The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction (2021), edited by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, reprints 29 gripping stories that test the limits of everyday reality. As diverse as the stories are, most of them push their characters across boundaries between this world and the spirit world, between past and present, human and robot, the living and the dead, and the mortal and the immortal. These are stories of Africa and the African diaspora, and the authors have provided brief bios at the end. I would have liked background notes on the stories and an introduction, but those are not essential. It’s enough to know that, in the editor’s judgment, these are the best African speculative fiction stories published in 2020. It’s surprising in such a diverse collection how many of them are unforgettable. Here are a few of my favorites.
“Where You Go” by Somto O. Ihezue is a searing story of a woman, cursed for her misuse of spiritual power, who loses her daughter to another world as she is reduced to a puddle before her eyes. After decades of catastrophes on Earth, including the falling of Lagos into the sea in an event called The Collecting, she endures many tests in her wanderings around Africa. Finally, as she stands before a mirror she pushes her way through to an underwater world where she must fight a powerful demon to get her daughter back.
In “Thoughtbox” by Tlotlo Tsamaase a woman struggles in her relationship with her partner who brings home one day a box that can record their thoughts and play them back. This device becomes a terrible instrument for revealing too much about who these two people are and leads the woman to question even whether she is human or something manufactured.
Tobias Buckell’s “Scar Tissue” tells the story of a man with a prosthetic limb who agrees to foster a robot meant to look and act like a human being. That level of complexity can’t be programmed so “Rob” emerges like a raging baby from his crate and gradually learns to grow up under the man’s tutelage. So full of feeling does this robot become in his maturity that he explodes with hurt at the reluctance of the man to add the latest technology to his own body. It brings out the strange convergence that begins between human and robot.
The self-sufficiency of self-aware robots pushes into the realm of space piracy in “Red_Bati” by Dilman Dila. A robot dog, with the intelligence and consciousness of a human, is marked for recycling and transport to an asteroid after its owner dies. She was Granny, and her image is preserved in a hologram that reminds Red_Bati of the one person who took him seriously. To avoid his fate, he engineers a step-by-step takeover of the spaceship taking him to his destruction. It’s a tour de force of ingenuity and careful strategy as Red_Bati starts to implement his plan.
As a former mental health blogger, I was especially drawn to a couple of stories that find powerful metaphors for depression and anxiety and more fundamentally an alienation from one’s body and self, the sense of being broken. “Disassembly” by Makena Onjerika takes the idea of brokenness literally. A woman finds that her body parts are detachable, and there are days when she doesn’t even notice that she left her hand at home clasping a coffee cup. A lover asks her to remove her legs, then taunts her to come get them. She tries different professions but can’t succeed, feeling she has become invisible as well as broken. It is a brilliant, searching story about breaking apart and coming together.
“The River of Night” by Tlotlo Tsamaase dramatizes a woman who has to listen to the never-ending attacks of imaginary colleagues and roommates who perfectly capture the feelings of self-contempt and shame. She compares herself to a more successful classmate “with towers of beauty and charm,” a phrase that captures the sense of smallness she feels in her dwindled and incompetent self. The “river of night” becomes a force that fills her emptiness, always trying to drown her. It’s a desperate and terribly true portrait of self-torment.
Then there is the brilliant flash fiction story by Suyi Davies Okungbowa, “We Come As Gods.” The prose, in just a few pages, rises to the proportions of an epic poem that echoes the voices of a whole people through the stages of human life and culture. Sheree Renée Thomas’ “Ancestries” is similarly evocative of the fate of a people focused in the energies of a woman about to partake of a ceremony that leads through sacrifice to a new beginning.
“Breath of the Sahara” by Inegbenoise O. Osagie tells the story of a village girl regarded as a thief but who is also a spiritual being. As her fate becomes clear, the girl begins the process of shrinking away until she becomes part of the wind captured in the title.
I’m just skimming the surface here. There are many incredible stories in this collection of African speculative fiction. I look forward to another”best of” collection from Ekpeki. I understand he has had a terrible problem with Amazon, which impounded the earnings of this title and now no longer carries it, but I hope he can produce more great collections with or without the aid of that tech giant. Ekpeki’s website lists the outlets where you can get copies and offers the ebook in mobi format so that you can read it on a Kindle. Go for it!