The City in Fiction and Film, week 14

Farenheit451This week we continued our exploration of the US postwar suburbs (see week 13), reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and watching Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (Siegel 1956). Both texts were framed in relation to the period’s culture of affluence and anxiety.

But first we began by placing Bradbury’s novel in relation to genre – specifically the interweaving traditions of utopia/anti-utopia, utopia/dystopia and US magazine sf.

Thomas More coined ‘Utopia’ 500 years ago this year. When spoken aloud, the first syllable is a Latin pun on ou which means no and eu which means good (and topos means place) – so utopia means ‘no place’ but also suggests ‘good place’. Utopia has come to be understood as a description of an imaginary world organised according to a better principle than our own, and to frequently involve not-always-gripping systematic descriptions of economic, social and technical arrangements. We discussed the efflorescence of utopian fiction in the wake of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888), and mentioned such key utopian authors as William Morris, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. We also noted the relative scarcity of utopian worlds in cinema – Just Imagine (Butler 1930), Things to Come (Menzies 1936) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise 1979) being potential examples, but all of them also demonstrating potentially negative elements and being susceptible to against-the-grain readings.

This led us to anti-utopias – texts that are in more or less explicit dialogue with someone else’s utopian vision, exposing its darker, oppressive elements. William Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, which we read last semester, is a kind of compendium anti-utopia, while novels such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) are – among other things – direct responses to the utopian vision of HG Wells, drawing out its more totalitarian elements, as does Metropolis (Lang 1927).

During the 20th century, however, the explicit anti-utopia has given way to the proliferation of dystopias (dys + topia = bad place), dark, often satirical exaggerations of the worst aspects of our world. The dystopia emphasises bad aspects of our own world so as to make them more obvious (in this, they parallel the suburban world of All That Heaven Allows). The dystopia is not an explicit critique of the utopia, but a depiction of a world worse than our own – usually totalitarian, bureaucratic, brutal, dehumanising, and sometimes post-apocalyptic. Between us, we concocted a list of novels and films, including:

Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano (1952)
Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, The Space Merchants (1953)
John Wyndham, The Chrysalids (1955)
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (1962), filmed as Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971)
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) filmed as Blade Runner (Scott 1982)
Harry Harrison, Make Room! Make Room! (1966), filmed as Soylent Green (Fleischer 1973)
Punishment Park (Watkins 1971)
THX 1138 (Lucas 1971)
Rollerball (Jewison 1975)
Mad Max (Miller 1979)
William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)
Brazil (Gilliam 1985)
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), film (Schlöndorff 1990)
Alan Moore and David Lloyd, V for Vendetta (1988–9), film: (McTeigue 2006)
Robocop (Verhoeven 1987)
PD James, The Children of Men (1992), filmed: (Cuarón 2006)
Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower (1993)
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (2005), filmed: (Romanek 2010)
Gamer (Neveldine+Taylor 2009)
Moon (Jones 2009)
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games novels (2008-2010), filmed: Ross and Lawrence 2012-15)
Dredd (Travis 2012), based on Judge Dredd strip (1979–)
Elysium (Blomkamp 2013)

The widespread usage of dystopia and the relative decline of the utopia/anti-utopia tradition has led to an increased use of the eutopia (a term which makes linguistic sense as the opposite of dystopia) to describe imagined worlds that in some ways are better than ours, if still far from perfect. The eutopia imagines a better world, using its differences to indicate the shortcomings of our own world.

Both eutopia and dystopia are, in different ways, about the possibility of change.

We then turned to consider Ray Bradbury in the context of American sf in the 1950s. From the late 1930s, American magazine sf had been dominated by Astounding, edited by John W. Campbell. It was not the best-paying venue, but thanks to the galvanising effect Campbell – and his key authors, such as Robert A Heinlein and Isaac Asimov – had had on the field, it was the most respected and prestigious. That situation began to change after the war, particularly with the launch of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy, both of which could be characterised as being more literary, as being more interested such things as characterisation, atmosphere, slicker prose and satirical humour. Bradbury could not sell to Campbell, but published in wide range of sf magazines as well as in prestigious non-genre venues, such as Argosy and The Saturday Evening Post.

The reason for his failure with Campbell and success elsewhere has been attributed – by Brian Aldiss? – to him writing science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction (which we might more generously describe as writing non-Campbellian science fiction). Bradbury was championed by critics such as Robert Conquest and Kingsley Amis who, although they occasionally wrote and edited sf, were not sf writers per se. Within the genre community, such writers/editors/critics as James Blish and Damon Knight tended to be more ambivalent – caught between what they saw as Bradbury’ ‘poetic’ writing/ higher literary standards and his apparently blissful ignorance of science.

This ambivalence was mirrored by a number of the class, who found aspects of the novel quite compelling while also being frustrated by the ‘vagueness’ of its world-building. (I am not sure ‘vagueness’ is quite the right term, since it implies there is something that Bradbury should be doing rather than thinking about his preference for imagery over concrete images – and it might also indicate a relative lack of familiarity with sf’s specific reading protocols, which often require the reader to collaborate in building the world from the smallest of hints.)

In considering Fahrenheit 451 as an exaggerated dystopian version of the suburbs it is perhaps useful briefly to put aside its most obvious and striking feature – firemen now burn books – and instead think about the other features of its imagined world, all of which resonate strongly with the affluence and anxieties outlined last week:

  • the overwhelming impact of mass media, on everything from the design of houses  (no front porches, replace windows with TV screens, etc) to the fabric of domestic life, which is organised around consumption and pseudo-participation, and dominates social occasions
  • the alienation from other human beings, from nature, from meaningful labour
  • the reliance on tranquillisers, sleeping and other medication
  • the frequency of divorces and the virtual exile of children
  • women’s rejection of pregnancy and natural childbirth (cast as a negative, although Shulamith Firestone and others would see this as a positive)
  • juvenile delinquents racing cars around night-time streets, dying in crashes and aiming for pedestrians
  • how commonplace deliberate suicides and accidental overdoses have become
  • the absence of an urban centre (there is one, but the emphasis throughout is on seemingly endless suburbs)
  • really long billboards because everyone drives so fast
  • the degradation of language
  • the constant sound of military jets and the ultimate outbreak of the fourth nuclear war since the 1960s
  • the near-universal and – it is made clear – willing abandonment of books and reading
  • the only very occasional spectacle of state power when books are burned

We also thought about the ways in which Bradbury’s prose and imagery are ‘simple’ or ‘child-like’ – the way the novel seems to be the product of a pre-pubertal imagination. This led us in two directions.

First, there are the distinctly Oedipal elements of the novel. While its depiction of women is broadly misogynistic, this is especially focused on Mildred Montag. Cast as a simple-minded and anxious nag, she also comes across as a cold and distant mother figure to her husband, who often seems like a boy in quest of a father figure (Granger replacing Faber replacing Beatty). Mildred is early on associated with the kind of marble figure you might find on a mausoleum – remember the suburban fireplace in All that Heaven Allows – and when Montag turns the flamethrower on their twin beds (after all, there is no reason for mummy and daddy to share a bed, is there?), they ‘went up in a great simmering whisper, with more heat and passion and light than he would have supposed them to contain’ (151).

There is also something just a little bit queer about Montag’s relationship with Faber, the older, educated man who first picked Montag up in a public park, slipping him his phone number even though he knew it would put him in the fireman’s power. Faber  maintains this role of mentor, and shares a strange intimacy with the Montag through the earbug the younger man wears so they can always be together.

The second direction in which this sense of Bradbury’s simplicity went was thinking about the imagery he uses. The opening page introduces, among other images, the series of oppositions between black and white: firemen are always associated with blackness, and sometimes Bradbury seems almost to recognise a racial dimension; readers and women are associated with whiteness, although sometimes this whiteness is sepulchral (Mildred) or diseased (Faber). There is also animal and other nature imagery. Sparks become fireflies, books become pigeons. Later, books will rain down around Montag like pigeons, and he will be infected, losing control over his impulses, his hands becoming like ferrets whose antics he can only observe (this sense of alienation from his self culminates in him watching his own pursuit on television, which ends with his capture being faked). As with the bizarre fantasy about the barn in the final section of the novel, there is a nostalgic current underpinning the animal imagery – making manifest the natural world that the suburban sprawl roots up, tears down, eradicates. The imagery haunts the denatured suburb, reminding us of what has been lost and is constantly being thrown away.

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers shares many of these concerns. While its mood of paranoia might lend credence to the commonplace notion that the film is somehow about fears of communist infiltration, there is in fact little in the film to support reading it that way (just a few years earlier the emotionless nature of the pods would have been projected onto Nazis rather than Commies, primarily as a denial of the profound conformism in American life and in a consumer culture). Similarly, it is not especially easy to read the film as being about fears of racial passing or queer passing, although they too might be argued – the film is certainly about ensuring difference does not intrude onto this white suburban small town. This difference takes the form of two childless, sexually active recent divorcees – former sweethearts and possibly lovers – finding themselves thrown together, and everyone around them assuming they will become involved with each other again (while elsewhere, Oedipal anxieties take the form of children thinking there parents are not their parents). It is a film obsessed with sex – Miles makes constant innuendoes and hits on women all the time; he races over to Becky’s house in his pyjamas (don’t ask what her house is doing in his pyjamas) in the middle of the night and sweeps her off to his house, where the next morning she is wearing some of his clothes and cooking him breakfast, and Jack Belicec seems to assume this is post-coital. There is Becky’s summer dress, which miraculously stays up while emphasising her breasts, and Miles’s ultimate declaration that he did not know the real meaning of fear until he kissed her. Against all this sex is cast not only the asexual reproduction of the pod people but also the mechanical reproduction of commodities and the replacement of culture (a live band) by its simulacrum (the juke box).

And, as that penultimate hurried paragraph suggests, we ran out of time. Next week, Alphaville (Godard 1965).

Week 15

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 9, “Exurban Postmodernity: Utopia, Simulacra and Hyper-reality.”
Biskind, Peter. Seeing is Believing How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. London: Pluto, 1983. 102–59.
Bould, Mark. “Burning Too: Consuming Fahrenheit 451.” Literature and the Visual Media. Ed. David Seed. Woodbridge: DS Brewer, 2005. 96–122.
Grant, Barry Keith. Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. London: BFI, 2010.
McGiveron, Rafeeq O. “‘To build a mirror factory’: The Mirror and Self-Examination in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 39.3 (1998): 282–7.
Seed, David. American Science Fiction and the Cold War: Literature and Film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
–. “The Flight from the Good Life: Fahrenheit 451 in the Context of Postwar American Dystopias.” Journal of American Studies 28.2 (1994): 22–40.
Whalen, Tom. “The Consequences of Passivity: Re-evaluating Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451.” Literature/Film Quarterly 35.3 (2007): 181–90.

Recommended reading
E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909) anticipates surburban consumerist isolation.
Suburbia became a regular setting for postwar sf: Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” (1950) and “The Pedestrian” (1951), Judith Merril’s Shadow on the Hearth (1950), Frederik Pohl’s “The Midas Plague” (1954), Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959) and Pamela Zoline’s “Heat Death of the Universe” (1967).
Examples of suburban horror include Anne Rivers Siddons’s The House Next Door (1978) and M. John Harrison’s subtler “The Incalling” (1978) and The Course of the Heart (1991).

Recommended viewing
Bradbury’s novel was filmed by French New Wave director François Truffaut as Fahrenheit 451 (1966). Other sf and fantasy films depicting the dissatisfactions of suburban living include Invaders from Mars (Menzies 1953), Forbidden Planet (Wilcox 1956), The Stepford Wives (Forbes 1975), E.T. – The Extra-terrestrial (Spielberg 1982), Poltergeist (Hooper 1982), Parents (Balaban 1989), Edward Scissorhands (Burton 1990), Pleasantville (Ross 1998), The Truman Show (Weir 1998) and Donnie Darko (Kelly 2001).

 

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Out of the Unknown: ‘Thirteen to Centaurus’, BBC2 13 December 1965

JG Ballard
JG Ballard

Scriptwriter Stanley Miller and director Peter Potter, responsible for series opener ‘No Place Like Earth’, return with Ballard rather than Bradbury for an episode that is just as talky but overall rather more effective. This is in large part down to casting of British film and television stalwart – and one-time Moonbase commander (see Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks Moonbase 3 (1973)) – Donald Houston in the lead role of Francis. Always more likely to be a sidekick  than a leading man, he is reliably reliable, a curious mix of stolidity, occasional passion and uncertain humour.

13 OOTU ArticleBallard’s story, originally published in Amazing Science Fiction (April 1962), is set up as one of those generation starship stories in which people do not realise they are on a generation starship until they and you discover that they are – like Robert Heinlein’s 1941 ‘Universe’ and Brian Aldiss’s 1958 Non-Stop (unless you had the misfortune to buy it under the US title, Starship, which kind of gave the game away) and Syfy’s plodding Ascension (2014). There is also more than a hint of Isaac Asimov’s 1941 robot story ‘Reason’ – adapted in the second season as ‘The Prophet’ – to it.

tve91644-19651213-1718Abel, who is young and problematically smart, begins to work out what is going on, so Francis, the ship’s doctor tells him all about their mission to Alpha Centauri, commenced before Abel was born and not to be completed within his lifetime. Ballard’s extra twist, of course, is that Francis is lying – the mission is a simulation. The fake starship is housed in a dome on Earth, and its crew are under constant surveillance in order to see how an actual crew would fare during a real mission. It has been running for half a century, and following the failure of moon and Mars colonies, interest has waned and budgets are being cut. Under this increased pressure, Francis – who is secretly able to enter and exit the ship – elects to join the crew permanently so as to help them survive whatever method is found to curtail the ‘mission’. Like Kerans in The Drowned World, Ballard’s novel from the same year, Francis heads further in, embracing the catastrophe rather than fleeing from it. (Ballard’s solar imagery also plays a role in the story.)

Two further Ballardian twists occur.

05-thirteen-to-centaurusFirst, Abel decides he wants to build an isolation experiment inside the starship, itself an isolation experiment – the kind of nesting of simulations within simulations found in some of Frederik Pohl’s short stories and in Daniel Galouye’s Simulacron-3 (1964) before becoming a mainstay of unsurprisingly unsurprising surprise VR stories. (One of the nice, if unintentional, things in the episode is that when Francis exits the starship and descends into the dome housing it, the landscape depicted on the studio wall in the background is obviously fake, giving an uncanny frisson to it all by suggesting that the primary narrative diegesis is also a simulation. Who knows? This might even explain why the monitors’ uniforms are way more space opera-ish than those of the starship crew. (Except it doesn’t.))

Second, it becomes clear that, at some unspecified point in the story, Abel has discovered and embraced the true truth of his situation but also that he is not the first on the starship to have done so. These are precisely the kind of thing one now expects from a Ballard story that must have been stunning at the time – they certainly wobbled my world a little when as a teenager I first read the story.

thirteen_leadThe story also always reminds me of The Prisoner (1967–68), the quintessential British sf tale of simulacral societies, isolation experiments, conditioning, paranoia and indeterminate realities. Ballard’s story is likewise an ambivalent tale of countercultural youth rebellion that doesn’t really like youth or the counterculture or rebellion, that is rather priggish and authoritarian, and that features a protagonist (or two) with whom it is impossible to empathise, difficult even to sympathise, but whose travails you nonetheless follow with interest.

The episode makes two significant alterations.

04-thirteen-to-centaurusFirst, with its opening scene of Captain Peters’ funeral it introduces a religious undercurrent into proceedings, from the crew’s dubbed singing of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ to a religious monomania that possesses Abel – or at least becomes part of the rhetoric he introduces into the experiments in conditioning he performs on Francis.

Second, while Ballard’s story concludes on an ambiguous note, with Francis discovering that Abel and probably Captain Peters knew that the starship was a fake, the adaptation ends with the suggestion that Abel, who, like Satan, would rather reign in hell, has completely broken Francis, who now believes he really is part of a mission to Alpha Centauri.

The adaptation, however, is no more capable than Ballard of clarifying exactly who are the thirteen of the title.

In Ballard’s story, at one point a slip of Francis’s tongue reveals that he considers himself one of the 14 en route to Alpha Centauri – although there only 13 people in the crew, plus himself as an observer who knows the truth. After Peters’ death, there are 12 plus one, or possibly 11 plus two, which is how things stand at the end of the story (although the revelation that Peters’ had also known what was going on demands a further recount). In the adaptation, the early disposal of Peters forces Miller’s script to change these numbers. Francis implies he counts himself among the 13, although there are only 12 left plus himself as an observer. At the end of the episode, Abel knows they are going nowhere but Francis seems to have been conditioned into believing they are en route to Alpha Centaurus. So there remain 12 believers and one observer. But in Francis’s closing exchange with Abel, there is talk of Abel controlling the 13 people on the ship – but for that to add up, Abel must be one of the 13 Abel is controlling.

Though to be honest, having just worked all that out, I am not entirely sure I care.

 

Out of the Unknown: ‘Time in Advance’ (BBC2 1 November 1965)

William Tenn
William Tenn

This episode is based on ‘Time in Advance’ (Galaxy 1956) by William Tenn, the pseudonym of Philip Klass, UK-born but US-resident since childhood. He published only one novel, Of Men and Monsters (magazine version 1963; book version 1968), but around fifty short stories in the second half of the 1940s and the 1950s. ‘Time in Advance’ was reprinted as the title story of a 1958 collection of his work by Bantam in the US and  in the UK by Gollancz in 1963 and the Science Fiction Book Club in 1964; Brian Aldiss also included it in Introducing SF: A Science Fiction Anthology for Faber and Faber in 1964. It has been anthologised a handful of times since then, though the reasons for its early prominence rather elude me.

The premise of the story is neatly ironic. In the future, in order to reduce crime and also to provide labour for the arduous colonisation of other worlds, murder is made legal – sort of. If you announce your intention to kill, you can serve a halved sentence breaking alien rocks in perilous circumstances, and if you survive, you return to Earth and receive a license permitting you to commit the murder (or equivalent crimes, the sentences of which equal that which you have already served; and you do not have to identify your intended victim). Often, just a short stint vlcsnap-2014-12-07-11h12m42s210_zps60fd4ec0off-world is enough to dissuade people from murder, and they return home chastened; those determined to see it through rarely survive. (Philip K. Dick’s ‘The Minority Report’ introduced a rather different notion of pre-crime earlier the same year, in the January 1956 Fantastic Universe.)

The story opens with Nicholas Crandall and Otto Henck, who have kept each other alive through countless dangers, returning aboard the convict ship Jean Valjean, their sentences completed, their desire to kill unchanged. And then, in rather a schematic manner, Nick encounters an array of people who either assume they are his intended victim or wish him to use his immunity from prosecution to other ends. He learns that everyone is kind of shitty and that he does not have the will to kill even his worst enemy, while Otto is denied the possibility of revenge upon his unfaithful wife.

It is entertaining enough in its jadedness, but rather poorly constructed. Nick tends to meet other characters just once, with each exchange being wrapped up and effectively forgotten before the next commences, and a number of passages – such as Nick’s explanation of his grievance – seem very first draft, not so much in the quality of their prose as in their off the cuff rationalisation. According to Tenn, the story was written in one night, after a friend, Calder Willingham was mugged on his way over to visit. The seed of the story was Willingham’s sense that he would never again feel safe in Greenwich Village:

‘That’s the worst thing about these rotten criminals – not what they do to you at the moment, but what they do to you in the future, when they’re not even around’. (370)

Tenn took the completed story to Horace Gold the next morning, who promptly bought it without requiring any changes.

The episode is the first of three directed by Peter Sasdy, the others being ‘The Midas Plague’ (20 December 1965) and ‘The Eye’ (24 November 1966). A prolific director of serial and standalone television drama since 1959, he had previously directed the Terry Nation-scripted, Peter Cushing-starring, Irene Shubik-script-edited adaptation of Asimov’s ‘The Caves of Steel’ (5 June 1964) for Story Parade (1964). He graduated to films with Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), Countess Dracula (1971), written by Jeremy Paul, author of ‘The Dead Past’, and Hands of the Ripper (1971), all made for Hammer, and the 1972 Doomwatch spin-off movie, written by Cybermen creators Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, made for Tigon. He directed a few more films, including the horror movies Nothing but the Night (1973) and I Don’t Want to Be Born (1975) and the Canadian sf-western Welcome to Blood City (1977). But the remainder of his career was spent primarily in television, directing Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972), as well as episodes of Arthur of the Britons (1972-73), Great Mysteries (1973-74), Supernatural (1977), 1990 (1977-78), Return of the Saint (1978-79), Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (1979-80), Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense (1984-85) and Imaginary Friends (1987). Which means I saw an awful lot of his work while growing up, albeit without knowing it.

The script by Peter Erickson, who would next year co-write Doctor Who’s ‘The Ark’ four-parter, does the best it can to make the story less schematic. It also, thankfully, omits the wealthy and strikingly beautiful woman who tries to persuade Tenn’s Crandall not to commit murder but instead to rape her in as brutal and degrading a manner as possible – since it carries the same sentence, he couldn’t be prosecuted for it. And Erickson changes the conclusion of the story – while Tenn cannot quite maintain his misanthropy to the end, Erickson introduces one more betrayal:

I was his best friend. It was my turn to make a profit out of him.

timeErickson works hard to create a more distinctive future world than the one Tenn sketches in, albeit from familiar enough building blocks. Scarcity has been banished, and most people live lives of leisure. Redevelopment projects turn massive apartment blocks into nature parks (!), and automation is widespread (in a nice touch, which plays a little clunkily now, it is implied that revolutionary power source behind Crandall’s desire for revenge has lead to sufficient changes in his and Otto’s seven year absence that they have to figure out and explain to each other – i.e., the audience – how things work). The existence of voluntary euthanasia suggests a certain ambivalence about this future, as does the fact that pretty much the entire cast sport similar white-blond/e wigs. On the one hand, this merely suggests alterity, a kind of Thal-like premature glam-rock; on the other, some kind of Aryan uniformity. The skin make-up on some characters anticipates the gold-skinned cast of Kneale’s The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968), and it remains unclear whether the excessive eyeliner worn by some of the male characters signifies, along with the psychedelic wall displays, the perpetuation of a youthful culture or queasiness about so much leisure and its potential for time-04decadence. Certainly, as Crandall, Edward Judd’s trademark ability – exercised so well in the Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), First Men in the Moon (1964), Invasion (1966), Island of Terror (1966) and The Vengeance of She (1968) – to play sympathetic but unlikeable characters allows a kind of manly robustness to be let loose in this queer future.

Other things to look out for:
— Judy Parfitt as Marie, and Mike Pratt (y’know Randall, from Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (1969-71)) as Otto
–Numerous reflections of the microphone boom and sometimes the entire crew in the metallic walls – one of the real problems when shininess signifies futurity.

Last episode, ‘The Dead Past

Next episode, ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…

Sources
William Tenn, ‘Time in Advance’, Immodest Proposals: The Complete Science Fiction of William Tenn, volume 1. Framingham: NESFA, 2000. 349–70.

Out of the Unknown DVD boxset. BFI, 2014.

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.

 

Out of the Unknown: ‘No Place Like Earth’ (BBC2 4 October 1965)

OOTU_Logo‘No Place Like Earth’ was not producer Irene Shubik’s choice for Out of the Unknown’s opener. She was concerned about its languid pace and, following the recent Mariner 4 flyby of Mars, about its old-fashioned representation of the red planet (and it was apparently taken to task over this when reviewed on the BBC’s discussion programme, Late Night Line Up (1964-72)).

Irene Shubik
Irene Shubik

Shubik would have preferred the adaptation of Alan E. Nourse’s ‘The Counterfeit Man’ (1952),1 and David Campton’s original teleplay ‘Stranger in the Family’ was also ready to air. But Sydney Newman,2 the Head of Drama, selected the episode based on a story by John Wyndham, by far the most famous of these authors…

Although as far as I have been able to determine, the story had still not appeared in print anywhere under Wyndham’s name.3

John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris
John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris

Wyndham’s story follows Bert, one of a small number of humans on Mars after the complete destruction of the Earth fourteen years earlier. Unlike the others, who have settled into a life of hopeless dissolution, Bert is an itinerant tinker, travelling the Martian canals from place to place, fixing pots and pans and basic mechanical devices for the indigenous population, who are unskilled at such things. They live lives of quiet contentment, without regret or strife, long after the decline of the ancient Great Ones, whose ruins dot the landscape. The gentle Martians offer Bert a home among them, even a wife, Zaylo, but he cannot bring himself to abandon his memories of Earth, his sense of difference, of human ambition. He is incapable of embracing a world he knows is dying.

Abruptly, a ship from Venus arrives. There, other human survivors are racing to transform their precarious colony into a new Earth before the Slav settlement, at the other Venusian pole, expands to threaten them. Venus, however, turns out not to be what he’d been led to expect. Behind the façade, there is a strict hierarchy of privilege, and he is put to work as an overseer of indigenous slave labour. He revolts, escapes to Mars and, after ensuring there can be no future contact between the two worlds, returns to join his new Martian family.

Such a mixture of introspection and exposition, with only a little violent action, must have seemed quite manageable for a more-or-less studio-bound production, but for the need to represent two very different alien worlds – the declining Mars and the jungle Venus of pulp sf. But the staging is quite ingenious, involving maybe half a dozen sets. The ruins of a Martian building, vaguely resembling a classical temple, appear differently dressed as the two key Martian settings. Venus is represented by a pair of enclosed spaces, a kind of train station and a small train carriage; there is also a quarry set, and two other sites which might actually be part of the same set. And there are a couple of rooms in the spaceship. OutOfTheUnknown1A brief location shoot at Loch Lomond provided images of the canals, with Martian mountains matted into the top half of the frame; a single shot of what appears to be a quarry was presumably filmed somewhere nearby. There is also a briefly glimpsed effects shot of a spaceship blowing up in the distance, and a stock shot of quarry blasting. And when Bert (Terence Morgan) first hears of the Venus settlement and fantasises about the new and ultramodern human society being built there, an image of the Martian ruins fades into a view of a skyscraper at a sharp angle that emphasises its height, and shots of the moderne arched vaults beneath – I think it is Centre Point, constructed in 1961-66, and at the time one of the tallest buildings in London.

One of the most interesting aspects of Wyndham’s story is the way in which it thinks about colonialism, drawing on and overlapping British and American traditions, stereotypes, clichés and expressions, while also offering a gentle, if deeply compromised, critique.

Bert recalls the first human encounters with the Martians:

They were a gentle, sympathetic people, and sincere. It was a tragedy, one of a string of similar tragedies that the first Earthman to ground on Mars had seen them as a weak, effete race; the ‘natives’, inferiors, to be kicked about, and exploited when convenient. … Their quietness, their lack of hurry and their calm philosophic ways were a soothing antidote to [Bert’s] sense of drive and thrust. He found out quite soon that what his companions had called their laziness and effeteness was a misunderstanding of minds that worked differently in some ways, and certainly saw life differently; whose conception of the virtues was altogether alien, and he found out how his abilities could help their deficiencies in exchange for the foods they knew how to grow. (12, 15-16)

Despite his profound sympathy for the Martians, Bert still sees humans as the norm – he does not see his mechanical orientation or his lack of agricultural knowledge as deficiencies. And British colonial idioms recur:

The Martian grapevine wasn’t any more reliable than other bush-telegraphs. (24)

Some of the other humans

had taken Martian girls and tried to go native (13)

because almost all the humans working in space were men, and therefore the survivor settlement on Mars is all male – although briefly, and in the story’s most overtly misogynist passage, Wyndham seems to have imagined it more as a wild west town:

There had also been two women, hostesses or stewardesses. Good enough girls, and amiable at first, though no great beauties. But circumstances were against them, and the pressure was great. They had gone quickly to the astonishing depths of badness good women can reach once they start. It was reckoned they had caused a score of murders each before they were found to be susceptible to the same method of disposal. Things were quieter after that, with drinking the main amusement.

Later, as Bert contemplates leaving Mars for Venus, he hears men singing, not

drunken bawling … but men singing lustily, cheerily, with hope in their hearts … (30)

And what do they sing? A song about prospecting for gold on the banks of the Sacramento river.4

Shades of the forty-niners, ghost of covered wagon trains crawling, crawling across prairies and deserts, over mountains, forging on against hardships and hunger. With not much gold at the end, perhaps – only an arid land. But a land which their sons would make to bloom like a garden there beside the Pacific. . . . (30-1)

bbc-out-of-the-unknown-1965-no-place-like-annike-and-zeylaThe episode presents the Martian women and children as somehow Mediterranean-ish. Their faces and exposed skin are in swarthy but not too dark blackface; their hair, make-up and jewellery recall stereotypical images of ancient Greece (or maybe Rome or Egypt). Their simple dresses are suited to labour rather than elegantly draped robes, and this semiotic confusion is extended by their clearly unskilled pounding with large mortars on maize- or corn-filled pestles. (They noplace02also seem to have white mouthguards in place, smoothing out their teeth, but it is quite a subtle alien effect.) I don’t think we ever see an adult Martian male, which is one of the ways in which the episode develops the differences between the two worlds. On Venus, no-one wears natural fabrics, and the setting is all male. There are said to be women – fewer in number than the men and protected from the vicissitudes of life on the planet in the compound reserved for officers and the government – but we never see them. The Venusian settlers are promised wives in the future, once they prove themselves, but somehow that day never seems to come.

Soon after Wyndham’s evocation of manifest destiny, and now on Venus, British orientalism and idiom reassert themselves:

long leaves rippled in the Wind, writhing like Medusa’s hair. Crowning the central rise of the Settlement stood the massive palisades of the seraglio. (31)

which an unnamed settler labels

Jam tomorrow (31)

(The expression, from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), had gained fresh currency as a term for politician’s promises following John Maynard Keynes’s 1930 essay ‘Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren’.)

This unnamed character, out of favour with the Venusian ruling class, explains how the system works, in terms that resonate with immigrant experience (in 1948, Empire Windrush had brought the first group of post-war West Indian immigrants to London). Bert will be given full citizenship if his work proves satisfactory, but reasons will always be found to test him just one more time. If and when he does become a citizen, he will discover there are no women available for him to marry, but he will be put on the waiting list. If he makes a fuss, his citizenship will be revoked. If he becomes a problem for the regime, he will just disappear.

Visually, the episode’s vision of the Venus settlement owes more to the 1954 Nigel Kneale/Rudolph Cartier adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949). The walls of the futuristic waiting room at the railway station are adorned with slogans:

VENUS IS THE FUTURE

WORK OBEDIENCE PROGRESS

STRICTER CONTROL GREATER OUTPUT

Bert’s interlocutor, named Freeman (Joseph O’Conor), drapes a coat over a surveillance camera, adding something like ‘they can watch us through these, too’, even though it is clearly not a telescreen.

In both story and episode, their ensuing conversation about the ways in which humans are failing to build the best possible world on Venus draws upon the Gettysburg Address, citing the line about ‘a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’. Obviously intended by Wyndham as part of the Americanisation of his mid-Atlantic voice, it has an acute resonance, given that Venusian civilisation, such as it is, is built upon slave labour (in the episode it stands out as implying a US pulp vision of a future populated by inevitable and endless Americans, but is contradicted by the cast’s obviously British accents). The name ‘Freeman’ also evokes the immediate post-bellum context, though it does not appear in the story, only the episode. And although the episode does include two actors of colour,5 neither is cast as Freeman; intriguingly, though, he is played by an Irishman.

Of the slaves with whom Bert is charged, he thinks:

They were intelligent little creatures, but the general opinion was that they were dead lazy. … that just showed narrow thinking. Laziness is a relative term to be measured against work. Nobody called a flower or a tree lazy. The point was that a wild griffa never had any conception of work. When it was caught and shown work, it didn’t like it. Why should it? The captives netted by a drive in the forest came in as sad-eyed, bewildered little figures, of whom a number promptly went into decline and allowed themselves to die. The rest had no great will to survive. Life in captivity was very little better to them than no life at all. The only thing that made them work at all was the desire to avoid pain. They were intelligent enough to be taught quite complicated duties, but what no one had been able to instil into them was the sacred idea of duty itself. They could not be brought to the idea that it was something they owed to these human invaders of their planet. … There was also the uneasy feeling that his position in Venusian society was not all that different from theirs. . . . (37-8).

Despite the common deployment of stereotypes about laziness, this seems to reflect British colonial thinking rather than American slavery and Jim Crow discourses.

noplaceThe episode does not convey much about the Venusian griffas. Slighter than the humans, they are vaguely simian in their demeanour, but in a neat bit of cost-cutting they are invisible beneath synthetic overalls and head-encompassing helmets. Instead, it focuses on Bert’s immediate and utter revulsion at slavery while also evoking the Holocaust labour camps (remember those slogans, remember ARBEIT MACHT FREI). Bert is under the command of Khan, played by the Cypriot actor George Pastell, who was regularly cast as Egyptians, Indians, Arabs, Latin Americans, Russians, Italians, Spanish, and so on.6 Here, his Mitteleuropan accent wavers in and out of sounding German, and his costume is clearly intended to invoke some kind of Venusian fascist. Later, when Bert is called upon to explain his presence on the spaceship back to Mars, he deadpans that he is ‘just obeying orders’. However, the image of the Middle Passage is perhaps evoked when, having lied about a mission to round up Martians as slaves, an Officer – played by Geoffrey Palmer! – points out that the difference in gravity between the two worlds would make them useless.7 Bert shrugs off this ‘wastage’.

Ultimately, my dissatisfaction with the episode is the same as with the story. Both versions hinge on Bert’s recognition that his memories of Earth are actually of the better world humans imagined, not of Earth as it actually ever existed. But in both, like some Candide-lite, he opts to let Venus (and the remaining humans on Mars) go to hell and settles for tending his own garden (and beautiful indigenous bride). Grrrrrrrrrrrr.

Other things to watch out for
— Hannah Gordon as Zaylo, the Martian hottie
— disgruntled Jack Russels in furs as Martian bannikuks
— brief glimpses of Bill Treacher – Arfur from Eastenders
— the human salute, which comes across as kind of premature, extremely white and rather awkwardly constrained black power fist

Next episode: ‘The Counterfeit Man’

Notes
1
Originally published as ‘Counterfeit’ in Thrilling Wonder Stories (August 1952), it was anthologised in the UK in Brian Aldiss’ More Penguin Science Fiction Stories (1963).

2
He had been poached by the BBC in 1962 from the commercial channel ABC, where his major successes included Armchair Theatre (1956-74) and The Avengers (1961-9), and where he had also produced the series of sf serials, Target Luna (1960), Pathfinders in Space (1960), Pathfinders to Mars (1960-1) and Pathfinders to Venus (1961). Shubik worked with him as a story editor on Armchair Theatre and on an sf anthology drama series Out of this World (1962). At the BBC, Newman soon initiated The Wednesday Play (1964-70) and Doctor Who (1963-89). Shubik joined him, becoming story editor on the contemporary drama anthology series Story Parade (1964-5) before proposing Out of the Unknown as a science-fictional companion; later she would oversee the transformation of The Wednesday Play into Play for Today (1974-80).

3
Wyndham published under a variety of monikers (John Beynon Harris, John Beynon, Wyndham Parkes, Lucas Parkes and Johnson Harris), all derived from his own rather lengthy name, John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris. The publishing history of ‘No Place Like Earth’ begins with a short story, ‘Time to Rest’, which constitutes roughly its opening third. ‘Time to Rest’ was published in two magazines: in the US, as by John Beynon Harris, in The Arkham Sampler (winter 1949), edited by August Derleth; in the UK, as by John Beynon, in New Worlds 5 (August 1949), edited by John Carnell. Derleth reprinted it in a US anthology, Far Boundaries (1951), and in the UK it was included in the Wyndham collection Seeds of Time (1956), published in hardback by Michael Joseph and paperback by Penguin. Beynon’s direct continuation of ‘Time to Rest’, the longer and rather less elegiac ‘No Place Like Earth’, appeared in Carnell’s New Worlds 9 (Spring 1951) and in the US, under the misleading title ‘Tyrant and Slave-Girl on Planet Venus’, in Donald A. Wollheim’s 10 Story Fantasy (Spring 1951). In October 1952, Carnell joined the two stories together as ‘No Place Like Earth’ as the lead story in an anthology of British sf, No Place Like Earth (Boardman), still as by Beynon, which enabled him also to include a John Wyndham story, ‘Survival’ (1952); the anthology was reissued by the Science Fiction t949Book Club in January 1954, and published in paperback by Panther in August 1961. (Joined together as a single story in this way, ‘No Place Like Earth’ also appeared under Beynon’s name in the first of an annual anthology series, Out of this World (Blackie), edited by Amabel Williams-Ellis and Mably Owen; it reversed the order of the two opening stories in Carnell’s anthology, beginning instead with Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Breaking Strain’ (1949), but otherwise the contents do not overlap.) At least, this is the publication history I have been able to cobble together from internet sources. Shubik was, by all accounts, well-versed in sf, so it is hard to tell when she might first have read the story. However, the Panther paperback would have gone on sale around the time she was starting to look for stories to adapt for ABC’s Out of this World.

4
There is no direct equivalent in the episode, although Bert does sing snatches of the very British ‘A-Hunting We Will Go’ and, if I recall, the ‘Eton Boating Song’.

5
One of them, uncredited and apparently Asian, is seated among the group of humans on Mars; the other is the Jamaican Roy Stewart who, as a Venusian security guard, actually gets to speak a line of dialogue (badly). A stalwart of British film and TV throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he is perhaps best remembered as Toberman in the 1967 Doctor Who serial, Tomb of the Cybermen.

6
Pastell also appeared in Tomb of the Cybermen, as Eric Kleig.

7
In the story, Bert merely hopes that no one will raise this objection – maybe this addition is evidence of Shubik’s anxiety about the story’s badly dated planetary science.

Sources
Beynon, John, ‘No Place Like Earth’, in John Carnell, ed., No Place Like Earth. London: Panther, 1961. 9-42.
Out of the Unknown boxset.BFI, 2014.