New world order ahead: The developing world is the setting for science fiction's best new novels

Jonathan Wright
Thursday 21 April 2011 00:00

The future won't happen in London, New York or Tokyo; it will happen in Mumbai, Rio and Lagos. Next Wednesday at the Sci-Fi London Film Festival, the Arthur C. Clarke Award marking the best science-fiction novel of the year will be handed out for the 25th time, with previous winners including Margaret Atwood and Amitav Ghosh.

Of the six novels shortlisted, two take place in contingent, hyperlinked cities that teeter between vibrantly alive and scarily chaotic: Istanbul in British author Ian McDonald's Dervish House; and Johannesburg in Lauren Beukes's Zoo City.

Elsewhere, on the shortlist for the British Science Fiction Association Award, due to be doled out this weekend, both books are joined by American Paolo Bacigalupi's hugely praised Hugo and his Nebula winner The Windup Girl, set in 23rd-century Bangkok where Earth has been denuded by climate change and bio-engineered plagues.

These books are the antithesis of classic American science fiction, which was rooted in the pulp era of magazines such as Amazing Stories and technophile dreams of better tomorrows, and which offered up a sleek, can-do vision of the future where important events originated in the Western world. Even cyberpunk, geeking out on Far East gadgetry, largely stuck closely to dystopian takes on Asia's more technologically advanced nations.

McDonald, Beukes and their contemporaries turn this version of the future on its head. For McDonald, that means a Turkey where corrupt energy traders and nanotech pioneers hustle for fortunes. For Beukes's heroine, Zinzi, moving through an urban environment where the fantastic co-exists with an everyday struggle to survive, the choices are more limited.

Look over here, they're all saying, because it's outside the ordered environs of the industrialised world that the really important events are happening, where all our futures are being shaped. It's a vision of the future that throws up some pertinent questions, not the least of which is what happens if they're right?

Which of course they are. The work of McDonald and Beukes suggests that in an increasingly networked world where developments in technology and culture are bound up together, ideas from outside the industrialised world are going to exert more influence on all of us – wherever we live.

"These days, whenever something happens, it happens everywhere at once," says McDonald, who has also set novels in East Africa, India and Brazil. "So the moment we get some bit of tech in the West, people will be using it in India, Ghana, South Africa, Chile and Argentina – and will be finding their own uses for it as well. Every culture brings its own values, its own worldview and its own insights, and in a sense its own fears as well to any technology."

How does this work? Technology journalist Angela Saini's book, Geek Nation: How Indian Science Is Taking Over The World, may offer some clues. It argues that, like Japan before it, India is "moving out of the phase of just producing generic technologies and moving into a phase of doing real innovation in its own right". The Indian division of IBM, Saini reports, has been developing a "spoken web" that people in rural areas access via mobiles.

"It might seem weird that they would be developing such a sophisticated technology that bypasses the fact that so many people are illiterate," she says. "It sounds completely crazy, and yet it meets a demand. And that technology has been piloted among... illiterate farmers generally, and it's been very successful, it's really useful to them. They can hear what's going on in their communities, they can keep up to date with food prices, weather, things like that."

As technologies are increasingly reflected back at us in distorted forms, this could become a familiar sensation. But it would be a mistake to think that changes will be wholly shaped and driven by the straight-A geeks of Saini's book or Japan's research labs. This has been clear during the Arab Spring. Leaving aside debates over how much political change you can bring about by tweeting, it's still remarkable that applications such as Twitter and Facebook have been so quickly seized upon by those agitating for political change.

It's probably no coincidence that mobile phone penetration is high in Egypt. In large parts of the developing world, where fixed-line networks are unreliable, people rely far more on mobiles and use them far more imaginatively than in the West. Governments know this too, hence attempts to control access to these networks.

"Freedom of expression is an entrenched human right in any decent democracy, but we also need to write freedom of access to communication tools into our constitutions too," argues Lauren Beukes. "Because governments don't necessarily recognise that it's the same thing."

This is particularly key if, like Beukes, you see mobile technology as transformative. It's suggested that there are 84 million internet-enabled phones in Africa. "It's going to change the world, it already is changing the world," she says.

And yet our increasingly networked world is not always as great as tech evangelists claim at sorting out the underlying causes of problems: illiteracy, poor healthcare, uneven wealth distribution. In this context, one reason Beukes's Zoo City is so compelling is that it explores an unequal world where gleaming technology and grinding poverty coexist.

It's a book born partly of Beukes's own experiences as a journalist in a country of "parallel worlds", such as her visit to Johannesburg's Central Methodist Church where thousands of mostly Zimbabwean refugees have been living in the most terrible conditions imaginable. "It was the worst place I've ever been," she recalls. "It was all the ravages of a refugee camp crammed into one building."

We've reached a bleak arena in both the present and our possible futures, a place where it's all too easy to imprint our own fears about the future. But this kind of reaction concerns novelist and University of Manchester lecturer Geoff Ryman, who says the West too often looks for negative stories about the developing world. Ryman has recently run writing workshops in Nigeria and, he says, we're not reading the kinds of stories that Nigerians write about themselves. He's also dubious about the idea that Western novelists can convey other nations' futures with the "richness" that writers from these nations bring to the same endeavour.

He's ambivalent about his own 2006 Arthur C. Clarke Award winner, Air, which imagined the effect of a super-internet technology on villagers living in a Kazakhstan-like nation. Why not read Indian, Nigerian and Brazilian science-fiction stories instead, he asks? Somehow, you suspect we increasingly will. It's heartening, for example, that the reputation of American-Nigerian Nnedi Okorafor is starting to grow. The World SF Blog (, which highlights science fiction and fantasy from around the globe, publishes short stories from different nations every week.

Perhaps the wider truth is that science-fiction novelists from all nations will continue to be drawn to the developing world because, to quote Lauren Beukes, it's "where you get the biggest clash of culture and technology". And as these real-world clashes spin out, create new possibilities, who knows where this might take us?

British novelist Alastair Reynolds is an optimist. His forthcoming Blue Remembered Earth imagines East Africa leading the space race 150 years hence. When news of the novel appeared on the science-fiction website, he says, it brought "the most incredibly reactionary and infantile statements imaginable".

It was then, he adds, that he knew he was on to something. "What was America like 150 years ago?" he retorts. "You're going back to the time of the Civil War when your average American was probably a guy living in a log cabin with an axe. I mean, America was hardly the most industrialised, tech-savvy nation 150 years ago. Very few places were..."

Sci-fi books inspired by emerging nations

The Dervish House

By Ian McDonald

Set in the year 2027, McDonald creates an image of future Turkey five years after its accession to the European Union. Intertwining the stories of six characters who inhabit a house in Istanbul, the novel tracks their lives in a country that is still rife with political tension, yet on its way to being an economic and technological powerhouse.

Zoo City

By Lauren Beukes

Written through the eyes of Zinzi December, the ex-convict moves through a fictional version of Johannesburg. Living among other convicts in a neighbourhood called Zoo City, Zinzi must come to terms with her troubled past. The novel provides the reader with a grim depiction of South Africa as a place of corruption and decay.

The Windup Girl

By Paolo Bacigalupi

In a city where biotechnology is dominating and corporations control food production, the novel's protagonist, Anderson Lake, is working undercover to find out where the Thai government keeps its seed bank. Bacigalupi sets his dystopian novel in 23rd-century Bangkok, describing a world that must deal with rising sea levels and where fossil fuels have been exhausted.

Blue Remembered Earth

By Alastair Reynolds

When Reynolds, pictured left, announced that his forthcoming novel would focus on East Africa leading the space race 150 years in the future, fans were dismissive. It focuses on Geoffrey Akinya, who goes into space to save his family's name.

By Samantha Lewis

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