Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora. Edited by Zelda Knight and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora by [Zelda Knight, Marian Denise Moore, Eugen Bacon, Nicole Givens Kurtz, Dilman Dila, Rafeeat Aliyu, Suyi Davies Okungbowa, Michael Boatman, Odida Nyabundi, Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald]

Reviewed by Fiona Moore

It’s become almost a cliché of conversations in sf circles: someone says that they would love to read more works by authors from non-Western, non-White, and/or postcolonial origins, but, they add, “I don’t really know where to start.” While the recent rise to prominence of African and African-diaspora authors like NK Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor and Tade Thompson has been welcome, potential readers might still wonder where to look for writers in other sub-genres of sf, such as horror, Weird fiction, or post-apocalyptic fiction. 

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora provides a suitable answer to this question, being a sampler of a diverse range of stories by established African and African Diaspora authors, covering a startling range of genres that provides something for everyone. At the same time, however, there is plenty for those with a good understanding of Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism to appreciate.

All the stories were, however, at the very least interesting and in most cases very enjoyable to read. Some fit comfortably within familiar sf categorisations. “Trickin’”, by Nicole Givens Kurtz, is a Hallowe’en-set horror piece which develops both the vampire and demonic-possession subgenres. “Sleep, Papa, Sleep” by Suyi Okungbowa Davies is also on the conventional horror spectrum, a Lagos-set story involving necromancy and revenant corpses to explore family relationships.  On the science fiction side, “Red_bati” by Dilman Dila, about a former robot pet now repurposed as a mining robot after the death of its human owner, fits into the growing genre of stories exploring the morality of creating AI for human use; this example does a good job of handling the balance between making the AI sympathetic and not obscuring his non-human mindset.

Other stories engage more directly with colonialism and postcolonialism. “A Maji Maji Chronicle” by Eugen Bacon is a fantasy about a mage who meddles with African colonial history, exploring questions about power, corruption and legitimate leadership. “To Say Nothing of Lost Figurines” by Rafeeat Aliyu is a mixed genre SF/fantasy, giving us a wizard from Earth tracking a magical object to an alien society and retrieving it with the aid of a half-human-half-alien woman. The idea of magic-as-science, a feature of much postcolonial sf including that from Africa and its diaspora, arises both as an embracing of the indigenous logics dismissed as superstition in a colonial context, and a challenge to the idea of “Western” science as hegemonic and objective. Here, it is counterpointed by the narrative of a mixed species character finding an escape from her oppressive birth society. 

“The Unclean” by Nuzo Onoh is a genuinely terrifying horror fantasy about an Igbo woman in the 1950s in an abusive marriage; the best horror for me is always that which works as a metaphor for real-life issues, and the way in which the protagonist struggles against not just her husband and his family but the patriarchy of 1950s Nigeria in general is both reflected and amplified by the supernatural terrors she encounters (and sometimes brings into being herself). Mame Bougouma Diene’s “The Satellite Charmer” engages directly with Chinese neo-colonial activities in Africa, the background involves two Chinese mining companies using satellite technology for resource extraction in Senegal, our foreground is the life of one man, Ibrahima, affected by the satellites in unexpected ways and how he, and they, converge to an explosive meeting.

History, and more specifically the loss of (and recovery of) history, also emerges as a key theme. “A Mastery of German” by Marian Denise Moore is a near-future hard-science story whose protagonist is an American project manager tasked with evaluating (and possibly cancelling) a project meant to enable the transfer of human memory for profit; at the same time, we have the counter-narrative of the protagonist’s father attempting to trace the family history, thwarted by the invisibility of Black, enslaved and working-class people. The end result explores the meaning of individual and social memory not just in the USA, but any postcolonial country. “Emily,” also by Marian Denise Moore, is the shortest piece in the book, a poem starting with a historical advertisement for the return of an escaped enslaved girl and imagining different parallel futures for her, picking up on the theme of lost history in Moore’s earlier piece for the volume. “Thresher of Men” by Michael Boatman is a deeply satisfying revenge narrative: as a goddess takes vengeance on the White residents of an American town for past atrocities, we see the hidden history of the seemingly idyllic community emerge, beginning with a recent police shooting of a young Black man but going deeper into the past as the story unfolds, revealing the murder as one horror in a long chain of atrocities extending back decades, if not centuries.

Finally, some stories in this collection cross genres or defy classification. “Convergence In Chorus Architecture” by Dare Segun Falowo is a strange and surreal Weird fiction piece involving quests, boneships, human-arthropod fusions; the prose is beautiful and haunting and the imagery lingers. “Clanfall: Death of Kings” by Odida Nyabundi is a post-human post-apocalyptic adventure story, which reads like the setup to what could be a very interesting series, and one hopes the author develops this universe further. Finally, “Ife-Iyoku, The Tale of Imadeyunuagbon” by volume coeditor Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald tells the story of a society undone by its own essentialism; as the narrative twists and turns unexpectedly, so the story shifts genre, beginning as an epic heroic fantasy, before shifting into a postapocalyptic story with echoes of The Chrysalids, and shifting again into another divine revenge narrative.

Dominion is a worthy addition to volumes like Walking the Clouds and So Long Been Dreaming which serve as introductions to postcolonial and indigenous science fictions and fantasies. The interesting range of stories, genres and themes provides a clear guideline for people looking for new work by African and African Diaspora writers in their favourite subgenres. However, the exploration and development of themes of colonialism, history, and memory, as well as the re-interpretation of colonialist sf tropes such as vampires and AI through African and/or Afrofuturist lenses, means that the volume also contributes to the ongoing dialogue on decolonising science fiction. 

Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow’s Architecture

Edwina Attlee, Maria Smith, and Phineas Harper, eds.  Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow’s Architecture (London: The Architecture Foundation and Oslo Architecture Triennale, 2019)

Reviewed by Carl Abbott

Cover of Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow's Architecture. Stairs and columns against a backdrop of mountains, under a huge sun or moon, everything soaked in bloody light

To understand Gross Ideas, start with the Oslo Architecture Triennale to which this book is a companion. The Triennale is “a member organization that unites the major architecture and urban planning networks in Norway” for conversations and public programs about the role of architecture in society. Participants and supporters include national associations of design professionals, architecture schools, Norwegian government agencies, and international architecture firms with Norwegian roots. The 2019 Triennale in the fall of 2019, was the seventh iteration.

Some of the contributors identify as writers and some as architects, and a few work both sides. There are two poems, one graphic narrative, and fourteen prose narratives of widely differing character …

The book itself is a miscellany of contributions that is more a curated exhibit in verbal form than a tightly edited collection, a characterization that I suspect the curator-editors would find quite acceptable. Some of the contributors identify as writers and some as architects, and a few work both sides. There are two poems, one graphic narrative, and fourteen prose narratives of widely differing character. Some of these latter are stories that could easily find homes in science fiction magazines. Others range from Will Self’s takeoff on Invisible Cities to Lesley Lokko’s essay on women and transnational remittances that includes a fictional vignette, a short factual summary, and scholarly endnotes (it is quite effective). 

Architects have long delighted to imagine grand buildings and building schemes—Arturo Soria y Mata’s Ciudad Lineal, the arcologies of Paolo Soleri, Walking City and other thought experiments of the Archigram group, a linear supercity from Michael Graves, the mile-high skyscraper of Frank Lloyd Wright (even Burj Khalifa gets only halfway there). Science fiction has appropriated the taste for the grandiose from Trantor and Coruscant to countless artists’ depictions of imagined urban futures full of soaring towers in shimmering color. 

What naïve readers might expect from the “architecture” in the subtitle is often absent …

There is no such here. What naïve readers might expect from the “architecture” in the subtitle is often absent. Instead we get one story in which the largest building is a village house (Sophie Mackintosh, “Placation”), a second set in a caricature of a dusty, unchanging town of the old American Southwest (Joel Blackledge, “Fountainwood”), and another in derelict and abandoned Edinburgh (Camilla Grudova, “Deliberate Ruins’). The only story to center a single building uses an unfinished and abandoned Persian Gulf skyscraper (Deepak Unnikrishnan, “Cat”). The other entry in which architecture is the explicit focus is the graphic narrative “Exile’s Letter” by Mill + Jones, which chronicles efforts to build in a low-technology future (temple, town, giant fishing pier) that are laid low by fire and flood and end with the triumph of unbuilding in a sort of Nature-driven  version of the Tower of Babel. 

Some of the entries posit future engineering rather than architecture—a distinction that the curators and the Triennale folks would likely disregard anyway. For example, Robin Nicholson projects the green retrofitting of London in 2039. I had the most fun with “The Aqueduct,” which presents a scenario for replacing Britain’s rail and road transportation with a set of canals. It is a fascinating think-piece that painlessly introduces elementary physics to extrapolate from Britain’s current restored canals. If he hasn’t, author Steve Webb should look up Railroads and American Economic Growth by my old graduate professor Robert Fogel, which includes a long counterfactual to test whether the United States might have had the same robust economic growth had it invested in canals and river improvements rather than railroads in the nineteenth century.  

As she starts work and experiments on her own small house, she finds herself slowly absorbed by the microbes …

The contributors took to heart the theme of the 2019 Triennale—“Enough: The Architecture of Degrowth.” Some stories imagine the built world in decay (Grudova, Unnikrishnan), others the natural world actively triumphant (Mackintosh).  Lev Bratishenko, “You Wanted This,” reports a future United Nations conference at which national representatives offer their own favored ways to drastically reduce the world population—the Russians want to use thermonuclear bombs, the Japanese want to weaponize the Internet of Things, the Americans want to drug everyone to euphoric death (cue up Serenity). One of the most powerful stories is Rachel Armstrong’s “Bittersweet Building.” A new architecture graduate in desperate need of a job catches on with a Norwegian firm that is trying to incorporate bacteria as part of a building’s metabolism (waste into clean water, heat, oxygen). As she starts work and experiments on her own small house, she finds herself slowly absorbed by the microbes into their own complex world and finally merging fully into the “metabolic community of the landscape.” It is both a chilling and a comforting variation on the natural process of bodily decay. For the theme of degrowth, score a big one for the Earth.

Having considered the “architecture” half of “tales of tomorrow’s architecture,” what about the “tales” part? To no surprise, the pieces run a wide span from interesting but undramatic speculation to engaging story. For an example from the didactic side, Edward Davey, “Oli Away,” uses the mechanism of a report on a gap year journey to explicate some favored energy and transportation options. The entries by Nicholson, Bratishenko, and Webb are additional examples of scenario-building rather than storytelling. They have a lot of information without much surrounding story, which is not to say that we should not think about the ideas they present. After all, nobody read Looking Backward for its compelling characters and plot, but it had enormous influence. 

Several of the contributions that are strong as stories are, not surprisingly, by people with lots of writing experience who know how to create engaging characters. For many Vector readers, the biggest name in the collection is Cory Dotorow, who contributes an interesting variation on his Disneyland obsession with “Materiality.”  He posits a theme park in which high school classes spend a week inhabiting reconstructed towns from different eras. Think Main Street USA meets the living displays of colonial “savages” found at early twentieth century world’s fairs (also see the living diorama in Colson Whitehead’s fantastic alternative view of American history in The Underground Railroad). The theme park contrasts with a present in which recycling and three-dimensional printed make the objects of everyday life ephemeral if not immaterial. Doctorow’s teenaged protagonist indirectly confronts the lasting imprint that seriously stupid Old Timey People left on the landscape by considering whether his favorite old tee shirt is still cool (it is). 

… architecture as a practice of designing individual buildings should be and is being swallowed up by the all-consuming impacts of climate change and necessary transformations in global energy systems.

Maria Smith in “Lay Low” uses the familiar frame of singles gossiping in a bar to introduce a society of scarcity in which everyone has monetized allowances for necessities like water, food, and electricity.  Her variation on a familiar science fiction future is a new way to get ahead on your budget—perhaps—by going into hibernation for a few months to lower your consumption levels and build up points. The women in the bar, who are just learning about the new option, don’t think that monetizing unconsciousness is going to go well.

Jo Lindsay Walton contributed the longest, most complex, and perhaps most readable story (no, there was collusion with your book review editor).  “In Arms” is cleverly constructed with two parallel threads—a woman waiting for a date to show up and an ecoterrorist launching an operation—that slowly grow more complex and intertwine in unexpected ways. Radical changes in building styles are slipped in as background, including the cool idea that rising seas have forced the seat of British government to shift to a mobile seastead platform nicknamed Wetminster.  

Without the subtitle and the wraparound material describing the Triennale, someone who casually reads through Gross Ideas would think it is about economic transition and “degrowth” in general, with architecture one of many avenues of exploration. The overall message is that architecture as a practice of designing individual buildings should be and is being swallowed up by the all-consuming impacts of climate change and necessary transformations in global energy systems. Some contributors see a complete devolution to a nonindustrial future, others a society of scarcity, and still others an adapting world. Tomorrow’s architecture, the book suggests, will be valuable to the extent that it is subordinated not just to social needs—an architectural truism, if not always heeded—but rather to fundamental institutional and social transformation. 

Carl Abbott is author of The Metropolitan Frontier: Cities in the Modern American West, The New Urban America: Growth and Politics in Sunbelt Cities, and Political Terrain: Washington, D.C., from Tidewater Town to Global Metropolis.

Cargo (Arati Kadav 2019 Hindi) reviewed by Abhishek Lakkad

Cargo (Arati Kadav 2019 Hindi): A meandering rumination about the weightlessness of human existence

Reviewed by Abhishek Lakkad

Please note that this review contains spoilers.

Death can be understood as a scientific/biological phenomenon, but its gravity is experienced as a spiritual phenomenon. Both the scientific and the spiritual perspectives allow one to contemplate death. But when the makers of Cargo (2019) choose science as merely a veil for religious/spiritual ideas in order to comment on alienation and abandonment rampant in contemporary societies, they could have made sure that the film is passionate (or at least compassionate) enough to sustain its slow-paced narrative. Cargo (now available on Netflix) is the first feature length film of Arati Kadav, although she has written and directed several science fiction shorts in the last decade. Cargo highlights the theme of ‘loneliness’ in these times of pervasive social media that creates the impression that one is always connected and hence never alone. Hindu spiritual/religious ideas about karma and the cycle of life, death and rebirth are central to the narrative. The action mostly takes place on a spaceship orbiting Earth where human-like demons called rakshasas are essentially technicians enabling the transition from death to rebirth in a mundane, technocratic and institutionalised process — reminiscent of an airport security checkpoint, medical lab or a prison admissions office. The film terms this process as “post-death transition”, supervised by a department called Post-Death Transition Services (PDTS) that operates under the aegis of Inter-Planetary Space Organisation (IPSO) that has been established by the rakshasas. Owing to the film’s stance of deriving its fictional futuristic technology from elements of Hindu spirituality and mythology, the film has a distinct retro-futuristic feel. Perhaps the datedness of the film’s visual effects is meant to reinforce the 80s inspired aesthetics. 

Continue reading “Cargo (Arati Kadav 2019 Hindi) reviewed by Abhishek Lakkad”

A review of Stanisław Lem: Philosopher of the Future

By Bruce A. Beatie

Peter Swirski, Stanisław Lem: Philosopher of the Future. Liverpool University Press, 2015 (Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies, 51). ISBN 978-1-789620-54-2. Paperback, $35.41 / £19.95.

Stanislaw Lem: Philosopher of the Future

Memory tells me that I started reading science fiction in the late 1940s in the form of Heinlein stories that had appeared in Boys Life, which I subscribed to as a boy scout. When I started college at Berkeley in 1952, I discovered the Elves, Gnomes, and Little Men’s Science Fiction, Chowder and Marching Society. By the time I’d spent four years in the Air Force and finished my graduate studies at Harvard, I had collected a large SF library,  including an almost complete run of Astounding. The point of this narrative is that my deepest knowledge of SF was the so-called Golden Age. Though I’ve continued reading SF and fantasy, and have published over fifty reviews of SF and fantasy books in the last twenty years, the renowned Polish writer Stanisław Lem has remained on the borderline of my reading.

When Vector (the journal of the British Science Fiction Association) solicited reviewers for this book, I offered because I wanted to learn about Lem. For readers who share my previous ignorance, Lem was born in 1921 in Lwów, Poland (now Lviv in the Ukraine), and died in Krakaw in 2008. According to Swirski’s bibliography, Lem’s first published science fiction story appeared in 1946 (Man from Mars—translated title); his first collection of SF stories appeared in 1957 (translated in 1977 as The Star Dairies). Fiasco, his final SF publication, appeared in 1987, translated with the same title in 1988.

Peter Swirski himself was born in Canada in 1966 but has spent most of his professional life elsewhere; presently a distinguished visiting professor in China, he has also taught in Finland and Hong Kong. His preoccupation with Stanisław Lem began with a 1992 article in Science Fiction Studies; the monograph reviewed here is the latest of Swirski’s six book publications on Lem. His other publications are on aspects of American literature and culture. Continue reading “A review of Stanisław Lem: Philosopher of the Future”

Sideways in Time: A review

Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction, edited by Glyn Morgan and C. Palmer-Patel

Reviewed by Nick Hubble

On Friday 19 February 2016, Boris Johnson, wrote two drafts of an article intended for publication in the following Monday’s Daily Telegraph. The first argued in favour of Britain leaving the European Union; the second argued in favour of Britain remaining in the European Union (see Shipman 2016: 170-3, 609-18). As we know, Johnson opted to publish a redrafted version of the original, went on to become the figurehead of the successful Leave campaign and, in 2019, became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and then won a General Election by a landslide. But what if he’d published a polished version of the second article instead and decided to support Remain in the European referendum?

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The Time Machine

Reviewed by Jo Lindsay Walton

Time travel plus pandemic: the elevator pitch might simply be, “Dr WHO.”

Written by Jonathan Holloway and directed by Natasha Rickman, The Time Machine is a free and freewheeling response to H.G. Wells’s classic text, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.

Like previous work by Creation Theatre, The Time Machine is an immersive, site-specific production. You prowl around the London Library in a little gaggle, led by your Time Traveller guide, occasionally chased by a spooky Morlock, and now and then bumping into other characters. Continue reading “The Time Machine”

Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi

By Seana Gavin

Reviewed by Bethany Garry

Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi, curated by Francesca Gavin, can be seen at Somerset House until the 26th of April. It is part of The Charles Russell Speechlys Terrace Room Series and is free to visit. 

Mushrooms and fungi have a specific place in the imagination as strange and otherworldly, often associated with the fantastical or magical, but Gavin’s exhibition on the “future” of fungi posits them as significantly more science-fictional than fantastical. They are a technology – for use in the future of fashion, biotechnology or ecological industries, or an alien – an unexpected invader via decay or rot, part of the aesthetic that makes a landscape feel truly not of this world. The exhibition achieves this through the mix of mediums, beginning with some of Beatrix Potter’s botanical illustrations of mushrooms and fungi, and progressing through dance (in video form), textile arts, sculpture, collage, fashion, and an extensive display of books. 

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The effect is an exhibition that feels unfinished, if visually engrossing. Amanda Cobbett’s sculptures of mushrooms, perfectly rendered in thread and paper, are an illusion good enough to trick you, and Seana Gavin’s collages are alien worlds where mushrooms form otherworldly buildings, or fungi have unsettling human features. The small setting of the exhibit gives little room for in-depth exploration, and its high goal is undermined a little by the content. A display of mushroom-focused non-fiction literature amounts mostly to a display of book covers, which maybe spark thoughts but ultimately feel superficial. However, for a mushroom lover or for those interested in how the natural world can be positioned in a futurist mindset, it’s a fun way to explore how many different artists have used many different mediums to explore the world of mushrooms and fungi. 

While the first two rooms of the exhibit largely explore mushrooms as an aesthetic or fascination, the final ‘Futures of Fungi’ room positions mushrooms as a future technology, one that humanity has not yet fully exploited, with potentials unexplored, with displays including experimental leather made from mushroom, and a typeface generated to ‘spore’ organically as mushrooms do. The strangeness of mushrooms, their in-betweenness between plant and animal, their interconnectedness, are all ways in which they challenge humanity to experiment with their potential. Not all science-fiction, after all, is an exploration of an alien world. Some are discoveries of the strange in our deep seas or our high peaks. Perhaps the next frontier is neither, but instead will be the forest floor.

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2019 in TV and Cinema

By Gary Couzens.

As I’ve done in past years, this won’t be a comprehensive overview of genre films and television of 2019. Instead, this is a selection of titles which are worth your attention. All were commercially released or reissued in the UK last year.

If in Groundhog Day it was Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” which heralded its protagonist’s recurring day ahead, in Russian Doll (on Netflix, eight episodes of just under a half-hour each) it was Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up”. It’s Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), again and again in the bathroom of her friend’s apartment while her own birthday party goes on. A cynical, New York thirtysomething, Nadia certainly has her share of damage, manifesting itself in casual drug use and equally casual sex. At the end of today, Nadia will die, she finds out … and then she’s back in that bathroom with Nilsson on the soundtrack. After several go-rounds she finds Alan (Charlie Barnett) in the same predicament. 

Image result for russian doll
Russian Doll

Although she was one of three creators (along with Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler), Lyonne dominates the show. She wrote and directed the final episode and co-wrote another. Her chartacterisation inevitably brings resonances of her own personal history, including publicly-known issues with substance abuse. It’s a commanding performance in a miniseries which works out its premise in several interesting ways. The music works perfectly, from Nilsson at the outset to Love’s “Alone Again Or” in the final scene. A second season is on its way. Continue reading “2019 in TV and Cinema”

From the editor of Focus: Best of the Year 2019

By Dev Agarwal

Image result for watchmenThere was a lot to try to keep up with in 2019.  As usual my attention was split between what was new, what I’d missed and what I revisited.  As this is the regular review of the new, I’ll keep my attention squarely there — though I’ll confess to missing key releases that will doubtless prove to be among the best of the year.

As 2019 was also the end of a decade, this is a moment to note that over the last ten years we’ve seen a number of new writers establish themselves as major names in the genre.

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Terminator Dark Fate reviewed

By Dev Agarwal

Image result for terminator dark fate

I went to see Terminator Dark Fate with my regular film going friend, Nik.  Despite going to the cinema together since we were kids, we worked out that this was the first time we’d been to see a Terminator film together in the cinema.  Given Dark Fate’s poor box office and the fact that Schwarzenegger is 72 years old, this felt like our last chance saloon.  

I’ll state my positions now. Firstly, it’s impossible to discuss this film without spoilers, so don’t read further if you don’t want any.  Second, I’m a big fan of the original film and have watched it many times. I had been disappointed in different ways by many of the films in the series and I had high hopes of Dark Fate.  It came with a pedigree of James Cameron’s blessing, the strategic rejection of the dead ends of earlier films, and it was made by the director behind the popular film, Deadpool, Tim Miller.

Like most franchises that have survived decades, The Terminator films are no longer about one single thing, they combine and rework themes and cultural and social issues.  While a principal concern is time travel and the paradox of changing the present by altering the past, the films are also commentaries on machine intelligence, nuclear destruction and individuals striving against a faceless powerful enemy.  

Continue reading “Terminator Dark Fate reviewed”