AUGUST 5, 2015
AFRICAN SF is at least a century old but poorly documented. The Egyptian Muhammad Muwaylihi’s time-travel novel A Period of Time (1898) and the South African Joseph J. Doke’s Haggard-inspired lost race novel The Secret City: A Romance of the Karroo (1913) are perhaps the earliest SF by indigenous and settler writers. Since then, there seems to have been a slow accretion of titles with little sense of either national or continental traditions.
Recently, however, this has started to change. South Africa and Nigeria in particular have a number of writers active in the field, and both have internationally recognized, award-winning figureheads in Lauren Beukes and (Nigerian-American) Nnedi Okorafor. Crumbs, a post-apocalyptic Ethiopian SF movie directed by Miguel Llansó, is currently doing the festival circuit, and recent months have seen the publication of omenana, a trimonthly magazine edited by Chinelo Onwualu and Mazi Nwonwu, and the Afrofuture(s) issue of Jalada. In four years, there have been at least as many anthologies of African SF stories: Ivor W. Hartmann’s AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers (2012), Ayodele Arigbabu’s exclusively Nigerian Lagos_2060: Exciting Sci-Fi Stories from Nigeria (2013), Story Club’s forthcoming and primarily Malawian Imagine Africa 500, and Nerine Dorman’s Terra Incognita: New Short Speculative Stories from Africa.
Terra Incognita, the third anthology to emerge from Short Story Day Africa’s annual short fiction competition, contains nineteen stories and opens with the winning entry, Diane Awerbuck’s “Leatherman.” Set in a near-future Cape Town that retains just enough of our combined and uneven world to pass for the present day seen from an odd angle, “Leatherman” has hints of 1960s Samuel Delany and 1990s feminist cyberpunk. Joanna, a thirtysomething virgin-by-choice feature writer for Allure, attends an art event and finds — well, not love exactly, more like an overwhelming desire for a capering, hairy-knuckled little man pushing a wheelbarrow. He triggers an irresistible carnality deep inside her even though he is wearing lederhosen. He is, of course, not human, but rather a tokoloshe, a mischievous spirit bound by supernatural rules that (by a freak turn of events) prevent any erotic consummation. Science fiction, Zulu folklore, romance, and shopping’n’fucking fiction wash across each other, capturing Joanna’s flux of desire and disenchantment, longing and prudence, self-knowledge and self-deception.
If “Leatherman” has a hint of True Blood to it, then Tiah Beautement’s “Hands” is rather more Twilight, but not without a certain seriousness of purpose. It not only reflects upon the author’s chronic, debilitating hypermobility syndrome and fibromyalgia but also upon the seductive relations of power and the cost and purpose of suffering. In contrast, Toby Bennett’s “Caverns Measureless to Man” is a not remotely horrifying tale of subterranean horror, complete with an underground city, an eyeless troglodyte adapted to the dark, “heavy-capped mushrooms the size of trees,” and “[a] maggot bigger than a man.” While Awerbuck’s use of Zulu mythology potentially comes across as opportunistic local color, and Beautement’s vampire narrative as Octavia Butler-lite, both are considerably more effective than Bennett’s reliance on shopworn, italicized Lovecraftianisms.
In Kerstin Hall’s “In the Water” — which wears its futurity lightly, only referring in passing to robots and nanobots — it is difficult to tell whether the Deepling that haunts (or perhaps romances) the protagonist owes its origins to folklore or pulp or the ancient MMORPG Tibia. Either way, its horror also lacks weight, despite some desperate passages. “Marion’s Mirror,” by the poet Gail Dendy, aims for much greater significance, proceeding not by any very clear narrative logic but through a concatenation of peculiar phenomena: the protagonist’s mirror ceases to reflect her image; other people stop noticing her; the mirror stops reflecting anything; there is a timeslip; a regression to birth; another world. Its parts are good, but the story is less than the sum of them. Reality also slips away in Jason Mykl Snyman’s “What if You Slept?,” the story of a narcoleptic “whose dreams had become so insipid they had come to resemble his true world.”
Far more unsettling than any of these relatively straightforward dabblings in horror is Pwaangulongii Benrawangya’s rather gentle “I Am Sitting Here Looking at a Graveyard.” The protagonist is obsessed with coffins, obituaries, death, and poems such as Langston Hughes’s “Night Funeral in Harlem.” He is a writer and an artist. He has grown up surrounded by mortality, illness, old age, and war. He has seen many corpses but never once an angel. Poverty is courtship with death, and death’s cold hands are always reaching out for him.
A similar unease permeates Cat Hellisen’s “Mouse Teeth.” Elsie de Jager, now Elsie Snyman, is an Afrikaner from an Afrikaans-speaking town who has been away at boarding school and now speaks English, even though it is the “language of evil.” She is just eighteen, but she has already lost all her teeth. Her husband is a failing farmer who nightly cuts himself, shedding his own blood in some strange act of worship. She knows that one day, without thinking or realizing, he will hurt her and then kill himself. Only by finding power in the contradictions of life (and new teeth) can she save herself, not just from this specific fate but from everyday patriarchy — as the witches note of men, “They never cook. Cooking is the witchcraft of women.” The psychological torment Elsie suffers is inverted in Mishka Hoosen’s “Spirits of the Dead Keep Watch,” in which a revenant schoolgirl haunts the teacher who raped her a decade earlier. He genuinely believes that their relationship was not an abusive one, and so in punishment he must live with her silent presence, pinned, fearful, with no escape. In Nick Mulgrew’s “Stations,” a dead man wakes and finds himself in a changed South Africa. The cities are not the same. Social relations have shifted. New geographies must be learned. And while the statues remain, they live and suffer and cannot die. They mean something different now. They no longer celebrate the past; they pay for it.
Not everything in Terra Incognita is quite so harrowing. Chinelo Onwualu’s “CJ,” a story of homecoming, reconnection, and emergent metahumans (or perhaps of cunning social engineering from below), has a lighter tone. As do Jekwu Ozoemene’s “There is Something That Ogbu-Ojah Didn’t Tell Us,” a tall tale of wrestling and affairs with deities, and Sylvia Schlettwein’s “Ape Shit,” in which siege-laying baboons prove themselves every bit the equal of the human protagonist.
Terra Incognita is not only the most accomplished of the African SF anthologies published so far but also undoubtedly the most literary, an intention signaled by Dorman’s decision to plump for “speculative fiction” as the “SF” of her subtitle. This broader generic purview also presumes a different and greater cultural capital than, say, Exciting Sci-Fi Stories from Nigeria, but it comes a little unstuck whenever a genre wheel gets unnecessarily reinvented. Indeed, the most overtly science-fictional stories — Phillip Steyn’s “Esomnesia,” about memory transference and manipulation, and Sarah Jane Woodward’s “The Carthagion,” about virtual reality, time travel, and revenge (or justice) — are among the more pedestrian contributions. In contrast, Dilman Dila’s “How My Father Became a God,” one of the strongest stories in the collection, works through pretty much all the possibilities offered by “speculative fiction.” A kind of African Pan’s Labyrinth, it simultaneously relishes and debunks folklore, sees a perpetually unsuccessful mad scientist invent a solar-powered light source during the days of transatlantic slavery, and honors traditional life while excoriating its patriarchal excesses.
Dila, an award-winning Ugandan filmmaker, is also the author of what may well be the first single-author collection of African SF. The 10 stories in A Killing in the Sun are almost perfectly poised between the robustness of genre fiction and the more literary concern with ambiguity so frequently evident in Terra Incognita. Dila’s fiction returns repeatedly to the intersections of SF and fantasy, science and belief, superstition and traditional/indigenous knowledge, and to the intersectionality of identity. For example, Japia, the protagonist of “The Leafy Man,” is a traditional healer and shaman. He is committed to integrating herbalism and traditional ecological knowledge, as well as experimental observation and deductive reasoning, into the daily life and well-being of his village, but he rejects spirit worship and capitalist technoscientific impositions. He is paid by the government to promote insecticide-coated nets, but he also uses every opportunity to persuade people to drain stagnant water and to grow plants whose smell repels the mosquitoes. A foreign corporation genetically engineers a new species of the insect, nicknamed Miss Doe, to displace the population of malaria-carrying anopheles (and the corporation includes a tweak which ensures that the new bugs can only spread within a certain range of their birthplace so that they can charge the government by the square meter for clearing land of the disease). Unfortunately, the new species turn out to be swarming bloodsuckers, and the pesticide intended to wipe them out merely causes them to mutate, growing to thumb size. Japia’s own life is imperiled when the corporation’s attempt to rescue him threatens the defenses he has fashioned.
Similarly, Okot, the protagonist of “The Doctor’s Truck” — in which the titular vehicle seems to be possessed by a demon — has a vision of embracing “traditional medicine, as well as the cultures and sciences of the place, rather than impos[ing] an expensive and foreign health system.” Again, however, this is not about credulity — Okot works out who is using technology to control his truck, and how, and why — but about respecting local peoples and developing sustainable local methods.
The complex and contradictory cultural identities shared by Japia and Okot are expanded upon in “The Healer,” which builds a long history of colonialism, slavery, emancipation, and ethnic hierarchy into a story of rival sorcerers. Centuries ago, the Twa were conquered and enslaved by the Cuku, who abandoned juju in favor of science. The Cuku are unconcerned by the environmental destruction of their machine culture since their religion, Oksism, tells them they will soon leave this world behind and enter paradise, their true home. After the abolition of slavery, the Twa remain second-class citizens and many of them adopt Oksism. In contrast, some Cuku often seek aid from the Twa sorcerer Benge, who lives on land willed to him by his late Cuku wife. Accused of abducting a local child, Benge discovers a respectable Oksian Cuku is secretly an apostate using powerful child-sacrificing juju to destroy Oksism and thus force the Cuku to become environmentally responsible. Meanwhile, Benge sees an opportunity to decolonize the minds of Twa Oksians. By the end of the story, it seems that no one occupies the position that their ethnicity and religion would seem to dictate. (There are also robots and zombies.)
The shorter, low-key “A Killing in the Sun” — which was shortlisted for the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize — works through a similar logic, carefully manipulating the reader’s sympathy through the figure of a soldier awaiting execution. Initially, we empathize with this working-class veteran since he seems to be the victim of a regime of returning, educated middle-class exiles keen to distance themselves from the war of liberation in which he fought on their behalf. But then he lets slip the nature of his crime. Then we question the extent to which it was intentional and the extent to which he is being made an example rather than justly punished, especially when we learn why he became a guerilla in the first place. And then, when there are no more narrative twists to reframe the events, Dila turns the screw with successive ironies. They, too, are painful.
“Lights on Water” and “A Wife and a Slave” are set in similar futures, and both strongly reject the imposition of monolithic identities. In the former, a pan-African Emperor who has shut the continent off from the world uses religion (white is evil, the ocean is hell), medical technologies (pregnant women are unknowingly dosed with a chemical to ensure only dark-skinned children are born), and a brutal state security apparatus to shape and control his subjects. The latter story, which might be a prequel, sketches a more detailed account of how Africa was unified, transformed into a technological paradise, and sealed off from the world. In this it recalls T. Shirby Hodge’s The White Man’s Burden: A Satirical Forecast (1915) and George S. Schuyler’s Black Empire (1936-38), as well as such recent films as Sylvestre Amoussou’s Africa Paradis (2006) and Omer Fast’s installation Nostalgia III (2009). But Dila goes further, explicitly challenging the notion of somehow returning to “life in Africa before the Europeans came.” Such ideas do not decolonize the mind but enslave the people by “promoting stereotypes” derived from European “misconceptions and misinformation” and by enforcing “the idea that Africa had a single identity, a single language, a single culture.” And, through a chance encounter with a runaway white slave (and a pretty bad sex scene), the protagonist, Kopet, and his wife, Akello, manage to recover the people they were and the relationship they had before the Emperor, before the dark times.
Another pair of stories, which resonate strongly with Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy, includes crash-landed alien species who must merge with humans in an endosymbiotic relation in order to survive. The protagonist of “Itanda Bridge,” fleeing government forces, embraces the transformation that is forced upon him, even though it means he can never marry the woman he loves or even see her again. “The Yellow People” is rather more ambiguous. The protagonist is a serial killer, and the aliens only take over the corpses of his victims. They come to a rather ominous accommodation.
Most of the stories in these two volumes articulate the relationship between globalized first-world culture, with its expectations of fiction, genre, and style, and various African localities, with their hardly pristine cultural specificities. Most of them reek of history and seem to be cast in a post-apocalyptic mode. They are not post-apocalyptic in the way British cosy catastrophes, Hollywood blockbusters, and incessant zombies have taught us to think of what comes after the end of it all. They are documents of the postcolony, and as Mad Max: Fury Road’s Namibian locations remind us, that is also, and always already, the post-apocalypse.
They are what comes next.
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).