There are certain things in publishing that annoy me in their lack of universality and cause me no end of joy when they do show up. For novels in a series, I would give several of my limbs for a “the story so far ...” summary in the opening pages of the book to become standard practice, though it has been years since I last read a series that did this, and I’ve all but given up hope on my wishes being respected on that one. When it comes to short fiction collections, my simple needs are more regularly gratified: I adore collections and anthologies that include author notes with their stories, explaining how the stories came to be and what inspirations and influences have been brought together. How simple it would be, then, to tell you, dear reader, that Incomplete Solutions is a great collection, because it has author Wole Talabi’s notes all neatly collated for your reading pleasure at the end. What more could you need to know?
Well, yes, there is plenty more to say. Incomplete Solutions is Nigerian author Talabi’s first collection, bringing together stories from the author’s first five years of writing. These stories run the gamut from non-speculative romance all the way to high concept space opera, via urban fantasy, post-apocalyptic dystopia, and musings on the singularity. It’s a broad range that defies categorisation: there’s no linking theme or magic formula between stories, nothing to point to and say “that bit, right there, is how you know it’s written by Wole Talabi.” Individual stories have plenty to say on human behaviour, identity, and survival, but the contradictions in how this manifests in different times and circumstances are explored without conclusion: there’s no single theory of humans being put forward here or even a firm authorial line on whether anything we do really makes a difference at all.
In Geoff Ryman’s 100 African Authors of SFF series, Talabi discusses how he got into writing, stemming both from his own desire to do something “fun” as well as a wider online movement among Nigerians in Nigeria and in the diaspora community which he himself belongs to:
Personally, I started writing for fun. I wasn’t looking for validation from anybody. A lot of it was me playing around with interesting ideas. There was this whole period in between 2008 and 2013 where there was a lot of blogging in Nigeria and people just, like, writing stuff. The entire audience was Nigerian and other bloggers or Nigerians living abroad.
You would share stories and give feedback and you didn’t have to explain anything to them, so that’s kind of where I got into writing from. Nobody cared if your spelling was right or your punctuation was right. If it was a cool idea they would share it with their friends and you’d get five hundred, or a thousand views. That was a nice thing. And that’s all there was.
It was only later that I [started] thinking that I could go first semi-professional and then professional. I still have the same sense that if it’s not fun then what’s the point? If you’re having to stop a story cold to deconstruct Amala or Eba for some Western reader, then what are you doing?
Incomplete Solutions feels like a natural result of that writing process: to read the end notes of the collection is to gain an insight into the matter-of-fact, unromanticised process of an author who enjoys playing around with and testing ideas, with stories that don’t coddle readers who aren’t familiar with Nigeria, its cultures and traditions, and the lens through which it invites consideration of speculative futures. Talabi’s fiction embeds Nigerian culture in the same way that most Hollywood science fiction movies have the most important aliens land in the USA: not in a way that precludes them also hovering over the Sydney Opera House or London’s Big Ben, but in a way that assumes that there’s value in having one country’s experience be the lens through which we look at human nature, at least for the length of time it takes to tell a story. As a white non-Nigerian whose experience with the country comes mostly through recent science fiction and fantasy, I had no problem engaging with Talabi’s voice and stories, although I do so with acceptance and respect of the fact that an own-voices reviewer would have a different, and likely deeper, experience with Incomplete Solutions than I have.
Themes of choice are a notable feature in many of the stories. “A Short History of Migration in Five Fragments of You” is a short piece that brings together snippets from five different people’s stories, from a young woman captured by slavers to her descendant choosing a landing point on Europa. Even as it centres the “choices” made by its five characters, Talabi’s narrative undermines the idea that these choices really constitute agency: from Asake, the woman of the first story, who blames her capture on her decision to leave her home (and who is then presented with no agency at all in the second story, simply as a prop for a slave ship worker’s conscience to manifest), to Moyin, the captain whose choice is predicted by her second in command before she makes it, there’s a sense of powerlessness in the face of the decisions that truly shape our futures. It is a theme that’s returned to in “Crocodile Ark,” albeit with a lens of hindsight from a narrator with an obvious agenda: the story begins with the protagonist recounting a proverb from a Yoruba folktale, translated as “The crocodile always says it is shy to bite, but once it has bitten, it is shy to let go” (p. 86), and then applies that logic to his participation in a revolution on the generation ship where he lives. When, at the story’s end, he chooses to turn on the other individuals who are part of the revolution and take the place of the deposed leadership at the head of the ship’s religiously-mandated journey, it is portrayed as an inevitability: he is a crocodile, after all, so what choice did he have but to carry out the will of the people and ensure they, like those they replaced, are punished for their crimes? And then there’s “The Harmonic Resonance of Ejiro Anaborhi,” which takes a standard “young protagonist uncovers magic secret that could solve the problem the adults can’t fix” story, sets it in a Nigerian oil camp, and then takes a sharp left from the individualistic YA coming-of-age narrative, to offer a resolution involving a mind-melding harmonic super-consciousness: a result where the connection to Ejiro’s personal agency is implied, but complex to say the least.
Closely linked to the explorations of choice and agency are those stories that deal with identity, and there are some particularly strong examples at both the beginning and towards the end of the collection. The opening piece, “Parse. Error. Reset,” is one of the strongest of the collection’s shorter offerings (a quarter of the stories here are fewer than six pages long). It’s told through a scene at a high society networking party, where technology allows people to create artificial doubles which then take over their lives if they’re not decommissioned again within ninety days. The reasoning behind these rules isn’t deeply explored, but in a story like this that doesn’t detract from the powerful conclusion the scene comes to. “The Regression Test,” which won the Nommo Award for best short story in 2018, features an older woman brought in to ask questions of the AI built from her mother’s mind, in order to check whether it still represents her thought patterns. The AI is used by her mother’s company, LegbaTech, to inform its strategic decisions and direct research in the way that she, as “Africa’s answer to Einstein” (p. 180), would have done if she were alive. During the test, Titilope realises that while the machine is coming to similar conclusions as her mother would, it is doing so in a way that she doesn’t recognise—but that she is the only one who really understands her mother enough to know the difference—and her “sour” grandson Tunji—the current executive director of LegbaTech—has set up the test in a way that ensures he can go ahead with his own priorities anyway.
Alongside these stories dealing with the intersection of individual identity and technology, there are also the cultural and transhuman identities of “Drift-Flux,” a space adventure whose genetically engineered protagonists Orshio and Lien-Adel must contend with a racial purist terrorist group trying to take down their way of life. While the story introduces Lien-Adel solely in terms of practical biological modifications to contend with reduced oxygen and gravity in space, Orshio, who is culturally Idoma, is introduced by way of his “late afromysterics”-style tattoos (p. 13), connected to his culture and ancestors. Though they are very different stories, it’s notable that neither “The Regression Test” nor “Drift-Flux” are interested in challenging their protagonists’ authority concerning their ancestors and culture—despite being challenged by her grandson, there’s no doubt that the narrative sides with Titilope about the functionality of her mother’s AI, while Orshio’s culture is clearly a future evolution of traditions that are nevertheless portrayed as spiritually connecting him to his ancestors. Nigerian protagonists, and their connection to home, also feature in other spacefaring stories, including “Polaris” and “Home is Where My Mother’s Heart is Buried,” both of which deal more thoroughly with the intricacies of building societies in space, though in very different circumstances, as well as the idea of return.
And thus the fun continues, for the reader and evidently—if we are to believe these coveted endnotes—for Talabi as well. In “Wednesday’s Story,” the nursery rhyme “Solomon Grundy” is mashed up with a group of mythical figures who represent the days of the week, to form a complex, non-linear narrative that takes aim at the concept of storytelling itself. The collection’s title story “Incompleteness Theories,” a novella, deals with a laboratory being funded to develop teleportation technology, and grappling with the reasons why the technology can’t effectively transfer living organisms. There’s “If They Can Learn,” described by Talabi as “the closest thing I have to a ‘ripped' from the headlines story," dealing with police violence and machine-learned bias in the USA, and what that might mean in a world where inventions intended for use by wealthy white Americans and Europeans are often transferred to other contexts without any recognition of potential consequences when they’re applied outside the tiny slice of humanity they were optimised for. All are told in straightforward but engaging prose, often using the device of a first-person narrator who is explicitly recounting it for an audience. The result is a collection whose strength is in its diversity of viewpoints and genres, and although, if one is keeping track, the cynical and pessimistic tend to win out more than optimism, there’s plenty of hope here, even when it is found in unexpected places—like the prison planet of “Polaris”, on which a group of abandoned convicts learn to thrive and then must grapple with their desire for revenge on the society that rejected them.
If there’s an area where Incomplete Solutions falls short, however, it’s the portrayal of gender. Although there are plenty of engaging women here—including the protagonists of “Wednesday’s Story,” “The Harmonic Resonance of Ejiro Anaborhi,” and “The Regression Test,” the stories of Incomplete Theories more often involve male perspectives, and many of those incorporate elements of chauvinism and objectification of women. This is particularly noticeable in the stories involving Nneoma, a monster created by Talabi, using, among other sources, myths of Naamah, whose modus operandi is to hang out in fancy hotel bars and seduce men into sleeping with her, then turn them into shadow creatures who hang out in dark places, waiting for her. Despite being almost-dead, the first of Nneoma’s victims we meet—there are two stories involving her in the collection; the second, “I, Shigidi”, inserts her into a broader story about gods and corporate politics—is still willing and able to tell us the story of how he got that way, a story in which he “fell in love with the kind of woman that entire religions, cultures and civilisations concoct elaborate legends and myths to warn men like me about.” It is unclear whether what follows is a cautionary tale about harassing women at hotel bars by insisting you’ve fallen in love with them at first sight, or a cautionary tale about how terrible it is that a man could get murdered (well, almost-murdered) for saying the wrong thing during a sexual encounter—the somewhat unreliable narrator clearly believes it is the second, and there’s a sense of predatory inevitability that follows Nneoma into her second appearance, which is bookended by scenes of a second man being drawn into her orbit. Regardless of the extent to which we sympathise with the narrator of “Nneoma,” however, there’s a lack of exploration in the story of her internal perspective, even as Talabi’s end notes indicate that she is intended to be read as a complex, sympathetic character, and not an object of male fear.
Despite its occasional flaws, there’s much to recommend in this collection, particularly in its long-form pieces. Incomplete Solutions provides a varied and impressive showcase for a writer who is hopefully still near the start of his career, and a set of stories that centre Nigerian experiences in science fiction and fantasy spaces that are still all too often white-dominated. Above all, however, this is a book to be read because it’s enjoyable: from the space opera of “Drift-Flux” to the slipstream fable of “Wednesday’s Story,” Talabi’s worlds are diverting, thought-provoking, and never quite go where one expects them to. And, if you need more once you’ve finished, there’s even some story notes. What more could you ask for?