The future of sci-fi is African

Science fiction by Africans and set on the continent is gaining international recognition as it shows how racist, predatory colonialism makes itself felt in future worlds.

It’s just over a decade since Lauren Beukes’ cyberpunk thriller Moxyland announced the arrival – to plaudits from genre icons including Neuromancer author William Gibson – of South African science fiction on the world stage of sci-fi and fantasy.

The date-marker isn’t intended to disrespect the multiple South African speculative works before Moxyland that riffed skilfully on constructs such as time and corporeal identity, but were relegated to the booksellers’ limbo of “African Magical Realism”. As another African SF writer, Nnedi Okorafor, has observed, such labels “are always reductive … [and magical realism sometimes] gets slapped on to certain non-Western writing … just to give it a name.” However, Beukes’ debut both self-identified with the genre and received acknowledgment from the international SF community.  

Beukes’ second book, Zoo City, won the Arthur C Clarke Award, and this year Imraan Coovadia’s eighth book, A Spy in Time, was shortlisted for the John W Campbell Award. 

A dark future

Coovadia’s story begins in Joburg in 2271, now a world seat of power after surviving the annihilation of most of the rest by a solar flare. But its protagonist, Enver Eleven, is sent time-travelling by his Agency to 1955 Marrakech, 1967 Rio, and beyond Earth’s annihilation in 2472 to a settlement on Jupiter yet further in the future. Coovadia has described the book as his “Fallist” novel, “Or rather, [inspired by] the weird currents of racial feeling that we have – I think each person secretly has, and has to deal with – as a result of living with people we see as strangers.”  

Thus Coovadia elegantly flips his riff on LP Hartley’s reflection from The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” For Eleven, the difference is located not in “they” but in the traveller: “The past is a really different place depending on who you are … time traveling while black is a fundamentally different experience than if you were on Star Trek or whatever,” Coovadia told an interviewer.

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As Agent Eleven undertakes missions “to ensure the end of the world never happens again,” the narrative takes in many such subversive reversals. Only a few survivors are pale-skinned refugees. Patronisingly labelled “albinos” by the black majority, they often survive as entertainers. South Africa’s scarred history of skin-lightening and “passing” is read through an agent darkening her skin to rise in the Agency hierarchy.  

Coovadia’s explorations extend beyond race and power to form. He’s interested in the propulsive form of the spy thriller: betrayals, witch-hunts and secrets; operatives fighting for an ideology built on historical myths. Coovadia sustains the narrative tension, but his final flip is around the construct of agency itself – in both meanings. Can Agent Enver Eleven achieve his own agency in time?

A Spy in Time is compelling in its manipulation of such ideas. It belongs with philosophical speculative fiction such as Voltaire’s Candide (with whom, initially, Eleven shares a certain naive optimism) or Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos series. And like those, it’s a cold read, with often formalist dialogue that – like the brass heads of Coovadia’s computing machines – doesn’t sound quite human.

The rule of three

Masande Ntshanga (once a student of Coovadia’s) is also interested in form. He has described his second novel, Triangulum, as having a structural and conceptual goal of revisiting his earlier dismissal of the three-act narrative, to “pull apart the … nation state’s most popular storytelling device, and interrogate the oppression-leads-to-liberation struggle-leads-to-freedom chronology of our history.”

So there are all kinds of threes in Triangulum: acts, people, voices and genres (mystery, history and science fiction) – and, of course, past, present and future. In a device many science fiction and fantasy writers find useful, the text is presented as a set of found text fragments from the past, reconstructed by an anonymous narrator into a tale backgrounded by the three pillars of every alien invasion story: dispossession, devastation and erasure.

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That description might make the book sound even more formalist than A Spy in Time – but it’s not that kind of read at all.

Instead, the first part presents the story of a geeky schoolgirl – she loves maths and reads science fiction – and her two friends, coming of age as the old apartheid structures of her former bantustan cede space to post-apartheid capitalism. She is convinced her mother has been abducted by aliens. (It’s the Eastern Cape, so there are unavoidable implicit echoes of another prophetic young girl, experiencing and resisting alien invasion and abductions in the mid-1850s.) 

The second part, set in 2025, explores the diary of a science writer gradually seduced into her data corporation employer’s exploitative mining of data from the minds of a reserve army of labour, rights to which have been sold off by an avidly globalising government (that may sound familiar). The final part, set a decade later, brings the questions posed by the first two together. It doesn’t answer them – or rather, it offers potential responses coexisting on multiple levels: in what the narrative presents as “real”, and in the questioning minds of narrators and reader.

That compelling juxtaposition of possibilities makes Triangulum a warm, human read. There are others: Ntshanga’s characters and settings are instantly recognisable, illuminated by telling concrete detail; and, however negatively future events unfold, there’s an acknowledgment that people always retain the power to make change.

The year 2019 has seen Africa-set speculative fiction rapidly gaining recognition. As well as Coovadia’s nomination for the Campbell award, Tomi Adeyemi’s fantasy Children of Blood and Bone was on the Locus shortlist and Okorafor’s Binti: the Night Masquerade among the Hugo nominees, while Tade Thompson’s Nigeria-set gumshoe and aliens near future noir, Rosewater, won the Arthur C Clarke Award. Like Coovadia and Ntshanga, they tell stories in which a very specific past – racist, predatory colonialism – can insinuate its presence (the word is used deliberately) into future worlds. Distinctively African SF has come a long way in exploring how, in Ntshanga’s words, “the past is memory and the future is conjecture and neither is ever solid”.

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