Wole Talabi: My Favorite African SFF Short Fiction of 2020

By Wole Talabi

This post first appeared here.

2020 started out dangerously for me. A volcano erupted near Manila just as I was flying into the city to transit back to Kuala Lumpur and we all watched with concern as the pilot had to dodge the dust and volcanic ash cloud to get us into the city. Exciting. Or not. We were the last flight to land before the airport was shut down for 3 days for safety so we were stuck there. It was a mess. One could say it was an omen of what was to come because what followed that in quick succession within the first few weeks of the year was political turmoil, an oil price crash, and then the pandemic and all that followed it.

What a difference a year makes.

Despite all that though, some good things did happen and I look forward to 2021 with cautious optimism that things will get better by the end of it.

Although I didn’t have any new stories published in 2020 (I was just far too busy with personal life and work and research and other things) I did sow the seeds of things that could/should pay off in the future, especially for my writing. I signed with the excellent Van Aggellen African Literary Agency and edited a book I’m quite proud of – Africanfuturism: An Anthology with the good folks at Brittlepaper and it includes stories by some excellent authors: Nnedi Okorafor, TL Huchu, Dilman Dila, Rafeeat Aliyu, Tlotlo Tsamaase, Mame Bougouma Diene, Mazi Nwonwu, and Derek Lubangakene. Its gotten (two!) great reviews from Locus and I personally think it contains some of the best African SF stories of the year. I suppose that makes me eligible for best editor (Short Form) for the Hugo awards and stuff so that’s nice. It is available for free download and you can also read the individual stories online.

Africanfuturism: An Anthology is just one of several places to find excellent African SFF in 2020. There was a lot to choose from. If you want a working list of (almost) everything that came out last year, check out THIS link. (I’d also like to encourage you to please fill this form with any works that might have been missed out, it is growing increasingly difficult to keep up with everything published – which is a good problem to have – but with constraints on my time tightening, its also a problem that’s getting worse). This gives us all plenty of material to be considered for this year’s Nommo awards. Especially in the short fiction category which I have repeated multiple times is the category I enjoy writing, reading and keeping up with most because I basically grew up on SF short fiction – Asimov’s Hugo winners collections and Dozois’s Years Best SF kept me tethered to the field even when I went through the valley of the shadow of my SF reading-death. So as it is now a tradition of sorts, I’d like to highlight the African speculative fiction short stories I read and enjoyed most from the wildly disruptive year gone by.  

[Before we begin, as always, a few notes: these are my personal favorites or those that left a lasting impression on me based on my own tastes. They are largely stories I’d personally recommend. Also, while I’ve read a lot of the African SFF short work put out this year, I’m sure I haven’t read everything. I am also really restricting myself to just 10 in this list, as difficult as that is, unlike in previous years where I would use ties to sneak more works in by pairing them with others that are thematically similar. And finally, I usually don’t include my own stories published that year for obvious bias and while Africanfuturism: An Anthology easily contains many of my favorite stories of the year, given how involved I was in shaping those stories, I have decided not to include any of them on this list. So without further ado, here are my 10 favorite African speculative fiction short stories of 2020, in no particular order.]

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Grass in Its Fist

By So Mayer.

When I think about 2020, this is the image I think about most.

It’s from Star Trek: Discovery season 3, episode 8, and it foregrounds a young scientist, Adira, recently recovered from a serious medical procedure and thrown into a new, high-intensity work situation, asleep on their arms at their console. They have been trying for days to resolve a galaxy-brain complexity algorithm that could, simultaneously, explain why the Federation is in chaos, be key to rescuing desperately ill people, and undermine the hold of an exploitative, violent, nativist and populist criminal syndicate. 

The series was filmed July 2019-February 2020, with post-production taking place remotely. It’s not hard to see the post-production editors, graders and data wranglers – perhaps home-schooling as they also work from home with a pandemic on the doorstep – feeling reflected in this scene as they finessed it. 

But the scene has a background as well as a foreground, in which Adira’s new colleagues / bosses / adoptive parents – Discovery’s doctor Hugh Culber and his partner, scientist Paul Stamets – talk softly and supportively. Not only are they honouring the work of a very young and new crew member, but – for the first time – using Adira’s chosen pronouns in conversation. 

In some ways, it feels perilously close to Silicon Valley’s exploitative vocational vision in which young programmers live at their desks for companies that spout liberal-libertarian slogans while maintaining – in terms of both their employment policies and their products – structural and systemic racism, classism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia. Yet Star Trek: Discovery’s timely frayed and worn take on the original series’ utopianism suggests that this is, instead, the revival of the dream of work that Starfleet has long held out: work with dignity, safety, meaning and import.

Dreaming, Adira works, their unconscious shaping the solution that cracks the code. What ensues also (re)shapes the meaning and function of Starfleet in this distressed and fragmented new universe. This scene places sleep – rest, care, dreaming – front and centre of what might be meant by a utopian vision of labour.

Adira’s snatched nap at their desk feels particularly pertinent because I feel that all I’ve done for the last ten months is work (from home, at a screen) and sleep. Thus, of this year’s reading, it’s been two books about working and sleeping that have haunted me the most. I was electrified by A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, and especially its neuroscience fictions; her invention of the imago, a device that imports the personae of those who previously held a particular job, could be read as similar to Star Trek’s joined Trill: Adira is notably, a human who is hosting a Trill symbiont, previously hosted by their boyfriend Grey, who glitchily haunts them in a manner reminiscent of Mahit Dzmare’s situation in Memory. Dzmare’s imago is also glitching, and her predecessor Yskander is a spectral and often unexpected presence, an embodied unconscious who guides her into intuitive connections that analogise dreamwork. 

But it’s two novellas that exemplified for me this idea of oneiric labour as a route out of null exploitative employment: the first, The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century by Danish writer Olga Ravn, translated by Martin Aitken and published by translation specialists Lolli Editions, takes its inspiration from a Barbara Kruger art installation, and is absolutely what its title describes insofar as the workplace is a spaceship that’s also an art gallery, and the novel’s form is that of disordered entries from a report by the parent company’s investigators concerned that the human and humanoid employees are becoming indistinguishable. More on this elusive text in a moment.

The second novella, Finna by Nino Cipri is perhaps the more conventional inclusion, as it’s published by Tor, and its acknowledgements situate it resonantly and clearly within the new queer feminist SFF. Cipri writes that ‘Karin Tidbeck was my Swedish consultant and she came up with the name for FINNA… [and] Rivers Solomon provided a stellar and insightful sensitivity read’, presumably at least in part for the character of Jules, who is Black and non-binary (Solomon’s pronouns are fae/faer and they/them). In homage and solidarity, I should say that I was tipped off to Finna via Twitter by The Bookish Type, an independent queer bookshop in Leeds who opened, utopianly, in September 2020, and survived multiple lockdowns by building incredible community on social media, and are continuing (like a Starfleet for books) to keep things flowing to those in need.

Cipri also notes that ‘Lara Elena Donnelly gave me the premise for this story’, a modelling of creative labour as mutual aid in which mutuality is both pragmatic and in the possibility of a shared unconscious. Rather than Adrienne Rich’s feminist ‘dream of a common language’, Finna attentively marks the sharply distinctive experiences of Black and Muslim characters, of cis and trans characters, of working-class employees and middle-management, in its setting of a big-box Scandi furniture store called LitenVärld. A maze in itself, LitenVärld’s fractured no-place geography makes it a hotspot for maskhål, aka wormholes, which open to LitenVärlds in other dimensions.

Ava, the protagonist, is already having a bad day – covering someone else’s shift, and thus sharing a roster with her recent ex, Jules – when an elderly woman called Ursula Nouri disappears from a room model called the Nihilist Bachelor Cube. The comedic riff on the excruciating language of late capitalism continues when Ava and Jules have to view a workplace instructional videos about wormholes that nods knowingly to the ‘Doublemeat Palace’ episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (season 6, episode 12). When Buffy’s campaign for what could be called ‘wages against slayage’ fails, she takes a minimum-wage fast food job that supposedly fits flexibly around her unconventional schedule as well as supplying take-out leftovers for her and her sister, but actually leads to grim disappearances that riff on Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973). 

Finna has a similar flex on messy edges where the real world and the otherworld meet and rip, and how it’s work that crosses over between them. It smartly and tellingly balances the science-fictional otherworlds where, for example, parallel LutenVärld workers are actually vampire-zombies, with the horror of LitenVärld itself, as exemplar of late capitalist dystopia in which work is exploitative, repetitive and meaningless, yet also – because it’s a lived space where others who are also disenfranchised or dislocated find/lose themselves – a site of connection and even love. The dream/nightmare otherworlds analogise, satirise and redistribute the signifiers of work without evacuating them of meaning: Ava has to return to LutenVärld at the end, and it remains as awful as it was, even after confronting vampire-zombie hordes.

But what the otherworlds also offer, or rather highlight, is the possibility of comradeship. Forced to travel through the maskhål with Jules, Ava finds a form of workers’ solidarity in extremis, as their collective decisions and actions are freed from corporate oversight and commerce, and become (as in Starfleet) life-or-death. Ava learns to trust herself through Jules’ trust in her, and realises how the dignity of labour, with its skills and solidarity, is ground down by capitalist employment, but not entirely ground out. The experience of otherworlds raise the possibility that dreaming and imagining are forms of work, on the self and on the world. And perhaps it is an inalienable form of labour whose effects and products cannot be appropriated and capitalised. When Ava gets back, she’s exhausted. So she sleeps – in Jules’ empty apartment, where she feels safe. There’s something tender and unrecognised in this moment, unfamiliar from conventional heroic narratives. Sleeping and dreaming (or entering a maskhål) becomes a kind of redistributive action concerning who deserves security and ease.

The book ends with possibility, one that is located in refusing absolutely the disciplinary frameworks of retail work, including their signposted no-places:

To go where she wanted [Ava realised], she had to get lost, and it seemed almost instinctual to do that now… Ava chased that particular sense of disorientation, recognizable now; somewhere between the feeling of falling in love, and falling out of it… of not knowing and still going forward.

That disorientation is also present, differently, in Star Trek: Discovery and The Employees, in both the conventional sense, and Sara Ahmed’s usage to mark the force exerted on narrative and embodied spaces by queerness. The Employees’ characters are rarely gendered: some mention experiences such as child-bearing or -rearing, but in the same breath may question whether these are implanted memories. 

Both the human / humanoid distinction and binary gender collapse productively and, in fact, revolutionarily, as those employees who are – or think they are, or accept they are – humanoid take over the ship. They are acting in concert in response to a disorientation produced by a number of strange objects taken on board from the planet New Discovery. The objects produce multisensory, and even synaesthetic, apprehensions in some employees and not others, sense-memory triggers that cross the human-humanoid boundary to dispense with the Voight-Kampff test. 

The Blade Runner reference is not plucked from nowhere. Here’s Statement 097 in full, echoing the famous ‘tears in rain’ monologue as well as the film’s rain-soaked climate dystopia:

You want to know what I think about this arrangement? I think you look down on me. The way I see it, you’re a family that’s built a house. And from the warm rooms of that house you now look out at the pouring rain… I’m standing in the rain that you think can never fall on you. I become one with that rain. I’m the storm you shelter from. This entire house is something you built just to avoid me. So don’t come to me and say I play no part in human lives.

Feelings are feelings (as Roy Batty is arguing), and (as queer feminist Yvonne Rainer says) feelings are – like the impossible objects – facts, however much colonial capitalism supresses and disputes that.

It is in working with – as guards and cleaners, rather than being viewers, curators or scholars – these disorienting objects that the effects occur. Making visible the often-invisibilised labour attendant on producing a cultural sector with which we can engage critically and for pleasure feels especially pointed and poignant after a year when many wealthy national art institutions such as Tate and Southbank Centre made their lowest-paid staff redundant, especially cleaners, security, retail and hospitality workers who were often already on precarious contracts. The Employees considers the work that underlies others’ ability to dream, and the ways in which working with numinous objects may inspire a vision of a self-ownership and self-value in that labour, and beyond it.

The Employees ends with the humanoid survivors of the uprising going planet-side, to experience an organic existence and ecosystem about which they only have implanted memories. It’s a quietly, deeply subversive idea, a bleaker conclusion than Finna’s, almost Beckettian. The penultimate, unnumbered speaker says: ‘If I pull up some grass from the earth and keep it in my hand from now on, will there be a chance then? No, we’re given new bodies. My dead body will have to lie here with the grass in its fist.’ 

It’s a reminder of the all-too-often inorganic imaginaries of space fiction, a sterile scientism that Star Trek: Discovery has disrupted with its mycelial network and, this season, with a greenhouse ship reminiscent of and also redemptive of Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull, 1972). The paramount survival of a galactic seed vault lush with vegetation (including medicinal plants) takes place in an episode titled ‘Die Trying’ (3.5): multispecies co-existence, indigenous and Black leadership, and ecological urgency are keynotes of the third season. It will be fascinating to see whether this eco-consciousness will be maintained in subsequent seasons.

Rilakkuma and Kaoru

I can’t imagine the informes that hang impossibly in the Six-Thousand Ship in The Employees. When I try to, what I see is my other favourite televisual image of 2020 (although streamed on Netflix since 2019). Rilakkuma and Kaoru is a handmade stop-motion animation based on a popular Japanese bear toy. Its logic is indeed oneiric, with Rilakkuma and his friends’ adventures offset against the predictable humiliations of office life for Kaoru. In one episode, ‘Sleepless Night’, the smaller bear Korilakkuma attempts to contact aliens night after night (by leaving food out for them), and eventually appears to succeed. Transported to their ship, Korilakkuma finally gets some sleep, nestled in the arms of a giant space panda.

Why a panda? How in space? Is the experience (in the terms of the show’s reality) real? Korilakkuma does bring back an object from the spaceship into Kaoru’s apartment, defying the other characters’ insistence that the ship was a dream. But, as The Employees puts it so poignantly, the grass remains in the hand. Under the illogics of global capitalism, what makes sense is the longing – experienced across all five of these texts – to sleep in the welcoming arms of a surviving ecology, soundly and safely, ready for tomorrow’s soft overthrow.

So Mayer is the author of, most recently, A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing (Peninsula, 2020) and jacked a kaddish (Litmus Publishing, 2018), and contributions to In the Past, the Future Was Better (Cipher Press, 2020) and On Relationships (3ofCups, 2020). They work as a (digital) bookseller for Burley Fisher Books, a programmer and editor with queer feminist film curation collective Club des Femmes, and as a researcher and co-founder with Raising Films, a campaign for parents and carers in the UK screen sector. 

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Vector in 2020

Vector continues to publish a broad range of SFF criticism, as well as interviews, reports, and reviews, including both scholarly and fan writing. This year we again published two bumper issues of Vector, #291 (unthemed) and #292 (SFF and contemporary art).

This year, in collaboration with Fanac, we also made sixty years of back issues available digitally. You can explore the archives here (see also this earlier note). Going forward, Vector is likely to be publishing more themed and guest-edited issues, including #293, a special on Chinese SFF guest-edited by Yen Ooi and Regina Kanyu Wang.

The BSFA also continues to publish Focus (for SFF writers, ed. Dev Agarwal) and The BSFA Review (a digital SFF reviews zine, ed. Sue Oke), and has announced a new annual fiction publication, Fission, will be launched in 2021.

We also ran the 2020 Solidarity Salon series, with readings from a variety of wonderful authors, all available here. We don’t currently have firm plans in place for something similar in 2021, although it does seem likely we’ll continue to be doing more things online, so we very much welcome feedback, ideas, and possibilities for collaborations.

The BSFA also adopted a new constitution at our 2020 AGM, and is preparing for a new website launch in (probably early-ish) 2021.

If you’re not currently a member of the BSFA, please consider joining!

In previous years we’ve often done some kind of “Best SFF of the Year” type feature. We won’t be doing that this year exactly, but do check out …