Fast-Forward: The Future of Science Fiction in Africa

by Jonathan Dotse

Think about the future, just for a moment. I want you to envision what life might be like on this planet in about fifty years from now. Even if you aren’t a fan of science fiction, you might conjure up images of grand societies with laser weapons and jet packs, of course. But in that same future, allow your mind to travel to Africa. What do you see? Can you imagine what life might be like for someone living on the streets of Nairobi, Brazzaville, or Johannesburg fifty years from now? You’ll probably find that it’s not very easy to imagine Africa in the distant future, simply because there isn’t enough African science and speculative fiction to fuel the imagination. The genre has never gained a major following among African readers for good reason; the widely optimistic view of technological progress underlying traditional science fiction simply doesn’t resonate with much of the experience on the continent.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a dream of building a grand society with grand technology and even grander ideals would be largely out of reach to anyone who has been steadily drained of hope by year after year of broken promises. Africa’s rather sharp transition from the heady independence years into the times of political unrest and the decades of stagnation that followed have taken a heavy toll on the sentiments of an entire generation. Practicality is a highly regarded virtue in Africa, and it can be difficult for any self-styled pragmatist to see the value in sifting through countless mind-boggling scenarios, the vast bulk of which are unlikely to ever happen. Yet I find myself increasingly convinced that science fiction offers a lot that is taken for granted, perhaps even a way out of the vicious poverty cycle.

It can be argued that the world we live in would be a radically different one if not for the incredible amount of science fiction that has been produced since the beginning of the industrial age. This single literary genre has arguably had the greatest effect than other in recent times, literally transforming society by inspiring millions of scientists into brave pursuits of knowledge that span centuries and change the face of humanity forever. That Africa has been least influenced by this tide of scientific fervour is probably the reason why the continent lags behind in technological innovation, currently contributing the least amount of scientific papers to the global pool. I see a direct correlation between the lack of African science fiction and the shortage of African scientists.

Many influential scientists and engineers are drawn into their fields by a vision of the very real possibilities to which they have been exposed in science fiction. They have a clear vision of how their discoveries can have an impact on society, and this knowledge serves to press them on through typically tedious occupations. Science fiction is the simplest and most effective tool we have to mobilize African youth to enter the daunting fields of science and mathematics. More than anything else, it provides a clear vision of what impact individuals can have on the future of their society. The more science fiction is available to inspire African youth, the more engineers, researchers, and technological enthusiasts we will be growing on the continent. If we ever hope to achieve a sustainable level of technological development, there is a huge Africa-shaped hole in the world of science fiction that must first be filled.

There are also artistic reasons to look forward to an African science fiction renaissance. African storytelling tradition contains the very sort of metaphysical themes that science fiction is best equipped to address: themes of identity, self and community, and relationships between generations in time. There is no shortage of inspiration for science fiction within African life today, as the pervasive reach of technological development is being witnessed even by those in the most remote regions of the continent. Aesthetically, science fiction gives the writer power to create landscapes that blur the distinction between the literal and metaphorical interpretations of a story to produce an absolute representation of a complex idea. The writer can freely traverse the continuum of time, placing the present time in its right context by clearly framing it between the future and the past. This freedom could yield invaluable additions to the classics of African literature by tackling critical new issues while opening radical new dimensions to existing ones.

The challenge then lies in just how to go about imagining a future Africa. Transposing a cookie-cutter Western version of the future into an African setting usually results in a laughably implausible construction: the significant socioeconomic rift between our societies usually puts a Western future far beyond the threshold of reality of the African reader and well into in the realms of fantasy. The already tenuous leaps of logic needed to imagine the future of the West begin to unravel as soon they are placed into an African context. The 21st century has seen Africa enter a very interesting position, with growth rates at record levels and poverty on the decline, technological penetration across the continent and Internet presence rising rapidly. There is now a growing need for African futurists to observe and discuss the current trends in development that can be extrapolated into the distant future.

The problem is that the science of futurism tends to be rather unintuitive and based on arbitrary patterns in society. Moore’s Law in computing, created by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, states that the amount of transistors on a computer chip doubles roughly every eighteen months. This law has held for over forty years, and is likely to continue to do so for at least the next five years, after which it will inevitably be replaced by another pattern in the system. With this single pattern having so dramatically altered the face of our planet by reducing the cost of computing, imagine what several new and exciting ones might do in the decades to come. Many lay people might not be able to understand the implications of these trends in society, which is why Africa needs a generation of futurist writers and thinkers; people dedicated to study and extrapolate these trends across the fabric of African society to help create a comprehensive picture of Africa’s future.

In the early eighties, when computer systems were just beginning to blossom, a brand new genre of science fiction was spawned from the zeitgeist. Dubbed cyberpunkiii, the genre was defined by its focus on high tech and low life, and at its forefront was a world transformed by cyberspace and the ripple effects of technology in the digital age. Inspired by the reality of the time, it painted a dark portrait of a dystopian information age, with pollution, corruption, and cyber-crime eating away at the decaying veneer of an advanced civilization. Today I look around my own city; a city bearing the subtle marks of an information society, city centers crawling with smart phones, wireless communication flooding airwaves with ever increasing amounts of data, cyber-crime thriving politely behind every street corner, and I realize that some kind of cyberpunk future has somehow materialized here without my noticing–without anyone’s noticing. For better of for worse, we are living in a world driven by technology, and how we acknowledge and deal with this new reality will affect not only our own lives, but the lives of generations of Africans to come as well.

I believe the future holds a lot of potential for African science fiction, despite all the problems the genre has had in the past. The last few years have seen a number of promising firsts come to light, including District 9, the critically acclaimed 2009 sci-fi thriller by South African Neill Blomkamp, and Pumzi, the 2010 short film by Kenyan Wanuri Kahiu. The 2010 movie Kajolavi by Niyi Akinmolayan is also worth mentioning as a breakthrough Nollywood sci-fi flick. Notable mentions include Ghanaian Kojo Laing’s recent novel Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters, a more unconventional, surrealist treatment of the genre, much like its predecessor Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars. Nnedi Okorafor of Nigeria and Ivor Hartmann of Zimbabwe are among a newer brand of writers adding to the growing body of literature, but there is still plenty of room for even more voices to be heard. I can’t think of a better time than now for a paradigm shift in African media and literature; now, when we have so many possibilities ahead of us, each one as magnificent and frightening and awe-inspiring as the next. Nothing has as much potential to galvanize the African will to survive and thrive like a brand new kind of African dream; a dream with hope grounded in realism and resolve–a dream set fifty years into the future.