Vector on African and Afrodiasporic SF

The most recent issue of Vector, the British Science Fiction Association’s critical journal, landed on my doormat last month. Its arrival was a pleasure, as it’s the first mailout to come to my new Finnish address (the rest, I believe, languish as-yet-unread in my sister’s house in Surrey).

Best of all, it’s a themed issue, something I gather Vector is doing more of these days. The last issue was on economics and science fiction, which I look forward to reading. This issue covers African and Afrodiasporic SF, and it’s one of the most interesting issues of Vector in recent memory. So much so that I wanted to share a quick overview of its contents, and encourage my many readers to consider joining the BSFA. It’s an almost entirely volunteer-based organisation, after all.

This issue’s guest editor is Michelle Louise Clarke, who contributes a lengthy editorial that is, as they say, worth the price of admission alone. She’s a scholar of African SF at London’s SOAS and unless you’re already an avid fan of African SF there’s probably a lot here that you’ll want to follow up on. I’m particularly intrigued to learn of the 1992 “surreal classic of African SF”, Kojo Laing’s Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars.

The editorial also provides a helpful precis of several terms: Afrofuturism, that is “an aesthetic exploring the intersections of African-diasporic cultures with science, technology, and speculative fiction”, and African Futurism, which steps away from Afrofuturism’s Afro-American focus to centre instead on the continent of Africa and its many established and emerging artistic and literary traditions. This significant distinction resurfaces in pieces from several other contributors.

Elsewhere in the issue, Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor makes numerous appearances. I’d been meaning to check out her novel Lagoon but it had slipped off my radar; now, thanks to an essay that dives deep into its themes, I regard it as a must-read. In another essay two of Okorafor’s stories, written fourteen years apart, are explored and contrasted in an approach that compares them to the Afrofuturist and Arican Futurist traditions respectively.

Several creators are interviewed: Dilman Dila, a filmmaker, visual artist and writer in many mediums who regards himself foremost as “a storyteller”; Wole Talabi, an engineer, writer and editor; and Mounir Ayache, a French visual poet and artist from the North African diaspora whose interviewer was invited to visit his studio. Each is fascinating. So too is an essay contributed by Masimba Musodza, who writes of the ChiShona language, which as he describes is looked down upon even by those who speak it, a state of affairs he seeks to challenge, and in which he has published the first science fiction novel.

There is more, but I’ll have to leave you there. I have some films to track down, some books to order, and even an Afrofuturist hip-hop album to listen to.

Finnish beer, & keeping a Cool Head

Before C and I moved to Finland last year, we spent 24 hours in Helsinki trying the city on for size (sure, I also had a job interview).

We were relieved to discover that Helsinki has at least a few bars pushing craft beer. As big fans of the UK’s craft beer renaissance, and total newcomers to Finland, we were concerned we might be missing out on one of our preferred vices.

We tried out the Sori Taproom (nice beers, small quantities, rather expensive), Bier Bier (great beers, slightly larger quantities, very expensive) and The Riff (good music, okay beers, did unfortunately meet an anarchist Finn and a Bulgarian sound engineer who spent a full hour promoting the ‘great replacement’ conspiracy theory).

It’s now been a year since we uprooted ourselves and moved to Finland. In that time we’ve been to plenty more bars and also a number of beer festivals: Helsinki has a lot of them! C and I have missed at least one that we know of, and there may have been more. But we did catch the Craft Beer Winter Wonderland, the Sour Spring Break, the larger Helsinki Beer Festival, Great Beers – Small Breweries, and most recently the Craft Beer Garden Festival. These vary in size, attending brewers and theme, but there’s always been new and good beers to try.

Three of those festivals are organised by a particular brewer, CoolHead, in partnership with their venue (Korjaamo – a culture centre that includes a tram museum) and other businesses (such as Pien, a local bar and bottle shop that also celebrates its one year anniversary this month).

It’ll take a while before I can attempt to write about Helsinki and Finland’s beer scene and do it any justice at all, but I can at least introduce CoolHead to non-Finns. This feels appropriate as their mission statement is literally “put Finland on the craft beer world map”. But it’s primarily because they deliver a lot of really fucking good beers. They’re particularly strong on sour beers, which are very popular here and you’ll see some from pretty much every brewery in the country. CoolHead are the best of them, although an honourable mention must go to Fiskarsin Panimo, who have delivered several of the most interesting and memorable sour beers I’ve ever tasted.

As a rough sample of what CoolHead do, this year I’ve tried their Experimental #1: Pear, Walnut, in which you can genuinely taste those pear and walnut flavours, beautifully balanced with a strong scent of walnut, and a Peated Whiskey Sour about which my untappd check-in simply says “fucking delicious”. Among their current beers are Lumberjack Juice, a Nordic sour in collaboration with Tempel Brygghus, who I’ll need to check out after drinking this berry-rich and woody beer, and their Mango Chili Gose, which is not at the top of my list but certainly delivers exactly what it says on the can. A recent favourite is Smoking Nectarines, which is a fantastically rich and tart fruit sour with a wonderful smoke edge.

Their non-sours are very good as well: Juiciness, for example, is exactly the kind of fruity IPA with American hops that I grew to love in England, and at 5.5% it’s a fairly hefty session beer.

I’ll raise a glass to CoolHead continuing to pursue their mission statement, and hopefully – if you, reader, are outside Finland and see their beers for sale – you’ll do so too.

I ate some extra hot noodles

A friend recently gave me a packet of extra spicy instant noodles. “They’re extremely hot,” he warned. I took his statement at face value; he’s not given to exaggeration.

He also showed me a huge bag of dried birds eye chillis. We were enthusing about Helsinki’s Chinese supermarkets; the largest of which I’m aware cluster in Hakaniemi, near the “hip” Kallio district and punky Sornainen. Many ingredients, spices, sauces, accoutrements and sundries can be found here which can’t really be found elsewhere: I was particularly pleased to find a variety of Thai vegetables (a Tom Yam soup and any of those incredible coconut milk-based curries aren’t really the same without them), huge quantities of frozen pre-made dumplings (including Japanese gyoza and Korean dim sum) and every known variant of Flying Goose-brand srichacha sauce (including Extra Garlic, which my partner swears by – she is not wrong).

After we announced our decision to move to Finland last year, more than a few friends and acquaintances warned us that Finns don’t really eat spicy food, and that we’d struggle to find a lot of cuisines and ingredients we like. There’s probably truth to this historically, and in some areas of the country, but in the centre of Helsinki at least it feels like nonsense. Take, for example, sushi, which has boomed in popularity in Helsinki in the past ten years, complete with fat dollops of sinus-clearing wasabi (most likely horseradish, but hush). Nepalese restaurants are a common sight, and although the typical level of heat is low for, say, British tastes, the standard range of dishes always includes something pleasantly spicy. There are a few small Thai restaurants, and one of them – Bangkok9, in the City Centre mall – is reliably packed throughout peak times. Your burger vendor of choice (Helsinki has many) probably offers pickled Jalapenos, habanero mayo or chipotle sauce with the pattie or on the side. There’s a small ramen chain called Momotoko that’s a lunchtime favourite, and their broths are always beautifully spiced with a good amount of chilli heat.

Weirdly enough, the only foodstuff we’ve really struggled to locate is cheap anchovies in oil – the kind you want to dissolve into a putanesca, or slow-roasted lamb. Well, that and Bisto.

The instant noodles my friend gave me were delicious. Chewy, fat rehydrated noodles in what I think is a Jjolmyeon style (I’m fairly ignorant about Korean food), stir fried in a viscous hot sauce and with roasted sesame seeds and laver (a kind of edible seaweed or algae). They were hot, and while I may regret eating them once the meal has moved through my digestive system they weren’t that hot. If you’re the kind of person who’s ever attended a chilli festival and spent a day trying samples of mind-blowingly hot chilli sauces, drinking beer to take the edge off and occasionally weeping because you misjudged a sauce, you’ll probably know what I mean. And even if this post isn’t the lulzy “man eats food that’s too hot for him” junk food I originally planned, it’s at least given me a chance to write a little about two things I love: hot food, and my adopted home city.