In recent years, African and Afro-Diasporic science fiction has been gaining notice in scholarly and literary circles. It’s a welcome change for those of us who grew up devouring stories about adventurous souls bravely going forth into the final frontier. The writers of this fiction still rely on some familiar tropes such as alien invasions, augmented humans, and alternate timelines, but also push the boundaries of what we understand as science fiction.
There are, of course, earlier texts from African writers that are similarly innovative… In Emmanuel Dongala’s short story “Jazz et vin de palme” (“Jazz and Palm Wine”), aliens land in a Congolese village and can only be pacified with the jazz and palm wine of the title. Sony Labou Tansi’s classic La vie et demie (Life and a Half) has also been read as science fiction by scholar Lydie Moudelino. The frame of a future look back on 1970s politics in Boubacar Boris Diop’s Temps de Tamango (The Time of Tamango) can also be read productively in the context of science fiction.
More recently, Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Lagoon envisions aliens landing in Lagos and what happens thereafter. As Okorafor put it in an interview on the radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge: “Lagos is . . . the perfect place for an alien invasion to happen.” In the hustle and bustle of contemporary Lagos, the extraterrestrials interact not only with the city’s human inhabitants but also with animals, plants, spirits, and ancestors.
Works like Lagoon, in which literal aliens arrive not in New York, Washington, or a cornfield in Iowa, centralize their respective locations and place them firmly in a planetary context. Why wouldn’t aliens end up (or choose to land) somewhere on such a large continent?
While not strictly science fiction, Ken Bugul’s novel La Pièce d’or (The Gold Coin) makes free use of the term “extraterrestres” in the context of a threatened apocalypse, raising uncertainty and forcing readers to rethink existing narratives of colonial and postcolonial encounters. The text depicts desolate urban and rural landscapes that are repeatedly described has having declined “since the 1960s” – a common literary refrain. However, “the occupiers from afar” and “the new occupiers,” as they are referred to in the novel, might not quite be the European colonizers and neo-colonialist Senegalese ruling class; perhaps they are “extraterrestres,” literally as well as figuratively. After all, the world could end because a comet is rushing towards an enormous mountain of trash in the center of not-quite-Dakar. Ken Bugul uses science fictional allusions to introduce doubt in our expectations about what typically happens in a postindependence novel.
Beyond alien invasion, other recent novels combine cosmology with technology in exciting ways. In these works, enhanced beings and supernaturally modified everyday objects intersect with existing belief systems. Importantly, the results are unnerving as much for the characters as for the reader. In Deji Olukotun’s recently featured Nigerians in Space, for example, a young man’s solar-powered “moon lamp” seems mysteriously able to replicate actual moonlight. In Zoo City by South African writer Lauren Beukes, a mysterious global outbreak punishes those who commit murder or manslaughter by giving them an animal familiar (with whom they share a close emotional and physical bond) and a personalized supernatural power; the new abilities come into conflict with technologies and beliefs that have developed simultaneously. Protagonist Zinzi has a sloth familiar and can read minds, but when she’s brought in for a police interrogation, she cannot use her power to read her interrogator’s thoughts because of the police station’s “magic blockers” that are “regulation infrasound.” On the cosmological side of things, a dangerous black market trade in the magical animals has developed because some believe that they can be used effectively for ritual sacrifice.
Despite growing recognition for these and other contemporary authors, some of the questions raised by this post about the interest of African audiences in science fiction remain. The longstanding intersection of music and Afrofuturism offers another avenue through which to imagine alternative worlds in Africa and beyond (see, for example, Chimurenga’s Pan-African Space Station), as do films, comic books, and other forms of visual art – each of which warrant their own articles and have. But really, there’s no point in questioning whether or not Africa is ready for science fiction. It has already arrived in various urban locations where sci-fi already had a fan base.