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African Science Fiction and the Planning Imagination

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 July 2017


This essay examines the recent rise in popularity of science fiction in Africa. I argue that this growth can be traced to key shifts within the logic of structural adjustment programs. Over the last twenty years, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have begun to place a heightened emphasis on “poverty reduction strategies” (or PRSs). These PRSs have taken the two organizations’ longstanding commitment to free-market policies and adapted them to the rhetoric of social and economic justice by suggesting that “sustainable” welfare programs can only be constructed through the “long-term” benefits of well-planned “institutions.”

As I show, this vision of long-term development has encouraged a move toward fictional forms capable of speaking to elongated temporal scales. Using Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Lagoon as my primary example, I investigate how sci-fi narratives have struggled to represent social agency within the longue durée of institutional planning.

© Cambridge University Press 2017 

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1 Probably the most well-known African sci-fi novel from before 1980 is Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos series (1979–1983). To the best of my knowledge, the oldest science-fiction magazine in Africa is Probe, the fanzine of Science Fiction South Africa. Launched in 1969, the magazine consists almost entirely of fan fiction.

2 Tchidi Chikere, quoted in Nnedi Okorafor, “African Science Fiction Is Still Alien,” January 15, 2014,

3 For an account of how fandom supports the science-fiction industry, see Bacon-Smith, Camille, Science Fiction Culture (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).

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4 Most of these projects take advantage of digital platforms to reach larger audiences than would be possible with print media. For a case study of StoryTime’s experimentation with digital circulation, see Jaji, Tsitsi, “Can You Hear Africa Roar? StoryTime and the Digital Publishing Innovations of Ivor Hartmann and Emmanuel Sigauke,” Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies 1.1 (2013): 122139 .

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5 Arigbabu, Ayodele, “Prelude,” LAGOS_2060: Exciting Sci-Fi Stories from Nigeria, ed. Ayodele Arigbabu (Lagos: Dada, 2013), xi Google Scholar.

6 Nwonwu, Mazi, “Speculative Fiction in Nigeria: A New Journey Begins,” Omenana 1.1 (December 2014): 2 . The anthology that Nwonwu is referring to is LAGOS_2060, a collection that grew out of a scenario-planning workshop that asked participants to imagine what Lagos would look like in 2060. For more on how the scenario-planning industry has influenced African science fiction, see Eatough, Matthew, “Planning the Future: Scenario Planning, Infrastructural Time, and South African Fiction,” Modern Fiction Studies 61.4 (Winter 2015): 587611 .

7 Of the aforementioned publications, only Something Wicked has ever been available in a print version (although this, too, went digital in 2011). StoryTime also publishes some print books—notably its popular AfroSF anthologies—but its regular stories are collected in an annual e-anthology, African Roar. It should also be pointed out that the increasing popularity of science fiction among African writers has been greeted by a rising interest in African sci-fi among academics. This interest is perhaps best reflected in recent special issues of Paradoxa (2013) and the Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry (2016) devoted to this topic.

8 Fraser, Robert, Book History Through Postcolonial Eyes (London: Routledge, 2008), 182 Google Scholar.

9 See Griswold, Wendy, Bearing Witness: Readers, Writers, and the Novel in Nigeria (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 26119 . The Macmillan Pacesetter series folded in the early 1990s, while Heinemann’s African Writers Series continued on until 2003. In an interesting twist to this tale, Pearson has recently revived the African Writers Series under its own imprint. Like Heinemann’s original series, Pearson’s relaunched AWS is oriented primarily toward the education market, for which it publishes both reprints of classic AWS titles and new manuscripts.

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10 See Andrade, Susan, “The Problem of Realism and African Fiction,” Novel 42.2 (Summer 2009): 183 .

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11 Anthony Appiah, Kwame, “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?Critical Inquiry 17.2 (Winter 1991): 353 . Appiah is talking about second-generation novelists of the 1960s, but his theoretical perspective seems to me to also be representative of the 1980s period in which he himself is writing. On the relationship between “irrealist” literature and non-official cultural archives, see the Warwick Research Collective, Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World-Literature (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015), 4980 .

12 I am going to continue to use the term fantastic to avoid some of the more problematic connotations associated with magical realism. For a perceptive analysis of these debates, see Siskind, Mariano, “The Global Life of Genres and the Material Travels of Magical Realism,” Cosmopolitan Desires: Global Modernity and World Literature in Latin America (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2014), 59100 .

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13 Wenzel, Jennifer, “Petro-Magic-Realism: Toward a Political Ecology of Nigerian Literature,” Postcolonial Studies 9.4 (2006), 456 , 458. See also Sarah Lincoln’s discussion of Okri, inflation, and petrodollars in‘Petro-Magic Realism’: Ben Okri’s Inflationary Modernism,” The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernism, eds. Mark Wollager with Matt Eatough (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 249266 .

14 Apter, Andrew, The Pan-African Nation: Oil and the Spectacle of Culture in Nigeria (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 39 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 Okri, Ben, Stars of the Night Curfew (London: Vintage, 1998 [1988]), 98 Google Scholar, 136, 189.

16 Rieder, John discusses the connection between colonial exploration tales and science fiction in Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press), 134 Google Scholar.

17 Eshun, Kodwo, “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism,” CR: The New Centennial Review 3.2 (Summer 2003): 290 Google Scholar, 292.

18 Mitchell, Timothy, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), 211 Google Scholar.

19 Luckhurst, Roger provides a good overview of the scientific romance and its differences from classic science fiction in Science Fiction (Cambridge, England: Polity, 2005), 3049 . For a more detailed history of Campbell’s influence on American science fiction, see Ashley, Mike, The Time Machines: The Story of the Science Fiction Pulp Magazines from the Beginning to 1950 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press), 107111 .

20 Cramer, Kathryn, “Hard Science Fiction,” The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, eds. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 189 Google Scholar.

21 Nnedi Okorafor, “African Science Fiction Is Still Alien,” n.p.

22 For a more detailed history of university expansion in the postwar United States, see Newfield, Christopher, Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 115 .

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23 A short list of such think-tanks would include the Institute for the Future (founded in 1968), the Hawai’i Research Center for Future Studies (1971), the Tellus Institute (1976), and the National Intelligence Council (1979).

24 Toffler, Alvin, Future Shock (London: Pan, 1971), 384 Google Scholar.

25 There are some exceptions to this general rule. Isaac Asimov, for example, was a professor of biochemistry at Boston University.

26 On literature as a type of world-building activity, see Hayot, Eric, On Literary Worlds (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), and Cheah, Pheng, What Is a World?: On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

27 Gallagher, Catherine, “The Rise of Fictionality,” The Novel, Volume 1, ed. Franco Moretti (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 342 . Early on, some futurological think tanks recognized the potential that science fiction held for their profession. In 1964, for example, the RAND Corporation employed both Asimov and Clark as consultants for one of its Delphi forecasts.

28 For a more in-depth discussion of how state officials adopted the US land-grant university as a model for Nigeria’s education system, see Anyanwu, Ogechi E., The Politics of Access: University Education and Nation-Building in Nigeria, 1948–2000 (Calgary, Alberta: University of Calgary Press, 2011), 74101 .

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29 Mamdani, Mahmood, Scholars in the Marketplace: The Dilemmas of Neo-Liberal Reform at Makerere University, 1989–2005 (Dakar: CODESRIA, 2007), 260 . There is a certain irony in the fact that the motto of one of the most important African universities in the post-independence years, Makerere University, is “we build for the future.” This motto expresses the faith that many independence-era intellectuals placed in the university, but it also hints at the futural logic that would eventually overtake national development schemes.

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30 World Bank, Educational Policies for Sub-Saharan Africa: Adjustment, Revitalization, and Expansion (Washington, DC: World Bank, 1987), 100 Google Scholar.

31 Because the World Bank/IMF aid system was premised on nations overhauling their economic policies, the two organizations would “lend” personnel who were up-to-date on neoliberal orthodoxy. As Mamdani observes, this system pushed out local economists and engineers and replaced them with Western counterparts, essentially giving the World Bank and IMF a protected monopoly in several professional fields. See Mamdani, Scholars in the Marketplace, 260.

32 See Federici, Silvia, “Globalization and Professionalization in Africa,” Social Text 79.2 (Summer 2004): 8199 .

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33 Celia W. Dugger, quoted in Mamdani, Scholars in the Marketplace, 260.

34 For a detailed analysis of how changes in US immigration laws led to the consolidation of STEM workers in the global north, see Ong, Aihwa, Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 139156 , and Ferguson, Roderick A., The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 147179 .

35 Federici, “Globalization and Professionalization in Africa,” 88, and Federici, Silvia, Caffentzis, George, and Alidou, Ousseina, A Thousand Flowers: Social Struggles Against Structural Adjustment in African Universities (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2000), 118124 . The university shutdowns sparked by structural adjustment have become a regular topic within present-day African novels (e.g., Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah).

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36 Nnedi Okorafor, “African Science Fiction Is Still Alien.”

37 The World Bank, A Sourcebook for Poverty Reduction Strategies: Core Techniques and Cross-Cutting Issues (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2004), 23 Google Scholar.

38 The World Bank, The Poverty Reduction Strategy Initiative: An Independent Evaluation of the World Bank’s Support Through 2003 (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2004), 20 Google Scholar.

39 The irony, of course, is that the PRSP system effectively blamed African countries for the socioeconomic inequalities and undemocratic governments that privatization and liberalization had helped to facilitate. For an overview of the debates surrounding PRSPs, see Gould, Jeremy, ed., The New Conditionality: The Politics of Poverty Reduction Strategies (London: Zed, 2005).

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40 World Bank, The Poverty Reduction Strategy Initiative, 54.

41 United Nations, Division for Sustainable Development, Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (New York: United Nations, 2015), 4 Google Scholar.

42 World Bank, The Poverty Reduction Strategy Initiative, 14.

43 Ibid., viii.

44 Ibid., 31.

45 Ibid., 35.

46 March, James and Olsen, John, quoted in Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 58 . The most substantive introduction to the theory of institutional history is Orfeo Fioretos, Falleti, Tulia G., and Sheingate, Adam, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Historical Institutionalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). My thanks to Robert Higney for this source, as well as for introducing me to the field of institutionalism.

47 World Bank, The Poverty Reduction Strategy Initiative, vii. Despite the rhetoric of local ownership, many PRSPs were drawn up by expatriates who had worked at one time or another for the World Bank or the IMF. For example, Nigeria’s post-2003 development strategy, entitled NEEDS (National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy), was written by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former managing director of the World Bank. Okonjo-Iweala’s account of the writing of this development plan can be found in Reforming the Unreformable: Lessons from Nigeria (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012).

48 National Planning Commission, Nigeria Vision 20:2020 (Abuja: Federal Ministry of Budget and National Planning, 2009), 9 . Similar “vision” strategies were completed by Tanzania (Tanzania 2025), Mozambique (Agenda 2025), and South Africa (Vision 2025), among many others.

49 Ibid., 9.

50 Ibid., 9.

51 Okorafor, “African Science Fiction Is Still Alien.”

52 Ibid.

53 Ibid.

54 Okorafor began her writing career as an author of young-adult fiction. Though she is perhaps more well-known among scholars for her adult fiction, her early YA novels Zahrah the Windseeker and The Shadow Speaker were both well received by critics.

55 For example, Okorafor’s earlier novel Who Fears Death resembles Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in its in-depth description of certain cultural rituals, such as the account of female circumcision that occupies the novel’s early chapters. See Okorafor, , Who Fears Death (New York: DAW, 2011), 3251 . On science fiction’s debt to anthropology, see Rieder, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, 1–34.

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56 Okorafor, Nnedi, Lagoon (New York: Saga, 2014), 39 Google Scholar, 278.

57 Ibid., 198.

58 Ibid., 35.

59 Ibid., 33–34, 45. The practice of witch-slapping garnered widespread attention in 2011 when David Oyedepo, one of Nigeria’s wealthiest evangelists, was filmed slapping a young girl. The video made national and international headlines, and eventually led to a lawsuit against Oyedepo and his church. Okorafor scatters a number of direct references to this video throughout her novel. Like Oyedepo, Father Oke decides to film his witch-slapping ceremony; and Father Oke slaps one alleged “witch” for uttering the same words that set Oyedepo off: “I’m a winch [witch] . . . for Jesus.” See Okorafor, Lagoon, 59.

60 Okorafor obliquely associates this “illness” with Nigeria’s oil economy. When we first meet the president, he is off receiving treatment in Saudi Arabia. His eventual return to Nigeria is framed as a moralized turn away from a Saudilike petroeconomy. Thus, in his speech to the nation the president insists that “Oil could no longer be Nigeria’s top commodity. It could no longer be a commodity at all.” See Okorafor, Lagoon, 272.

61 Ibid., 274, 276.

62 Ibid., 278. As Hugh Charles O’Connell points out, these “alien” ideas can easily be seen as analogues to the “benevolent neoimperialism of neoliberalism wrought by the IMF and World Bank.” As O’Connell explains, both World Bank/IMF developmentalism and Lagoon’s alien contact narrative represent change as coming from some “outside [. . .] context.” See O’Connell, , “ ‘We are Change’: The Novum as Event in Nnedi Okorafo’s Lagoon ,” Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 3.3 (September 2016): 299 .

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63 Okorafor, Lagoon, 277.

64 On the realist novel and description, see Jameson, Fredric, The Antinomies of Realism (New York: Verso, 2013), 1526 . On the connection between visual spectacles and certain modes of the fantastic, see Apter, The Pan-African Nation, 121–66.

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65 Jameson, Fredric, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Essays (New York: Verso, 2005), 119141 Google Scholar.

66 Okorafor, Lagoon, 278.

67 On the “slow violence” of environmental pollution, see Nixon, Rob, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

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68 Okorafor, Lagoon, 258.

69 Ibid., 268.

70 Fanon, Franz, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004 [1963]), 178179 Google Scholar.

71 Okorafor, Lagoon, 276, 278.

72 Ibid., 277.

73 Ibid., 277. The president is attributing these thoughts to Anthony, the Ghanaian rapper. But his words are more telling about his own views than they are about Anthony’s.

74 Ibid., 64–65.

75 Bryce Olukotun, Deji, Nigerians in Space (Los Angeles, CA: Ricochet, 2014), 26 . I am, of course, using the term Afropolitan in the popular sense described by Taiye Selasi: “We are Afropolitans: not citizens, but Africans of the world . . . [a] scattered tribe of pharmacists, physicists, physicians, (and the odd polygamist) [who have] set up camp around the globe.” Selasi, too, connects this “Afropolitan” class to the intellectual diaspora that “left Africa in pursuit of higher education and happiness abroad.” See Selasi, “Bye Bye Babar,” The LIP, March 3, 2005.

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76 Slaughter, Joseph, Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), 93 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

77 I am thinking in particular of the recent controversies over the Hugo Awards. In 2016, a vocal alt-right fan group, the so-called “Rabid Puppies,” led by men’s activist Vox Day, attempted to prevent women and nonwhite writers from being nominated by stuffing the ballot box. This initiative was presented as a reaction against the large number of recent victories by nonwhite, women, and LGBT authors.

78 See Eatough, “Planning the Future,” for a more extended account of Beukes’s treatment of planning and infrastructure.

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