AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers – Ivor W Hartmann

Another review from Interzone in 2013

AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers

Ivor W. Hartmann, StoryTime, 363pp, Kindle

AfroSF – that is, sf written by African writers, including those living abroad – has already attracted a considerable amount of enthusiastic attention from the Anglo-American sf community. Along with other critics, I welcome its publication. However, I wonder if AfroSF is quite what it seems to be. When editor Ivor W. Hartmann says that ‘SciFi is the only genre that enables African writers to envision a future from our African perspective’ for whom does he speak? Of the twenty-two contributors, twelve are South African, while seven are Nigerian in origin, with single contributors from Zimbabwe, Kenya, and The Gambia. Africa, on the other hand, comprises fifty-four countries, nine territories, and three de facto states. This may imply that African sf flourishes only in some regions, or it may indicate that Hartmann was more successful in promoting the anthology in some areas. His introduction hints that as a continent Africa has a rich history of sf but he says too that ‘SciFi … is highly underdeveloped in African literature as a whole’. What does this mean? As Hartmann eschews any form of historical overview, it is difficult to determine what the ‘Afro’ in ‘AfroSF’ stands for. Without a frame of reference it is hard to contextualise these stories though it is perhaps a good thing to come to them without preconceptions. Except that, given I read them from the point of view of a white female Anglo-American sf reader, my perception is inevitably shaped by my own cultural expectations.

In his introduction, Hartmann explains that ‘the vision I had for AfroSF needed to include the forward thinking spirit embodied so well in SciFi as a genre’ and goes on to say ‘If you can’t see and relay an understandable vision of the future, your future will be co-opted by someone else’s vision, one that will not necessarily have your best interests at heart’. This suggests that for Hartmann as editor, it is the idea that is important, and he has acknowledged this elsewhere.

In practice this means a number of things. There are stories which, to the Anglo-American eye, seem to employ familiar tropes, mostly notably involving insanely automated bureaucracy, the fear of losing one’s identity, of no longer being able to participate fully in a capitalist society, or else focusing on the frustrations of maintaining one’s position, often through corruption. However, given the viewpoint from which they’re written, they can’t be dismissed as ‘tired’. Ashley Jacobs’ ‘New Mzansi’ draws attention to the difficulties of getting medical treatment while Tendai Huchu’s protagonist finds himself ensnared in colonial bureaucracy as he tries to protest against a land sale but also the victim of the government’s intrusive control of the ‘natives’ health. Similarly, Sally-Ann Murray’s ‘Terms and Conditions Apply’ examines the problematic relationship between pharmaceutical companies and emerging nations. The narrative tricks of cyberpunk resurface in Efe Okogu’s ‘Proposition 23’ yet a story of AIs seeking autonomy in the face of a repressive regime works extremely well.

War is rarely far from the agenda here. Clifton Gachagua’s ‘To Gaze At the Sun’ prompts us to think about the role of the artificial human in a new way as he describes a society in which couples adopt young men in order to have the pride of sending them away to the war. Biram Mboob’s ‘The Rare Earth’ in which Gideon, who leads a militia army, is apparently directed by God, but seems also to have a remarkable arsenal at his command. Mboob skilfully juxtaposes the viewpoint of those who see Gideon as a magician with those who better understand his resources.

Other stories deal with the relationship between traditional and modern ways, most notably Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu’s ‘Masquerade Stories’ which presents a initiation ceremony, which seems also to be based on an alien encounter, through the viewpoints of young men with traditional and modern attitudes, and their various responses to the situation. It is, to my mind, one of the most satisfying stories in the entire collection. Intriguing too is Rafeeat Aliyu’s ‘Ofe!’, her first published story. It is rough round the edges; nonetheless, the combination of ultra-modern detective story and casual recognition of traditional powers is a refreshing counterpoint to modern urban fantasy. Of the more overtly sf stories, Tade Thompson’s ‘Notes from Gethsemane’ is a well-wrought piece, successfully mixing gang culture, a run-down suburb and an alien entity, while Cristy Zinn’s ‘Five Sets of Hands’ explores inter-racial slavery and cooperation. And sucker as I am for a time-travel story, Liam Kruger’s ‘Closing Time’ comes with a neat twist.

As to whether this is the defining anthology of AfroSF, I remain doubtful. However, it is undoubtedly a useful introduction to sf writing from the African continent and contains some excellent stories.

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