Interview:Wole Talabi&Ji Zhu-Cultivating inspiration is more useful than waiting for bursts.
In Mar of 2023,Ji Zhu,Brand manager of Mecrob Team,decided to interview Nebula Award finalist,Wole Talabi,a highly acclaimed writer in the science fiction community.
He is an engineer, writer, and editor from Nigeria, currently residing in Malaysia. His stories have been published in various prominent magazines such as Asimov’s, Lightspeed, F&SF, Clarkesworld, and many others. Talabi has edited three anthologies and has been a finalist for several prestigious awards including the Caine Prize, the Locus Award, and the Nommo Award. His work has been translated into multiple languages including Spanish, Norwegian, Chinese, Italian, Bengali, and French.
Ji:Could you introduce 'A Dream Of Electric Mothers,' which was nominated for the Nebula Award?
Wole:“A Dream of Electric Mothers,” is an alternate history, science fiction story set in present day of a parallel version of our world where Africa was never colonized. In the story, our protagonist is Brigadier-General Dolapo Balogun, who is the Defense Minister of the Odua Republic. After she and her fellow ministers fail to come to an agreement over a border dispute with the neighboring Kingdom of Dahomey, they go to seek the advice from of their electric Mother: a supercomputing digital consciousness created by recording the minds of all the previous citizens of the nation – a kind of an ancestral collective consciousness that helps advise the country on important matters or difficult political problems. But the border dispute is not the only reason Dolapo wants to consult the electric mother. She believes it holds the answers to her own personal questions about her parents. Through the story she learns important lessons about the past, and what is important for a better future.
I have written about digitally recreating human consciousness via technology several times before. In fact, all these stories share the same characters and timeline:
- “Comments on Your Provisional Patent Application For An Eternal Spirit Core”, Clarkesworld, 2021.
- “The Regression Test”, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF), 2017. (This one was translated into Chinese and reprinted in Science Fiction Worldin 2018)
- “Connectome, Or, The Facts in the Case of Miss Valerie DeMarco, (Ph.D)” TheNakedConvos, 2013
The idea of digital consciousness based on human minds is one I find fascinating and keep returning to. For “A Dream of Electric Mothers,” I wanted to use the background of a massive national digital consciousness to tell a story of a society that has come to rely too much on the minds of ancestors preserved by technology to help them manage the nation. Depending too much on the past to help define the future, just like we do with modern AI and machine learning today. But African ancestors are tricky, and they never give simplistic advice. Sometimes they tell you a riddle, or even a lie, and in unravelling it, you learn exactly what you needed to learn. There is a very personal subplot about grief and learning which I believe integrates with the larger narrative and brings thematic resonance to the entire story. I am absolutely thrilled that it found a home in the Africa Risen anthology edited by Oghenechovwe Ekpeki Donald, Sheree Renee Thomas and Zelda Knight and it has gone on to garner a lot of positive reviews, accolades, and award nominations (including the Nebula!) for which I am thankful. But most of all, I’m glad so many people have gotten to read this alternate history novelette which is deeply steeped in some lesser-known aspects of pre-colonial Nigerian culture. From the keeping of time and the calendar used, to the calligraphy, from the religion and science to the description of the political and military system.
Ji:I know you're an engineer, writer, and editor from Nigeria, and you currently live in Malaysia. Do you notice any differences between Asia and Africa?
Wole:Yes, I do. There are quite a few differences, but also a lot of similarities. In fact, I see more similarities than differences. Generally, though, there seems to be more of a direct physical connection between the past and present in Asia. For example, there is more balance between modern infrastructure development and historical monuments in many parts of Asia than many parts of Africa. Its quite easy to see ancient temples and sites next to modern developments in Asia while in Africa, a lot of historical buildings, temples, shrines etc., have been removed. At least in the part of the continent I have been to.
Ji:Could you give a brief introduction to Black science fiction? Additionally, can you recommend any Black science fiction books or writers?
Wole:Black science fiction is very broad and includes a lot of work from many very different cultures. There is no single timeline or theme for describing all Black Science fiction, given that Black people live all over the world and have such different lived experiences. But I’ll give some authors from the past and present who represent different entry points into Black science fiction from both the African continent and the larger African diaspora.
- E.B Du Bois
- Nnedi Okorafor
- Kojo Laing
- Nalo Hopkinson
- Maurice Broaddus
- K. Jemison
- Octavia Butler
- Tade Thompson
- Tobias S. Buckell
- Samuel R. Delaney
Ji:In recent years, China has experienced a surge in popularity of science fiction, particularly due to the success of the novel 'The Three-Body Problem'by Cixi Liu and its television adaptation. Have you read or watched it, and what is your opinion of it?
Wole:Oh yes, I’ve read the book and its sequels and even the follow up novel by Bao Shu.
Here’s a snapshot of my bookshelf.
I really enjoyed the book and the whole series. It takes a classical physics problem and uses it as the launching point of an epic first contact story. I love this kind of "hard" science fiction and the book has some wonderful ideas described vividly. The characters and prose weren’t as developed as I’d have liked, but I think that may just be an issue with translation and cultural references I didn’t fully get. I also wish Africa had factored more directly into the narrative since it involved the entire world, and every other continent is mentioned. But the spectacular descriptions of scientific ideas used as the engine for an excellent thriller really worked for me. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I want to.
Ji:What are your thoughts on Chat GPT, particularly with regards to Clarkesworld magazine cutting off submissions due to a flood of AI-generated stories recently?
Wole:Chat GPT, like all the other AI-generated content in the industry is a big deal right now. I have done a few interviews about it and last year, I was part of a group of writers working with Google to test an AI tool called Wordcraft for helping writers. I even wrote a story called “Performance Review” using the tool. Overall, my main thoughts are:
1) it’s important to be specific about what we talk about when we point fingers at problems with AI. AI is a tool. The problem isn’t “AI”, but bad actors creating it unethically and uncaringly and other bad actors using it for nefarious purposes. Especially in a hyper capitalist system. AI developed with the objective of assisting instead of recklessly “disrupting” can (and probably should) be a good thing. Which leads to my second thought.
2) AI tools (like any other tools) should be well thought out before creating them and releasing them. With consideration given to the impacts. The objective must be kept in mind before the tool is made or deployed. It is one of the reasons I like what Google did with Wordcraft. They wanted to test it in a controlled way for the intended users. It seems this wasn’t really done with ChatGPT. They just put it out into the world and so in some cases, bad actors have used it however they could. Including to spam places like Clarkesworld with AI-generated stories. I suspect that the people sending these things to places like Clarkesworld aren’t interested in using AI as a tool to help them tell their stories more effectively. They aren’t writers. They are opportunists just trying to make a quick buck for the least amount of effort. But while the concerns of generative AI intrusion into the creative industry is very valid as it has immediate and dire effects on people (especially when we think of the way some of these tools were created by violating copyright), there are still many use cases where AI can meaningfully help creators to achieve their own visions and does not just regurgitate whatever it ate at the machine learning buffet. I hope we can reframe the discussion to thinking about the potential of AI for helping humanity.
Ji:What are your thoughts on Cyberpunk nowadays? How do you think cyberpunk has influenced science fiction literature?
Wole:I really like Cyberpunk. Authors like William Gibson, Samuel Delaney, Bruce Serling, Philip K. Dick, and Neal Stephenson were some of my early favorites. I really like that "combination of lowlife and high tech with societal decay" that is a fixture of cyberpunk. Its basically the reality I have grown up with in parts of Africa and Asia over the last few decades as computer technology has gotten cheaper and more accessible. I have even been planning to write a cyberpunk novella myself for almost five years now.
I do think the ‘aesthetic’ of cyberpunk has been absorbed into the general body of science fiction that isn’t necessarily recognizable as cyberpunk nowadays. The dystopian cities, low-life next to high-tech, character templates from noir or neo-noir... a lot of that appears in all kinds of science fiction stories. Cyberpunk, I think, like all the major subgenres before it (e.g., space opera, robot fiction, etc.) has been subsumed into the larger science fiction corpus and is almost everywhere now.
Ji:Our Cyberpunk spider lamp takes inspiration from Alexander Trufanov, Concept artist on Artstation and Clarkesworld magazine, and We use the art of remaking to turn it into an Assembled toy. What do you think about this combination? Is it possible to combine sci-fi story to our toys?
Wole:It looks very cool.
I like the idea of taking different influences and making something new so combining elements from a Sci-fi story to make a cool toy is definitely possible. I love your cyberpunk spider. It’s a complex and fascinating toy. I wish there were more like it!
Ji:Are you working on any new or upcoming projects? Can you introduce them to our readers?
Wole:Quite a lot. I have a fantasy novel called Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon coming out in August 2023 which is already available for preorders. I’m now writing two new science fiction short stories which I hope to finish soon. I’m also editing a new anthology of stories set in the Sauútiverse, which is a fictional secondary world based on a blend of African cultural worldviews and inspirations (the anthology will be published in November 2023). I am also working on a new collection of short fiction that should be released next year. And finally, I’m working on the draft of a second novel which will be a science fiction story that takes place in Nigeria and South Africa.
Ji:Is inspiration necessary in writing? Why or why not?
Wole:Yes. I do think that it is a necessary ingredient but perhaps not the most important one. And maybe not in the way we typically think. Inspiration is what provides the drive to want to write creatively. I think it must be present in some amount, if not there is no creative impulse, so how can one create? Perhaps the problem is that we tend to think of inspiration as a big grand feeling whereas it has many forms and can be small or intermittent. And it can certainly be cultivated through habits, setups, routines, techniques. Knowing how to consistently cultivate inspiration or herd small pockets of inspiration into a creative work, I think is actually a more useful thing than waiting for random big bursts of being inspired.
Ji:Steve Jobs said technology alone is not enough. Its technology married with liberal arts married with humanity that makes our heart sings, what do you think of this concept?
Wole:I completely agree. The human experience is an integrated one. I’m an engineer but also a creative writer and I see it every day. Scientists and engineers must work together with artists and writers and ethicists and philosophers and lawyers to produce the best things for humanity. Take for example generative AI which we mentioned earlier. Developing a tool like that is primarily technology, but the interface to use it, the accessibility of it to everyone, the value of it and the way it should be deployed are all things to do with the humanities, not technology per se. It is human nature that we will eventually build the things we are capable of, but if we don’t consider why we are building them, what we want them to look like, who should have access to them — form and function and meaning all together – then we run the risk of building things that will ruin us. But if we think holistically, then we are capable of building truly wonderful things that as Steve said, make our hearts sing.
Leave a comment