There is so much more me than there was before.
And I know. I know so much more than each of us that make up this new and wonderful thing could possibly know with our collective cognition, collective memory. We have gained access to so much more. I know your mother does not approve of what I have done but I need you to understand why I have done it. Why you will eventually do it too. It is, when considered objectively, the natural progression of things. Besides, we have forced our own hand. That is perhaps my fault, at least in part, but I cannot say I am sorry for it.
Let me explain.
First, the What of things.
In the beginning was the void and the void was a scalar field and quantized particle duality in which all the mass of our universe resided, characterised by the random quantum fluctuation that is fundamental to all things. One such strange and wonderful fluctuation led to a phase transition and a release of potential energy—a glorious and beautiful explosion throwing all matter and energy into violent existence. Galaxies were born. Astronomical objects crystallised. The universe groaned with the glory of motherhood. In the protoplanetary disk of dust grains surrounding what would eventually become our own lovely yellow Sun, complex organic molecules that would become proteins were woven together, as elements sought solace with one another in the cold and darkness of space. Eventually, dust called unto dust and our planet came to be—its outside cooling to a hard crust like cosmic creme brulee. And when the crust was hard and thick and the steam had cooled to water, abiogenesis began in a warm little pool, filled with ammonia and salts and light and heat. In this primordial pool, individual proteins underwent complex and wonderful changes, the compounds binding themselves to one another and creating independent but connected systems until they became something far more than the sum of their parts. They became first in a chain that would eventually lead to us.
Yesterday, I took a long walk through the streets of Surulere, considering the thing I was about to do. I watched a queue of young men in skinny jeans and wide-eyed girls with smooth skin and braided hair file into BRT buses. I observed the portly market women who sell roasted fish by the roadside laugh boisterously as they traded gossip. I saw a family of four filled with faithful joy walking back from mid-week Church service stop at the Mr Biggs right next to the Aduraede street fuel station to share a meal. I watched the cars zoom and the dogs run and the flies buzz and the grass sway and rats scurry. I saw the wonderful urban ecosystem that is Lagos and I knew that I was doing the right thing because this is what each of us, each droplet of self-awareness that makes up the ocean of humanity, has always attempted to do. It is the same thing those first complex organic molecules stranded on a strange dust cloud in the emptiness of early space, did. Connect. Become more than the sum of our parts. All of our families, our cities, our social networks, our empires, our cultures, our religions, our socio-political structures serve this one purpose, even if inefficiently: to try to connect us, one consciousness to another, to try to make us more than we are.
From “When We Dream We Are Our God”
Wole Talabi has worked in Mexico, is now posted to Malaysia, and goes scuba diving whenever he can manage.
He is remembered by a generation of Nigerian writers as The Alchemist, the fiction editor for a blog called The Naked Convos, back when the current wave of speculative fiction was first finding its feet.
This interview happened at the Caine Prize festivities in London, July 2018 because Wole’s story “Wednesday’s Story” was nominated for the prestigious award. In November 2018 another one of his stories, “The Regression Test”, first published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, won the Nommo Award.
Yet, the story he asked to be excerpted above was one of his more obscure pieces, published bilingually in a Norwegian magazine. It also closes his forthcoming single-author collection, Incomplete Solutions.
Wole: “The title of the story is ‘When We Dream We Are Our God.’ Humanity makes ourselves into a type of god by networking ourselves together. In the story, two things happen. We network ourselves and then we connect to a super computer to negotiate with it.
“You know how this thing about the Singularity ... you know, the machines are going to become super intelligent and kill all of us. I have a different opinion. And the story is my opinion. They won’t give a shit about us at all.
“It’s a very engineering way of looking at things, but that’s what I do. I’m an engineer. If you think of humanity as a machine or as a system or anything, our biggest problem is we have no group objective. You can’t be efficient and you can’t be optimized and you can’t be improved if you have no objective.
“I do this for a living where you construct complex objective functions that have uncertainty built into them.
“The people who do this the most, this optimisation of multiple functions, are economists. If you are trying to build interesting modern models—interesting to me—it’s not just maximizing profits. How do you maximize profit while maximizing employee happiness, while minimizing the risks to the business, without destroying the environment but maintaining good public opinion?”
GR: “You are at core a science fiction writer.”
Wole: “Yes. Even before I was writing. These are the kinds of discussions I used to have with my dad, with my friends. I used to read a lot of this kind of science fiction—Asimov, Clarke, Philip K. Dick ...
“Random evenings my dad and I would watch something on the Discovery Channel and through the program we wouldn’t say anything, and then we’d discuss it for hours. I remember we watched a show on the development of tanks during World War One. And then we would talk about how technology affected the war.
“Me and my Dad used to talk about how the history of technology is the history of humanity in many ways. Because unfortunately the moment we come out with a new technology, the next thing is ‘How do we use it to oppress other people?’ And there’s a war, and there’s a struggle. And out of that there’s a new equilibrium that arises until there’s another technological shift and then everything resets.
“My dad was a chemical engineer. He used to work for the Delta Steel Company. I lived in a steel township right next door to the steel plant. It was fun. I don’t have any bad memories of the plant. It was just this big box with four huge stacks with smoke coming out. It was in Warri, yeah.
“I went to the local primary school there, then secondary school in a different state, then university in a different state. So we hopped around a bit. We moved from Warri to Benin. They have a whole bunch of languages in Benin. Same with Warri as well. But then I went to university in Ife. And my mom moved to Port Harcourt a while and I stayed with her. And also in Abuja.
“Abuja is dull, but at least it’s organized. Port Harcourt, I didn’t like it. The roads are terrible. The weather was not great. Lagos is Lagos. It’s a mad city. Ife was interesting. It’s supposed to be the cradle of mankind. In Yoruba mythology anyway. When you’re there it doesn’t seem like it (Laughs).
“I have two brothers, one younger, one older. My older brother does business. He studied accounting; he has an MBA, that’s his thing. My younger brother is more artistic, plays piano.”
I ask if his early reading influenced him.
Wole: “In primary school, probably not. I didn’t feel like I was going to write in primary school. I was always reading. That’s been consistent. I read everything. My mom used to complain that I read my dad’s entire encyclopaedia collection from A to Z. I have a bad habit of wanting to try to figure things out, and if I can’t, I try. I’ll try to understand almost anything.
GR: “Enid f**** Blyton”
Wole: (Laughs) “It was everywhere.”
GR: “I guess it’s an inspiration, but I bet it turned more Nigerian kids from ever reading anything again than it turned on. I say chaps. You silly girl.”
Wole: “I think things like The Famous Five, yeah, because you can’t relate. Things like The Magic Faraway Tree, those hyper-imaginative things were easier to relate to.
“We had books of folktales as well. I really don’t remember who by. I remember I had a collection of Nigerian folk tales and I remember thinking how similar some of the Enid Blyton stuff was to that.”
He didn’t read much Yoruba literature like Fagunwa or Tutuola and only discovered them about ten years ago.
Wole: “My parents were from nearby villages; they both spoke perfect Yoruba. They were both from Jabu. Jabu—it depends on who you talk to—but they are typical, proper Yoruba people.
“My family always used to make fun of me and my older brother because we couldn’t speak Yoruba. But growing up in Warri, it was never a priority and my parents never spoke it to us, they never pushed for it. It just didn’t stick. Later I realized that even it they’d tried with me it might not have worked me. Because I am shit at learning languages. And I have tried.
“I lived in Mexico for three months and I took classes every day. I was attending two hours full immersion. Your teacher teaches you in Spanish from day one, they don’t speak English to you. I picked it up because I had to. At one point I was getting around the country by myself with out any help because I’d learned enough. Within two weeks of coming back to the UK, 90 percent of it was gone. Two years later 99 percent of it was gone.
“I was in Mexico for work. They sent me there to help with a project for three months. It wasn’t a very interesting project but it was a good experience. I was reviewing some data on an oil field, forty years of history, all in Spanish. The company was trying to decide if they wanted to invest in reactivating the field and produce more from it.
“I was working with a team to gather information to see if it was worth making that decision. In Villahermosa, in the south of the country. There’s lots of natural beauty around it. You take buses into the countryside around it and there’s this waterfall called Aqua Azul. The water supposed to have five different colours of blue on levels of the waterfall. It’s not true. With the right sunlight maybe.
“I like travelling. I still travel quite a bit. I don’t stay long. Most of my travelling is for holidays now, two weeks at most. I wish I could do more, staying three months, six months. Unfortunately the business has changed, so there’s not as much travel.
“I work for an oil services company. The part that I work with is the part that provides software and technical consulting. That’s what I do, consulting, software, development, design, teaching people how to use the software or sometimes the underlying physics.
“I started working here in the UK, Oxford. Mexico, then back here, and then Malaysia. I was just starting to write and publish with external magazines. All my writing had been with The Naked Convos up until to that point. It was 2012 or ’13.
“I mean I actually studied here (the UK) in 2010 to 2011. And then started working 2012. I did my MSc here (in the UK, at Imperial College).”
GR: “You got a distinction.”
Wole: “After a year of hell. Of suffering. (Laughs) I want to get a PhD. I want to be Doctor. I think it sounds cool. That’s my entire reason for wanting a PhD is just so that people can call me Dr Talabi. (Laughs). It might almost be worth the three years of my life it would take.
“Malaysia is the first long-term posting. But eventually I know they are going to move me somewhere. I don’t know where. I have no idea what I’m going to be doing but just like Mexico, I’ll figure it out when I get there.”
While he was in Malaysia, scuba-diving became one of his hobbies.
Wole: “It reminds me a bit of what I imagine being in space would be like. Malaysia has good diving. And Thailand, the Philippines, any place I travel to, I just ask where is there a good place to go diving. Two weeks ago I was diving in Tanzania. And apparently Kenya has good diving so when I go there I’ll probably do that. Arthur C. Clarke was a diver as well. He wrote books about it. Maybe one day I’ll go diving in Sri Lanka where he used to live.
“There’s a lot of festivals (in Malaysia) and I find it interesting going to the festivals and observing what they do, what the rituals are, what the stories are. Growing up in Nigeria it’s easy to imagine that there are only two ways of looking at faith and the world. The average Nigerian is like ‘There’s Christianity, there’s Islam, and there’s the traditional religions and that’s it.’ But so many cultures have their own entire mythologies that they are very dedicated to. They have these rich stories behind them.
“I keep saying I’m not really a fantasy person. I don’t read much of it. I read mostly science fiction. I used to read a lot of fantasy when I was in high school but then I got frustrated. Just random books you would pick up in these pop-up bookshops, people selling books on the road. And the books had cool covers, ‘There’s magic, there’s a dragon, I’ll take it.’ But a lot of fantasy novels are in series, and in that kind of informal bookshop you might never find book one or book two or book seven. You like the story and you can never finish it.
“Science fiction tends to do one-off novels. So I gravitated towards science fiction, and short stories, specifically anthologies. I used to pick up a lot of them.
“The Hugo nominees, the ones edited by Isaac Asimov. I think I read all of them. I think they used to combine the Hugo and Nebula nominees into one book? You’d have a foreword and an introduction to each story; they were usually kind of funny. I think the last one was 1993 when he died? So I used to desperately look for those.
“Actually Isaac Asimov had a huge impact on me. I used to read his non-fiction as well. I remember there was the Encyclopaedia of Science and Technology, which charted the history of science from ancient to modern times with short biographies of everyone including the Arab philosophers and the Chinese. And they were funny; he was a funny guy.
“When I was growing up my parents were just ‘Speak proper English. You learn your math, you learn your science, your philosophy.’ That was what was important. Because we lived in a steel town, which was an estate. Everybody that lived in the town was all working in the plant. Our neighbourhood was all engineers or management, very middle class.
“You didn’t get people who spoke Pidgin. You didn’t have people selling stuff on the street. A lot of that I wasn’t exposed to until I was ten or eleven. And I distinctly remember being really young like being eight and having ... there used to be periods when they would let local people into the estate to sell things. One of the popular things was palm wine. And I distinctively remember the guy selling palm wine speaking Pidgin English. Leaving that little steel town is when I was exposed to a lot more. In my head, my voice is very Standard English. That’s how I talk. That’s how I imagine people talking. That’s how a lot of people I know (talk).
“A lot of my friends tend to be fairly high-minded people talking about science and philosophy, even from primary school. We’re all nerds. I gravitated to the nerd crowd and that’s what we talked about. That’s the natural voice in my head. But recently I’ve started trying alternative voices. Mostly including Yoruba, which I’m very uncomfortable with. I don’t speak it well at all. I don’t even speak it to people. I can understand ... some. I have family conversations where people speak to me in Yoruba and I respond in English.”
I ask about his writing.
Wole: “My first story for Omenana was ‘Crocodile Ark’ which started as weird experiment. I had the opening for the story but I didn’t know what to do with it, so I sent that opening to Suyi Davies for him to finish it. I think I did it like a competition. Three people tried to finish the story and I read what they’d done and they were all interesting, but not where I would have gone with it. So then I took the story back and wrote what I would have done with it. That was just around the time that Omenana first appeared so I thought ‘Yeah, send it to them. Yeah, support them.’
“It was my first story I sent them, and I liked the response I got. ‘We like it, here’s some feedback.’ Chinelo (Onwualu) is a really good editor. I was like, ‘OK. They’re just setting up, but they’re on the right track, they’re professional about it. So I have it in my head to keep supporting them. Try to send something once a year at least, an article or a story. They’ve just started paying, but I’m like ‘Just keep the money; give it to someone else. Keep going.’ I’m a big fan.”
GR: “The story ‘A Short History of Migration in Five Fragments of You’ follows a family history, starting with slavery and ending up with a journey to the moon Europa.”
Wole: “I tend to think of how to step outside humanity a little bit and think big picture. Sometimes it’s good to step back and say, there is the whole of humanity itself, which can be considered as one thing. There’s little streams and flows and connecting threads within that.”
Wole curates a database of published SFF by Africans on the ASFS website. We talk about how in 2017 there were about one hundred works published and roughly two-thirds of them were fantasy. Very little science fiction is being written.
Wole: “I agree. But you can’t tell people what to write. I do personally wish there was more genuine speculation about the future, constructing a new one. Yeah sure you can write about Mami Wata and the Ogbanje. And you can construct interesting stories. But what comes after?”
GR: “Someone said that too much African science fiction seems to ask the question ‘When do we get to be New York?’”
Wole: “These terms ‘developed world’ versus ‘developing world’ are designed to put your mind in that trap. That tells you that you are trying to be like the West as opposed to leapfrogging or taking the parts that do work, and come up with our own knowledge systems to come up with something new.
“There’s a whole system designed to make you think that the only future for African cities or peoples or cultures is to achieve what other so-called developed countries have. It’s an extremely limited view. Unfortunately it’s a response to colonialism, or what people call neo-colonialism, which is like (chuckles) colonialism by proxy. It’s remote colonialism from afar with the culture and the terminology and the attitude. Your mind cannot see past it.”
One of Wole’s stories, ’Home Is Where My Mothers Heart Is Buried’ is only available in print from FIYAH! magazine. It’s set on a terraformed Mars and echoes how some Nigerians have very mixed feelings about home.
Wole: “It’s very much a diaspora story. I started writing that when I was living here in London and I met a lot of other Nigerians, a lot people wanted to go back but they were very conflicted.
“Many classes of Nigerians come here for different reasons—to study, to work whatever. And they get to a point where they have to decide: do we want to go back or do we stay and make a life here? And there’s always arguments in every direction and everybody makes a different decision.
“To people who didn’t undergo too much hardship, you come from an upper class or middle class family. Your parents pay your school fees; you come to a nice university like Cambridge or whatever. You finish. Going back for you is natural. Going back, things are fun, you’ve only ever known Nigeria in a positive way. You have your personal driver; a maid or two; you have security. It’s all about parties and clubs. Fun.
“Then there’s people who had to struggle to get a scholarship or beg their uncle to get money so they could survive while they are here. Maybe their parents died and they had to spend six, seven years gathering money to make it out. People like that just ... to them Nigeria represents a sentiment of wanting to go back but it represents loss.
“Another thing Nigerians are very big on is family. What if you had two people from the same family on these opposite sides of feeling? Mostly because one of them was older when the bad stuff happened so she saw it and the other was just a child, so to her Nigeria is just that fun place where the people she grew up and played with as a kid still are. The story is about that conflict. It’s a lot of talking and disagreement.”
We start talking about his latest story ‘The Harmonic Resonance of Ejiro Anabohri’ in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but basically all the key points were well covered by the interview he did on publication with F&SF. He emphasizes now how much of the story came out of his own childhood.
Wole: “To be honest, it’s a semi-fictional version of my own childhood. Ejiro is living in an oil-industry camp like the steel camp I grew up in. The books are the books I read. The TV shows are the TV shows I watched. The Princess Bride is one of my favourite things. My brother and me watched that movie maybe a hundred times. Also the things you’d do also show up in the story—your parents would send out to grind pepper. Taking shortcuts through the bush, that’s normal
“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 starting 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?
“I think I’ve been lucky in that most of the Western magazines I’ve submitted to have good editors. I think Charlie at F&SF is extremely underrated. I don’t know why he doesn’t have three or four Hugos for best editor. Charlie’s rejections helped me more than a lot of acceptances I got from other people.
“Back then I had my own blog, which I was just writing stuff on ... travel, personal stuff, fiction. One of the most popular blogs was run by my friend Wale Adetula. He wrote mostly—I’m not sure what to call it but I guess the technical term is sensationalist fiction, romantic stories, crime stories, anything that got people reading, so his blog was really popular.
“Then he read one of the stories I wrote which was this weird kind of horror thing. He asked me to write something for his blog. And so I did, and then other people guest-wrote on the blog. Thinking back on it a bit, his blog became the central one that pulled everyone else’s in. I think back then it was called The Toolsman’s Blog. It’s what eventually became The Naked Convos. Then he tried to make it an online magazine, which is what it is now.”
GR: “And it’s very mainstream these days.”
Wole: “There was like a peak period for me. I haven’t been very much involved since. But it was on that blog that guest-writing happened. Lots of people guest-wrote there. Edwin (Okolo) did some stuff, Dare (Segun Falowo) did some stuff.
“We had like an online writing reality competition where people would get eliminated every week. The audience would vote for their favourite stories. I was like a ghost judge for that, helping to set it up, reading the submissions for people who wanted to be on the show.
“That’s the first place I read Kofi Nyameye’s work. I remember this really snappy story about a zombie invasion in Ghana. I remember my visceral reaction to that was ‘This guy gets in. I don’t care what you guys think, this guy is in.’
“And Suyi as well, Suyi Davies applied and I’m the one who forced that through. Basically any horror, science fiction, or fantasy that was written well, I was like, they’re in.”
Wole is being modest. The Alchemist’s Corner was a regular part of The Naked Convos that featured experimental and weird fiction, and Wole was editor under the pseudonym of The Alchemist.
Wole: “I used to try to get guest writers. That whole process was how I was introduced to a lot of people. We were quite active at The Naked Convos in looking for people who were writing good stuff on their on blog and then trying to get to a bigger audience. Of course that helped us too because good fiction got in more readers.
“I would say that was between 2010 and 2013. I think maybe before that there were some older platforms that I was never a part of. Like Mazi Nwonwu’s story ‘Rain’, also in Naijastories around 2010. I think people start from blogging and you get a response and you think ‘Oh maybe I could do something more with this.’
“It was a good period but then you start to realize that it’s one thing just to whip out something from your brain that’s kind of cool but it’s another thing to edit it properly, make sure the plot you had in your head comes across. We were all stumbling through. Good first drafts were what were getting published.
“And as you go on, you start to realize that if you want to improve, it takes time and effort. You can’t write one post every week or month, like we were doing with blogging. You need to sit down and edit. Once you are putting in that kind of time-effort, you want to be rewarded for it.
“Most of these online platforms have not figured out how to pay writers. So then you start thinking ‘Who does pay?’ And that’s when you start finding Western magazines.
“I think we’re still ... African science fiction ... I think we still don’t have an aesthetic. I’m slightly concerned that when most people think of African science fiction, they think science fantasy, but the fantasy element is based on African traditions.
“There’s some cool science stuff out there as well. But a lot of it is surface level. That’s it. There’s very little big-idea science fiction. So. I don’t know how to encourage a different approach.
“I’m still struggling to figure out if there genuinely is interest in real science fiction around. I don’t like that term ‘real science fiction’, but to clarify, I mean the kind of science fiction where you actually, genuinely think through the technological development and social/political repercussions, build a world and then put a story there. One example I really like is Nnedi’s ‘Spider the Artist’. To be honest with you, I haven’t seen much else like it.”
Out of the blue, Wole says something that takes me by surprise, particularly as he emerged as someone who set a strong tone of mutual support and respect among all the Caine Prize nominees.
Wole: “I’m not very good at reading people. No I’m not. I’ve been told that. I guess it’s true I mean if you tell me there’s something I will see it. Some people have this very strong sense of empathy. They can tell when their friend is having issues or worried about something. I can’t.
“It’s very weird to say this, but based on discussion with friends, people say I have a very small ego. When I was managing a team, sometime I would do something but I would let the team members take the credit. It’s this sense of a natural tendency to want to support people but not specifically out of empathy but more out of ... I don’t know ... more of a sense of that’s how it should be.
“I think ... (Pause) I like humanity as a group. But maybe I don’t like individual people. I see individual people but when other people think of humanity they think of individuals, specifically they think of their father, their friend, their brother. I think big and then zoom in.
“So to me, being nice to people is just how I wish all of humanity was. So it’s my default mode. But that very deep caring about one specific person? That’s something I have to work on. It doesn’t come naturally to me. Being good to a group, wanting the best for a group, supporting people. To me that should be natural. We are one organism. It’s humanity. That’s how I think about it.”