Suddenly, some time around 2010, people started to notice.
Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009) got four Oscar nominations and Wanuri Kahiu’s Pumzi (2009) won the best short film award at the Cannes Independent Film Festival. Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death (2010) won the World Fantasy Award, and Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City (2010) won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Kitschies’ Red Tentacle. And in 2012, the first anthology of sf by African Writers, Ivor W. Hartmann’s AfroSF, appeared.
African sf is, of course, much older than this. It can be traced back at least as far as Egyptian Muhammad al-Muwaylihi’s timeslip satire, What ’isa Ibn Hisham Told Us; or, A Period of Time, which began newspaper serialisation in 1898. But for the next century African sf seems to have been a rather intermittent affair. It is only now beginning to be mapped, and undoubtedly there is much more to be uncovered and recovered – perhaps most especially in languages other than English.
The breadth and variety of the current boom is well represented by the short fiction in Ivor Hartmann’s AfroSf anthologies (2012, 2015), Ayodele Arigbabu’s Lagos 2060 (2013), and Jalada’s ‘afrofutures’ issue (2015) and omenana (launched in 2015). And it is not just science fiction but speculative fiction more broadly that is booming, as Nerine Dorman’s Terra Incognita (2015) and Margrét Helgadóttir and Jo Thomas’s African Monsters (2015) anthologies show.
Unsurprisingly, as omenana’s editor Chinelo Onwualu points out, the scene is currently dominated by South Africa, with its well-established publishing infrastructure and familiarity with Anglo-American genre conventions, and by Nigeria, with its large population and high GDP; equally unsurprising, South African speculative fiction is dominated by white authors, and Nigerian by men. But in these anthologies and magazines, there are also stories by women and by writers from Egypt, Gambia, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and from across the contemporary diaspora. Billy Kahora’s Imagine Africa 500, out later this month, showcases primarily Malawian and Ugandan sf, and the boom’s first single author collection is also from Uganda, Dilman Dila’s A Killing in the Sun (2014).
And, of course, the boom is not just happening at shorter lengths.
Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor is one of the two major AfroSF voices to gain wide international attention. She is the author of half a dozen books for children and young adults as well as Lagoon (2014), a gleeful retort to District 9. The Book of Phoenix (2015) is a standalone prequel to Who Fears Death, explaining how its Earth came to be scorched. Set in a future in which rising waters have flooded Manhattan and anthropogenic climate change has turned New York tropical, it follows the story of Phoenix Okore, a genetically engineered posthuman created by LifeGen Technologies, a corporation also known as The Big Eye. After she escapes, she becomes the reluctant leader of a slave revolt against the corporation and against those whose complacency and complicity enables its calm reign of biopolical terror. Ultimately, she embraces the role of ‘terrorist’.
In comparison to Okorafor’s earlier novels, The Book of Phoenix feels a little uneven, but as it begins to draw its many strands – the Atlantic slave trade, corporate neo-colonialism, 9/11, the so-called war on terror, the value of women’s bodies, the value of black bodies, and more – together, it moves towards an awe-inspiring climax. Full of pain and anguish and hard choices where there are no good choices, it’s kind of like Man of Steel but actually, y’know, good.
Nigerian A. Igoni Barrett’s debut novel, Blackass (2015), is the story of Furi Wariboko, a thirty-something Lagosian living with his parents because, like 50% of young Nigerians, he is unemployed. He wakes one morning to discover that overnight he has turned white – except, of course, for his black ass. Since he has a job interview, this transformation could not have come at a better time; indeed, every black businessman he meets over the course of the novel tries to hire him away from his new employer just so they can have a white man representing them, regardless of how ill-suited he might otherwise be.
Being white, however, is not as easy as Furi initially thinks it might be, especially as he has no money until his first pay cheque. He must abandon his family, sleep rough, beg favours and rely on the comfort of strangers whose motives are unclear. It helps that he is shallow and selfish. But he is haunted by his past. His distraught family publicises his disappearance, one of the reasons why he must adopt an Anglo name and identity for which it is then not easy to obtain papers, especially as he still speaks like a black Lagosian. And not even extensive skin bleaching can alter the fact of his black ass – a constant reminder of who he was and of who he might, without warning, become again.
Blackass has moments of broad comedy, but is never as raucous as Melvin Van Peebles white-racist-turns-black movie, Watermelon Man (1970); and it has moments of quiet seriousness, without succumbing to the earnestness of Robert Stevens’ white-liberal-brain-transplanted-into-black-man’s-body melodrama, Change of Mind (1969).
Alongside Okorafor, AfroSF’s other big name is South African Lauren Beukes, whose first short story collection, Slipping, is due out in August. Her earliest novels, Moxyland (2008) and Zoo City, are set in near-future, post-cyberpunk versions of Cape Town and Johannesburg. With the time-travel/serial killer novel The Shining Girls (2013), she switched the action to the US and her generic emphasis moved towards horror, a trajectory followed by Broken Monsters (2015). It follows Detroit police detective Gabi Versado’s pursuit of a serial killer. The first corpse is that of a young black boy. Or, at least, half of it is. The killer cut the body in half and meatglued the lower half of a deer where his hips and legs should be. On the wall nearby, someone chalked a small picture of a door. It is, it will transpire, a way into the world that lies beyond and beneath our own – a world from which something wants out.
Beukes’s vision of post-industrial Detroit – of rotting and abandoned factories and homes, of violence, precarity, predation and violence, of artists, scroungers and self-publicists – indicts the disenchanted neo-liberal wasteland we are making of our cities. But the only re-enchantment on offer is a lethal and uncomprehending otherness, a weird and filthy backwash of the sublime. All that stands in its way are the remnant traces of humanity and community and care.
Tade Thompson, whose roots, he says, are in Western Nigeria and South London, also turned to crime fiction for his debut novel, Making Wolf (2015), which just won the Kitschies’ Golden Tentacle. Protagonist Weston Kongi fled from Alcacia, a country squeezed between Nigeria and Cameroon, during the revolution. Fifteen years later, he returns for the funeral of the aunt who raised him, and makes the mistake of boasting that he is a homicide detective, when really he is just a supermarket security guard. Within hours, he finds himself forced to investigate the murder of Papa Busi, the one man who might have been able to forge peace among the rebel factions pushing the country into a new civil war. The People’s Christian Army are happy to support Weston’s investigation as long as he finds the Liberation Front of Alcacia guilty; and the LFA are equally happy to support him, provided he concludes the PCA were behind the assassination. Alcacian security forces are interested, too, as is the CIA. And Weston must also come to terms with the past and the family he left behind.
In some respects, Making Wolf reads like a pulpier take – complete with bad sex – on British-Ghanaian Nii Ayikwei Parkes The Tail of the Blue Bird (2009), but its commitment to genre is in no way a weakness. There are several junctures where it looks like fantastical material might intrude, but it never does – and it would have been superfluous anyway since Thompson’s pseudo-Nigeria is already vivid and alarming enough.
SL Grey is the pseudonym of South Africans Louis Greenberg and Sarah Lotz, who write horror fiction together. Greenberg is the author of Dark Windows (2014), a thriller set in an alternative Johannesburg, after the rather hippy Gaia Peace movement has been in power for a decade. Lotz writes crime fiction and fantastical thrillers under her own name, YA zombie novels with her daughter Savannah (as by Lily Hearne), and choose-your-own-adventure erotic fiction with Helen Moffat and Paige Nick (as by Helena S Paige).
Grey’s most recent novel is Under Ground (2015), which is set in a hidey-hole for wealthy doomsday preppers – a bunker eight levels deep containing ten luxury condos. Or at least, they would have been luxury condos if the virus from which the sundry characters are fleeing hadn’t hit the US before construction was completed (and if the money hadn’t run out, forcing the developer to cut corners). To make matters worse, most of the occupants are unpleasant people, several have major secrets in their past, and at least one of them is a killer. Even before they get trapped inside the bunker, tensions mount. And soon, so does the body count.
A quick and easy read with nice clean prose and just the right amount of misdirection and red herrings, it’s basically Ten Little Indians. But while it is always nice to see the bourgeoisie turn on themselves and each other, it is, sadly, no High-Rise. Perhaps perversely, the reason it did not quite work for me is that the writing is nowhere near bad enough. I tend to like thrillers by dreadful right-wing hacks, books which are basically lists of things happening in a very specific order, and which are as disposable as the ‘characters’ they contain. (A personal failing, I know.) For me, Grey makes the mistake of rounding out the characters to the extent that they are more than plot functions or ciphers, but not so fully as to transform the clichéd set-up into a something more literary. This is perhaps most evident in the way the thirty-six chapters are each narrated by one of six viewpoint characters. The intercutting between them is much more effective at rounding out those characters and providing a prismatic view of unfolding events than it is at building suspense.
But Grey is clearly on to something: the film rights to their forthcoming The Apartment (2016) have been snapped up by Steven Spielberg.
A more intriguing take on the thriller is Zambian-born English resident (via South Africa and New Zealand) Nick Wood’s Azanian Bridges (2016). It is set in more or less present-day South Africa but in a world in which Apartheid continues – the USSR did not withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989, and thus the Cold War continued, along with western support for South Africa as a bulwark against communism. The novel alternates between two viewpoint characters: white neuropsychologist Dr Martin Van Deventer, inventor of the Empathy Enhancer, an experimental technology which allows therapists to experience directly their patients’ experience; and amaZulu Sibusiso Mchunu, who is profoundly traumatised when a friend, shot by the police at an anti-Apartheid rally, dies in his arms. Martin illegally tests the device on Sibusiso, who steals it and goes on the lam. Martin sets out in pursuit, but there are other players in the game. The security services want the device for use in interrogations. Anti-Apartheid groups want to use it to undermine the regime, person-by-person. It is not clear why the Chinese want it, but they do.
Wood sets us up a tensely intercutting thriller, with hunters becoming the hunted and vice versa. But he uses this structure to focus our attention on the protagonists’ contrasting experiences – from the most quotidian to the most perilous – of living in a racist state which sees them both, albeit in different ways, as its enemies. This is not a failure of form. Rather, Azanian Bridges itself is designed as an Empathy Enhancer.
South African Cat Hellisen is the author of four YA fantasy novels, When the Sea is Rising Red (2012), House of Sand and Secrets (2013), Charm (2015) and Beastkeeper (2015). The latter is riff on and sort of sequel to Beauty and the Beast. Sarah’s family move around a lot, leaving one new home for another whenever it starts to get cold. She is keeping something from Sarah, some secret that eventually makes her snap and desert her family. When Sarah’s heartbroken father realises he is undergoing a transformation that will render him even less capable of looking after his daughter, he takes her to live in a castle deep in the woods with grandparents she never knew she had. Her grandmother, it transpires, is a witch and her grandfather a beast, resigned to seeing out his days in a cage. Her other grandmother is not human either, but the boy who lives in the woods is – though he might be older than he seems and have magical powers. Behind it all, there is a family curse, which Sarah must find a way to revoke. It is all rather delightful, and beautifully-written.
Also delightful is Miguel Llansó’s Crumbs (2015), the first Ethiopian sf film.
Long ago, there was an apocalypse of some sort, and in its wake an infertile humanity is shutting up shop. Dying out, and not much caring about it. The dwarfish, hunchbacked Candy scours the ruins while his lover, Birdy, transforms industrial wreckage into artworks and fetishes. A storekeeper trades in artefacts from the lost world (a plastic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, a plastic baby Jesus, a children’s Max Steel ‘Force Sword’, a copy of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous LP) and recounts the legends in which they appear. In the sky above these scant remnants of humanity hangs a dormant space station. Candy, who half believes he is an alien, sets out to discover why this derelict citadel is stirring back into life, and to find a way back to his homeworld. Instead, he has a violent encounter with a skinny black Santa Claus and finds a cinema screening Süpermen Dönüyor, Kunt Tulgar’s 1979 Turkish Superman knock-off, which challenge him to remember a different past.
Crumbs is a salvagepunk masterpiece, a key document of the anthropocene. The lush green highlands around Wenchi crater-lake seem indifferent to humanity. The volcanic landscape and peculiar mineral formations around Dallol, a potash mine turned ghost-town in northern Ethiopia, is the Earth we are xeno-forming. We are the interlopers, it says, and we no longer belong here.
As this brief sketch suggests, AfroSF is strongly focused on the contemporary and near future Earth. And very much on the terrestrial (although Okorafor’s Nebula-nominated Binti (2015) and South African Rob Boffard’s Outer Earth novels (2015– ) are set in space). The apocalypse seems ever-present, too. Sometimes it expresses the truth of European colonial history – a repressed that returns, even as new forms of colonialism continue to play out. Sometimes it is the anthropocene, rising with the dark tides to reboot the whole shebang.
But there is also joy. Excitement. And here and there, a touch of grace.
1. A translation by Roger Allen of the third edition, sanitised for use in Egyptian schools, was published in 19__; Allen’s translation of the rather more ad hoc newspaper version was published in 2015.