By Wole Talabi
I don’t think any group of writers are called upon to justify and defend the existence of their work as often as science fiction and fantasy writers are. If you search online, you will find hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of essays and articles explaining with varying degrees of passion and eloquence, why the science fiction and fantasy genres (and indeed all the sub-genres that make up the continuum of the fantastic) are important, have literary merit, possess value. Well, as you may have guessed from the title, this is another one of those essays, but specifically for science fiction and for Africans – because Africa needs us to not just read, but create more science fiction.
Let me explain why.
Today, Africa is considered to be technologically underdeveloped1. We consume technology from other parts of the world, of course, but how many original, paradigm-shifting scientific and technological ideas originate from the African continent? Not many2. One could get into a lot of historical, political and sociological back and forth about why that is, but in the end what matters is – it is.
So what can we do about it? A lot. For example: we can try to increase literacy and improve the quality of education on the continent (there are already several initiatives such as the Literate Africa Project and UNESCO’s efforts), we can demand better governance from our leaders, and we can inspire the coming generations to aspire to a better Africa than we currently have. That last point is where I believe African science fiction can and should contribute significantly.
My father was a chemical engineer and my mother had a degree in English language and literature so one could argue that I was sort of genetically predisposed to enjoy science fiction. I watched Star Wars and Star Trek and Terminator and the other big sci-fi blockbusters. I also read encyclopaedias and classic English literature. I read Enid Blyton’s children’s stories and Ikebe Super’s raunchy comedies. I read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels and Frederick Forsyth’s political thrillers. I read Homer and H.G. Wells. But it wasn’t until I stumbled onto Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series that I became a ‘true’ science fiction fan.
Asimov’s story of Hari Seldon’s fictional new science of psychohistory – using mathematical models to predict the future of his galactic empire – inspired me beyond anything I’d read before it. It presented ideas of mathematics as a tool, a language for predicting things: flowrates, atomic radii, temperatures, planetary orbits, even human behaviour – given a good enough model. And not just that, but it did so in a highly entertaining way. Asimov’s Foundation played a big part in my decision to study engineering. And it seems I am not alone.
I conducted a small poll on Science Fiction and Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) careers for Africans or people of African descent3 in early 2015. It had a relatively small sample size and certainly did not provide enough data to draw any sweeping conclusions from but I believe it is representative enough to be used as supporting evidence in making an argument.
Two of the questions asked were: “Did you read Science Fiction while growing up?” and “Do you believe science fiction had/has any influence on your career/study choice?” When the number of respondents who answered “yes” to these questions was tallied, these were the results:
Fifty-six percent (56%) of people who read science fiction as children believe it influenced their decision to enter a STEMM field. Why is this important? Well, for one, STEMM careers are strongly linked to global economic competitiveness and growth. Many of us living in this wonderful digital age understand that the future of any nation depends heavily on science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine in order to address the many challenges that are and are to come. Science fiction can contribute to this effort.
Now, I’m not saying that the purpose of science fiction is to drive development. Far from it. Science fiction is, first and foremost, literature and its utility should be measured on the same scale as any other literary or artistic endeavour. I’m simply saying that science fiction, beyond its literary merits, can – and perhaps even should – be used in promoting, popularizing and inspiring science and technology development.
To support this, I’ll relay an anecdote that one of my favourite authors – Neil Gaiman4 – once told regarding his trip to China in 2007. He went to attend the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. Until recently, science fiction had been disapproved of in China so at one point he took a top official aside and asked him what had changed. Why was the government suddenly in favour of science fiction?
The official told Neil that the Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But on a large scale, many of them did not innovate or invent. They did not imagine. So the Chinese sent a delegation to tech giants like Apple, Microsoft and Google, and they asked the people there about themselves. They found that all of them had read science fiction when they were children.
In fact, there was a significant increase in China’s GDP per capita growth around 2005 – approximately 15 years after the first significant revival and popularization of science fiction literature in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Consider the red line and the change in slope shown on the chart below.
Fifteen years is just about enough time for the children and teenagers who read those revived science fiction magazines in the early 1990s to enter the workforce as young 20- and30-somethings. Then, armed with an appreciation for science and technology potentially nurtured by science fiction, they would begin to take advantage of the opportunities and technology available in their rapidly-changing country.
I present this without any claim of causality, I just find it interesting to note because one could argue that African science fiction seems to be undergoing a slow but certain revival5 of its own. Perhaps we can check back in 15 to 20 years to see if we have a similar increase in economic growth rate.
Another interesting result from the poll I conducted is that Africans already seem to know the importance of science fiction. When asked if they believe science fiction is useful to people in STEMM careers, 84 percent of all respondents, including those who said they had never read science fiction before and were never influenced by it, answered “yes.” When responses were restricted to only those currently living in Africa right now, it was even higher at 92 percent. And when they were restricted to only those who read science fiction as children, or who read science fiction now, that percentage spiked to a solid 100 percent. This from people across a fairly broad range of STEMM careers.
So if everyone more or less agrees that science fiction is important for inspiring people to STEMM careers, which in turn have tangible impacts on economic and technological growth, why aren’t there more African science fiction movies, novels, magazines, and conventions? Where is the critical science fiction eco-system of writers, scientists, directors, engineers, editors, and futurists interacting with and learning from each other?
Well, from where I stand, it’s coming. The Goethe Institute recently organised the African Futures6 festival in three cities across the continent – Lagos, Nairobi and Johannesburg. Slowly but surely, it’s coming. We are just currently distracted by foreign science fiction. We are consuming it as entertainment without considering the positive impact it could have on us as a society if we turned inward and also created our own.
Just last year, according to Box Office Mojo7, four of the top 10 highest-grossing movies in Nigeria were classified as sci-fi. That number is six in Egypt and five in South Africa. I don’t have similar numbers on books, but I don’t think it would be too different. That tells you Africans are no more averse to sci-fi stories than the rest of the world.
The problem may be, as I stated earlier, that we predominantly consume western iterations of the genre without thought of our own. This is something that author Tade Thompson touches on in the Q and A session between AfroSF contributors and students of Maria Barraza’s World Literature 202 class at Simon Fraser University8 when he says “Our folk tales, our proverbs, our art, our culture, all of it has science fictional elements. We have just been trained to only see a certain kind of science fiction which is mainly of Western origin.” Dilman Dila’s story How My Father Became a God in Terra Incognita is an modern example of this kind of science fiction reclamation and creation.
In talking with Nnedi Okoroafor9 a few years ago, film director Tchidi Chikere said that “Africans are bothered about roads, electricity, water wars, famine, etc., not spacecraft and spaceships,” and that “only stories that explore these everyday realities are considered relevant to us, for now.” He had a point, but only when viewed through a certain lens. Science fiction is much more than spaceships and aliens. We can use science fiction to imagine our way out of these everyday realities. We can use science fiction to inspire our children beyond them.
We have been conditioned to only see a certain kind of science fiction – that from, or endorsed by, the West – and we disregard our own10.. Part of the problem, I think, is that it’s not a question of interest but of not believing in our own traditional sciences and our ability to extrapolate from them11. It’s not believing in our ability to use science in the unique ways Africans need it, not believing in our own ability to create a strange and wonderful future, not believing in our own ideas.
We need to read stories about Africans making a difference through science. We need to read about Africans leading international teams to terraform Mars. We need to read about An African doctor who combines rigorous scientific analysis with previously ignored traditional medicine to cure cancer. We need to read about the coming African technological renaissance and the kinds of technology that could drive it. We need to read about dystopian Africas so we can ask ourselves: is this really where we want to end up? We need to be able to imagine the future before we can begin to create it.
There is a great symbiosis I have observed in many parts of the world between science fiction and scientists or people in technology. Many of the people who read science fiction are scientists or engineers. They are entertained by it. They are inspired by it12. They also write it. It keeps their interest in and sense of wonder about science and technology alive. They take the ideas they have and spin stories out of them. They also use it to train themselves to think out of the box. Then they try to make these ideas real. It shapes the way they view the possibilities in the world.
This is a thing that should happen naturally in Africa too. Right now though, how many original science fiction stories are written in or about Africa? Not many. When asked who their favourite science fiction writer was in my poll, no respondent mentioned an African writer, and to be honest, neither did I. The hope is that in a few years, we will be able to. Not just because they are African but because they imagine genuinely amazing futures for Africa and the rest of the world. That’s the future I imagine. Now, let’s see if we can create it together.
- “Science and Technology Collaboration: Building Capacity in Developing Countries?” Prepared for the World Bank by RAND Science and Technology. (2001) http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monograph_reports/2005/MR1357.0.pdf
- Africa produces just 1.1% of global scientific knowledge – but change is coming – The Guardian (2015) http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/oct/26/africa-produces-just-11-of-global-scientific-knowledge?CMP=twt_gu
- Poll: Science Fiction and STEMM careers (2015) https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1R3S_EW_uqSPuc71YKF6wRORDF9Kg6DIFZlycUGCAuJM/viewform
- Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming (2013) http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming
- Academia and The Advance of African Science Fiction by Nick Wood. Omenana #2 (2015) http://omenana.com/2015/03/05/academia-and-the-advance-of-african-science-fiction/
- African Futures (2015) http://www.goethe.de/ins/za/en/joh/ver.cfm?fuseaction=events.detail&event_id=20607503
- Beyond the UK and US: what films are top of the box office for the rest of the world? The Guardian. (2014) http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2014/nov/25/beyond-the-uk-and-us-what-films-is-the-rest-of-the-world-watching
- Q and A: AfroSF Contributors On Science Fiction In Africa. Omenana #3 (2015) http://omenana.com/2015/06/22/q-and-a-afrosf-contributors-on-science-fiction-in-africa/
- African Science Fiction is Still Alien By Nnedi Okorafor (2014) http://nnedi.blogspot.my/2014/01/african-science-fiction-is-still-alien.html
- Is Science Fiction Really Alien to Africa? By Dilman Dila http://www.dilmandila.com/2015/07/science-fiction-literature-africa-sff.html
- Can Science Fiction Inspire Technological Independence in Africa? By Dilman Dila http://www.dilmandila.com/2015/04/science-fiction-inspire-africa.html
- Did Science Fiction Influence You? A report by Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society https://www.sigmaxi.org/about/donate/did-science-fiction-influence-you