Khairy Shalaby, The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets (1991; trans 2010)

51BDxwqGg+LThis is a slippery one.

On the one hand, there is the depth of my ignorance of Egyptian history and Arab cultures (which is considerably more profound than anything I am about to say here). On the other, there is – unless something is lost (or added) in translation – a playful author who likes to keep his reader in a state of constant uncertainty.

In the opening paragraph, Ibn Shalaby is invited by the Fatimid caliph Mu‘izz to break the Ramadan fast – the first ever in the new city of Cairo. The second paragraph tells how he first met Mu‘izz in Qayrawan some years earlier, and how several centuries later he met the British historian of Cairo, Stanley Lane-Pool – they immediately recognised each other but it takes them a moment to recall that it was in Mu‘izz’s court in Qayrawan. In the third paragraph, they go to drink tea and smoke a pipe together so that in the fourth paragraph Lane-Pool can outline some Egyptian history before disappearing in the fifth paragraph so as to stiff Ibn Shalaby with the bill. When he tries to do a runner he timeslips into an earlier and unfamiliar version of the city, where he recognises Maqrizi, a 13th/14th century historian – only it soon transpires that the Mamluk-era author of the famous Topography is also capable of timeslipping, since the year is 358 AH (969 AD). Which means Ibn Shalaby is actually on time for the founding of Cairo, after all – as are other timeslipped historical figures, such as the historian Ibn Taghribirdi and the novelist Naguib Mahfouz.

And so the novel unfurls, a concatenation of comic incidents and episodes, many of which are interrupted by timeslips (both unintended and deliberate), constantly looping around and back and through the Fatimid, Ayyubid and Mamluk periods, with an occasional return to the 1990s. It is not always clear when or where we are, and even when Ibn Shalaby looks at his watch that tells him the date, you cannot always be certain how soon before he notes the new date that he timeslipped. At one point, even he confesses that ‘because of all my bouncing around in history, I tended to confuse one period with another’ (121) – and he’s the narrator!

Eventually this all settles down for a stretch when Ibn Shalaby finds himself stuck in the early 740s AH (1340s AD). He tries the well-worn time-traveller’s trick of trying to impress the locals with modern technology, which works until his batteries run flat. He flees the court and takes shelter in the Storehouse of Banners, which rapidly grows into an alternative state (of cannibals, prisoners of war, barbarians) within the Caliphate. And then, as one would expect of such a hapless, venal, opportunistic – above all, flexible – comic protagonists, he soon finds himself working for both sides against the other. This flexibility further destabilises the narrative by unfixing the protagonist-narrator, but it is also essential to the often-bleak comedy. When approached by someone self-evidently contemptuous of him, Ibn Shalaby

put on [his] own expression of arrogant contempt – the one [he] had picked up from the pictures of American politicians [he] saw in the papers every day. (45)

When a Persian guard in 380 AH (990 AD) fails to defer to the authority signified by the briefcase Ibn Shalaby carries – why would he, not knowing what it is? – the protagonist notes his surprise that ‘American industry had lost its magic touch’ and makes

a mental note to report the incident to the Arab opposition papers so they could use it as an example of the disappointing performance of foreign imports. (42)

The slipperiness of historical settings is held together by a strong sense that complicated, competing and largely pointless bureaucracies will establish themselves anywhere and anytime, given half a chance. That position is always precarious. That behind any façade of governance you will always find brutal, self-serving thugs. That, in the words of emir Khazaal,

Power is like sea monsters, or perfume: it rises to the surface sooner or later. (144)

And that it always pays

to side with the strong against the weak, [because] there’s no such thing as justice except among the strong – and even then, only when one of the strong slips up for a moment. (85)

This jaded view of humanity and of Egyptian history and life, this combination of bitterness, resignation and loss, fills the best lines in the novel:

News travels as fast as you can fill an Egyptian street with victims of abuse. (116)

and

Patience isn’t the only virtue we have in Egypt. It’s not just the ability to endure pain and suffering, it’s the ability to endure the remedy. (43)

***

The Time Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets is not the first African time-travel story.

The earliest African sf I have yet found is a time-travel novel, Muhammad al-Muwaylihi’s A Period of Time, which began newspaper serialisation in Misbah al-Sharq/Light of the East in 1898, was published in book form in 1907 and saw a sequel in 1927 (it has just been translated and published in its entirety for the first time, and I should be reviewing it later this year).

Salam Musa’s Khimi (1926) time-travels into a soulless future (apparently – it is not translated as far as I can discover), as more or less does Tawfiq Al-Hakim’s Ahl al-kahf/Sleepers in the Cave (1933; translated 1989), which I have not yet read.

And there is the 1998 movie Risala ila al-wali, which seems similar to the French comedy Les Visiteurs (Poiré 1993), but I have yet to unearth a subtitled version.

Oh, and the full title of Khairy Shalaby’s novel is The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets. A Narrative Comprising Events to Dazzle and Astound, Meditations to Divert and Confound, Histories to Edify and Incidents to Horrify. By the Pen of God’s Neediest Creature, the Knowing but Unlearned, the Tutored by Unwise Ibn Shalby, the Hanafi and Egyptian, The Seller of Pickles and Sweets. May God Guard Us from His Ignorance, Amen!

Bernardine Evaristo, Blonde Roots (2008)

9780141031521It takes a while to get your head around the generic cues and fictional world of this comical and fantastical neo-slave narrative. It flickers between an alternate history and (race) role-reversal satire, each seeming to conflict with the other. A long succession of gags about Africanised London place names – gags which are not particularly funny (such as Mayfah, Paddinto, Golda’s Green, Brixtane and, settled by Chinese seamen, To Ten Ha Ma) but which ultimately pay off with a geological reference to the Essex massif – clashes with a growing certainty that this Londolo is not in the country called England. And so you turn back to the map in the front-matter and everything becomes clear.

Blonde Roots is not a role-reversal narrative in which everything stays the same apart from race relations, as in, say, Desmond Nakano’s 1995 film, White Man’s Burden. Nor is it an alternate history like, say, Steven Barnes’ Insh’Allah novels (2002–3), in which some not-unreasonable extrapolation underpins a relatively rigorously worked-out world dominated by an Islamic Africa for two millennia, and in which Europeans are the victims of an alternative Triangular Trade, abducted and sold into slavery in Bilalistan (as North America is called).

No, what that map reveals is an alternative terrestrial geography.

An island shaped like Britain (unaccompanied by Ireland), but perhaps larger and called the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa spans the equator off the western coast of north Africa, which is also located further south than in our world. It is not quite clear what has happened to the rest of Africa since it is squeezed off the edge of the map by a Europe, here called Europa, displaced to the south of the Gulf of Guinea. England and Wales, but not Scotland, are wedged into the gap between this relocated northwest Europe and Scandinavia.

While it is entertaining to imagine a seasoned sf pro labouring to establish some geophysical perturbation causing this alternative dispersal of the Pangaea supercontinent, and in turn leading to this inverted social order, that is not where Bernadine Evaristo’s interests lie – nor is doing so as much fun as reading the novel itself.

A comedy about slavery is no easy thing to pull off, as the disastrously misogynist and not terribly funny French timeslip comedy Case départ (2011), directed by Lional Steketee and its co-starring co-writers Fabrice Eboué and Thomas N’Gijol, demonstrates. But it is by no means impossible. Ishmael Reed manages it (more or less) in Flight to Canada (1976), as does Charles Johnson (less than more) in Middle Passage (1990).

From the outset, Blonde Roots has some nice comic touches – in its world, the West Indies are called the ‘West Japanese Islands … because when the “great” explorer and adventurer, Chinua Chikwuemeka, was trying to find a new route to Asia, he mistook those islands for the legendary isles of Japan, and the name stuck’ (5) – but sometimes the comedy sits a little uneasily. For example, the protagonist, Doris Snagglethorpe, abducted from the Cabbage Coast (i.e., Yorkshire), transported to Great Ambossa, sold into slavery and renamed Omorenomwara, is branded with the initials of her owner, Kaga Konata Katamba, and his daughter, her first mistress, Panyin Ige Ghika.

Omorenomwara, who hates Panyin, no doubt gets the PIG half the joke, but the KKK half – and the entire joke, if a white slave being branded KKK PIG is a joke – only works for the reader.

Role reversals and inversions come thick and fast to begin with – monogamy is condemned by the polygamous Ambossans as ‘uneconomical, selfish, typically hypocritical and just plain backwards’ (19); house slaves are known as ‘wiggers’ (24); prosperous Ambrossan urban centres are known as ‘Chocolate Cities’ and ‘the tumbledown ghettos on the outskirts’ where ‘free whytes’ live in ‘squalor’ are called ‘Vanilla Suburbs’ (29) – but as the world is established and the narrative begins to come together, the comedy becomes less gag-oriented and  Evaristo expands her comic vision to capture also the pain and tragedy. Misgivings fade.

The novel switches between three strands: Omorenomwara’s present, as she attempts to flee on the Underground Railroad but ends up exiled to a West Japanese sugar plantation and must try to make some kind of life for herself there; Omorenomwara’s memories of her life as Doris and of her years as a house wigger; and an autobiographical pamphlet by Kaga Konata Katamba which includes his justifications for enslaving the self-evidently inferior Caucasians.

Families and lovers long separated by the slave system reunite, sometimes only fleetingly, and a sense of community thrives among brutalised slaves because they are dependent on each other. And in this final section of the novel, Evaristo gets the tone perfect. She reproduces that tired old cliché of slaves singing together in the fields, but makes it clear they do so out of mutual care and to support each other, not because they are happy. She shows them singing on command to welcome their visiting owner, and counterpoints it with them singing for themselves. And she includes the eleven-year-old slave Dingiswayo, ‘strutt[ing] about the quarter in a pair of outsized, hand-me-down cotton pants worn so that the waist hung (somehow) beneath his bum’ (204).

There is always a danger with role-reversal satire that the reader or viewer’s sense of injustice will be aroused for the wrong reason. Not by patriarchy and misogyny, but because men are being treated like women. Not by slavery and racism, but because people of pallor are being treated like people of colour. Blonde Roots’ fractured structure of narrators and temporalities helps it to avoid this pitfall, but for me there was something else, something curious, going on.

I kept forgetting that the slave characters were white.

I suppose this is because the novel mostly uses their Ambossan slave names, rather than their European names; and because so much of the cultural imagery around slavery features enslaved Africans; and because, being a novel rather than a film, there was an absence of concrete visual detail to fix their appearance.

Then every few pages I was brought up short as I remembered, as this potent anamnesis – this remembering of things forgotten – swept over me.

I have no idea whether the novel will work in this way for other people, and I have yet to figure out what it means. But it was powerful and disorientating. The way a good book should affect you.

Paris noir et noir – and hardly morbid at all

Richard Wright was cremated at Père Lachaise.

wright

But before that happened, he used to enjoy hanging out at the Café Tournon with Chester Himes. (You could also find James Baldwin and Ollie Harrington there, and it was where Duke Ellington made his Paris debut.)

wright a

wright b

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although the management are only interested in letting you know that Joseph Roth lived there. I guess they figure the legend of an unholy drinker is bad for business. (Did you like the literary gag there?)

roth

Somewhere on this street, Chester Himes used to have an apartment.

himes a

himes

 

 

 

 

 

 

But when John A. Williams was visiting Paris and dropped by to see him, he found Himes had moved out, leaving the flat to Melvin Van Peebles.

We found Himes still keeping good company in the unexpected book department of Le Bon Marché, the first ever department store.

himes b

Another African-American in Paris:

baker

And Harry’s Bar. Where Humphrey Bogart used to hang out.

harry's bar

Their margarita is a damn fine margarita…

harry's bar inside

…but it is not as good a margarita as their mojito is a mojito.

African Science Fiction 101: update

This is really just a note listing some of the African sf that has been published since I wrote ‘African Science Fiction 101’ – and some of the books I just plain missed when I researched it. Hopefully, this summer I will have time to read them… 51BDxwqGg+L

Dr Satan’s Echo Chamber – double issue (12/13) of Chimurenga (2008). An all-faxion issue on black technologies no longer secret, plus 13 associated documents. Copies still available.

Khairy Shalaby, Travels of the Pickle and Sweet Vendor (1991; trans 2010). Egyptian timeslip narrative, which seems to have a different title on the cover than in the listings where I found it, and my copy is still in the post, so this mystery will remain temporarily unresolved…

Iain S. Thomas, Intentional Dissonance (2012). Post-apocalyptic dystopia by South African author.

Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria (2013). Debut fantasy novel written in South Sudan by a remarkable American short-story writer of Somali and Swiss/German heritage.

Rachel Zadok, Sister-Sister (2013). A road-trip through an apocalyptic alternative (or near-future) South Africa.

Chibundu Onuzo, The Spider King’s Daughter (2013). This keeps being recommended to me – but I cannot find any reference to it containing fantastical elements (despite the title), so I guess I should read it and then either replace this explanation or cut it from this list… 0987019872.02.LZZZZZZZ

Dilman Dila, A Killing in the Sun (2014). Solid collection of ten short stories playing across distinctions between sf and fantasy, modernity and tradition, superstition and indigenous knowledges, by the Ugandan author and filmmaker. I think this is the first single-author collection of African sf.

Nerine Dorman, ed., Terra Incognita: New Short Speculative Stories from Africa (2015). Anthology of nineteen stories – the third to come out of Short Story Day Africa’s annual competition – at the more literary end of genre. Only a couple of duds in it. (I should have a review of it – and the previous entry – forthcoming soon.)

Nnedi Okorafor, The Book of Phoenix (2015). Prequel to Who Fears Death.

In terms of short fiction, issue three of Omenana has just come out, and the second volume of Ivor Hartmann’s AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers is imminent. There is also forthcoming this year an anthology called Imagine Africa 500, which apparently will contain ten sf stories by writers from Malawi and ten from writers from other African countries.

Crumbs (Miguel Llansó Ethiopia/Spain/Finland 2015) is currently doing the rounds of film festivals before, hopefully, a wider arthouse and DVD release. According to imdb, ‘Our figurine sized supermen hero embarks on an epic surreal journey that will take him across the Ethiopian post apocalyptic landscape in search of a way to get on the hovering spacecraft that for years has become a landmark in the skies’.

In ‘Africa SF 101’, I mentioned A Beast in View (1969), by exiled anti-Apartheid activist Peter Dreyer, and Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People (1981), set in a near-future in which resistance to Apartheid is becoming open revolution. 752297331.0.mWhat I missed completely were a number of novels by South Africans anticipating the end of Apartheid, ranging from the earnest to the satirical to the trashy: Anthony Delius, The Day Natal Took Off (1960) Gary Allighan, Verwoerd – the End (1961) Andrew McCoy, The Insurrectionist (1979) Frank Graves, African Chess (1990; recently revised and reissued).

There are several similar novels from outside of Africa: Iain Findlay, The Azanian Assignment (1978) – the only novel by this Australian author 51TPVFXnAWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Randall Robinson, The Emancipation of Wakefield Clay (1978) – looks like a further example of the American cycle of ‘Black Power Sf’, but with the revolution displaced from the US

Larry Bond, Vortex (1981) – about the size of a housebrick, and just as smart; as well as a dramatis personae, it has a glossary giving details of all the different weapons and weapons systems it mentions

In other news, ‘African Science Fiction 101’ has been translated in two parts for the website of the World Chinese Science Fiction Association, China’s largest association for science fiction practitioners and fans. If you want to see it, go here and here.

Update 2

George S Schuyler’s Black No More. Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933-1940

Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.

9781555537753_p0_v1_s260x420First edition: New York: Macaulay, 1931
Edition used: New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969

Frequently praised by HL Mencken as

the most competent Negro journalist […] the most competent editorial writer now in practice in this great free Republic[1]

Schuyler has been largely neglected in histories of sf, partly because of the difficulty of penetrating his pseudonyms (including Samuel I Brooks, Rachel Call, Edgecombe Wright), partly because sf constitutes only a tiny fraction of his massive output, partly because he was published outside of the regular pulp venues, and partly because his politics were somewhat at odds with genre norms. So, for example, his novellas ‘The Black Internationale’ and ‘Black Empire’ (1936–38; later collected as Black Empire), which depict a conspiracy of black professionals manipulating national and international politics to reclaim Africa as a black homeland, did not appear in Amazing or Astounding but in the Pittsburgh Courier – not a publication to which sf historians would necessarily think to turn.

The neglect of Black No More, first published in book form at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance in 1931 (when sf books were few and far between), is perhaps harder to explain, although it would not have been promoted as sf and many might have found its dedication off-putting:

THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED TO ALL CAUCASIANS IN THE GREAT REPUBLIC WHO CAN TRACE THEIR ANCESTRY BACK TEN GENERATIONS AND CONFIDENTLY ASSERT THAT THERE ARE NO BLACK LEAVES, TWIGS, LIMBS OR BRANCHES ON THEIR FAMILY TREES.

When, on New Year’s Eve 1933, Max Disher is spurned by a white woman at the Honky Tonk Club, he decides to take Dr Junius Crookman’s revolutionary BLACK-NO-MORE treatment to turn him white. Adopting the name Matthew Fisher, he returns to his hometown of Atlanta in pursuit of her. There, pretending to be an anthropologist, he takes up with the Reverend Henry Givens, an ex-officer of the Ku Klux Klan, who is starting up the Knights of Nordica, an organisation of

White Men and Women […] Fight[ing] for White Race Integrity. (60)

41DHqZxFNMLTo Max’s delight, the white woman turns out to be Givens’ daughter, Helen. Fearing Max’s growing popularity in his rapidly expanding organisation, Givens is happy to see them married. Meanwhile, Max has been joined by his newly-whitened friend Bunny Brown, and together they make the Knights of Nordica into a major political power, effectively taking over the Anglo-Saxon Association and the Democratic Party. As the black population of America disappears, the central plank of the Knights election strategy is to demand compulsory genealogical testing and race-based social stratification. Crookman and his associates join forces with the Republicans to keep open the BLACK-NO-MORE centres and lying-in hospitals (where any baby born black is turned white so as to avoid social embarrassment). On the eve of the election, Dr Buggerie’s genealogical research – which suggests that if there were as few as one thousand African-Americans who could

pass for white […] fifteen generations ago […] their descendants now number close to fifty million souls (197)

– is stolen, and published in the newspapers:

 DEMOCRATIC LEADERS PROVED OF NEGRO DESCENT
Givens, Snobbcraft, Buggerie, Kretin and Others
of Negro Ancestry, According to Old
Records Unearthed by Them. (210)

Max, Bunny and their loved ones manage to escape. Buggerie and Snobbcraft are not so fortunate. Fleeing though Mississippi in blackface disguise, they are nearly lynched; only after they have proven who they are and that they are white, do the newspapers arrive…

Schuyler_BlackNoMore_CollierBlack No More is a remarkable work of satire, as sprightly and as timely now as when it was written. Its great strength lies in its dyspeptic vision of the absurdity of racism and the hypocrisy with which race is used as a means of obtaining and maintaining power, wealth and influence by some people regardless of colour. This latter is at its most pointed in the sequence in which Max blackmails Blickdoff and Hortzenboff, the owners of Paradise Mill in South Carolina, into paying him to break the imminent strike – a feat he then achieves by seeming to side with the workers, most of them Knights of Nordica who wish to unionise, while hinting that among them are probably some whitened blacks who are constitutionally incapable of not betraying the strike:

Rumor was wafted abroad that the whole idea of a strike was a trick of smart niggers in the North who were in the pay of the Pope. The erstwhile class conscious workers became terror striken by the specter of black blood. You couldn’t, they said, be sure of anybody any more, and it was better to leave things as they were than to take a chance of being led by some nigger. If the colored gentry coudn’t sit in the movies and ride in trains with white folks, it wasn’t right for them to be organizing and leading white folks. (134)

Once the strike is over, the mill owners

took immediate steps to make their workers more satisfied with their pay, their jobs and their little home town. They built a swimming pool, a tennis court, shower baths and a playground for their employees but neglected to shorten their work time so these improvements could be enjoyed. They announced that they would give each worker a bonus of a whole day’s pay at Christmas time, hereafter, and a week’s vacation each year to every employee who had been with them more than ten years. There were no such employees, of course, but the mill hands were overjoyed with their victory. (136)

Because Schuyler’s satire is so wide-ranging, because he treats leaders as cynical manipulators and followers as dupes, because none of his characters seem capable of good or pure motives, it would be easy to label Black No More misanthropic. However, to do so would be to misintepret a comic vision that finds so much humour in venality because those who think they are acting in their own self-interest so frequently are not. Such a perspective produces the kind of absurdism which defines Black No More and which reaches its pinnacle in the last few pages – a few years after the events the novel recounts, it is discovered that those who underwent the BLACK-NO-MORE treatment are in fact lighter in colour than ‘white’ people; consequently, in the desire not to be taken for blacks, people begin to darken their skin colour to look like whites…

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Voltaire, Candide
Godwin, Caleb Williams
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
France, Thais
London, The Iron Heel 
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X

Notes
[1] Both quotations can be found in Schuyler, Black Empire (Boston: Northeaatern University Press, 1991), p.312, n.15.

Space is the Place (John Coney 1974)

[A version of this review originally appeared in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 92 (2004), 97–100.]

Sun_Ra_Space_is_Place_21Imagine Philip K. Dick was born 15 years earlier, black and with an astonishing musical talent in Birmingham, Alabama . . . imagine that, and you might just get Herman Poole Blount who became Le Sony’r Ra who was known as Sun Ra. You might just get the other visionary genius of postwar American sf.

Reading John F. Szwed’s Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra (Payback 1997), the comparison with Dick seems not entirely spurious. Both were phenomenally productive (Ra recorded over 1000 compositions on at least 120 albums). Both compulsively permutated and reiterated core themes and images whose shades of meaning and internal contradictions always seemed to imply a larger scheme in which they were reconciled. Both were innovators working with battered clichés. Both were treated indifferently at home and lionised in France. Both had run-ins with the FBI, possibly (in 1971 Ra and his Arkestra were invited to Oakland by Bobby Seale and lived for a while in a house owned by the Black Panther Party). Both were students of gnosticism and the Bible. Both had life-changing mystical experiences (in 1936 Ra underwent an ‘alien abduction’), but while the events of 2-3-74 led Dick to write his 8000-page exegesis, Ra lived his exegesis for the next 57 years, in person and on stage. Both were ontologically-troubled, perceiving the world as a veil (either that, or they were both persuasive charlatans). Both were self-mythologisers. Both have been called mad.

Of course, there were also many differences.

tumblr_mku7b2UL0I1s3e71xo1_1280Dick never claimed to be from Saturn, nor did he describe Star Wars as ‘very accurate’. He was not a major figure in post-war jazz, or the frequently unacknowledged godfather of world music, or one of the first musicians to experiment extensively with electronic keyboards. Dick did not mount spectacular lightshows before the likes of Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, the Grateful Dead and others whose attempts to transform gigs into overwhelming integrated audiovisual experiences are sometimes cited as inspiring VR’s total immersion grail.

Nor was Dick born black in Alabama in 1914.

And although Dick was keen, at one point, to make a movie (of Ubik (1969)), he failed. Ra, however, succeeded—even if it was not always clear that the barely-released, rarely-seen Space is the Place was a success.

The plot is straightforward enough. Ra, wandering in an alien garden, explains that he is establishing a Black colony there, to see what they can accomplish without white people around—but should he bring the colonists by ‘isotope transportation transmolecularisation’ or by teleporting them through music? Cut to Chicago, 1943. Sonny Ray is a nightclub pianist. Insulted by a well-dressed black pimp called the Overseer (Ray Johnson), his playing intensifies: glasses explode, smoke pours from the piano, everyone flees. Sonny Ray, now Ra, and the Overseer are transported to an arid plain—Chicago, it appears, was just another phase in an ongoing conflict. The Overseer accepts Ra’s challenge to a game of ‘the end of the world’. Ra flies to Oakland, California in a spaceship powered by the music of his Intergalactic Solar Arkestra. The Overseer recruits Jimmy Fey (Christopher Brooks), a reporter for ‘stone jive Channel Five’, to his cause, along with a brothel madam and two female nurses (who are treated throughout as little more than sex objects). Meanwhile, Ra reaches out to the ‘black youth of planet Earth’ and opens the Outer Space Employment Agency. He convinces the Overseer to up the stakes by letting him put on a show. Government agents abduct Ra and interrogate him about his spaceship’s power source and the African space programme, torturing him with a tape of what sounds like a high school band performing a particularly chipper version of ‘Dixie’. But the show goes on, and Sun Ra returns to space, taking with him a selection of African Americans to establish a colony on an uninhabited garden world. In order to secure this reversal of the Middle Passage from the interference of white people, Sun Ra destroys the Earth behind them.

sun-ra-space-450Shot on 16mm with a tiny budget, the movie has some very rough edges: flat visuals, indifferent dialogue (Ra wrote his own), thin characters, weak performances, poor pacing and the kind of inconsistencies and incoherence one often associates with Ra’s self-consciously elusive and playful pronouncements. Director Coney cites movies like Rocketship X-M (Neumann 1950) and Cat Women of the Moon (Hilton 1954) as inspiring the deliberately cheesy special effects that, aware of budgetary constraints, they set out to create. Fortunately, this unpolished quality quite closely matches Ra’s own pre-punk DIY aesthetic—throughout his career, his and the Arkestra’s costumes were generally homemade and looked it, although those in the movie are of a better quality. (A more remarkable example of this DIY aesthetic is the drum Ra told bassoonist James Jacson to make from a lightning-struck tree opposite the Arkestra’s Philadelphia home—an incident Jacson recounts in Robert Mugge’s 1980 documentary Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise). The movie’s rawness reflects the circumstances of its production. By Hollywood standards, it is only a little less professional than many blaxploitation movies, and more professional than some. But in judging such movies, Hollywood’s standards are not the most appropriate measure.

Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino’s 1969 manifesto ‘Towards a Third Cinema’ identified three kinds of filmmaking. First Cinema is the commercial cinema of Hollywood and its imitators. Second Cinema comprises auteurist cinema and art cinema; but however well-intentioned it might be, it is a bourgeois cinema dependent upon First Cinema distribution. Third Cinema is neither commercial nor bourgeois. In its most militant forms, it is closely aligned with political groups, has clear political goals and is unconcerned with politically-debilitating myths of objectivity and balance. It is an activists’ cinema, embedded in struggle. In his 1969 manifesto ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’, Cuban filmmaker Julio García Espinosa argued that rather than aspiring to the kind of ‘perfect’ cinema exemplified by Hollywood’s hermetic spectacles, Third World countries should aim to create an imperfect cinema, a genuinely popular art created by the masses to aid them in their daily and revolutionary struggle. In addressing Space is the Place and some of the more radically inclined blaxploitation movies – Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles 1971), The Spook Who sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon 1973) – such standards and ideas might prove more appropriate.[i]

maxresdefaultIt is easy to deplore Hollywood’s destruction and depletion of other national cinemas. What is less obvious is the ways in, and extent to, which Hollywood has deprived the US of a national cinema, a tendency evident since the 1920s and currently foregrounded by the multinational ownership of the major Hollywood companies and their increasingly standard policy of treating the US as just one more territory in which they can sell movies. From this perspective, independent film can, depending on the degree and nature of its independence, be regarded as a national cinema manqué; and Space, Sweetback and Spook can be seen as efforts groping towards an indigenous Third Cinema.[ii] Their rawness and rough edges are products of the dialectics of perfect and imperfect cinema.

Space’s imperfections display the disjunctions of the era. Only a movie this marginal could:

  • display pictures of Angela Davis, George Jackson, Bobby Seale, Malcolm X and other black revolutionaries quite so proudly
  • punish a villain by making his underlings, white and black alike, suddenly see him as a ‘nigger’ and treat him like one
  • depict a race war in which whitey loses so comprehensively.[iii]

Only Space could present elements of Ra’s Astro Black Mythology, blending an outer space future with a black Egyptian past – rejecting centuries of Christian metaphorisation of Egypt as a place of bondage and claiming it instead as the Promised Land, as black civilisation.[iv]

vlcsnap-2010-04-13-17h05m45s82And perhaps only such a marginal production could have displayed its misogyny so crudely. But to dismiss Space on this count would be problematic (and not just because many Hollywood productions of the period were just as bad, if more polished). Rather, it is another imperfection that opens up that particular historical conjuncture. This is not to exculpate – nor is it to damn with faint praise by reducing Space to the status of an interesting historical document. More accurate than Star Wars, it tries to offer a new hope, albeit an imperfect one.

Notes
[i]

Although as Mike Wayne argues in Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema (Pluto 2001) we should not regard these types of cinema as pigeonholes into which movies can be placed—instead, particular movies should be considered as embodying the dialectical interplay of these different cinemas.

[ii]

The films of the LA Rebellion group, which mostly rejected blaxploitation, can be understood as another attempt.

[iii]

Compare the wimped-out ending of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (J Lee Thompson 1972).

[iv]

See Graham Lock’s Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton (Duke 1999).

The first African science fiction short story? Leonard Flemming’s ‘And So It Came To Pass’ (full text)

I’ve had various queries about accessing some of the texts I mention in African SF 101; so here is the complete text of the earliest African sf short story I have been able to locate so far. It appeared in Flemming’s collection, A Crop of Chaff (Pietermaritzburg: Natal Witness 1924) pp. 26-31, which had an introduction by Jan Smuts. There was a second edition the following year, but neither it nor the story seem to have been reprinted since. As far as I know, it is out of copyright.

[26]

AND SO IT CAME TO PASS

A distinguished scientist has made the startling statement that mankind will soon be extinct – that there will not be a single human being left in any part of the world. I was in the middle of my tree-planting when I read this, and it almost made me decide to stop planting trees altogether. What’s the use of it all, I thought, if mankind is to be blotted out of existence soon? But I went on with the job, reckoning that they’d be useful for the monkeys to climb up, anyhow.

No human beings on earth . . . nothing but wild animals . . . . wild life.

*            *            *            *

One day in the future, something like this will be written about the past:-

“The last historians of that period state that the beginning of the end of mankind came when the White races were completely exterminated and the Black and Yellow races ruled.

“Of events in other parts of the world outside South Africa this article is not dealing. The over-running of Europe, Australia, and America by Coloured people, and the total annihilation of the

[27]

Whites is to be read of elsewhere; and though the exact year of the last sign of a White man in South Africa is not certain – some stating it to be 150 years after a fight in Europe in 1914-18; and others believing it to be 250 years after, there is sufficient evidence to show that towards the end of the era of man, the Native races in that country made short work of their one-time White rulers.

“From the meagre information available it would seem that events moved along smoothly enough, even during that epoch, when 50 per cent. of the members of Parliament were Blacks; but when the Native races reached that point where they outnumbered the Whites by 47 to 1, it is said that the White races made a final desperate effort to pull together to save themselves and the country.

“This attempt at unity seems to have failed. The Bill for the Employment of Poor Whites on the Mars air route was apparently the stumbling block. That all the Whites were in a poor way at this time does not seem to have occurred to the majority of the politicians, but it is evident that the pushing of this Bill meant a certain number of votes to one section of the White members of Parliament; and the Native menace, which throughout the years had been put aside in favour of Bills like this, very quietly and quickly sprang into a terrible reality. . . .

“One reads of the marvellous efficiency of the Blacks, their organisation and endurance – the overthrow of the Whites – the Black monarchy – the well-trained armies of countless millions, and so, in the eternal efflux of time, we find history repeating itself,

[28]

and discords and dissension taking place amongst the now ruling Black race, eventually terminating in the Great Black War.

“Before this, conditions, compared to the previous “White” era, appear somewhat extraordinary. Courts were abolished, large distilleries erected, nine-tenths of the arable land of the Union was under Kaffir corn, and every riem had disappeared as if by magic.

“Those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad. Practically the whole of mankind was made by 1924. There is a mass of evidence on the truth of this statement (see Vol. VI., pages 47 to 598). One of the most famous and historical instances, of course, was the objection, by a section of the Whites, to the initiation of a broad, bold, emigration scheme, which might quite easily have been the salvation of South Africa.

“Under the rule of the Blacks, Dingaan’s Day became a day of mourning with trained weepers in every market place, and a great annual festival appears to have taken place in the Government Buildings, Pretoria, on July 27, the date of the massacre of the last White man in South Africa – a one-time prohibitionist member of Parliament who was found hiding in an ant-bear hole.”

It was about this time that I was given a day’s leave from – from the place where I was spending eternity. An excellent arrangement this, giving odd residents 24 hours’ leave on earth at the end of a century or two.

I had chosen a day in midsummer as being one in which I stood less chance of catching cold. A

[29]

private Glidoplane had been put at my disposal – motors had long been obsolete.

I landed in Bloemfontein eventually, feeling very depressed at the sight of thousands of black, and brown, and yellow faces, when, to my joy, I caught sight of a white face inside a funny-looking sort of hut, which on closer examination turned out to be one of the old trackless tramcars.

The man inside proved to be a descendant of my old friend Brones. He wasn’t quite white, but at least he was not so “nativey” as the rest of the inhabitants.

Brones and Mrs. Brones were employed by a Mr. Mopilo Thlatyane as cook and gardener.

“It’s a good job as jobs go for one whose ancestors were white,” said Brones. He talked English with difficulty and with a strong accent of Buzuluto – the universal language now – a sort of native Esperanto.

“Do you mean to say that you and Mrs. Brones are working for a native family?”

“We are,” said Brones, “and very glad of the job too; we have this old tramcar for a house, we spent our spare time during the first six months screwing up the loose nuts, we get enough to eat, Thlatyane gives me his old boots and trousers, and Mrs. Thlatyane gives the wife quite a number of old dresses and things. We’re alright. The people I am sorry for are the descendants of those who were connected with the Police Courts – they have a fiendish time of it – always being run in for something or other and tried by the King – of course you know we have

[30]

a monarchy now with a black King at the head. Only yesterday there was a strong leading article suggesting that the authorities go in more for the death penalty with a lingering kind of death.”

“This particular writer is a chap named P. Pombulo Menletyohae – his grandfather’s name was ‘Sixpence,’ I believe. Of course you know that sending these chaps to English Universities was the beginning of the mischief.”

I listened in horror to the details of life as it was to-day. The native police force was kept solely to deal with the descendants of the Whites. Natives were rarely punished. Sheep stealing was encouraged in order that the old traditional cunning and characteristics of the race should not be entirely lost.

“When a native stole a sheep he at once reported the matter to the police, who, after, satisfying themselves that it was a genuine theft, gave the thief a metal disc. At the end of the year the native who had stolen most sheep was given a Diploma of Merit and a sum of money.”

It was with a feeling of relief that I returned to – to where I was spending eternity. It may be warm, but at least my own race are there and – one does feel safe. . . . .

There came in the course of time the inevitable. Jealousies, spite, hatred, disruption, disunion. Just as these had in another era undermined the power of the White man so did they begin to eat in the power of the Black.

The split occurred when a section of the people headed by one Bolohlomo, a noted psychologist of his

[31]

day, started the “No Education” campaign. It was one of the greatest reforms for the betterment of mankind that had ever been known.

They quoted the downfall of the White man as their chief argument for the abolition of education. “If that is where education brings you,” they said, “we don’t want it.”

So came into being the Pro and the Anti-Education parties. There followed feuds and fights and wars until there came the culminating Great War of the Blacks, in which was used every diabolical means of destruction known to science. Until . . . . man existed no more . . . . there was not one human being on earth . . . . as it was in the beginning. . . .

*            *            *            *

A cold wind swept its way around the world. It was the poor old earth singing, “Thank goodness – relief at last.”

African Science Fiction 101

This is a slightly different version of an overview essay I was invited to write for the SFRA Reviewthe published version, along with other goodies, can be found in the pdf of # 311 (Winter 2015). There are updates here and here.

africa sfIn almost every imaginable way, I am not qualified to write this piece. I am neither an Africanist nor an expert on African literatures and cultures, and my English degree is sufficiently ancient (and Leavisite) as to have been completely untroubled by critical engagement with world literature, orientalism, postcolonialism, diaspora, globalization, hybridity, the subaltern, and so on. However, thanks to the patience and generosity of many others who made the learning curve of editing the 2013 “Africa SF” issue of Paradoxa rather less steep than it otherwise would have been, there are some things I can pass on. As with that project, this essay is intended as an invitation – to engage with unfamiliar writers and texts, to broaden our vision of sf, and to look together to a global future.

But can we speak of “African sf”?
Africa covers nearly 12 million square miles and has a population of more than a billion (over 20% of the Earth’s land surface and 15% of its population). It stretches from the northern temperate zone to the southern temperate zone and contains, in effect, 65 countries. Its peoples speak somewhere between 1000 and 2000 languages (and multilingualism is commonplace). In the light of such numbers, the adjective in “African sf” runs significant risks: of homogenizing diversity; of creating a reified, monolithic image of what it might mean to be “African”; of ghettoizing the sf of a continent as some kind of subset or marginal instance of a more “proper” American or European version of the genre; of patronizing such sf as somehow not yet fully formed, “developing” rather than “developed”; of separating such fiction from the wider culture(s) of which it is a part; of colonizing such cultural production by seeing it not through its own eyes but through those of Americans and Europeans.1 In teaching African sf, one way to avoid some of these problems might be to focus more closely on a single African country, enabling a more detailed and nuanced exploration of a particular culture (or set of intersecting cultures within that nation), but hitherto only South Africa and Nigeria have really produced enough sf in English for that to be feasible.

pumzi-ft

There are vast differences between – and within – North and sub-Saharan Africa. Across the continent, the influence of Arabic, European, Islamic, and Christian cultures has played out in myriad ways, as have colonialism, postcolonialism, and neo-colonialism. There are important distinctions to be drawn between – and within – indigenous and settler cultures, both in Africa and in diaspora. There are complex questions to be asked of the many hybridities thrown up at the lived interfaces and interweavings of these cultures and identities.

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For example, at what point does an immigrant “count” as an African, or an émigré cease to “count” as one? Should Manly Wade Wellman, that stalwart of the US fantastic pulps from the late 1920s onwards, who was born in what is now Angola, be considered an African sf writer? How about Doris Lessing? She was born in Persia in 1919, lived in Southern Rhodesia from 1926-1949, before settling in the UK, where most of her fiction was written. How about Buchi Emecheta, born in Nigeria in 1944 but resident primarily in the UK from 1962? Or Scottish-born Jonathan Ledgard, the East African correspondent for The Economist and director of The Future Africa Afrotech Initiative, who currently lives in Africa? Or Nnedi Okorafor, who was born in Cincinatti to Igbo parents and maintains close ties to Nigeria? While such questions have no straightforward answers, there is much to be gained by thinking collectively about them. My own instinct is not to try to nail down a rigid schema, but to keep matters fluid, relationships open, and potentials in play, and to recognize the specific conjunctural value of “African sf” as a temporary, flexible, non-monolithic, and, above all, strategic identity.

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All of the stories and novels discussed below were either written or have been translated into English. There are undoubtedly works in indigenous languages, as well as in Arabic2 and other European colonizer languages. In terms of which texts are in print, a course on African sf would have to focus on fiction from after the post-World War 2 independence struggles, with the possibility of shifting emphasis from “literary” to “popular” fiction the closer it draws to the present; it is difficult to imagine an sf course that would contain so many Nobel laureates and so much experimental prose, while at the same time requiring students to find the value in pulp. Such a course would probably be suitable only for upper level undergraduates or postgraduates, which indicates the importance of incorporating African sf into general courses on sf, African literature, children’s and YA fiction, and so on.

I have noted whether pre-1980 out-of-print texts are held by the British Library (BL), Library of Congress (LC), the Eaton Collection at UC Riverside (E), the Merril collection at Toronto Public Library (M), or the Foundation collection at Liverpool University (F); post-1980 texts are much easier to find second-hand.

Was there African sf before World War 2?
All the examples I have found are by white South Africans, and only one of them (Timlin) is currently in print.

Joseph J. Doke’s The Secret City: A Romance of the Karroo (1913; BL, E) is a Haggard-inspired lost race novel, written by the Johannesburg-based Baptist clergyman who also wrote the authorized biography of Gandhi. In the frame tale, Justin Retief, a Cape Town settler, discovers a manuscript describing the adventures of his grandfather two centuries earlier. In the framed tale, Paul Retief witnesses the destruction of the millennia-old Nefert, a forgotten outpost of the ancient Egyptian empire, while rescuing his abducted wife, Marion, believed to be a reincarnation of the legendarily cruel queen Reinhild. The prequel, The Queen of the Secret City (1916; BL, E), tells of the rise to power (and the struggle over the soul) of Reinhild – again taken from a manuscript discovered by Justin. It is positioned as an overtly Christian refutation of pernicious Nietzscheanism, but rather clumsily, as if an afterthought. Both books are rare and costly.

Archibald Lamont’s South Africa in Mars (1923; BL, LC) is a posthumous account of encounters with the deceased great and good – including Shakespeare and Cecil Rhodes – on Mars, and involves a supernatural interplanetary scheme to save South Africa from its own failings. The brief description in Everett Bleiler’s Science Fiction: The Early Years (1990) astutely “wonders why the book was written” (418). It is not too expensive second-hand.

Timlin-Ship-Sailed-to-Mars-1st-editionBritish-born William M. Timlin emigrated to South Africa in 1912, aged twenty, where he became an architect and, more notably, an interior designer of picture palaces. His only novel, The Ship that Sailed to Mars (1923), is considered one of the most beautiful children’s books of the period – and one of the rarest. 2000 copies were published in London, priced at five guineas (250 of them were exported to the US, and sold for twelve dollars each). In 1926, Paramount announced a film adaptation, to star the now largely forgotten Raymond Griffith, but it went unmade, and the book was not reprinted until 2011. It contains 48 pages of text – not typeset but replicating Timlin’s calligraphy – and 48 paintings, telling the story of how fairies help the Old Man build a ship to travel, in a roundabout way, to the red planet, and of the fantastical civilization he finds there. Timlin’s whimsical blend of sf and fantasy recalls the films of Georges Méliès, perhaps, or Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo, though without the latter’s manic energy or sometimes sharp bite; visually, it is much closer to Arthur Rackham.

Leonard Flemming, a farmer and occasional journalist, included the brief story ‘And So It Came to Pass’ in A Crop of Chaff (1925 BL), a collection of slight vignettes and humorous pieces. It is slight, but not remotely humorous. After whites have been eradicated, black people and coloured people turn on each other, destroying the human race.

WhenSmutsGoesAnother early South African sf novel, published just after WW2 is When Smuts Goes: A History of South Africa from 1952 to 2010, first published in 2015 (1947; BL, LC, E, M) by Arthur Keppel-Jones, a professor of History at Witwatersrand University. Intended as an intervention into post-war South African politics, it projects a future in which Anglophone government is overthrown and replaced by a fascist Afrikaner state. The white Anglophone population deserts, or is hounded out of, the country. Black Africans eventually achieve a rather compromised victory over their oppressors, but prove incapable of building or maintaining a modern, thriving nation. Overall, it is one of those oddly racist anti-racist books, reiterating that old nonsense about British colonialism being more benevolent and efficient than that of other European nations. Nonetheless, it is worth the effort of finding one of the reasonably-priced second-hand copies.

First encounters
For a class on African sf, a provocative opening exercise – I am entirely indebted to Isiah Lavender III for this idea – would be to read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) alongside Nigerian Chinua Achebe’s debut novel, Things Fall Apart (1958). Although neither is sf, both do science-fictional things. Conrad’s novel is somewhat reflexive about the colonial adventure fiction of the period, but remains deeply problematic in its depiction of Africa and Africans (as Achebe’s devastating critique in his 1975 lecture “An Image of Africa” (1978) persuasively demonstrated, single-handedly changing the way the novel is understood). Conrad depicts the journey into Africa as also one into a prehistoric past, transforming a common colonial trope of travelling backwards along the path of progress into something more akin to Verne’s A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864). The abandoned relics of previous colonial incursions into the continent suggest there is nothing inevitable about “progress,” while also echoing the “last man” tradition of a traveler finding Europe in ruins. The recurring sound of distant blasting and especially the image of a French battleship blindly shelling the jungle indicate the violence of colonial conquest and render modernity absurd. And if we can now also see the sf structures and moments in Conrad’s tale, Achebe’s novel – which is set in a fictional Igbo village in the late nineteenth century, and tells of the coming of white people, Christianity, and colonial governance – can also be read as a science-fictional account of first contact but from the other side.

219909Ideally, I would add Nigerian Buchi Emecheta’s The Rape of Shavi (1983) into this mix. Told primarily from the viewpoint of the inhabitants of Shavi, an isolated African kingdom, it depicts the arrival of a group of albinos in a “bird of fire” – in fact, westerners fleeing what they fear is a nuclear war – and of the various, increasingly tragic, misunderstandings as both peoples see the other through their own cultural standards and preconceptions. Perhaps inevitably, colonialism wins; the Shavians certainly do not. However, as the novel is out of print, an alternative elaboration on this exercise might be to introduce two of the very best stories about colonial encounters American sf has produced, Sonya Dorman’s “When I Was Miss Dow” (1968) and Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” (1984), which draw out in more overtly science-fictional ways some elements of colonial ideology – especially around gender, sexuality, reproduction, cooptation, and cooperation – that are central to neither Conrad nor Achebe.

Irreal Africas, postcolonial fictions
One place to look for traces of African sf is in critical volumes which would never dream of using 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. Gerald Gaylard’s After Colonialism: African Postmodernism and Magical Realism (2005) is a treasure trove in this regard. Without Gaylard, for example, I might never have come across South African Ivan Vladislavić’s satirical, often Kafkaesque short stories collected in Missing Persons (1989) and Propaganda by Monuments (1996), many of which – for example, “The Omniscope (Pat. Pending),” “We Came to the Monument,” and “A Science of Fragments” – contain sf elements. (Both volumes are out of print, and second-hand copies of Flashback Hotel (2010), the omnibus edition intended to make these stories accessible once more, are even harder to track down.)

4591255Who Remembers the Sea (1962; BL in French, LC) – written by Algerian Mohammed Dib while exiled in Paris for his opposition to the French colonial occupation of Algeria – is set in a phantasmagorical city that constantly shifts and changes. Strange beasts roam the city, and violent conflict brings death and devastation. Apart from several more or less straightforwardly realistic flashbacks to the narrator’s youth, the novel is told in an elusive manner. It is replete with neologisms and neosemes, used with the consistency one would expect of sf world-building, even if the objects to which they attach are not brought into clear focus. Events and entities never quite seem to hold still. The revolution, if that is what it is, happens offstage, just out of sight. Each chapter seems to have forgotten the preceding one, and sometimes this is the case with paragraphs, too. It is a remarkable account of living under occupation.

In the Egyptian Moustafa Mahmoud’s slender The Rising from the Coffin (1965; LC), an Egyptian archeologist visits Indian Brahma Wagiswara, and then timeslips (or perhaps merely dreams) his way back to the era of the Pharaohs, in which Imhotep seems also to be Wagiswara. Scientific and spiritual worldviews are brought into collision, only for the narrator/protagonist to learn that they are not necessarily contradictory. Mahmoud’s The Spider (1965) was translated and serialized (1965–66) in Arab Observer, but I have been unable to locate any copies.

SF2_AeroplanesThe Ghanaian [B.] Kojo Laing writes complex, experimental confections using sf, fantasy, and realist elements. Woman of the Aeroplanes (1988) brings two immortal communities – Tukwan, a fantastical community in Ghana, and Levensvale, a disentimed Scottish village – into complex contact with each other. Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars (1992) is discussed below. Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters (2006) is his largest, most sprawling, and most difficult novel to summarize, but it does involve, among many other sf elements, genetic engineering that makes it increasingly difficult for rich and poor countries to interact. Nigerian Ben Okri’s even more massive The Famished Road (1991) is easy reading in contrast. In a ghetto of an unnamed African city, the abiku (spirit-child) Azaro is constantly pressed by sibling spirits to return to their realm. In this often oneiric blend, sf imagery recurs.

The novels I would choose to teach, though, are Congolese Sony Labou Tansi’s Life and A Half (1977) and Kenyan Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow (2006).

512ugeOGOpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The former, set in the fictional republic of Katamalanasia, tells of resistance to a murderous dictator called The Providential Guide, and of the numerous, equally deadly and deranged offspring who compete to replace him. It culminates in an apocalyptic war that involves such superscience weapons as mutant flies whose sting turns their victims into radiant carbon, radio-flies with beam weapons, the radio-bomb, and the real rifle of peace. It is brief, hyperbolic, brutal, and comic.

WizardOfTheCrowThiong’o’s novel, set in the fictional state of Abruria, is much more accessible, but much more massive. An irreal burlesque, indignant at the state of postcolonial Africa, it excoriates brutal domestic corruption and its interrelations with a global economic system constructed to serve the interests of the former and neo-colonialists. For example, in one strand, a government minister jockeying for position plans to build the tallest building in the world – so tall, in fact, that Abruria must develop a space program in order to take the President, by rocket, to its penthouse.

51IomMUSDoL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_An alternative for those daunted by the sheer size of Wizard of the Crow might be Ivorian Ahmadou Kourouma’s Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote (1998), which recounts the life of a shapeshifting dictator and the history of African decolonization/neo-colonization. Utterly fantastical and in some ways completely true, it is shorter yet more grueling than Wizard, but lacks Thiong’o’s humour and overt sf elements.

Pulp Africas, cyberpunk Africas
There are a number of African texts which we can think of as being closely related to western pulp traditions. Ghanaian Victor Sabah’s brief, self-consciously naïve ‘An Imaginary Journey to the Moon’ (1972) was collected in Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss’s variously titled Best SF: 1972 (1973) and again in Aldiss and Sam Lundwall’s The Penguin World Omnibus of Science Fiction (1986), although editors seems reluctant to detail where it first appeared. South African Claude Nunes – sometimes with Rhoda Nunes as co-author – published a couple of short stories, ‘The Problem’ (1962) and ‘Inherit the Earth’ (1963) in, respectively, John Carnell’s Science Fantasy and Science Fiction Adventures magazines in the UK, before seeing a pair of short novels, Inherit the Earth (1967) and Recoil (1971), as halves of Ace Doubles in the US. The Sky Trapeze (1980) was published in the UK. All three novels are available on kindle. They are competent enough, and their depiction of struggles between humans and posthumans of various sorts could be seen as commenting on Apartheid. However, they are so grounded in American sf – apocalyptic wars, androids, mutants, psi powers, group minds, interstellar travel – that their occasional African settings and traces of a South African perspective are rather overwhelmed.

afrosfthmbcoverThe Apex Book of World SF 2 (2012) and 3 (2014), edited by Lavie Tidhar, include stories from Gambia, Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Ivor Hartmann’s AfroSf: Science Fiction by African Writers anthology (2012) contains 22 new short stories from across the continent (including Gambia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and, primarily, South Africa). This groundbreaking collection displays various, often quite complex, interrelations between African content, settings, and culture, and US pulp traditions, protocols, and story types. A sequel volume of novellas is forthcoming.

Equatorial_AssignmentThere are also a number of thrillers with significant sf elements. The popular and prolific Kenyan David G. Maillu, winner of the 1992 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, wrote several sf novels. The Equatorial Assignment (1980) introduces special agent 009, Benni Kamba. He works for the covert pan-Africanist security organization NISA (National Integrity Service of Africa) in the struggle against neo-colonial power, here represented by Dr Thunder’s SPECTRE-like operation, which is engaged in removing any remotely effective African head of state and replacing him with a puppet ruler. The influence of the James Bond films (rather than Ian Fleming’s novels) on this slight and rather crudely written YA novel is clear. Every woman 009 meets is beautiful and sooner or later ends up in bed with him, though only one of them subsequently betrays him (but her confused feelings for him then lead to a moment of weakness which enables him to triumph). Operation DXT (1986) is a sequel, while Kadosa (1975; BL) is an sf romance, in which the eponymous alien woman visits contemporary mark_cobra_pacesettersKenya. Nigerian Valentine Alily’s Mark of the Cobra (1980) is another Bond-inspired short YA novel: Ca’afra Osiri Ba’ara, aka the Cobra, has developed a devastating solar weapon, and only Nigeria’s Special Service Agent, SSA2 Jack Ebony, can thwart his plans for global domination. The villain even acknowledges when he is quoting from Live and Let Die. A Beast in View (1969 BL, F), by anti-apartheid South African exile Peter Dreyer, was banned in South Africa on publication. In this rather more literary near-future thriller, the League of South African Democrats uncover a scheme to frack oil from shale by detonating a nuclear bomb in the Karoo region.

zoo-city-by-lauren-beukes-naHowever, probably the best route into thinking about African sf in relation to western pulp sf is through cyberpunk.3 South African Lauren Beukes’ first two novels, Moxyland (2008) and the Clarke Award-winner Zoo City (2010) are both cyberpunk-ish – the earlier more obviously so, but I would recommend teaching the stronger, later novel, which might also be considered as urban fantasy, not least since the best critical work on Beukes also focuses on Zoo City.4

41RZVDJW1WL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A brilliant, and rather more challenging, companion novel is Ghanaian [B.] Kojo Laing’s experimental Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars (1992), whose phantasmagorical tale has a cyberpunkish setting. Set in 2020, it tells of the war between Major Gentl and the mercenary Torro the Terrible, with the fate of Achimoto City and perhaps all Africa hanging in the balance. It is dense, fantastical, poetic – and, I have just discovered, no longer in print.

9992142677.02.LZZZZZZZPerhaps, then, the Egyptian Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia (2008), often considered proleptic of the Arab Spring, might do instead. Cyberpunk elements lurk in the background of a world divided between the walled enclaves of the rich and the masses of impoverished and disenfranchised peoples living in the ruins. A young man from the former ventures into the latter for kicks, runs into trouble, returns, but doesn’t really learn anything. Or maybe Efe Okogu’s novella ‘Prop 23’ in AfroSF, which reworks elements of Neuromancer and biopolitical perspectives in a future Lagos.

Publications_Africans_Origins_Of_Ufos_2Or, from among Afrodiasporic texts, The African Origins of UFOs (2006), the afro-psychedelic noir sf novel by British-Trinidadian poet and musician Anthony Joseph (his reading of extracts on the 2005 Liquid Textology CD is also highly recommended). Or perhaps Parisian-born Tunisian Nadia El Fani’s film Bedwin Hacker (France/Morocco/Tunisia 2003), a low-key political thriller about neo-colonial power relations in which a French Intelligence agent tries to track down a North African hacker. It is available on DVD – whereas Cameroonian Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s Les Saignantes/The Bloodiest (Cameroon 2005), which plays with cyberpunk imagery in much more challenging ways, is not.

YA fiction
I have not read Ghanaian J.O. Eshun’s The Adventures of Kapapa (1976; F), about a scientist who discovers antigravity, nor have I been able to find a copy of Journey to Space (1980),5 a novella by Nigerian Flora Nwapa, who is widely regarded as “the mother of modern African literature.”

51ZqG7IHPxL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Arizonan writer Nancy Farmer spent 17 years living and working in Africa – South Africa, Mozambique, mostly Zimbabwe – where she started to publish fiction. After winning the 1987 Writers of the Future gold award, she returned to the US. Her debut novel, The Ear, The Eye and The Arm was published in Zimbabwe in 1989; the much-revised 1994 version won numerous awards.6 Set in 2194, it tells of the abduction of General Matsika’s children, of their adventures in Harare’s various communities, and of the search for them by the three hapless, mutant detectives of the title.

27845467_0_Img2It is tempting to select Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor’s Zahrah the Windseeker (2005), The Shadow Speaker (2007) or Akata Witch (2011) as the YA novels to teach; they are highly-regarded and easily available, and they nicely trouble distinctions between sf and fantasy. However, a course on African SF might be better served by her adult novels, and by instead looking at YA sf from other writers: Zambian-born naturalized South African Nick Wood’s The Stone Chameleon (2004) and Botswana-resident South African Jenny Robson’s Savannah 2116 AD (2004). The former is a relatively slight adventure novel in a post truth-and-reconciliation South Africa of 2030. Race is no longer an issue, apart from all the ways it continues to be one. Kerem, the fifteen-year-old protagonist, and a handful of friends from his new school, find themselves standing up to a neighborhood criminal gang – complete with heavies genetically altered to incorporate physical traits of wild animals – and questing for an ancient source of power that will heal the African communities desolated and divided by European colonialism and its long aftermath. Robson’s novel, aimed at older readers, is a little longer, more complex and more accomplished. It imagines a 22nd-century Africa in which the majority of humans – called, dismissively, “Homosaps” – live on reservations so as to enable the continent’s flora and fauna to recover from global anthropogenic ecocatastrophe. The teenage Savannah, and her new boyfriend, D-nineteen, who is one of the mysterious “gens” – that is, he has been genetically engineered so that, at the age of eighteen, his organs can be harvested and, ostensibly, transplanted into struggling animals – discover all is not as it seems. Both novels are also susceptible to readings from animal studies and biopolitical perspectives.

The borderlines of sf
In Africa, as elsewhere, fiction often lurks right on the edges of the genre. For example, The Last of the Empire (1981) by Senegalese Ousmane Sembene – not only a leading African novelist but also “the father of African Cinema” – is a political thriller about a military coup in a newly independent African nation; it is also almost a roman à clef about Senegal, satirizing its first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, with whom Sembene often butted heads. This hesitancy about the nature of the novel’s setting gives it an oddly science-fictional air. A similar science-fictionality haunts the Zimbabwean Dambudzo Marechera’s The Black Insider (written 1978, posthumously published 1990), in which autobiographical reminiscences are told from within a derelict university building outside of which a war rages. The non-specific location of J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians200px-JMCoetzee_WaitingForTheBarbarians (1980), which takes place in a frontier settlement as war between the Empire and the barbarians looms, draws it even closer to sf.7 In contrast, South African Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People (1981) is clearly set in the near-future, with resistance to Apartheid becoming open revolution. Despite this specificity, the novel feels perhaps less science-fictional than Waiting for the Barbarians since its focus is on the shifting relationship between a liberal white family and their black African servant who shelters them in his village, a remote home to which the pass system would only otherwise have permitted him to return every two years.

J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence (2012) juxtaposes the lives of James and Danny before and especially after they meet one Christmas and fall in love: a British spy, and a descendant of Thomas More, he is abducted by jihadists in Somalia; a biomathematician, she studies microbial life in the Hadal depths of the Atlantic ocean. Occasionally too precious for its own good (it is the kind of novel in which one character will quote Rilke in German to the other), it establishes a series of genuinely effective contrasts between the immediacy of James’s experience and the sublime spaces and times of Danny’s.

I would, however, select a couple of debut novels to probe our understanding of the relationships between genres, the ways in which texts are comprised of multiple generic elements and tendencies – and to question the process of using Anglo-American categories to consider African novels.

n295440Nigerian Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s I Do Not Come to You By Chance (2009) won a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, a Wole Soyinka Prize, and a Betty Trask Award.8 It is a fast-paced comedy of desperation in which the well-educated Kingsley lacks the right connections to get a job as an engineer. When his father falls ill, and essential medical treatment proves too costly, Kingsley – now also responsible, as the opara (first-born son), for the wellbeing of his whole family – finds himself propelled into the world of 419 scammers. If it had been written by William Gibson or Neal Stephenson, no-one would think twice about treating it as sf.

510QYqzxhOL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Nii Ayikwei Parkes was born in the UK and raised in Ghana. In The Tail of the Blue Bird (2009), Kayo – who trained in the UK as a forensic pathologist and worked as a police Scenes of Crime Officer – returns to Accra, hoping to pursue similar work. The Ghanaian police are uninterested in hiring him until the girlfriend of a government minister discovers baffling remains – they might be human, or not – in a distant village. Caught up in the potentially fatal machinations of an ambitious police officer and the webs of everyday urban violence and corruption, Kayo finds a rather different kind of community, with a deep history and traditional wisdom. The novel never quite becomes sf, and its treatment of forensic science refuses the absurd certainties of CSI, but fantastical elements emerge.

Alternative and future Africas
All of the books in this section would work well on an African sf course – and since I do not actually have to choose between them, I will not.

41Dq9vXDDNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_French-resident Djiboutian Abdourahman A. Waberi describes an alternate world In the United States of Africa (2006), in which Africa is the global superpower and Europe a mass of uncivilized tribes constantly fighting each other. This kaleidoscopic novel is not an alternative history as sf normally understands it – there is no jonbar point of historical divergence, nor is it entirely clear whether pre-colonial African civilizations just continued on in to the present. Furthermore, its descriptions of European internecine strife are not an inaccurate description of the continent’s actual history – Waberi merely refuses to drape it in the self-serving narratives of civilization and progress, instead imposing upon it the kind of supremacist myths that typify many European treatments of Africa. Malaika, a French girl adopted by an African doctor when he was working on an aid mission in the benighted continent, returns as an adult to her birthplace in the hope of finding her mother and a clearer sense of her own confused identity. This is a dazzling book, sharp and funny, and there is no way a synopsis can do it justice.9

2The Nigerian-American Deji Bryce Olukotun’s Nigerians in Space (2013), largely written and much of it set in South Africa, is an intriguing thriller focused less on the neatly decentered scheme around which it is organized than on its aftermath. In the early 1990s, a politician recruits top scientists from the Nigerian diaspora to return home as part of the “Brain Gain” intended to transform the country through high-tech innovation; in the present day, it transpires that only one of the scientists escaped assassination before the project – or was it just a scam? – could cohere.

220px-WhoFearsDeathbookNnedi Okorafor’s World Fantasy Award-winning Who Fears Death (2010) is set in a post-apocalyptic future in which technology and magic operate side by side, and in which dark-skinned Okeke are oppressed by light-skinned Nuru. Onyesonwu, the child of a Nuru woman raped by an Okeke sorcerer, learns to use her powers to prevent the genocide her father plans. Similarly structured to her YA novels, Who Fears Death is about rape, female genital mutilation, violation, trauma, the legacies of violence, the justifications for violence, ethnic struggles, gendered power, political and ethical responsibility, among other things, and wisely avoids proffering easy solutions.

ucyvjzkf9dhkfqnhdonqIn Lagoon (2014), Okorafor leaves behind her YA structure for a fast-paced thriller, and offers a more optimistic vision of a future Africa – or, more precisely, a future Lagos. By her own account, she started the novel as a response to the infuriating District 9 (Blomkamp US/NZ/Canada/South Africa) but, as she wrote, it transformed into something else. Aliens land in the lagoon, bringing chaos – a gang wants to kidnap the aliens, evangelical Christians want to convert them, an underground LGBT group sees in them a harbinger of revolution, the government is too slow and corrupt to respond effectively – and transformation; and Nigeria for once appears in the global mediascape as something other than a source of oil and location of violence.10

71+Qs7tjjtLLagos 2060 (2013) edited by Ayodele Arigbabu, collects eight stories developed out of a workshop in 2010, Nigeria’s golden anniversary year, concerned with imagining Lagos, already Africa’s most populous city, a century after the country’s independence. The stories contain different futures, though with some elements in common, and address global warming and other ecological concerns, nuclear disasters, the continuing role of foreign capital in determining the national economy and thus daily life, the nature of a post-oil Nigerian economy and state, the potential secession of Lagos and balkanization of the Federal State, the polarization of the wealthy and the impoverished, and developments such as the Eko Atlantic City as a moneyed enclave. They are quite pulpy and sometimes crudely written – further evidence of the need Tade Thompson described for regular paying markets for sf in Africa in order for writers to develop their craft – but they represent an important step in the development of African, and specifically Nigerian, sf.

African sf is already at least a century old. It is – as I hope this undoubtedly incomplete overview suggests – wonderfully diverse and increasingly common. It challenges us to rethink our understanding of the genre, and how we think about the past, the present, and the future. It deserves – indeed, demands – our attention. Not as a poor relative in need of charity, but as an equal from whom we all have much to learn.

[There is an update here.]

Notes

1
It has been argued, for example, that the European success of Sony Labou Tansi’s debut novel, Life and a Half (1979), was indebted in large part to its misidentification as “magic realist,” a categorisation that produces significant misunderstandings of both the novel and Congolese culture (labelling it as sf shifts how it can be understood but of course invites exactly the same criticism). At “Imagining Future Africa: SciFi, Innovation and Technology,” the closing panel at the third annual Africa Writes festival at the British Library (11-13 July 2014), British-Nigerian Tade Thompson raised a related problem: without regular, paying markets in Africa for sf of African origin, African writers are likely to orient their fiction towards US or European markets rather than pursue more indigenous forms and concerns. (December 2014 saw the launch of Omenana, a free bimonthly online magazine of African and Afrodiasporic sf, edited by Mazi Nwonwu and Chinelo Onwualu; and January 2105 saw the launch of Jalada’s online Afrofutures anthology.)

2
For example, the SFE’s “Arabic sf” entry refers to untranslated sf by the Egyptians Tawfiq al Hakim, Mustafa Mahmud, Yusuf Idris, and Ali Salim, the Libyan Yusuf al-Kuwayri, the Tunisian Izzaddin al-Madani, and the Algerian Hacène Farouk Zehar, who wrote in French (as did Algerian Mohammed Dib, whose sf novel I discuss in this essay). Some of Tawfiq al Hakim’s sf has been translated into English. His “In the Year One Million” (1947), depicts a sexless, immortal, future humanity rediscovering love, mortality, and religion; it is included in In the Tavern of Life and Other Stories (1998). Some of its themes are developed in his four-act play Voyage to Tomorrow (1957) and his one-act play Poet on the Moon (1972), both of which can be found in Plays, Prefaces and Postscripts of Tawfiq Al-Hakim, volume two: Theater of Society (1984). In the former, a doctor and an engineer, both facing execution, are offered reprieves if they will pilot an experimental rocket into the depths of space. After a fatal crash, they find themselves revived as immortal beings on an empty alien world, faced with the emptiness of eternity. They return to Earth, somehow human once more, and find that during their three-hundred-year absence, the world has become a utopia of peace and plenty – and that humanity faces a similarly meaningless future. In the latter play, a poet maneuvers his way onto a lunar expedition. He alone is able to perceive the alien inhabitants, living at peace since becoming sexless, and to recognize that his fellow astronaut’s discovery of the Moon’s mineral wealth can only result in colonial devastation.

3
Ghanaian Jonathan Dotse has been working on a cyberpunk novel, Accra: 2057, for several years, although it remains unclear how soon it will be completed.

4
Beukes’ subsequent novels, The Shining Girls (2013) and Broken Monsters (2014), combine serial killer thrillers with sf and fantastical elements. They are a useful reminder – as is Doris Lessing’s sf, which I have omitted from this outline since her work is already well known – that we should not expect African writers necessarily to set their fiction in Africa.

5
WorldCat notes copies are held by four German universities and by Northwestern in the US.

6
Her other sf includes the bleak, near-future diptych, The House of the Scorpion (2002) and The Lord of Opium (2013), set on the contested US-Mexico border. The Warm Place (1995), the Zimbabwe-set A Girl Named Disaster (1996), and the Sea of Trolls trilogy (2004-2009) are fantasy.

7
His In the Heart of the Country (1977) features a fleeting UFO appearance.

8
Nwaubani’s mother is a cousin of Flora Nwapa.

9
Africa Paradis (Sylvestre Amoussou Benin/France 2006) conjures a broader similar near future after the collapse of Europe, the newly-risen African superpower is plagued by the problem of illegal immigrants from Europe; it is available on DVD. Yet another version of this role-reversal milieu features in the final and longest film in Omer Fast’s Nostalgia (2006), a triptych shown as a gallery installation. It is more nuanced than Amoussou’s feature film, but pretty much unavailable unless you are near a gallery where it is showing. Even though both films would work well as accompaniments to Waberi’s novel neither of them is in its league.

10
A somewhat less compelling vision of apocalyptic transformation can be found in The Feller of Trees (2012), by Zambian Mwangala Bonna, who lives and works in South Africa and Botswana. In it, Berenice struggles to reconcile her Christian faith with the political machinations necessary to unite and save Africa when the continent begins to sink.