The first, the most obvious, thing about AfroSFv2 is that this time around editor Ivor W. Hartmann has selected not short stories but novellas. According to Hartmann's introduction, "I enjoy the length a novella gives to really get into a story, [ . . . ] and I wanted to challenge both myself and the writers to see if we could claim another first for African SF writers and publish the first Pan-African SF novellas anthology." Certainly, there is no doubt that the novella is the story-length of the moment, with a number of publishers (most notably Tor) putting out novella lines. Beyond that, I know I'm not the only reader or critic who takes the view that the novella (and here I use the Hugo Award definition of a novella as being between 17,500 and 40,000 words) is pretty much the ideal form for writing science fiction: if we think of a short story as being, as much as it is about what is actually told on the page, about setting up, in the reader's mind, a situation that continues to unfold beyond the story's ending, then the novella is in part about expanding a narrative's frame to take in more of the initial view, so to speak. While the novella moves beyond the allusiveness of the short story, however, it still demands great precision in storytelling. Just because you have the space for more scenes, more characters, more viewpoints, doesn't mean you can afford to be sloppy. On the other hand, while I like short fiction because I think it obliges writers to be concise, too often that concision can lead to a sense of claustrophobia on the page: one becomes crushed within the story. By contrast, a novella's length gives the reader a chance to draw breath, to flex their reading muscles as they proceed. For the writer, I suspect it offers the chance to explore a story in more detail without having to reach for a novel (especially when novels these days often seem to be rather longer than the story really requires).
I wonder too whether the novella allows writers to take creative risks that a novel wouldn't as easily sustain. For example, one thing that is notable about the five stories in this collection is their structural complexity. All six authors seem to me to be testing conventional linear and chronological narrative constructions. "The Last Pantheon" by Tade Thompson and Nick Wood, the first story in the collection, gives us two viewpoint characters whose intertwining narratives move back and forth through nearly forty years, with occasional unexpected shifts into the deep past. All the time they circle the same few events, providing a parallax view of these encounters between two former superheroes, Pan-African and Black-Power. Thompson and Wood frame the story as a graphic novelisation (and indeed, themselves appear briefly in the story in an amusingly knowing postmodernish cameo), which throws out some intriguing questions as to how, in cultures that increasingly draw more on the "look" of things, you pin down the visual in words.
Mame Bougouma Diene's "Hell Freezes Over" follows a different trajectory—not precisely beginning at the end, but not exactly going for in media res either. Halfway through, I did initially think I'd begun a different story altogether, but realised eventually that the story is constructed as a kind of diptych, though there is enough ambiguity in both aspects of the ending to suggest that we're possibly also looking at a bigger historical cycling of events. But that backstep in the narrative refocuses the issues in a startling way. Dilman Dila's "The Flying Man of Stone" and Andrew Dakalira's "VIII" are more conventionally structured, but Dila's story seems to describe circles round itself even as it moves forward, rather like the flying machine that lies at the heart of the story. "VIII" takes place in a short, clearly delineated period of time, but in common with Efe Tokunbo Okogo's "An Indigo Song for Paradise," it has a remarkably filmic quality about it: there are many jump cuts, a constant shifting of viewpoint as the narrative tries to make sense of extraordinary events around the world. "Indigo Song" is intensely structured, flipping from character to character, leaving the reader breathless with the speed and energy with which the narrative moves.
Indeed, another thing which is noticeable about all the stories is how urgently they demand of the reader: you will read, you must read. God knows, I'm a jaded reader. Been there, done that; and it really does seem as though a lot of Anglo-American SF is retreading familiar paths to little purpose. And yet, oddly, part of what these stories do is to retread, or rather, repurpose ideas and tropes that are quite familiar, but turn them into new things. This concept is made quite explicit in "The Flying Man of Stone," where Baba Chuma, a metalworker, is famed for his ability to make new things out of old. When he acquires some alien technology and builds a "replicating machine," his son, Kera, recognises that while "[h]is father had built something straight out of a sci-fi movie [ . . . ] its system was no more complex than that of a rope pulley. It had to be magic" (p. 171), which positions us neatly in familiar Clarkean territory. It is clear to the reader and to Kera, if he but admits it, that he and his father have encountered aliens who have been on Earth for a long time. This, though, is not the story. It's not the wonder of the technology that is of concern, or where it came from, but the uses to which it is put. This is a familiar scenario in which soldiers murder innocent civilians, leaving the survivors to apportion blame, and take revenge as seems appropriate. But who is to blame? Corrupt governments? The colonial settlers who put in place an inappropriate governmental model in the first place? There is no straightforward simple answer. And that's the point: there never is, never can be. Through this, Kera must chart a course, in the flying machine Baba Chuma made. And the story isn't even about that. It's about raw emotions: anger, rage, the urge for retribution, the need for an explanation, and the whole terrible mess of politics.
All these stories are fiercely, viscerally political, directly confronting issues that I think too many Anglo-American stories gloss over, calling such evasions "art." "The Last Pantheon" represents the struggle for supremacy between two strands of black political theory, made explicit in the names of the superheroes Pan-African and Black-Power, while simultaneously providing a witty commentary on the pervasiveness of American cultural references in African countries, and dissecting familiar tropes of science fiction, in between querying whether science fiction as a written form is even appropriate in these circumstances. It's clear why Hartmann chose this as the opening story because it does set an agenda of sorts, presenting the reader with a working model for the concept of Afrofuturism, something which is firmly reiterated in "An Indigo Song for Paradise," interrogating as it does the nature of Paradise City, a violently assertive contemporary setting in which, as various people chase after pieces of a mysterious device, the reader is given a revealing tour of how the city's economy really works. This is not so much a story as a collage of text, verse, and music, employing a similar parallax technique to "Last Pantheon," and dealing with many of the same issues in a more informal way. Like "Last Pantheon" the story reaches deep into the past, and suggests that aliens have been present on Earth for millennia.
It's a persistent theme, perhaps made most explicit in "VIII," which posits this world as some sort of game reserve, watched over by sympathetic aliens who fear that at any moment the hunt may recommence. Read in the wake of recent controversies about rich Americans shooting African wildlife for trophy purposes, it's not difficult to figure out, on one level at least, what this story is saying; but it is equally a very compelling portrait of a group of people trying to deal with the incomprehensible when it erupts in their community, as well as slipping in some sharp political commentary.
Mame Bougouma Diene's "Hell Freezes Over" is out on a limb in this collection, perhaps, in that it is set in a time in which an ice age is returning (again, one is reminded of an Arthur C. Clarke story: The Forgotten Enemy"); but again, this is incidental to the intricate politics explored as two specialised groups of survivors vie for supremacy. What is specifically interesting about this story, however, is the gender politics at work among the Mole people, in which women play a subordinate role and are valued according to their ability to produce children. Unsurprisingly, much of the story focuses on women who are attempting to change this, in particular Rina Arfazadeh, who becomes the figurehead of a struggle against her own people in a search for equality.
Several of the stories in this collection either put women front and centre in this way, or else represent them as in the ascendant by the time the story finishes, which makes it all the more difficult to raise the next criticism, but it's impossible to avoid.
This is a collection of stories by six men. There are no women writers here.
Why are there no women writers here?
There are women writers in Africa. There are women writers within the African diaspora. There were women writers in AfroSF. I find it impossible to believe that not one single African woman writer ever uses the novella form. There is nothing that insists novellas can be written only by men (the Tor novella line gives the lie to this immediately), so one has to ask why Hartmann either couldn't or wouldn't include any women in this collection—especially when he mentions a number of women writers in the collection's introduction. It is the one glaring flaw in a collection of fiction that I would otherwise recommend unreservedly. There is so much here to like in terms of wonderful, compelling, thought-provoking contemporary storytelling, and yet still there is no room at the table for women. What does that say to us about AfroSF?
Maureen Kincaid Speller is a critic and freelance copyeditor. She has reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation, and is assistant editor of Foundation.