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Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Book Review: AfroSF Volume 2 edited by Ivor Hartmann

Following his critically acclaimed 2012 anthology, AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers, Ivor Hartmann came back with Volume 2 last December. Departing from the short story format (AfroSF had 22 of them), AfroSF Volume 2 contains five novellas from six African SF writers (no that is not a typo, as one story is a joint collaboration between Tade Thompson and Nick Wood). As Mark Bould writes, this 'change of format' is significant and 'represents a conscious commitment to the further development of the field - and of the writers within in.' So what's the verdict?

Without a doubt the stand out stories for me were novella 1 (The Last Pantheon by Nick Wood and Tade Thompson) and novella 3 (The Flying Man of Stone by  Dilman Dila). I also really enjoyed reading novella 4 (VIII by Andrew Dakalira), although I wanted more. Now with novella 2 (Hell Freezes Over by Mame Bougouma Diene), I had mixed feelings - enjoying the second half more than I did the first. Finally, novella 5 (An Indigo Song for Paradise by Efe Tokunbo Okogu) was all kinds of crazy, but with hindsight I wonder if that is what the author was going for. So what were they about?

In The Last Pantheon, Nick Wood and Tade Thompson give us a glimpse of Africa's post-colonial history through the lives of feuding alien brothers who came to our planet around 50,000 years ago (ancient, much!). The story starts in the late 1970s, but it goes back and forth (mainly between the 1960s and 2015 - although there is some focus on 50,000 BP) and tracks their story as gods turned superheroes turned rivalling siblings. Black-Power and Pan-African have been part of a lot of our history - yes, Black-Power was in Katanga Province when Patrice Lumumba was assassinated. The brothers could have probably played a more significant (and positive) role in our development, but one brother did not want to take sides politically and instead focused on more superhero dealings - you know protecting the innocent and whatnot. Now it's 2015, the brother's have not been in contact for decades - one in Cape Town, the other in Lagos - and there is now a fight being promoted to reunite the feuding brothers. The Last Pantheon tells elements of Africa's political history in a great way, and if like me you are interested in the political economy of African countries, it's a wonderful read told from a unique perspective - that of superheroes. 

In Hell Freezes Over, the world has become dark and eerie, and if that's not bad enough, it might be coming to an end (hello post-apocalyptic world!). In the future world, we have five Castes, who each have a part to play - The Moles (who dug and borrowed),  The Fish (who dove and swam), The (engineering) Ants, The (agricultural) Bees and The (labour intensive) Beasts. The novella is broken into two parts. In the first part, which seems to be present day (in the context of the novella) we spend a lot of time with The Fish, and one in particular - Ari. The Fish travel far distances, going to towns and cities that have been submerged in search of food, materials, power sources and really what is needed, as ice is coming (clearly not a good thing) and they will be living in caves when this eventually happens. In this part we know there is some tension between the Moles and Fish, but it's not quite clear - but we do know that they have a vendetta against the Fish, who used to rule once.

Part 2 takes us back in time to when The Fish ruled, about a hundred years earlier, and here we meet Rina (she's a Mole woman). Now a Mole woman's life is set in stone and determined to a large extent by her results in the 'Fitness & Fertility' test. Basically if after the test you are barren (a Mole woman's job seems pretty much to populate and re-populate) you have two options: 1) you are cast away from your Caste and you hope another of the male Castes would take you as a wife; 2) you join the comfort houses to provide services for other Castes. Rina chose the second. Rina, I liked though - she didn't follow the norm. Yes, she went to the comfort house, but a revolt was coming and she joined it and played quite a crucial part in it. I do wonder though, if ever there was a history of the Moles take down of The Fish (clearly, I'm getting ahead of myself here) would Rina be included in it or would she be in the shadows - with her brother, the leader, discussed more? My fantasy history of this world aside, we see how - even in a world that is slowly being destroyed - power still dominates.

The Flying Man of the Stone, was another beautiful - if bloody - tale. There has been a civil war in an unnamed African country, and while Katong town was previously left untouched, as the story begins it has now been attacked by soldiers in search of recruits. Our protagonist, Kera (a teenage boy), and his father, Baba Chuma, are the only survivors in their family - Kera's mother and two younger siblings are dead and his older brother captured (pretty much dead). They find a hiding place - a cave in the plateau with charcoal drawings, drawings that came alive and captured Kera's father. The cave, it seems was home to spirits (more like ancient alien race) who transformed Baba (younger, tech savvy and he now even speaks fluent English) as they needed his help. They gave him rocks, which were really an advanced technology that enabled Baba to create wonderful inventions, such as a replicating machine or the flying machine and gun he makes for Kera to rescue his brother. If only it was so simple, as Baba's good intentions lead to unforeseen consequences. 

I really liked Dilman's writing in this story and I have really been meaning to read his collection, A Killing in the Sun. Reading this novella spurred me to do so. In Chapter 2 of the novella, he excellently captures the downfall of Katong town, which went from a worker's camp to a divided home for Indian traders, English colonial governors and mine owners and African workers - 'servants to the foreigners'. A military coup, death of a charismatic General, bloody coup after bloody coup, and a civil war later brings us to Katong town today. This section is quite key to the story as it reveals how colonialism lingers today in the town and with its inhabitants - particularly with one character's distrust of Europeans and non-African religions and his devotion to traditional religions and the ancestral spirits. This leads to an uprising - Baba's inventions have been taken to mean the ancestors are back - which spirals out of control. This story reveals how terrifying humans, and our killer instincts, can be. 

On to VIII. I read the last line, 'War had begun', and I could not believe it was over. I honestly felt like there was more, or at least there should be. It is 2023, and the 8th billion person is about to be born. A cause for celebration, and there will be one as preparations are under way. On a beach near Lake Malawi, a spaceship has crashed and with it a series of events unfold - increasing murders in Malawi and beyond, and the Roman numerals, VIII, on some of the dead bodies. Um! What's going on? Multiple characters are in this story, but it doesn't feel overwhelming or confusing. With time we find out what exactly is going on. It's an alien invasion, but not as you might think. We find out from Sir Gregory - who was pretty bad ass - who finally reveals his secret and the reasons behind the killings. This has been coming for a really, really, really, really, really long time and the aliens have been waiting until we were at 8 billion for their fun to begin. Here, I got Predator vibes (in a hunting-humans-for-sport way). 

I liked this story. It had a very cinematic feel to it (I also got Independence Day vibes - maybe it's the alien invasion, the President ...).  I could see Onani in his white 2006 Corolla listening to R&B, the female prisoner in Chilinde Barracks being held captive, the road blocks, the conference room in Lilongwe ... Still the story ends abruptly, which is sad because it could certainly have gone on. As it ends, we know there's going to be a bloody battle between the Metsu's and the guma's, but who will win? I guess it's entirely up to us to decide.

Last, but certainly not the least is An Indigo Song for Paradise, which was all kinds of weird, but I wonder if that's what Okogu was going for because 'Paradise City, aka God's clock, aka the PC', seems to be all kinds of crazy. It starts with Ecila, who finds a metallic object after a storm which transports him instantly from his village to Para City - which used to be part of a once great city before the emperor departed and took the brightest and best with him. What Paradise City is now is pretty unclear - even for its inhabitants. Is it 'an illusion, a simulation on a hyper-dimensional computer', a 'criminal organisation', or something else? In between there are huemen's, vampires, xombie's, TerraCorp's and more. There's also a lot going on - a protest against TerraCorp who is 'terrorising the planet', what looks like a heist/or a break-in to retrieve an object from TerraCorp (an object that is pretty similar to the one that transported Ecila to PC), cops trying to break the riots, a science fair, a music award show and towards the end a xombie apocalypse (don't worry, this was not all in one night). There is clearly frustration in Para City, with the majority huemen mad at the ruling minority vampire elite and their corruption and devastation of the city. I wonder, is this story placing a mirror onto society, corporations, ruling elites, the like? Also, will violence, and a xombie apocalypse, be the only way to deal with the social injustices that are present (and have been present) for a really long time in this world?

Having read the anthology, there is an underlying theme of violence (in different forms) in this collection - the political violence in African countries, but also the feuding superhero brothers and their fight to death; the Mole take down and the violence that comes with it and the resulting doom of the Fish 100 years later; the civil war and the uprising in Katong Town; the alien invasion and killings in 2023 Malawi; and the madness in Paradise City (there was a lot of killing there). Scratch through that and there is some serious social commentary about the state of affairs - be it in the past with Africa's political history post-independence to the injustices that arise from corporate and elite greed. Having said that, this is also a really fun collection, and while I definitely enjoyed some of the stories more than others, Ivor Hartmann should be commended again for bringing together such innovative and imaginative stories. 

I still would have loved some female voices up in here (something I mentioned previously). Fear not! There has been a call for submissions for AfroSFv3 - a spaced themed anthology - and I remain optimistic that the brilliant female voices in African SF won't be left out.  Deadline for submissions are December 1 2016. I would like to thank Ivor Hartmann for the ARC of AfroSFv2, and I eagerly await v3.

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