Race, Speculative Fiction and Afro SF

by Chinelo Onwualu

Speculative fiction has been mired in controversy over race in recent months but missing from the conversation has been the reality that the genre has never been the province of 'the West' alone.

First published: 16 June, 2015 | Category: Culture

The field of speculative fiction, broadly defined as horror, science fiction, fantasy and ‘weird’ fiction, in North America is in crisis. It is currently facing backlash from groups of angry (mostly) white men from the ideological right who are raging against a perceived loss of power and privilege. Their latest attack has been aimed at the heart of the genre itself and is poised to do enormous damage. However, such anger loses sight of a larger reality: that speculative fiction has never been the province of white men alone. Aware of, but not informed by the storms of controversy, speculative fiction in Africa is growing into a weird twisted shape all of its own.

The latest controversy was sparked by the actions of a group of writers and readers who call themselves the Sad Puppies. They managed to unduly influence the Hugos, one the genre’s most prestigious awards, and fill its nomination slate with writers from their own small fan community. As Hugo Award-winner Kameron Hurley makes clear, this is not unusual for the Hugos. Its ballot system is such that a concerted effort can sway nominations one way or another. However the Sad Puppies seem to believe diversification of the genre, which today features more works by women, people of colour, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and non-Western writers, is a dangerous takeover by left-wing ideologues that they must stop at all costs.

According to Brad R. Torgerson, one of the leading voices of the movement, the stories of triumph and conquest which drew fans initially have been replaced with poor imitations:

A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds...

…These days, you can’t be sure.

The book has a spaceship on the cover, but is it really going to be a story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do? Or is the story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings?

There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land?

… Which is not to say you can’t make a good SF/F book about racism, or sexism, or gender issues, or sex, or whatever other close-to-home topic you want. But for Pete’s sake, why did we think it was a good idea to put these things so much on permanent display, that the stuff which originally made the field attractive in the first place — To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before! — is pushed to the side? Or even absent altogether?

While this may look like a one-off problem in one isolated corner of genre fandom, the Sad Puppies are symptomatic of a deeper issue in America and in many other Western countries. When I look at the Sad Puppies, I am reminded of Gamergate, the violent misogynistic backlash against women in video games. I also see parallels in the brutal waves of state-sanctioned murders of black people across the United States by police. These acts are often vigorously defended by “rational” voices insisting that we “wait for all the facts” or calls to examine the possible culpability of the victims.

These movements and cries are often led by white men filled with rage at a world that often looks browner than they would like and is somehow withholding the entitlements – power, impunity and the assurances of easy superiority – that they were promised all their lives. Arthur Chu notes that this anger is based more on personal feeling and perception than any kind of empirical truth. When we look at those who wield the most power in the world, those who can most easily see themselves represented in media, those most likely to be given the benefit of the doubt, it is white men.

In the West at least, speculative fiction has struggled with the burden of the racist and sexist societies from which it emerged. A genre that coalesced around art that explored the unknown, speculating about the future and the past, imagining all the what-ifs, often failed spectacularly in clearing the hurdles of its own present prejudices. For example, Star Trek: The Original Series was forced to recast its first officer from a character played by a woman to a character played by a white man before it was allowed to air.

Today that is not the case. As the genre expands to cater to more voices, the worlds that are being created are more nuanced, more diverse. They challenge ideas about who are the good guys and who are the bad. They explicitly deal with the underlying assumptions about who is supposed to be in charge and why. For instance, Kai Ashante Wilson’s Devil in America takes the trope of the devil’s bargain and radically re-imagines it. By featuring a narrator who is a young black girl and setting it in the Antebellum South, it becomes a searing indictment of racial violence in the United States.

This has enraged the groups who once saw the genre as their exclusive domain. These groups see themselves as underdogs fighting against literary, political and religious discrimination by nefarious ‘Social Justice Warriors.’ This term was first coined as a pejorative to describe people who would “engage in arguments on social justice on the internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way, for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation.” It was taken up by right-wing ideologues to describe activists who lobby for greater inclusiveness, mostly in genre and fan spaces. To many of those at the vanguard of the backlash, SJWs are powerful arbiters of social taste who control the media and are stamping out the right to free speech and liberty of those who do not conform to their narrow politically correct worldviews.

As Larry Correia, the author who started the Sad Puppies campaign put it in his description of his first Hugo Awards ceremony:

…I discovered that the Hugo Awards were like one great big In Joke. And the cool kids told their cool stories to the other cool kids, and lorded it over those who weren’t part of the In Joke. Honestly, it reminded me of high school, and I was the poor fat kid who had inadvertently pissed off the mean girls.

He goes on to explain that:

I launched the Sad Puppies campaign with the idea that if I could get authors with the wrong politics onto the Hugo ballot, I could prove to the world that the Hugos were in fact what you are all now admitting that they are. (Mission accomplished) Plus I wanted to expose that the perpetually outraged crowd would react with vehemence, vitriol, lies, and career sabotage, so that the world could see that our genre is overrun with bitter culture warriors who have politicized everything, and that if you had the wrong politics they would do everything in their power to destroy you (mission accomplished beyond my wildest dreams).

But the truth is that the Sad Puppies are not the underdogs. They are actually the ones with the power and they are using it to wreak incalculable damage as they seek to re-assert their supremacy. As Arthur Chu points out in his essay on reactionary rage:

I’m scared of the people who do hold cultural power, who have the loud voice, who are, in fact the cool kids, but think that they’re embattled underdogs. I’m scared of people who think that because disco was ‘taking over their music’ they had the right to ‘fight back’ bullying and attacking disco performers and fans. … I am afraid of the angry privileged white man protecting what he does have. The guy who thinks himself ‘normal’ and speaking up for all the ‘normal’ people like him, the guy who’s fighting to defend his ‘way of life’ from the different and the strange.

Return to the Old Ways

Contrary to the loud complaints of the Sad Puppies, the addition of new voices isn’t a warping of the genre. It’s a return to what stories have always been: a way to make sense of our world and our place in it.

For most of human history, stories of magic and gods and monsters were the norm. Storytellers used the medium to wonder “what if?” What might a man find if he entered into the forbidden forest of demons? What might happen to a woman who, in spurning all her earthly suitors, ended up marrying a god?

If we want to be honest, the idea of speculative fiction as a separate genre is itself a rather recent one, and certainly not universal. Speculative fiction, at least in the narrow way we understand it today, arose because as societies in the West spurned idea of the pervasive supernatural in favour of the strictly scientific, they left a gap in the imagination which stories rushed to fill.  

Benjamin Breen in his exploration of the New Age movement explains:

In his now-classic book Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), the Oxford University historian Keith Thomas framed religion and magic as antagonistic social forces. In his view, when early modern Protestant and Catholic religious leaders persecuted witches, they were effectively trying to eliminate their competition as explainers of the unexplainable. In this, they largely succeeded. Because representatives of institutionalised religion had ‘all the resources of organised political power’ on their side, they were able to force magical practitioners into the shadows: ‘Magic had no Church, no communion symbolising the unity of believers,’ Thomas writes. ‘The official religion of industrial England was one from which the primitive “magical” elements had been very largely shorn.’ In the process of this rejection of supernatural explanations, post-Enlightenment religious beliefs became increasingly standardised and grounded in the concept of natural laws that it was within the ability of human minds to fathom.

Breen argues that the thread that binds together various New Age movements is that they “represent a resurgence of magical beliefs in a modern world supposedly stripped of them.” I am inclined to agree. It is no coincidence that the earliest writers of speculative fiction, such as Mary Shelley whose book Frankenstein is widely believed to be the first in the genre, were practitioners of Mysticism.

However, for many in my part of the world, the idea of magic as separate from reality never really took hold and thus never really left our stories. In African literature what came to be a dual consciousness sprung up. In the stories we told to the West we took care to leave out the references to spirit children and family curses. We focused on grim realities and used the medium to critique colonialism and the brutalities and excesses of our emerging post-colonial and neo-colonial political systems instead. When we did mention magic we were careful to couch it in terms of traditional religions, the belief in which was either a sign of backwardness or of rebellion, but never to pretend that we ourselves believed in it. But in the stories we told to each other, we knew that some people had the power to change into animals. We knew to be careful of women who seemed too beautiful to be true. And it was just plain good sense not to pick up money or food at a crossroad at twilight.

Speculative fiction, science fiction in particular, has had little appeal to African audiences. For one thing, it was not written with us in mind. Writer Nnedi Okorafor noted in her essay “African Science Fiction is Still Alien” that “few science fiction classics and contemporary works feature main characters of African descent, African mythologies, African locales, or address issues endemic to Africa. And, until recently, next to none were written by African writers.”

In addition, they reflected anxieties and concerns far different from our own. In societies far more concerned with “real” problems like bad roads, corruption, refugees, militants, food shortages, poor electricity, water wars and famine, stories about robots just seem fanciful and irrelevant. In another of her essays, Okorafor quotes Naunihal Singh, a professor at Notre Dame University who put it succinctly: “Bring the Terminator to West Africa, and he’d stop running in a day. He’d sit there and glitch. It’ll be hard to make people afraid of a future where computers take over the world when they can’t manage to keep the computers on their desk running. These are very western stories.”

Today however, things are changing. We are in an era in African literature where we are beginning to value the stories we have always told each other. The ones we created away from the eyes of Western audiences. These stories, in which magic is as natural as breathing, are now being used to grapple with the nature of urbanisation, technology and the social upheaval of changing gender roles. They can sometimes break the “rules” of linearity and characterisation, but they are vibrant and optimistic – and above all, they are uniquely ours.

Toyin Agbetu, a Nigerian-British activist and co-curator of the recent “Africa in Science Fiction” conference at London’s Southbank Centre pointed out that:

African sci-fi literature often differs from Eurocentric visions of the future in that it often normalises spiritual beliefs alongside often contrary views on what is regarded as technological development… Indeed technological progression is in many cases actually depicted in terms of reversions (note, not revisions) with ‘back to traditional’ means of operations that reflect familiar ideas and cultural concepts that were bulldozered by colonial era ideological constructs.

Nigerian poet and author Ben Okri agreed, seeing an African spiritual consciousness at the very core of the technological revolution. Speaking at the 2011 Storymoja Hay festival in Nairobi he noted that:

The Internet is not new to African thinking. It follows the same linkages as what we know — the idea that you can communicate with someone who is not physically present with you, whether it is the spirits or the ancestors, has always been there.

Far from the Madding Crowd

I only came into the online world of speculative fiction a few years ago and already I am tired. Perhaps it is the result of the outrage culture of the internet where the slightest divisions are parlayed into epic battles where each person is pressured to take a side. I just know that I am tired of having to unfriend and unfollow people I once admired in the wake of the latest controversy, whether it’s Racefail ’09 or the mystery of Benjanun Sriduangkaew. And except for sites like io9.com, I simply don’t read the comments for fear of encountering some casually racist comment that still has the power to cut me to the bone. Great stories are still being told, but it can sometimes be exhausting trying to wade through the vitriol to get to them.

I don’t think something you love should make you feel drained and bruised at the end of the day. So I’m starting to tune out. I have made the emerging and reinterpreted genre of African Speculative fiction (Afro-SF) my refuge. Granted Afro-SF has its issues: most of the genre is still dominated by white southern Africans, it can sometimes be plagued by unexamined racial, sexual and gender biases and frankly, I would like to see more African women stepping up to add their voices, but overall, it just feels less fraught. For the most part, African speculative storytelling lacks the defensive anger that comes from having to prove itself worthy against an arbitrary standard. There are no rules – as yet – about whose voice counts as legitimate. Also it largely avoids the unexamined privilege of a colonialist narrative that assumes that somehow the traditions and beliefs of the world are its own to mine as it pleases.

I realise that many writers within the genre who are women, people of colour, LGBTQ and other minorities don’t have this luxury of distance. They are forced to constantly remain on the frontlines battling the peddlers of hate just to prove they should be allowed to enjoy what they enjoy. My heart goes out to them. They’ve been doing this for far longer than I have and they boast a strength of purpose I deeply admire. To them, I can only give my support and exhort them to remain resolute. The arc of the universe bends in your favour, or as Arthur Chu put it: “Diversity always wins.”

The angry white men of Gamergate and the Sad and Rabid Puppies can rant and rage. They are a powerful voice with all the resources of power and privilege behind them, and they can inflict enormous damage in the short run, but ultimately they will lose. They will lose because the world is bigger and far, far more complex than they can ever hope to understand.

In the meantime, I invite my fellow Social Justice Warriors to my corner of the world anytime they need a break. A good start would be to check out YouTube where a number of African filmmakers have been creating speculative short films and series. Watch Pumzi, directed by Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu that explores a dystopian future where the world is a desert after a worldwide Water War, or the Nigerian sci-fi short, The Day They Came.  Online, the writers collective Jalada have published a speculative fiction edition titled Afrofutures. Last year fellow writer Mazi Nwosu and I began Omenana, a bi-monthly magazine of speculative fiction. The more literary can check out Dr. Satan’s Echo Chamber, the 2008 volume of the African literary journal Chimurenga dedicated to speculative fiction and the 25th volume of the journal Paradoxa, also dedicated to Afro-SF. Other books to look out for include Lagos 2060, an anthology of stories about a future Lagos, AfroSF, the first anthology of science fiction by African writers and Terra Incognita, a collection of African speculative fiction published this year.

There are many more books and sites out there. Who knows, maybe you’ll find, as I did, something you like, something to incorporate into your own work, something to make it all worthwhile.

Chinelo Onwualu is a writer, editor and journalist living in Abuja, Nigeria. She is editor and co-founder of Omenana.com, a magazine of African speculative fiction. Follow her on twitter @chineloonwualu.

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