Martin Bergesen | martin.bergesen @ gmail.com
The good old, forehead-slapping days of obvious “why-didn’t-I-think-of-that?” ideas aren’t past. This was Jonathan Dotse’s experience on 13th May this year when he revived the cyberpunk genre and took it to Africa via a blog post, only to be linked by God, everyman, Bruce Sterling and Warren Ellis (though not exactly in that order). Why the strong response?
Well. If you were to say “cyberpunk” to the average science fiction fan nowadays, you might catch a wet glimpse of neon black nostalgia in their eyes. No wonder, for cyberpunk was simultaneously the most techno-romantic and dystopian genre sci-fi has ever seen. Its main ingredients were often a dystopian and polluted metropolis, with the populace oppressed by futuristic technology. The only bright side? Super-cool hacker rebels that used the technology to their advantage in the fight against the huge mega-corporations that had taken power from the states. In other words, deliciously gloomy.
As a vision of the future, cyberpunk quickly became obsolete. As we entered a new millennium and the millennium bug (anyone remember that?) didn’t kill us all, the internet became a casual place where everyone connected through pastel-colored social media and paid their phonebills. Even cyberpunk godfather William Gibson, who predicted both virtual reality and the Internet in the 1984 novel “Neuromancer,” ended up writing about the present. It was exciting enough. In the face of web 2.0 we said our sad, but necessary, farewells to the future 1.0.
But the cyberpunk future was not dead; it had only moved South, without anyone noticing. Anyone except Dotse, that is. The 22-year-old was born and raised in Ghana, lives in the country’s capital Accra, and is a budding sci-fi writer.
– I studied at the University of Windsor in Canada for three years, and at first I could not imagine a sci-fi novel set in Africa, he says.
It was only on the plane home to Ghana that Dotse had second thoughts. As he peered over the bright lights of Accra below him he realized that many themes from the genre he was so fond of were present here, right outside his front door. States that had lost control, severe corruption, private companies with ever-increasing power, and disillusioned but tech literate youth.
– I saw a counterculture forming around new technologies. I saw the rapid technological advances that were changing the way ordinary people dealt with the world. And I saw a lot of unregulated access to technology.
It struck him that Africa was already cyberpunk.
Dotse is far from the first person to connect sci-fi with Africa. Both South African Neill Blomkamp’s action hit “District 9” and the Kenyan short film “Pumzi” view the continent through technological eyes. But Dotse’s perspective is fresh because it simultaneously feels nostalgic and relevant. His inspiration is mainly the technological relationship between the West and South. The Western world’s technological advances have been subject to laws and regulation. The trend has been gradual and has been tailored to user needs. In African countries, however, these technologies arrived fully developed, unrestrained by law and open to abuse.
– The catalysts are access to high technology and the lack of an organizing framework. There may be variations in relation to income and availability of technology, but the common feature in each case is that the level of regulation cannot be compared with the countries the technologies were designed for.
Although he is for technological advances, he is concerned about this lack of control.
– In modern Africa, there is to some extent an acceptance of lawlessness, and therefore we are more dependent on each other than the “system” to maintain law and order. The problem is that this model is not particularly well suited to handle technology and the power it grants the individual to undermine the entire system.
The effect of this bias, he said, among other things appears in terms of hacking.
– Hackers here have almost carte blanche on what they can get away with. For instance the internet banking sector has been hampered for many years, simply because they feared the consequences of running normally. Much of what is going on is only known through rumor, since the police do not have the full capacity to deal with it. With so much free scope, it is not difficult to imagine what is going on in secret.
Time will show what Africa’s technological destiny will be. Meanwhile, Dotse is busy writing his debut novel, a story set in the middle of the twenty-first century, when people have computer implants in their brainstem called “biocores” that manipulate their minds.
– I want to explore what effects it would have on our humanity and our consciousness, Dotse explains.
And where does the novel take place? In Accra, of course.
Jonathan Dotse’s blog can be found at afrocyberpunk.wordpress.com.
Photograph by Ebenezer Gwumah.