Culture

These Imaginative Worlds and Parallel Universes Will Forever Change How You Think About Africa

by Mark Hay

April 28, 2015
A robot directs traffic in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Last month, a Guardian article on the value of “Afrofuturist” art started making the rounds on the web’s myriad African news and culture forums. Usually the term, coined in the 1990s, refers mainly to innovative or progressive material coming out of the African American creative community—works which often fall into the category of science-fiction or fantasy categories and are thus brushed off as genre art. But the Guardian pieces did two great services to the term, by using it to draw our attention to lesser-known and underappreciated works coming out of continental Africa, and sparking discussion about Afrofuturism’s merits as a social phenomenon.

Sci-fi and fantasy art have the power to shape modern technology through creators’ aspirations. In the case of African art, that is doubly valuable, as it offers local artists the chance to put their own stamp on the technologies and developments that will shape the continent, envisioning a future enriched by non-Western perspectives. But beyond just futurism, African sci-fi and fantasy have the potential to challenge clichéd views of the continent through imaginative worlds and parallel universes. These works can close the gaps between traditional life, mythology, and modernity by blending fantastical elements into quasi-realities and dreaming big about what could be.

When most Americans think of African science fiction, they’re likely to recall sci-fi movies out of South Africa like District 9, which sparked a minor fantasy revolution in the country’s (and the continent’s) film industry. Branching out of this entry point, many may find some interesting audio or visual futurism—music, photography, illustrations, and even television (in the genre). 

But what gets lost in this embrace of African audio-visual sci-fi is the richness and depth of Africa’s sci-fi literature. The history of the genre in the continent goes back to the early 20th century, although at the time most of the authors were white South Africans. But over the past half-century the genre has exploded, featuring not just established authors, foreign transplants, and returnees who honed their skills abroad, but also homegrown authors from across the continent. 

Those wishing to explore this genre in-depth can check out anthologies like AfroSF or the informative subcultural clearinghouse AfroCyberPunk. But if you’re looking for a beginner’s jumping-off point into the vast spoils of African sci-fi, below is a list of 10 genre-gems that offer a peak into the rich world of the continent’s futuristic literature.

Nigerians in Space (2014). The debut offering of University of Cape Town-trained Deji Bryce Olukotun, Nigerians in Space is a tale of African intellectuals abroad falling into a dramatic bid to return home and grab a place in the space race for the sake of patriotism and pride. The book directly tackles the issues of the post-independence generation and brain drainand points strongly towards current Nigerian realities.

Lagos 2060 (2013). The product of a 2010 workshop celebrating the 50th anniversary of Nigerian independence, this anthology asked local writers to imagine life in the nation’s largest city a century after independence. The result is eight stories tackling everything from socioeconomic polarization, to regional tensions, to global warming through a variety of points of view and experiences sci-fi fans don’t usually get—and in enjoyable, concise prose snippets.

Moxyland (2008). Any African sci-fi list is almost required to feature South African Lauren Beukes’s cyberpunk dystopian novel. A tale of a 2018 Cape Town plagued by a corporatized modern apartheid and inhabited by techie protagonists, the story may be a little trite, but its regional spin on broader concerns of a techno-segregated future rang so true that it became part of the impetus for the explosion of South African sci-fi. Along with Beukes’s subsequent Zoo City (2010), it even prompted discussions of a dedicated genre publishing imprint in the nation.

Who Fears Death (2010). This offering from Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor blends magic and myth into reality. The book takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where a light-skinned race dominates a dark-skinned race, and follows the life of a child of interracial rape who tries to stop her biological father’s genocidal ambitions. Speaking to many buzzwords in press coverage of modern Africa from a novel perch, this entry into Africa’s sci-fi pantheon is sometimes classified as Young Adult reading, making complex subjects accessible to youth.

The Equatorial Assignment (1980). Moving back in time and breaking towards more lighthearted subject matter, Kenyan author David G. Maillu’s schmaltzy thriller is a pan-African, post-colonial take on the James Bond oeuvre. A special agent with the National Integrity Service of Africa must thwart the plots of a devious neo-colonial organization, which aims to replace competent African leaders with corrupt figureheads and cronies in absurdly on-the-nose narratives.

Savannah 2116 AD (2005). Botswanan-South African author Jenny Robson’s youth-friendly sci-fi gets into the same issues of genetic engineering and segregation found in much mainstream Western science fiction. But it does so by exploring the lives of humans living on reservations, while the rest of their land is given over to native wildlife for recovery (in some not-so-subtly commentary on modern non-profit priorities). Some of these marginalized humans have even been bred as organ farms to help sickly animals survive at all costs.

In the United States of Africa (2009). A satirical inversion, Abdourahman A. Waberi, a Djiboutian living in France, imagines a world in which the West has become a cesspool of suffering, much like many outsider depictions of modern Africa. Meanwhile, the “dark continent” has turned into a developed paradise. On an aid mission to benighted France, an African doctor adopts a girl who grows up to be an artist, returning to France to grapple with her identity and find her real family.

 

Life and a Half (1977). A parable for the suffering of the modern Democratic Republic of Congo, Sony Lab‘ou Tansi tells the harrowing tale of a cannibalistic dictator who rules over the fake republic of Katamalanasia, which descends into increasingly absurd and apocalyptic violence as one man’s spirit tries to guide his family to safety. The novel is an emotional, over-the-top shot in the arm to the way we usually passively engage with horror stories out of the DRC.

The Last of the Empire (1981). A straight-up thriller in a fictionalized, alternate Senegal, this story from Ousmane Sembene (one of the fathers of African filmmaking) is perhaps the most direct take on the issue of dictatorships and military coups, and seems to mirror tensions between the influential Sembene and the first president of Senegal. The Last of the Empire chronicles the days between the mysterious disappearance of a democratic president and the slow, rumbling rise of a self-serving military elite.

Women of the Aeroplanes (1988). Ghanaian author Kojo Laing’s tale of cultural first encounters and exchanges rounds out the list with some wonderful turns of phrase and humor. In the book, the mythic peoples of the unmappable Tukwan, Ghana encounter the strange folk of Levensvale, Scotland, both sizing each other up and coming to terms with each other’s reality and magic.

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These Imaginative Worlds and Parallel Universes Will Forever Change How You Think About Africa