Nick Wood, Azanian Bridges (2016)

book_azanianAzanian Bridges is a neat little thriller, set in more or less the present-day South Africa but in a world in which Apartheid continues.  A quick and compelling read, it does a couple of rather cunning things.

The first is its choice of alternate history premise.

There are a number of African alternate histories which invert or rewrite elements of European colonialism (e.g., Abdourahman A. Waberi’s In the United States of Africa (2006), Africa Paradis (Sylvestre Amoussou 2006)  – and Nisi Shawl’s Everfair (2016) to look forward to).

There is a future history imagining the conditions for the emergence of something akin to Apartheid (Arthur Keppel-Jones’s When Smuts Goes: A History of South Africa from 1952 to 2010, first published in 2015 (1947)).

There is an array of near-future thrillers that anticipate the end of Apartheid (Anthony Delius’s The Day Natal Took Off (1960), Gary Allighan’s Verwoerd – the End (1961), Iain Findlay’s The Azanian Assignment (1978), Randall Robinson’s The Emancipation of Wakefield Clay (1978), Andrew McCoy’s The Insurrectionist (1979), Larry Bond’s Vortex (1981), Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People (1981), Frank Graves’s African Chess (1990)).

And there is an alternate history with the brilliant premise of aliens arriving in the skies over Johannesburg during the Apartheid era, although sadly District 9 (Blomkamp 2009) doesn’t have the faintest idea what to do with it. (Read Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014) instead.)

But, as far as I know, Azanian Bridges is the first story to project Apartheid beyond 1994.

In doing so, Wood sketches in some sly geopolitical changes. The Soviet Union did not withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989, but has spent thirty years ‘haemmorrhaging men into their Afghan ulcer’ (31). Perestroika and glasnost seem not to have happened, and the USSR is intact, apparently governed by generals. The Berlin wall has not fallen, nor has the Eastern bloc collapsed. Consequently, ‘the old anti-communist arguments for supporting’ South Africa (163) held sway rather longer among Western powers, and it comes as little surprise that Bush and Blair were both supporters of the Apartheid regime. But now President Obama – along with his ally, the US-backed mujahideen leader Osama bin Laden – are involved in peace talks with the Soviets. The Cold War might finally be limping into its terminal phase, and with weakening Soviet influence in Africa, China is investing heavily across the continent. Meanwhile, in a South Africa ruled by President Eugène Terre’Blanche’s Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, Mandela did not leave Robben Island and FW de Klerk is still in prison for trying to bring Apartheid to an end in the 1980s.

All of which is sketched in with greater economy than I have just managed, not least because the layers of paranoid security and firewalling significantly restrict all South Africans’ access to the internet and other global media. Phones with cameras are also banned since they are a ‘potentially easy source of troubling video’ (45) – a nice touch that captures the novel’s relevance to our #blacklivesmatter times.

The second (and really really) cunning thing that Wood does is make a connection between the new experimental technology introduced into this alternative near-present and the form his narrative takes: the Empathy Enhancer allows one to experience the experience of others, and vice versa; the novel’s chapters alternate between Sibusiso Mchunu, a young amaZulu on the edges of anti-Apartheid struggle who is deeply traumatised when a friend dies in his arms, shot to death by the police at a protest, and the white (but as-yet not very committed) liberal, Dr Martin Van Deventer, the neuropsychologist treating Sibusiso and co-inventor of the Empathy Enhancer.

The security services want the EE device for use in interrogations. Anti-Apartheid groups want to use it to undermine the regime, person-by-person. It is not clear why the Chinese want it, but they do. So when Sibusiso goes on the lam with the device, and Martin sets out in pursuit, the alternating chapters set you up to expect a tensely intercutting thriller, as pursuers become the pursued.

And there are a number of tense sequences and suspenseful passages.

But Wood is playing a very different game, subverting the form to make the reader focus on the twin protagonists’ very different experiences of living in a racist state which sees them both, in different ways, as its enemies. This ranges from the most perilous things – run-ins with the security services – to the most quotidian: when Martin is told to destroy his cell phone so it can’t be used to trace him, he simply ‘grind[s] the phone under [his] heel’ (153); when Sibusiso’s phone is simply taken from him and tossed into the sea, he is ‘upset and angry’, in large part because ‘we have been taught to throw nothing away’ (129).

Such contrasts are the point of the novel.

Azanian Bridges itself is the Empathy Enhancer. Read it and weep.

African Science Fiction 101: update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update 2