African Science Fiction

A comradely incitement to our own peripheralization.

October 2, 2017

African Science Fiction

Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 3.3 by Moradewun Adejunmobi. Cambridge University Press. 0

AFRICAFANTASTIKA continues to boom.

In 2016, Nnedi Okorafor won a Hugo and a Nebula for her novella Binti (2015), and omenana, the first African SF magazine, reached its ninth issue in just three years. The African Speculative Fiction Society, an even more significant indicator of critical mass, was launched at Nigeria’s Aké Arts and Book Festival, and this November it will return there to present the first annual Nommo Awards for best African speculative novel, novella, short story, and graphic novel.

In March 2017, the Luxor African Film Festival included two SF movies. Uganda’s leading SF writer, Dilman Dila, premiered his beautifully shot feature, Her Broken Shadow. And Jean-Pierre Bekolo — whose turn away from the social (and socialist-feminist) cinema of Ousmane Sembène briefly made him the darling of postmodernist European cinephiles in the 1990s — returned to the genre with Naked Reality. Coming a decade after his Afrocyberpunk Les Saignantes, his new film provides a black-and-white, time-traveling, reality-bending experiment in interactive and collaborative cinema. Throughout the year, Dila has been making a short film each month for his YouTube channel, and Geoff Ryman has continued to publish his 100 interviews with African Writers of SF and fantasy.

Joining the growing body of critical work comes the Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry’s special issue on African SF, edited by Moradewun Adejunmobi and published late last year. Postcolonial literary studies continues to prefer the high- and middle-brow over the popular and the low-brow, so this is not an insignificant intervention — although only the most hidebound, kneejerk, and determined proponent of so-called literary fiction could possibly mistake the fiction the issue covers for formulaic pulp.

If Paradoxa’s 2014 “Africa SF” issue featured rather more scholars of SF than of African literature and culture, Adejunmobi inverts the ratio, with inverse consequences. Despite the almost uniformly high standard of the issue, familiarity with SF, SF theory, and genre theory is unevenly distributed among the contributors. Some authors unnecessarily reinvent the wheel, invoke old-hat theoretical frames, overlook more useful critical tools, and sometimes misread the secondary literature on which they rely due to their relative unfamiliarity with primary texts. Occasionally, anxiety or defensiveness about genre sneaks in. For example, one contributor introduces a novel as SF but immediately notes that it is “more appropriately categorized as a crime thriller” and later that it is “not properly speaking SF,” as if genres have rigid boundaries and texts can only belong to one of them. She also notes that some texts do not necessarily “conform to the genre,” as if SF were singular and homogenous, or, perhaps, as if she knows that that is how the majority of the journal’s readers are likely to perceive the genre. Another contributor describes an author’s generically unexceptional and unexceptionable denouements as “page after page of absurdity and gore,” part of the author’s regrettable tendency “to devolve into what might be regarded as so much B-movie horror” and to write “indulgent trash”; it is almost as if the contributor feels the need to distance himself from affect — or from any suspicion that he is incapable of doing so.

But these are minor quibbles. Let us turn to matters of more substance.

Magali Armillas-Tiseyra draws on Sony Labou Tansi’s Life and a Half (1979) and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow (2006) in order to understand the use of SF tropes in African fiction, and then examines the figure of the African astronaut in Deji Bryce Olukotun’s Nigerians in Space (2014), Cristina de Middel’s photographic collection The Afronauts (2012), and Frances Bodomo’s short film Afronauts (2014). These last two pieces were both inspired by schoolteacher Edward Makuka Nkoloso’s attempt in the early 1960s to start a Zambian space program. However else we may understand his efforts, they constitute an astonishing (if unintentional) piece of performance art that, on the eve of independence, imagined an African future outside of colonialism and of the Cold War’s neo-colonial spheres of influence and domination. This science-fictionality coalesces again in Bodomo’s and de Middel’s reconstitutions of the Afronaut, an incongruent, unsettling, estranged figure that unveils the ideological and material construction of Africa’s (presumed) technological backwardness. Opening up a crisis of possibility, the Afronaut conjures alternative histories and futures, demonstrating the contingency of our particular timeline in which underdevelopment was — and is — imposed on the continent.

Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014), in which aliens come to Earth and select Lagos as their landing place, likewise embodies a crisis of possibility. In part an angry response to Neill Blomkamp’s movie District 9 (2009), it is also an attempt, Hugh O’Connell argues, “to imagine […] a new global futurity for Nigeria — that is, a condition of radical possibility that breaks with the conditions of capitalist realism — by recasting the ideological contours of the first contact narrative.” It is Ivan Yefremov’s “Cor Serpentis” (1958) to Murray Leinster’s “First Contact” (1945) all over again; or, depending on your readership, Lagoon is SF’s Things Fall Apart.

O’Connell also describes it as an “African-futurist intervention into SF that recasts the SF novum” — Darko Suvin’s term for the hegemonic radical novelty at the core of an SF world or story — “as a Badiouian event.” In Okorafor’s heteroglossic, heterotopian Lagos, second contact might lead to a colonial reiteration of first contact with Europe, yet the aliens, in their playfulness and undecidability, also represent the opportunity for a radical break — and with it an alternative future free from the shackles of neoliberal developmentalism and carbon-imperialism. (Tade Thompson’s Rosewater [2016], which also features the arrival of aliens in Lagos, performs similar work.)

Kojo Laing’s Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters (2006) is concerned, Ian P. MacDonald argues, with understanding — and transforming — Africa’s place in “the changing landscape of global digital access and the Internet’s potential as (anti) liberatory space.” Frequently unstable and surreal, Laing’s palimpsestic novel exemplifies a fabulist tradition within African speculative fiction in which Western technology collides with indigenous worldviews, customs, and beliefs — as with Amos Tutuola’s television-handed ghostess and Mohammed Dib’s metamorphic Algiers patrolled by minotaurs — to produce what MacDonald calls jujutech. In Big Bishop Roko it is always 1986, although that doesn’t stop Noah or the occasional dinosaur from showing up. This creolization of time, this combined and uneven development, brings the narrative of progress, as pervasive as it is toxic, screeching to a halt. Another world is possible, and necessary.

In three stories from Ivor Hartmann’s groundbreaking anthology AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers (2012), Nedine Moonsamy finds an array of alternative futures that, she posits, are not so much postcolonial alternatives to our own world as to a Western tradition of “sterile utopias.” On the one hand, this proposition suggests an at best sketchy knowledge of utopian fiction; not naming a single example, Moonsamy contently reifies a conflicted and, since the 1960s, increasingly ambiguous mode into something monolithic. On the other hand, her strawman conceit of the sterile utopia does open up the rich metaphoric potential of the contagions that threaten the pathological attachment to inflexible hygienic compartmentalizations, to apartheids, to border walls. In Sarah Lotz’s “Home Affairs,” neutralized language that is intended to be intelligible to everyone lacks the fluidity and flexibility essential to communicate with anyone. Tendai Huchu’s “The Sale” emphasizes the ways current BRIC nation investment in Africa reiterates colonial power relations, rendering development synonymous with the extraction of surplus-value from pacified bantustans. In Nick Wood’s “Azania,” a pan-African expedition from a ruined Earth to another world must open itself to alien hybridization — to contamination by otherness — if it is to survive and to avoid the colonial fantasy of settling “empty” lands.

In the final article of the issue, Brady Smith returns to Lauren Beukes’s first two novels, Moxyland (2008) and Zoo City (2010), the success of which drew international attention to the flourishing of African speculative fiction. Set, respectively, in cyberpunk-flavored, contagious, jujutech Cape Town and Johannesburg, they entangle social connections and technological networks, and merge nature with infrastructure. They sketch speculative multispecies ethnographies, and present Africa as Anthropocene all the way down: “fleshy, terrifying, and grotesque.” By recoding Africa, typically seen as globalization’s Other, as global, and by finding figures and forms with which to narrate the peak-everything catastrophe in which we are immersed, Beukes emphasizes the importance of the fantastic in “thinking through the place of human life in this strange new terrain.”

Dilman Dila’s new film Her Broken Shadow nestles a chamber piece about authorship and identity within a chamber piece about authorship and identity, and repeatedly undermines any certainty about which chamber is located within which. However you read it, though, the set-dressing implies that Margaret Atwood, Iain M. Banks, Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, and other SF writers, including Dila himself, are figments of an African SF writer’s imagination. This reversal of perspective recalls the struggle in the 1960s and 1970s by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and others, described in Decolonising the Mind, to transform the study of literature, first at the University of Nairobi but then also throughout Kenya and across all educational levels. Their goal was to center it no longer around the Leavisite “great tradition” but instead around the orature and literature from, in widening gyres, Kenya, East Africa, Africa, the Third World, the diaspora, and finally the rest of the world, including Europe and the United Kingdom.

This journal issue is a more than welcome addition to our understanding of contemporary African speculative fiction, but like the Paradoxa issue a couple of years ago, it also embodies a crisis of possibility — and, hopefully, a comradely incitement to our own peripheralization.


Mark Bould teaches at the University of the West of England and co-edits Science Fiction Film and Television. His most recent books are Science Fiction: The Routledge Film Guidebook (2012), Solaris (2014) and SF Now (2014).


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