Science Fiction by African Writers
The population of the developing world is growing faster than anywhere else on Earth, and the futures of the people who live there are crucial to the collective future of the planet.
But most of the futures depicted in science fiction writing do not include this hugely significant part of the world.
To explore why, Richard Hodson spoke to Ivor W Hartmann – Zimbabwean writer, and publisher of the anthology AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers through his independent micro-press, StoryTime.
Why science fiction?
Whilst I write in many genres, I find that science fiction gives me a freedom to explore ideas, futures and issues in a way that’s less directly threatening to the reader than say contemporary fiction might be.
One of the things I enjoy about it most is extrapolating to an almost absurd end – it can be used for great effect when tackling present day concerns and exploring where they might lead.
Did your background, growing up in Zimbabwe, play a part in your decision to write science fiction?
I spent my formative years under the oppressive Rhodesian government, but my teens to mid-twenties was in an independent Zimbabwe, so I was immersed in the two radically different worlds of pre- and post-independence.
It’s hard to impart just how very optimistic we were as teenagers after independence; we had a very real and distinct sense of everyone being in it together, free to build an ideal nation.
It was a truly unique time, a time before Robert Mugabe seemed be the eternal king of Zimbabwe. A time of naivety and innocence, yes, but so very special too.
Does all that influence my writing? You bet it does.
Tough question perhaps, but can you define science fiction?
For me, science fiction is about anything that doesn’t or hasn’t existed in the world yet, but has the possibility of doing so.
What keeps it from being fantasy is its firm roots in science. It needs a believability based on what we know of the world and universe so far. No matter how far that may be stretched, it’s still within the realm of the feasible.
And African science fiction – is that any different?
Ideally I’d say there is no African science fiction, just like there’s no American, European, or Asian science fiction. That’s why AfroSF was subtitled “Science Fiction by African Writers”, not “African Science Fiction”. We’re all just writers located in different parts of the world.
But people are keen on categories, especially when dealing with apparent minorities. This is how you find African American science fiction authors shelved on their own in American libraries. Or how in South Africa, the main bookstore chain shelves all African authors in one section, regardless of the genre of their books.
Categories can be positive affirmations of new movements, but they can also become ghettoes that are wilfully ignored.
I get the sense you feel science fiction is particularly important to Africa. Why is that?
Until recently, you’d be hard pressed to find published ideas of what an African-centric idea of the future might be, outside of dry academic tomes or, even worse, ideas imposed upon us by people who have no idea what it is to be African.
As a youth I ploughed my way through loads of science fiction, and whilst I enjoyed the concepts and stories, rarely did I see myself or my friends in them. The closest they ever came to being relatable was some grotesque caricature.
So what happens when the only narratives of possible futures don’t include you? How are you meant to deal with that, being written out of the future? It all becomes very insidious.
Your anthology AfroSF seems pretty unique – is there a reason things like this are uncommon?
AfroSF was the first science fiction anthology open to submissions from all African writers across the continent and abroad. There have been other science fiction anthologies from individual countries like South Africa and Nigeria, but not many.
Science fiction is not at all new to Africa though. We’ve been telling science fiction stories since before there was such a thing as a book. Science fiction concepts, ideas and stories are well ensconced in African mythology and culture, both ancient and present day.
It’s all too convenient to forget that Africa had already made major strides in advanced mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, even quantum theory, long before the Greeks started putting two and two together.
Why did it take until 2012 to get a collection of African science fiction writing together?
What happened? Colonisation happened – centuries of war and oppression. What was general knowledge became esoteric knowledge, what was open became closed, hidden away from minds that neither deserved the knowledge nor could admit it was so very advanced. That would mean admitting Africans were at least their equals if not decidedly more.
That legacy lasts to this day. What’s been promoted most by publishers is the writing of serious contemporary novels – poverty porn. The more dreadful the depictions, the better they’re received.
This is the image of Africa that people seem to want and expect from us. It’s as if we’re not allowed to be funny, or have whirlwind romances, or in this case, have a vision of the future. And if you do write about those things, you get told it’s “not African enough” so many times you start to believe it.
What do you believe should be done?
It’s imperative to engender our own visions of the future – to write ourselves into the future, from our perspective.
For too long has an almost singular version of the future been drummed into us all, at the heavy cost of a future devoid of the richness of diversity.
This is what we’re working on now through independent African publishers. Science fiction, romance – all the genres we’ve been steered away from for so long, we’re doing by ourselves, for ourselves. But the world at large also gets what it so sorely needs: something different, something diverse, and something that isn’t the tired regurgitation of Western ideas.
This interview from April 2015 has been edited for clarity and length, and was first published on Science 151.