Contrary to what was pounded into my head for years by brilliant well-meaning creative writing professors, science fiction is one of the most relevant and potent forms of storytelling.
Science fiction carries the potential to change the world. Literally. It has changed the world. The concept of the very computer that I am using to type these words was first dreamed up in a science fiction novel. The same is true for the Internet, cell phones, submarines, e-readers, satellites, and robots. In fact, most modern technology was born within the pages of science fiction novels.
The power of imagination and narrative should never be underestimated. Aside from generating innovative ideas, science fiction also triggers both a distancing and associating effect. This makes it an excellent vehicle for approaching taboo and socially-relevant yet overdone topics in new ways. Oh, and these narratives are a lot of fun, too.
Considering all of this, the impact of African-based science fiction on Africa and the rest of the world could be great. Sadly, there are few such narratives emerging from within or outside the continent. Note, “African science fiction” is not the same as “science fiction set in Africa” (though there isn’t much of the latter, either).
In 2009, a year before my own African-rooted science fiction/fantasy novel Who Fears Death was released, I wrote an essay titled “Is Africa Ready for Science Fiction?” The essay was the result of a conversation I’d had with close friend and celebrated Nigerian film director Tchidi Chikere about African’s non-relationship with science fiction.
“I don’t think we’re ready [for science fiction] in the primary sense of the word,” Chikere had said. “We can hide it in other categories like magical realism, allegory, etc., but we’re not ready for pure science fiction. Science fiction films from the West are failures here. Even Star Wars! The themes aren’t taken seriously. Science fiction will come here when it is relevant to the people of Africa. Right now, Africans are bothered about issues of bad leadership, the food crisis in East Africa, refugees in the Congo, militants here in Nigeria. Africans are bothered about roads, electricity, water wars, famine, etc, not spacecrafts and spaceships. Only stories that explore these everyday realities are considered relevant to us for now.”
He had a point. Plus, it’s a fact that the genre of science fiction was birthed in the West. Few science fiction classics and contemporary works feature main characters of African descent, African mythologies, African locales, or address issues endemic to Africa. And until recently, next to none were written by African writers.
As a Nigerian-American, born and raised in the United States, what distanced me from science fiction novels early on was feeling that I was not a part of the stories; I didn’t exist in them. I suspect the same can be said for many African writers who might consider writing science fiction.
There may also be another reason for the non-relationship. Things Fall Apart was one of the first African novels to garner critical acclaim overseas (due to colonialism, success overseas is the hallmark of an African writer’s success). This great work was one of the first African novels to enter standard university curricula globally. Nevertheless, this also set a precedent for African writers striving to be viewed as “serious” writers. Even today, many African writers still dismiss genre fiction like science fiction and fantasy as “childish” or “amateur”.
Digging deeper, this leads to two troublesome facts: 1. Africans are absent from the creative process of global imagining that advances technology through stories. 2. Africans are not yet capitalizing on this literary tool which is practically made to redress political and social issues.
Notwithstanding the challenges, Africa is ripe with invention and ingenuity. Need examples? A line from the Ethiopian-American hip-hop group CopperWire’s science fiction-themed song, “Phone Home” comes to mind: “What’chu think we do all day, swat flies? We got two-ways and flip phones shipped here from Dubai.” The manner in which raw technology has proliferated the African continent is as unique and fascinating as its individual nations.
Consider young women in rural Nigeria walking down the dirt road carrying containers of water on their heads because they lack plumbing in their homes. While they walk, they hold their mobile phones in front of them as they text, to avoid splashing them with water. Or the innovative yet desperate lawless Nigerian scammers manipulating gullible people through the Internet. Or the unreliable infrastructures of so many African countries that have led to people preferring chargeable devices.
Consider the remnants of colonialism mixing with the information infusion of the Internet in Namibia. The impact of portable tech, like mobile phones and blackberries in Ethiopia. School kids in Djibouti with no electricity at home managing charged up e-readers given to them at school. Youths living around digital dump sites in Ghana. We’ve already seen aliens in Johannesburg in the South African science fiction film District 9. This film was a start (one that I took serious issue with regarding the offensive portrayal of Nigerians), but we can do better. Africa is bursting with resources, including the raw material of fresh science fiction narratives. As Nigerian writer Ben Okri wrote in Birds of Heaven, “Africa breathes stories.”
Zimbabwean writer Ivor Hartmann emphasized the uniqueness of his own culture, too. “Most speculative fiction, be it fantasy, scifi, or horror, is firmly rooted in cultural mythologies,” Hartmann said. “It’s not something we can ever get away from because they form the archetypal base for all speculative stories. This is why I think African writers are already changing the face of literature and beyond, because our intricately diverse and complex mythologies are for the most part unwritten and therefore bring forth a relatively new and fresh perspective.”
I understand this perspective intuitively. I was born to two Nigerian Igbo parents who immigrated to the United States for medical and graduate school in 1969. When my siblings and I were old enough, we regularly traveled as a family to Nigeria. Thus, the unconditional connection, love, and pride that I have for Nigeria is limitless. The Nigerian culture I was infused with in the United States and the frequent trips to Nigeria were the foundation of my need to see Africa in the future. I started writing science fiction set in Africa, based in specific African cultures, from an African perspective because I wanted to READ these stories. Hey, my mother always said that the best way to get something done is to do it yourself. In my forthcoming science fiction novel, Lagoon (April 2013), aliens arrive in Lagos, Nigeria, all hell breaks loose and even the spirits and ancestors come out to see what’s going on.
A handful of others are doing it themselves, too. In 2010, Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu’s Kenyan science fiction short film Pumzi was screened at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to win several awards and accolades. Last year, the Ethiopian-American hip-hop group CopperWire released its first album Earthbound. It’s described as a “hip-hop space-opera” and it is fantastic.
In 2011, South African science fiction writer Lauren Buekes won the Arthur C. Clark Award for her second science fiction novel Zoo City, a cyberpunk novel set in a future Johannesburg, South Africa. The first science fiction anthology by African writers, AfroSF (edited by Ivor Hartmann), was released last year. And South African writer Sarah Lotz’s The Three will be released in May of this year.
As African consumers sample the few works out available, their palettes will grow accustomed to and hopefully even crave homegrown African-rooted science fiction. It’s only a matter of time. I can imagine what will come next.
Culled from Nnedi’s Wahala Zone Blog