Mer Liquify : Maggie Roberts :: Artist > Rim Dweller

Maggie Roberts
Artist > Rim Dweller



Delphi Carstens, lecturer at UWC.
Mer Roberts, artist.
(Published in UCT Scrutiny Journal 2010)

Original Abstract: Africa has long been relegated as a technological backwater, doomed by political failure and natural disaster. However, this land that time supposedly forgot is rich in migratory mythology that ties in with contemporary cyborg narratives, drawing strongly on motifs of transformation, hybridity, gender-blending and extra-sensory perception and offering viable alternatives to destructive techno-capitalism. It is the only continent where humans and nature have forged a balance that has long since been transgressed and imperiled by so-called 'civilisations' elsewhere. Moreover, it abounds with mysterious mythology, redolent in warped time-frames and twisted metaphors that are essentially science-fictional. These tales - from the slave narratives of Black Atlantis to the extraterrestrial creatures of Dogon lore and the rich cultural hybridizations of Credo Mutwa - offer much that may of be of value to a present moment on the verge of being consumed alive by its own monsters. This paper will investigate the relevance of African mythical narratives - both ancient and invented - and their potential creative value to the present moment. In addition, the paper will explore ways in which these narratives have already informed both artists and writers and suggest ways in which these narratives may be creatively reinvented in the context of contemporary and global information culture.

Africa has long been relegated as a technological backwater, doomed by political failure and natural disaster. This continent that time supposedly forgot is, however, rich in migratory mythology that ties in with contemporary science fiction, drawing strongly on motifs of transformation, hybridity, gender-blending and extra-sensory. Africa's mythic narratives ― from the extraterrestrial creatures of /Xam and Dogon lore to the rich cultural hybridizations of Credo Mutwa and the slave narratives of Black Atlantis ― offer much that may of be of value to the genre of science fiction (SF). Contemporary SF, as we will demonstrate, draws heavily from mythology and undertakes journeys both forwards and backwards in time, enabling the writing of alternative histories in the mythic mode. This paper will investigate the relevance of African mythical narratives - both ancient and contemporary ― and their potential creative value as SF. The contention of this paper is that African authors may find it fruitful to occupy an as-yet unpopulated genre (in terms of African literary expression) ― namely, SF. The non-linear distinctiveness of Africa's indigenous lore, as we will contend, finds uncanny parallels in SF.

Despite Westernized education, industrialization and urbanization, indigenous forms of ritual, myth and orality continue to remain vital across the African continent - albeit somewhat neglected in terms of their global correspondences and futuristic potential. These forms find literary expression in the magical realism of many African writers (such as Ben Okri and Wole Soyinka) as well as in the historical writing of the Yoruba historian Samuel Johnson. It can be argued, however, that these authors, situated as they are within genres of history as well as magical and social realism, are denied their full mythic potential and that African writers may consider shifting to a marginalized literary genre in order to bypass the colonial (and postcolonial) readings that tend to reduce the entire oeuvre of African fiction to factual accounts of sociological reality. Moreover, as African theologian John Mbiti has shown, African traditionally held systems of thought do not generally prioritize engagement with the "no-time" of the future (1971: 17). Both African traditional thinking and contemporary African writers, therefore, seem not to be engaging with the future. As this paper will demonstrate, SF offers a platform from which to address the problematic clash between past, present and future mode as well as the problem of interpretation arising from the clash between Western rationality and traditional liminality.

Referring to Ben Okri's fusion of magical realism and social commentary, Ato Quayson states that realism is ill-suited to providing an interface between the "real" and the liminal. "Realism," he writes, "promotes a view of reality which is inadequate to engaging with the problematic fusion of the real with the other-worldly" (1997: 149). SF, unlike realism, is uniquely suited to this problematic interface. Literary critic Carol Brown writes that SF is a perfect vehicle of describing "the interplay of science [namely, the 'real'] and myth" (Brown 1993: 158). Moreover, it articulates the "crossing of thresholds" between worlds and is, like African traditional philosophy, at ease with the fluid and ambiguous (1993: 161). Already situated within a marginalized literary genre, the writers, readers and critics of SF are comfortable with notions of hybridity, transformation and non-linearity. These markers align it with African orality and arguably free its authors from the type of fixed (or anchored) interpretations that cling to centralized and critically recognized discursive practices. Aside from its freedom from fixed readings and its ability to merge myth and modernity, SF also offers the hope of bridging cultural divides ― a critical task in a world of rapidly diminishing returns when both the West and Africa face uncertain futures. Burkina Faso anthropologist, Malidoma Patrice Some, explains that the West itself is experiencing cultural decay. Increasing homogenization, globalization and cultural rootlessness are gradually eroding distinct cultural expression and identification across the "first" and "third" worlds. He maintains that in losing ritual and sense of community, the West has developed deep neuroses, lack of perspective, sense of belonging, respect for the environment, and that the social problems of the West ― massive urbanization, spiralling unemployment, economic disarray and intolerance of the cultures of others ― will not only be its own undoing, but also that of indigenous Africa. There is, he maintains, a dire need for understanding and dialogue across cultural divides: "Unless we find new ways of understanding between peoples … both indigenous cultures and [the cultures of] the West will continue to fade away" (Some 1994:1). Although Some's pronouncements tend to homogenise the "culture" of the west and rely on outdated first world/third world dichotomies, his observations nevertheless have value for our argument.

Invariably, as modernity has crept through Africa, it has uprooted indigenous cultures and nations from their ontological certainties. According to African theologian John Mbiti, despite embracing conversion to monotheistic religions, education and socio-economic upheaval, African people have committed themselves to preserving deeply held traditional beliefs and practices. This creates inspirational, if at times uneasy, states of cultural coexistence (1971: 3). SF offers a potential vehicle for expressing the African oral mythical mode and (re)writing the continent's marginalized (and much ignored) oral histories in the mythopoeic mode that characterizes, according to Quayson, indigenous oral narratives (1997: 121). Our suggestion is not that writers of SF engage in cultural appropriation, but that they utilise elements of the African oral mythic mode - whether as a mode of expression or as a source of narrative ideas.

Many postcolonial African writers have attempted to tackle the issues of modernity in Africa and some have fruitfully engaged with Africa's past. Few African authors have, to our knowledge, however, fruitfully engaged with the future of the continent. By shifting to the SF mode, African authors might begin to re-articulate oral histories whilst engaging with and creating a future for Africa - a task currently left mostly to jaded historians, world-weary journalists and cynical social commentators. SF, does not only concern itself with the articulation of techno-enhanced futures, but also accommodates mythic journeys into the distant past. What SF does, however, is create a link between past, present and future ― projecting the mythic mode of orality into the future, situating it as a valid alternative to techno-culture, or expressing potent fusions and intersections between myth and technological rationalism.

As we mentioned previously, African literature and history has tended to be read as a kind of sociological mirror - namely, as a reflection on African social reality rather than as a discursive exploration that allows for imaginative re-castings. In instances where African oral history has been recorded, it has often been emptied of any details considered "non-factual" or mythic and re-cast in the contemporary Western mode. The "butchering" of Rev. Samuel Johnson's seminal The History of the Yoruba (1897) stands as a case in point. Offering a pioneering account of the oral history of the Yoruba nation, Johnson's text provides, according to Ato Quayson, a "rich interface between orality and writing" as well as a fertile demonstration of the role that oral traditions could play in the articulation of transitional cultural and historic processes (Quayson 1997: 20). Although heavily mined by subsequent historians, the "magical and supernatural" details of Johnson's narration ― typical of African oral history - have been completely excised (1997: 21). In Johnson's original account, unlike in subsequent histories that have borrowed from him, we find historical figures "attended by the same discursive strategies that attend legendary and mythical ones, thus blurring the distinction between history and legend" (1997:21). Quayson writes that "the urge of academic historians to establish a scale of factuality and to differentiate the probable from the less probable [has led] to a suppression of the cultural signification of The History, because apart from bracketing out the legendary elements they also ignore the discursive properties of the work that derive from the context of orality" (1997: 21). This attitude, writes Quayson, is symptomatic of the general attitude taken by scholars towards narratives and discursive practices reminiscent of Africa's pre-colonial oral tradition (1997: 22). Since the Enlightenment, however, scholars have tended to marginalize narratives not considered rational and factual (by Western standards) and Africa, in particular, has been accorded a taint that still adheres despite the best efforts of post-colonial theorists. African-American literary critic Henry Louis Gates writes that the opinion of Kant and Hume - namely that Africans lacked a history as they had not developed an indigenous script or form of writing ― has never truly disappeared (in Phillips 1996: 27).

Just as the Western gaze, when turned upon the East, "orientalizes" through unconscious bias (see Said 1978: 12-13), the Westernized gaze, when turned upon Africa, is arguably prejudiced ― not only by the predisposition of Enlightenment philosophers obsessed with "progress", but also by the economics of capitalism, exploitation and slavery. "European aesthetic judgement of African art and culture … was encapsulated in, and became an integral part of, the justification of an economic order dependent upon [slavery]. Never could the European encounter with the African [mythic] sublime be free of the prison of slavery and economics, at the expense of African civilisation and art themselves," continues Gates (1996: 28). On the other hand, the contemporary act of rewriting Africa's identity produces what post-colonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha has described as "a continual slippage into analogous, even metonymic, categories, like the people, minorities, or 'cultural difference'" that highlights (yet fails to escape) the vagaries of the continent's problematic cultural modernity (1990: 292). "We need another time of writing," avers Bhabha, "that will be able to inscribe the ambivalent and chiasmatic intersections of time and place that constitute the problematic 'modern' experience" (1990:293) Contemporary African writers, such as Ben Okri and Wole Soyinka, have attempted to provide such a "time" by attempting to integrate the non-linearity of African orality and ritual into their fiction. However, as Quayson points out, "what may be termed a new mythopoetic discourse [that is linked] not only to earlier literary works [by Amos Tutuola and J.P. Clark-Bekederemo, for example] but also with various indigenous beliefs to do with the relationship between the real world and the supernatural" has failed to accrue much critical research or attention (1997: 150). As with Johnson's The History, the discursive properties of their work that re-invoke and re-contextualize indigenous ritual and myth have been overlooked in favour of readings that anchor them squarely within African social and political present realities. Perhaps, in an attempt to escape the historical and literary "ghettoes" to which they have been relegated, African writers need to turn to a new genre ― one that is effectively distributed and embraced globally. SF, despite its "outsider" status (and perhaps because of it), is increasingly looked to as a germane literary platform from which to explore current scientific, social, political, and spiritual concerns as well as interrogate issues relating to globalisation. Many serious writers and scientists have turned to the genre and more endemic media enterprises and movie houses disseminate countless SF narratives based on original SF texts that connect audiences to the genre. Additionally, countries such as Japan, Korea and Russia have a long history of SF disseminated both locally and globally through film, comics and animation with outputs that easily match those witnessed in America and Western Europe. Thus SF can be said to be firmly on the literary map of the 21st century and an important cultural vector in measuring the zeitgeist of the era.

The recovery of the archaic mythic mode within the context of SF that we suggest does not call for a return to an idealized past (which is, in any event, impossible) or a clinging to literalness (as this would merely result in the eventual extinction of African myth as it crumbles under the onslaught of modernity) but should, in the words of theologian Hakim Bey, suggest "a spiralling around on a new level of the gyre" of storytelling (1991: 79). In creating narrative hooks on which to hang the future of this continent, African writers of SF might usefully look to science-fictional narratives emerging from and inspired by the African-American diaspora to see how they may harness their own powerful mythical undercurrents and transform them into unique new synergies ― crafting "a new spiralling around the gyre" of African mythology that sends exploratory tentacles into global popular culture.

Many artists of the African diaspora have already engaged in the process of transforming Africa's rich mythic heritage, as well as the legacy of colonialism and slavery, into the influential subculture of Afro-futurism. In an article entitled Black to the Future, critic Mark Dery remarks that "science fiction, a genre whose close encounters with the Other — the stranger in a strange land — seems uniquely suited to the concerns of African-American novelists [as] the sublegitimate status of science fiction as a pulp genre in Western literature mirrors the subaltern position to which blacks have been relegated throughout American history" (Dery 1995:1). Although the African fictions of Okri and Soyinka are critically recognized, their attempts to create an interface between "modernity and an indigenous resource base" have largely gone unrecognized (Quayson 1997: 150). The attempts to reclaim the mythic mode by Afro-futurist writers of SF ― such as Nalo Hopkins and Octavia Butler ― have, however, been critically located within a part of a continuous African-American discursive practice aimed at recovering and recalibrating the oral histories of the diaspora. In doing so, their work has demonstrated the usefulness of SF to projects aimed at not only creating a dialogue with the past, but also with crafting viable futures out of distinctive cultural motifs.

In as much as SF enables racial and cultural divides to be spanned, it also enables connections between the deep-time of the past, the present in flux, and the distant future. Combining the mythic mode of folklore with future-shock, it maps the fever-dreams of modernity and its motifs of relentless and unstoppable change. As a genre, it describes the collision of the past and the future ― the wavering of ontological certainty in the face of rapid change. The need to negotiate multiple identities and the intrusion of new paradigms has been the task of SF since its inception in the 19th century, when its first writers attempted to articulate the crumbling of the old social orders in the face of new economies, technologies and sciences. As a genre SF continues to express the transformation of socio-economic realities in the wake of rapid change and cultural over-exposure. SF, then, presents a vehicle for articulating the social conscience because it maps potential consequences and attempts to resolve them. Although H.G. Well's protagonist in The Time Machine (1895) travels to the distant future in order to achieve these ends, writers of SF may also choose to travel backwards. The heroine of Kindred (1979), a seminal novel by Afro-Futurist Octavia Butler, travels back into the time of slavery, forging a link to the past ― not only to reimagine it in the context of the present, but also to enrich an understanding of it and to create a vehicle for its transmission into the future. As Robert Crossley explains in a prologue: "Butler focuses our attention on the continuity between past, present and future; the fantasy of travelling backwards in time becomes a lesson in historical realities … we may also be reminded that historical progress is never a sure thing" (in Butler 2003: 279-280).

As the continent where humans first evolved as a species, Africa is a veritable treasure trove of myths and oral traditions that reach back into the past, offering potential gateways into the future. These gateways may have some trouble opening into narratives of future-time because, as John Mbiti explains, traditional African philosophy is resistant to the future:

The future in African thinking is virtually absent … actual time is therefore what is present and what is past. It moves backward rather than forward; and people set their minds not on future things, but chiefly on what has taken place … Since what is in the future has not been experienced, it does not make sense; it cannot therefore constitute part of time. (1971: 17).

Despite the resistance of traditional narratives to the "no-time" of the future (1971: 17), these traditions need to be revisited and explored in a manner similar to Afro-futurism's recovery of the diaspora. After all, as Butler has proven, journeys taken backwards may prove equally fructifying as they ensure not only continuity into the future, but also the possibility of 'cross-cultural pollination.' In terms of a shared global narrative, Africa has much to offer the world. It was here, after all, where the human journey began in the grips of an evolutionary fever-dream, where the first stone tools were crafted and the first fire harnessed, the first cultural adaptations to changing environments made and the first migrations to new worlds contemplated. These potentially science-fictional trajectories of change and transformation need, however, to be untangled, decoded and engaged with playfully in order to make compelling SF. Africa will need to re-imagine its past as it enters the "no-time" of an uncertain global future. As the oldest and most constant home of the human species ― and the only continent where humans and animals have successfully managed to co-exist (see Diamond 1998: 41-52) ― it is the ideal laboratory for incubating myths of the future. Ancient African stories encode warnings and behavioural codes for survival that may still serve humanity in a time of future or current crisis. In order to engage with the future more productively, however, Africa needs to engage with the technological narrative as well as its own myths playfully and, perhaps, as Donna Haraway has suggested for all who wish to survive an encounter with technoculture, "perversely" (Haraway 1991:156).

Science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin calls our stories "immensely flexible technologies" that enable us to make sense of the world by organizing wildly different experiences, cognitions and fantasies into radical new articulations and meanings (in Wright 1999: 1). Utilizing the language of 'primitive' magic, writers of SF such as Kathleen-Anne Goonan and Robert Holdstock have attempted to wed the mythic and the scientific, producing potent new fusions and setting protocols that writers of African SF could utilize in crafting their own journeys. Goonan equates the transformative potential of technology with magical ritual when she describes technology as "voudoun … something that could wreak strange transformations" (2000: 97). This analogy effectively describes the transformative effects of technology, offering rich parallels with the effects of ritual and magic. "In our time, a mythical time, we are all chimeras," declares cyber-theorist Donna Haraway, illustrating the viability of a cross-over between the mythic and the technological modes (1991:150). In the modern era we find ourselves entwined in an array of expanding technological networks that seem to erode any stable sense of self. As increasingly machine-dependent humans, we are all hybrid beings or cyborgs, opines Haraway (1991: 150). For Haraway, cyborgs are no longer confined to the cultural imagination but "are an elementary aspect of late capitalism" ― industrial slum-dwellers, miners, commuters, sweatshop labourers, and the users of cellphones (1991: 150). Breaking the "boundary between physical and non-physical," between the past and the future, cyborgs are as much physical beings as they are "ether, quintessence … [their] narrative concerns one of transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities," continues Haraway, illustrating their simultaneous narrative and mythic power (1991: 153-54). To survive the "dangerous possibilities" of modernity, cautions critic Erik Davis, we need to actively explore the boundaries where modernity and the mythic collide (1998: 301). Haraway urges women and denizens of the third world, in particular, to take up this task by critically engaging with technological narratives and creatively re-imagining a future for themselves. The need for African writers to engage with technoculture by writing SF or drawing on some of its strategies is an obvious extension of Haraway's proposed trajectory.

Modern primitivism, a motif of many contemporary subcultures as well as SF, blends mythic and scientific themes. Mixing paganism and philosophy, magic and science, narratives that embody this theme aim to give voice to lived experience and the "unfettered imagination" by attempting to recover elements of ritual, orality and poetry in the postmodern context (Vale & Juno 1989: 5). For contemporary theologians such as Graham Harvey (see 1997: 183) and writers of SF, such as William Gibson and Robert Holdstock, the articulation of a new type of creativity, freed from the dogma of media-driven social programming, necessitates such a recovery. By utilizing the trickster archetype in the context of a technological milieu, these writers have attempted to recover a more vital and embodied relationship between humans and their natural and psychic environments. We need to move beyond conceiving of capitalism and technology as active forces and conceiving of orality, "primitivism" and the natural world as "passive," writes Harvey (1997:183). Instead, he cautions, we need to cultivate a more vital understanding of the "aggressive and alien" side of nature and the archaic world of spirits and forces, that, although "dangerous to humanity … [are] also our home, source of life and vitality" (1997: 183). As a strategy for finding a new aesthetic paradigm in the midst of hyper-modernity, contemporary French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari have suggested a journey backwards through the strata of history to recover a more flexible mythos that still allowed a place for conjuring and sorcery (see 1988: 209). This mythic narrative, with its lore of perilous yet vital spirits and tricksters, is still a living tradition in Africa, where indigenous religion and philosophy strives "to make people sensitive to the invisible world which dovetails with the physical world," writes John Mbiti (1991: 201).

Cyborgs do not search for pure origins … [instead, they are concerned with] revisioning the world as a coding trickster with whom we must learn to converse. (Haraway in Van Loon 1996:239)

The trickster/cyborg narrative, as Haraway conceives it, is not caught up in linear narratives (1996: 239). In this, it finds parallel with African storytelling, which defies any linear sense of chronology. Moving easily back and forth across the threshold that separates dream and vision from reality, the question of what constitutes reality is buried in the myths as a constant. Malidoma Patrice Some analyses the African narrative perception of reality thus:

We have no word for the supernatural. The closest we come to this concept is 'the thing that knowledge cannot eat'. This suggests that the life and power of certain things depend upon their resistance to the kind of categorizing knowledge that human beings apply to everything. In western reality there is a clear split between the spiritual and the material. (Some 1994:8)

From the perspective of traditional Africa, the supernatural exists in everything ― its potency is therefore simply a matter of the degree of presence. There is "no distinguishing between reality and the imagination," writes Some; "[t]o us, to imagine or think something, to closely focus one's thoughts upon it, has the potential to bring that something into being" (1994:8). Some describes how he showed Star Trek: the Voyage Home to his Dagara elders, presenting them with a fantastical SF story, replete with human-machine hybrids (cyborgs) and aliens conceived of in Western terms. They perceived it as the daily life of a people somewhere else in the world, he reports: "In Spock they recognised a kontomble of the 7th planet, and thought that they themselves could have achieved light speed and teleportation more discreetly" (Some 1994: 8). So perhaps, as Some demonstrates with his example, African SF would have to address issues of translation rather than issues of cross-cultural misunderstanding. In the African tradition, the dead and alien cohabiting with the living, and animal/human metamorphoses are possible. Thus, the tradition presents its own unique chimeric narratives that embrace becomings and transformations. It is our contention that that the ubiquitous African trickster entity, analogous to the cyborg, could embody the translation between African orality and SF.

Most famously appearing in myth as the spider Ananse to the Fon, as the Voudoun Legba or the West-African Eshu, the trickster is a figure of the margins that is central to the African mythic narrative (Pelton 1980: 88). Many African writers have utilized the trickster figure to express and heal social rupture. The trickster in SF is a figure that engages directly with rupture and social dislocation as a result of the intrusion of the "outside". The trickster shares this motif of social rupture with the genre of science-fiction, as we have argued. This indicates a potential cross-cultural dialogue that, as Some has suggested (1994: 1), is necessary to ensure the survival of African indigenous lore in an era of increasing globalization and modernization. As a hero (or anti-hero), the trickster in African myth highlights the possibility for radical change in society's midst, operating out of mythic time but also impacting directly onto the present (or "real") world, as Pelton explains:

The trickster is not an archetype but an entelechy ― an active form shaping both ends and means. It is the transforming power of the imagination that pokes, plays with and shatters assumptions of a culture's sense of origin and boundary. Deceiver, thief, parricide, cannibal, inventor, benefactor, magician, it reveals involvement with all that is non human, chaotic. (Pelton 1980:88)

Manifesting the coincidence of opposite processes and notions in a single entity, the trickster "characterizes the peculiar unity of the liminal; that which is neither this nor that, but both" (Pelton 1980:105). In this functioning, the African trickster finds common ground with the non-linear dynamics of contemporary complexity theory as well as the science-fictional philosophies of Deleuze and Guattari as explored throughout their seminal work, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, a Thousand Plateaus (1988). Like the contemporary cyborg, the trickster reflects an interstructural situation. The trickster, as the interstitial and shape-shifting god of African mythology, we would like to propose, is the precise embodiment of Deleuze and Guattari's notion of SF as an evolution of the idea of becoming itself (1988: 540). An African SF, therefore, would not necessarily have to confine itself to describing techno-enhanced futures, as conventional views would dictate, but could also represent the invisible, fantastical, and strangely primitive and anarchic chaotic intensities that Deleuze and Guattari define as the essence of the genre (see 1988: 247).

Rejecting cultural stasis through an unleashing of the forces of nature, the trickster releases the power of both nature and culture to produce worlds in perpetual fluid transformation. The trickster is constantly hungry, a desiring machine programmed to rupture the thresholds between centre and outside, with the transformative potency to move in dimensions, planes, directions and speeds that humans cannot access. The rupturing of boundaries between the "real" and the "otherworldly" lies at the heart of African transformative ritual (Mbiti 1991: 150). Through rupture, trance and offering the invisible planes lie open to the visible (1991: 150). In this space the trickster is the prime agent of boundary dissolution. Thence this avatar can shatter and rearrange human society into many-faceted and deliberately destabilizing matrices, destroying stasis and presenting the opportunity for re-evaluation and revelation ― typical motifs of SF ― in an often deeply ironic vision. By revealing underlying and multi-dimensional patterns, webs and relations of possibility and mutation in the micro- and macro-universes, the trickster figure becomes a precursor of contemporary non-linear sciences such as complexity theory, quantum mechanics and nanotechnology.

The secret of liminality lies in maintaining the rhythms of passage across thresholds- in and out, dissolving and reordering, closing and opening- whether it be at cellular, organism identity, socius or temporal dimensional levels. Its tools are playful disruption, absurd antics, seduction, irresponsibility and violent intervention. (Pelton 1980:67)

There are bundles of relations, zones of intensity ― diachronic, synchronic and inchoate ― at work within the figure of the trickster that call to mind the navigatory tactics proposed by the nomadic philosophies of Deleuze and Guattari, particularly in their science-fictional conception of a 'Body without organs' (see 1980: 149-166). The trickster, as Pelton explains, is a nomadic outsider whose multiplicity "becomes both the source of his transforming power and the reason for his banishment from the community; a profaner of the sacred he becomes a sacred being, yet outsider, the victim of his own violations" (Pelton 1980: 145).

As an outsider who ruptures order, the trickster is a perfect figure for the literary ghetto of SF, which deals centrally with rupture. The trickster realizes that order separated from dissolution becomes immobility. Friction is necessary for movement and change by allowing channels of dissolution and (re)distribution into the centre ― in this case, allowing a revisioning and deconstruction and playful approach to the accepted readings of mythic Africa. The codes by which African tradition are read must be subject to a process of mutation and becoming in order to facilitate a recoding of global perspectives about Africa as well as African perceptions of their own context. An African SF would enable the reshaping of traditional stories as a radical contemporary gesture, endlessly subverting preconceptions and proposing relevant possible narrative worlds and conceptions.

In African mythology, the trickster has traditionally helped to navigate through discontinuity and change by allowing a place for contingency, dissolution and renewal. The trickster thereby becomes the necessary avatar and "outsider", with which Africa can engage the 21st century and is therefore the perfect figure for a new genre of African science fiction.

Another protocol for African experiments in SF can be found in the cosmology of the Dogon of Mali, who have a remarkable sense of the cosmos as a vast system of correspondences, layered meanings and planes, that interlock, mirror and interrelate like curves on a spiral (Griaule & Dieterlen 1986: 23). The Dogon mythology with its four levels of articulation ― abstract traces, images, figures and designs ― is arguably a dense and detailed supernatural reality, redolent of the most complex deep-space posthuman SF worlds created by authors such as Vernor Vinge, Dan Simmons and Charles Stross.

In Dogon myth or tribal history, the creator entities, the separated multiple twins, Nomo Die (of the cosmos), Nomo Titiyayne (the messenger), O Nomo (sacrificed for the purification of the universe) and Nomo Ogo (the trickster), manifest tendencies that exist as a complex parallelism of opposites, declaring every instance of matter and naming to have a clear and obscure meaning, embracing a weave of what is said and not said, meant and implied, seems to be and what is. (Griaule & Dieterlen 1986:86)

The crazed speech typical of the trickster Nomo Ogo symbolises the doubleness of reality at every level. His is a radically ironic imagination, saturated with oxymorons and liminal laughter (Pelton 1980: 83). He represents the irreducible ambivalence essential to liminality and to much contemporary speculation in quantum physics and non-linear dynamics. The other Nomo twin aspects represent successive states of being or transformation (Griaule & Dieterlen 1986: 87). The Sigui Ceremony, as described by Griaule & Dieterlen (1986: 102) as being held every sixty years, celebrates the arrival of the Nomo in language that is redolently science-fictional, conjuring visions of space travel and alien beings: "It is said they arrived in a spinning ark amid rushing air and thunderous vibrations" (1986: 102). According to Griaule & Dieterlen, the Nomo are referred to as the Masters of the Waters, the Instructors and the Monitors, depicted as amphibious cartilaginous web-fingered Annedoti (the repulsive ones) and attributed with shape-shifting, telepathic and prophetic powers (1986: 115). The Dogon mythos, so redolent in its allusions to the intrusion of "alien" technoculture, therefore, holds much material that may be mined by writers of African SF as they navigate their way into distant pasts and imaginary futures. Myth, after all, opens gateways not only into the past, but into the future as well. "Names, words, half remembered … . Do the earliest of folk heroes, or legendary characters, come not from the past but from the future," asks British SF writer Robert Holdstock (1986: 284). Carroll Brown continues this theme:

Does mythology [perhaps] originate in science? With the boundaries between the two obfuscated by our changing ontological notions and the increasingly ephemeral nature of our understanding of physical reality, original nature can be difficult to locate. … Arthur C Clarke explores a similar question in Childhood's End, in which he explores [the manifestation of] a collective race memory from the future. (1993:170-171)

The /Xam Bushmen are probably the oldest gene pool of Homo sapiens sapiens on the planet (Shreeve 2006: 66). According to anthropologist Harold Pager, Bushmen ritual beliefs have been incorporated into those of the Zulu and Xhosa, as is reflected in the training of sangomas and sanusis at Bushmen rock sites as well as their knowledge of Bushmen plant medicines. "Even today," writes Pager, "the /Xam are regarded as the custodians of ritual and their sacred sites, as portals to the supernatural" (1971:102).
/Xam Bushmen myths and fireside stories have been globally transcribed and adapted, particularly for the children's book market. The tales of the creator Mantis and his progeny are exquisitely resonant fables of interfaces between animals and humans and invoke a deep respect for all living things. Representative of infinity and creativity, the tiny praying mantis is transformed in /Xam lore into the first trickster and holy fool, a dream made flesh. His children are "practicality" and "mind". Typical of the trickster paradigm, he explores, according to Pager, transformation, containment and the frictive and electric energy of movement and change: "The philosophical abstraction presented in the stories, map centrifugal movement ― outward bound and inward" (Pager 1971: 213). Mantis is a regenerative force, achieving transformations through the shaping and dismantling of the universe and its inhabitants. One has a sense when reading the stories of being distributed across the vast reaches of the cosmos and simultaneously within tiny bright grains of sand. The mantis, with its strange alien head and almond eyes, timorous rocking motion and bizarre anthropomorphic praying front legs, is both a creature of elsewhere and a phenomenon of the everyday local landscape. It engenders an awareness of the quantum interrelatedness of things and the potential catalysts for change.

Unfortunately the /Xam themselves have physically retreated to the realm of myth and SF, since their virtual eradication by migrating tribes and encroaching colonial expansion, particularly during the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, they surface as lone gifted beings in occasional SF contexts from abroad. In Philip K. Dick's Martian Timeslip (1964) an autistic child on Mars is visited by what the author refers to as a Bleekman in reference to the German linguist Dr Bleek, who devoted his life to transcribing the Bushmen stories. The Bleekman appears to the autistic child, Manfred, in order to transport him out of his trapped self:

The dark figure, with rhythmic grace, ebbed from his spot on the high stool and flowed step by step across the room. Then he looked at Manfred, meeting his gaze. 'You must die,' the dark man said to him in a far off voice. 'Then you will be reborn. Do you see child? There is nothing for you as you are now, because something went wrong and you cannot hear or see or feel. No one can help you. Do you see child?'… . 'Yes,' said Manfred. His contact with the shadow-like man was cut off. … . He looked ahead to escape. Ahead of him a path stretched out into the desert. The sky overhead was heavy and red and he saw dots: hundreds of specks that grew and came closer and became Bleekmen. He saw a hole as large as a world; the earth disappeared and became black, empty and nothing … into the hole the men jumped one by one, until none of them were left. He was alone with the silent world-hole. (Dick 1964:58)

The Bleekman later manifests to Manfred's doctor, explaining that the suffering of the autistic child is like their own because he has "pre-knowledge" that has made him "dark-within":

'He's as dark as you are,' Arnie said, 'and not on the outside either … I think he does more than just see into Time ― I think he controls Time. How can you stand him?' 'I stand everything,' the Bleekman said. And the living room filled with Bleekmen. (Dick 1964:73)

The excerpts above evocative of /Xam stories, illustrate a powerful reworking of the West's fascination with the Bushmen, through which one glimpses their utter alterity ― to the point of being almost autistic ― and the manner in which they are locked in an incomprehensible yet magical worldview. It is interesting to note that the /Xam woman exhibited at the 1855 World Fair in London was finally, after much discussion, placed in the vegetable section (Pager 1971: 11). Despite this Linnean buffoonery, their mythos and their history still resonates powerfully on the SF radar ― screen and Bushmen protagonists have, for example, featured in the novels of Stephen Baxter (in Evolution [2008]) and Tad Williams (in Otherland [1997]). Clearly there is much scope for African SF ― not only in the myths of the /Xam, but also in their interface with other tribes as well as in the chilling fact of their near-obliteration. As the /Xam have been driven to the point of extinction, so might much of traditional lore of Africa be permanently erased by the continued intrusions of modernity.

Aside from the Bushmen, whose virtual disappearance from the contemporary scene has placed their mythos squarely in the realm of the symbolic, the unique expression of living oral mythology in Africa is mostly perceived as a type of literalness. The magical attributes accorded to historical and legendary figures in African orality (as recounted in Johnson's The History) seem to "refuse" the symbolic mode, inhabiting the literal instead. The response of Some's Dagara elders to Star trek (1994: 8), occupies a similar "refusal." Likewise, witchcraft and spells are not seen as instances of libidinal fantasy or engaged with playfully, but interpreted as real events that require direct intervention on the part of a community (Mbiti 1991: 166-167). This unfortunately relegates stories recorded as tribal history by African medicine-men such as Credo Mutwa to a space in literature that has no easy definition in Westernized terms. Mutwa's most controversial DVD interview, Celestial Knowledge: Star Beings In Africa, (Penderis 1998) in its extreme literalness, stands as a case in point ― particularly as the stories related by Mutwa are not presented in context of the African world-view or as part of the continuous discursive practices of orality. In this filmed interview, Mutwa sits with his assistant at a fireside, explaining his models of star beings ― a cluster of aliens and robots strongly reminiscent of a Western or Asian child's SF-inspired cartoon character collection. Mutwa's simplicity of delivery and factual literalness is astounding to the Western ear and he opens by stating: "Human beings have been coexisting, really coexisting with alien beings from the stars, for thousands of years .... Ours is not the only world in which intelligent creatures are to be found." He then produces for the camera, starting with the famed Dogon Nomo, small replicas of alien visitors. These, he explains, are to be found gliding in the long grass, running alongside highways, farting, smelling of diesel, clanking, whispering. The lack of interpretation or abstraction has a dislocating effect on the viewers' assumed reality. Likewise in the short film Splendid relatives (Penderis 1998), Mutwa tells stories of alien races that came to Earth to focus human thought and creative inspiration, then moved into the seas where they transformed into dolphins and whales ― hence the title "splendid relatives". From here they continue to channel messages from the stars and to communicate with other worlds. He concludes the interview by stating, "many are the stories still to be told" ― a tantalizing invitation, given the subject of this article. There are several problems, however, with reading Mutwa, a figure who lodges himself firmly (albeit tacitly) in an oral tradition that spans millennia and frees itself from notions of historical proof. Evident in Penderis's interviews is the fact that Mutwa can easily be interpreted as having no distance from his subject. Clearly Mutwa does not make allowances for an international audience. This powerful uncompromised assertion of tribal beliefs is in danger of being dismissed as merely charming. Rather than being read as part of a continuous oral tradition, it falls prey to the same "suppression of the cultural signification" that attended Johnson's The History. Our contention is that African writers such as Mutwa need to make this signification clear ― furthermore, we maintain that they (or others following in their footsteps) should consider reworking their narratives in the mode of SF, thereby bypassing culturally biased readings.

The expression of the supernatural falls prey to a problem of reference. An excess of the uncontextualized subjective mode leads to a spatio-temporal myopia ― the ordering of the world to suit the perceiver's own view. This is the dysfunctional manner in which the West has been communicating to the world for centuries. In Africa, however, we see African vision, in turn, trapped in a similarly dysfunctional feedback loop. Our contention is that Credo Mutwa's great literary record Indaba, My Children: African Tribal History, Legends and Religious Beliefs (1964), saturated as it is with futuristic images of androids, metallic insects, artificially-created suns, avatars and time-travel, may be revisioned using the unboundaried lens of SF.

A direct engagement with the future that may serve as a guideline for re-imagining projects in the line of Mutwa's is to be found in Afro-Futurism. Writers in this brand of SF are transposing the oral narratives of the diaspora onto new literary soils, creating globally viable cross-cultural interfaces that reach into the future. One of the most important diasporic literary contributions to decoding the impact of Western perception of black Africa as an exotic and threatening "otherness" is Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis Trilogy. In these novels, Butler addresses urgent issues of stasis, racism and socio-economic disempowerment by universalizing them and representing them in a dramatic light through the arrival of the slimy grey Ooloi aliens on earth. These aliens have survived eons in space by gene-swapping with various species, in order to transform continuously. They are fascinated by the inability of humans to countenance change, and by the impulse to self-destruction that seems to motivate their every relation ― not only amongst themselves but also with their environment. Camouflaged in these texts, it can be argued, is the West's relationship with "alien" Africa ― a relationship that sets another protocol for potential works in African SF.

Another type of engagement with the future of Africa is already underway amongst transatlantic authors of "hard" SF, such as Bruce Sterling in Islands in the Net (1988) and Paul McCauley in Fairyland (2007). These books present the world with tales of the near future whose effects are not far removed from the boundary dissolutions of traditional myth. In these texts, however, Africa is made to occupy an increasingly marginalized space in a global economy dominated (and obliterated) by Western and Asian styled techno-capitalism. Although negative in their prognoses for Africa, these examples of socio-political SF engage directly with Africa's future.

Other transatlantic SF authors are more hopeful, elaborating from within the continent on the ingenious African survivalist traditions of recycling and creating functioning micro- communities that operate under the radar. The activities of the hackers and subculture junk geeks of William Gibson's seminal Neuromancer (1986), for example, conjure scenes redolent of African shanty-towns. Similarly, the recycling Rastfarian deep space traders of John M. Harrison's Light (2003) are survivors who flourish on the edges of corporate capitalist hegemonies. These SF writers look as much to Africa as to the Pacific Rim to describe alternative ways of living, of preserving community through a human or trickster element in their otherwise posthuman stories.

Some of the world, as Gibson and Harrison's SF demonstrates, looks to Africa for sustainable future paradigms. Afro-futurists, meanwhile, have created viable African-inspired science fictions that re-inscribe oral myths of the diaspora in a futuristic mode. These works stand as protocols in an ongoing experiment ― one that writers from Africa itself are so well suited, we argue, to engage in. As we have shown, this continent is bursting with myths, philosophies, rituals and conceptions that could be successfully harnessed to the "no-time" of the future.

African writers, it would appear, have yet to reclaim the future of Africa. This is not to say, of course, that the need for engaging African histories and identities in the mode of realism is redundant. Rather, it is a call for African authors to begin addressing issues of futurity in the global context, using their own cultural uniqueness as a springboard. All the tools, mythic and otherwise, already exist on African soil and it is manifestly time to begin assembling distinctive African-flavoured interfaces between the liminal and the real, the past, the present and the future. Now, we contend, is the time for Africa, the birthplace of humanity and its stories, to engage once more with the destiny of our species by crafting myths of the future.

African story-telling can contribute significantly towards the contemporary world and the task of salvaging a possible future for the human species and the planet it inhabits. For example, rites of passage are lacking and shadowy in the West. In Africa, however, these rites are vital. Initiation is a way of representing what is already known in a new light, and about unveiling hidden levels of reality in coded form. It is also a way of forging identity through empowerment. The future of humanity requires such initiation rites in order to evolve to a more holistic and responsible civilization ― and African SF would be uniquely suited to exploring this possibility. Moreover, in the task of challenging both internal and global reductive assumptions about Africa, African SF could serve as an "initiation: for African orality into the globalized world of modernity. African ritual and tradition still remain a hermetically sealed language, unavailable to the genre of realism (as Quayson has pointed out) and absent from the global informational marketplace. To relocate these traditions ― as well as the innumerable oral narratives of Africa ― as SF would be to weave and disseminate fictions relevant and credible to modern cultural dialogue, whose fluid mass media driven assimilation requires tactics of seduction and artifice. The Western gaze is obsessed with penetrating the secret "authentic" world of tribal ritual, whilst the ritual-makers guard their secrets in stasis. Through the freeing interpretive genre of SF, the entrenched dynamic of search and prohibition may end with the realization that there are no ultimate depths or secrets, but only endless revelation and possibility.

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NOTES Ato Quayso refers to the "erasure of temporal indices" in the work of both Sonyika and Okri that is distinctly reminiscent of the paradigm of African orality (see 1997:129). A well-known example can be found in Okri's The Famished Road (1991) where, from the outset of the novel, the reader is placed directly in the spirit world, beyond linear time or sequentiality. From here, the narrative follows Azaro, an abiku or spirit-child, to and from the spirit world, independently of any recognizable linear structure. Ato Quayson explains that the mythology of the abiku is centred on an "arbitrary cycle of births, deaths and rebirths" (1997:123). Frequently leading members of the community on circular or tangential journeys, the abiku appears in Sonyika's play A Dance of the Forests (1960) where the abiku or half-bodied child is employed as a discursive strategy for indicating the cyclical nature of time and history (see Quayson 1997:132).

Many of the earliest iconic works of science-fiction, such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) and H.G. Wells' Time machine (1895), articulate the interface between the 'old' and the 'new'. Shelley's Frakenstein serves as a moral meditation on the Faustian promises of industry and science - forces that were overturning both the Romantic imagery as well as the Victorian social landscape. Here, writes Claire Lamont, "we recognise the modern world in the replacement of Faustus' study by a laboratory" (in Rogers 1987:316). In a similar vein, Well's Time machine, documents fears of social, political and economic upheaval. In the remote future depicted by Wells, we find a humanity divided into two distinct species; "one descended from the 19th century bourgeoisie, the other from the proletariat, who live underground and prey on the former" in a type of revenge for the horrors of Victorian industrialisation and economic exploitation (1987:400).

The tradition of addressing social responses to technological change and mapping the interface between old and new paradigms has continued as a dominant motif in SF from its inception in the 19th century until the present. A contemporary example is Vernor Vinge's Rainbow's end (2006), which articulates the social tremors of a globalised world undergoing ever-increasing change as it transits from industrial to information-based economies. Critic David Ketterer has defined SF as a discursive practice that enables humanity to be viewed from radically new perspectives (in Clute & Nicholls 1992: 314). Futurist Alvin Toffler, meanwhile, has noted that SF presents the reader with alternative worlds and visions, thereby widening the "repertoire of possible [social] responses to change" (1992: 314).

Ato Quayson gives examples of Yoruba 'cautionary' folktales and 'parables' that contain warnings about social excesses, victories over tragic odds and the need to live in harmony with nature and its denizens (see 1997:44-62). Penny Miller's seminal Myths and legends of Southern Africa (1979) chronicles similar tutelary tales from the numerous tribes of Southern Africa. In Isilwane - the animal (1996) Credo Mutwa chronicles traditional African tales that emphasize the importance of conservation and harmonious living with nature. In the introduction, for example, he relates an African cautionary story of a tribe of monkeys asked by the Earth Mother to guard a sacred fig tree. These monkeys, we are told, "developed such appetites that they not only ate all the figs but also devoured the bark and wood of the tree. When the great Earth Mother returned, she found the tree reduced to a rotting stump and the skeletons of all the monkeys who had died of starvation" (Mutwa 1996:12). The relevance of this story to contemporary humans, particularly in the light of our tendency to annihilate other species, is self-evident. Biologist Tim Flannery has called us "the future eaters" because our propensity for ecological destruction has imperiled our own long-term chances of survival (in Wright 2005: 39).

The Trickster appears in the myths and folktales of nearly every traditional society and is particularly vital in African traditional lore. Manifesting as god, human and animal, the trickster is the embodiment of ambiguity and elusiveness. For the Ashanti of Ghana, Ananse, the spider trickster, fools with the mind's ordinary categorization of the material world and speaks the 'truth' through act of primordial foolery. (Pelton 1980:20). In the folklore of the Fon of Benin, the trickster manifests as Legba, a lawless and rampantly sexual being who is also the 'master of language' and the many faced agent of transformation and resolution that mediates between the gods, humankind and the forces that surround humankind. Honoured at crossroads and market places, Legba also presides over family relationships and divination rituals (Pelton 1980:72). For the Yoruba of Nigeria, the trickster takes the form of Eshu, the disturber of social peace who loves contradiction, fosters intercourse and frequently reveals the innermost secrets of human life. Central to the daily life of the Yoruba, Eshu's shrines are found at the entrance to compounds, at crossroads as well as in marketplaces (Pelton 1980: 140). Ogo-Yurugu, the Pale Fox of the Dogon in Mali is a divine being of high seriousness who personifies the cosmic principle of disorder and rebellion. Despite having the status of an outsider, Ogo-Yurugu occupies a central role in Dogon folklore as the master of correspondences and the mediator of all personal, familial and ancestral relationships. In folklore and in Dogon cosmology, the Pale Fox represents the center of the cosmos whose actions make life possible (1980:160).