Interesting stuff happens at the edges: cyberpunk’s African rebirth

Paul Raven @ 17-05-2010

Jonathan Dotse of Ghana has managed to make a modest splash in the sf blogowhatsit, and deservedly so – he’s stated with admirable clarity that the “lawless frontier” aspects of cyberpunk fiction which now seem tired or implausible to readers in the jaded Western world are becoming more pertinent than ever on the African continent.

… here in Africa, development has been dangerously asymmetrical. By the time any product hits our soil it’s already fully-developed and ready to be abused by the imagination. Technology designed for vastly different societies invariably trickles down to our streets, re-sprayed, re-labeled, and hacked to fit whatever market will take it. Regulation? You can forget about regulation.

[…]

It’s no surprise then that lawlessness is the rule on our end of the networks, ‘do what thou wilt’ the full extent of cyber-regulation. This will remain the case as long as Africa continues to wear hand-me-down systems; until she acquires her own truly tailor-made networks. With the huge logistical frameworks that need to be implemented, spanning vast swathes of geographical terrain, political regimes, and language barriers, a cyberpunk future for Africa seems all but inevitable.

This reminds me somewhat of Iain Banks’ comments about his well-known Culture universe – that the interesting* things happen at the edges of stable societies. There’s been a certain degree of navel-gazing in sf criticism circles which has seen people momentarily pondering whether sf has lost its ability to talk meaningfully about the future; Dotse’s post would suggest that the tropes of cyberpunk are still a useful lens on the world that he experiences. So perhaps the problem isn’t with sf as a mode of discourse, but with the state of the Anglophone Western world that is its dominant consumer and producer: maybe things have just gotten too safe for us to say much that hasn’t been said before about our own experience of life.

That may not last, of course – Bruce Sterling’s favela chic/gothic hi-tech dichotomy is being borne out in headlines all across Europe and the US, and I expect we’ll see new fiction that grapples with those ideas (and many others) in the years to come. But for now, the so-called “global south” is inheriting the rush of social and technological flux that turned the more developed nations upside down during the late eighties and nineties, and we can expect that writers there will take up and retrofit the tools of cyberpunk in order to shape their own futures, fictional and factual alike. In fact, I think we should be actively looking for them to do so; it would do us good to be reminded that, for all our angst about our own uncertain futures, the daily experiences of millions of other people highlight just how stable and comfortable we really are. As we adjust to a global economy where adaptive reuse, thrift, hacking and making-do become skillsets that we need to reacquire, we can probably learn a lot from nations where they’ve been necessities for decades. We’ve let our sense of entitlement deafen us for far too long; it’s time to listen to the voices from the edges, and beyond them.

And if Dotse can write stories as well as he can grandstand, he’ll be a name to watch. So if you decide to try your hand at short stories, Jonathan, we’d love to see them when we re-open to submissions later in the year… :)

[ * For clarity – ‘interesting’ here refers to the sorts of things that make for interesting fiction stories, rather than a more general form of interest. ]

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