Torque Control

‘We have come to refuel your future’: Asphalt Afrofuturism and African Futurities

By Gemma FieldVector289_Cover

This is a peer-reviewed article which fist appeared in Vector 289

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 expressed mixed feelings about the label, certain aspects nevertheless remain a useful lens on her work.

Afrofuturism is a broad category of aesthetic and intellectual projects, whose main frame of reference includes the cultural products, history, and future of Africa and the African diaspora. In her foundational study, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, Ytasha Womack defines Afrofuturism as “an intersection of imagination, technology, the future, and liberation” (23). For Womack, Afrofuturism has characteristic thematic concerns, and also a distinctive epistemology, i.e. distinctive kinds of knowledge and ways of knowing. That is, Afrofuturism draws indigenous mythology and cosmology together with technologies past, present, and future, in order to envision, describe, and realise a liberatory future. As Womack describes, Afrofuturism “combines elements of science-fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity and magical realism with non-Western beliefs…re-envisioning of the past alongside speculation about the future” (Womack, 24). Academic study of Afrofuturism essentially began with Mark Dery’s 1994 essay “Black to the Future.” However, the aesthetic and ideology can be traced to earlier jazz and funk pioneers like Sun Ra, George Clinton and P-Funk, who employed space age theatrics and political lyrics with cosmic themes to raise African American consciousness. These innovators drew parallels between the archetypes of science-fiction and Afro-diasporic experiences, and tapped into the alienation from white American society experienced by people whose ancestors had been abducted and forced into servitude. Kodwo Eshun argues that the psychological dislocation, existential chaos, dehumanization and alienation widely held to be the hallmarks of twentieth century modernism, were experienced much earlier by the victims of the Middle Passage and their descendants: he suggests “situating the collective trauma of slavery as the founding moment of modernity” (Eshun, 286-8) in an Afrocentric paradigm.

In addition to its exploration of alienation and modernity, Afrofuturism also seeks to illuminate “the role of science and technology in the black experience overall” (Womack, 29). This means working to recover marginalised histories: everything from the aural innovations of Jimi Hendrix and other African American pioneers of rock music, to the telecommunications inventions of Dr Shirley Jackson, to the work of Katharine Johnson, the NASA mathematician whose work on orbital mechanics played a fundamental role in the moon-landing and subsequent Apollo missions; to the history of Henrietta Lacks, whose unique DNA (obtained without her consent) was propagated as the first immortal cell line at Johns Hopkins University in 1951. (The study of Lacks’s DNA has paved the way for numerous medical innovations, the most famous of these being the polio vaccine). The Afrofuturist project undertakes historical and discursive activism in “uncovering these inventors past and present and incorporating their stories into larger conversations about science, technology, creativity and race” (Womack, 49).

Eshun’s essay “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism,” in true sf style, sets out as a thought experiment: what if, thousands of years from now, archaeologists from the highly enlightened and technologically advanced United States of Africa were to exhume and examine the cultural products of the present? “They would be struck,” Eshun suggests, “by how much Afrodiasporic subjectivity in the twentieth century constituted itself through the cultural project of recovery” (Eshun, 287): the process of undoing the erasure of black presence in culture and society over time and space. Accordingly, he suggests assembling an arsenal of “countermemories” (Eshun, 288) to resist the colonially-inscribed past and taking ownership of the future. These countermemories constitute “an ethical commitment to history, the dead and the forgotten, the manufacture of conceptual tools that could analyze and assemble counterfutures,” in order to create alternatives to dominant narratives that have marginalised or erased accounts of that founding trauma, and have consistently downplayed the roles of Africans and African Americans in science ever since.

In addition to its concern with alienation, and with science and technology, Afrofuturism has a science fictional interest in temporality. That is, Afrofuturism asserts that reclaiming the past, and reinscribing it within our present culture, is a crucial step toward establishing racial and social justice in the future. Art and activism are thus closely linked in Afrofuturism: evidence of this approach is available, for example, in the “cybersoul” of Janelle Monáe’s android alter-ego Cindi Mayweather, who “shows us new liberatory possibilities created by African-American cultural production in concert with contemporary technological transformation” (English and Kim, 218).  Cindi Mayweather’s narrative lays claim to both the future and past as she escapes the enslavement of the Palace of Dogs (an asylum) to start a robotic electronic revolution that reaches its apotheosis in the “emotion picture” Dirty Computer. There is undeniable recuperative power in a unified attempt in politics and the arts to “to unearth the missing history of the people of African descent and their roles in science, technology and science-fiction…[and] to reintegrate people of the colour into the discussion of cyberculture, modern science, technology and sci-fi pop culture” (Womack, 29, 30).

With this Afrocentric paradigm in mind, we might also consider the emergence of “the futures industry,” a term used to refer to the collective infrastructure that profits from “the envisioning, management and delivery of reliable futures” (Eshun, 289)— from stockbroking, to Silicone Valley, to election results — that has become increasingly prominent in determining the course of development in Africa. The questions of who gets to live in this future, and who will be relegated to the past, are central concerns of Afrofuturism. The value of information in this future-now is paramount: it “circulates as an increasingly valuable commodity” (Eshun, 290). For Eshun, “Afrofuturism’s first priority is to recognise that Africa increasingly exists as the object of futuristic projection” (291), from weather to resources to migration to politics and conflict. There is always a reliable trade in market projections of Africa’s socio-economic crises.

From Afrofuturist imaginings, to those of the futures industry, energy and the environment are crucial factors in Africa’s future. In Lagoon, science and technology are misused in the profit-seeking plunder of Nigeria’s natural resources, resulting in social injustice and alienation. Lagoon’s Lagos is a prime example of the “soul-crushing corruption” (Okorafor, 57) that accompanies such extractivist-capitalist development: the army is a law unto itself, ordinary people eke out a living running 419 scams, but most significantly, the country’s roads have been neglected to such an extent that the motorway has begun to prey upon living creatures. The paradoxical “resource curse” — a term coined by Richard Auty, and taken up by Nixon in his book Slow Violence — suggests a correlation between resource abundance and troubled economic development. Nixon suggests that such countries may suffer from overdependence on revenue from oil exports, leaving other areas of the economy underdeveloped, and encouraging rent-seeking, as the “highly concentrated revenue stream is readily diverted away from social and infrastructural investments and into offshore bank accounts” (Nixon, 70). Political power can become predicated on “controlling the central resource [rather than] on strengthening civic expectations”; consequently, “national cohesion and stability may be jeopardized by exaggerated inequalities” (Nixon, 70) as the revenues from the nation’s natural wealth is siphoned off by Western companies.

The Niger Delta and the coast hold large oil reserves, but Nigeria’s mineral wealth belies a “resource curse” of persistent political instability and a legacy of widespread environmental devastation, and associated deleterious effects on health, safety, corporate and political governance, economic opportunities, and the wellbeing of local communities. Lagoon highlights the violent dysfunction in two key moments: on the offshore rig, the site of oil extraction, and the predatory highway, a combination of asphalt and oil-powered vehicles. These dramatic moments in the text call attention to the environmental and social problems of Nigeria’s oil-based society.

In contrast to humans acting under the incentives of extractivist capitalism, Okorafor’s aliens are markedly empathetic and considerate towards the natural environment and non-human actors. They “ask such good questions” (6) of the marine life, immediately establishing a rapport with the fish, pointing to an alternative to Western anthropocentrism and neocolonial economics. The swordfish is accorded agency, subjectivity, and a key role in the narrative: she starts the novel and sets the whole series of events in motion by attacking the oil rig. When she encounters the alien ambassadors, she asks for the power to realise her goal of destroying the rig once and for all, and “they make it so” (Okorafor, 7).

Ayodele’s association with indigenous mythology and cosmology suggests that these alien “invaders” are not the stock figures of monstrous, extraterrestrial conquerors. Rather, they are potential collaborators in a project of recovery, along the lines suggested by Eshun. Upon examining her, Adoara remarks that Ayodele “looked like a member of her own family”; further, Ayodele’s appearance textually references Mami Wata, the “pantheon of African water creatures” (Womack, 71). Half human and half sea creature, they are “bringers of divine law” (Womack, 70) in West African mythology.  Contrary to what we expect from much of the Anglo-American canon of sf, these aliens offer redemption and renewal: a chance to make a complete break with dirty sources of energy and repair the seemingly irreparable ecological damage to our planet.

There is much to be gleaned from a close reading of Chapter 19, titled “Offshore,” in which Agu and the swordfish come to a head in the shadow of the oil rig. By bringing Agu and his fellow soldiers to defend the rig from the sea creatures who have begun to violently resist, Okorafor is highlighting the bonds between international oil companies and the Nigerian government. As the swordfish reminds us, the rig is the alien in this ecosystem; this interpretation is strengthened by Agu’s description of the oil infrastructure as the “decades-old monster, a hulking, unnatural contraption of production facilities, drilling rigs and crew quarters…usually a place of noise and activity” (Okorafor, 95). In the encounter, Agu’s fellow soldiers are ripped apart by the razor-sharp fins of alien-enhanced flying fish, and only Agu’s supernatural powers save him from the same fate.

Thus the oil rig as a site of violence is brought viscerally to life. Usually, human brutality towards the non-human world occurs as slow violence, “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is not typically viewed as violence at all” (Nixon, 2). Invading a country with artillery and military personnel, launching missile strikes or dispersing chemical weapons, are actions easily labelled as “violent.” In conflicts such as the Vietnam War or the Biafran War, damage done to bodies can be readily linked to military operations, and in this sense such wars appear to have well-defined beginnings and endings. But the long-term consequences of Agent Orange and British Petroleum on rural Vietnam and the Niger Delta — poisoned soil and failing crops; undrinkable water and unbreathable air; birth defects and cancers — that have fundamentally assaulted human and ecological matter, are often discounted and disregarded; time and remoteness can distance consequences from their causes. The same is true of carbon emissions from fossil fuels, and the associated violence of climate change. In Okorafar’s Lagoon, the textual presentation of the oil rig redresses that displacement in a manner that leaves the international politics of offshore drilling quite clear: the “spidery structure made of concrete and rusty steel, anchored firmly to the seabed by steel beams” (Okorafor, 95) resembles a parasite leeching off a host, or at a molecular level, a virus clamping onto the host cell’s receptors. Slow violence is marked by displacements — temporal, economic, geographic, rhetorical, and technological — that “simplify violence…[and] smooth the way for amnesia”, minimizing the human and environmental costs of “turbo capitalism” (Nixon, 7). The slippery and unspectacular nature of slow violence poses representational and strategic challenges; Nixon posits that the aesthetic response to the crisis “entails devising iconic symbols that embody amorphous calamities as well as narrative forms that infuse those symbols with dramatic urgency” (Nixon, 10), in order to highlight the “representational challenges and imaginative dilemmas posed not just by imperceptible violence but by the imperceptible changes whereby violence is decoupled from its original causes” (Nixon, 11).

By making the site of oil extraction a site of swift and dramatic violence, violence against humans by natural forces, Lagoon reframes the slow violence of offshore drilling as unmistakeably dramatic and urgent crises. Furthermore, Okorafor positions the aliens as the remedy to the representational slippages of slow violence during Ayodele’s broadcasted speech. Here the alien reveals that her people “have come to bring you together and refuel your future…your land is full of a fuel that is tearing you apart” (Okorafor, 113). The aliens overtly position themselves in opposition to the oil, the fuel of violence. They are here to “nurture your world” (Okorafor, 113); they are going to expunge and redeem the consequences of that conflict — the environmental devastation caused by oil which have been extensively represented in the text, and the corruption and dysfunction that accompanies the oil’s extraction.

While the gruesome scene on the rig dramatizes the slow violence of oil extraction, the predatory highway that calls itself the “Bone Collector” calls attention to the serious consequences of social dysfunction in an oil-powered society. Public roadways enable mobility, but it is the responsibility of the state to maintain them, to keep them safe for motorists and pedestrians. In Lagoon, the Lagos-Benin Expressway is “full of ghosts”, a “death-trap” (Okorafor, 189), a symptom of corruption and inequality, in contrast to the ‘Angelic’ roads in affluent Lagosian suburbs.

This “Road Monster”, like the swordfish, is based on actual events. Okorafor was inspired to write about the crisis of Nigeria’s roads after a horrific accident on the Lagos-Benin Expressway, the city’s major thoroughfare. The hijacking of a luxury bus gone horribly awry, which is retold by a fictional eye-witness. He describes “mangled, twisted bodies all over the goddamn road…[it] reeked of blood and fouler things…torn up bodies littering the roads, blood, intestines, skid marks of skin, twisted torsos, body parts torn off…a brutal scene” (Okorafor, 204). His account drives home a visceral quality that slow violence typically lacks: the vessel of human subjectivity deconstructed into its meaty components by the unstoppable velocity of the motor-industrial complex.

This portion of the Lagos-Benin Expressway “has named itself the Bone Collector…it mostly collects human bones, and the bones of human vehicles” (Okorafor, 120). The title is ominous: the road does not find throwaway bones, but actively accumulates them through engineered accidents. The predatory representation of the road is emphasised by its carnivorous greed as it “grumbled like an enormous empty stomach”, and uttered “a deep, guttural growl that intensified into a roar…the angry roar of a creature denied its meal” (Okorafor, 171). Here again the novel destabilises traditional subjectivity in according a dangerous agency to this typically taken-for-granted element of the built environment. That the antagonism of this man-made creature towards its creators speaks to the text’s petro-anxiety — the dangers of oil to the environment — to all the environments — has been made abundantly clear. But it is the Bone Collector that emphatically dramatizes the dangers of the oil industry to humans. The fact that we are using fossil fuels to destroy our true habitat is not sufficiently upsetting to make us desist — the environment actively preying upon us is much more effective at driving the message home. This is the slow violence of oil. Extreme weather conditions, and data pointing to catastrophic irreversible climate change, are not threatening enough, so the hazards of the petro-discourse are radically re-envisioned as the monster turned on its makers as an irrefutable and immediate danger.

But Okorafor’s conclusion is decidedly optimistic. Shortly after Ayodele heals the president, she allows herself to be killed by a mob and disintegrates. By “inhaling her essence” (Okorafor, 271) all of humanity becomes “a bit…alien” (Okorafor, 268). The novel ends on a utopic note: with the waters reclaimed and revitalized by their denizens, the president decides that oil will be expunged from the Nigerian economy, because the aliens will replace it with something cleaner and more powerful. Ayodele’s sacrifice infects the humans with a new way of thinking, an Afrofuturist epistemology, that the President’s speech makes clear. Nigeria has “rolled through decades of corruption and internal struggle” (277) that could only be addressed because of the alien “tipping point” (Okorafor, 277). “This kind of transitional shift”, that has come about as a result of the alien arrival and the proliferation of changes they bring, is a “cause for celebration, not panic” according to the President. The President tells his people that the aliens bring with them “new technology…[and] fresh ideas that we [Nigeria] can combine with our own” (Okorafor, 277). He concludes that Nigeria “will be powerful again” (Okorafor, 278), although if oil is removed from the equation, the form and structure of the power he hopes for is completely unknown.

Utilising traditional African iconography and mythology in concert with radical futurity, Okorafor has produced a remarkable novel that challenges the assumptions and tropes of mainstream sf. Lagoon draws attention to political, social, and environmental conditions in Nigeria. The intense, visceral quality of the two moments in the text I have explored establish strong textual links between oil and violences fast and slow, and the consequences of extractivist capitalism. Dramatically re-envisioning the conditions of Nigeria’s social, political, and economic present, the novel makes connections between environmental devastation enabled by global capital in concert with state power, and the violence and trauma visited disproportionately upon the populations of the Global South.

Eshun makes clear that envisioning the future is an important step to claiming a stake in it. If he is correct that “sf is now and research and development for the futures industry that dreams of the prediction and control of tomorrow” (Eshun, 291), then Lagoon can be situated within the catalogue of African Diasporic counterfutures. It comprises part of the intellectual and aesthetic project that seeks to redress racial and imperial imbalance in the future and the present.

References

Cooper, Brenda. Magical Realism in West African Fiction: Seeing with a Third Eye. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Dery, Mark. “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate and Tricia Rose.” Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture (1994): 179-222.

English, Daylanne K, & Kim, Alvin. “Now we Want our Funk Cut: Janelle Monae’s Neo-Afrofuturism.” American Studies 52.4 (2013): 217-330.

Eshun, Kodwo. “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism” The New Centennial Review 3.2 (2003): 287-302.

Mayer, Ruth. “‘Africa as an Alien Future’: The Middle Passage, Afrofuturism and Postcolonial Waterworlds.” American Studies 45.4 (2000): 555—566.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Massachussetts: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Okorafor, Nnedi. Lagoon. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014.

Pepetela. The Return of the Water Spirit. Portsmouth, NH, USA: Heinemann African Writers Series, 2002.

Tutuola, Amos. The Palm-Wine Drinkard. London: Faber & Faber, 1952.

Wenzel, Jennifer. “Petro-Magic-Realism: Toward a Political Ecology of Nigerian Literature.” Postcolonial Studies 9.4 (2006): 449-64.

Womack, Ytasha L. Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2013.


Gemma Field
is studying for a master’s in English Literature at the University of Cape Town, where she also obtained her bachelor’s degree. Her research interests include the environmental humanities, science-fiction and other fantastic literature, energy history and economics, and petrofiction, particularly as they pertain to African and especially South African contexts.

Productive Futures conference

By Jo Lindsay Walton

I’m just back from Productive Futures, a three-day conference organised by the LSFRC (London Science Fiction Research Community1) at Birkbeck University.

Productive Futures was definitely an academic conference rather than a fan convention, but it was an academic conference with several twists: there were plenty of engaging presentations by non-academics; there was a little table with freebies and merch; writing workshops from Verena Hermann and  Oliver Langmead + Thomas Moules; discussion with Jordi Lopez-Botey about the Senate House Boycott and his other work with the IWGB (a new kind of union representing traditionally non-unionised workers such as low paid migrant workers and workers in the “gig economy”); a panel of publishers and literary agents discussing both economics in SFF and the economics of SFF publishing which was a lot better than it sounds2; an associated not-really-part-of-the-conference-but-kind-of event at the Science Museum; Sinjin Li‘s conference booklet and ephemera that added up to an immersive work of art; a roundtable with two SFF author Guests of Honour, Aliette de Bodard and Zen Cho3; and probably more I’m forgetting. The excellent keynote lectures from Joan Haran and Caroline Edwards reinforced the inclusive, outward-facing, and politically engaged ethos.

The theme of the conference was economics and SFF (coincidentally also the theme of a recent Vector (#288)). From the intro to the conference booklet:

The history of Science Fiction is a history of unreal economics. Spanning asteroid mining and interstellar trade, robotic workforces and post-scarcity futures, SF offers ways of reimagining the economics of this and other worlds. Oscillating between the tragedies of neocolonial technocapitalism and the utopian futures made thinkable by a radical redistribution of resources, the novels, films, exhibitions and thought experiments that we will discuss across these three days establish SF as a genre which can and must be understood in economic terms.

So yeah, you might be forgiven for imagining economics just means money and trade, but the conference put paid (pun intended) to that notion: ecology and climate also became a huge theme over the three days; so did work, including unpaid forms of work; so did kinship and family, including polyamory and consensual nonmonogamy; so did infrastructure, including the digital infrastructure of the internet.

If you have a twinge of FOMO, there is some good news: LSFRC also stands for the Live-tweeting Shockingly Fast in Real-time Community. The absolute virtuosos of the art of conference live-tweeting are … well, you’ll see: check out the #unrealE hashtag, with a smattering of tweets under #productivefutures and #lsfrc2019.

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Conference organisers Katie, Francis, and Tom, with other vital agencies lurking in the assemblage

A few more things:

  • We don’t have a conference report lined up for Vector, but if anyone would like to write one, or just share less formal impressions and thoughts, Vector will be very happy to host.
  • The LSFRC is an organisation of SF scholars and fans, led by graduate students based at Birkbeck and Royal Holloway. The LSFRC organises conferences, events with guest speakers, film screenings, and a monthly reading group in London. The best place to keep track of them is Facebook, and they’re also on Twitter, and have a website. LSFRC was formed in 2014 by Rhodri Davies, Andrea Dietrich, and Aren Roukema, and the current directors are Rhodri Davies, Tom Dillon, Francis Gene-Rowe, Katie Stone, and (as of now!) Sasha Myerson. In a short time LSFRC have really established themselves as an amazing force in SFF studies in the UK and around the world. Productive Futures was a seriously international conference, with attendees from the US, China, India, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, and elsewhere, as well as one or two remote presentations from folk who couldn’t be there in the flesh. The organisers also worked to make the conference accessible and inclusive — although there is always more than can be done — with essentially a “pay what you or your institution can afford” approach to attendance fees.
  • The LSFRC’s theme for this year was political economy. The theme for the coming year is borders.


Footnotes

(1) AKA the Large Science Fiction Community, apparently. Also Lustrous, Livid, Lionhearted, etc. I should probably also mention that I played a very minor role in organising the conference, which mostly consisted of emailing “Haven’t read this properly but I agree” from time to time, and on one occasion messing up the travel budgets while very merry on Rhodri Davies’ homebrew.

(2) I have been to some boring publishers’ panels, okay? This one was great: it was deftly moderated; most of the panellists arrived well-prepared; there was nimble hat-juggling as pretty much everyone spoke both as professionals and as fans of SFF; there was nuanced consideration of different kinds of publishing; there wasn’t the assumption you sometimes get that the audience is hungry for tips on “success,” or that commodified and commercially successful SFF is the SFF that really matters. For me, the only bum note was Jo Fletcher’s response to a question about the representation of working class voices in speculative fiction, which didn’t really address the specific question, and also definitely edged toward disheartening “I don’t see colour” territory. It was however good to hear from Jo about Hachette’s Changing the Story initiative, which is reflecting critically on the industry’s lack of diversity and creating concrete opportunities for BAME people and others. (Diversity, of course, isn’t yet decolonising, and diversity-oriented thinking can even sometimes impede decolonisation! But the tensions between diversity and decoloniality should be seen on a context-by-context basis, and my hunch is within contemporary publishing a focus on diversity is still extremely useful to the wider and deeper projects of decolonisation).

(3) The third Guest of Honour, Tade Thompson, had to drop out. Maybe next year?

An interview with Dilman Dila

dilman-portrait
Dilman Dila

This interview first appeared in Vector 289.

When and why did you begin writing speculative fiction and where did you get your inspirations?

I’m not sure when exactly I started writing speculative fiction. I think I’ve always loved the genre. When I was about twelve, I thought about writing a story with a character inspired by ninjas. At that time, a certain type of shoe had become popular in my small town, Tororo. They called it North Star (I think), and it was fashioned like a boot made of cloth. It was a cheap shoe, maybe a pirated brand, but seeing something that looked like a ninja costume made me think about a ninja in the town. I did not get down to writing it. I only played with the idea, but every time I walked in the streets I saw my ninja running on the rusty iron-sheet roofs.

I wrote my first speculative story in my early twenties. At that time, speculative fiction from African writers was frowned upon. Writers like Amos Tutuola did not get as much attention as Chinua Achebe because the latter wrote ‘realistic’ stories, often those that could be taken as a social or political commentary. It became expected of African writer to tell stories that were anthropological in nature. Even today, some blurbs do not say what the story is, but rather tell how a book talks about this African city or that African culture or the other African country. Though the first stories I published were ‘realistic’, the pull to the fantastic was very strong, and elements of it kept slipping in. Like A Killing in the Sun, which I wrote sometime in 2001 or 2002. I wanted it to be a mundane story about uncontrollable soldiers, something that had scourged the country for decades, but it turned out to be a ghost story. Finding a home for these stories was very difficult, and it left me frustrated and hopeless.

Then I discovered the internet and its plethora of ezines willing to publish spec-fic, and that’s when I ditched everything my education had taught me about what it means to be an African writer.

I can’t say why I write speculative fiction. Maybe because I have an ‘overactive imagination.’ My brain is always cooking up fantastical things and creating magical backstories to every mundane thing I see. I love to daydream. It’s one of my favorite pastimes. Today, I love to spend hours in my bed, doing nothing, just staring at the ceiling and dreaming up fantastical worlds. When I was a little boy, I did not have this luxury. People would see me sitting idle somewhere and they would chase me to go and find other children to play with. Being a recluse was frowned upon, staying alone for long hours was frowned upon. Yet I loved to do it, to wander away to magical lands, and so I would look for any place that gave me absolute privacy to daydream. The bathroom was one such place, the only one I remember spending a lot of time in. It was a room at the back of the courtyard, and we shared it with four other families. Sometimes there was a long queue to use it. I avoided bathing in the evenings, when the queue would be long, and preferred afternoons. Whenever anyone saw me go into the bathroom, they would say, “Let me bathe first. If you go in, you won’t come out.” It was not a nice place. It had a broken water heater, and the window shutters were wooden, and the taps were not working, and the floor was a little bit slimy with dirt, but I loved it for the privacy it gave me to daydream, and I think allowing my brain to wander away in that bathroom was training ground for me to write speculative fiction.

Why do you think speculative fictions from Africa and the African diaspora have become more popular in recent times?

There’s been a push for diversity in fiction and in films. We all know the majority of readers are people of color, yet the majority of speculative fiction works are by white people, and so people wanted to see themselves in these artworks.

But I think many Africans are simply finding the stories they love to read in written form, and stories that are about them. Most people still enjoy oral stories, and these are often fantastical in nature. Not in the classic way of sitting around the fire and telling folk tales, but some of these stories end up in newspapers, with headlines like ‘Witchdoctor sues Parliament Speaker for failure to pay him.’ (This is a recent case, of a traditional healer who claimed the speaker of the Ugandan parliament owed her success to him, and she did not pay him for the charms he gave her to succeed). I think people on the continent are beginning to appreciate reading these kinds of things in good fiction, not just in hearsays.

You are both a writer and filmmaker — how do these creative processes feed into each other?

I am more than just a writer and filmmaker. With an overactive imagination, there’s always a story lurking in my subconscious, and if I stick to one media I wouldn’t cope. I’ve written radio plays, stage plays, poetry, and recently I went into digital arts and fell in love with it at once. I love telling stories and it does not make sense to stick to one format. Whether it’s a book, or a poem, or digital art, the uniting factor is story, and I believe I’m a storyteller.

From the idea stage, I know whether a story will be prose, or film, or radio play. Only recently have I started to think of multi-platform stories, like the one in AfroSF v3, “Safari Nyota,” which I want to be prose, a web series, a video game, and a graphic novel, each platform with a slightly different storyline.

I started as a writer, and it taught me a lot about developing characters, for with prose, you have a lot of freedom to give the reader a character’s backstory. Writing radio plays and stage plays helped me master dialog. When I went into film, I learned a lot about plotting, since films are time-bound. This kind of made my prose writing sparser than it used to be, and led me to develop a visual style. As I go more into digital arts, I’m beginning to pay a lot of attention to details. There are things I used to ignore in my writing, especially when describing characters, but now, when making a piece of digital art, I have to think about the minute details, and I find myself thinking about this when writing, and I believe it will help me grow.

Can you tell us more about your film Her Broken Shadow — what themes or messages were you most keen to convey? Continue reading “An interview with Dilman Dila”

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”

“Maybe, just maybe, humanity is worth saving”: Stu Jones and Gareth Worthington interviewed

Image result for it takes death to reach a star

Stu Jones and Gareth Worthington are authors of It Takes Death to Reach a Star (2018) and In the Shadow of a Valiant Moon (2020) — fast-paced, action-packed, post-apocalyptic thrillers set in the 23rd century — as well as various solo works. It Takes Death to Reach a Star was a Dragon Award Finalist, a Cygnus Award First Place Ribbon recipient, an IPPY Award Winner, a New York Book Festival Sci-Fi Award Winner, and a Feathered Quill Gold Award Winner. Vector caught up with Stu and Gareth to ask them about their collaboration …

In the Shadow of a Valiant Moon is out early next year, is that right? Tell us a little bit about it. 

Gareth: Moon — as Stu and I refer to it — is the sequel to It Takes Death to Reach a Star. It’s set four years after the events in Star. Star was dark, but Moon is darker. Even the team at Boilermaker Entertainment — they’re the ones we’re working with to bring this series to the screen — commented on how much darker it is, compared with the first book. 

Stu: And yet, even with all the bleakness and despair, there is this central thread of hope. Just the flicker of an idea that maybe, just maybe, humanity is worth saving. 

Lads, why so bleak?

Continue reading ““Maybe, just maybe, humanity is worth saving”: Stu Jones and Gareth Worthington interviewed”

The Astounding Award

With admirable swiftness, what was the John C. Campbell Award for Best New Writer has been re-named The Astounding Award for Best New Writer.

Named for Campbell, whose writing and role as editor of Astounding Science Fiction (later renamed Analog Science Fiction and Fact) made him hugely influential in laying the groundwork for both the Golden Age of Science Fiction and beyond, the award has over the years recognized such nominees as George R.R. Martin, Bruce Sterling, Carl Sagan, and Lois McMaster Bujold, as well as award winners like Ted Chiang, Nalo Hopkinson, and John Scalzi.

However, Campbell’s provocative editorials and opinions on race, slavery, and other matters often reflected positions that went beyond just the mores of his time and are today at odds with modern values, including those held by the award’s many nominees, winners, and supporters.

The full statement can be found here. Jeannette Ng’s acceptance speech, which sparked the change, can be found here. It began something like this: Continue reading “The Astounding Award”

The Speculative Turn in African Literature

Guest editorial by Michelle Louise Clarke that appeared in Vector 289

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

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

Realism and Resistance

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “The Speculative Turn in African Literature”

The Tea: An Interview with Emma Newman

Photograph by Lou Abercrombie

Vector caught up with Emma Newman, author of the Split Worlds, Planetfall, and Industrial Magic series, and other excellent things, at BristolCon in October 2018. 

Hello Emma Newman! What a delight and an honour. How has your BristolCon been so far?

Well, I actually arrived quite late, so I’ve really just got here.

So far it’s been, “ambushed for an interview.”

Yes! And looking at beautiful art, actually.

Now, you are much better at interviewing people than I am. But one person you never seem to interview is you. So if you were interviewing you, what would you ask you?

“Would you like a cup of tea?”

Would you like a cup of tea? Continue reading “The Tea: An Interview with Emma Newman”