Out of the Unknown: ‘The Dead Past’ (BBC2 25 October 1965)

Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov

This is the first of the series’ six episodes based on the fiction of Isaac Asimov, its most adapted author. The others are ‘Sucker Bait’ (1954; 15 November 1965), ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’ (1951; 29 December 1966), ‘Reason’ (1941; 1 January 1967 as ‘The Prophet’), ‘Liar!’ (1941; 14 January 1969) and ‘The Naked Sun’ (1956; 18 February 1969). Only the first two episodes survive.1

‘The Dead Past’ was directed by John Gorrie, who had previously worked on Doctor Who, directing ‘The Keys of Marinus’  (1964) and possibly one episode of ‘The Reign of Terror’ (1964), though this seems to be disputed, not least by Gorrie himself.

The adaptation of Asimov’s 1956 Astounding story was by Jeremy Paul, probably best known in sf circles for a pair of original Play for Today (1970-84) teleplays, The Flipside of Dominick Hide (9 Decemeber 1980) and Another Flip for Dominick (14 December 1982). Paul also adapted John Brunner’s ‘The Last Lonely Man’ (1964; 21 January 1969) for Out of the Unknown, and scripted ‘Poor Butterfly’ (9 January 1969), an original Journey to the Unknown (1968-69) teleplay, and Hammer’s Countess Dracula (Sasdy 1971).

Asimov’s story presents a particular set of problems for the adapter in that it typifies both the strengths and weaknesses of his fiction as fiction. Take, for example, the opening scene, around 800 words long, in which Arnold Potterley, a Professor of Ancient History, has an appointment with Thaddeus Araman, head of the Chronoscopy Division, to plead once more for access to a chronoscope so that he can further pursue research into ancient Carthage (primarily to prove that the ancient civilization was not a brutal regime, given to sacrificing its children by fire to appease Moloch in times of adversity, and that this idea is merely a lie spread by the Greeks and Romans). There is a brief description of Potterley’s appearance, but no clues at all as to what Araman looks like or where the scene is set – presumably Araman’s office, since he looks through a folder of papers and has a buzzer (on his desk?) with which to summon his secretary; there is also some sitting down and standing up, implying there are chairs. But overall, there are few visual cues of any kind, and no other appeal to senses whatsoever, just two talking heads expositioning at each other. (Yes, I know it’s not a verb, but at times like this it needs to be.) Readers are left to themselves to fill in as much or as little of this detail as they want.2

Yet somehow it works, probably because Asimov is such an effective writer of exposition – it is why he was drawn to the kind of logic-problem stories typical of both his sf and crime fiction, and it is why he is better as a science populariser (or vulgariser, as I seem to recall him insisting) than a fiction writer. It is also part of his role in the hegemony of Campbellian sf. Asimov’s fiction so very effectively denies human material embodiment, it could not help but appeal to readers of a genre constantly and anxiously constructing its self-image (in opposition to fantasy, horror, the weird, romance, science fantasy) as one of reason and rationality. Presumably, this denial of embodiment, emotionality, irrationality, etc, also appealed to many adolescents and to the core lower-middle-class genre readership of the period, precariously positioned just that little bit higher up the class system than their parents and aspiring to at least remain there.

dead03Of course, television drama – and particular the tradition of single plays – urgently wants to be more than just an interchange of talking heads, and this becomes difficult when depicting a future world on a budget.3 The episodes has just six speaking parts (and three extras), and nine sets, all of them interiors. The only external views are a couple of glimpses of the past on chronoscope screens and the city vista outside of Araman’s office window. Futurity is conveyed through fashion (suit jackets without lapels, collars or pockets; matching waistcoats and trousers revealed in medium and long shot to be one-piece outfits; shirts that fasten up one side rather than centrally; invisible fastenings, and especially no buttons, which seem to have become every bit as disinvented as seatbelts in the Star Trek universe) and some minor technological innovations, such as a small desktop videophone and the chronoscopes’ giant wallscreens. Dialogue can bear some of the weight, but exposition has to be briefer, tighter, sketchier when spoken than when on the page (at least within the magazine sf norms of Asimov’s time).

***

deadPart of the dilemma faced by Arnold Potterley is that he lives in a society in which the boundaries between – and indeed within – disciplines are heavily policed. As he expositions at a junior faculty member Jonas Foster, a physicist who has yet to make his first grant application, which will fix his specialism for his entire career,

Scholars … could be free only if they could freely follow their own free-swinging curiosity. Research … forced into a predesigned pattern by the powers that held the purse strings became slavish and had to stagnate. (15-16)

Actually, Asimov does not even try to stage this as a conversation between people. Foster’s thoughts soon slip into authorial exposition:

No one would advocate running a factory by allowing each individual worker to do whatever pleased him at the moment, or of running a ship according to the casual and conflicting notions or each individual crewman. It could be taken for granted that some sort of centralized supervisory agency must exist in each case. Why should direction and order benefit a factory and a ship but not scientific research?

People might say that the human mind was somehow qualitatively different from a ship or factory but the history of intellectual endeavor proved the opposite. … as knowledge grew, more and more data had to be absorbed before worthwhile journeys into ignorance could be organized. … More and more, the individual researcher gave way to the research team and the research institution. … By 1940, only the government, large industries and large universities or research institutions could properly subsidize basic research.

By 1960, even the largest universities depended entirely upon government grants, while research institutions could not exist without tax concessions and public subscriptions. By 2000, the industrial combines had become a branch of world government and, thereafter, the financing of research and therefore its direction naturally became centralized under a department of the government.

It all worked out naturally and well. Every branch of science was fitted neatly to the needs of the public, and the various branches of science were co-ordinated decently. (15-16)

This resonates with concerns voiced by JBS Haldane and Bertrand Russell in the 1920s, JD Bernal in the 1930s, Robert K. Merton in the 1930s and 1940s, among others, that the industrialization of science by states, especially for military purposes, and by corporations leads not only to secrecy but also distorts the practice of science for purposes of profit and social control. For the contemporary reader, especially if an academic in a UK university, such passages reek of the disastrous consequences – well, some of them – of the RAEs and REFs, and of the reorganization of research councils so as to channel research funding to the already-wealthiest universities and to promote top-down agendas of questionable merit.

OutOfTheUnknown2Potterley goes so far as to claim that the government is actively preventing research using the chronoscopes – time windows, which enable one to see and hear the past – and into neutrinics, the science underpinning the technology. Against his better judgment, Foster is drawn in, and recruits the assistance of his uncle, Ralph Nimmo, a science writer whose job seems to combine science journalism, ghost-writing grant applications and ghost-writing refereed journal articles (I am not sure such a career actually quite exists yet, but again this seems prescient of the significance now given to ‘impact’ in the funding of UK research).

And, of course, once Foster is able to develop a low-cost easy-to-build version of the chronoscope, it turns out that Potterley’s suspicions are well-grounded. In a pretty well-orchestrated escalation, Asimov reveals that chronoscopes can only view the past up until about a century and a quarter previously, after which the noise to signal ration becomes impenetrably high. After some moral-panicking about new media – that people will spend all their time watching this new channel, close themselves off from the world and become obsessed with trying to relive the past – a far more significant point is made. The ‘past’ actually begins a split second ago, which makes the chronoscope a highly effective surveillance device – and one that, thanks to Foster and Nimmo, anyone can now build. It is the end of privacy, the beginning of an utterly new world.

Asimov’s conclusion also includes the suggestion that what Potterley saw as state tyranny was actually the state acting in the best interests of all. This tension runs through a lot of his work – partly a typical American obsession, partly a Wellsian desire for rational management by a benevolent elite, and partly the Technocracy and Michelism, perhaps tinged with debates about radical democracy versus centralised control (Trotsky vs Lenin vs Stalin), picked up in his Futurian days. The story’s abrupt conclusion, its refusal to try to imagine the world that might be created by the widespread use of chronoscopes, is among other things a reiterated terror of the supposedly irrational (and embodied) masses.

The episode does a pretty good job of capturing the various arguments and counter-arguments driving Asimov’s story forward, but sometimes struggles to enliven them, despite a strong cast of character actors and competent direction. The latter sadly fails to transform the sense of confinement produced by the limited sets into the oppressive claustrophobia that would lend more urgency and conviction.. A small but key change to the story comes at the end of the first scene – rather than completely forgetting about Potterley, Araman sets in motion a game of cat and mouse, once more channeling into television sf Orwell’s and Kneale/Cartier’s Nineteen Eight-fours. But even when Araman visits the Potterleys’ house while Foster is working in the basement there is little real sense of tension or suspense.

Solid production design does visually elaborate on the generational gulf between the Potterleys and Foster quite effectively, though, through the contrast between their Victorian house and his one room apartment, and the set-dressing of these spaces, including rather different artworks on the walls. (Foster’s apartment includes an alcove that can be separated from the main room by one of those sliding/concertinaing plastic doors. In the early 1970s we moved to a house with one of those separating the lounge space from the dining space, and even then it seemed so modern and swish. How wrong we were! My dad, being an omnicompetent sort of chap but not an open-plan kind of guy, had by the mid-seventies ripped it out and built a partition wall, and suddenly we had a living room and a dining room. Woo-hoo!)

Oddly, the aspect of the story the episode does not capture particularly well is Asimov’s cod-Freudian attempt to create psychological depth for Potterley. His strong, seemingly irrational, aversion to cigarettes is gradually revealed as a symptom of his guilt over this three-year-old daughter Laurel’s death in a house fire twenty years earlier, for which he may or may not have been responsible. He becomes terrified that his wife, already more or less obsessed with their long deceased child, will use the technology not only to spend all her time watching the infant Laurel but also discover whether or not he caused the fire. There is also the implication – made more explicit in the episode – that this underlies Potterley’s obsession, which he thinks of as a rational cerebral pursuit, with Carthage’s fiery infant sacrifices. It is all rather clunkily schematic and unsophisticated, and the episode has the unenviable task of compressing it while also playing it down.

It is unclear quite how aware Asimov was of the Freudian imagery in his story. A cigarette is not always just a cigarette and the Carthaginian Moloch took

the form of a hollow, brazen idol with a furnace in its belly. (19)

Although the story seems to imply Laurel’s death was the origin of Potterley’s symptom, this imagery points to a more deeply rooted Oedipal trauma, an unresolved castration anxiety and a terror of the archaic mother that includes terror of engulfment, of a lack of separation from others and, once more, of embodiment. This underscored by the final images of Caroline Potterley.

dead05One real strength of the episode is its transformation of the story into a commentary on television as a medium. When it is highlighted that the past is not some fixed distant object but a constantly unfolding present-moment-just-gone, there is a moment of hesitation between archive and stream and a resonance with the transformations of television drama in the post-war period from live broadcast to recorded/edited more or less as-if-live to recorded and edited post-production. Furthermore, in a nice final touch, the episode also considers the role of audivisual media in the constitution of memory, affect and identity. Footage of a younger Potterley playing with Laurel ends with her running into the foreground and freeze-framing – a nod to the final shot of François Truffaut’s Les quatre cent coups (1959), already paid homage by Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). But unlike these precursors, the episode then shows this fragment, which recalls home movie footage, several times, revealing Caroline Potterley as its obsessive viewer. It is a complex moment. On the one hand it emphasizes the construction of her character by both Asimov and Paul as consisting entirely of maternal neurosis – a fate shared by both Ripley and Sarah Connor – while repeating a masculine terror of the archaic mother. But it does also suggest how ungrounded that might be since she would rather take joy in seeing her daughter again than pin down her husband’s guilt and punish him.

I have no idea whether or not Bob Shaw was familiar with ‘The Dead Past’, but his Other Days, Other Eyes (1972) reworks an awful lot of this material rather effectively. The first of the stories in his fix-up novel was published in Analog (August 1966) less than a year after the episode was broadcast.

Other things to watch out for
— It is not quite clear where ultimate responsibility lies, but either Dudley Simpson, credited with incidental music, or Brian Hodgson, credited with radiophonics, or their guvnor really needs to lay off the theremin. Don’t get me wrong. I love the theremin. It so brilliantly evokes weird alien otherness, conveys a sense of futurity and even, now, of pastness (this is how the future used to sound). But it is overused in this episode – at least it now sounds overused – and without adequate attention to its connotations. The most hilarious sequence comes when Foster is slaving away, secretly constructing a chronosocope, in the basement of the Potterleys’ home. There is a montage of one or other or both Potterleys rising anxiously as if to go down and see what he is doing. But it now comes across as a couple of dissatisfied parents, whose son has returned from college without a job and is now living in the basement, trying to get up the nerve to go and complain that he is playing his theremin too loud.
— The curious maintenance of Asimov’s US framework, particularly of Foster’s education at MIT, presented as the absolute imprimatur of a properly scientific education. Even though he and everyone else in the story sounds impeccably English, and it perhaps being set in London (is the ancient dome visible among the futuristic skyscrapers from Araman’s window St Paul’s Cathedral?). Does this betray a sense of the future as being American? Of an eye being cast to export markets? Or an inattentive adaptation?

Previous episode, ‘Stranger in the Family’

Next episode, ‘Time in Advance

Notes
1
Irene Shubik had previously script-edited a 75-minute adaptation of The Caves of Steel (1953; BBC2 5 June 1964), written by Terry Nation, directed by Peter Sasdy and starring Peter Cushing and John Carson, for Story Parade (1964-65), and a 60-minute adaptation of ‘Little Lost Robot’ (1947; ITV 7 July 1962) for the Boris Karloff-hosted Out of the This World (1962), starring Maxine Audley as Susan Calvin and directed by Guy Verney, whose many other television credits include Sydney Newman’s early sf serials for ITV Pathfinders in Space (1950), Pathfinders to Mars (1960-61) and Pathfinders to Venus (1961). Only a few fragments of The Caves of Steel survive, while ‘Little Lost Robot’ is the only episode of Out of the World to survive and is available on a BFI DVD (which includes audio recordings of the series’ adaptations of Tom Godwin’s ‘The Cold Equations’ (1954; 14 July 1962), starring Peter Wyngarde (!) and Jane Asher, and of Terry Nation’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s ‘Imposter’ (1953; 21 July 1962), and the script for the series opener, an adaptation of John Wyndham’s ‘Dumb Martian’ (1952; 24 June 1962).)

2
This makes me really curious to see ‘Little Lost Robot’, and perhaps even more curious to see the script, since Terry Nation has a reputation for not including details of character or setting, arguing that that sort of things was the job of casting, wardrobe and production design. I’m guessing the director had very little to work with.

3
Asimov’s 2050s seem to have become the 2030s in the television episode, but at one point Asimov’s wording implies a much later date than the story logic demands, and the episode is rather vague about when it is set (an observation, not a complaint).

Sources
Isaac Asimov, ‘The Dead Past’, Earth is Room Enough. London: Panther 1960. 9-50.
Out of the Unknown DVD boxset. BFI, 2014.

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Jupiter Ascending (Wachowski siblings 2015)

Jupiter-Ascending-Channing-Tatum1and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Jupiter Ascending (2015) is not that Meg’s name suddenly makes you flashback to all those Alfred Hitchcock presents The Three Investigator novels you read as a kid; nor is it Channing Tatum being, yet again, so much better than the film he is in either warrants or deserves; neither is it ditto Sean Bean or Nikki Akuka-Bird; nor is it watching all those respectable British thespians hamming it up in exchange for filthy Hollywood lucre; nor is it that the film looks so pretty, though it does; nor is it the comforting familiarity of the Wachowskis’ inability to construct a plot (except when James M. Cain did it for them decades earlier); nor is it the profoundly reassuring sense of your own embodied existence provided by the Wachowskis’ inability to pace a film (be honest, The Matrix is a good 40 minutes longer than it needs to be just because someone somewhere was scared folks wouldn’t understand what was going on, a fear cast aside in the sequels, with their more purely modernist and thoroughly interminable commitment to durée); no, it turns out the best thing about Jupiter Ascending is none of these things at all, but instead the sheer audacity of the title’s claim that not the entire film but merely its ending is complete and utter arse…

(more on Jupiter Ascending here)

Glimpsing solidarity: Christopher Isherwood, Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935)

berlin-stories-last-mr-norris-christopher-isherwoodTo be honest (and unlike Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues), I never much intended to read Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935), but then along came the opportunity when scoping out possible material for a new module (on the city in fiction and film). And to be honest some more, it turns out I prefer Isherwood’s companion volume Goodbye to Berlin (1939), and might even use the opening of its final story, ‘A Berlin Diary (Winter 1932-3)’ on the module. But his debut novel does contain one particular passage that I really admire.

I like the way it struggles to articulate a collective subjectivity, which should be much easier than it is, since all subjectivity is really intersubjectivity. I like the the tension between the narrator’s desire to be part of that collective and to be its voice and to maintain both his outsiderness and his sense of superiority, which he clings to at the same time as feeling he shouldn’t. It tries to capture something special even if it cannot quite get inside of it. It takes a chance. It goes like this:

The hall was very full. The audience sat there in their soiled everyday clothes. Most of the men wore breeches with coarse woollen stockings, sweaters and peaked caps. Their eyes followed the speaker with hungry curiosity. I had never even been to a communist meeting before, and what struck me most was the fixed attention of the upturned rows of faces; faces of the Berlin working class, pale and prematurely lined, often haggard and ascetic, like the heads of scholars, with thin, fair hair brushed back from their broad foreheads. They had not come here to see each other or to be seen, or even to fulfil a social duty. They were attentive but not passive. They were not spectators. They participated, with a curious, restrained passion, in the speech made by the red-haired man. He spoke for them, he made their thoughts articulate. They were listening to their own collective voice. At the intervals they applauded it, with sudden, spontaneous violence. Their passion, their strength of purpose elated me. I stood outside it. One day, perhaps, I should be with it, but never of it. At present I just sat there, a half-hearted renegade from my own class, my feelings muddled by anarchism talked at Cambridge, by slogans from the confirmation service, by the tunes the band played when my father’s regiment marched by the railway station, seventeen years ago. And the little man finished his speech and went back to his place at the table amidst thunders of clapping. (Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories. New York: New Directions, 1963. 48-49)

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.

 

Florence, the Rocket and the War Machine

16239585931_b38f6cdc91_z
Florence. Andrea Gibbons, 2015.

They say nothing ever happens in Florence, Arizona. That no one ever goes there except prisoners headed for one of its nine prisons. That the only people who stay more than a couple of hours are either inmates or guards.

They say it is a place to pass through, but by this they mean ‘pass by’.

It is a town that does not want to be seen.

It is a town that knows shame.

It is where he came from, the man who nearly got us all killed.

There are monuments, weatherworn and decrepit, but they do not celebrate him. They recall his folly. They are a civic embarrassment the townsfolk are too ashamed to remove.

And so Florence, Arizona, hides away as best it can.

***

The story begin somewhere else, somewhere to the south, down past Tucson. In Pima county. The Baboquivari Mountains, perhaps, or maybe the Quinlans. Somewhere high up, where the air is clear.

Young Hans was a keen amateur astronomer. Enthused by Percival Lowell’s first book about Mars, he set out to observe the red planet during the 1896 opposition. Two years earlier, several observatories reported a great light on the illuminated part of the disk. An article in Nature had identified the specific location, and he subjected it to particular scrutiny.

He reported seeing an array of peculiar markings near the site. He wrote to Lowell, at his observatory up in Flagstaff, and to the Lick Observatory in San Jose. In their archives, you can still see his cramped letters, his painstaking maps. Preserved in curatorial atonement for the fact that no one ever replied. A refusal to expunge him, or to absolve those ‘betters’ who disdained him at such a cost to us all.

uncredited, early 1930s?
Uncredited, early 1920s?

When he returned to Florence, he was a changed man, haunted, as if he knew something so terrible he dare not speak it aloud. And slowly and surely he drew his plans. Counted down the 780 days until the next opposition. Started to build.

Several articles about Hans appeared in the Florence Reminder & Blade-Tribune over the next two years. One suggests that he sought the assistance of Nikola Tesla, who was up in Colorado Springs during 1899, although there is no record of them actually meeting. Press interest may have waxed and waned, but it never seemed to affect Hans. He was firmly uncommunicative.

Uncredited, 1940s?
uncredited, 1940s?

There was talk of having him committed, but it came to nothing. He remained tight-lipped.

***

2015
2015
2015
2015
2015
2015
Rocket engine, 2015.

The rocket still stands where it landed upon its return from its second flight in 1934. Back in 1901, it landed about a block further south, but Florence, slowly expanding throughout the twentieth century, long ago engulfed the spot.

Nor is any trace left of the construction site, from which he launched the rocket in 1899. A couple of miles further from Main Street, it is buried beneath an undistinguished suburban tract.

All that remains of this astonishing feat is the rocket engine, tucked away at the back of the local museum, and the towering shell of the craft – an unsanctioned monument, uncared for, decaying. Its spindly legs stubbornly refuse to collapse.

You cannot get near it. A row of stores and workshops, not all of them in business any longer, block the way, and it is surrounded by a high fence – not to protect it so much as to disavow the townsfolks’ vandalic urges. Every decade or so someone suggests the council demolish it, but somehow the proposal always runs out of steam. You get the sense that the town is waiting for it to collapse of its own accord, that if they make no overt move against the rocket its unwilled destruction will free them.

***

In 1899, Hans disappeared. The rocket, too.

When Sheriff Nichols inspected the construction site, he found a large patch of scorched desert earth. ‘Pretty much a precise circle,’ he told the Florence Reminder & Blade-Tribune reporter. The lack of debris scotched any suspicion that Hans had just blown himself up, but that did not prevent the rumour that he had merely fired the rocket off into the desert and absconded in the night. For two years, his fate remained a topic of gossip and speculation. In the saloons and private homes of Florence, it was something to chew over when the nights were cold or the days were long.

If no one saw his departure, everyone witnessed his return. Round about lunch time, smack in the middle of town. Descending on a pillar of flame, his craft ruby red with heat.

Night fell before the hatch opened. He lowered a rope ladder he could barely climb down. Two men clambered up to his swooning figure before he could fall, and brought him the last few yards down to earth.

He was starved and dehydrated. He had lost one arm below the elbow, and the crudely cauterised stump was gangrenous. A hasty second amputation was performed before he regained consciousness. He lay in a feverish slumber for nearly a week. He would cry out in his sleep, seem to wake, utter incoherent warnings. He spoke of monstrous beings, all brain and staring eyes and tentacles. Of humanoid creatures farmed on vast estates. Of the killing pens. The thirst for blood. He described a vast cannon, a space gun he called it, and the immense shells being shipped to it on broad planet-girdling canals.

He told us they were coming.

Frankly, he raved.

The descent of the Sonora cylinder.  Uncredited 1901.
The descent of the Sonora cylinder. Uncredited 1901.

And no one believed him.

Not even when the big city newspapers carried stories about ‘a huge outbreak of incandescent gas’ visible on the surface of Mars.

He tried to warn us.

And then they started to fall from the sky. In the south-east of England, around London.

The pit. Uncredited, 1901.
The pit. Uncredited, 1901.

On the east coast, at Grover’s Mill, New Jersey and Grand Island, New York.

On the west coast, near Linda Rosa, California.

And, though it is often forgotten, one landed in the Sonora Desert, too. At dusk, as the dying sun turns the light a golden orange, a Martian cylinder punched a crater deep into the desert, cracking the air, lighting up the sky.

After a pause, a lull, noises started in the pit. An aura of dazzling light could be seen for miles. Some alien industry, hidden from human eyes.

tripod 4 bw
Martian war machine, outskirts of Florence. Uncredited, 1901.

That one, Hans insisted, was coming for him, and when the war machine, as the whole world would learn to call such alien tripods, emerged, it did indeed head directly for Florence.

***

All that saved Hans – and Florence – was the the thing that saved us all. The transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Infusoria. Bacteria. Or so the story goes, and it is not wrong, but there is more to it than that.

Martian war machine, 2015. Note the supporting legs added to help keep it upright and stable when at rest.
Martian war machine, 2015. Note the supporting legs added to help keep it upright and stable when at rest.

The press wasted no time in holding Hans responsible. He had, they claimed, recklessly awakened the Martians to our presence and led them here. Chronology did not seem to matter. They wanted a scapegoat, and that was that.

In those days it was much easier to disappear without a trace. Hans had friends among the Yavapai and Apache, and knew people down in Mexico. He was never heard of again, though some claim he returned to pay penance.

'Flash' Gordon. Uncredited, mid-1930s?
Flash Gordon. Uncredited, mid-1930s?

Early in 1934, when the rogue planet entered our solar system and came rushing in the direction of Earth, when the Moon shifted in its orbit and freak weather tore around the world, the rocket disappeared for half a year. As did a famous young polo player enjoying a desert winter at a nearby dude ranch – Flash Gordon.

Feted on his return from combatting the alien warlord of the planet Mongo, Gordon insisted that we really owed our survival to the intervention of Hans. But the press were untroubled by the facts. They wanted to present the public with an unabashed hero, the world with an American saviour. No one was interested in recuperating Hans, regardless of the sacrifice he had made.

In a dying statement, Gordon reiterated the role of his friend in defeating Ming, and added a tidbit that has been ignored for decades. According to Gordon, that was the second time Hans saved the planet. After landing on Mars in 1899, Hans discovered the plan to invade Earth and so deliberately infected the Martian population. He severed his own arm, left the flesh to rot and putrefy. He introduced the rotten remains into food and water supplies. The Martians had no immunity to terrestrial bacteria, and a recent analysis of infection rates among the invaders suggest they were sick before they landed. If so, Hans, who never put us at risk, in fact actually saved us.

Many remain sceptical about this evidence, preferring to retain the image of Hans as a monster, to demonise him. Why, they ask, did he not proclaim his innocence? Why did he not protest the defamation of his name and character? Why did he flee?

The answer, it seems to me, is simple.

Shame. A deeper and more tangible shame than Florence can ever know.

Hans did not betray us. He did something much worse.

On our behalf, he killed.

Nearly half a century before the word was even coined, to save us all Hans Zarkov committed genocide.

Note The last two times I tried to write this, my opening sentences took me in rather different directions, here and here.

Goon (Michael Dowse 2011)

l_1456635_028a4d17and so anyway it turns out the best thing about Goon (2011) is not that it recalls George Roy Hill’s Slap Shot (1977), though it does and that is generally a good thing, more or less, but no, it turns out the best thing about Goon is every single fucking frame of it in which Seann William Scott, the most underrated actor of his generation, appears…

Glimpsing solidarity: Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues (1993)

Stone_Butch_Blues_coverI’d been meaning to read Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues for years when scoping out potential material for a new module suddenly gave me the opportunity. There was even a reasonably-priced second-hand copy waiting in my abebooks shopping basket. But before I could get to it, Feinberg died, someone snaffled my cheap copy, and prices for this disgracefully out-ot-print novel went through the roof. On a long shot, I checked my university’s library – and somehow its single copy had survived a series of recent purges (cos, you know, the last thing you want cluttering up libraries is books). It is a hard novel to describe, since all my reference points seem a little out. It is a bit like one of those Charles Bukowski novels in which incident follows incident and insecure job follows insecure job and characters appear and disappear in a quite specific marginal setting. The factory work Feinberg describes, and the cultures around it, recall Ben Hamper’s Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line (1991) and a section of John Sayles’ Union Dues (1977), as well as scattered chunks of Bukowski. But it is also nothing like them. Probably the closest thing I can think of off the top of my head are the sequences from Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissmann’s documentary Forbidden Loves: The Untold Stories of Lesbian Lives (1992) in which nine women recount some of their experiences growing up queer in Canada in the 1950s and 60s. Maybe the reason I am reminded of that film is that it also looks at mid-century lesbian pulp fiction, and there is a pulp quality to Feinberg’s writing at times, which is one of the many things I love about it (and which kind of brings us back round to Bukowski again, although I only really loved him when I was fourteen or so, and even then I had my doubts). One of my other favourite things about Stone Butch Blues is this passage, so I thought I would share it:

We talked all day long too. The owners only rented our hands, not out brains. But even talking had to be negotiated when it was on the bosses’ time. If we seemed to be having too much fun, laughing and enjoying ourselves too much, the foreman would come up behind us and hit the solid wooden worktables with a lead pipe while he growled, “Get to work.” Then we’d all look at our hands as we worked and press our lips together in silent anger. I think the foreman sometimes got nervous after he’d done that, sensing the murderous glances he received moments after he turned his back. But he was assigned to keep us under control. That required keeping us divided. We came from many different nationalities and backgrounds. About half the women on the line were from the Six Nations. Most were Mohawks or Seneca. What we shared in common was that we worked cooperatively, day in and day out. So we remembered to ask about each other’s back or foot pains, family crises. We shared small bits of our culture, favorite foods, or revealed an embarrassing moment. It was just this potential for solidarity the foreman was always looking to sabotage. It was done in little ways, all the time: a whispered lie, a cruel suggestion, a vulgar joke. But it was hard to split us up. The conveyor belt held us together. Within weeks I was welcomed into the circle, teased, pelted with questions. My differences were taken into account, my sameness sought out. We worked together, we talked, we listened. And then there were songs. When the whistle first blew in the mornings there was a shared physical letdown among all the women and men who worked between its imperative commands. We lumbered to our feet, stood silently in line to punch in, and took our places on the assembly line – next to each other, facing each other. We worked the first few moments in heavy silence. Then the weight was lifted by the voice of one of the Native women. They were social songs, happy songs that made you feel real good to hear them, even if you had no idea what the words meant. I listened to the songs, trying to hear the boundaries of each word, the patterns and repetitions. Sometimes one of the women would explain to us later what the song meant, or for which occasion or time of year it was sung. There was one song I loved the best. I found myself humming it after I punched out in the afternoons. One day, without thinking, I sang along. The women pretended not to notice, but they smiled at each other with their eyes, and sang a little louder to allow me to raise my own voice a bit. After that I started looking forward to the songs in the morning. Some of the other non-Native women learned songs, too. It felt good to sing together. One wintry Friday night, before we punched out, Muriel invited me to go to an indoor pow-wow on Sunday. I said yes, of course. I felt honored. There were a few other Black and white workers at the social – friendships too valuable to explore solely on company time. I began to go regularly and got strung out on fry bread and corn soup. (Alyson 2003: 77-78)

Stone Butch Blues is not really remembered as a novel of working class life, since its greatest urgency lies elsewhere, but this is one of several things that it is, and the politics of a passage such as this one are not a supplement. They are not detachable. They are intrinsic.