A Killing in the Sun is the debut collection by Ugandan writer and filmmaker Dilman Dila, containing ten short stories infused with SFFnal tropes; from runaway bioscience to juju zombies to far-future dystopia. As a whole it's punchy and awkward and well worth reading, but there can be a fine line between problematizing and problematic, and I'm not sure all of this lands on the right side of it. Or, indeed, if I'm able or entitled to make that call.
At the heart of this book are conflicts over power, or more precisely how those who lack it cope with the whims of those who wield it.The capriciousness of authority, whether it be governmental or societal, corporate or religious, is an ever-present consideration for Dilman and his characters. The title story (nominated for the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize) opens with Mande, a soldier sentenced to death; as he waits for the firing squad he despises the prosecutor for his "girly" uniform and use of English instead of Swahili, but simultaneously venerates the generals who have condemned him in their makeshift schoolyard courtroom, "three giant potbellied frogs squeezed into a tiny desk for children" (p. 56). He finds himself awaiting execution as a result of his president's "insane plan" to professionalize the army by making a spectacle of disposing of less desirable elements, pour encourager les autres, and the clod-handed imposition of progress from above is another key recurring theme. As with Mande's view of the prosecutor, the stories are often more critical of local authorities for their self-interested adoption of alien concepts than of imperialist powers for their original impositions.
The protagonists of the opening two stories thus find themselves using disregarded traditional knowledge to preserve themselves against modernity askew. In "The Leafy Man," Japia attempts to survive the after-effects of a corporate bioengineering experiment gone wrong, in the way they so often will, using herbal remedies to evade a swarm of vampire mosquitoes "whirring, humming a song of death, stalking him" (p. 6). Benge, meanwhile, must convince supposedly enlightened townspeople of the merits of his homegrown magic over those of a fictitious but officially mandated god confected by a bygone king "wary of the power of magicians" (p. 22). His tale, "The Healer," is conceptually forceful, featuring juju, corrupt priests, and very funky robot horses, but is unfortunately a little on the clunky side regarding exposition and motivation; too much reported thought and not enough speech or action:
"Where are you going?" the priest asked.
He had let the mayor bring Benge back into town because he thought they were going to torture Benge into revealing the location of this house and the boy, and then lynch him. (p. 25)
While the priest is briefly disappointed, he does eventually get his opportunity to stage an execution and, like the luckless Mande, Benge finds himself strapped up and awaiting the killing blow with a certain amount of resignation, actively eschewing a more explosive resolution that may see him immediately saved. I suspect, for reasons we’ll get to later, that we’re meant to take these characters as indicative of Africa in general and Uganda in particular, and if so "luckless" is a particularly weaselly way for me to frame the situation, as if recent Ugandan history has been a wholly agentless accident of happenstance and not a direct result of external and internal human action. However, those responsible for such actions, be they uninterested generals turning schoolyards into killing fields, or supposed men of God endorsing enhanced interrogation, are so far removed from anything the protagonists might hope to influence that they might as well be blind agents of fate.
How to respond, then, to this fickle finger of whomever? Resistance, futile or otherwise, is the more traditional course in the western SFFnal canon ("That's no moon"). What marks A Killing in the Sun is the relative absence of this trope; optimism is a scarce resource, be it of the proactive up-and-at-'em Rebel Alliance type, or the more naïve Panglossian "all for the best" variety, because Dilman’s are demonstrably not the best of all possible worlds. Instead, what we are often presented with is a kind of fatalistic accommodation with unfathomable and irresistible forces; less railing against the incoming tide, more conserving energy while a rip-current drags you out to sea and hoping you wash up on a hospitable shore; "Obil wanted to run and hide, like his neighbors, but that would be useless. He knew the soldiers had come for him" (from "Itanda Bridge," p. 40).
It's not until the sixth and seventh stories that characters start to rebel actively against their oppressors. "Lights on Water" and "A Wife and a Slave" are, along with the title piece, perhaps the most stylistically accomplished tales. They are also the most recognizably science-fictional, seemingly set in a shared continuity and offering us a future Africa purged of non-native peoples and united under an oppressive home-grown regime. The foundation myth in "Lights" sees "Mojech" battling "King Wasiton" of "Hamerikah" before parting the waters and leading his people on a journey back to their homeland (“It took forty years” [p. 91]). "Wife", meanwhile, offers a more bitter exercise in revenge fantasy, as an unnamed Emperor unites all of Africa using technology which is quite specifically indistinguishable from magic, before turning its destructive powers on the industrialized world:
"He wiped out New York City to demonstrate that he possessed something more powerful than nuclear weapons. The invaders threw up their hands in surrender. Africa cheered." (p. 119)
The cheering does not last. In both stories the dream quickly turns sour as the new regime proves to be just as contemptuous of its subjects as the invaders it usurped. For example, forbidding, amongst other things, foreign names, travel beyond city limits, and everyone and anything white. It is against these new impositions that the significant but human-scale rebellions take place, as a propagandist turns his art against his masters and a husband rekindles desire in his brainwashed wife.
In many ways "A Wife and a Slave" encapsulates the arguments and tensions of the whole book; how a balance is not always struck between addressing the problematic and perpetuating it, especially regarding the roles of the powerless. Kopet lusts after his wife and secretly yearns for aspects of their former life before the Emperor’s war of "liberation"; unfortunately for him, things since banned as un-African include non-procreational sex, imported books, and cutlery. This satire of the resistance leaders who drove African nations' independence in the mid-twentieth century but have since turned into petty despots themselves also represents the reductio ad absurdum of the lauding of traditional values that takes place elsewhere in the book: reverence for tradition, like everything else, can be taken to unreasonable extremes. Even when not reduced to absurdity, doing things the way they’ve always been done is not an unqualified good: "He saw her hesitation, saw her battling with her indoctrination, which said she should obey her husband" (p. 121).
Kopet's puritanical wife is little more than a cipher, but still remains one of the more fully realized female characters here. There are a few more in the way of dutiful wives, pined-for but ill-starred fiancées, surly teenage daughters, and, in "Okello's Honeymoon," a bluntly Freudian cannibal zombie bride who must consume her husband on their wedding night, but in sum we should add the treatment of women to the list of "traditional" values that are not all they're made out to be. The representations here stray little beyond the standard Maiden, Mother, Whore triptych, and these representations are left sadly uncritiqued by the texts. All the women here are defined by their relationships with men; the only one to stray beyond this is the escaped slave who sparks Kopet’s micro-rebellion, though she too is initially presented as an idealized sex object: "He could see himself on a canoe, fishing in the stream, while his mzungu swam stark naked, her hair floating in the water like a separate living creature" (p. 125). It is one of the biggest ironies of the book that, for all its justified anger towards unequal power relations, its women remain so resolutely powerless: his mzungu.
Mzungu, for those of you disinclined to open Google in another tab, is the Bantu word for white people, and this means I'm going to have to bite the bullet and talk about race. As an inversion of the slavery dynamic white slaves are not subtle, but then neither is slavery itself. I'm certainly not going to take issue with that. More difficult to wrestle with are the two other white characters in the book: both are serial killers posing as NGO workers; ostensible do-gooders who use a cloak of unrequested altruism to disguise cynical and self-interested exploitation of others in an environment where they can do so seemingly without consequence. Now how, as a white middle-class Brit comfortably ensconced in the industrialized world, should I react to that? How to process these decidedly unhumanitarian humanitarians who comprise the total white male representation in the book? Raise my hands and cry, "Not all white men"?
Let’s not. This isn’t The Economist. No, far better and, I think, more accurate to realize that Dilman’s approach is fundamentally broad-brush and, as with the soldier and the healer, the characters are arche- (or at least stereo-)types standing in place for bigger arguments. What’s being depicted here is a ground-level view of the present-day incarnation of "The White Man’s Burden." A depiction that’s as unforgiving as it is necessary: for all we’re supposed to be beyond that now you don’t have to look too hard to find current discourse on how exploitative external interventions in Africa somehow have silver linings. The first white murderer appears in "The Doctor's Truck," extorting money by using unfamiliar technology to convince members of the rising African middle-class that their vehicles are possessed, rehearsing again the tensions between progress and tradition as native beliefs are cynically turned against the locals by foreign "philanthropists."
The second murderer takes things a step further. Tom Dunnigan enjoys killing people and cutting off their thumbs. Feeling the heat in America, he decamps to Uganda where he acclimatizes quickly, learning the Adhola language within three months, using make-up to pass as African when abducting victims, and killing without reprisal. After ten years of privileged indulgence (“He liked to think it was because he started the school for poor children, and not because of his skin color” p.136) he is jolted out of his complacency when he sees a reanimated corpse from his makeshift underground mortuary shopping in a local grocery store wearing "an outlandish bright yellow costume made from fine silk" (p. 137). Doubting the truth of his own eyes, he quizzes the store owner, an Indian immigrant:
“Do you see him? Dunnigan whispered.
Kapoor dropped, putting his ears closer to Dunnigan’s mouth. “What?”
“Him. “Dunnigan’s voice was hoarse and weak. “That yellow man.” (p. 137)
Following his (former) victim back to his compound, Dunnigan finds his trophy room suffused with yellow light and more talking cadavers also in "yellow clothing and shoes with wooden soles" (p. 144). It transpires that through his excavations he has disturbed a dormant crash-landed spacecraft. The aliens within have discovered they can use dead humans for a form of symbiosis, allowing them to achieve their goals and giving Tom a reason to keep killing Africans with even less chance of retribution. “We can be good allies,” their spokescorpse informs him (p. 151). The title of this story is "The Yellow People."
This is where it gets awkward, because this is about China, which in tandem with its recent rise to superpower status has massively increased its investment in Africa. The Chinese are now reportedly Uganda’s biggest trade partner, investing in oil and hydroelectricity and, like all well-presented imperial powers, upgrading the rail network. One of the defining factors of Chinese involvement has been its strictly economic focus; unlike the proselytizing tradition of western imperialism this Sinitic version is very much hands- (or, indeed, thumbs-)off regarding issues such as human rights; no criticism is offered of local practices and none is expected in return. In the summer of 2014 two Ugandans were executed in China for drug trafficking, with Ugandan officials insisting that this would not affect trade relations. In this respect Dunnigan, with his ability to pass for African when necessary, is perhaps less representative of western intervention and, once more, an avatar for its mimicry by self-serving local authorities.
Even so. "The Yellow People".
My reaction, when the penny dropped that this was the story’s central allegory, was, "Well, that’s a bit racist, isn’t it?" Actually, truth be told, my first reaction was to pat myself on the back for working it out in the first place, and this is why, at the risk of being seen to duck the question, I’m going to say that it’s not something I’m fully qualified to speak to. As with so much else about this book, the reasons for this come down to issues of power and security, and who has them, and who doesn’t. There’s a convincing argument that racism is inherently about punching down: racism is the enactment of power by ethnocultural groupings who possess it against those who don't. In this sense it is, perhaps, possible to forgive what still stands as very crude metaphor: the Chinese/Aliens are very much the rising force in this relationship. Dilman is thus, as throughout the book, punching up against yet another abusive application of power from above and, given I was initially able to treat this story about the exploitation and murder of his countryfolk with the same detachment as a knotty crossword problem, this is not a position I could truthfully claim for myself. It is perhaps a measure of the difficulties of speaking truth to power that, even as A Killing in the Sun is unrelenting in this pursuit, it still chooses the trappings of SF and fantasy to do so, providing a measure of detachment through genre that is not available through culture, economics, or geography.
As I attempt to summarize all this I realize I’ve been rather liberal with words like "blunt" and "crude" and "unsubtle." This is not entirely fair, and even if it were it would not necessarily be a weakness; if you're going to get righteously angry then there's no point in pulling your punches. While a couple of tales are slightly pedestrian, on the whole Dilman's writing does exactly what good polemical style should do, which is embellish things just enough to maintain your interest, then get out of the way to give a clear view of the ideas. Just as with the thematic preoccupations, however, this can overpower other, less dynamic virtues; if you look for it there is a pleasingly sly sense of humor at work here, as evidenced by Mojech’s bathetic forty year march across the Atlantic floor and Kopet’s desperate longing for his wife to give him a fork. So to speak. But this more precise wit tends to get obscured by the ideological broadsides and dystopian flights of fancy. If, though, the SFFnal framing may occasionally distract from necessary subtleties, it more frequently serves to amplify the book’s rhetorical force through allowing transparent positioning of actors and the power relationships between them. Not all of Dilman’s blows hit their marks, but there is no doubting the need for the fight or the sincerity and vigor with which he fights it.
K. Kamo has a master's degree in globalization and teaches in Japan, facts that are more related in theory than in practice. He blogs at this is how she fight start and occasionally tweets. He also regrets not choosing a less abstruse pseudonym.