African sci-fi features all manner of weird and outlandish things, from crime-fighting robots to technological dystopias. But could they be closer to predicting the future than they realise?
Since the birth of the science fiction genre in the early 19th century, Africans have been conspicuously absent from sci-fi films, novels and comics. However, in recent years, African science fiction has been quietly flourishing, and a small but growing coterie believes this sub-genre not only reflects recent achievements in African technology but could predict or shape future inventions.
“There has always been a symbiotic relationship between science fiction and technological innovation,” says Jonathan Dotse, a prominent Ghana-based blogger on African science fiction, who is working on his first sci-fi novel.
Dotse points out that sci-fi in the West developed in response to the rapid rate of technological progress and believes technological development in Africa could provoke a similar surge.
“Science fiction can raise awareness in Africa of the huge potential of indigenous innovation to improve living standards,” he says. “Our nations will need to significantly increase their investment into the institutions and technological infrastructure required to create and sustain this innovation. Such costly and long-term initiatives won’t easily gain public support without a public discourse that takes the long view of their own societal development. This is exactly sort of discourse that science fiction provokes, and can help to shape within African societies.”
Dotse emphasises that science fiction is highly relevant to Africa, despite the prevailing belief that it is a Western genre. “Nnedi Okorafor and Lauren Beukes, two of the most prominent African science fiction writers, build their stories around ideas which express the intricacies and artefacts of their respective cultural backgrounds and merge them seamlessly with speculative concepts,” he says.
Okorafor, a Nigerian sci-fi writer, agrees that she is driven by a desire to explore possible African futures on Africa’s own terms.
“I found a lot of Western science fiction to be quite insular and self-absorbed,” she says. “I started writing it because whenever I’d travel to Nigeria, I’d see Nigerians interacting and using technology in a way that was a little different than what I’d see in the West. I wasn’t seeing anyone write about the continent of Africa as the modern place it is. I wasn’t seeing anyone dreaming about its future.”
One eye on the future
The emergence of African sci-fi inevitably raises questions about whether it will predict or shape future innovations. It is now received wisdom that Western science fiction anticipated or even sparked future inventions. Famous examples are the prediction of debit cards in Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward, antidepressants in Aldous Huxley’s 1931 Brave New World, and the first internet search engine in the 1978 BBC radio comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Although African science fiction is still embryonic, there is a growing pool of works that are arguably already pertinent to Africa and possible future
A good starting point is the compilation AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers, published in 2012. All of the stories reflect African realities in one way or another. Sarah Lotz’s short story ‘Home Affairs’, for example, is an incisive exploration of what might happen if civil servants in one of Africa’s sprawling government bureaucracies were replaced by robots that could erase a citizen’s entire identity records with a single computer error.
Some stories go even further. A story by Ashley Jacobs, for instance, describes one man’s determined search across South Africa for medicine that will cure a sick friend. In this South Africa of the future, basic infrastructure – such as medication – is severely lacking but society is awash with useless technology.
This depiction may turn out to be not too dissimilar to future realities. After all, nearly two thirds of households in Africa have at least one mobile phone. But around three quarters live in poverty.
‘Spider The Artist’ by Okorafor meanwhile features robotic spiders tasked with guarding oil pipelines in the Niger Delta. This too may turn out to be a pertinent prediction. A multimillion-dollar project currently being carried out by the world’s largest security firm, G4S, could lead to the introduction of robots along Nigeria’s oil pipelines within the next decade or so.
A team, which involves G4S and several leading universities, is already trialling security robots as part of a $11m EU-financed project. Although these robots could be useful in a number of contexts, analysts have flagged the protection of Nigeria’s oil pipelines, which are systematically targeted by militants, as a possibility.
Africa’s sci-fi films may also foretell future innovations. Pumzi, a 23-minute science fiction film by Wanuri Kahiu, was released in 2009. It is set in a post-apocalyptic Kenya, where there is a shortage of water. Apart from being a troubling reflection of rising fears about East Africa’s water supplies, Pumzi could be touching on tech innovations that we will see in Africa one day – such as a technology to purify urine.
Some innovators in Africa are already playing with this idea. In 2012, four female Nigerian entrepreneurs hit the headlines after creating an invention that not only purifies urine but uses the waste to generate electricity. The technology involves channelling urine into an electrolytic cell that transforms the waste into hydrogen, water and nitrogen. The hydrogen can then be purified. With the generator the innovators built, one litre of urine can provide six hours of electricity.
Okorafor is nonetheless insistent that African science fiction, perhaps like all fictional literature, arises from a natural process rather than speculation about the future. “If I thought this hard about my stories’ specifics, there would be nothing organic about them. To me, my stories are more like a living thing than a machine,” she says.
Nonetheless, Dotse describes such speculation as a “natural reaction”, which is “inspiring writers across the continent to begin exploring the nature of these changes and extrapolating the long-term impact they may have on our societies.
“Since I first started paying closer attention to the details and adding up the implications for the years to come, I’ve begun to see the future of Africa, and the future of human civilisation, in ways that I have never seen before.”