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Why Africa Needs Science Fiction

05/26/2010

The most valuable natural resource to a society’s development is its ore of ideas.

Much more than a brand of esoteric entertainment, science fiction has long been a source of prophetic knowledge that has influenced the destiny of humankind. From ‘1984’ (Orwell, 1949) to ‘Neuromancer’ (Gibson, 1984), the course of history has continually been altered by the ripple effect of this unique brand of ideas on our immediate future.

Already a challenging art form, science fiction is rapidly growing in complexity in the age of high technology, as anyone imagining a future society is forced to explore the consequences of several new trends on innumerable disciplines interwoven through many layers of society. However, each accurate guess proves to be well worth the effort, to ever-increasing orders of magnitude.

Of course, future prediction is old business, having been pursued by the most inquisitive minds throughout human history, from ancient Greek philosophers to our contemporary career futurists. Yet, in the widening grey area between the document in a scientific journal and the novel on your bookshelf, there lies a multiplicity of universes begging to be explored.

Science fiction is a fragile network of bridges between the scientific world and the general public.

It is hardly an easy task to expose the many dynamic relationships between the lab and the street, and less so to fashion them together into a coherent, gripping piece of entertainment. But when well-executed, it allows the average person to grasp the critical underlying factors of these relationships and gain some skill in uncovering these patterns on their own.

Science fiction takes the thoughts of a few individuals and feeds them into the collective processing machine of an entire society. Instead of being confined to a roomful of academics, these ideas are freed into the Darwinian domain of coffee houses and dinner tables, to be prodded and picked apart from all angles until a refined vision resurfaces through natural selection.

Under the guise of entertainment, science fiction spearheads the formation of vital discourses into the complex cause-effect relationships between technology and social phenomena, sharpening the collective awareness of trends within a society. The more people are exposed to these trends, the more they are inspired to study them, and the more they aspire to influence them for the better.

You don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’re from. Or is it the other way around?

Simply knowing what problems lie around the bend spurs the proactive development of solutions before those problems have time to take root. As we visualize what could be in our future, we gain insight to the implications of the actions we take today, putting our current reality into a grander perspective.

For instance, cyberpunk literature played a significant role in streamlining the regulation of information technology because of the huge discourse community that surrounded cyberspace as it was still in its infancy. The graphic detail in which cyberpunk described the possible abuses of the Internet provided specific objectives to achieve while guiding its development in the West.

This is likely the most recent example of a highly probable scenario being averted just as it began to materialize. There are lessons in here for Africa to learn, particularly as a disturbingly similar kind of situation shows signs of appearing on our continent. And the learning process begins with the simple dissemination of an idea.

A society without science fiction may be standing in the light, but is surely stepping into darkness.

It is clear that exposure to science fiction today has a significant impact on those who go on to build the societies of tomorrow. Had African leaders of the past been given a glimpse of the effects globalized technology would have on our geo-political landscape, we would most likely be living on a vastly different planet today.

As Africa marches onward into the future it is important that we as Africans begin to critically visualize the developments that will take place on our own soil. It’s not enough to import science fiction and translate it into the local languages. Our vision must be based on our own unique reality – cut from the cloth of our own societies and tailored to our specific needs.

It’s about time our youth had a realistic vision of their future, so they know exactly what paths to follow and can be prepared for whatever lies along the way. Africa desperately needs science fiction to expand the frontiers of the African thinker’s imagination, to free it from the past, guide it through the present, and follow it into an unbound future.

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13 Comments

  1. Like what you’re saying here Jonathan :).

  2. Sorry that should have read as: I like what you’re saying here :) (5am and I’m still working…)

  3. Nnedi says:

    Well said. :-)! This is why I write it.

    The reasons for the need of African SF are not rocket science but they need to be articulated and articulated often. Gonna pass this on.

    “It’s not enough to import science fiction and translate it into the local languages. Our vision must be based on our own unique reality – cut from the cloth of our own societies and tailored to our specific needs.”…YES!!

    • The problem is that the need for science fiction in general is not stressed, let alone the need for African science fiction. This is probably the reason it may seem counter-intuitive to actively promote African science fiction of all the literary genres on the continent. By the way, you are a major inspiration to an up-and-coming African SF writer. Keep up the good work!

  4. We have created sumthing. On a genuine level to sea xcellence in Africa is beautifull. This is a wonderfull post.

  5. BigJBfromPhilly says:

    This article is irresponsibly written from view point of historical ignorance. That doesn’t mean I am hating or that the idea is not a sound one, but when you quote/use Orwell as a benchmark and Greek civilization as start off point, it makes may ponder at how much you haven’t read/studied about African History/Human History, folklore and mythological origins. If you had, you would find that all so-called science fiction has it’s origins from/of Ancient Khemitic and pre-dynastic Khemitic/African writings, folklore, mythology and yes, science. We are not in an age of High technology, because we are so far behind where we were 5 millions years ago. So to suggest, as this article’s title questions, Why Africa Needs Science Fiction? is just not the appropriate starting point, but I think I may have an inkling as to your overall intention. Much love,

    Regards,

    JB

    • Thanks for providing your opinion, JB. I’ll admit ignorance on my part on much of African history, but my problem is that if we have to go that far back in time to come up with something to compete with our contemporaries, then we’re definitely not doing enough today. Rather than dispute the origins of sci-fi or our comparative level of technology, I’m more interested in provoking Africans to take the genre more seriously than we do today, or risk leaving the future of our societies entirely in the hands of fate.

  6. Howard Lee says:

    I have just read your article with some interest. but I have to say that you are wrong about Africans or African-Americans nor having science fiction. Since I don’t know your age. I will tell you about books I read back in High School in 1969 it was called “Black Voices” and 3000 Years of Black Poetry” the reason I bring up these books is that both featured science fiction stories written by African and African American writers. One of the stories was about the future of Africans on Earth. The story was about the governments of Earth sending Africans of all kinds to build a colony on Mars. They knew that if something when wrong only we would die. So they sent the best we had in scientist, farmers, and technologist. They thought they would die, but build enough that whites could follow later. Well in the story that never happend and the governments on Earth soon forgot abouts until. Earth through mis use like now is on the verg of death. But on Mars the planet is thriving so the Govenment on Earth goes to Mars and tries to reunite with the Africans they abandon some three hundred years earlier. Now here is the point of the story. The Africans now have to decide do they let the whites on to their planet or let them die in space. What would be your choice? Now that a sci-fi story. In fact that book got me reading other sci-fi books like HP Lovecraft and Ray Bradbury. So don’t think that we don’t have sci-fi in the African lexicon we do you just have to look deep.

    • I’m sorry; I never meant to give the impression that Africans or people of African descent have not written any science fiction. I’m aware of a number of great novels and anthologies, mostly from the past, as you mention. It’s great for African-Americans to have so many science fiction authors of their own, but the situation is much worse for us here on the continent, with our unique geo-political challenges and markedly low number of writers daring to venture into the genre. In these times, so much more than ever, we need a steady stream of vision to keep us up to date with the ever-increasing changes in the scientific world that will have an impact on our immediate future.

  7. Ken says:

    Based on your writing here, I’m really looking forward to reading your upcoming novel. Keep it up.

  8. Love your site so far. I’d love to chat with you more about a somewhat related game project I’ve been working on lately. Send me an email if you wish.

    At any rate, I look forward to reading more of your writing.

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