Deji Bryce Olukotun’s After The Flare
A couple dozen years ago, when I was on my way out of middle school, a friend gave me a copy of a book he’d read enough times that the covers were tattered and falling apart. The book was Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and it completely changed my perception of the sci-fi genre. Plenty of ink has been spilled on Snow Crash’s influence, as well as Stephenson as both author and tech prophet, but it is difficult to describe what it was like to experience the staggering futurism of that book, in an age when high-speed internet, wi-fi, and smartphones were still the stuff of fantasy. That feeling, that I was experiencing a fundamental shift in the genre, as well as the possibilities in human technological achievement, came flooding back to me when I read Deji Bryce Olukotun’s After the Flare.
After the Flare is the second installment of Olukotun’s Nigerians in Space trilogy, set within a world reshaped by a catastrophic solar flare. The incident, which temporarily cocoons the earth in a magnetic field that annihilates electronic devices across the globe, leaves a single Russian astronaut stranded within the International Space Station. With the western world broken apart and reshaped into political factions, and most of the planet’s space programs hobbled, all hopes rest on Nigeria, which managed to escape the cataclysm with its technology intact.
In order to train the newly-recruited Nigerian astronauts (dubbed Naijanauts) for the space rescue mission, a massive pool – the Naijapool – is constructed to simulate spacewalks. The project is led by Kwesi Bracket, a white-passing American and washed-up former NASA engineer, who finds himself entangled with political patrons, corrupt police, flaky Nollywood actors, and even Boko Haram, on the path to finishing the Naijapool and bringing back the ISS’ lone occupant before her supplies run out.
At first glance, After the Flare comes off as a riff on The Martian, with an added twist: what if the rescuers were from Nigeria? But Olukotun, whether by natural instinct or by training as a tech lawyer and digital rights activist, has a compelling knack for hilariously threading absurdity, and a scorn for bureaucracy into his narratives. At one point, when a space station labourer is called on for testimony, he ends it with the comment “Yes, my given name is Handsome.” More than that Olukotun’s ability to effortlessly meld hard science fiction with Nigerian culture and folklore, to the extent that it’s almost a crime we’ve never seen a preening Nollywood actress flouncing through a space station and treating overeducated staff like the hired help.
The book does have its flaws. Olukotun clearly had certain scenes and ideas in mind – mobile phones shaped like geckos that scamper away from their users, or a standoff between nomadic trader women and Boko Haram – and these he describes in florid detail. But the parts of the story which hold them together – a gala for visiting dignitaries, or the terse conversations between Bracket and his acid-tongued boss – come across like busywork. There are entire chapters written with sparse detail and forced dialogue, which feel almost like Olukotun wrote them simply to get the draft done, but didn’t circle back and revise them.
None of this should stop you from reading After the Flare, though. At a time when African narratives in fiction rarely come out from under the shadow of slavery and colonialism, Deji Bryce Olukotun has done far more than make a push in the sci-fi genre. He’s helped it achieve escape velocity.
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