Archaeologist Trom Thunbuld lightly tapped the pause button on the viewscreen, freezing playback of the audio file. He sat back, feeling wearily shocked, and looked out the window to the dark rocky beach far below. It was lit only by white thrashing surf as waves crashed into the shore in an endless barrage. High tide tonight, he thought, looking at the relentless waves. The moon dropped from behind a cloud bank as if on cue, its bright green blue hue shining across the sea. The panorama that usually calmed him had no such effect today; what he had just heard ricocheted around his mind:
My name is Hamadziripi, the last human. As I speak, the Delphini are coming. They have my trail, and it won’t be long now. Perhaps, while postponing the inevitable, I should broadcast this record of the final days of humankind.
Whoever hears this, I congratulate you. You have succeeded in life where we failed. Perhaps you understand that the whole survives because of each part. Life has long-term plans. Too late did we learn the lessons that lay all around and within us. Too late did we realise how complex and fragile the conditions were that enabled our existence ...
Trom thought about the receivers, roughly just over 47317 light years away, each one a nearly nebula-wide net of fine nano-wires suspended in open space, like some unimaginably huge fishnet that trawled for planet-sized fish. Except each of the five thousand nets was cast in just the right place, to painstakingly collect very old, very faint, very specific radio waves. The receivers took fifty years of meticulous construction and another thirty-two gruelling years of impatient silence. Finally, they arrived, and were superbly netted, the first radio wave transmissions with enough energy to break through the Earth’s atmosphere. And in the vacuum of space, forever to travel at the speed of light, away from planet Earth.
How they had celebrated as the data began to flow. What started as a trickle in over just a decade turned into an exponential flood. For two hundred years, Trom and his team had sifted, strained, and pieced the data into individual streams. It had been his life’s work, and now it seemed he had just heard the beginning of the end. Trom sighed and, still looking out the window, tapped the viewscreen to continue.
“Before our somewhat brisk downfall, we were foolish and arrogant. We squandered our resources and raped our lands, oceans, and ourselves. We were born whore children, enslaved by an economic system that was controlled by a sociopathic one percent of our global population. By the time the first consequences of our human actions emerged, the fine green line of ecological balance was already well frayed and past any possible human repair—”
Here, the smooth toneless voice of Trom’s automata interjected. “Data flow break in stream approximately 10, 25, 08, 0951. Next section main stream cued.”
The moon and the ocean conspired to cast him and his dark office into green, aged sculptures of oxidised copper. Trom pushed his chair back whilst eyeing the next jagged line of audio, cued on the viewscreen. He turned his chair to face the window, and gazed out.
He could see, below the swirling clouds that peppered the moon’s atmosphere, broad swathes of green and blue, cut only by high, snow-covered mountain ranges. Trom had been to those massive lush green fields and tall forests. He had dug his hands deep into its rich black soils. He had swum just off the shores of its deep and immense fresh-water lakes. The moon slowly turned as he watched, revealing a steadily moving topographical face. Trom recognised the jagged slash, white and round, piercing above the dark green. The high rim-range of Artobus, created in a pre-ancient meteor strike, was just coming into view.
From its conception to those first bizarre and exciting radio broadcast streams, this project had been his sole focus for over four hundred years now. Trom was bone-tired, and felt poisoned by all he knew about humans and their strange, short existence. It seemed as if they had evolved only to release trapped hydrocarbon energy from beneath the ground! For once this was achieved their age had quickly drawn to a close. He was overcome by a deep, melancholic sadness and empathy for these humans. They had come so close, and yet had remained so far, an evolutionary dead end.
When the histories of African SFF are written, Ivor Hartmann will be remembered as a crucial figure. Yes, African oral traditions and writing had always speculated and imagined spiritual worlds. But the work was called magic realism or folklore. The 2008 double issue of Chimurenga was devoted to black technologies; Nnedi Okorafor won the Wole Soyinka Prize in 2008; and the movie Pumzi came out in 2009.
But it was the 2012 publication of AfroSF, edited by Ivor Hartmann, that showed beyond any doubt that Africans were indeed writing what could only be called science fiction, in large numbers.
Ivor, a writer himself, had cut his teeth editing the StoryTime website and the African Roar anthologies. He’s in Sweden now, a long way from either Zimbabwe or the UK, so this interview was conducted by text in November 2018.
GR: So tell me a bit about how you ended up in Jalada’s anthology Afrofuture(s) with “Last Wave.”
Ivor: I saw the sub call, entered a story I had written some time ago but never found the right home for.
GR: That would have been about 2015? It's amazing how far we've come since then.
Ivor: Just looking for the emails ... yeah, sub-edited in 2014.
GR: Wow. Did you know Moses (Kilolo) or any of the team before that?
Ivor: Yes, I had been following Jalada since they started; they had been doing impressive things.
GR: Darn right.
Ivor: Only got to know them personally with that anthology. In as much as one does when being edited.
GR: Do you recall the inspiration for the story?
Ivor: Simple premise: who would be the last person on Earth and what could possibly come after humans?
GR: How come you don’t write more?
Ivor: It's a battle between publishing and writing. On one hand I want to write more; on the other I feel a strong need to address holes in African writing. Got started in publishing because when I started writing again there were so few local publishing venues for African SFFH. Exactly one to be precise, Something Wicked.
GR: Something Wicked was in South Africa, right?
Ivor: Yes, it was a funded endeavour while it lasted. By the SA government.
GR: Who was doing it? Nerine Dorman or someone like her?
Ivor: Joe Vaz and Vianne Venter. The funding dried up; then they did two anthologies and stopped. But they were trying to be an international SFFH mag whilst encouraging local writers.
GR: Shame. This would have been before you started African Roar?
Ivor: I started the StoryTime magazine first; Something Wicked was still running then. I published a weekly story for five years. That's how the African Roar anthologies came about. They were selected from the magazine, a Best-of. The first African Roar anthology was 2010.
GR: I remember I reprinted a story from African Roar by Nnedi Okorafor.
Ivor: Yep, I published from as many writers as possible, including myself to begin with and occasionally once the ball was rolling. The stories are all still there online. Jungle Jim started up in 2011. She (Jenna Bass, the co-founder of Jungle Jim) scraped me for writers' emails when she started.
GR: And you did all this for love?
Ivor: Yep, pretty much, addressing a need. Learning how to edit, etc. The stories were online for free. No ads, no charge. It was all about using the new tech available to us, opening up the publishing landscape. Getting away from the gatekeepers. Doing our own thing.
GR: It's kind of similar to The Naked Convos (the Nigerian blog partly edited by Wole Talabi). Younger writers getting out from under all the barriers to storytelling and being read.
Ivor: Yep, exactly, StoryTime, the mag and anthologies, broke ground for many other writers and publishers-to-be, just showed it was possible on a zero budget, well apart from ISP charges, and time, so much time.
GR: StoryTime wasn't SFF per se though, right? A lot of people wrote crime for it too?
Ivor: I was open to everything; as long as I could work with the writer and edit into something comprehensible I published it. We are still fighting the colonisation aspects, being told what to write, being told what a great novel is, the literature vs. genre bollocks.
GR: OK. That is VERY true in South Africa. Or was.
Ivor: Also Zimbabwe, Nigeria, etc. ... it’s a mind legacy. SA got very big into crime genre, still is, that did open up things somewhat.
GR: I'm not sure about Nigeria. Ake ALWAYS has a panel on SFF, and Ouida Books and others are publishing all kinds of stuff.
Ivor: Ake is quite new, all that is quite new; it wasn’t around at all when I started in 2007.
GR: Okay. So scroll back. Little Ivor is growing up in Zim. What's he reading? How is he getting hold of SFF?
Ivor: Library junkie from age six, read my way through every library I could access. Public and private libraries.
GR: Private libraries ... you mean family and friends? School? Subscriptions?
Ivor: Yep, family and friends and even schools I didn’t attend. Yeah heh, I was voracious.
GR: Favourite books were?
Ivor: Hard question, too many to name, in terms of SFF—got hooked on Frank Herbert pretty young, he was doing things no one else was. Did Tolkien when I was 13, but started on Frank before that. Very few comics, just stuff from SA, so I only got into Graphic Novels much later on. I did of course Tintin, Asterix, etc., stuff that was in libraries. I wasn't too fussy, knew what I liked but also just read everything anyway. I was at boarding school when I started Tolkien, so it was a very good way to escape.
I started boarding school when I was in primary school, well off and on, I was very wild, my mother didn't know what to do with me.
We moved around a lot in Zim when I was young. My Dad left when I was five. I went to eight or nine different primary schools and two secondary schools. Zim after independence, those first ten to fifteen years, was amazing, we were all free, semi-socialist, and seriously optimistic.
GR: Jeez what happened?
Ivor: Well, it was all bollocks behind the scenes, we just didn't know about it. So as teens we had this most amazing period of time that is hard to explain to other people who weren't there or that age.
GR: Sounds a bit like '94 in SA—full of hope.
Ivor: Yes, very much so, but in a particularly Zimbabwean way, a sense of unity that SA never came close to, and I know—I've been in both places. There are many Shona tribes, but they have a greater sense of unity. It's part of the culture.
Hunhu is what it is called, not quite the same as Ubuntu but similar, more ingrained in societal fabric. Yes, one could say that Apartheid was far worse than British colonialism, but also pretty awful, the biggest mistake the British made was handing over to Smith.
That's when things got really bad, that's when what is essentially a pacifistic society just couldn't be one any more, and of course the Chinese and Russians were keen to help.
My Dad was a white supremacist: fully indoctrinated, fought the Rhodesian war; lost, fled to SA. My mum however was opposed to Smith, very feminist, marched with Bertrand Russell, was part of Black Sash, I don't even know how she got together with my Dad, but he was a charmer.
GR: So your Mom kind of raised you?
Ivor: Yep, though she became a working mum from when I was five, then career-driven, so I was pretty much left to my own from then, raised by our domestic workers and brother and sister. I had books too; they saved me from going completely feral.
GR: I was a goody two-shoes. Feral could be fun.
Ivor: Well, yeah, until you have to interact in society. I have known adults who were feral kids. They suffer. No boundaries, no sense of conduct. I was a good kid until my Dad split, I didn't take it well.
I lived in Zim until 1999 mostly, then Cape Town, then Johannesburg until 2014, then Sweden. I never wanted to leave Zim, and when I was forced to I went as close as I could, SA, until I met my wife who lived in Sweden. So, yeah, had never left Africa until then.
GR: Excuse me, FORCED to leave Zim?
Ivor: By circumstance, economic exile I guess you could call it. It wasn't political or anything. I have a South African passport. It’s a long story; basically it was easier for me to have an SA passport to travel between the two countries.
GR: This last trip to Naija, for the first time, I had a real sense that ALL the young writers just wanted to get out of Nigeria. They don’t love the West, but its money, education, and electricity.
Ivor: Yeah, it’s all very alluring, but when you sit down and think about it, or even go and experience it, you realise that there's a price to be paid for it, a big one. In freedom, in lost relations, relationships, etc., in systemic racism, etc. I'm stuck in Sweden until my stepson finishes school, but my plan has always been to return home.
The more developed a country the more controlling it is, even if it might not seem like it. The possibilities are gradually limited. In Sweden so much is done in the name of public safety it’s scary, how docile people become and so very entitled.
GR: OK. Gear shift. So how did you go from African Roar to AfroSF? Was there a eureka moment?
Ivor: I wanted to do AfroSF from the very beginning in 2007, but I just didn't have the skills to do it properly. So I set about learning them through the magazine and then publishing the African Roar anthologies (co-edited with Emmanuel Sigauke), and did that until by 2011 I felt confident enough and sent out the subs call.
GR: Wow. It was all a long-term Machiavellian scheme.
Ivor: Heh, yes, I do like my obsessions, it was a calling.
GR: And you had a full address book to write to.
Ivor: Exactly, I had built up a lot of writer relationships by then.
GR: Were almost all the writers people you had previously published?
Ivor: Quite a few but not all, once the call went out it spread far and wide. Also don't forget quite a few of the writers in the first AfroSF had never been published. Tendai Huchu's first SF story was in the first volume. Cristy Zinn’s was her first work published. Chinelo's first SF story was published there and Biram's (Mboob) first SF. I think it was Mandisi (Nkomo’s) first work. Also Liam Kruger’s first work. I think it was Mia Arderne’s first work and Rafeeat Aliyu’s first work.
GR: So you were making a place at the table for many people. One thing I wanted to ask: was Volume 1 both an ebook and a printed volume? Why not just an ebook when print distribution is so much work?
Ivor: AfroSF was both ebook and paperback, but the ebook came first, which through sales paid for the paperback. I work on a zero-capital, time-only business plan.
GR: The paper version was mainly for the West? Books are hard to move around African roads.
Ivor: Umm, no, I wanted it to be for everyone. Yes, it’s a problem still, though smart phones have had a big impact. My best moment is to see a second/third/fourth-hand print copy of AfroSF for sale on the streets.
GR: Yup, that's the real African book trade. It's interesting that I still retain a clear memory of so many of the stories. Tendai's castrated guy trying to stop the Chinese shipping out the Great Zimbabwe; Tade's (Thompson) street gangs in the bomb creator. Mazi Nwonwu’s story about aliens and masquerade. Did it feel a bit like you had detonated a bomb and nobody would ever be able to say again that Africans didn't write SF?
Ivor: Yes, exactly 🙂 That was one of the points in making a Pan-African anthology. It was key to me that AfroSF be Pan-African, that it not be tied to any one country.
GR: Then came AfroSFv2 in 2016. It was a collection of novellas and three out of the five nominees for the first Nommo Award for best novella were published in v2. Volume 3 is just out and that's got to be a major focus of the interview. I have to get to the supermarket or no food this weekend. Could we reconvene to talk about the anthologies in more detail?
Ivor: Shall we say tomorrow, same time, 13:00?
(We started up the next day.)
GR: So, tell me the story again of AfroSF. Chinelo and Mazi said that you got all the writers of AfroSF together on email, so that it was easy for them to write to them with the call for subs for the first Omenana.
Ivor: Yes, at the end of putting together every anthology, I introduce all the writers to each other by making their emails visible. This has a lot of good effects.
We're not a huge community; its good to know everyone you're in an antho with so you can further network and such.
So AfroSFv1 was not just from my pool of writers. It was an open submission. It all depends on if they make it to the final. From the beginning when I started editing, if I liked a concept the writer was going for I would do my best to edit it with them no matter how badly it was written to begin with. So more often than not we ended up with something publishable, though not always, sometimes no matter how much we tried to edit it the writer just didn't have the skills, I was persistent though. Some edits in the StoryTime mag took over two years to come right. Sometimes however the writer just had too much ego to be edited.
Mame Bougouma Diene saw the call and came in new with “Hell Freezes Over.” Yeah, “Hell Freezes Over” in AfroSFv2, a lot of work, novellas are so much work and doing five of them in one go was quite something.
GR: Maybe tell the story of one or two interesting cases. Bring them to life getting a great idea from a writer new to you.
Ivor: Mia Arderne in AfroSFv1 was interesting, first time published, very sexual, quite a different outlook. It's rare to find very sexual works well-written, not just lewd and porny. Cristy Zinn was also interesting, first time published, quite a unique voice. She has gone on to good things.
GR: Cristy I see is in Volume 3 as well
Ivor: Yes. That's right.
GR: So who else was an exciting moment for you in Volume 1?
Ivor: Tendai was great, it was awesome to have a well-established writer doing SF for the first time and nailing it. We've been good friends since the first antho. I met him for the first time at Africa Writes. That's how it goes these days, since the beginning, so many writers I've never actually met but am good friends with.
GR: My memory is that the Nommo Awards grew out of that panel at Africa Writes. Tom Ilube heard the panel and said from the audience that he’d finance an award. But you clever clogs got his email address and got hold of him once the African SFF Reading Group people had hammered out how the Nommos would work.
Ivor: it was Ikhide Ikheloa who put Tom and I together. They met at the Ake Festival in 2013, it was then Tom told Ikhide he was interested in funding an African SF award.
And because of AfroSFv1 Ikhide recommended talking to me.
GR: So were you in Sweden by then?
Ivor: So that's when I started talking to Tade and such, but it was only with ASFS that I thought here now is something Tom can get behind, because it wasn't going to be just me doing it all, which I wasn't able to do.
GR: No, it's me doing it all 🙂
Ivor: Well, yes, but you set that up Geoff, eh. People won't do anything if they think someone else will do it for them.
GR: Your introduction in AfroSFv1 summed up my hopes for Afrofuturism at the time. That quote about having to imagine your own future so that someone else doesn't do it for you? Were you aware at the time that the anthology might be a game changer?
Ivor: Yes, totally aware. I thought long and hard about that intro, the anthology, had been working on it since 2007 really. I knew it was past time to change the game.
I was very keen for the cover to reflect that fact the Africans had been telling SF stories while Europeans were still living in caves heheh. So I was drawn to the Dogon symbols. The Dogon have a very complex mythology that incorporates advanced mathematics, even quantum theory, and is quite linked to astronomy and the idea of alien races, and such.
GR: Who did the actual artwork for it?
Ivor: Unless I bring an artist's work in, I do all the artwork, layout, etc. One-man micro-press.
The printing was done by Lightning Source, a printer and distributor, from the African Roar anthologies onwards. Well after I tried another publisher who totally fucked up the first antho, I thought f*** this, let me do it myself. So it was POD all the way. Distributions through Amazon, B&N, etc.
GR: Enormous satisfaction when it came out?
Ivor: Yes :-), but it was also very nerve-wracking. There was a fair bit of negativity to deal with as well. I just couldn't believe how very little progress there had been in African SFF, as a writer trying to publish my own works locally.
GR: What do you think AfroSF changed?
Ivor: I think it blew things wide open, showed that we were interested in thinking and writing about our own possible futures, that no longer were we going to just accept a future imposed upon us. It also took African SFF out of the very little, mainly white corner it was in.
GR: You said negativity. I don’t remember negativity around v1. Bad reviews or what?
Ivor: Yeah, people saying it wasn't SF, that it was horribly edited, etc., because it challenged their notions, and I refused to whitewash the language and styles used into some western standard. I don’t italicise African-language words, I don’t change the author’s voice, we have our own African English unique to each writer and where they come from.
GR: Chinelo Onwualu talks about people from privileged countries wanting Africans to write polished western prose, without any sense of context.
Ivor: Yep, that's right.
But from the international SF community it was amazing, a lot of love and acceptance and excitement. I was really appreciative of that.
GR: AfroSFv2 was all novellas. How come?
Ivor: I felt that we needed to work on larger works, short stories are great, we as African writers love doing them, it's our forte really, but no one was doing novellas, and very few doing novels. I thought it could be a good step in encouraging things in that direction.
GR: Gotcha. It's a good length for SFF because you can do world building.
Ivor: That's right; one can really explore something in much greater detail. I may have gone overboard with Efe's (Tokunbo Okogu) story (An Indigo Song for Paradise), but I really wanted to give him free rein, and I liked what he was doing. It was one of those stories that just kept getting bigger and bigger with every edit, but it wasn't in a bad way, I really liked what he was doing, so it ended up being huge and very different. He was also going through a lot at the time, self-revelations, and such, and it really came through in his writing.
GR: It sounds like you thought it was one of the standouts.
Ivor: I never have favourites 🙂
GR: The second volume didn’t have a contribution from a woman.
Ivor: That’s right, it wasn’t what I wanted, but that’s how the final version ended up being, and it became a very big thing that almost crashed the whole antho.
GR: I don’t think you handled the fallout from that well.
Ivor: I must get better at PR, but really also, if one just actually looks at my work what I have done, then it is pretty obvious I'm all about encouraging anyone and everyone as much as possible, I want there to be equality, I want women writers, and gay, and trans, and well everyone who gets side-lined because of who they are, when really it’s all about the work they do, that is what counts, the story comes first above and beyond everything else. I am not a democratic editor or publisher, I publish stories I think are good no matter who writes them, and I will never publish someone to just fulfil some kind of quota or tokenism.
GR: The ToC for Volume 3 is out and it has stories by Cristy Zinn and Gabriella Muwunga.
Ivor: Yes, they submitted great stories. I am more than happy to publish them. They clocked the theme, as did all the stories and this is what we have:
Space, the astronomical wilderness that has enthralled our minds since we first looked up in wonder. We are ineffably drawn to it, and equally terrified by it. We have created endless mythologies, sciences, and even religions, in the quest to understand it. We know more now than ever before and are taking our first real steps. What will become of Africans out there, will we thrive, how will space change us, how will we change it? AfroSFv3 is going out there, into the great expanse, and with twelve visions of the future we invite you to sit back, strap in, and enjoy the ride.
I still have lots to do before publication day, and then back into my writing, and I'm working on a project that if it works out is going to significantly change the game again for African SF, but can't talk about what it is at all.
Ivor: Yeah if it works out it will be a big Whoa :-).
GR: You can't just say that. A bit more of a clue? A movie? TV show? Reality TV? Workshop?
Ivor: But I learnt my lesson the hard way and long ago about talking about things before they are concrete.
GR: Your own writing?
Ivor: At this precise moment, absolutely nothing, got to finish what I’m on. My last story was in Brittle Paper, but I am all set for a big push in that direction next year. It will be like starting all over again really, and that's OK. It’s difficult. I'm no good at balancing things, I work better when I can be singularly obsessive. So, one obsession at a time.
GR: Any thoughts on being an African abroad?
Ivor: I think it may be a bit different for me; I only left Africa for love. It’s the only thing that could get me to leave, and I am going back as soon as it’s possible. But, the effect is the same, even though the work I do does let me live anywhere I want really as long as I have a computer and net connection.
My wife is why I live in Sweden. She’s very much a part of all these anthos, she reads and proofs them for me, gives me advice. We actually got together, or closer, because of my work, she was a fan and became my first reader for my works. So it was because of the StoryTime mag we started talking, became friends. Luckily for me, my wife is far more intelligent than me, and being challenged intellectually is one of my prime needs.
I miss my people, the people I grew up with, the way of being we had, we are scattered all over the world now. I think people who grow up and live in the same town or even country don't know how lucky they are, to have your family and friends close throughout your life, that is a gift beyond measure. I miss sadza, can't get proper mealie meal here (but I am growing some next summer), we have friends and family that bring it whenever they come. I miss the culture I grew up in, Shona culture; it’s something quite special.
I talked about Hunhu earlier. This is very much part of it. Something that makes sure you greet every person you walk past with genuine interest, not just out of politeness, though that is part of it. I'm not idealising or romanticising it out of a sense of nostalgia. Every society has its problems too, but I very much love the society I grew up in, it has such a great depth to it. It is a part of who I am.