Ian McDonald’s 1992 Hearts, Hands and Voices (titled The Broken Land by US publishers), in and amongst its gush of ideas and frothing of language, seems to have far-future Africa as its setting, but never openly declares itself as such. Making no bones about it, in 1995 McDonald started a series of novels explicitly set in the dark continent. The first novel Chaga (Evolution’s Shore in the US) brought into the fold easier recognized tropes of science fiction, resulting in a more tangible, accessible revisioning of Africa’s future.
Gaby McAslan, a television reporter fresh out of university in Ireland, has her sights set on working in Kenya where a strange object from space has struck Kilimanjaro and is slowly spreading a bizarre crystalline substance at the rate of a few feet per day across the countryside. Called chaga by the locals, it digests anything that is not alive, leaving in its wake indescribable masses—canyon walls, rippled blankets, and strange shapes sitting surreally in the open. Gaby’s bright shock of red hair unable to equal her zeal for work, everyone—men, the UN, Kenyan government, local mafia, even her own news director—have trouble keeping the reins on her as surreal stories of chaga survivors begin emerging from the affected regions. With reports of telepathy, healings, spiritual commune, and new, never before seen technology appearing, Gaby’s instinct for front line stories is well tuned. But an even more bizarre object appears at the edge of the solar system. NASA and other space agencies track the massive, undulating BDO as it dumbly makes its way toward Earth—a relationship seeming to exist with the chaga, but no scientist able to pinpoint what exactly it is.
The story that follows finds Gaby traversing a labyrinth of troubles—personal, professional, and environmental. Never making things easy on herself, the reward is that she exists at the bleeding edge of action. Whether it’s the ups and downs of her love life or headline news reporting on the chaga (a place where political and social tensions run highest), life is never dull for the Irish woman.
Starring said white woman in black Africa, there is some fear that Chaga misappropriates culture. And to some minor degree, these fears are realized. Gaby, her white friends, and Western interests play major roles in the text. That being said, McDonald does focus on other issues intrinsic to the setting, and does so based on his own travels and time spent in the region (e.g. the smattering of local language, details of place, sympathies, etc.). From the uncertain role the UN plays in local politics to HIV, civil wars to post-colonialism, McDonald peels back more layers of Africa than the average Victorian novel. Thus Chaga is, to a certain extent, a novel of ‘white concerns,” but on average has has its focus on the issues of Africa and Africans in the modern world.
An attempt at revisioning Africa, Chaga is set in the near future where the disparity between Western and African qualities of life remains, but has shrunk in size . In fact an opening salvo in what surely will amount to an empowered vision of the continent, Chaga is the first book of a yet unfinished trilogy (Kirinya the second book, the third awaiting McDonald’s muse). The chaga materially somewhere between J.G. Ballard’s The Crytsal World and Stanislaw Lem’s conception of the surreal planet’s seas in Solaris, the changing shapes of the crystalline substance form the symbolic source of power for the revisioning. But the manner in which it interacts with those who come in contact, the bizarre new substances it transforms, not to mention the fact it landed in Kenya not the UK or US, indicate McDonald has hopes more sophisticated than a simple ‘You can do it, Africa’ for the future novels.
Where Chaga wavers from course is in its inability to reconcile the gravitas of the situation in Africa with the melodrama of mainstream fiction. Gaby is a larger than life woman, as are most of the other characters. Her lovers experience the dramas of few in reality, and her relationships take the twists and turns of a romance novel. Moreover, the drama of the news room is that of contrived plotting rather than a mode of storytelling that integrates cultural and personal concerns. This is all not to mention the fact the UN is portrayed as a less-than-subtle evil—not that the UN is an altruistic mother who has Africa in its best interests, only that the harm they may cause is not likely to be as overt a plot-motivator as McDonald renders it. Overall, McDonald is too skilled a writer for the inclusion of mainstream (read: bestseller) novel qualities to have been an accident. Resulting in a mismatch of sentiment and style, it’s tough to convey the pain of a land through Hollywood-esque melodrama.
In the end, Chaga is a light novel with serious themes—the juxtaposition never quite bridged. Putting in place typical science fiction tropes (a BDO and a creeping biological something) in an atypical setting (near-future Kenya), the reader’s mileage will vary depending what catches their eye: the temperamental, over-the-top main character, empowered Africa, or mainstream-social concerns. What can’t be denied, however, is the novel’s desire for something more for the dark continent, the keys waiting for future novels to be unveiled.