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”

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”

Economic Science Fictions reviewed: Speculate to innovate

This article originally appeared in Vector #288.

econSF

Reviewed by Madeleine Chalmers

Fantasies are things that can’t happen, and science fiction is about things that can happen.

Ray Bradbury, interview with Joshua Klein for The Onion (1999)

If self-proclaimed ‘not a science fiction writer’ Ray Bradbury ever needed an academic publication to bolster his sprightly quip, then Economic Science Fictions is it. In this bold and exciting collection, William Davies and his contributors offer us an unapologetic manifesto for the power of ‘can’, pushing Bradbury’s statement to its limit to issue a call to arms: economic science fictions are not just ‘about things’, they do things – and so can we.

Taking a firm stance amid the contemporary swirl of fake news and financial, political, and ecological hyperobjects, this major interdisciplinary contribution confronts the porosity between fiction and reality head-on, to interrogate the rigid boundaries we often impose, the assumptions we make, and the mental and social habits we forget to question.

As such, Davies’s collection is a welcome addition to a growing canon of post-2008 crash literature which seeks to combine critique and clear political statements with intellectual rigour, reconnecting academia with ‘the real world’. It takes its place alongside such titles as the late Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism (2009) and Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s Inventing the Future (2015). From Fisher’s luminous foreword, in which he posits economic science fictions as ‘effective virtualities’ (xiii), onwards, this collection aims to counter the fiction that is capitalism. It invites readers to turn from speculative finance and its logic of accumulation (with the permanent risk of catastrophe), to speculative fiction and its potential to write – and set right – the world. 

This title forms part of Goldsmiths’s PERC (Political Economy Research Centre) series, which defines itself as a ‘pluralist and critical approach to the study of capitalism’. This commitment to interdisciplinarity and dialogue between the academic and non-academic spheres is made absolutely manifest in the collection’s diversity. It has an echo of the democratic ecumenism of the underground 1990s zines, as theory-fictions intermingle with more canonical forms of academic writing. Indeed, the title of Judy Thorne’s ‘Speculative Hyperstition at a Northern Further Education College’ raises the spectre of that mid-1990s phenomenon, the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit. Today, in 2018, writers, artists, architects and musicians mingle polyphonically with founders of think tanks and consultancies, as well as journalists, early career researchers, and established academics. 

William Davies’s shrewd editing allows these very different contributions to speak to one another and shine. His opening ‘Introduction to Economic Science Fictions’ grounds the discussion in classic liberal economic theories of value. Taking as his sparring partners Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, Davies teases out how capitalism is constructed around the flexible ‘division between “real” and “imaginary” value”’ which, as he points out, ‘is how financial bubbles occur: when collective imagination starts to become mistaken for an empirical reality’ (23). Lucidly and compellingly, Davies reconfigures this instability as an opportunity, positing politically progressive economic science fictions as a means to engage with capitalism on its own oscillating ground, poised between the fictional and the non-fictional.

The four sections which follow – each with a clear and concise introductory overview – develop this core thesis. The texts within them move fluidly from theory to practice and back again, with examples which will be familiar (or at least not wholly alien) to non-academic and academic readers alike. While it is only possible to pick out highlights here, what consistently impresses is the interweaving of analyses of science fictions, evocations of personal practice, theories of global megastructures, and creative riffs. Interlocking in surprising yet harmonious ways, within and across the various essays, these texts probe disciplinary boundaries in provocative and illuminating ways.

The collection’s first section – ‘The Science and Fictions of the Economy’ – grounds us in the nuts and bolts of the dream-mechanics of economics, with contributions from distinguished academics on the corporate imaginary (Laura Horn), the anthropology of money (Sherryl Vint) and automation (Brian Willems). Alongside these, Ha-Joon Chang’s contribution (‘Economics, Science Fiction, History and Comparative Studies’) stands out – as much for its laudable inclusion in a collection overwhelmingly dominated by ‘non-economists’, as for its content. A second section on ‘Capitalist Dystopias’ gives us a whistlestop tour of different dystopias in which capitalism is pushed to its limits. Here, accelerationist nightmares rub shoulders with the more ambiguous vision of Dan Gavshon Brady and James Pockson’s gloriously-titled ‘Fatberg and the Sinkholes: A Report on the Findings of a Journey into the United Regions of England by PostRational’. Readers wary of discourse about discourse will find the ‘Design for a Different Future’ section refreshing, for its pragmatic yet playful turn towards architecture, urban planning, and design.

But it is perhaps in the final section, ‘Fumbling for Utopia’, that Economic Science Fictions offers the ideal meta-reflection on the collection as a whole. Featuring four economic science (theory-)fictions, it closes with Jo Lindsay Walton’s ‘Public Money and Democracy’ – a fiction with footnotes, which perfectly encapsulates the collection’s aspiration to break down the barriers between the real and the imagined.

This collection makes no secret of its political stance. Readers looking for neutrality, dry objectivity, or dissent from the valorisation of science fiction and its role in building a post capitalist future will not find it here. The voices of economists who – unlike Ha-Joon Chang – are not avowed SF fans, sceptical SF writers, or interviews between converts and sceptics might have helped to redress this balance, and add a new dynamism to what remains an invigorating discussion – but not really a debate. Greater granularity in the definition of capitalism as it manifests itself in different national contexts (including non-European and non-US contexts) would also have added even greater bite to a collection that seeks to cross wires between the abstract and the pragmatic.

Quibbles aside, this collection is stimulating for believers and dreamers, but also provides ample material to dig into and with which to productively disagree for those who are not quite converts. Its return to political and social commitment represents a passionate and urgent response to our contemporary situation, and an astute and convincing argument for – and illustration of – interdisciplinarity and the interweaving of theory and practice, inside and outside the academy. It is a collection which empowers us to speculate – to invest in fiction not just as a means to provoke but as a means to intervene in our confused and confusing world.

Madeleine Chalmers is studying for a DPhil in French at the University of Oxford, funded by the Oxford University AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership – Sir Ivor Roberts Graduate Scholarship at Trinity College. Her research project on ‘unruly technics’ explores how avant-garde French literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries negotiate the increasingly tight imbrication of technology into human life, and the challenge it poses to how we think about ourselves, our relationship to others and to our world. It seeks to place these texts of the past in dialogue with current philosophical reflections on technology, to explore how this encounter can help us to think about our technological present, and future.

Group-Reading the Guardian Reviews Section

The best part about being in a bookstore at midnight when the latest Harry Potter book was released wasn’t having the first opportunity to read the latest installment. It was the joy of the yearly enterprise of group-reading the same book at the same time, of knowing that a blogged reaction would appear on my feed as soon as any given friend had finished reading it. It showed me the sheer, astonishing speed with which some people were able to skim the entire volume (two hours!) and the steady chipping away at it required by those unable to take time off from the rest of their lives. It was a momentary community of joint reading I have not even found in formal book groups, because for them, the reading is not the synchronous part; the having-read is.

In honor of the exhibit on the history of science fiction opening at the British Library later in the week, the Guardian has dedicated its Saturday Reviews section to the subject of science fiction. It released the first few articles a few days early, beginning the resulting group discussion which percolated across my feeds, which was spurred especially by mixed reactions to Iain M Banks and his irritation over those writing in genre who have never read it.

Today, the reviews section came out. One by one, commentators went to their local news agents to pick up a copy, which made it comment-worthy when at least one had sold out. (Those who have ongoing subscriptions, and thus automatic delivery, have not mentioned it. Why would they?)

To state the very obvious, one advantage of the newspaper section is that it is made up of articles. Small units enable more immediate reactions, such as just how apt or not the top 10 list of the best aliens in science fiction was, or noting the cumulative tendency of respondents in the initial survey of the best books or authors of science fiction (as picked by “top SF writers”) as being oriented towards books written long ago by men.

When it comes down to it, it is a small swathe of geographically-limited internet which is reading and responding to the Guardian today, especially about science fiction. But it is a group of whom many have gone out today specifically or in part in order to hunt down the paper version of a collection of critical works to read together.

Perhaps others of you have encountered it before, but I have never noticed a simultaneous effort to group-read science fiction criticism before, complete with physically tracking down the  publication on the same day as others, and I’m delighted that it’s happening today.

BSFA Nominees So Far: Best Non-Fiction

Slightly later than planned, here’s the current list of works which have received at least one nomination in the Best Non-Fiction category.

  • The The Wonderful Future That Never Was: Flying Cars, Mail Delivery by Parachute, and Other Predictions from the Past by Gregory Benford (Hearst)
  • Blogging the Hugos” parts 1-4 by Paul Kincaid (Big Other)
  • Review of With Both Feet in the Clouds: Fantasy in Hebrew Literature, edited by Hagar Yanai and Danielle Gurevitch, by Abigail Nussbaum
  • From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe by Peter Y Paik (University of Minnesota Press)
  • The Outer Alliance Podcast 1, Julia Rios
  • Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in Space by Mary Roach (Oneworld Publications)
  • Review of The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, by Adam Roberts (Punkadiddle)
  • Red Plenty by Francis Spufford (Faber)
  • The Notes From Coode Street podcast, by Jonathan Strahan and Gary K Wolfe
  • Chicks Dig Time Lords ed. Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O’Shea. (Mad Norwegian Press)

Some interesting nominations there, notably Red Plenty and the podcasts. Wonder if any of them will make the ballot? But also a relatively small selection compared to some previous years. What’s missing? There’s still time to send your nominations to awards@bsfa.co.uk.

Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass 2011

The details about next year’s event, which looks as enticing as ever:

Science Fiction Foundation announces SF Criticism Masterclass for 2011

Class Leaders:
Paul McAuley
Claire Brialey
Mark Bould

The Science Fiction Foundation (SFF) will be holding the fifth annual Masterclass in sf criticism in 2011.

Paul McAuley is the author of eighteen novels, many of which have been nominated for the Campbell, BSFA and Clarke Awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award winning Fairyland. His most recent books are The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun.

Claire Brialey is co-editor of the Nova award-winning and Hugo-nominated Banana Wings, has been an Arthur C Clarke Award judge, and contributed critical articles to Vector and other fanzines.

Mark Bould is the co-editor of Science Fiction Film and Television and author of The Cinema of John Sayles: Lone Star and Film Noir: From Berlin to Sin City. He has co-edited The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction and Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction and other projects, including several issues of Science Fiction Studies.

Dates: 1st to 3rd July 2011

Location: Middlesex University, London (the Hendon Campus, nearest underground, Hendon Central).

Delegate costs will be £180 per person, excluding accommodation.

Accommodation: students are asked to find their own accommodation, but help is Golders Green Hotel, and the King Solomon Hotel, both in Golders Green, a short bus ride from the University.

Applicants should write to Farah Mendlesohn at farah.sf@gmail.com. Applicants will be asked to provide a CV and writing sample; these will be assessed by an Applications Committee consisting of Farah Mendlesohn, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. and Andy Sawyer.

Completed applications must be received by 28th February 2011.

Bearings

Bearings coverA traditional divide drawn through the history of science fiction criticism is that between the amateur and the professional; so you have the tradition of fanzine-originated criticism, as exemplified by Damon Knight and James Blish, and the academic tradition, with Darko Suvin as an equally central figure. But if we have to break things down, I wonder whether it might be as helpful, or at least not any more unhelpful, to draw a line between those who review and those who do not. Let’s be clear, this is an act of naked advocacy for the review on my part, because at its best – for a definition of which I take John Clute’s suggestion of a first response to a book that’s worth re-reading ten years later – it is the form of critical writing I enjoy most, and because such a division allows me not just to keep Knight and Blish, but to arrogate to my camp such entertaining writers as Joanna Russ and Adam Roberts. But at the same time it’s undeniable that reviews have made a significant contribution to sf criticism over the years, and to generalise wildly I tend to find that the essays and studies I enjoy most are written by those whose critical skills have at some stage been deployed to the front line. Such writers seem to be more likely to talk about the field of fantastic literature as it is, rather than as they would like it to be. As good an example of this as you’ll find anywhere is Gary K Wolfe, whose essay collection Evaporating Genres will be out later this year from Wesleyan, and whose review collection Bearings, published by the much smaller press Beccon, I have just finished.

Bearings collects review-columns published in Locus between 1997 and 2001; like the earlier Soundings (2005), it is a rewarding and not a little awe-inspiring book. It’s no mean feat to turn out up to half a dozen reviews month in, month out, and say in almost all of them something worth re-reading ten years later, particularly when many of the pieces are only a few hundred words long. Wolfe claims in his introduction that he has no real rules for reviewing except to let the book under consideration guide the terms of engagement, but he certainly has some strategies, and if over the course of several hundred thousand words these become slightly more obvious than they are on a month to month basis, they don’t become less effective. The most characteristic Wolfe reviews open with a lump of discursive contextualisation that’s always worth thinking about – indeed in some cases you feel Wolfe is on the verge of breaking out into a full-blown essay – even if there’s the occasional sense that he’s teasing the reader by making the case for a proposition that only occurred to him fifteen minutes ago. This is followed by a concise and often witty summary of the plot and/or other salient facts about the book on the table; once that’s out of the way, Wolfe tends to deftly dissect his subject into its constituent parts and consider the strengths and weaknesses of each, before offering a conclusion that weighs up how those parts work together or don’t. It’s an approach that emphasises description over evaluation, which is perhaps one reason why Wolfe probably should take his share of responsibility for the myth that Locus never publishes negative reviews. Given the volume of work he considers, limiting himself mostly to cases where there’s at least something to praise is probably a sanity-preservation measure as much as anything else, but it still carries the obvious danger that it could end up providing a rather partial view of the field. One way Wolfe gets around this is by being very good at finding something to praise. He’s mastered the art of picking out the specific aspect of a novel most worthy of admiration or simply the one that’s new, even in cases where the whole is a failure. Sometimes this is used to place a book in the context of its author’s oeuvre — Bearings includes considerations of Stephen Baxter’s “most unalloyed thriller” (Moonseed), Connie Willi’s “most courageous” book (Passage), and Distraction, which is “easily more fun than any Bruce Sterling novel to date” — but it can soften the sting of criticism. Wolfe is, as Peter Straub notes in his introduction, a deliberately open-minded reviewer, one who always starts out on the author’s side, and usually ends up there as well. “Purely as sf”, for example, Walter Mosley’s Futureland “has to be regarded as something of a blunt instrument”, but “as a book about discovering the uses of SF, it may be more clever than it first appears”.

If this can just occasionally create the impression of a cat toying with its food, in the vast majority of cases Wolfe’s critical distance from the texts he discusses is a thing to be admired. That distance carries through the book on a broader level, as well. In addition to his preference for separating out the various elements of a book (as opposed to, say, Clute’s tendency to find a single organising principle around which virtues and flaws are constellated), Wolfe shows a marked reluctance to impose narratives on the field as a whole, despite the fact that he’s probably in a better position than just about anyone else to do so, and the fact that arguably one of the pleasures of collections of reviews is gaining exactly that sense of shape. (It was certainly something I hoped for from this particular collection, which covers precisely the period during which I became a more serious sf reader.) There’s some commentary within the compass of individual reviews, but this is always tentative and often has tongue at least partly in cheek. Moreover in this book – in contrast to Soundings – Wolfe has deliberately omitted the year-end summaries he writes for Locus and almost all of reviews of the various Year’s Best anthologies. His rationale is that all these too often “strained to identify ephemeral trends of relatively little interest from the broader perspective of several years later” (10), which seems a bit of a spoilsport way to go about things, and a significant loss in the case of those anthologies, since it cuts out a lot of useful commentary on how different editors approach the task of corralling a year’s best short fiction (not to mention a lot of worthwhile commentary on the stories themselves), and leaves some columns looking distinctly anemic. This is, however, the only major cavil I have about what is an extremely useful and lucid book; above all, this showcase of the generous Wolfean method stands as an ample demonstration of the utility and scope of the short (ish) review, and could stand to be more imitated.

Post-Masterclass

some masterclass students and tutors

So, this year’s SFF Masterclass is over. As with the first one I attended, a couple of years ago, it was both intense and rewarding; and as I was then, so I am now still digesting everything we discussed. Topics included: what makes a “classic”; examined and unexamined exclusions from narrative; is there such a thing as essentially science-fictional music; to what extent posthumanism is the central topic in contemporary sf that must be acknowledged or at least reacted to; the characteristics of science fantasy; the differences between UK and US New Wave; the politics of story; and in the course of the above, considerations of all the texts I’ve been blogging about over the past month or so from many different angles. But almost as important as the discussions in the class were the discussions outside, and the sense of community that the masterclass creates. Huge thanks, therefore, to the three tutors, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr, Roz Kaveney and Liz Williams, and to all the other attendees for such friendly, thorough, enjoyable and wide-ranging discussions.

And now what? Having spent a month on the reading list for this class, and before that a month on awards shortlists, and before that a month on reading for an essay for Vector, I’m itching to get stuck into the pile of 2010 books I’ve accumulated. (Paolo Bacigalupi’s Shipbreaker, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House, Olga Slavnikova’s 2017, Anna Lawrence Pietroni’s Ruby’s Spoon, Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson … to name a few.) And I have several books I’ve already read that I still want to write about. So over the next couple of months, that’s what I’ll be doing here.