Wednesday, November 28, 2012

AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers #review

Title: AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers
Edited by: Ivor W Hartmann
Publisher: StoryTime, December 2012

It’s always gratifying to see literary offerings that give genre fiction’s upcoming talents more exposure; of all the continents, Africa presents us with a very different lens with which to view the world—especially refreshing for those of us who’ve grown up with a US- or UK-centric world view.

The AfroSF anthology brings together a broad cross-section of writing, ranging from first-timers to seasoned African writers, with tales ranging from stark, dystopian futures to rollicking space operas. There’s a little bit of everything here, for sure.

Moom! by Nnedi Okorafor tells of the natural world’s revolt against mankind’s oppression, from the perspective of a marlin or swordfish (from what I gather). Okorafor’s descriptions are quite lyrical, and I could clearly picture events as they transpired.

Sarah Lotz never disappoints, and Home Affairs strikes a chord with anyone who’s ever had to deal with bureaucratic queues – hell on earth doesn’t even begin to describe it. As always, Lotz offers her signature brand of black humour and a tale that one hopes will never step from the realms of fiction into the real world.

Five Sets of Hands by Cristy Zinn takes us to Mars, where one race has enslaved another, digging for ancient artefacts in the dirt. Zinn comments on slavery and lives that are outcast and untouchable. This is also a touching story of courage, and an individual acting to bring about change in the face of injustice.

A theme that recurs in a number of stories is that of pharmaceutical corporations holding society to ransom. New Mzansi by Ashley Jacobs is one such, delivering a dystopian vision of a possible future that might already be unfolding. This is a discomforting read.

As always, Nick Wood delivers a treat. He is a master of evoking environment, and the complex relationships between people, place and history. Azania takes us with an expeditionary crew travelling from Earth to a new planet, and the complications they face, cut off from their past by time and space.

Notes from Gethsemane by Tade Thompson plays on the horrors of biological warfare as the main characters find themselves affected by the malevolent and mysterious Pit. I felt as though I wanted a bit more of a punch from this story, but its ending was nonetheless suitably discomforting.

The aliens are coming, and they aren’t all friendly. SA Partridge draws on popular culture’s fascination with UFO lore in Planet X and gives us a possible reaction to an alien invasion that is uniquely South Africa. In doing so, she comments on our own notions of xenophobia.

Lovers of Star Wars and Firefly-esque SF will no doubt perk up and enjoy Chinelo Onwualu’s The Gift of Touch. This is space opera territory, and it’s sufficient just to sit back and enjoy the ride. Some lovely one-liners are passed between characters (“It’s a very big gun” is a classic example.)

The Foreigner by Uko Bendi Udo returns to xenophobia and cultural identity. I feel this story could have been developed further and needed a bit more voema, although it has a great premise.

Warfare is never pretty, and it’s perhaps even more horrific when the opponent is inexplicable. Dave de Burgh’s Angel Song drops readers directly in the thick of conflict and offers a hopeless struggle. The tension in this tale is unrelenting, crisp and well executed.

Biram Mboob examines possible conflict between Africa and the Orient in The Rare Earth. Traditional African culture transform modern technology. I wasn’t sure what to make of this story, to be honest, and am tempted to wonder whether the author couldn’t have pushed the story a bit more.

Terms & Conditions Apply by Sally-Ann Murray is another tale offering pharmaceutical companies in the role of antagonist. Although the writing is crisp, I didn’t take to the premise.

In Heresy, Mandisi Nkomo takes a sly, humorous stab at South Africa’s political climate. I don’t want to give too much away, so I’m not going to go into details, but if you’ve ever been frustrated with our politics, past and present, this story will resonate with you.

The opening line of Closing Time by Liam Kruger pretty much sums up the story: “I drew the connection between alcohol and time travel pretty late in the game, all told.” This nasty little tale will leave you scratchy behind the eyes. Kruger’s worth looking out for.

Masquerade Stories by Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu touches on traditional African values vs. modernity, and the possible conflicts that ensue. This is an engaging tale, and I honestly did not expect how it would conclude.

Joan De La Haye’s The Trial is a claustrophobic glimpse into a dystopian future we do not want to consider, where the government has the power to cull the population. She asks what makes a person valuable, and it’s easy to see a little of ourselves in her narrator.

Brandy City by Mia Arderne sees society descend to a form of indentured servitude supported by a dop system. Characters’ lives are miserable, and even those who have the means to pull themselves out of the mire are themselves prisoners.

Ofe! By Rafeeat Aliyu changes the tone to a futuristic thriller, where two unlikely allies must work together to outfox the schemes of a scientist who has sinister intentions. It’s an enjoyable, fast-paced read and although the ending could have been more dynamic.

Martin Stokes delivers commentary on the issues of poaching of wildlife vs. supply and demand in Claws and Savages. The story is a straight-up revenge drama, painted in visceral, graphic detail.

To Gaze at the Sun by Clifton Gachagua examines how the patterns of humanity’s sense of obligations, of parenthood and the relationship between children and their parents balanced by our need to conform to society’s expectations – another discomforting read.

Proposition 23 by Efe Okogu is a novelette that quite clearly references William Gibson’s Neuromancer and The Matrix. The author keeps readers constantly off guard, and touches on the concepts of terrorism, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. This story is also a suitably impactful ending for the anthology.

While I feel that some of the stories in this anthology are clearly stronger than others, I still recommend this collection to anyone who has a love of Africa, or a deep, abiding curiosity to encounter writing in the SF genre by Africans. Hartmann has selected a diversity of tales here, some of which will remain with me for a while.

Having recently read a collection of classic SF novels, I found this collection to be especially pertinent, particularly in the light of how our relationship with technology has changed since the mid-1950s. Those early writers certainly hadn’t envisioned hwo social media would shape our way of interacting with others, and what’s certain is that we face many further developments. Importantly, some of the stories in this collection highlight such issues as privacy and individuality, and how we are, as a society, giving away our freedom in an era where it is easy to fall under the illusion that we have more freedom than ever.

Many of the stories also initiate a dialogue with readers about what it means to be African, in a society where there is often conflict related to a clash of traditional values vs. the West. Africa’s people are not a homogenous nation. We bear the scars of slavery and colonialism. How we move ahead into the future and what we make of all the opportunities presented to us, is another matter.

May it be so that some of the realities portrayed in this collection never come to pass.

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