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Updated: April 6, 2013 15:55 IST

Present imperfect, future tense

Aman Sethi
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A new anthology of science fiction by African writers taps into real and modern anxieties.Aman Sethi

Once the Resident Welfare Association in my residential colony made the link between cellphone radiation and cancer, they responded by shutting down some of the transmission towers. I returned to my parental home in South Delhi to find my father making calls by catching stray signals from the balcony.

The residents, he told me, welcomed the move until someone suggested that cellular handsets compensated for weak signals by powering up their inbuilt mobile antennae, subjecting the user to more, rather than less, radiation.

Apparently the modern condition is to exist in a state of constant irradiation, the nature of which — malignant or benign — is now routinely discussed by my parents and their friends. After several weeks of dropped calls, a majority are willing to believe that cellular radiation is mostly harmless but there is always the creeping unease of the unexplained, yet correlated fact: Whatever happened to all the sparrows in our neighbourhood? What killed them?

AfroSF, an intriguing new anthology of science fiction by African writers (currently available as an E book online), taps into such peculiarly real and modern anxieties in a set of 22 fictional variations of the technological encounter: i.e. the point where the engine of progress appears to stall and misfire. Many of the contributors are first-time authors, which makes AfroSF a handy manual to the dystopic visions of some of the continent’s emerging futurists. The texts are diverse, but a few themes persist through the collection like a viral strain.

The future, as gleaned from AfroSF, is a bleak and uniquely third world dystopia instantly familiar to most Indian readers. The Earth is mostly unlivable, cities have been reduced to a set of toxic shantytowns, the countryside is a nuclear wasteland and power is concentrated in the hands of an opaque cabal of faceless bureaucrats and shadowy oligarchs. Artificial intelligence is omniscient, malevolent and on the brink of evolving into a new life form.

Shorn of the gadgetry and paranoia common to most sci-fi, visions of the future — much like reminiscences of the past — are invariably reflections of our present.

The emphasis on environmental devastation is not surprising, given that the developing world — and Africa in particular — has paid much of the price for most of today’s technological marvels. Entire nations have been laid waste in the search for the uranium, copper, tantalite, aluminium, rare earth and oil that provide the raw materials and energy consumed by the server-farms and transmission networks that undergird our online lives.

In “The Rare Earth”, a story by Biram Mboob set in the near future in Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a secretive messiah promises to free his people even as Indian and Chinese companies battle for minerals. While in “Notes from Gethsemane”, by Tade Thompson,  a  radioactive pit in the heart of Lagos is the backdrop for the tale of two brothers struggling to survive in a tough neighbourhood. Right through the anthology, characters routinely slip on gasmasks, hide behind protective shields, and live in claustrophobic climate-controlled enclaves.

The state’s urge to accurately identify, surveil and control its citizens is another frequent concern. In “Home Affairs”, Sarah Lotz describes a South Africa in which concerns about corruption have meant that all clerks have been replaced by seemingly incorruptible robots. Falling foul of the robot could rob you of your identity and all accompanying entitlements.

In “Proposition 23”, a novella by Efe Okogu, all citizens are connected to each other via a neuro that makes them visible to the state and allows them to log into some sort of online matrix. Undesirables are simply disconnected from the neuro network and thereby deprived of work, food, housing, healthcare, and eventually life.

In “The Foreigner”, by Uko Bendi Udo, a young boy of Nigerian and alien parentage must fight a callous bureaucrat to gain Nigerian citizenship and his inheritance.

The primacy of individual identities, and the consequent fear of its loss, is understandable in the context of the modern regime of targeted entitlements adopted by most developing countries. A government department set up by a software mogul, established by executive action rather than parliamentary debate, to collect the biometric information of all citizens, would fit right into AfroSF but in fact exists in the “real world”. It’s called the “The Unique Identification Authority of India”, and its sole task is to gather biometric data in exchange for ID numbers.

Once granted a unique identification number, citizens may access the shrinking bouquet of entitlements offered by the State, but what happens if the system refuses to recognise you? Apparently, that happens too — in about 15 percent of cases, according to the findings of a parliamentary committee.

Yet, too many of the stories fall into the “thinly veiled social critique” genre, rather than embracing the opportunity to free themselves from the shackles of the everyday.

Perhaps the greatest poverty of our times is the absence of a truly radical imagination of the future; particularly at a time when dissent has been sanitised and co-opted by legions of earnest young men and women spouting an NGO-speak of “pilot projects”, “eligible beneficiaries” and “relevant stakeholders”.

The authors also seem to be writing to a fixed word count that proves inadequate to the task of fleshing out a strange and alien world.

Stories begin with a moment of dissonance, develop a premise and end in a flash of incomprehension, rather than following the premise through to its conclusion.

“Azania”, by Nick Wood, is one of the few exceptions to this general rule and is perhaps the collection’s best piece as a consequence.

The writing is intimate, hallucinatory, and lush, and describes a genuinely unsettling encounter between a lost spaceship and strange new world, the loneliness of outer space and the angular dynamics between a crew that has been cryogenically frozen for 12 long years. At each step in the narrative, Wood chooses the more difficult option and fortunately pulls through; the ending has the satisfying click of a well-crafted door, beyond which lies a universe of possibilities.

AfroSF, Science Fiction by African Writers, edited by Ivor W. Hartmann.

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