Dreams of Order, Visions of Chaos

An SF Childhood in Kenya

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A FEELING FOR WHAT IS NOT

SF came to me as a child through television. It was utterly unlike anything else. It was entirely of a piece with the wonderful, terrifying experience of being a small child. I like lists. Let’s start with, in roughly chronological order, some of the more outstanding SF and SF-nal shows/feature films from my late childhood and early adolescence:

  • Thunderbirds 2086 (Kagaku Kyujo Tai Tekunoboija)
  • Star Trek (as seen in black & white on a 13” Sanyo with Formica siding)
  • Warriors of the Wasteland (which I was able to come back to years later in its original, hatchet-free brilliance as Nausicaa)
  • Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs
  • Ulysses
  • Macross/Robotech
  • Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors
  • Centurions
  • M.A.S.K
  • DROIDS
  • Mysterious Cities of Gold

I loved the peacekeepers—particularly Saber Rider, Centurions, M.A.S.K—for the style, panache and gadgetry. I was less interested in what they were doing (i.e. saving the world) than in how they were doing it. Part of that fascination came from watching the distinction between the human body and machinery become so radically, so wonderfully complicated. You could wear a machine, yes, but you could also be a machine. Or you were now something altogether different, neither human nor machine, and that was qualitatively as important as either category. These ideas are now so thoroughly axiomatic to any discussion of the relationship between humans and machines that any treatment of them in a mode other than as always-already-ubiquitous seems passé. But in my young life there was so much more to my relationship with every bit of technology, portable or not, wearable or not. As far as intellectual beginnings go, that is a significant one, whether or not you plan on writing SF.

Loss. It’s everywhere in these shows. In one after another there is the quest for something that is missing—as in the case of Ulysses (“the way back to Earth has been wiped from my memory,” says the ship’s AI) or Jayce, where it is the lost patriarch and his grasp of a means to defeat the galactic menace that has turned his family and friends into refugees. In Saber Rider and Centurions, it’s the quest for peace. Straightforward enough, on the face of it, but what’s lost is not peace as such but rather a societal certainty that advanced weaponry deployed to great success simply can’t revive. There’s also the more nuanced search in DROIDS for a place in a society where the relationships between partially sentient machines and humans is that of master and slave. There is unease, desperation, anger, sadness—something is broken and has to be fixed, but what is that, exactly?

The pervasive unease worked into the storylines and characters of these shows affected me. At the end of every episode of DROIDS, after having had yet another adventure with a cast of swashbuckling, ingenious heroes (who otherwise couldn’t have done without them), C3PO and R2D2 would say their goodbyes—in one poignant episode, slipping into an escape pod to drift in deep space—awaiting their next adventure. But to me, it seemed that there was no such promise, no end to their eternal drift, perhaps because I only watched of a handful of these shows in their entirety.

My experience of DROIDS—and of a number of the animated series I’ve listed above—was mediated through VHS recordings of a BBC children’s show that my parents would let me pick out on our weekend sojourns to that now-ancient repository once known as a video rental. The nature of the selections—part of a kids’ show here, a straight taping there—and the need for recycling tapes, meant that some tapes had half an episode, or a few minutes’ worth—before the in media res entry of another show, previously taped, or static. The complete story of the DROIDS had to be pieced together, with Stewart Copeland’s evocative scoring (particularly the plaintive theme that closed out every episode) echoing in my ears.

Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors and The Mysterious Cities of Gold deal with absent fathers. My father’s work as a journalist took him to far-flung and dangerous locales and so this marked both shows as being of especial interest. Again, there was a link between human desires and the machinery we create to realize these. In Jayce, the ship Jayce and his fellow questors travel in and the battlewagons they operate are both his father’s legacy and the only way he can stay alive. They are also the mechanism by which he’s going to find his missing father. I was already a teenager when I came to Jayce, and the incipient message that finding your own way as a man in the world also means coming to terms with your father hit hard.

THE ASTRONAUT

I met the astronaut in 1989 at the former U.S. Embassy in downtown Nairobi (it is now a small memorial park dedicated to those who died in the bombing of the embassy on August 7, 1998 by Al-Qaeda). I was seven years old. The astronaut’s name was George Nelson and, although he never walked on the moon, he was the veteran of three space flights. I still have the 1988 Space Shuttle mission patch he gave me (Lounge, Hilmers, Nelson, Hauck, Covey), though I have misplaced the autographed portrait.

We met in a large white-walled room with black and white photographs. There was a small diorama of the Sea of Tranquility with a lunar landing module and, of course, the American flag and astronaut. There may have been a rover too. This was the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission (“One small step for a man, on giant leap for mankind”). I didn’t know that at the time, but apparently I knew everything else, because the man behind the exhibition/anniversary fete kept asking my father how I knew so much. It is a story my father relates with offhanded pride. For a long time I remembered that he had taken me out of school just so I could go to this event, but the simple fact is that the date of the anniversary makes this unlikely. School’s out in July, which is usual for this part of the southern hemisphere, and on the 21st of that month I would have been at home and bored out of my skull.

One evening years later my father brought home a press packet by Rockwell International on the Space Shuttle. It was so detailed that for a long while I entertained the notion it was simply cribbed from the actual flight manual. I spent so much time trying to read what felt to me like the most splendid piece of literature ever—technical or otherwise—that it seemed I might climb into a space shuttle and operate it.

STRIKE

“The Shrike. It’s like the Shrike.”

I looked at Larry, grinning as dappled mid-afternoon light from amongst the trees in the yard fell aslant on one side of his light brown face, expecting him to tell me what that…thing was (it sounded like a combination of ‘spike’ and ‘shriek’).

But he wouldn’t.

Larry sat behind me, by the bank of windows of class 4C on the second floor of the upperclassmen’s wing. Broad-minded, easygoing, he got along with a lot of people. He loved the word shrike, and would repeat the word in sudden fits bookended by cryptic looks and a chuckle.

I found all this a bit crazy, but then again I wasn’t one to talk: with my reputation for silence and an apparent bookishness not reflected in my grades, I was only one more oddball in a class of eccentrics.

This went on for about a month. In between, we took mock examinations meant to prepare us for those we would later take to obtain the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE). I forgot about the Shrike; Larry hadn’t mentioned it in a while. I was already working on what would become my first novel, alongside half-hearted attempts at study. So when, weeks later, Larry showed me a copy of Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons, I was surprised. It was a Bantam paperback. The front cover was missing, as were the first three-dozen or so pages. What remained was enough to excite me. The scenario was not unfamiliar: a galactic order in violent collapse, with assorted individuals of an unusual and interesting bent trying to survive the unprecedented.

It’s no surprise that this venerable SF trope would appeal to a teenager.

I’m also certain that being witness to the last years of the Moi dictatorship made Fall of Hyperion resonant in a way it may not have otherwise (see footnote 1). One afternoon, roughly sixty of my schoolmates marched defiantly down the main southern highway out of the city, which is about eight feet from the school’s wire-and-bramble fence. I was in class, as most of us were, doing prep. A student broke into the room. Several of us got up to see what was happening. We crossed a playing field and exited through the school’s rear gates. I saw a column of schoolboys stomping down the blacktop, their shouted chants echoing in the afternoon air. They beat their chests, perhaps because they were sour about all the beatings they got in school. Cars sped up the stretch of road—the last section of a curved kilometer-long incline—and braked abruptly behind them.

I returned to class, sat down in a daze. The room was half-empty. Some classmates were still at the gate watching the protest, trying to appear ambivalent. Some classmates had taken their bags with them and then gone home. If you weren’t participating, you didn’t want to be seen taking too active an interest in the protest. The talk was excited, tense, among those of us remaining. However, it soon gave way to the staples of teenage boy banter: girls, soccer, rap, girls. Still, the conversation was pitched higher than normal, and not a few of those present were hanging around to avoid—or merely postpone—a beating.

I lived ten minutes’ walk from the school. The agitation was one I sympathized with but did not understand. Mobs do not impress me. But the next day at morning parade, our headmaster, a small and nervous man, introduced the area police OCS (Officer Commanding Station). He stood on the little wooden platform that staff and visiting speakers used when addressing students. He told us not to do anything like that again. Though clearly put out, he was also polite and conciliatory. He was trying, I realized, not to antagonize us. Him, a cop—and a senior one at that! Something was happening—had happened. There was no going back, not if senior police officers talked to high school students rather than calling down the riot squad—which, because it happened so often against anyone who dared to speak up, is what we’d expected.

Nonetheless, the general response from the rest of the society to our student action was something along the lines of ‘shut up and take your exams.’

And there I was reading Fall of Hyperion.

It was clear to me—clear as the hard gleam of the Tree of Pain—that science fiction dealt with upheaval and its machinery in the most radical sense. More than that, science fiction is a vision of social workings, technology, and of the observed and manipulatable universe, rendered with the vividness and complexity of this turbulent reality, but with the crucial difference of being coherent. No other literature I’d encountered offered me that. It was no answer, but a way to think about what was happening—call it a tool, one for making other tools, among them a sense of the political. Many people will argue that this is what stories in general do—I agree, but science fiction was my route to this insight, instigated by the books I read and the context of the environment in which I did so. And because books lead you to other books, Fall of Hyperion and the two remaining volumes of the Hyperion Cantos led me to Keats and the English Romantic poets (though not to Chaucer, strangely enough).

After Fall of Hyperion, I read Endymion and Rise of Endymion (our bookshop did not have Hyperion in stock). These were rich and insightful elaborations of the story, with some truly impressive writing.

Several years later, I tried reading Hyperion. I couldn’t. A vivid picture of life before the Fall, before farcasting became a technology indistinguishable from magic, did not appeal to someone whose reading journey had started in those dire days of the collapse and ended in the hard-earned realization of a new order. The mythical past may have been whole and mighty, but its eventual and rapid ruin appeared to gainsay any of the certainties you’d expect from controllable wormholes, Turing AIs, and torchship fleets. The future was what mattered most, followed by the present, then maybe a little of the past, in that order.

FORBIDDEN KNOWLEDGE

One day I overheard my neighbors Kim (short for Kimani) and Charles having a conversation. Kim and Charles got on famously, to my chagrin, since before Charles had arrived about four years before, Kim and I had been neighbors for at least twice as long. They were standing outside the gate to my parents’ house. I, who wasn’t allowed to leave, tiptoed over and held the black bars, looking at them through the spaces and listening to their excited talk of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen R. Donaldson. Kim had read the first book of that monumental saga, and was relating his impressions to Charles, who’d also read it. It was fairly common to do this as much with what you read as what you watched, so that discussions about a book or movie were often re-tellings. Your listeners either approved of these as complementary to the original or treated these as so much birdshit on their collectively owned Mercealago. If you were good at these re-tellings, you were popular. Kim was very good. The downside was that, if you hadn’t read any of what was being talked about, all you ended up with were vivid but entirely subjective versions of what you’d missed out on (2).

Several months later, Charles moved out of the neighborhood. I wasn’t happy, but I got to hang out with Kim more than I used to. When he told me about a new series he was reading by the same author of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, it was around the same time he was reading it. I made sure he brought it over as soon as he was done. Which is how I got to read Forbidden Knowledge, the second novel in The Gap Cycle. I don’t remember Kim mentioning the first book The Real Story, though he might have. Maybe he’d had it for a little while and didn’t anymore; maybe he had only been able to get the second volume. The vagaries of getting hold of a title were such that I wasn’t too bothered. Kim held out the book through the space between the bars and I took it. He was fussy about lending. “Take care of it properly,” he said. I promised I would. I ran upstairs to my room, flopped onto my bed, and started reading.

What I remember most from Forbidden Knowledge is the mix of excitement, dread and moral vertigo appropriate to a book of that title. Previously, my idea of forbidden knowledge had been more or less sexual in nature. The tangle of intrigue, violence, sexuality, and all-around bad behavior in Donaldson’s book was a different beast. Initially, only some of the characters in the book seemed bad. Then it turned out they were all bad, even if, a few chapters earlier, their behavior had been salutary, or at least not depraved. The deliberate reversal of these roles (deliberate on the author’s part) was devastating. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on.

But I couldn’t stop.

I cleared Forbidden Knowledge in under a week.

After that, it was, “when will you give me the next one?” I learned there were four more—a spectacular discovery. Of those, I borrowed two from Kim. The third, I got on my own. I would also have bought The Real Story, the first volume in the series, except that would have meant postponing the Gotterdammerung waiting for me in the last volume. I bought On This Day All Gods Die from the same bookshop my father used to buy Popular Mechanics and Scientific American. It’s in that bookshop I learned SF is always shelved in the same place: at the back.

In one of his later notebooks Camus has this gloss on a line from Brothers Karamazov: one must first love life before loving its meaning. Surely love, if it is love at all, means facing—and enduring—much that appears unendurable. My adolescence, while requiring endurance, was such that I would not have dealt openly with this truth. But through the characters in The Gap Cycle I experienced how one could persevere and overcome feelings of fear and revulsion.

Finishing The Gap Cycle was like having being away on a long trip and returning, being so unsure that my familiar existence still existed that it was a shock to rediscover it. Outwardly I lived the same life, but I was different. This feeling of being both someone else and myself, as experienced through reading is no longer as intense as it used to be. Yet that’s what brings me back to books again and again—the surety that one of these volumes will glamour the world beyond it—make the familiar extraordinary, rendering it more focused, more intense, more real. Gide’s injunction at the beginning of The Fruits of the Earth to abandon the book once finished and to seize life, seemed, when I encountered it, redundant. You can’t do anything but venture out after reading a great book—you’re bursting to do it.

Certainly, I was.

And what goes along with this yearning, what appears within the sensations of the endless surfeit of experience and of being-there-ness, is the desire to observe, interrogate, explain, to stuff the unstuffable into words, to say that “this means, and that”.

Why?

Possibly for the same reason invoked by Rilke in answer to the demand, “O tell us, poet, what you do.”

THE VOYAGE OUT

If this were a longer piece, I would insert another anecdote here, longer than any of the ones above. It would be an attempt to describe what happened when knowledge gained shaped the desire not necessarily for more knowledge but for a particular kind of knowledge, a certain type of aesthetic experience, a specific variety of story that, while it might be about starships and galactic civilizations, produced the same resonances between stories and lived experience which made my early science-fictional reading so richly satisfying.

I would also write about the SF I haven’t mentioned. I would write about Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and the many, many other novelists whose books came to me missing covers and pages and with spines too scarred to read the names of their authors.

What I will do is close with a memory dating from just after I finished high school:

I am home reading the last chapter of Blue Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Indoors, it is cool, quiet. I finish, and sit still for several moments. I go outside, surprised to find it is still sunny; it feels like years have passed. The sky is incredibly clear, a pale blue which toward the zenith darkens to the color of watered down ink—yesterday, three pieces of clear polythene drifted overhead; they rose, silver glints heading to space, then disappeared; and suddenly the sky was not planar but curved, with a vast space below it. Hawks gyre lazily through the hot air, hover, swoop down among the houses and fields and then shoot up into the blue. School’s out; in the winding street that snakes through the estate and the cul-de-sacs, kids ride bikes, play soccer, basketball, hide-and-seek, three-sticks. A wind raises dust into devils fifteen, twenty feet high that sway over the tarmac for less than a minute then disintegrate, confusing drivers and catching the bored attention of the watchman at the estate gate.

I walk down the street, not headed anywhere in particular, thinking that I have not yet begun to live, afraid I might not know how. But I am so full of life that the melancholy engendered by the idea is energizing. Life is not passing me by so much as I am racing past it, so fast that I am out of phase. I am so dense the fleshy concreteness of my body may as well be that of a white dwarf. Yet, I am light, nimble. My life is stretched out ahead of me, vast as the sky. Like the 22nd century crew of the sailing-ship Cutty Sark in Robinson’s novel, I have set out on a journey, looking back one last time at the world I leave behind. But I am also one of those watching the ship disappear over the horizon, filling the space left by its passage with what is to come.

 

Footnotes

(1) Kenya at the end of the second millennium was a stew of political and social upheaval. Picture a line taut and quivering in ever more rapid oscillations, each one more energetic and tighter, approaching the final tremor that will snap the cord, and you have some idea of the mood of the country. Violent crime rose to levels not experienced before, particularly in the capital. Apocalyptic cults sprang up. Witch hunts grew in number and prominence. Confessions by self-professed devil-worshippers, everyone from housewives to school kids, ultimately resulted in a nationally televised visit by a government investigative panel to a Freemason lodge down the road from the President’s residence. The sad irony of all this was lost on most of us. It was easier to accept secret conspiracies operating against the nation than to reckon with those not-so-secret ones actively ruining it—and with our participation, active or otherwise. However, in opposition to this hysteria and arm-waving was a fresh sense of civic power, which even a seventeen year old could see meant being backed into a corner.

The results of the previous year’s general election (one that saw both a mass turnout and serious ethnic violence) placed much of the population in the strange position of being both shocked and unsurprised. The stakes were higher, but the results reinforced the normal state of affairs. There was disappointment, rage. The fourth formers, who we in the third form were to replace in a few months, went on a rampage, threatening to burn down the teacher’s staffroom. What do they have to be angry about? I wondered. They terrorized and wielded a power over us almost equal to that of teachers. Yet here they were claiming the unenviable status of the powerless. I thought it was a put-on.

Then, in the year that followed, 1998, the same year we were to sit the exams, teachers went on a nationwide strike. Public expressions of dissatisfaction weren’t entirely new. In 1992 we’d had Saba Saba (literally, ‘seven seven’) or the July 7th Movement, which resulted in the repeal of the constitutional section allowing single-party rule. And since then, on and off, various acts and campaigns of civil disobedience had chipped away at the regime’s hold on power. But the teachers’ strike was the single largest industrial action in post-independence Kenya.

For me as a teenager, the most personal events were the student marches that took place in the wake of the teachers’ strike. For weeks the evening news featured footage of high-schoolers en masse, chanting and singing, manila paper banners held above their heads as they moved through the streets of Nairobi. No one knew what to do with protesting children. The explanation, propagated through the news and the osmotic myth-making that insisted there were only some things you could mention in public, was that the teachers’ irresponsible and selfish action had set a bad example for impressionable kids. It was also a prime occasion to bring out an old chestnut: the influence of “drug peddlers” and other reprobates among the youth. What made the first explanation improbable was that quite a few of the student protests had nothing to do with the teacher strikes. Many were about issues like poor learning conditions, staff misconduct, and the embezzlement of school funds.

A less dubious explanation for the unrest among students was that many were about to sit for their KCSE exams and found the idea of a general teacher’s strike unthinkable. Who was going to invigilate? To mark? Did this mean we’d have to repeat? No one knew, not even the teachers, with whom we now enjoyed a reluctant camaraderie as fellow agitators. It was a strange time, full of unlikely happenings, least of which was the pairing of the teachers and students, different age groups, in common cause.

Alongside our questions were those implicit ones that our education could not teach us to formulate: What do exams mean in the context of this upheaval? Isn’t there something happening to this country more important than these tests that we, who are the least powerful yet most affected, ought to have a say about? Teachers’ strikes, rampant crime, graft, ethnic violence, economic distress, and the political uncertainty that comes with all of this—why shouldn’t the kids have something to say?

(2) In addition to the subject matter, the pleasure of these tales came from the tension between them and the real story, which, by the magic of imagination, was no less true than its copies. Without the experience of the original, enjoyment was incomplete. The advent of satellite TV, cell phones, cheaply available high-density storage formats, and the Internet rendered the custom extinct.

 

njihiaCutoutNjihia Mbitiru works as a screenwriter, currently writing for the show Lies That Bind. He lives in Nairobi, Kenya.