Pregnant with raw potential

2012-11-18 10:00

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African SF writers boldly go where others have gone before, but it is great for development, writes Charles Cilliers

Anthology collections of science fiction (SF) by exclusively African writers are about as rare as four-lane intercity freeways in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

But in this collection, edited by Ivor W Hartmann, there are not only highways in the DRC, but spaceports too.

These stories are almost invariably grim, dealing with futures that very few of us would probably want to survive long enough to see.

Technology and progress in this collection seem inevitably to corrupt society and the planet.

Strange monsters mutate from pollution, superdiseases take frightening forms, people are “culled” because the world is too overpopulated, other planets are colonised because this one’s a wreck, aliens are out to kill us and even heavenly angels are viciously genocidal.

In most of these tales, the apocalypse is just another backdrop. Sadly, a lot of it has been explored a million times before in SF.

When a great SF story works, it’s like nothing else in literature. It can encompass and transcend the greatest works of “standard” fiction because it offers a well-realised vision of a world that could exist, or perhaps shouldn’t.

A great SF writer helps to expand the questing reader’s mind to see the infinite possibilities of a universe and a human existence that is ultimately still a mystery. Sure, it can be “dark”, but it doesn’t have to be.

Unfortunately, when you’re reading SF that recycles formulas, ideas and moods that have been translated to TV shows and movies, the novelty that some of these stories take place in Lagos, Kinshasa or Cape Town, or that people say “Heita”, is not entirely novel to keep the interest going for a collection of 20 stories almost 400 pages long.

But it has several highlights and it’s a fantastic project to get more young African writers breaking into a field that is horribly underdeveloped on the continent.

This first anthology is basically testament to that underdevelopment, but it also shows glimpses of real talent – perhaps half a dozen of these stories are good enough to be published anywhere.

If the volumes keep coming, the great stories will eventually outnumber the merely competent ones.

The Sarah Lotzes and Lauren Beukeses all had to start somewhere, and a passionate and interested editor, which Hartmann seems to be, could eventually build a pool of brilliant speculative authors from the continent, much as John W Campbell helped to create the golden age of SF in the US in the 1950s.

Britain’s most successful modern writer of SF, Iain M Banks, admitted a couple of years ago that as he gets older, he worries that his sense of inventiveness will start to dry up and once it does, he may as well just stick to writing regular fiction because in SF it isn’t enough to just tell, or retell, a good story.

You need to add something no one has thought of before, or write about it in a way no one has before.

Young writers often love the thrill of letting their minds go wild in the realm of genre fiction, so it’s no surprise the majority of these stories are from young writers, some of whom have been published for the first time in this volume.

Hopefully, in volumes to come, it won’t feel as if you’re reading fan-fiction based on the Firefly series, the Matrix movies or something inspired by the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens.

But it’s a start. Let’s hope it doesn’t end with this.

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