Tips from the apocalypse

Speculative fiction by writers from Africa explore viral apocalypses. What can we learn from art on catastrophe?

Public domain image.

When the coronavirus began to spread around the world in March 2020 there was a distinct uptick in the demand for and consumption of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films on streaming platforms like Netflix. Why did people want to watch Outbreak and Contagion when we were in the middle of an outbreak? Were they comforted by the worst case scenario catastrophes shown in films such as The Day After Tomorrow and The Road? Did viewers really enjoy reveling in the prospect of the impending end of the world or were they picking up tips for how to survive the end-times?

Before we even started calling the virus COVID-19 or “the rona,” attention turned to similar brands of fiction. Critics began to comment that Deon Meyer’s 2017 novel Fever predicted the decimation of human populations by a flu-like coronavirus. Upon release, the novel was widely acclaimed as a post-apocalyptic masterpiece, akin to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Four years later, the parallels between Meyer’s Fever and the COVID-19 pandemic are prescient and clear: A coronavirus transmitted from animals to humans can spread like wildfire across the globe. Now we know what the path of viral transmission looks like, but it wasn’t as if we hadn’t been warned.

When interviewed, Meyer recounts that “global warming, Ebola, the Avian Influenza (H5N1) of 1996 and the H1N1 Swine Flu virus of 2009-10, … we live in a world where an apocalypse is a possibility.” Of course COVID-19 is proving not to be as lethal as it was first imagined and Meyer created a situation in Southern Africa that is not too hard to imagine—where HIV-positive inhabitants were particularly susceptible to a more aggressive coronavirus: “There was already one coronavirus in the man’s blood … In the mango tree there was a bat, with a different kind of coronavirus in its blood, one that could infect other people easily when inhaled, and with the ability to make them extremely ill.”

Could this almost clairvoyant novel help us to grapple with the material and imaginative realities we now face with COVID-19? It certainly taught me that petrol goes bad (who knew?), and to start planting sugar cane to make ethanol should society begin to collapse.

As a reader who has researched HIV in literature for more than 15 years I was initially drawn to Meyer’s novel because of the HIV connection, keen to see how the master of South African crime fiction had used the virus in his new novel. But this turned out to be a red herring, as HIV soon became irrelevant as the story progressed. Lower levels of immunity may have allowed the virus in and combined with the virus from the bat, but once it had a human host and began to mutate, the new virus could spread easily from human to human. The key difference, of course, is the mode of transmission. An air-borne virus poses a much bigger threat than a sexually transmitted disease, not least one which now has viable treatment available as well as many prophylactic measures that can prevent transmission.  With the AIDS apocalypse receding to the background of recent history, humanity was ready for a new, more virulent disease to overtake the populace and, in particular, a disease that would quickly destroy the health of the upper and middle classes in high income countries in Europe and North America.

The deadly trajectory of COVID-19 in Africa has not been as severe as in other parts of the world and this has been cause for some confusion among epidemiologists and those media commentators, who assume that Africa always presents as among the worst case scenarios when it comes to disease and mortality. It seems that many lessons have been learnt from the Ebola crises, with swift preventative action, and that a certain level of immunity may have been acquired against coronaviruses in parts of Africa. It is extremely unusual for a pandemic to reverse the North-South divide that usually defines the gulf between the haves and have-nots. Could it be that extensive experience of crises and pandemics has uniquely prepared the African imaginary for apocalyptic fiction too? And is it possible that this preparation has led to furtive projections of the effect of such pandemics on complacent, unprepared populations such as in Europe and North America?

South Africans Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer have imagined a flu-like disease that overtakes America in their novels South (2016) and North (2018) published under the pseudonym Frank Owen. In South we are told that a 30-year civil war in the US was ended when a wind-borne virus decimates the southern inhabitants, while the northerners are protected by antivirals distributed in the water. With echoes of the 19th century US civil war and Trump’s infamous border wall, the North-South divide is perpetuated by a wall separating the two parts of the country and windstorms which send new viral strains across the increasingly deserted south. At the very least, the diptych of these novels reminds us of the unfairness in the geographical division of a “cure” or vaccine, a division the world faced with HIV antiretrovirals, and now faces with COVID-19.

The figuring of America in post-apocalyptic fictions is nothing new. In these African novels, the US is reconstructed as no longer the place of hope, safety, and freedom. Afterland (2020), by Lauren Beukes, is set in the US, the main objective for its characters is to leave and get home to South Africa. In Rosewater (2016) the country shuts down, cuts itself off from the rest of the world and becomes completely self-contained, impossible to penetrate in order to protect itself from Wormwood. As in Lesley Nneka Arimah’s short story “What Does it Mean When a Man Falls from the Sky?” (2015) and Magogodi oa Makhene’s “The Virus” (2016), refugees come from a crumbling, flooded, defunct America to Africa—fiction writers from Africa revel in the reversal of the refugee narrative.

It seems no coincidence that while the #MeToo movement also swept across the Western world Beukes would release her novel, Afterland, in which the “oncovirus” wipes out 99 percent of men. Reminiscent of Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 film Children of Men, which envisages the world in 2027 when women have become infertile, the battle to “re-fertilize” humanity is a central concern. Beukes’ virus is, again, far more deadly than COVID-19, causing aggressive prostate cancer within men and boys, leaving women as carriers. Only 1 percent of men prove to be immune, making them (and their semen) a valuable commodity in a female-led society. Beukes’ novel traces the journey of mother and son, Cole and Miles, as they escape from a restrictive government medical facility to reach Miami, Florida and cross the Atlantic back to South Africa. Twelve-year-old Miles is disguised as a girl called Mila, who is rescued with Cole by The Church of All Sorrows, who believe women must repent in order for men to be restored to their lives, the virus defeated. The opium of religion is as clear in the US as it is in Africa.

The perspective of the formerly colonized on viral apocalypses is becoming increasingly prevalent in African speculative fiction, providing ingenuity and insight that has been waning from popular Western apocalyptic fiction. Perhaps because parts of Africa have had to confront the prospect of a potential apocalypse in the form of the AIDS crisis (and drug resistant TB) over the last 25 years, the fertile ground had been prepared?  Perhaps, (aside from poverty), this is also why evangelical religion has exploded across the continent?

The first volume of Tade Thompson’s Rosewater trilogy is set in mid-2060s Nigeria. Fifty years earlier, a gigantic alien lifeform dubbed Wormwood crashed into London and sank into the ground. Wormwood re-emerged in Nigeria, where it unleashed alien creatures and bacteria, became a power source, and began healing illness and injury once a year (also spawning a religious following). The city that grew up around the alien dome called itself Rosewater. Unlike Beukes, Owen, and Meyer, Thompson’s world inhabits an almost pre-apocalyptic era, in which the aliens seem to be biding their time, about to take control of earth. The key difference in approach is the use of “bacteria” rather than a “virus.”

In Thompson’s innovative novel the alien bacteria released into the atmosphere by Wormwood form the “xenosphere,” which connects all living beings on the planet. Some humans, like Rosewater’s protagonist Kaaro, are able to sense the xenosphere and manipulate it, giving them psychic powers. The xenosphere functions as a sort of spore-based cyberspace, which rather than destroying the human population, acts as a means for connecting them. This flipside, the benefits of alien bacteria, have rarely been explored with such ingenuity, wherein the detail of the speculative world that Thompson creates really resonates with our increasingly connected cyberverse. We are reminded that Rosewater is not simply a tale of a pandemic, but also one of alien invasion and it is this aspect of Nigerian diasporic fiction that writers like Nnedi Orakafor have also concentrated on, in Lagoon (2014) for example. In both novels we are reminded how quickly nationalism comes to the fore when fighting alien invaders.

As Abigail Nussbaum points out, “while stories of alien invasion are common in science fiction, they are rarely told from the perspective of the formerly colonized,” adding further insight into the suspicion key characters have of the aliens’ intentions, “look[ing] to their nation’s past for a lesson in the foolishness of hoping for the best from colonizers.” The purpose of Wormwood’s actions is revealed to be the conversion of humans into suitable receptacles for the stored memories of Wormwood’s alien masters, whose own planet was lost to ecological catastrophe. Beneath the Rosewater trilogy’s immediate battle with the aliens for control of the earth lies this other apocalypse, the ecological catastrophe on the aliens’ home planet. There is a forewarning in the background that humanity continues to disregard in the struggle to maintain the status quo here on earth. Maintaining a human presence free of bacteria and viruses may not be the ultimate solution if climate change and environmental catastrophe continue to wreak havoc. Will we soon be in the same position as these aliens, who have downloaded their memories on to servers in order to preserve their existence?

Speculative apocalyptic fiction can be a powerful tool with which to critique the present and we can read these African novels of imagined deadly pandemics while reflecting on the reality of COVID-19. Situations of crisis allow us to take stock and ask, what do we want in the world after this is over? How we treat each other when anyone infectious is a potential enemy, a threat, is key to our survival. Those who were formerly colonized have different perspectives on social responses to “invasion,” whether by aliens or viral threats. Likewise, while the South African and Nigerian political imaginary may have forecast apocalypse for many years, the continuing evolution of imaginary worlds in which ingenuity, hope, and change are possible, endures.

Further Reading

Nigerians in Space

In Deji Olukotun’s novel, a Nigerian NASA scientist — on behalf of all colonized people — wants to return moon rocks that Neil Armstrong brought back to earth.