Science and science fiction are not as prominent as it could and should be across Africa. Novelists Nnedi Okorafor and Lauren Beukes debate the reasons

Words by Tolullah Oni | 20 Sep, 2015

How can scientists spark interest in what they do among a wider public? This simple question formed the basis of a two-day ‘Symposium on Science and Society in Africa’ held in Cape Town on September 2015. Hosted by the South African Young Academy of Science, the symposium included a conversation with Nigerian-American novelist Nnedi Okorafor, also a professor in creative writing at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and South African novelist and comic book writer Lauren Beukes. Both are renowned for choosing to work in the speculative and science-based fiction genres. Okorafor’s 2005 fantasy novel Zahrah the Windseeker won the 2008 Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature, while Beukes received the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award for her second novel, Zoo City (2010), set in a fictional Johannesburg. Tolullah Oni, a Public Health Physician Scientist at the University of Cape Town, directed the conversation.

Tolullah Oni: What drove you into working in the science fiction genre, particularly given that you’ve both come from very unconventional settings? Why science fiction in particular?

Nnedi Okorafor: The way that I came to write science fiction is kind of odd. It was not by watching science fiction films or reading science fiction novels or stories. My parents came to the United States from Nigeria to study in 1969. It was during the Biafran War (1967-70) and they ended up staying in the United States. I was born in Cincinnati and raised in the US. From a very young age my parents took my siblings and I to Nigeria so we could get to know our relatives and our heritage. Those trips had a very strong impact on me, though I didn’t start writing creatively until my sophomore year in college. Up until that point I thought I was going to be an entomologist: I love bugs, and I’ve always loved the sciences.

I took a creative writing class on a whim and by the end of that class I knew I’d found something that I really loved—storytelling.

The first things that I started writing were magical realist pieces. As I grew older I started noticing a lot more about Nigeria—more than when I was younger when everything was rosy and fun and I didn’t see anything—particularly in terms of politics and the way Nigerians were interacting with technology. Once I started writing, my eyes really opened up and I started noticing technology and the way it would mingle with old traditions. That fascinated me.

I started writing science fiction because I wasn’t seeing a modern Africa portrayed in science fiction, and I wasn’t seeing an Africa in the future. I wanted to read these stories but couldn’t find them, so I decided to start writing them. Once I started writing I started seeing and imagining more, and everything kind of connected.

Lauren Beukes: I was very much into Greek mythology and science fiction. I read subversive SF comic called 2000 AD which made a great impression on me. What was interesting about the comic was that it used these crazy science fiction ideas as a way of exploring current social issues. When I started writing I was influenced by the idea that sometimes, to be able to see reality more clearly you need to put a twist on it. Because let’s face it, we all have issue fatigue—the news is exhausting and depressing. For example, what’s happening in Syria right now is too awful.

Fiction is such a powerful tool to engage with the world because fiction is empathy: fiction is a doorway into other people’s heads. I have this pet theory that stories are the most sophisticated virus in the world and that humanity has evolved as a vector of transmission for story. The reason we’re alive is to transmit stories and to pass them on. Speculative fiction gives you a way of really engaging with issues that we are tired of talking about. My novel The Shining Girls (2013) looks at a big issue: violence against women. How do I make the issue of violence against women engaging? I throw in some time travel.

So it’s about taking these twists to allow people to see things differently and re-engage with things that we’re tired of talking of.

TO: Could you speak a little bit about your experience as African science fiction writers and writing science fiction set in African cities?

LB: I was a journalist for a long time and one of the publications I used to write for was a mobile phone company magazine. I got to work on a lot of really interesting stories on the way we use technology in South Africa and how this differed to the way the rest of the world uses it. South Africans are hustlers, not in the criminal sense, but in the sense that you do whatever you have to. You figure out a way to make things work, which I find very interesting.

NO: Lagos is inspirational to me on so many levels. I knew long before I did that I would write about the city of Lagos. I knew since I was 16 and my family made a trip to Nigeria. I saw so many disturbing situations in the first 15 minutes between getting off of the plane and driving to our hotel. After that experience I could not return to Lagos for another ten years or so. Lagos is a city that is so full of life and innovation but it also has an element of terror. It’s so full. It is a writer’s dream because it’s just so much.

I knew I would write about Lagos once I got over my anger at the movie District 9 (2009) and how Nigerians were depicted in that film. It’s good to be angry because sometimes that anger can lead you in a direction that you never would have gone in the first place. After watching District 9, I started thinking long and hard about aliens. In a discussion I had with a Nigerian filmmaker, we started talking about what would happen if aliens came to Nigeria. The first thing I said was, they’d go to Lagos. That’s the first place they would go to. They’d love that city for many reasons. Once we established that then we started thinking what would they do?

Lagos is a city that is so full of life and innovation but it also has an element of terror. It’s so full. It is a writer’s dream because it’s just so much

That’s where the idea for my novel Lagoon (2014) was spawned. I thought of the kind of aliens I would like to visit this city and I knew it had to be shape-shifters. An alien that can easily blend in with the people so no-one would know who was human, and who wasn’t. Writers love conflict, we love creating conflict. And so I started thinking how could I make the city of Lagos just go crazy. Once I started thinking about that all of the city and the country’s issues started coming up: corruption, the problematic roads, the openness of the people. I set the story in 2009 because there was so much going on in the country at that point. For example, Nigerian president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua had gone AWOL and nobody knew where he was. Lagoon deals with the issue of corruption and the missing president who is a character in the story.

Lagoon is primarily a first contact narrative. Typically in these narratives, the first individuals that aliens meet are human beings. And I just have an issue with that: it is just so human-centric. In Lagoon the first contact happen with a swordfish in the water. You’ve got aliens interacting with plants, other animals, humans, ancestors and spirits. Because it’s science fiction set in Lagos, that African idea of the mystical and the spiritual is key to the narrative.

LB: It’s something I’ve been very interested in, as you can seen in my work. It is so much a part of the reality of living in South Africa, and in Nigeria. It is very much part of the fabric of our societies. In Zoo City (2010) I bring in the spirits of the ancestors and divination and magic. I met a scientist at Wits Origin Centre a few years ago. She was a leading palaeontologist but also a sangoma [diviner and traditional healer]. To be able to have these two belief systems in place is really cool. You would think that science and traditional medicine would be diametrically opposed, but they weren’t for her. I think that’s particularly what makes science and sociology in particular very interesting here.

TO: When you put it this way, it seems so obvious that science fiction should be more popular. I wonder why it isn’t more popular on the continent. I think there are parallels with working as a scientist here. Science is not as prominent as it could and should be. Media coverage is one reason. The key academic science publishers are also very focused on America or Europe, and there are tangible barriers to publication. Are we doing enough to promote science education on the continent? There is a gender disparity in science so when we talk about science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education, it’s still seen as a predominantly male field. A young female student in applied mathematics recently told me how both her family and school had discouraged her from studying; they saw her as doing something meant for boys. Do these parallels apply at all to science fiction? I’m thinking of the publishing challenge, and the gender disparity on the continent?

LB: Having a daughter has forced me to notice that with most stories we tell each other it’s almost seems that everyone in the world is male. We need to talk about women more, and we need to use women in our examples more. And that’s a very deeply entrenched problem that all of us have. There’s an excellent essay by science fiction writer Max Barry in which he talks about the dog and Smurf problem. If we meet a dog in the street we mostly see it as male. With The Smurfs, you’ve got Vanity Smurf, Papa Smurf, Hefty Smurf, Chef Smurf, and then you have Smurfette. And she hasn’t got a personality, doesn’t have a trait, she’s just Smurfette, a girl. So one of the things we fundamentally need to do is address language and how we talk about things.

Science fiction publishing is very small, which is an issue all over the world. Most science fiction writers are not blockbuster writers making lots of money, apart from maybe Michael Crichton. It is a hard niche. In Africa, it’s so hard just to get published. It has been really difficult. It’s only recently that publishers here have started to categorise things so we now have crime thrillers or speculative fiction, which was not really the case before. It was just a novel previously, because the publishing industry was so small and there was a no norm to define your work specifically as science fiction. We only have one way of imagining what women’s fiction is, or what women’s science fiction is. It is for me very important to write female characters, to write different kinds of women. It is not just about this idea that a strong who woman kicks ass, wears high heels and does jujitsu, to me that’s uninteresting, a caricature. I try to write many different kinds of women and engage in the world in different ways.

NO: I’ve had an interesting time with publishing. I’m Nigerian-American—I call myself Naij-American. I think that me being that hybrid, having those two cultures has opened me up to writing African-based science fiction. My first novel, Zahrah the Windseeker (2005), was a blend of science fiction and fantasy set in Africa, a genre that was really was still very rare. Nancy Farmer was probably the only person who had done it at that at that point with her book The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm (1994), which was set in Zimbabwe in the year 2194. There was nothing else at that time, absolutely nothing else.

I have to deal with issues of audience, issues of audience not fully understanding the cultures that I’m speaking of, issues of audience not even knowing where that part of the world is

The one struggle I’m still kind of dealing with is the idea that I’m writing African-based science fiction and fantasy—there’s no template. Publishers and booksellers don’t know how to market it; they don’t even know what to call it. They’re not familiar with the cultural stuff that I’m talking about.

I have novels that have been published in Nigeria but most of my books are published in the west. So I have to deal with issues of audience, issues of audience not fully understanding the cultures that I’m speaking of, issues of audience not even knowing where that part of the world is. Americans are very insular and they think the whole world is America. When you place something in a part of the world that they’re not familiar with, they don’t quite know how to deal with it. They’re willing to learn Elvish and Klingon but if you put any kind of pidgin English from another part of the world, they freak out.

LB: I think maybe that is what makes science fiction and speculative fiction such a powerful genre for us, because you can write about Johannesburg or Lagos and international audiences will treat them as if you’re writing about Mars. That can actually be quite helpful because they might not be willing to read a straight novel about Lagos or Johannesburg.

TO: I’m very interested in the potential for collaboration between science and science fiction. What are your experiences in collaborating with scientists in researching new material?

LB: For The Shining Girls, I worked with historians in Chicago and interviewed people who were in punk rock bands, as well as homicide detectives, ghost hunters, architects and radiologists. A scientist friend walked me through the experiment that my scientist character was doing. I really tried to get it right. It’s important for me to be able to nail down the reality of things. Some of that need comes from my being South African—we are badly misrepresented so often.

NO: I was one of the speakers at a conference and I happened to be in the car with another speaker who turned out to be the founder of a company called iRobot. They make these small artificial intelligence vacuum cleaners. I immediately started milking her for information and tried to get a sense of her thinking on drones, which she designs. And so I was able to ask her a lot of questions and some of that information ended up informing a new book that I’m currently working on. I have a geologist friend at NASA, and he’s always emailing me whenever he has some random idea or bug. One of his emails was about how global warming might result in New York becoming tropical.

I thought that was just awesome. I like insects, so I started thinking about the insects that would evolve because of that. I started thinking about the new malaria, and just ran with it. That ended up being the setting for my novel, The Book of Phoenix (2015).

TO: I have a big interest in how, as scientists, we can re-think engagement with the public. Scientists face challenges in trying to find their public voice. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta probe is a perfect example of how this can be done. When it finally landed on the comet it had been flying towards for 10 years it was in every newspaper. It was amazing and everyone for a moment was excited. I met an ESA scientist who told me that in the run up to waking the probe up they had partnered with animators and illustrators to tell the story of how all this would happen. So in the run up there was a whole animation series called Rosetta, are we there yet? They created characters in a sense. I suddenly realised that it had been built up over time. Science is relevant to society, but engagement is not just about sharing the application of science, but creating a public that is engaged, enthusiastic and actually keen to understand what is going on. Science fiction has great potential in this, I think. What does science fiction have going for it that makes it easy for people to get sucked into? This is something working scientists need to learn. Give the same set of facts to a science fiction writer and people will be less interested in the scientist’s version.

I think maybe that is what makes science fiction and speculative fiction such a powerful genre for us, because you can write about Johannesburg or Lagos and international audiences will treat them as if you’re writing about Mars. That can actually be quite helpful because they might not be willing to read a straight novel about Lagos or Johannesburg

LB: Because it lacks drama. What you described about Rosetta is something really dramatic: waking up, a compelling story. The Homo naledi team did this very well recently. Unfortunately we live in a world of brands and marketing, and you need to think about how you put your story out there. They did this. The all-female team who did the excavation are described as “underground astronauts”. That sounds amazing. I don’t know if you ever watched any Indiana Jones films and how exciting they made digging through the dirt and scraping for tiny things seem. But it is, it’s that spirit of adventure, we need to find that spirit of adventure, we need to find the story to make things meaningful.

NO: Narrative has that power. Narrative is also a good way to discuss difficult painful issues as well. Focusing on one person, bringing the reader or the viewer in through that one person so that they can actually experience a genocide, female genital mutilation or whatever atrocity, can get people to really understand and feel and care about something they otherwise wouldn’t

Dr Tolullah Oni is a Public Health Physician Scientist and senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town. She is a member of the South African Young Academy of Science and fellow of the Next Einstein Forum