New wave of African sci-fi will inspire innovation

Children practice their computer skills
Copyright: Sven Torfinn/Panos

Speed read

  • Science fiction allows people to see how science and society interact
  • Films and novels already explore pressing problems such as water scarcity
  • African sci-fi could help catalyse new models of sustainable growth

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Science fiction helped accelerate Western development. It could do the same in Africa, says Jonathan Dotse.

The Industrial Revolution sparked the first wave of modern science fiction narratives, which used the power of creative storytelling to explore the implications of unfolding technological developments. Science and speculation drove those stories and narratives, allowing people to truly begin to envisage the radical possibilities that lay in the near and distant future.

The technological climate in Africa today bears many similarities to that of Europe and America in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Emerging technologies are raising standards of living by providing access to new tools of production, scalable energy systems and globalised distribution networks. Information and communications technologies have opened up an unprecedented range of economic opportunities and transformed the lives of millions of people across Africa.

These dramatic changes are fertile ground for speculation about the future of the continent — and science fiction can inspire Africans to envision their future with a renewed sense of agency and possibility.

Connecting science with society

Well-crafted science fiction narratives can analyse technical concepts using accessible language and captivating stories, making it easier for the public to engage in contemporary scientific discourse.

“Science fiction can inspire Africans to envision their future with a renewed sense of agency and possibility.”

Jonathan Dotse

In the short film Pumzi, screened at the Sundance film festival in 2010, Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu explores water scarcity, already a critical problem in parts of Africa today. Set in a post-apocalyptic East Africa, her film highlights the technological systems required to conserve this vital resource, while telling the story of a woman determined to revive the terrestrial ecosystem.

Science fiction also enables people to visualise the various pathways through which science and technology interact with the underlying framework of society. Lauren Beukes’ award-winning novel Zoo City, for instance, employs magical realism to explore the complex dynamics of life in present day Johannesburg. One lens through which her novel explores this is the practice of traditional priests called sangomas operating black magic services via the internet. Her narratives cleverly illustrate the often counterintuitive interplay between modern technology and traditional African belief systems.

From imagination to innovation

The sheer scope of imaginary possibilities presented in science fiction imparts a sense of wonder, inspiring young people to pursue scientific and technological innovation as a means to improve their society.

Many of the technologies which have redefined the modern world — including mobile phones and the internet — were first imagined in science fiction stories. The ideas and concepts these narratives explored have primed the imaginations of countless scientists and inventors, inspiring them to pursue innovations and discoveries which might otherwise have been inconceivable.

When science fiction captures the imagination, it stimulates critical thought about the scenarios it presents, and shapes public opinion on the issues it addresses. Societies that develop a vibrant discourse around scientific progress are better placed to understand the developmental implications of public investment in science and technology.

The golden age of science fiction in the Western world — from the 1940s to the 1960s — first brought exotic stories of intergalactic space travel to mainstream media. The widespread interest surrounding these narratives, coupled with the tensions of the Cold War, rallied public support for ambitious space programmes.

In a similar way, the new wave of African science fiction narratives that has emerged in the past decade broadly attempts to address Africa’s pressing challenges while illuminating the role of science and technology in addressing these challenges.

Deji Olukotun’s novel Nigerians in Space, for example, is simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking as it tells the story of a Nigerian space scientist in the USA who returns to his homeland to pioneer an African space programme, only to find himself in a deadly web of intrigue and corruption. The story realistically portrays the political obstacles along the path of indigenous technological development, while conveying the significance of such a grand scientific endeavour being undertaken by an African nation.

Creative feedback loop

By placing Africans at the heart of futurist narratives and telling stories which are relevant to their socioeconomic context, science fiction is beginning to gain traction among African creatives and audiences who previously may not have taken particular interest in this genre.

And as African societies become more technologically advanced, the continual disruption of societal dynamics by innovations will inspire even more speculation on the future. Ultimately, this will accelerate the creative feedback loop.

Perhaps the most important influence of science fiction will be to increase awareness of the critical opportunity Africans now have to circumvent the pitfalls associated with industrialisation. Africa is uniquely positioned to pioneer new models of sustainable economic growth and development by harnessing the full potential of innovations in renewable energy production, smart power grids, recycling and urban planning.

Across virtually all scientific fields — from space travel and bioengineering to the rise of the internet and artificial intelligence — science fiction narratives have played a significant role in catalysing technological innovation across the developed world. In the same way, science fiction can play a critical role in Africa’s development by propagating narratives in mainstream media that recognise the value of indigenous innovation and youth participation in the process of technological revolution.

Jonathan Dotse holds a bachelor’s degree in management information systems at Ashesi University College, Ghana. He is a techno-progressive promoting science- and speculative-fiction for Africa, working on his debut novel and discussing the future of African science fiction at afrocyberpunk.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]