So, last week in our survey of black science fiction writers, we looked at some of the long-established black writers. This week, it’s time to turn to some of the writers who have emerged in the last decade or so.
We begin with Nnedi Okorafor, an American writer of Nigerian extraction who has, throughout her life, regularly travelled backwards and forwards between Nigeria and the USA. This easy familiarity with Africa has had two noticeable effects upon her writing. In the first place, unlike say Octavia Butler or Steven Barnes, images of slavery and submission play a less dominant role in her work. Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, her writing is suffused with the rhythms of African oral storytelling which allows more readily for sudden reversals and changes of pace than is often the way with more traditionally literary work. This, in turn, has given her work a freshness and vigor that has made her one of the more exciting new voices in sf.
She began her career with two young adult novels published under the name Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, Zahrah the Windseeker and The Shadow Speaker. Both are science fiction, but also incorporate themes and figures from West African folklore, a device that she has continued in her later adult novels, which allows her to merge futuristic technology with an enfolding and mystical organic life. In Zahrah the Windseeker, set on a colony world, the central character has animate dreadlocks that give her psi powers, and a computer of flowers. In The Shadow Speaker, set in a future falling apart after nuclear war, a Peace Bomb makes people look alike, makes forests appear overnight, and eliminates borders so that everywhere is magically next to everywhere else.
Under the more familiar form of her name, Okorafor has also written a couple of books for children, and another YA, novel, Akata Witch, about a young woman in modern-day Africa coming to terms with her latent magical powers. A sequel is apparently due later this year.
Following her first short story in 2000, she has published regularly if not extensively, producing one collection, Kabu Kabu, which included the title story, co-written with Alan Dean Foster, and 20 other short stories, six of which had not previously been published.
However, her more interesting work for adults has been at novel length, beginning with Who Fears Death, which won the World Fantasy Award. Set in a near-future Africa in which the Okeke people are oppressed by the lighter-skinned Nuru, who use rape as means of oppression. The heroine, Onyesonwu, whose name means “Who Fears Death”, is a product of such a rape, and so is rejected by her community, but she learns she has powers that enable her to journey deep into the traditions and mysteries of her people and so overcome the forces ranged against her.
The later prequel, The Book of Phoenix, more explicitly links future technology and magic in a story that turns into a superhero adventure, or rather, an adventure that takes the familiar characteristics of a superhero story and twists them into a new shape. In this case a young girl is held in a facility in New York and subjected to accelerated development, but when she escapes she discovers she has greater and unexpected powers. The novel then becomes a struggle between restrictive, technologically-oriented corporate America and freer, individualistic, magic-oriented Africa.
In between these two books, Okorafor wrote Lagoon, which explores the very different responses that happen when an alien craft crashes into the sea at Lagos, Nigeria. By chance a marine biologist, a popular rapper and an AWOL soldier become the intermediaries between the aliens and humanity, but what is most revealing is the different ways that people respond to the news, as thieves and religious fundamentalists, soldiers and politicians create chaos that could lead to annihilation.
Okorafor’s most recent work has been two linked novellas, Binti (which won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards) and its sequel, Binti: Home. In the first story, Binti must abandon her people and her traditions to travel across the galaxy to prestigious Oomza University, but once there she finds herself caught up in the ongoing war with the alien Meduse, a war that her people’s traditions could help to resolve. In the sequel, Binti returns home with her Meduse friend, the first of his species ever to visit Earth in peace, and finds prejudice and enmity can still get in the way.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.