically, the Puppies’ activities have now galvanised more progressive members of the World Science Fiction Society to use their voting rights. The best novel was The Fifth Season, a tale of a planet experiencing apocalyptic climate change, written by NK Jemisin – a black, female writer. Best novella was Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. The best short story, Cat Pictures Please, was written by Naomi Kritzer and both best editor gongs went to women.

But the ongoing saga of the Puppies and their attempts to derail the Hugos exemplifies broader conflicts within the realm of science fiction – an enormously popular, lucrative and controversial genre that has major issues with women.

Hugo award winner Nnedi Okorafor at a reading of her work.
byronv2, CC BY-NC

A male dominated genre

Continue reading “Friday essay: science fiction’s women problem”

Why science fiction set in the near future is so terrifying

Image 20170224 22983 kskule.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1Westworld: how far away is this future?
©2016 Home Box Office, Inc. All rights reserved

Amy C. Chambers, Newcastle University

This article accompanies episode 10 of The Anthill podcast on the future.


From Humans to Westworld, from Her to Ex Machina, and from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D to Black Mirror – near future science fiction in recent years has given audiences some seriously unsettling and prophetic visions of the future. According to these alternative or imagined futures, we are facing a post-human reality where humans are either rebelled against or replaced by their own creations. These stories propose a future where our lives will be transformed by science and technology, redefining what it is to be human.

The near future science fiction sub-genre imagines a future only a short time away from the period in which it is produced. Continue reading “Why science fiction set in the near future is so terrifying”

My Friend, The Bot

By Jay Owens.

I first met @botaleptic on 10th March, 2015. We were introduced by our mutual Twitter friend, Hugo.

We soon got talking:

We soon got talking

@botaleptic is a Twitter bot created by Hugo Reinert, who tweets as @metaleptic. His DNA is simple: “he” is a ruby script, running on a free app server, based on mispy’s twitter_ebooks code. Like all Twitter bots — automated ‘robot’ accounts — @botaleptic is simply an algorithm.

In this essay, I want to talk about how @botaleptic is much more than an algorithm.

Continue reading “My Friend, The Bot”

From Our Archive: On Genre Boundaries

Air by Geoff Ryman

An Extended Review of the 2005 Arthur C. Clarke Award-Winning Novel, by Andy Sawyer

RymanAirThe success of Air in the latest Clarke award is nothing less than an act of magic.

The shortlist as it stood presented a number of problems which potentially could have wrecked the credibility of the Award at this rather troubled stage of its existence. It consisted of two novels (Geoff Ryman’s Air and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go) which by anyone’s standards (though see below) should be considered outstanding, and four also-rans of varying quality from excellent to enjoyable-but-forgettable which suffered from being read in the shade of Ryman and Ishiguro but which were on the face of it considerably more science-fiction-ish. “Also-rans” sounds harsh, so I must qualify that by saying that I mean no insult to Ken MacLeod’s Learning the World, Alastair Reynolds’ Pushing Ice, Charles Stross’s Accelerando, and Liz Williams’ Banner of Souls by saying that they did not move and excite me in the way Air and Never Let Me Go did. Were those two not on the shortlist I would have been considerably less disappointed if one of the other four had won, if any of them had — if that makes sense. But with the short-list as it stood a decision to honour any other than Ishiguro or Ryman would have been a travesty.

Air took the award, of course, and this means that the science fiction writer, as opposed to the “mainstream” writer with something which looks like science fiction, was the success. In what follows I am, I hope, going to suggest why I feel uncomfortable writing a sentence like that, but also why it’s good for both the Clarke award and that collection of extremely different texts that we point to and call science fiction that it was Ryman who won the award. This is not to say that Air is the obvious compromise choice, a charge which is laid against just about every juried award at some time or another. I don’t know, or care, what happened in the discussions, but there’s no sense in Air that justifies this. In not giving the award to an outsider-sf text in favour of a book which must be sf because it has also won the BSFA award (as well as a number of other sf awards including the Tiptree), the jury has given first prize to a book that deserves it. As well as being central-sf, Air is also stunningly written; inventive and open, as sympathetic to the human costs of change as, without the darkness and claustrophobia of, Never Let Me Go. But why should I be presenting this as an ideological conflict as much as a simple decision between which of two books is the better?

Continue reading “From Our Archive: On Genre Boundaries”

From Our Archive: Nisi Shawl

This article first appeared in Vector 247.

Colourful Stories

Fantastic Fiction by African Descended Authors, by Nisi Shawl

Everfair coverSo rich a sea, so broad the currents … in exploring fantastic literature by African-descended authors, where do we start?

“Begin at the beginning” is standard advice for writers. “Begin where you are” is more my style. Where I am at the moment, where I’ve been most of my life, is North America. Though I know there are many other schools of African-descended writers out there, myriad fabulists swimming in gorgeous array, I’m at my best talking about those with whom I’ve had the most contact, those about whom I have something substantial to say: those who inhabit the Western Hemisphere. In the course of this essay, then, I’ll focus on “New World” writers of fantastic fiction whose ancestors came from Africa. I’ll talk about specific works by them and also touch a bit on what I see as a commonly shared theme.
Just as important as my location in the three dimensions of physical space is my location in a fourth, time. When I am is one week out from learning of the death of my friend Octavia Estelle Butler. So despite the fact that her fiction’s far better known than that of some of her colleagues, it’s to her work I’ll turn first.

Octavia, as almost anyone who knew her will tell you, was not quite a recluse, but fledglingsomeone who valued her loneliness very highly. Yet a major concern of the heroine of Fledgling, her last complete book, is building a community. Shori belongs to a sentient species known as the ‘Ina’, and must consume human blood to live. In other words, she’s a vampire–but a scientifically plausible one. At its best, the Ina/human relationship is symbiotic, and Shori, survivor of a vicious, lethal attack on her original family, instinctively seeks to reconstruct what she has lost: a feminist-oriented blending of species and sexual preferences that might be the envy of a Utopianist visionary.

Shori’s other quest, of course, is to bring to justice those who murdered her mother, her sisters, and the humans they had gathered into their extended family. The killings may have been “racially” motivated; that is, though Shori’s not human, she has been genetically altered so that her skin is as dark as most blacks, and the tactics her enemies use are those of the Klan and other racist lynchers.

While it’s these last points that will probably impress most readers as drawing on African American culture, the book’s concern with social and familial structure shares the same roots, I would argue. Historically, most New World descendents of Africans came to this hemisphere as victims of the slave trade. This means that a large percentage of the cultural artifacts that survived that trauma are non-material. And even these were difficult to retain, subject to enormous stresses under the system of chattel slavery. Language, genealogy, occupational associations: all vanished or were transformed beyond easy recognition. It seems to me that a longing for these lost inheritances underpins the frequent tendency of New World African descendents to write what’s known as “third order” stories.
Continue reading “From Our Archive: Nisi Shawl”