In Search of… African Sci-Fi Novels

Jon Gosier —  September 8, 2009 — 10 Comments

I have to admit when I watched this scene from THE MATRIX RELOADED with all the dancing people in Zion, I couldn’t help but wonder if the directors were deliberately trying to nod towards the increasing mixing and diversity of the world’s population and what it would mean for the future. It stood out to me because people often complain about the lack of diversity in the sci-fi genre or how the future is often depicted as being homogeneous with with diverse alien life but not necessarily the same human/cultural diversity we look for now. It’s not a common complaint but I’ve heard it come up…most recently at the Gawker’s IO9 Blog.

Still, I don’t see it as problem, more as a curiosity. The fact the majority of these stories are being created by people who sometimes look-like and live in the same general places as their main characters justifies as much, in my opinion. Why should there be more diversity with the characters if there isn’t more diversity among their creators as well? Still after watching District 9 I couldn’t help but go on a hunt for more scifi set against an African landscape. I started with this discussion on IMDB which revealed that there were indeed a few examples of classic literature, set in Africa, with African protagonists, none of which are actually written by Africans. So let’s start there, with contemporary popular fiction (mainly scifi) about Africa…


Michael Resnick’s KIRINYAGA

My take – Probably one of the best known literary works about Africa from the genre. Obvious religious overtones (“In the beginning…”) and plays with parable and myth in a way that tries really hard to mimic traditional African folklore.

Summary – Kirinyaga: A Fable of Utopia is a science fiction novel published in 1998 by Mike Resnick. It is a series of parables about one man’s attempt to preserve traditional African culture on a terraformed utopia. The prologue and eight chapters of the book were each originally sold as a short story (or novelette or novella, depending on length) but were designed to fit together into a novel that builds to a climax with a coda afterward. The book and its chapters are among the most honored in science fiction history with 67 awards and nominations including 2 Hugo awards. Each section begins with a parable illustrating the relationship between Ngai, the Kikuyu god, and the creatures of the earth. On occasion, it is the narrator that has failed to properly understand the meaning of the story.

Excerpt -

In the beginning, Ngai lived alone atop the mountain called Kirinyaga. In the fullness of time He created three sons, who became the fathers of the Maasai, the Kamba, and the Kikuyu races, and to each son He offered a spear, a bow, and a digging stick. The Maasai chose the spear, and was told to tend herds on the vast savannah. The Kamba chose the bow, and was sent to the dense forests to hunt for game. But Gikuyu, the first Kikuyu, knew that Ngai loved the earth and the seasons, and chose the digging stick. To reward him for this Ngai not only taught him the secrets of the seed and the harvest, but gave him Kirinyaga, with its holy fig tree and rich lands.

Mack Reynold’s BLACK MAN’S BURDEN

My take – Let’s hope the future of the ‘dark continent’ begins with dropping the name ‘dark continent’.

Summary – Reynolds’ novels describe a near-future Africa that has been abandoned by the developed world. With the exception of a few unfunded, below-the-radar humanitarian teams from the Reunited Nations, the people of Africa are on their own—until one of those teams decides to take the reigns of the struggling continent and give it a united government that works. Homer Crawford, an African-American aid worker, rechristens himself “El Hassan” and becomes Africa’s benevolent tyrant. There’s more than a little paternalism in the concept, but you get the sense that Reynolds is aware of the irony of this postcolonial intrusiveness. Ultimately, the idea comes across as a kind of philosopher-king utopianism: it asks, why can’t we just make things work?

Excerpt -

North Africa cannot be united under the banner of Islam if she is going to progress rapidly. If it ever unites, it will be in spite of local religions—Islam and pagan as well; they hold up the wheels of progress.

S.M. Stirling’s THE DOMINATION

My take – Essentially South Africa takes the place of Nazi Germany in this alternate history series.

Summary – The Draka books were written and published shortly after apartheid South Africa succumbed to intensive international pressure and was forced to adapt itself to the rest of the world’s current norms of racial equality. Though Stirling never made an explicit connection in any public statement, what the series clearly depicts is a diametrically opposite scenario – implausible in the view of many critics – whereby a “Super South Africa”, founded upon manifest, utter inequality, eventually succeeds in imposing its own norms on the rest of the world and extinguishing the very concepts of democracy and equality.

Excerpt from Stirling’s Draka series -

To coin a phrase, the 20th century has been the best of times, and the worst of times; the century when smallpox was abolished and the century when a new word, “genocide,” entered the lexicon of politics.

Robert Heinlein’s FARNHAM’S FREEHOLD

My take – The cover calls it ‘science-fiction’s most controversial novel’. I’ve also stumbled across a few less kind choice names for Farnham’s work in my research that I won’t bother repeating. ;-)

Summary – Farnham’s Freehold is a post-apocalyptic tale, as the setup for the story is a direct hit by a nuclear weapon, which sends a fallout shelter containing a man, his wife, son, daughter, daughter’s friend, and black domestic servant into the future. Heinlein drew on his own experience in building a fallout shelter under his own house in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1950.

Both Farnham’s Freehold and Sixth Column, another novel by Heinlein, deal extensively with issues of race, but whereas Sixth Column is perceived as racist by some readers, Farnham’s Freehold depends for its impact on twisting the racial roles: in a future dominated by people of African descent, a culture technologically advanced enough to develop time travel also practices race-based slavery and institutionalized cannibalism.

Excerpt -

Her nerves relaxed, though not her care, as it began to appear that Mr. Farnham found her bidding satisfactory. But she welcomed the rest that came from being dummy. She spent these vacations studying Hubert Farnham.

Henry Rider Haggard’s ALLAN QUATERMAIN and AYESHA series

My take – Okay, these are arguably not science-fiction, but given the time that they were written and the way Africa is ‘romanticized’ as unexplored and untamed, I personally classify them as contemporary romantic fantasy which is close enough to sci-fi for me.

Summary – Haggard is most famous as the author of the novels King Solomon’s Mines and its sequel Allan Quatermain, and She and its sequel Ayesha, swashbuckling adventure novels set in the context of the Scramble for Africa (the action of Ayesha however happens in Tibet). He is also remembered for Nada the Lily (a tale of adventure among the Zulus) and the epic Viking romance, Eric Brighteyes.

While his novels portray many of the stereotypes associated with colonialism, they are unusual for the degree of sympathy with which the native populations are portrayed. Africans often play heroic roles in the novels, although the protagonists are typically, though not invariably, European. Notable examples are the heroic Zulu warrior Umslopagas and Ignosi, the rightful king of Kukuanaland, in King Solomon’s Mines. Having developed an intense mutual friendship with the three Englishmen who help him regain his throne, he accepts their advice and abolishes witch-hunts and arbitrary capital punishment. Three of his novels are written in collaboration with his friend Andrew Lang who shared his interest in the spiritual realm and paranormal phenomena.

Excerpt -

My death is very near to me- and of this I am glad; for I desire to pursue the quest in other realms- as it has been promised to me that I shall do.

Egdar Rice Burroughs TARZAN OF THE APES

My Take – Like Haggard, Burroughs romanticizes the adventure of Africa more than it speculates on it’s future. Still, for a book where a human baby is discovered by wild apes and not subsequently torn into tasty cutlets…I think I have some liberties with the classification. This is the classic tale of a boy raised by apes. I was surprised to find out Tarzan means ‘white skin’ in the ape language of the book. I like to imagine that the book was really close to being named Mzungu of the Monkeys!

Summary – The novel tells the story of John Clayton, born in the western coastal jungles of equatorial Africa to a marooned couple from England, John and Alice (Rutherford) Clayton, Lord and Lady Greystoke. Adopted as an infant by the she-ape Kala after his parents died (his father is killed by the savage king ape Kerchak), Clayton is named “Tarzan” and raised in ignorance of his human heritage. Feeling alienated from his peers due to their physical differences, he discovers his true parents’ cabin, where he first learns of others like himself in their books, with which he eventually teaches himself to read. On his return from one visit to the cabin, he is attacked by a huge gorilla which he manages to kill with his father’s knife, although he is terribly wounded in the struggle. As he grows up, Tarzan becomes a skilled hunter, exciting the jealousy of Kerchak, the ape leader, who finally attacks him. Tarzan kills Kerchak and takes his place as “king” of the apes.

Excerpt -

The sight which met his eyes confirmed his worst fears. Facing the little knot of officers was the entire motley crew of the Fuwalda, and at their head stood Black Michael.

Disclaimer. The descriptions and summaries of each book is lifted mostly from Wikipedia or the publisher websites. I haven’t linked the sources because it’s easy enough for you to just look up the articles yourself.

Jon Gosier

Posts

Founder of Apps4Africa, Appfrica, and D8A

10 responses to In Search of… African Sci-Fi Novels

  1. 

    Hi,

    here are a few sci-fi novels by African American authors that are set in Africa:

    Pauline Hopkins-Of One Blood
    Tananarive Due: Blood Colony, My Soul to Keep, Living Blood
    Steven Barnes: Zulu Heart, Lion’s Blood, etc.
    Octavia Butler: Wildseed
    Charles Saunders: Imaro Series

  2. 

    If I may point out some other African science fiction novels I've written:

    IVORY: A LEGEND OF PAST AND FUTURE, having to do with the myths and mystic power emvbedded in the tusks of the Kilimanjaro Elephant. (Originally from Tor, a Nebula and Clarke nominee; currently available from Pyr.)

    PARADISE: A CHRONICLE OF A DISTANT WORLD. A science-fictional allegorical history of Kenya.(Originally from Tor; now available in an omnibus volume titled THE GALACTIC COMEDY from Farthest Star.)

    PURGATORY: A CHRONICLE OF A DISTANT WORLD. A science-fictional allegorical history of Zimbabwe. .(Originally from Tor; now available in an omnibus volume titled THE GALACTIC COMEDY from Farthest Star.)

    INFERNO: A CHRONICLE OF A DISTANT WORLD. A science-fictional allegorical history of Uganda. .(Originally from Tor; now available in an omnibus volume titled THE GALACTIC COMEDY from Farthest Star.)

    A HUNGER IN THE SOUL. A science-fictional allegorical biography of Stanley and Livingstone. (Originally from Tor; currently out of print.)

    — Mike (not Michael) Resnick

  3. 

    If you'd like to add the often coupled fantasy genre to this discussion, there is Charles Saunders, whose Imaro series is set in a fictional Africa. Steven Barnes also has books I believe set in a fictional Africa, or that at least feature African people – Lion Heat for example.

  4. 

    For more on Tarzan and Edgar Rice Burroughs see:
    http://www.tarzan.com
    http://www.tarzan.org
    http://www.edgarriceburroughs.ca

    Bill Hillman
    Editor and Webmaster for the
    Edgar Rice Burroughs Tribute Websites and Webzines
    http://www.ERBzine.com

  5. 

    Don't know about novels but there's a Sci-Fi film made in Cameroon called Les Saignantes set in the year 2025:
    http://www.africanfilmlibrary.com/play.aspx?Video

  6. 

    Hi there. South Africa also has a tradition of local sci-fi story telling, including the recent District 9 movie (http://www.district9movie.com) that has been well received in the US and elsewhere & which deals with xenophobia, amongst other issues.

    A sci-fi book with a West African book worth mentioning, even though written by a British journalist (who has been based in African for yrs) is HOMUNCULUS about bio-robots in Sierra-Leon .The link is http://bit.ly/prio5

  7. 

    Be sure to visit the Black Science Fiction Society, the Carl Brandon Society, and the African American Science Fiction website for speculative fiction books by recent Black authors. http://www.blacksciencefictionsociety.com/ http://www.carlbrandon.org/ http://africanamericansciencefiction.com/ http://wagadu.ning.com/

  8. 

    Not a book, but there’s a great African sci-fi short film from Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu called Pumzi- screened at Sundance 2010. I’ve heard they’re making it a feature.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s