Future Perfect – takeaways from a fascinating event on sci-fi and policy

On Friday, I joined Data & Society’s Future Perfect conference, which aimed to explore “the use, significance, and discontents of speculative design, narrative, and world-building in technology, policy, and culture.”

This seemingly broad and ambitious agenda took shape through several fascinating presentations and conversations with writers, academics, critics, technologists, and academics.

For my part, I spoke about the apparent contradictions I encountered when writing my new novel After the Flare (Unnamed Press, September 2017) in a country where nomads and space technology co-exist. I also delved into how my work as a digital rights activist at Access Now informed the technology and questions I pose in the thriller, which is mostly set in the U.S. and Nigeria.

Here are some takeaways from the conference, in random order:

  • Ada Cable, a trans scholar, spotlighted several pioneering trans creators of games and narratives. She argued that trans people, by their experience, can break boundaries into new realms of thought and creativity, particularly with respect to the body. Nonetheless, she observed that trans people are often paid to explain their work to non-trans audiences, but are rarely paid to present to trans audiences. I think this criticism applies to African literature and Africa-based science fiction as well.
  • Joanna Radin presented a fascinating paper about how Michael Crichton’s influence on science and technology is under appreciated, not just within fiction but upon the development of science. I nodded throughout her talk as a Crichton fan — I wrote an extensive essay that was published in The New York Review of Science Fiction entitled How to Create Your Own Jurassic Park.
  • Farai Chideya discussed her explorations at Harvard and MIT Media Lab on how speculative fiction informs science policy in the Trump era.
  • Jillian Crandall analyzed the architectures of the video game Horizon Zero Dawn, featuring a matriarchal society thriving in a planet infested by A.I. robots. The game visually depicts a computer virus as a red, ropy infestation. (In After the Flare, I visualize a zero day attack through the use of a biomimetic machine.)
  • Alexander Huggins presented a very interesting analysis of the musician Brian Eno and Muzak, noting how music can shape our experience of physical environments. (Again, music plays a big role in After the Flare, with a lead character who is a vibroacoustic engineer.)
  • Ava Kofman gave a thoughtful analysis of the films Robocop and Minority Report, and explored how these seemingly dystopian films have actually inspired the Taser company in the design of its offices and also its stun-gun and wearable body camera technologies used by police.

There were many more compelling conversations and presentations, so this is just a small sampling. You can watch the video of the conference here. Kate Ray also posted this excellent Tweet that compiles the books, games, and movies discussed throughout the day. (Click through to Twitter to read the full list of recommendations, since she replied to her own Tweet to compile the list.)

Thanks to Data & Society, and particularly Ingrid Burrington (author of Networks of New York), who hosted and curated this enriching, diverse event.

Featured image by Mac Rebisz http://maciejrebisz.com/.

New! Pre-order my novel After the Flare

after_the_flare_olukotun

I’m thrilled to announce that my new novel, After the Flare, is available for pre-Order on Amazon from Unnamed Press.

Order it on Amazon | Order it on Indiebound

From the cover:

A catastrophic solar flare reshapes our world order as we know it – in an instant, electricity grids are crippled, followed by devastating cyberattacks that paralyze all communication. Kwesi Bracket is an industrial engineer who works for NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab, running space-walk simulations for astronauts. When the flare hits, his life quickly disintegrates – he loses his job and his wife leaves him, forcing him to take care of his daughter by himself. Meanwhile, America slowly descends into chaos as people turn inward to protect themselves.

Bracket soon discovers that Nigeria operates the only functioning space program in the world, which is recruiting scientists to launch a daring rescue mission to save a famous astronaut stranded aboard the International Space Station. With Europe, Asia, and the U.S. knocked off-line, and thousands of dead satellites about to plummet to Earth, Bracket heads to Kano in Northeastern Nigeria. But what he finds there is anything but normal. In the aftermath of the flare, the country has been flooded with advanced biohacking technologies, and the scramble for space supremacy has attracted dangerous peoples from all over Africa. What’s more: the militant Islamic group Boko Haram is slowly encroaching on the spaceport, leaving a trail of destruction, while a group of nomads has discovered an ancient technology more powerful than anything he’s ever imagined.

With the clock ticking down, Bracket – helped by a brilliant scientist from India and an eccentric lunar geologist – must confront the looming threats to the spaceport in order to launch a harrowing rescue mission into space. In this sequel to Nigerians in Space, Deji Bryce Olukotun poses deep questions about technology, international ambition, identity, and space exploration in the 21st century.

Pre-orders make a huge impact on sales and reviews. By buying After the Flare in advance, you’re voting for a different kind of literature and sci-fi — one that I hope you’ll find entertaining and challenging.

Order it on Amazon | Order it on Indiebound

I didn’t write that email about a lost Nigerian astronaut

You may have been the lucky recipient of a Facebook post asking for money to help rescue a lost Nigerian astronaut. I can reassure you that I didn’t write it, even though I’m the author of a novel called Nigerians in Space. The email claims that a Nigerian scientist’s brother was the first African in space, but was left stranded on a secret Soviet space station when his seat to return to Earth was replaced by cargo after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The author, one Dr. Bakare Tunde, requests the sum of $3 million to help rescue his brother, who has apparently been in space since 1990. (Yes, 26 years.) That sum will unlock nearly $15 million in back pay, which Dr. Tunde will split with you for your generosity.

The author is a very creative writer.
The letter is a little dated.

It didn’t take much sleuthing for me to discover that this scam has been running since at least 2004, when The Register uploaded the text of the email to its website. Someone has cleverly re-shared it on Facebook, and it’s now going viral across the web, spurred on by sites like BoingBoing, because our collective memory for these sorts of things holds as much capacity as a TI-82 graphing calculator.

But let’s take the letter on its own terms. The story is actually very well researched, as preposterous as that may sound. Nigeria does indeed have a National Space Research and Development Agency. I visited the agency in Abuja in 2014 and wrote in Slate about how the scientist I met closely resembled a fictional character in my book.

Nigeria has a reputation for launching troves of outrageous email scams, sometimes called 419 scams, for the section of the criminal code under which they are prosecuted in Nigeria. One strategy is to send out as many of the emails as possible and hope that a tiny percentage falls for the scam. The fact that the astronaut is African may make the letter seem absurd — but the vast majority of victims believe that Africans are too innocent and stupid to try to steal their money, and fork it over nonetheless. Russia probably launches the most spam attacks in the world, to my knowledge, but 12 years later Nigerians are still trying sophisticated phishing and hacking schemes. What do both countries have in common? A wealth of tech talent with too few employers to hire them, meaning they try to make money through illicit means.

But in 2014, Nigeria surged forward to become the continent’s largest economy. We’ll see if plummeting crude oil prices — the anemic lifeblood of the economy — will slow that growth, but the country of 175 million already has millions of talented youth who thrive online, whether on their smartphones or the lightning-fast broadband of posh Victoria Island in Lagos.

So the question remains, if this email scam is 12 years old, why has it gone viral again? Laying aside the cynicism of virality — that we as an online species are fickle and will click on anything — the Facebook bonanza suggests that the underlying skepticism about African ingenuity remains in place. Africans simply can’t be smart enough to go into space. But here again, I’d like to credit the author. S/he convincingly wrote the email from the point of view of a Nigerian scientist — believing that the reader would know that the space agency is real — and the storyline only becomes silly when the author imagines why the astronaut was trapped in the first place, that there is a secret Soviet space station circling the Earth. [1]

Is the scam funny because we can’t envision Nigerians going into space on their own initiative? [2] This would be a troubling indictment of African progress, or at least of our perceptions of African progress, because, again, there has been a lot of it, especially in technology.

Or is the scam funny because all of us know that if the astronaut lived in space for 26 years, surviving on a supply of secret Soviet oxygen, his bone structure would be decimated, because he presumably hasn’t been exercising on a cosmocycle, and he would now be a primordial pancake with no bone mass or musculature?

Your guess is as good as mine.

I’m currently writing the sequel to Nigerians in Space — and there will be astronauts, and brainy Africans, and criminals, too — and it’s a shame that I can’t turn to some of Nigeria’s most creative writers for inspiration, because, for the moment at least, they may still be operating underground. On Facebook this time.

[1] Maybe it’s not so ridiculous? Check out this film starring Clint Eastwood, which imagines a secret Soviet satellite that mistakenly activates a nuclear warhead, and appeared in theaters four years before the email was written.

[2] Okay, I realize that many email scams are composed by more than one author, but I am not privy to that editing process. You could also guess that the email wasn’t written by a Nigerian at all, but by a stoner who happened to know about African space programs, and wanted to pin something on the Soviets and their space station. Knock out two birds with one stone, if you will.

Glowing review for Nigerians in Space in Nigeria’s The Guardian newspaper

Tade

I was honored to be reviewed by The Guardian in Nigeria, one of the most popular newspapers in the country. The review was written by Tade Ipadeola, winner of the Nigeria Prize — the most prestigious literary prize. (I highly recommend you read Tade Ipadeola’s The Sahara Testaments.)

As he writes:

Among the things that Deji Olukotun has done, in this novel, is an anatomy of that divide between potential and actuality, promise and fulfilment, responsibility and perplexing irresponsibility. The novel is also a visceral plumbing of the depths of dreams and nightmares and how one sometimes morphs into the other. This novel is also a fine example of the relationship between the nation and the imagination.

You can read the article here.