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.

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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,

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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

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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.”

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A partial solar eclipse…

solar…even just glimpsed through the grey clouds over Bristol and through telegraph wires is a timeless reminder of the majesty of the universe…of how very small we are in the face of it all…

solar 1…and of how I must really get round to cleaning those windows.

Mutant Chronicles (Simon Hunter 2008)

The_Mutant_Chroniclesand so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Mutant Chronicles (2008) is not Ron Perlman’s Oirish accent (to be sure), nor is it the film’s unwillingness to leave any cliché unturned in the pursuit of mediocrity; no, the best thing about Mutant Chronicles is Sean Pertwee, for it is one of the fundamental laws of cinema that, regardless of the thing he is in, Sean Pertwee will be the best thing in the thing he is in…and that he will die more horribly and with greater inevitability than Sean Bean…

Solving Jeremy Clarkson

jeremy-clarkson-cartoonApparently Danny Cohen, the BBC Director of Television, is struggling to work out the fate of Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson. He has already described those defending Clarkson as being like those who covered up Jimmy Savile’s paedophilic predations. The Mail, in its typically confused manner, has implied today that Cohen accused Clarkson of paedophilia.

Obviously, this cannot go on.

It is tedious beyond belief, and Clarkson should have been sacked years ago.

But Top Gear is ‘the most-watched “factual” programme in the world’, and a huge money-spinner. No wonder Cohen knows what to do but cannot manage to do it.

It seems to me the answer is clear.

The BBC should take Clarkson back, but return Top Gear to the format originally proposed by JG Ballard.crashbangwallop

Out of the Unknown: ‘Sucker Bait’ (15 November 1965)

05dd3gnThis is the one with the inestimable Burt Kwouk – not the first actor of colour in the series, but the first one with a substantial role. Called upon, it seems, whenever British television or film needed a Chinese, a Japanese, masonan unspecified oriental, he is part of the furniture of my life; I suspect I will be devastated – not Elisabeth Sladen or James Garner devastated, but devastated nonetheless – when he dies. (I seem to have always known that he was born in Warrington, but what I did not know was that he was raised in Shanghai, his family only returning to Britain during the Chinese revolution; in my mind’s eye, I see him in the streets of thirties Shanghai, running into a young JG Ballard –  only to appear 50 years later as Mr Chen in Empire of the Sun (1987).)

This is also the one – actually the first of three – directed by Naomi Capon, one of just two female directors at the BBC at the time (the other, Paddy Russell, directed the previous episode, ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…’ .) British-born, Capon worked on American television before returning to the UK to commence, in 1951, a twenty-year career as a director and producer, almost exclusively of drama. She also directed ‘The World in Silence’ (17 November 1966), based on John Rankine’s 1966 ‘Six Cubed Plus One’, and ‘The Prophet’ (1 January 1967), based on Asimov’s ‘Reason’ (1941), one of the stories collected in I, Robot (1950). Capon’s set designer has clearly learned the dangers, so evident in ‘Time in Advance’, of signifying futurity through shiny surfaces. If the spaceship interiors are not quite as impressive as those in ‘The Counterfeit Man’, the multilevel set becomes impressive when you realise it contains an actual elevator, rather than trickery, to move between levels (although the bridge set then looks quite silly because it involves climbing up ladders to reach the door). Videoscreens and oscilloscopes abound, accompanied by some groovy radiophonics.

After ‘The Dead Past’, it is the second of six episodes based on stories by Isaac Asimov. It was adapted by Meade Roberts from Asimov’s 1954 Astounding story, ‘Sucker Bait’, collected in The Martian Way and Other Stories in 1955 (published in the UK by Dennis Dobson in 1964). The adaptation was originally commissioned as a 75-minute drama, presumably for Story Parade. (Roberts also adapted the following episode from Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Fox and the Forest’ (1950).)

OOTU Sucker bait articleAs with ‘The Dead Past’, this is a story built around the problem of specialisation – the idea that as knowledge develops, scientists will increasingly specialise, leading to a potential hazardous compartmentalisation of information and ideas. In Asimov’s future – distant enough in time for humanity to have colonised 83,200 worlds but still be feeling population pressures, and for the ‘2755 para-measles epidemic’ to be an historical event akin to ‘the 1918 influenza epidemic, and the Black Death’ (163) – specialisation has reached the point that it has become necessary to institute an experimental method of education in order to produce individuals capable of remembering every fact and idea they encounter, regardless of discipline. The teenage Mark Annuncio is one of the first hundred such ‘Mnemonics’.

The Trojan planet Troas, which is in a stable orbit around the differently coloured binary stars Lagrange I and II, was long ago the site of attempted colonisation. But after the entire colony, more than 1300 people, died, apparently of a disease, the world was forgotten until Mark discovered an account of it in the archives. He is included as part of the scientific expedition to investigate the world, to find out what destroyed the colony and whether it is habitable by humans. The expedition consists of single scientists from individual disciplines who accept without question each others’ views – one simply does not query specialists in different disciplines. Character names suggest that they are rather a multicultural bunch, but the only exception to their whiteness seems to be

Miguel Antonio Rodriguez y Lopez (microbiologist; small, tawny, with intensely black hair, which he wore rather long, and with a reputation, which he did nothing to discourage, of being a Latin in the grand style as far as ladies were concerned). (156)

The crew of the spaceship, however, know nothing of the mission, and knowledge of the failed colony and the possibility of fatal disease is deliberately kept from them.

out-of-the-unknown-sucker-bait-1965-001-men-and-telescopes_0The story chugs along, readable enough but distinctly minor Asimov, until Mark, ostracised by the specialists, must take desperate action to save the expedition from the same fate that befell the colony – something only he can discern, thanks to his disregard for disciplinary boundaries and his amazing powers of recall (and his chance reading of an old book some years before).

The dilemma Mark faces once he solves the mystery is very Asimovian – like those faced by robots and computers who know what is best for humanity, but must proceed indirectly and find ways to circumvent the rules constraining their action. Mark’s solution is a little surprising since, like the Book People of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), he is such a curiously passive figure. If he is in some way intended to serve as an argument in favour of generalists, of inter- and trans-disciplinary thinkers and processes, of more efficient and effective communication between disciplines, it might have been an idea to allow him some kind of creative or imaginative role, rather than casting him as a cross between a database, a search-engine and a sulky teen.

Indeed, in the adaptation, Mark (Clive Endersby) mostly comes across as an argument for sending sulky teens to their rooms without any dinner.

The main point of interest in Asimov’s story comes in the way in which it can be used to map claims for the relationship between science and sf. There are various infodumps, showing off the time Asimov has put into designing Troas as a plausible planet, including two pages (153-155) in which

Boris Vernadsky (geochemist; dark eyebrows, wide mouth, broad face, and with an inveterate tendency to polka-dot shirts and magnetic clip-ons in red plastic) (133)

belabours the atmospheric composition. Most of the information is unnecessary, other than that it situates the story within the hard-sf norms developed at Astounding and provides both a plausible framework and essential camouflaging for a latter tidbit of information, the relevance of which only Mark can realise. I honestly cannot tell whether the clue that is thus slipped into the story – and hidden by it – was ever enough for a reader to beat Mark to the solution. (It involves beryllium, which is just not used in this future universe, although the reasons for abandoning it have been long forgotten; they would perhaps have been quite fresh in the minds of many of the story’s early readers.)

HG Wells, Gwyneth Jones, China Miéville and others have argued that the relationship between sf and science does not depend upon the accuracy of the scientific knowledge being drawn upon, but on the persuasiveness with which scientific-sounding discourse can be deployed and manipulated by the writer (in Carl Freedman’s terms, sf is not about cognition per se, but about the creation of particular kinds of cognition effect). And of course this relationship is always a relative, not an absolute, one. Different authors and readers bring different levels and kinds of knowledge, different desires to persuade and different desires to be adequately persuaded. The nature and degree of that adequacy shifts depending on circumstances, not least because sf is far from monolithic. Claiming superiority for sf stories because of their greater scientificness is merely an attempt to impose a particular hierarchy of taste. Often reversing the polarities can be perfectly adequate and is not at all necessarily inferior. The most intriguing sequence in Asimov’s story is concerned with these ideas.

In an attempt to persuade Cimon, the mission commander, to allow Mark to accompany the expedition onto the surface of Troas, Dr Sheffield attempts blackmail. This involves using the professional protocols around specialisms so as, over the course of several pages, to trick Cimon, and then threatening to release an illicit recording of him making a fool of himself. Going into the scene, we know nothing of this scheme.

Sheffield suggests that the combined effect of the planet’s two suns – one of which casts blue-green shadows, the other red-orange – and of the light reflected from its moon could

exert a deleterious effect on mental stability [resulting in] chromopsychosis [that] could reach a fatal level by inducing hypertrophy of the trinitarian follicles, with consequent cerebric catatonia. … red-green chromopsychosis has been recorded to exhibit itself first as a psychogenic respiratory infection. … Surely you must be noticing just a small inflammation of the mucus membrane of the nose, a slight itching in the throat. Nothing painful yet, I imagine. Have you been coughing or sneezing? It is a little hard to swallow? (174-175)

sucker-02This is, of course, all nonsense, as Sheffield admits once he has panicked Cimon. But it does cut to the core of the issue of persuasion and persuasiveness. At what point does the reader or viewer spot what Sheffield is doing? This is more complex than it might sound, because the discursive register is more or less identical here as in the other passages of exposition which Asimov wants/needs the reader to accept. There is time in these few pages to wonder whether Asimov genuinely intends to extrapolate future ailments – chromopsychosis and psychogenetic symptoms – that might lie in wait for humans who travel to alien worlds. And to wonder what he might jeopardise his act of persuasion with a term as clumsy as ‘trinitarian follicles’. And, to be surprised at how it got past his editor, John W. Campbell.

I am pretty certain that when I read this story as a kid, thirty-odd years ago, I would not have spotted Sheffield’s trick until he admitted it. (I know I read the collection, but I had absolutely no memory of this story until rereading it this week.) This time around, Sheffield sounded suspicious from the get-go. But if the solution to the mystery did lie in chromopsychosis, I would have probably cut Asimov some slack – since this is a minor story, it would not have been surprising that the exposition was also weak in places.

The adaptation gives a really interesting version of this scene, thanks largely to John Meillon’s softly-spoken performance as Sheffield. He begins with a kind of boisterous uncertainty, as if to test whether he is going to get away with it, but also signalling to the audience that something is amiss with what he is going to say. This caution disappears as he quietly concatenates and escalates the threat. He ends with the claim that chromopsychosis can also affect the hearing. And as he asks whether Cinam (David Knight) is experiencing such a symptom, he drops his voice just a little. It is a delightful touch, something Asimov could not have conveyed.

Other things to watch out for
— The giant playing cards from ‘The Counterfeit Man’  put in another appearance, as does a game of multidimensional chess – well before Star Trek
— The table-top model positioned in the foreground so as to make the studio-bound planet’s surface look much bigger than it is

Previous episode, ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…

Sources
Isaac Asimov, ‘Sucker Bait’, The Martian Way (London: Granada, 1981), 123-203.
Out of the Unknown boxset. BFI, 2014.