Another year, another crop of excellent African speculative fiction with so many writers exploring, commenting on, reflecting and experimenting with our existence in strange, interesting and wonderful ways through fiction. You can read Geoff Ryman’s broad summary of the year in African SFF over at Locus magazine at THIS link. And if you want a working list of (almost) everything that came out last year, check out THIS link. (I’d also like to encourage you to please fill the form with any works that might have been missed out, it is growing increasingly difficult to keep up with everything published but that’s a ‘problem’ I’m grateful for). All this activity (and an expanded nomination window) means there is plenty of material to be considered for this year’s Nommo awards. Which is excellent. (A list of my own 2019 work for your consideration can be found HERE if you feel like checking that out)
As I’ve probably brought up several hundred times, I am a huge fan of short fiction and I read (and write) far more short fiction than I do longer work. I didn’t write much last year but I did try to keep up with my reading so, as has become usual, I’d like to highlight the African speculative fiction short stories I read and enjoyed most from the year, mostly to thank the authors for producing work that I personally appreciated and to fuel discussion and analysis of African speculative fiction stories in general.
[Before we begin, a few notes: these are simply my personal favorites or those that left a lasting impression on me based on my own tastes. They are largely stories I’d personally recommend. My tastes lean toward stories that have a scientific core, experimental structure, beautiful prose, philosophical underpinnings and wildly inventive ideas among other things. Also, while I’ve read a lot of the short work put out this year, I doubt I’ve read everything. And finally, I am working with the ASFS definition of Short Story, which includes stories of up to 17500 words (these may be classed as novelettes in other some other categorizations)
So without further ado, here are my 10 favorite African speculative fiction short stories of 2019, in no particular order.
1. “Corialis” by T. L. (Zimbabwe/UK), Fiyah Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction
Corialis is a hard-SF story that follows Thandeka, one of a group of pioneers trying to establish colony on a moon orbiting a gas giant in a distant solar system teeming with a mass of unicellular life forms that may or may not be intelligent. The settlers have sterilized their own internal biomes in order to better adapt to their new home but things are not going very well and its up to Thandeka to use her knowledge and call upon her Ubuntu heritage to find a way for humans to truly settle this new world. The story beautifully and carefully examines the scientific, philosophical and ethical issues of planetary colonization from a uniquely African viewpoint, with truly fleshed-out characters and Tendai’s usual tight and eloquent prose. It just hits all the right notes. Highly Recommended.
These two stories are somewhat thematically similar in that they feature protagonists that reluctantly embark on journeys and end up paying a heavy price. That’s where the similarities end though, and so while I’m cheating and putting them together so I don’t have to choose between them, I like them both equally even though I like them for different reasons. Principles of Balance, is fantasy adventure, and follows Nbelenyin, an “inbetweener” (physically and spiritually) who exchanges messages between the living and the dead, and supposed to stay out of the affairs of both in order to maintain balance. Lured into taking an assignment beyond the usual, Nbelenyin gets pulled more and more out of “balance”. The story is fast-paced, the character voice is a blend of generalized wise-cracking Hollywood hero and African urban street hustler. More Sea Than Tar, is cli-fi set in a post-climate-dystopia Nigeria where cities are flooded and polluted and the survivors, like our protagonist, Uti, and his family, are trying to come to terms with their new, damaged world. When Uti’s father head out in their canoe to seek out adventure and an alternate source of livelihood, violence ensues. This story is more of a slow build, with exploration of each member of the family’s mental states as well as, well-realized, lovely and terrible imagery of what a climate dystopia could look like in sub-Saharan Africa. In both stories though, when the resolution comes, it is unflinching. Both Recommended.
3. “The Ocean That Fades Into Sky” by Kathleen Kayembe (Congo/USA), Lightspeed Magazine
Set on Uloh-la, a planet that has been colonized by humans who have brought their own gods (Cities, Homes, and Ships) with them, gods who have subjugated the native gods (Sky, Land, and Ocean), this story follows Coasts, a daughter of Ocean who is pretending to be her mother in order to buy time for her mother to gather enough strength to take on the colonizer gods. She needs to maintain the ruse because the colonizer gods organize annual summits to ensure that the conquered gods account for their actions and help the humans settle and if they displease the colonizer gods, they are destroyed, spending two decades reforming themselves only to reappear, weakened. However, Coasts has fallen in love with the daughter of the colonizer gods, Obsequies, setting up a Romeo/Juliet-type situation where the lovers exist in an unbalanced power dynamic and the trust Coasts has put in her lover could lead to dire consequences. The story wears its commentary on race, assimilation and colonialism on its sleeve but the relationships are handled skillfully and the tension is held superbly right until the very end. The story, in its way is hopeful and shows how something cooperative could be formed by the new deities, the children of the old native and colonizer gods. This is a clever blend of science fiction and fantasy that I found completely engrossing. Recommended.
4. “A Million Reasons Why” by Nick Wood (Zambia/South Africa/UK), Learning Monkey and Crocodile
In this science fiction story, set in 2043, Cape Town has become extremely stratified by class, with the rich living atop table mountain and the “99%” living around and serving them. We follow Nonhle, an old woman, constantly in pain due to a chronic disease and living with her adopted daughter, Gill, whose family she used to be a maid to before the father fled to the table top. On the verge of giving it all up, she finds new strength and new ways to work with what her has: her people, her stories, her daughter, to find reasons not to give up and to use her pain to try to change the world around her. This is a clever and thought-provoking story about some difficult but important topics, just the kind of thing that Nick has made a name for himself in addressing. Recommended.
5. “Tiny Bravery” by Ada Nnadi (Nigeria), Omenana
Ada Nnadi delivers a highly enjoyable and relatable superhero drama in this Omenana story (Oh look, I have a story in the issue as well) where superpowers are thrust upon people whether they like it, are prepared for it, can handle it, or not. It is primarily set in a kind of school-cum-therapy-center in Nigeria for such “gifted” youngsters in the vein of Xavier’s school from the X-men comics or the Edgeview school from David Lubar’s Hidden Talents. While the core idea and setting of the story are very familiar, what it lacks in originality of its central conceit, it more than makes up for in execution and heart. The protagonist is a young Nigerian girl with invisibility powers and who likes to stay out of sight who makes friends with a winged girl, whose powers developed very publicly and who is always trying to pluck the wings off. There’s a lot of trauma both girls (and everyone in the story) needs to work through, helping and sometimes hurting each other along the way and the story quite nicely puts it all on display with solid character work, a great sense of place and voice and overall, a caring core that I really enjoyed reading. Recommended.
6. Into Darkness” by Anike Kirsten (South Africa), Nature: Futures
This one is a bullet. Short, sharp, and liable to leave your mind blown. In it, young researcher Siya ventures into a stable, micro black hole, near Victoria falls in Zimbabwe while her long-time friend and co-researcher Busi stays outside to take readings and measure what happens. Only, once she’s in this place where physical laws find themselves stretched to breaking point, she finds something (or should I say, someone) unexpected, and realizes that an incident from long ago may have left her in a hellish loop with no future. Although the setup of the story is sparse (As expected for a flash fiction piece), it works perfectly, using the concept of time in a way I found highly entertaining and clever even after reading it multiple times. Recommended.
Another pair of somewhat thematically similar stories tie on my list despite the fact that I like them for completely different reasons. In this case, the connective tissue is that they both feature protagonists who undergo significant change, a complete change of who and what they are, to become something new, something altogether different. In particular, for both stories, the protagonists seems inevitably drawn to the change.
Pemi’s story brings to bear her great talent for crafting unsettling stories, stories that are definitively weird and numinous. I’m tempted to use (introduce?) the term Nigerian Gothic, to describe the bulk of her work (of which this is exemplary) but I may be overstepping my own knowledge of literary modes and sub-genres. In this story of identity, morality, familial inheritance, reincarnation and possession, Pemi is firing on all cylinders: from her use of the second person narrative (an effective way of inserting the reader into the characters sense of being externally influenced), to its casual escalation of violence, its religious overtones, its distinct Nigerianness and its almost ambiguous delivery (is it truly some sort of spiritual possession or is our main character having a mental breakdown? I think you could theoretically read it both ways). Definitely one of my favorite stories of the year. Highly Recommended.
Wanini’s story in the excellent Jalada 08: Bodies Anthology on the other hand, is perhaps less refined, but perhaps more intriguing in concept and so works for me as a great companion piece to Manifest. The main character in this science fiction drama set (presumably) in a future Kenya chooses to install an experimental body modification that allows one to morph into a plant and experience sensory input the way plants do, an experience she finds herself constantly drawn to. I found the idea here endlessly fascinating, the descriptions of the transformation to be lush, and the characters yearning for the alternate way of being especially palpable. Recommended.
8. “The Lights Go Out One By One“ by Kofi Nyameye (Ghana), Asimovs Science Fiction Magazine
I’ve liked the particularly bold core conceit (Lets steal a star!) of this classic science fiction story ever since I saw an early incarnation of it back in 2014 and I’m especially pleased to see this final version of it in Asimovs (and nominated as a reader favorite no less!) after helping edit its earliest forms and providing feedback on its various iterations through the years. In this, its final, published iteration, a team on a desperate mission to save humanity in a distant solar system, need to steal a star but make a profound discovery and are forced to make a difficult choice. This has all the elements I enjoy, a good scientific core (although it gets somewhat hand-wavy on some of its concepts), a true sense of exploratory wonder and discovery, philosophical and ethical dilemmas, interesting character drama and an inevitable, unflinching ending that feels like a kick to the liver. Highly Recommended.
9. “The Re-evolution of Cloud 9” by Nikhil Singh (South Africa), The Unquiet Dreamer: A Tribute to Harlan Ellison
Nikhil Singh’s writing is, shall I say, hallucinogenic. And in crafting a tribute story to Harlan Ellison, he’s directed all that hallucinogenic, transgressive energy into a dangerous vision of a sort-of afterlife in story of Cordwainer Bird, an ectoplasmic being that hops around time in a ship called Cloud 9 stealing artists from their time and bringing them to the late Devonian while evading, and broadcasting messages (warnings?) about, the creatures (Eye-ders and Mansects) that really control all of existence. OK, its not quite as trippy as that description would have you believe (or is it?). Without spoiling anything, it reads like The Matrix by way of Terry Gilliam, and all the references to Ellison’s work (From I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream to the chosen name of the main character) serve to indicate that all may not be as it seems in this wildly inventive, reverential and highly enjoyable story with a clever ending. Recommended.
10. “Between the Dark and the Dark” by Deji Bryce Olukotun (Nigeria/USA), Lightspeed Magazine
This story has stayed with me since I first read it. In it, the arrival of an alien, crystalline lifeform blooming over the Earth forces humanity to abandon planet and send out a wide variety of generation starships, hoping some will succeed in seeding human life and civilization on another world. They are closely monitored by a cadre of council members called Stewards scattered about the Solar System, and who are given life and death power over all the crews to ensure they fulfill their charters and follow the laws. We follow two characters, Mafokeng (a steward of South African descent) and Rory, one of the crew of the Lions Mane, a ship accused of cannibalism – a crime which the stewards council must evaluate and judge them. But there is more going on than initially indicated. I love the double POV here, the slow unraveling of the complex truth, the elements of detective story as the stewards examine the evidence, the description of ritual, the anthropological eye it turns toward the possible cultural evolution of morality and culture on a generation ship as it tends away from Earth. All of it is excellent and thought provoking. Recommended.
So… those were my favorites (and likely nominees for the Nommos).
What were yours? Any great African SFF stories you’d recommend?