Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Review: The Dominion Anthology

Ours is a time of ever-increasing visibility for African SFF—now it has its first anthology

Our editor Adri mentioned this book already last August, but it bears revisiting at greater length. This is, according to the publisher, "the first anthology of speculative fiction and poetry by Africans and the African Diaspora," so it deserves every chance of visibility it can get. Edited by Zelda Knight and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, and with a foreword by Tananarive Due, the Dominion anthology collects twelve stories and one poem about imagined futures and reimagined pasts told with deep sincerity and robustness of worldbuilding. This is certainly an exciting time for diversity in speculative fiction.

Trickin' by Nicole Givens Kurtz, from the United States, is an odd choice to open the book with, as it is not a very strong story, with little impact on the reader. In the ruins of a city devastated by biological warfare, a mysterious wanderer wakes up on Halloween and starts terrorizing the survivors, demanding a blood tribute. There are the vaguest indications that the protagonist might be some sort of superhuman, most likely a vampire, but the story itself is scarce in information. One has to flip back to the book's introductory pages to learn from the editorial synopsis that this character is supposed to be a god. Not the most impressive of starts, but don't worry: the rest of the anthology more than makes up.

Red_Bati by Dilman Dila, from Uganda, is the deeply moving rebellion story of a former pet robot now working for an asteroid mining company that finds it cheaper to repurpose discarded pets than to buy actual miner robots. Unbeknownst to its new owners, Red_Bati had a software upgrade with human-like intelligence so it could better serve as a companion to humans, so when it suffers an accident and is put in storage as damaged junk, he devises a risky escape plan.

The most effective artistic choice in this story is its gradual dosing of information: we start in the middle of a conversation with minimal context, then we are pulled back so we can see some of the scenery (we are on a spaceship), and later we learn the protagonist's immediate predicament, and only when it becomes relevant to the plot are we given the rest of the backstory. This technique of withholding crucial facts until they are needed is very hard to do successfully, but this time it's managed with a flawless expertise that never loses hold of the reader's attention. The interaction between the robotic protagonist and its internal simulation of its dead owner is as funny as it is heartbreaking, and it subtly grows in weirdness until the ending comes and devastates the reader.

There are, however, a few missteps, which would not matter in any other kind of story, but are too noticeable in one that presents itself as science fiction grounded in physics. One aside comment mentions a sentient robotic crew on another spaceship that panics and refuses to keep working upon estimating only a 99.9% chance of a safe landing (which is not how any superintelligent being would respond to probabilities), while another part refers to a system of thermal insulation so good it can resist −400 °C (a temperature that is physically impossible in this universe). These details are brief and do not affect in the least the emotional punch of the story, but they do distract enough to prevent full suspension of disbelief.

A Maji Maji Chronicle by Eugen Bacon, from Australia, is a time travel story that revisits the Maji Maji Rebellion, an uprising that erupted against forced labor in the German East Africa colony (today's Tanzania). A wizard and his apprentice jump from the future to 1905 Earth and explore the ramifications of an alternate outcome to the rebellion. In our timeline, villagers used folk charms that were believed to stop bullets, and were brutally suppressed by the German colonial officers. In this version of events, we watch with dread the insidious darkness that could have taken over the human heart if the rebels had had access to real magic.

This tale appears to have a simple structure at first sight, but it contains material for extended discussions on the allure of power, the difficulty of maintaining control, and the didactic usefulness of history. The reader will marvel at how the author managed to speak of a horribly painful episode while having the two viewpoint protagonists banter with Quixotic irony.

The Unclean by Nuzo Onoh, from Nigeria, is a haunting story about the horror of loss worsened by the horror of patriarchy. In the years leading to Nigeria's independence, a young Igbo woman separated from her home by arranged marriage endures first the cruel pressure to conceive and then the despair of her child's death. When she starts receiving nightly visitations from the child's ghost, she tries desperately to help him be born into his next life. We experience in parallel narratives the journey that brought her to her present misfortune and the trial by ordeal she's going through for practicing forbidden sorcery.

This story abounds in cultural specifics that construct a solid image of the setting in the reader's mind. We're presented with an array of malevolent spirits, magical rituals and secret Nsibidi symbols that anchor the story firmly in its corner of the world.

But beyond the care for authenticity, it is amazing that a terrifying tale of horrific events can be so filled, from start to end, with beautiful sentences that jump out at the reader, demanding to be reread for the pure enjoyment of their rhythm, their choice of words, their evocative poetry. A select few are "As I walked through the low metal gate of our compound, my feet grew sudden wings as I raced the last few yards to our front door" and "My reddened eyes remained puffed with unfinished tears, ready to shed my agony at the slightest excuse" and "The unnatural stillness in my room was heavy with a waiting quality that made the darkness a solid malignant mass" and "Gathered in a silent, waiting crowd, hollowed eyes dripping blood as black as tar, each posed in the manner of their demise, they impaled me to the ground by their appalling visage" and "God is thundering, roaring, helpless as He's always been in the face of mankind's tragedy."

This is a powerful piece of horror and one of the highlights of the entire collection.

A Mastery of German by Marian Denise Moore, from the United States, is a short but effective exploration of the anxieties brought by the current genetic ancestry testing fad. In a not very tightly regulated pharmaceutical company, a project to turn generational memory into a product is discussed in the context of larger questions about privacy, identity, heredity, and erased history. If a company can make money from your memories, but you are your memories, is the company selling you? This question would be piercing enough in any story, but in one told from the perspective of African American history, and coinciding with the still-ongoing discussion about who gets to own and tell a people's experience, it carries an extra edge.

The anthology also features Emily, Moore's heartfelt poem about the many characters lost to history and the things we wish we could have told them.

Convergence in Chorus Architecture by Dare Segun Falowo, from Nigeria, is a survival story with the symbolic scope and weight of an epic. In a richly detailed Yoruba setting, sustained by powerful descriptions like "Lightning flashed and for a moment, everything seemed made from white stone," a community of war escapees who founded a secret village have to decipher a vision from the heavens. For a long stretch, the plot is less about material events and more about the effort to decipher the omens. This is a nice way to tell a story about stories: to make it hinge on an act of interpretation. Characters spend whole days in mystical trance and their perception of the waking world is effortlessly blended with the signs of the dream.

The narration relies heavily on the divinatory practices of the Ifa religion, and large portions are devoted to painting intricate dreamscapes that hold the secrets to the story. These sections employ surreal imagery that both detaches the reader from the conventional meanings of words and creates a very concrete, very unique world with its own system of meaning. This is what makes it possible for the author to put so much force into wonderful sentences like "A scream was cut short by a blaze of violet fire, as the screaming body exploded into the air, burning a trail thin as thread from the distant plain into the gut of the boneship" and "Up in the sky where he looked, he saw as in the shared dream, a blackness staining the night, the emergence of a void in the flesh of reality" and "Her motions set off melodies which the air sings to itself."

The author's mastery of description holds together two parallel plots that explore both the depths of the earth and the void of outer space. Thieves from another star system have come to the village, in a stylized metaphor for the arrival of the slave trade, while a man navigates the underworld to seek the divine power that may save his people. Both below the earth and up among the stars, the events have to be read with multiple meanings, with the lasting resonance of myth. This story, my favorite in the book, is absolutely breathtaking, crafted in a tactile language that makes the stuff of dreams feel real.

To Say Nothing of Lost Figurines by Rafeeat Aliyu, from Nigeria, is a fun portal fantasy where a bored half-alien bureaucrat assigned to a boring uneventful town is suddenly ordered to watch over a human wizard searching for a staff he needs to participate in a magical competition. The frustrations of cultural misunderstandings and the absurdities of transdimensional legislation carry the tale in a breeze, but it's worth noting briefly the series of clever allegories inserted here: barriers to immigration, theft of cultural treasures, the discrimination suffered by people of mixed ethnicity, and the power of heritage to literally make a territory.

Sleep Papa, Sleep by Suyi Davies Okungbowa, from Nigeria, is a gritty undead story where an organ trafficker is haunted by his father's corpse after inadvertently selling parts of him. We follow the protagonist in a deadly quest through the criminal underbelly of Lagos to unburden himself from his guilt.

Clanfall: Death of Kings by Odida Nyabundi, from Kenya, is a complex political drama with plenty of throat slashing and gut ripping. In a far future Earth without humans, a territory known only as the Cracked Realm is ruled by feuding cyborg dynasties. The clan of the Fisi has just overthrown the clan of the Simba for control of the country, but a spy drone sent by the reclusive clan of the Chui has discovered a secret that could strengthen their position under the new regime. The plot is slow to reveal itself, and folds back into the past several times to revisit events from another perspective. The multiple alternating viewpoints tax the reader's working memory, and the abrupt ending comes frustratingly soon after the author has spent so much effort on building a fascinating world that cries out to be explored more. It reads as the first chapter of a much longer epic, and one can only hope it is.

The Satellite Charmer by Mame Bougouma Diene, from the United States, zooms the controversy on Chinese acquisition of African raw materials to cosmic proportions: in a future empire spanning the territories between Chad and Senegal, Chinese corporations have acquired a license to shoot gigantic beams of red light from orbit to pull minerals from the ground. A young man with prophetic powers has spent his life captivated by the strange seductive power of the red beam, obsessed with becoming one with it, while his country tries to survive amid massive environmental devastation.

The prose is written efficiently, but has time for strong description when it matters. The reader is regaled with sentences like "He could taste the dampness in the air, his eyes watering with the wind" and "Entire swathes of the continent seared and bleeding with lava, like open arteries on a suicidal forearm" and "The Mandrill's eyes opened onto the universe, folded it into the shape of Ibou's heart and took a bite." Likewise, the protagonist holds on to scarce moments of beauty as an escape from the bleakness of the world. Through slices of his life, we watch him adapt to the pressures of extractive economy until it takes everything from him and more.

This story gradually rises from a mundane plot to metaphysical musings without letting go of its threads of logical continuity. It's one thing for you to repeat the mantra that everything is connected, and another thing to be yourself the pathway through which it happens.

Thresher of Men by Michael Boatman, from the United States, is a quick succesion of shocking episodes about an avenging goddess who has lived for centuries watching over the African people and their descendants, and now has returned to the world in the era of police brutality.

Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, from Nigeria, concludes this anthology with mixed results. In a future Ife, a refuge for the dwindling survivors of a nuclear war, the tribal leader makes unauthorized contact with the outside world, offering his people's supernatural talents in exchange for a dubious promise of rescue, and sets in motion an explosive confrontation and a social revolution in his suffocatingly patriarchal community.

The dialogues are excessive, explaining too much in a theatrical voice that makes the characters sound separated from their own feelings. In the manner of didactic tales, which themselves feature as central elements of the story, the author chooses to tell rather than show, to a degree that strains the reader's investment. The characters come off more as archetypes than as concrete persons. Every time a fact about this society needs to be told to the reader, characters say it to each other, in classic "As you know" manner. Strangely, in a pivotal early scene where two prophets pronounce world-shattering revelations, the dialogue is simple, almost business-like, incongruous with the events it is describing.

The action scenes, in contrast, are written with better skill. This is not entirely to be celebrated, as this is not a story of war, but a story of cultural change told with the trappings of war. When it returns to its central topics, however, it adopts a preachy tone that does its message no favors. Only its mythical ending saves this story, which by that point has grown rather ponderous.

This last part may sound like an indictment of the book, but it's far from that. There is material here for every taste, and you may notice that in Adri's review last August, she enjoyed stories I didn't. This anthology is worth your immediate attention, and the most exciting bit is that it is labeled as "Volume One," so we remain eager for the rest of the series.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +2 for beautiful prose.

Penalties: −2 for numerous typesetting errors that are even more numerous in the Kindle version. It is unfair that an anthology capable of such literary heights should be stained by clumsy paragraph indentation and careless kerning.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Knight, Zelda and Ekpeki, Oghenechovwe Donald [editors]. Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora (Volume One) [Aurelia Leo, 2020].