By Elechi Amadi
Science fiction (SE) is a literary genre usually based on imaginary scientific and technological advances or imaginary and severe changes in the human condition and environment. Since the Second World War, popular themes have included the possible consequences of a runaway technology fuelled by unbridled greed and megalomania; interplanetary travels and warfare often involving nightmarish extraterrestrial creatures wielding doomsday weapons; and threats to the continued existence of the human race posed by apocalyptic events on earth, within the solar system or our galaxy, the Milky Way.
Perhaps not surprisingly, SF can be traced back to the Greeks who seem to have had their finger in every pie of human intellectual endeavour. Lucian (115-200AD), a Greek, is reputed to be the first well authenticated SF writer. His works include Dialogues of the Gods, Dialogues of the Dead, which is a satire on mythology, philosophy and society, and Auction of Philosophers, in which Socrates, Aristotle and other thinkers of the time are offered for sale by the gods to the highest bidder! In modern times, there are traces of SF in the works of Francis Bacon (1561-1626; he wrote New Atlantis which describes an imaginary journey to a place in the Pacific), Jonathan Swift (1667 –1745; Gulliver’s Travels), Sir Thomas More (1478 – 1535; Utopia) and Edgar Allan Poe (1809–42; Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque). In 1818, Mary B. Shelley, second wife of P.B. Shelley, the famous English Poet, wrote Frankenstein. In this tale, a student of natural science stumbled on the secret of imparting life to inanimate matter. He collected old human bones, fashioned a figure, and gave it life. The resulting creature named Frankenstein had superhuman strength but was very revolting in appearance. Shunned by human beings, it declared war on them.
In the 20th century, Jules (1828 -1905) and H.G. Wells (1866 – 1946) led the way in SF. Jules Verne, a French writer, pioneered the modern adventure tale well anchored in scientific concepts. His works include A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and Round the World in Eighty Days. H.G. Wells developed the more philosophical aspects of SF. His notable works include The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The First Men in the Moon, The Food of the Gods and The War in the Air.
In 1926, Hugo Gernsback, sometimes referred to a “the father of modern science fiction”, started a magazine, Amazing Stories, which featured SF stories. Other SF magazines like The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Astounding Science followed.
What is the Science Fiction scene in Nigeria like? I have not read any modern SF written by a Nigerian or, indeed, any African author. I suspect that if modern SF exists in Nigeria, it is certainly very scarce. The reasons are not far to seek. First, Nigeria is not science oriented, which means that readers who can enjoy Science Fiction in Nigeria are few; worse still, Science Fiction writers will be even fewer or non-existent.
Second, the reading culture itself is yet to be developed. Apart from students and those in academia, very few people read fiction and poetry for pleasure. This has an effect on drama which is fiction on stage. Jobless drama graduates, who make brave efforts to stage plays for the public, lament poor attendance.
Science Fiction has the potential to galvanize the populace into taking more interest in science and scientific concepts. But, first, the government must put education back to the top rung of the ladder of development. The havoc done to education by successive administrations has to be mitigated urgently.
Nigeria may lack scientific fiction writers in the modern sense, but this does not mean that we do not possess imagination powerful enough to generate science fiction. Indeed, there is a lot of scientific fiction in our folklore. Let us consider these three Nigeria fables:
1. There was a maiden who rejected all suitors. A skull with borrowed body parts and handsomely dressed turned up and she married him. After much suffering, she escaped back to her parents clinging to the talons of a giant bird (surely, this story predicts the transplant of body organs from one person to another).
2. There was famine in the animal world. Tortoise found a palm kernel.
Unfortunately, he dropped it and it rolled into a hole. Desperately he pursued it down the hole and emerged in the underworld inhabited by his dead ancestors. After some adventure, Tortoise surfaced with two drums donated by his ancestors. One drum produced abundant food when struck, the other masquerades with canes! Predictably, Tortoise was made a king. The drums created matter through the energy of their vibrations (it is not long ago that scientists discovered that matter that can be created from energy, contrary to the old belief that matter can neither be created nor destroyed).
3. Once again, there was famine in the animal kingdom. The younger animals agreed to offer their parents to the public for slaughter. Squirrel hid his mother in the sky and flew up there daily for meals. Eventually, the other animals, baffled by Squirrel’s healthy and robust appearance, discovered his trick (Squirrel and his mother were definitely space travellers!)
Although readers in more literate countries patronize SF, the genre is largely ignored by the orthodox literary establishment. SF is generally regarded as low quality literature, and so does not feature as texts in literary studies. This is in spite of the effort of eminent practitioners who have produced serious SF works comparable to some of the best in mainstream fiction. These authors include Arthur C.Clarke (Childhood’s End, 2001 Space Odyssey, The City and the Stars, The Sands of Mars), Isaac Asimov (The Stars like Dust, The End of Eternity, The Naked Sun), Robert Heinlein, Clerk Ashton Smith, and several others.
Why is SF rated so poorly by literary pundits? Several reasons could be adduced for this. First, characters, such as they are, do not fall into the normal human mould and so cannot always be rationally evaluated and appreciated. SF characters are often bizarre, erratic and even non-human sometimes. There are no charts to the mindset of an extra-terrestrial creature from Jupiter, or a robot forged by an advanced civilization.
Second, situations are usually literally ‘out of this world’ and cannot be judged by our earthly standards. In other words, they are unlike anything we know. There are no cultural or societal norms which could be reference points for critical analysis.
Third, conflicts are usually easy to resolve in SF. An imaginary scientific concept or contraption can cut through any situational dilemma. This means that the author’s creativity is not seriously called into play in the way critics are used to, even though his recourse to scientific gimmickry may be brilliant and highly entertaining.
Finally, an SF writer can create his own rules and atmosphere and work within them. This makes orthodox criticism practically impossible.
Still, SF has its strong points, the most important being its high entertainment value. H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man and The First Men on the Moon are hard to put down. So are Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Jules Verne’s Round the World in Eighty Days. The film versions of these stories have heavy box office attraction even today. The other important advantage of SF is that it lends itself easily to the construction of satire. A government being satirized can be located on another planet and characters need not be human. SF satires can be powerful and effective. Swill’s Gulliver’s Travels and Orwell’s Animal Farm come easily to mind.
In spite of the strictures against SF as serious fiction, a few books have made it into the mainstream of orthodox literature. They are usually soft-core SF. Examples include 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travel, Verne’s Round the World in Eighty Days (especially as children’s literature) and a few others. In 1984, the State government devises a highly sophisticated surveillance system which makes it possible for the Head of State to see in his video any citizen, anywhere, any time. This effectively deprives citizens of all privacy. The awesome slogan going the round is, “Big Brother is watching you”. This slogan has come into everyday use. 1984 also gives us “doublespeak” which means equivocation. From Animal Farm, we have the often quoted saying: “all animals are equal but some are more equal than others”. From Gulliver’s Travels, we have the word “Lilliputian” meaning diminutive in size.
Will SF ever fully emerge from the shadows and merge with mainstream fiction? Yes and no. Hard-core SF has little chance of winning the approval of literary pundits. Hard-core SF is the type that flaunts complicated scientific theories and gadgets and unbridled imagination where there are few meeting points between the real world and the author’s creation. But this kind if fiction will continue to flourish even outside academia. Its sheer entertainment power derived from dizzy imagination will remain irresistible to its connoisseurs; its derring-do will continue to urge men first to the planets and ultimately to the stars. I believe SF points the way to man’s ultimate destiny.
H.G. Wells: The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, The First Men in the Moon, The War of the Worlds, The Food of the Gods
George Orwell: 1984
Mary B. Shelley: Frankenstein
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The Lost World
H. P. Lovecraft: The Shadow out of Time
Jules Verne: Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth
Ray Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles
Arthur C. Clarke: Childhood’s End, 2001 Space Odyssey, The City and the Stars, The Sands of Mars
Isaac Asimov: The End of Eternity, The Stars like Dust, The Naked Sun
Elechi Amadi: When God Came,* Song of the Vanquished (about to be published)