What I learned in Malawi was this.
African SFF owes almost nothing to Western science fiction.
Yes, they have been able to see some Japanese animation; yes, the full range of derivative SF cinema—Spiderman and Lord of the Rings —is available to them. But major writing influences are more likely to be Enid Blyton than classic science fiction. Sure, Harry Potter is widely available. But much more than any of those, traditional local tales and beliefs inspire their writing.
What is utterly missing in their influences is what used to be thought of as the great SF Continuity: Frankenstein, Jules Verne. H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Joseph W. Campbell, Astounding Stories, Robert Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Alfred Bester, Frederick Pohl, Leigh Brackett, Anne McCaffrey, Harlan Ellison, Dangerous Visions, Robert Silverberg, Connie Willis, even William Gibson go unmentioned as inspirations. They haven’t been read. J. G. Ballard, Ursula Le Guin, Stephen King, Octavia Butler, and Philip K. Dick get a few mentions. Otherwise the whole conversation of books that SF fans in New York or London or Florida or Helsinki archived and were loyal to—these are unread and without influence.
Increasingly, the continuity looks like the dated canon of an American, white, and largely patriarchal culture.
Science fiction is dead, long live science fiction.
In Malawi and in the Anglophone countries I visited, Africans have re-invented speculative fiction out of indicators and intimations—in one case from a collection of Edgar Allan Poe and a recent YA dystopia.
In the interests of truthfulness, I will say this once in this series. Ninety percent of everything is crap, including the genre called literature. Most African SFF is still finding its feet, and some of it, in my opinion, is not very good.
Is there a single story (apart from the H. G. Wells reprints) that appeared in Amazing Stories in the 1920s that is read today? Amazing Stories was a foundation text, the magazine that first used the word “scientifiction,” almost inventing genre SF. But the prose was inaccurate, wordy, and pretentious—standing firmly in the way of the story. Characterization was crude and the background speculations sometimes didn’t relate directly to the stories of the characters. There was only a small audience to feed back, and the audience was also finding its feet. The same is true of the first steps towards African SFF. And I’m not the only guy who says it—some key people in this sudden rise say the same thing, but not so that I can quote them. None of us want to discourage this growth.
The progress since 2013, the year of Lagos 2060 and the first AfroSF, has been breathtaking.
I knew when I started this project that I was doing it out of love. Love is a blunt instrument—it pushes you blindly. Malawi clarified what it was love of.
It’s love of seeing something sprout like a plant out of concrete, unloved, unnoticed, and unaided, driven only by whatever force in the universe favours creativity and complexity. These writers made themselves. And almost all of them are under forty.
Next an interview with Sofia Samatar and a closer look at A Stranger in Olondria. Then back to Cape Town and its writers.
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