Friday, July 12, 2024

Worlds All Our Own: A Review of AfroSFv2


By Tinuke Adeyi

  • Title: AfroSFv2
  • Editor: Ivor W Hartmann
  • Publisher: StoryTime
  • Number of pages: 487
  • Year of publication: 2015
  • Category: Fiction

These worlds get you as much as they did the last time you visited. There are no disappointments. In fact, your need being greater now than at your last visit, your pleasure is doubled. Such is the response Ivor W Hartmann’s AfroSFv2 draws out of any reader whose literary pleasure centres have been sensitised by the preceding anthology he edited, AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers.

AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers was published to literary applause from many quarters in 2012, and justifiably so. It is, as Hartmann reiterates in the introduction to AfroSFv2, ‘the first truly Pan-African SF anthology’. Clinching that important first, the twenty-two-strong short story anthology brimmed with delightful originality and a self-assurance that heralded the emergence of a resurgent if not new wave of African science fiction as created by Africans.

In the ensuing three years, writers across the continent put forth some of the best literary offerings out of the continent yet, most of them brilliant, all of them aspiring to the excellence associated with the new wave. Works such as Dilman Dila’s A Killing in the Sun, Short Story Day Africa’s Terra Incognita: New Short Speculative Stories from Africa, Jalada Africa’s Afrofuture(s) and even Deji Bryce Olukotun’s debut novel, Nigerians in Space, clearly signal an elevation of the African science fiction conversation, a development impossible to divorce from the figurative statement first made by AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers.

If it is reasonable to suggest that Hartmann’s impressive outing of 2012 helped set the stage for the genre revolution we are now witnessing (and it is), then one may excuse an enthusiast the frisson of apprehension that colours the excitement of finally settling to the much awaited AfroSFv2. How would Hartmann and the writers top that last, outstanding volume? How would they measure up to the new standards of African science fiction they helped raise?

Here is that sweet relief of the second visit: AfroSFv2 vaporises all apprehension from the excitement. African science fiction triumphs, again. Achieving this feat is most likely the reason behind novellas being the preferred story form in this anthology. AfroSFv2 takes an entirely different path from its predecessor in being a collection of five novellas, rather than short stories. Writers and readers are afforded the chance to let characters breathe as they mature and nurture them in the mind, until each story reflects the writer’s intent and carries the reader’s imagination beyond the final full stop.

AfroSFv2 is a complex and compelling display of aliens, superheroes, strange creatures, governments, ordinary humans and the supernatural, all caught in plots of bigotry, war, alternate histories, politics at its grittiest and poverty at its ugliest.

Tade Thompson and Nick Wood’s collaboration, ‘The Last Pantheon’, is the opening story, a tour de force that successfully joins the disparate traditions of alternate history and superheroes in one powerful seam. It is a masterful chronicle of the dark, bloody and inglorious political history of Africa and some of the continent’s most powerful real-life heroes, told from the viewpoints of two superheroes who, though brothers, could not be any more different from one another.

There is a pervading, almost angry, cynicism to Pan-African – a youthful, flying, weather altering mind reader – that contrasts sharply with the more mellow temperament and ideals of his elder brother, Black Power, an optimistic believer in humanity’s capacity for good. The lives of these two are woven into Africa’s political history from inception, as they spend lifetimes on failed interventions. They are eventually forced to endure the emotional toll of watching humanity fail despite huge personal sacrifices, and they are astonished to find that each, in his own way, has been as much a part of the problem as the puny humans they shepherded for so long. Ego, we discover, is intergalactic and even superheroes suffer the consequences, intended or not, of the disharmony it engenders.

Thompson and Wood succeed in creating a realm caught somewhere between history, comics and fantasy, and they have woven different cultures, religions, languages, epochs and geography into the fabric of that realm as one writer. The tale takes full advantage of the space and flexibility in pacing that a novella affords the writer, deepening and enriching its imagined world. On this wise, ‘The Last Pantheon’ reminds one of the superhero-alien classic Wild Cards. Emphasis is laid on powerful human emotions, stimulating and often startling dialogue, and characters that readers can identify with and eventually care about even if they disagree with them. As the story approaches its climax, Wood and Thompson make cameo appearances, as themselves, creators of the ‘graphic novelization’ of the final, fatal bout between Black Power and Pan-African. This is an unforgettable signature on a well written story.

It turns out that humans do not hold the patent to statement-making signatures, certainly not if Andrew Dakalira has anything to say about it. In ‘VIII’, the year is 2023. An outbound United States spaceship, made by the Israelis, suddenly alters its course to crash in a lake in Malawi, sparking an international incident. Intelligence agencies and the presidents of the two countries are confounded, especially when all the spaceship’s crewmembers are discovered murdered, their bodies marked with the distinct signature of their killer, the Roman numeral VIII.

In ‘VIII’, it soon becomes clear that an entirely different sort of hunting season is upon the humans, that the number VIII bears a chilling significance, that the crash and ensuing events are far from being a solely Malawian problem, and that neither Darwin nor indeed any of the theorists of creationism have come close to uncovering the truth. ‘VIII’ is a tale of alien invasion that challenges the definition of reality and approaches the subject of the origin of species from an unexpected angle that tickles once it becomes apparent.

This mode of presentation appears to be a running thread throughout the anthology, with perhaps the notable exception of Mame Bougouma Diene’s ‘Hell Freezes Over’, a curious depiction of the return to a long forgotten epoch where the world is populated by species grouped into functional caste systems. It is a different era where nature has assumed dimensions that are unrecognisable but in which Diene ensures that dirty politics, gender inequality and sexual violence, as we know them today, exist. There are no easy answers in that world any more than there are in this one. ‘Hell Freezes Over’ is not an easy read and does not lend itself to clear-cut interpretations. There are moments this reader felt as lost in its complex maze as one of Diene’s hapless moles, and one has to wonder if this effect is deliberate.

But if the unfamiliar cities encountered in ‘Hell Freezes Over’ unsettle, Paradise City in Efe Tokunbo Okogu’s ‘An Indigo Song for Paradise’ is their antithesis. Crippling poverty and the crime-ridden underbelly of a postmodern city contrast sharply with the almost obscene wealth displayed by the top echelon and political leaders of the day. It is an all too familiar photomontage, almost comforting in its unsightliness. Lagos, and indeed many cities of Africa, come to mind with no great effort as Paradise City is laid out page after page.

Aliens, rebels, gunslingers, pimps, pop stars, tech-savvy youth, dirty politicians and a corrupt, hydra-headed giant corporation called TerraCorp, whose activities are considered damaging to the environment and exploitative of the poor – these set the stage for a tale of mankind’s eternal search for redemption and liberation in ‘An Indigo Song for Paradise’.

There is a lot of introspection and long monologues that cover the existential crisis, religion, philosophy and even science. ‘An Indigo Song for Paradise’ is all-embracing but perhaps the ‘kicker’ in this rather long novella is a subtle suggestion, contained in its prologue, that the events in the tale might be no more than a simulation: characters living alternate realities foisted on the surviving members of the human species by some alien life forms in some sort of elaborate experiment.

Dilman Dila’s ‘The Flying Man of Stone’ is a sublime blend of fantasy and science fiction. It examines the nature of power and its effect on those who wield it. When a young boy loses his family to a war he hardly understands, in the punishing clime of colonialism, and when his father is subsequently seized by ancient spirits or aliens who have long lived on earth, unbeknownst to humans, readers are shown that righteous indignation, claims of altruism and young, unschooled passion do not always go well with unbridled power.

There are no lightweight writers in AfroSFv2. In what is now a recurring and readily accepted challenge among genre writers, the authors here have pushed the hitherto accepted boundaries of African storytelling to near obliteration. They have done this in many important ways, including style, language and subject. It is exciting to witness in AfroSFv2 the slaughtering of one sacred cow after the other with no stranger tools than the usual tropes of science fiction.

Photograph: ‘World’ by Trinità

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Tinuke Adeyi
Tinuke Adeyi
Books and writing saved Tinuke Adeyi from the life she was born into. For this reason, she is in a lifelong relationship with reading. She is a medical practitioner and lives with her husband in Lagos.

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