Africa in SF – The Prequel

Today I went to see the Africa in SF exhibition at the Arnolfini in Bristol. This is not my report in it. This is my post about Africa-related science fiction literature which I’m doing for the benefit of all the people who asked for my blog address afterwards. My report will probably appear on Tuesday.

A few words of explanation first. Some of these people write what appears to be fantasy, or an SF/fantasy mix. Without getting into too much theory, it is worth pointing out that a lot of apparent science fiction is fantastical because, for example, faster than light travel is supposedly impossible. Also I note Sir Arthur’s famous dictum that sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic. So I’m not worrying about distinctions here. (Regular readers, please do not derail with nitpicking over genre boundaries.)

Links in what follows are to my reviews in the case of books, and to the SF Encyclopedia for writer names.

Let’s start with Western writers who have used a future, more developed Africa as a setting. Before Ian McDonald got into the full swing of his developing economies books he wrote Evolution’s Shore and Kirinya, both set in Kenya. Mike Resnick has also written books set in Kenya, though I’ve not read them. A more recent example is Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds.

Alternate history has also been used to imagine a more technologically sophisticated Africa. In Years of Rice and Salt Kim Stanley Robinson killed off the population of Europe and allowed human civilization to develop out of Asia and Africa, though I was disappointed that the plot merely re-told European history with the names changed. A better example is Jon Courtenay Grimwood‘s Pashazade series (Pashazade, Effendi and Fellahin) which does away with the First World War, allowing Grimwood to write cyberpunk thrillers set in a near future North Africa that is protected by the still extant Ottoman Empire.

There are many African American writers publishing SF&F, though most of their output is more fantasy-focused and often relates more to the American part of their heritage than the African. Some examples are Samuel R. Delany, Nisi Shawl, Andrea Hairston, David Anthony Durham and N.K. Jemisin.

Caribbean writers have produced some interesting science fiction. Good examples are Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson and the Xenowealth series by Tobias S. Buckell (Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, Sly Mongoose).

Moving on to Africa itself, two women writers have had notable recent success. Lauren Beukes, who lives in Cape Town, won the Arthur C. Clarke Award with Zoo City, though Moxyland is a more obviously science fictional take on South Africa. Nnedi Okorafor was raised in the US but her parents are Nigerian and she still keeps close contact with that country. Most of her books are set in Africa. Zharah the Windseeker won the Wole Soyinka Prize for Africa Literature, while Who Fears Death won the World Fantasy Award.

A useful source of what is going on with science fiction in Africa today is the Afrocyberpunk blog maintained by Jonathan Dotse from Ghana.

Science fiction is also written in languages other than English. Pierre Gevart, the editor of Galaxies magazine, tells me that he has received submissions from Francophone writers in Africa. Egypt has a thriving SF community writing in Arabic. Utopia by Ahmed Khaled Towfik was recently published in English translation.

There are bound to be other examples that I have forgotten or missed, so if the hive mind would like to contribute by all means comment below.

14 thoughts on “Africa in SF – The Prequel

  1. African author Ken Sibanda’s The Return to Gibraltar is available in bookstores now. I’m expecting a review copy so I’ll be able to tell you more about that later.

    You named two authors whose latest works should be particularly highlighted in this category, but which you did not specifically mention.

    I’m currently reading Tobias S. Buckell’s Arctic Rising, whose terrific protagonist is a female pilot from Nigeria, in a future world where trade routes are open though the Arctic Circle due to global warming, and a routine arship patrol goes terribly wrong… Other Carribean diaspora characters also appear.

    Also, Nnedi Okorafor’s new YA novel, Akata Witch, which is unabashedly fantasy, features an albino girl of African descent born in America who moves to Africa with her family and discovers a world of special powers she never expected to discover. I like this protagonist too, who also happens to be an ace soccer player. Best book I read from last year.

    Finally, I am surprised you don’t mention Stephen Barnes. Isn’t some of his sf set in Africa? I’m thinking in particular of a powerful short story of his that I believe was in the anthology So Long Been Dreaming; Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy, coedited by Nalo Hopkinson and Sheree Thomas; I’ve not yet read his novels but I think some of them feature a future Africa as well. And his wife, Tananarive Due, is also African American and writes a variety of speculative fiction, not just horror.

    1. Thanks! That was exactly what I was hoping for.

      My apologies to Steve. I had him in mind, but I had about half an hour to write this post and I had a senior moment regarding his name, so I left him out in the hope someone would remind me. Also apologies to Tananarive, and to Alaya Dawn Johnson.

      I reviewed Arctic Rising here, but didn’t mention it as it is not set in Africa or an African-inspired future. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Akata Witch, which I gather from Nnedi’s appearance on Coode Street is soon to be published in Nigeria (though under a different title).

  2. I greatly enjoyed Zarah the Windseeker. You might also try African-American writer Octavia Butler. I don’t know if she had anything set directly in Africa, but I believe she used ideas from African culture. My own book, People of the Sky (Tor), had a plot involving the re-establishment of African animals on another planet, and a character who was part African, part Maori.

    1. *headsmack* yes, of course, Octavia. Though what I have read of hers is much more about America than about Africa.

  3. The Fortunate Fall by Raphael Carter — in the back-story, a kind of failed singularity has devastated the world, but as the least technological country at the time, Africa was least affected, and is now the wealthy advanced continent that everyone wants to emigrate to.

  4. Adding Paul McAuley’s White Devils, about the genetic engineering of a super-violent species of ape, set in a fictional African country somewhere to the East (think Kenya/Tanzania/Uganda). Very hard to believe McAuley had never set foot in Africa when he wrote it.

  5. Thank you for the excellent, enlightening post, Cheryl. I had no knowledge of the Pashazade series. (Going to correct that right away.) I’m also very interested in the Arabic language SF communities.

  6. Cat Hellisen’s When the Sea is Rising Red is a YA fantasy from a Cape Town-based author, published in the US earlier this year.

    S.L Grey’s The Mall is horror, set in Johannesburg, which came out last year. The UK publisher (Corvus) seemed keen to keep the author’s sex a mystery, though it’s not hard to find out that “S.L. Grey” is the pseudonym of two South African writers, a man and a woman.

    There’s a case for Doris Lessing to be considered an African writer of SF (amongst many other things), as she spent her first thirty or so years in what is now Zimbabwe.

    Going back in time…it’s a long time since I read it, and I don’t have a copy to hand to check, but isn’t Ian Watson’s Alien Embassy (1977) written first-person from the POV of a young black African woman? I can’t remember how much of it is actually set in Africa though.

  7. Chad Oliver was an anthropologist who worked in Africa.

    His Shores of Another Sea was set in part in Kenya.

    Mists of Dawn features Neanderthals, but probably not in Africa. Some of his short stories may have African settings, but, alas, I can’t check them right now.

  8. I don’t think it’s been mentioned yet, but we should remember John Brunner’s groundbreaking Stand On Zanzibar (often credited with prefiguring Gibson and Sterling) which won the Hugo in 1968. The fictional West African nation of Beninia played a major role in the novel.

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