Read The Prize-Winning Story That Sparked A Debate About Science Fiction

Illustration for article titled Read The Prize-Winning Story That Sparked A Debate About Science Fiction

You can read the short story that's sparking a new debate about the future of African science fiction for free online. "Poison" by Henrietta Rose-Innes won the 2008 Caine Prize for African writing. It's a harrowing story of a woman fleeing a disaster in Cape Town, pursued by the threat of destructive chemical rain, and the Guardian has posted the whole thing on its site. The thing I love about "Poison" is that it conveys perfectly the confusion and chaos that follows the chemical disaster. The story's protagonist is one of the last people to evacuate:

Over the previous two days, TV news had shown pictures of the N1 and N2 jam-packed for fifty kilometres out of town. It had taken a day for most people to realise the seriousness of the explosion; then everybody who could get out had done so. Now, Lynn supposed, lack of petrol was trapping people in town. She herself had left it terribly late, despite all the warnings. It was typical; she struggled to get things together. The first night she'd got drunk with friends. They'd sat up late, rapt in front of the TV, watching the unfolding news. The second night, she'd done the same, by herself. On the morning of this the third day, she'd woken up with a burning in the back of her throat so horrible that she understood it was no hangover, and that she had to move. By then, everybody she knew had already left.

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Lynn still isn't quite sure how seriously to take the problem, and she clings to the idea that the authorities will sort things out soon. As the story goes on, she becomes less and less sure of that notion, especially after she gives up her seat on one of the last taxis out of the disaster zone. It's a sort of mini-post-apocalyptic storyline, which conveys a lot of the breakdown of the usual order through telling details. By winning "Africa's Booker" with a science fiction story, Rose-Innes has sparked a discussion about the state of African science fiction as a whole. Kenyan-born London writer Liz Ng'ang'a questions whether "Poison" really qualifies as SF, and then writes:

I wonder why science fiction has not taken root among African writers. During the early part of the 20th century, Africa was a popular setting for foreign science fiction writers. The continent has since lost its edge, as the unexplored home of exotic, strange and previously undiscovered creatures, to the outer space. A few Africans have since endeavoured to create African-inspired science fiction.

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She cites Ghanian-born film director, whose film Last Angel Of History includes time travel, and Kenyan playwright John Rugoiyo Gichuki, whose play Eternal, Forever is set in the year 2410 and won the BBC African Playwriting Competition in 2006. Gichuki says science fiction is encouraging, because it's possible that in 100 years, Africa will replace the United States and China as the world's rising economy. Another encouraging sign: Science Fiction South Africa (SFSA) is holding a science fiction writing contest for local authors. Cape Town image from Iran Daily. [Guardian and BD Africa via Books SA]

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DISCUSSION

Corpore Metal

@goldfarb: I categorically disagree.

Science may have emerged in Europe (Actually it emerged from an amalgam of several philosophical innovations from several cultures in Eurasia and the Middle East.) but that doesn't mean it's strictly European anymore. Science and technology as cultural innovations with global impact trump local culture. Anyone around the world, regardless of cultural background, can see that science and technology are going to play a larger and larger role in determining the future.

You are mistaking an economic effect for a cultural one. The truth is that science fiction didn't really take off in the West, even though there were rare antecedents before the Enlightenment, until the development of cheap mass distribution of periodicals and books and the development of mass literacy by public education. The success of HG Wells or Jules Verne were due in large part to the existence of a mass readership of periodicals and newspapers.

In Africa and elsewhere, this is sadly still too rare. But I bet if you asked kids standing in the streets near community televisions and radios or near piers filled with shipping containers, they'd tell you they know something is up. They know the future is now changing rapidly. They see the evidence all around them, with every violent political coup, with every refugee migration, with every failed development project, they know something is going on—something very big.

This makes them think about the future in general.

The audience is there. They just need to be able to read and have a reliable source of cheap magazines. Also many developing countries, especially Africa, don't have a common national language and this makes the creation of a mass press especially difficult.