20 February 2019

Africa: To Boldly Go Where No Woman Has Gone Before

opinion

There are books, women's writings and forms of literature that have shaped our lives. I would, to be perverse, like to put forward the Star Trek franchise as authored by Gene Roddenberry in 1964 to explain my motivation in revisiting science fiction and everything it explores.

My justifications are twofold: It has been canon in the SciFi world for over half a century now, quietly influencing technologies that impact our lives by making engineers imagine the possibility of various devices for everyday use. More important, it has at its core a perpetual questioning of the human condition, of power, of encounters between different peoples and what a utopic future could look like for the human race.

SciFi may have originated more than 100 years ago but it is now a global phenomenon.

Africans are writing SciFi. South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp has used SciFi to examine racism, apartheid and how refugees get treated (District 9), as well as what a radically unequal near-future would look like where a fraction of the one per cent can afford near-immortality while the rest of us struggle to survive (Elysium).

Yes, it is delightful that Blomkamp is from the same country that has given Africa its own Tony Stark in the form of Elon Musk.

After years of reading and listening, I have learnt two things: That history and its artistic form fantasy fiction is a cautionary tale about the human race and that science fiction is the hope that we survive ourselves a little longer. And that really, it's all about the story and telling it well.

While SciFi is often dismissed as "mere entertainment," since the days of Isaac Asimov it has endeavoured to imagine a technology-driven future and what kind of philosophies humans will need in order to live in it. While we may debate Karl Marx and the UN (on which Star Trek's Federation is based), the upcoming generation is going to be debating Tesla, the Three Laws of Robotics and George Orwell as technology continues to impact our lives as individuals who are part of a mass society.

Themes that are explored in science fiction that are safe to write about here include: War vs pacifism, definitions of "humanity" in the age of androids (artificial intelligence), race and gender, encounters with other cultures and colonisation or exploitation, energy/natural resources, post-monetary economies, science, ethics and politics.

Technologies we currently enjoy that were imagined in the Trek-verse include: Medical science (CT scanners and non-invasive procedures), tasers (non-lethal weapons), holographs, immersive virtual reality, personal computers and contemporary mobile phones, biometrics, three-dimensional printers, drones.

In Star Trek's 80th episode, women are celebrated for their intellectual achievements, which is part of why this essay was written. I had to understand that I learnt to think and to write from people who were considered scientists engaging with the arts because they showed me that the hard divisions between intellectual endeavours are artificial.

People like Octavia Butler and Nina Simone are indistinguishable in their influence on this essay. I wanted to celebrate women in science only to realise and engage with what they have been saying for years. That we are people first. Not just black, not just women, just on occasion, brilliant.

Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report.

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