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

Lessons from my event with Cuban sci-fi writers and translators

cuba-science fiction

On Wednesday, I joined a group of stellar writers and translators to discuss Cuban science fiction at the Bronx Museum. We covered a lot of ground over the two hour discussion, which finished off with a sumptuous meal of empanadas, wine, and beer. Here are some takeaways:

  1. Cuban science fiction is a mature and fascinating field. According to scholar Yasmín S. Portales-Machado, the genre has gone through several waves in Cuba, which began in the 1950s with pulp fiction and carried over into the 1960s before being crushed in a cultural clampdown in the 70s. Writers re-emerged in the 80s to begin pushing forward the genre again. We’re now in a golden era of writing with authors such as Yoss and Erick J. Mota, among many others.
  2. Many Cuban science fiction writers are deeply trained in science. A quick scan of the biographies of the authors in Words Without Borders’ May issue reveals that several authors studied physics or biology. In my opinion, this has led to sci-fi literature that is both lyrical and technical — an extraordinary mix that is rarely seen.
  3. Cuban artists are concerned about copyright. Authors have benefited from being able to read and watch sci-fi content at very affordable prices, giving them access to the latest explorations in the genre. (An expensive book costs $3, and the current government salary is $20 per month.) If copyright sharks swarm in and start cracking down on file sharing and piracy, there’s a risk that authors may be isolated in the short term from great content. Maybe publishers could promote Creative Commons licensing in the meanwhile as a stop-gap measure.
  4. It’s still not easy for Cuban authors to travel to the U.S. The visas of Yoss and Erick J. Mota were delayed by the U.S. embassy in Cuba, and they were only able to visit the U.S. after our event. This is unacceptable and violates their right to seek, receive, and impart ideas — a cornerstone of free expression. The U.S. needs to step it up.

Thanks to Esther Allen, Hillary Gulley, Yasmín S. Portales-Machado, and Karen Phillips for a lively discussion.

From the archives: 10 things you should know about District 9

I published this review of the film District 9 on my now-defunct blog Fictionthatmatters.org in 2009. Fashion designer Wale Oyejide mentioned District 9 during a recent Afrofuturism event in New York, so I thought I’d dig up this article from the archives. — Deji Bryce Olukotun

District 9
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
Produced by Peter Jackson
Starring Sharlto Copley
Key Creatives, 2009. 112 minutes.

District 9 has taken the American box office by storm. The film depicts the arrival of aliens in the unlikely locale of Johannesburg, South Africa. Establishing contact with alien life forms in the movies is never as simple as we’d like it to be.

But this picture moves beyond a B sci-fi flick with some penetrating social commentary. At times satirical and other times allegorical, the story skillfully interweaves the history and culture of South Africa with mecha-robots and spaceships.

The vagaries of the film industry have resulted in the film being released in the U.S. before South Africa, subverting one of the central themes of the film — that America is not the center of the world. I still expect the reception in South Africa to be a positive one.

Here are 10 Things that you may not know about District 9.

Note: the following list does not spoil the plot of the film. But those wishing to see the movie with a blank slate should not read it.

District Six

The title District 9 is a play on District Six, a famous neighborhood in Cape Town located not far from the Central Business District. The area was known for its diversity and its thriving arts scene. Labeled unsanitary by the National Party, the government was also concerned that races mixed relatively freely in the neighborhood. It was consequently designated a whites-only zone and razed to the ground. The residents were relocated to areas both within and outside Cape Town. Today, the government is gradually rebuilding District Six. A phenomenal museum is dedicated to the neighborhood.

The year 1989

The alien ‘prawn’ ships in the film land in South Africa in 1989. During this time, the country was still under a State of Emergency and the ANC was a banned political party. Over 20,000 people were killed during the next five years. The Goldstone Commission revealed that much of the violence was instigated by the apartheid government by pitting ethnic groups and political groups against each other. Nelson Mandela was released from prison in February 1990. Richard Goldstone, who headed the Goldstone Commission, is currently investigating atrocities in the Gaza Strip.

Arms Dealing

In the film, Multinational United (MNU) is a large multinational arms conglomerate. Arms manufacturing remains one of South Africa’s largest industries. This is a direct product of the Apartheid regime, during which South Africa developed a strong military that invaded neighboring countries and maintained order within its borders. In fact, current President Jacob Zuma was implicated ‘by inference’ in a $5 billion arms smuggling scandal in 2005. This scandal resulted in Zuma being stripped of his post under Thabo Mbeki. A number of evidentiary blunders by a poor prosecuting team resulted in the case being dropped — paving the way for Zuma’s current presidency. The other figure involved in the scandal, Schabir Shaik, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

One bullet, one prawn

In District 9, one of the MNU mercenaries brutishly declares, “one bullet, one prawn” while attacking the aliens. This is a deliberate play on the mantra of the Pan Africanist Congress, an anti-apartheid political group. The PAC proffered a “one bullet, one settler” slogan, indicating that whites should be shot until power returned to indigenous South Africans. The PAC was pushed aside when Mandela’s more moderate African Nation Congress gained power — and never let go. Many former PAC ‘combatants’ are now serving jail time or are ‘unemployable’, meaning that they lack the skills to participate in the modern South African economy.

Nigerians in South Africa

In the film, Nigerians are portrayed as gun smugglers, pimps, and cannibals. Nigerians have had an unsavory reputation in South Africa since before the fall of apartheid. In truth, they occupy both the top positions in South Africa — as academics, businessmen, and activists — but also the lowest — as drug dealers and gun runners. Nigerian gangs have been known for violently dominating the tik (crystal methamphetamine) trade. While most Nigerians live peaceably, it is not uncommon for landlords to refuse to rent to Nigerians or for employers to refuse to hire them.

Organ smuggling and religious body part smuggling have occurred in Nigeria but it is clearly illegal and practiced by a tiny number of outlaws. Unfortunately, this reputation has resulted in some bizarre stereotypes. District 9 is at heart a satire but these images could use a *bit* more qualification. I write about these stereotypes in my fiction.

The photo above is Bankole Omotoso, probably the most famous Nigerian in South Africa, a professor and actor who became known by playing an elderly South African man for the mobile phone company Vodacom.

Identification

 

All aliens are required to maintain identification in District 9. While many societies require residents to carry identification, South Africa has a particularly sordid history. Passes were utilized as a mechanism to control the non-white labor force in South Africa. The passes needed to be regularly updated and missing stamps or signatures could result in imprisonment or banishment to rural areas. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela fought strongly against passes. The country remains an ID-obsessed country — particular with respect to refugees.

Townships

The word ‘township’ is an apartheid-era euphemism for neighborhoods divided along racial lines. Townships suffered from a lack of basic services and poverty. During apartheid, townships were routinely raided by the notoriously violent ‘Peri-Urban’ police force just like the MNU agents in the film. Today the settlements around Johannesburg, both legal and illegal, sometimes number more than 1 million people. Townships such as Soweto (the Southwest Territories) have permanent homes and shacks. The government is attempting to build housing to eliminate shacks but service delivery remains poor. For an amazing account of the township of Alexandra, located near a garbage dump like the one in District 9, check out Mark Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy. Mathabane went on to become an international tennis star.

Cat food and Sweets

In the film, the alien Prawns have an insatiable appetite for cans of cat food. Upon traveling to the Eastern Cape or other traditional territories, South Africans often advise bringing ‘sweets’ for the kids. They hand out candy and other treats in order to win affection and, often, safety. Such measures are suggested in order to prevent the children from ‘killing you for your wristwatch,’ a typical apartheid-era myth.

Black cops / white cops

Both black and white MNU operatives work together against the Prawns. Although most films depict apartheid as having been perpetrated solely by whites, the South African Police Services did in fact have a large number of black officers.

Clicks

The aliens utilize a strange, click-heavy language in the film. Yet some MNU agents learn to speak the language.

South Africa possesses eleven official languages, several of which use ‘clicks’. Xhosa has the most click consonants, having incorporated clicks from a variety of ethnic groups around South Africa, including the San. It is not easy for a non-native to learn to use these clicks and this is compounded by the fact that Xhosa is a tonal Bantu language.

The non-European sounds of Xhosa helped whites differentiate themselves from indigenous South Africans and emphasized their alien-ness. Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously stressed this point by forcing a white lawyer to properly pronounce his client’s name during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proceedings.

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