Saturday, July 27, 2019

Black to the future: Tade Thompson wins the Arthur C. Clarke for Rosewater

Last week Tade Thompson, a British-born Yoruba writer, became only the second writer of black African heritage to win the Arthur C Clarke award for science fiction. Three out of this year’s six shortlisted titles were by writers of colour, a reflection of the fact that some of today’s most exciting SF and fantasy writing comes from non-white authors. Recent high-profile examples include Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which won the Pulitzer prize in 2017, as well as that year’s Arthur C Clarke award and is being made into a TV series by Barry Jenkins; and NK Jemisin, who last year won a third consecutive Hugo award for best science fiction novel with the final part of her Broken Earth trilogy. Yet as Tom Hunter, award administrator for the Arthur C Clarke prize, points out, of the 124 submissions from 46 different publishers and imprints, only 7% were by writers of colour. He is unambiguous about what this means: “Diversity in science fiction needs action now.”

Thompson’s Rosewater was a worthy winner: a complex and fast-moving novel that expertly balances weird alien incursion against thriller action, zombie scares and a vividly rendered future Nigeria. He joins Whitehead and Jemisin as leading proponents of contemporary Afrofuturism, at a time when that movement is going mainstream – the film Black Panther took more than $1bn at the box office last year, and some of the world’s biggest recording artists have adopted Afrofuturist stylings, from Rihanna and Beyoncé to Janelle Monáe.

In fact the movement, and black engagement with sci-fi, go back a long way. Samuel Delany has been writing sci-fi from the black experience since the 1960s (he’s still going), Funkadelic were hymning their outer-space mothership in the 1970s, and the much missed Octavia Butler wrote some of the most powerful sci-fi of the 1980s and 90s. What’s happening today is a shift in focus: a black African rather than African American sci-fi phenomenon. Writer Geoff Ryman, a former Clarke winner himself, points out that Thompson’s success marks “the first time an African not living in the US has won a major sci-fi/fantasy award”.

Rosewater is a distinctively African example of Afrofuturism: a portrait of Nigeria in 2066, extrapolated from the bustling and expanding society of today, but with its own distinctive flavour – intricate, sometimes hectic, spacious. Where white western cyberpunk tends to isolate its characters, gloomily alienated individuals moving through hi-tech future cities, Thompson’s characters exist in vivid networks of kinship and friendship groups. The novel is as interested in protagonist Kaaro’s love life (he is believably gauche in relation to his various objects of desire) as in his superhero skills. The far-fetched and the mundane rub shoulders in a distinctive and agreeable manner. Kaaro has employment as a kind of telepathic James Bond, but he also has a dull job in a bank. The alien incursion, around which the novel’s titular city has been constructed, combines magic and science: healing the sick and bringing the dead back to zombie-life, but also provoking a hi-tech evolution in science.

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