The Guardian spurred his horse on to a full gallop through the narrow, winding streets of the old city, followed closely by five companions, leaving behind the chaotic sounds of iron clashing in vain against the thundering fire of the invaders. The four raced towards the outskirts of the city, to the edge of the desert, where they stopped to take a final look at the destruction that was being unleashed upon their beloved city.
The Guardian and his men watched in silence as arcs of fire erupted all across the northern sector of the city, cutting through every line of defence, the shrieks of the wounded rising together in a harrowing chorus of death. The men had no words to express the depth of their anguish. They had spent years preparing for this day; when the last remnants of the once-mighty empire would be crushed by the merciless onslaught of invaders, but to finally witness the inevitable unfolding was driving daggers into their hearts.
The raiders from the north had launched several attacks on the city in recent years, each one more devastating than the last. The defenders had barely managed to repel the onslaught—until now. Their swords and spears, ancient charms and amulets, were useless against the strange sorcery the foreigners possessed. Messengers had been sent to nearby Gao and Djenne, and as far as Agadez and Niani, in urgent requests for assistance from the allies of the empire. The few reinforcements that were promised never materialized. Meanwhile, the city’s defences steadily weakened to the point of collapse. Since last moon, most of the population had fled to neighbouring kingdoms in anticipation of this final assault, the Guardian’s wife and only child among their number. Those who remained had resigned themselves to the mercy of their new masters.
“The Writing in the Stars” from Lusaka Punk and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2015, reprinted in The Manchester Review.
Jonathan Dotse has a great stone face. He is laconic and clear-spoken, but rarely cracks a smile. But his calm thoroughness makes him one of the most impressive people I met in all the 120 interviews so far. I’d been trying to contact him for many years. As the founder of the blog www.afrocyberpunk.com in 2010, he was a pioneer, one of the first people alongside Ayodele Arigbabu, Ivor Hartmann, Jenna Bass, Lauren Beukes, and of course Nnedi Okorafor to know this stuff was going to take off. I emailed him many times but finally in 2017, I got a response from him.
He starts by saying that he’s not very good at emails and then he says something I’ve never heard before, but which I suspected for a long time—and which might explain why, actually, there is still not very much hard SF being written by Africans.
Jonathan: “I was working on a novel, which I started writing in 2009 when I was in Baltimore in the US. When I arrived in Ghana, the novel started to go through a transmutation process. I found the things I really wanted to write about. Before then I wanted to write sci-fi in the generic sense.
“I was not able to properly visualize an African context for the future in a realistic way. So my story was set outside Africa because I could not imagine sci-fi in Africa at the time.
“My characters were African but they were in the US because I could easily imagine the US in the future. But when I came to Africa, I was like blank. I found myself confronting all kinds of ideas that I’d never thought about. And I sort of wished that someone else would have to deal with those issues and not me. But I realized that nobody else was writing about this stuff. That was when I created the blog and said, ‘This is what I’m seeing.’
“I realized first of all that I had no real understanding of the dynamics in Africa at the time. My perception of Africa was what I was receiving from all over the world, that this was a continent in crisis, that there was nothing really exciting happening in Africa to inspire anyone. I’d spent the last three years (studying) in Canada not in contact with the continent and I guess that notion was reinforced.
“I’ve always been obsessed with science fiction. Those are the only books I read, the only movies I watch. Everything else to me is kind of underwhelming. But these ideas were all Western, by Western and Japanese writers, and had nothing to do with Africa. They had no understanding of Africa. That’s not their fault. They had no experience of Africa; they had nothing to say about Africa.
“So I had nothing to think about as regards the future of Africa. So when I started writing, it occurred to me as an African I should set it in Africa, but at the same time, I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t know what to extrapolate in terms of the future of Africa. But that only became clear when I returned to Accra. The period of being away helped me observe the change from a distance. I had lived in Ghana my whole life. It had been changing my whole life, but I didn’t really feel the magnitude of change until I left and returned; and I was really shocked by how much had changed in three yeas.
“The arts scene was way more vibrant than when I’d left. There was a lot more optimism, a lot more creativity. And that gave me the basis for being able to imagine the future.”
I talk about how little of the long text tradition of science fiction is available to many writers. Jonathan disagrees.
Jonathan: “This is a point that I made in one of my blog posts: even though we did not get the texts, we got the ideas one way or another. These ideas have been propagated across the mainstream media.”
Jonathan: “Yes, very much so. We got the punk versions. It’s even more alien (to Africans) than normal Western media. Not only is it not based in Africa, but it’s not based in any time or space that we are familiar with. It requires Africans to make two leaps of faith just to be able to follow the narrative. You can’t follow the narrative if you don’t really buy the premise.
“The first real epiphany that I had was literally on the flight returning to Accra after three years. I was thinking about my story, and life in general. I was sitting by the window—I love sitting by the window in a plane just to see it landing and taking off.
“The landing was at night. I could see the lights of the city. It was unbelievable to me at the time because I did not imagine that Accra was so, like, sprawling, a sea of light. I was in awe. Just in terms of seeing from an aerial view what was happening. I doubt it was the same view when I left. It was much more impressive. In that moment I began to realize that I could find a story here.
“Throughout the course of reintegrating into Ghanaian life I began to find inspiration everywhere, every day. It just kept building and building until I had to make a blog post about it because I had to tell someone.
GR: “Is it still up?
Jonathan: “Yes it is. Right now, I’m not entirely proud of it. I think my worldview has grown since, but what I wrote then was sort of the visceral sensation I was getting, my experience into a short piece to get people excited about the future of Africa."
The earliest posting, “The Future of African Science Fiction," is still up on the AfroCyberPunk site, and is dated April 2010.
Not the science fiction of your grandfather or the Foundation of your Asimov, no. Africa lends herself to the dystopian gloom of failed states, the iron rule of corruption, cartels snaking cold fingers into the upper echelons of government, and high tech gangs of disillusioned youth. Follow her streets into dark melancholy and taste her despair, the bitter and the sweet simmering together to form her unique flavor. Follow the trails of waste spilling out from her gutters, follow them down to the banks of her industrial empires, her charred forests, and damp mines. You will not find your Jedi warriors here, but you might run into some street thugs or hackers, scammers, drug dealers, con men and women, street children, ritual murderers, wandering evangelists preaching hope and doom. The only Force here is hard currency, and it’s dark on both sides. Embrace her reality.
Africa is cyberpunk.
In 2010, African science fiction was basically a couple of superhero comics along with Ayodele Arigbabu trying to pull together Lagos 2060. In 2009 the film Pumzi had spun out of left field. Ntone Edgabe had brought a more experimental spec-fic consciousness to Chimurenga, especially the double issue 12/13 on Black Technology in 2008. Nnedi Okorafor had won the Wole Soyinka Award in 2008, but Who Fears Death was yet to appear. Jenna Bass had not published Jungle Jim. Ivor Hartmann’s StoryTime had not really got going. Dotse was a stone cold pioneer.
Jonathan: “For me it wasn’t so much of computers and programming that I saw, but the dark side. And that is why afrocyberpunk, because cyberpunk is a very realist kind of fiction, in the sense that sci-fi is utopian. Some people would say cyberpunk is dystopian, but I disagree. I think it accurately describes the forces of the world we actually live in, not the world we want to live in.
“Cyberpunk is all about how corporations subvert state power. It's about how people on the streets end up using technology for things that it was not designed for and taking the power from the creators of the technology by any means necessary.
“The complex dynamics in which society interrupts the obvious trajectory of the technology and takes it in a direction that no one expected. I was seeing a lot of that in Ghana.
“I don’t know if you are aware of Agbogbloshie [A huge e-waste garbage dump in Ghana, described in this article in The Guardian]. It’s a recycling area. People call it a dump, but more recycling goes on there. Things are dumped, things are recycled. There’s a lot of cases of people getting hardware like old hard drives and extracting information that is very sensitive information. For example, US government servers have been found there with sensitive data. No one in the planning department would have foreseen young Africans rifling through state secrets. (Chuckles) But that’s what is happening. Nobody thought the chain of consequences through.
“Most people are very aware of cyberfraud. To be honest, that’s more enticing to any young person growing up than becoming, say, a programmer because you can make so much more money. Way more money, in a much shorter period of time.
“The best and the brightest are going to do that because that’s the most appealing option.”
The first chapter of his novel was excerpted in Jungle Jim in 2011. But it is just an excerpt and the story breaks off abruptly with a leap.
Jonathan: “I love ending with cliffhangers. It [that chapter] will be in the novel but in a revised version. I find the world keeps changing a lot. All the time. It’s the reason I haven’t finished the novel.
“I’m always thinking about the novel and rewriting it in my head—the story, I’m rewriting the story. The writing process is a bit convoluted. I got so far into worldbuilding that I lost track of the story. I’m now focused on the story and making it more compelling.
“I’m also running a company, a VR company full time. But my schedule is extremely flexible and I plan my time. The truth is I’m not a very good storyteller. I think I’m a better writer than I am a storyteller. And for me the most important thing is getting the story right. The writing is the easy part. I’ve probably written about five novels worth of storylines in the course of writing this one.”
Jonathan attended the 2015 Caine Prize writing workshop held in Ghana that year, run by Leila Aboulela and Zukiswa Wanner. It was a distinguished year that included Efemia Chela and Diane Awerbuck from South Africa, Timothy Kiprop Kumutai, and Akwaeke Emezi, who went on to win the 2019 Ilube Nommo Award for their novel Freshwater. The workshops contribute stories to a year’s anthology that also includes the nominated stories. That year it was entitled Lusaka Punk and it included Jonathan’s story “Written in the Stars.”
Jonathan: “That was where I got to meet Kojo Laing [author of Woman of the Aeroplanes and Major Gentil and the Achimoto Wars who died in 2017 about a month before this interview]. That was incredible. I was so sorry. I didn’t know about it until you told me. The rumour was that Binyavanga was going to do a new edition of his work. But then Binyavanga got ill. I don’t think Kojo would have cared either way. That was my impression. For him the whole joy of it was just doing his work.”
For a series of tributes to B. Kojo Laing, check out this piece in the Johannesburg Review of Books.
Jonathan: “We were in this beautiful resort, Elmina, for two weeks with nothing to do but write and meet other writers in the evening and discuss our writing. I’ve always been a solitary writer, so companionship and being with other writer-spirits was very interesting and rejuvenating. I don’t think I would have been able to think of that story in any other environment. I felt more relaxed. I was also horse-riding in the resort, which gave me the seeds of the idea. I really enjoyed writing it. Did you pick up any cyberpunk elements in the story?”
GR: “I didn’t really. I thought at the opening, “Oh God, this is sword and sorcery.”
Jonathan: “You’re not the first person to have such a response (chuckles). And I typically don’t read such stories, so I don’t blame you. I think I almost did that on purpose. ‘I hate this kind of stuff but finally I get to write it myself and just take it in a different direction from where it usually goes.’
“I went to college in Canada. My cousin lives in Baltimore so I’d spend holidays there. I was majoring in Artificial Intelligence my first year, but Psychology for my second two years. It was in Windsor, Ontario. It came about randomly. I was trying to get out of Ghana by any means necessary.
“Windsor had a recruitment drive and my high school organized a trip to go to a talk. They gave me a scholarship to go. Diversity is sort of their thing, trying to corner the market. It was a very interesting campus for that reason. I got to meet people from many different places.
“I had a good time some of the time. Some of it was bad. I had a kind of existential crisis. I always had difficulties socializing and integrating into normal social life. I went to a lot of parties but didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected to. These days I’m perfectly fine being on my own.
“I am told that I argue too much and that I apply logic too rigorously to political discussions. It’s just the way I am. I get into political arguments all the time.
“I don't find Ghanaian politics frustrating. I know what to expect. I just don’t engage with those systems. It’s pretty clear to everyone what are the problems of society. But not one perceives they have the power to solve them. The whole political process of uniting around a person is flawed. We are all capable. We can all solve the problems.
“When I was a kid, I read encyclopedias. Science was my favourite thing—anything to do with science I found fascinating. I was pretty much a walking encyclopedia.
“What else did I read? I’m sorry to say, a lot of the Hardy Boys (Chuckles) from not having access to much else. One of my main influences was this book that I bought on a ship when I arrived back in Ghana. It was in Accra port, Tema. It’s this Christian ship doing charity and selling books and stuff. It’s like a bookshop on a ship. The boat still shows up. We went there on a family trip. Nothing caught my attention except this virtual reality book. There are no coincidences.
“That was probably my first sci-fi book that I owned or possibly the first sci-fi novel I read. It was by William Kritlow, who was this Christian writer, and it was like a series of three books for young adults. This boy and his sister who have an uncle who has this virtual reality, he works for the US government in virtual reality. There is a mysterious illness going around and they have to find the cure inside this VRC nation that their uncle created.
“That was a life-changing experience. The book is probably somewhere very tattered. I actually remember the book very clearly. I think about it frequently. I still remember a lot of the technology the book describes, some of the mechanisms, and I’m still impressed by the storytelling. Somehow even more so because it’s a Christian book.”
GR: “A book that is a Christian book might not be accorded the same respect.”
Jonathan: “Yeah, and I sense that as well. And I could clearly tell there was an agenda to spread the Gospel but it was not as bad as some I’ve seen in Christian literature. In fact it was very very minimal. I was impressed by that as well.
“I read a lot of the Bible, that’s for sure, cover to cover several times. I didn’t have a choice—there was not much else to read. I was in a religious family.
“My favourite chapter is Revelation, which is the sci-fi part of the Bible. So is Daniel, which has some sci-fi elements. He saw the future. He saw flying chariots. A lot of Biblical scholars say that the ancients knew what was going to happen. I find it interesting either way. The Bible has some great storytelling. I think it predisposed me to epic narratives.”
GR: “‘The Writing in the Stars’ is pretty epic.”
Jonathan: “The novel I’m writing is even more epic. That’s the whole point of it. It was always meant to be a big novel in a modern format.”
GR: “The excerpt ‘Virus’ starts out with two tough street girls and they’re involved in some dodgy technology, but I’m not sure I would call it epic.”
Jonathan: “The girls get involved in something much more complicated than they realize initially. And there are two other main characters so the novel is three stories in one, interwoven. One of the strands is over a person’s lifetime.
“I think we are moving towards a future where the power of traditional authorities is going to be weakened and the power of the individual will rise to primacy. And that’s what the story is about.
“We need each other so it’s unavoidable that we have mutual interdependence to survive. Marxism doesn’t focus on the autonomy of individuals. The latent power of individuals who decide to work together.”
We talk about what kind of future it might be: no alien invasions, no time travel, but certainly driverless cars.
Jonathan: “Africans would not like driverless cars but governments might force them for safety reasons. I think there would be a lot of resistance mainly from the transport unions.
“It most certainly will be safer. It’s not if they go wrong, it’s when they go wrong, but accidents will still not be on any scale like what we have now. Human beings are bad at certain tasks. We are great at certain things. But as soon as we have machines who do them better than us there’s no argument, certainly when life and death are involved.”
I try to get more information about Jonathan’s biography.
Jonathan: “I have one brother. He is a writer as well and a filmmaker. He’s just starting out. My um was —is—a pastor.”
Jonathan: (Chuckles, agrees). “Uh-huh. My dad was an accountant. He passed away in 2011. It was quite disorientating. I mean, to be honest we were not that close. He was a good guy but we just weren’t, so ...”
“My mum doesn’t read my stuff. She knows I write but she doesn’t find it ... you know.”
GR: “At least she knows you’re running a company.”
Jonathan: (Chuckles.) “Even that was a struggle for a while. ‘Why don’t you get a job? I’m like, ‘I’m running a company,’ and she’s like, ‘You can get a job on the side.’ (Chuckles). That’s cause, you know, we were struggling for a while. I was struggling financially. I have a business partner.”
Jonathan’s company makes VR films mostly of events. I ask him who his customers are.
Jonathan: “Currently universities, the British Council, hopefully UNICEF very soon. Actually I have a project I can show you. It’s going to be premiering at the Sheffield documentary film festival—Sheffield Docfest in June. It’s called Spirit Robot.
“It’s a documentary about a street art festival that happens in Accra each year. It’s a VR documentary. It was made with a 360 camera and the film was shot on location. It actually takes you in VR through the festival. It is an individual experience. It requires some hardware.”
He slots his phone into a headset viewer. I put it on and suddenly I am in an Accra arts festival, walking around the exhibits, turning right around to look at pictures and people as they walk past. It’s more like time travel than anything else—with ghost tables and chairs to stumble into when I walk blind to the real world.
We talk about technical stuff for a bit, about getting locked out of Google and Apple because you are in Africa. He lights up a cigarette in the hotel café and nobody minds.
Jonathan: “I’m an addict. To cigarettes. For sure. Isn’t that the point? You can’t really enjoy cigarettes unless you are already addicted. I don’t enjoy vaping. First of all I don’t get the flavour of the vape. I deliberately chose to be an addict.”
Jonathan: “I was aware. I was aware. It’s just experience. You can’t understand anything until you have experienced it. You can only have an approximation of it. So, yeah, to truly understand what it means to be addicted.”
GR: “So you’re going to go through hell getting un-addicted so you can understand that?”
Jonathan: “No I’m not. It’s a one-way street I think.”
GR: “Well, who wants to get old?”
Jonathan: “I want to live forever if possible, though. It’s not smoking that is going to prevent me living forever. But living beyond the human life span, it’s not smoking that’s going to stop me.”
GR: “Do you think they will be able to download an intelligent simulacrum of your personality and that will keep you alive?”
Jonathan: “No. It’s not going to take a simulacrum to keep my personality alive. One thing, It’s not a copy of myself I’m interested in. I’m interested in staying alive. Having a copy of myself does not benefit me. It benefits the world but not me (Chuckles). I’d have to actually stay alive. It’s the only way it works for me.”
GR: “You’d have to arrest ageing. You wouldn’t want to stay eighty-five forever, so it would have to be young.”
Jonathan: “Arrest it or postpone it, yeah.”
GR: “Would five hundred years be enough?”
Jonathan: “For a start, yeah. I don’t know if I would gamble five hundred years. Who knows what’s going to happen in that time?”
GR: “So if the sun exploded, you wouldn’t want to be left on a frozen cinder. You wouldn’t want to be actually immortal and not be able to be killed.”
Jonathan: “I just want to have a choice about when I go. Practically speaking I would not want to go until I have seen everything. I think it’s possible I want to be that guy in the café at the end of the universe. I think the end of the universe would be the beginning of something else.
“I’ve been following a lot of scientific research. There’s a possibility that awareness extends into other dimensions. One of Feynman’s theorems can be resolved with a much simpler crystalline structure. The way of calculating the mass of quantum particles was resolved by a much simpler theory. So we might have progress there too.”
GR: “That’s the core science fiction dream. Immortality of the species, immortality of the person.”
Jonathan: “That’s the reason we’re alive. If we could narrow it down to any one reason it’s immortality.”
By now it’s night so we head out to a bar in Osu, a more central part of Accra. The prices are astonishingly high—Accra is a tourist city. We have a very serious, even ponderous discussion about African writing.
Jonathan: “I’m trying to make a clean break from the publishing industry. They have a kind of power they are abusing. They’ve been ruined by capitalism. It’s no longer about art, it’s about money.
“It’s pretty simple. The industry doesn’t see a market in Africa. They are not interested in selling books to Africa and that is reflected in the kinds of books they are publishing.
Since this interview, I think Jonathan has been proved right. More and more young African writers are focussed on selling their work to Western venues—which means language and context are subtly (and not so subtly) slanted towards a Western readership. The result is an African literature that is not necessarily for Africans in the first instance.
“As a result, there’s not a lot of African fiction that I find interesting. I only really enjoyed Wole Soyinka. I did think one of Clifton Gachagua’s stories was brilliant (including ‘No Kissing the Dolls Unless Jimi Hendrix is Playing’).
“I’m most impressed by what is called magic realism. I don’t see that big a difference between it and SF. They are both about things that are out of the ordinary. Anything we don’t understand becomes magical or mystical. Whoever understands the mystical can control the narrative. Something that distinguishes Africa is the ability to unify the whole.”
A long conversation follows. I say that people like Tade Thompson, Chikodili Emelumadu, and Kiprop Kimutai talk about the African ability to let supposedly contradictory views of the universe co-exist. We talk about the core idea of the dialectic in the West, how it is about opposing opposites that resolve themselves into a new synthesis. In the African view, it could be that the dialectic, the idea of conflicting views challenging each other into synthesis, doesn’t apply.
Jonathan keeps seeing in traditional ways of life, the Igbo particularly, a political and cultural alternative to capitalism and globalism, one without leaders, about individuals taking charge for themselves, coming together into communities. I talk jokily of a Manifesto for Unscientific Socialism. My recorder’s memory is full, so I start taking notes.
Jonathan: “I disagree. There has not been enough effort to scientifically validate autonomous units (individuals acting in concert).”
Jonathan’s maternal language is Ewe, spoken by both his parents. However, he says that he speaks Ewe badly for family reasons he didn’t want to go into, at least not on the record.
Jonathan: “In school, local languages were not allowed. That’s a by-product of colonialism. Basically colonization never ended. Power was handed to a local elite whose mindset is one that values Western modernity. I know some of these people. They think they are best and the brightest. They think most Africans can’t be saved. But whoa! That’s backwards. We had a culture.
“You have to remember that Africa is isolated. Stayed isolated for thousands of years, relatively, and that means we had time to become very different from the rest of the world. And very different from each other. Now the pull seems to be in the other direction.”
Since this interview, Jonathan has been hard at work in the world of digital arts. His novel has not been finished.
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