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TJ Benson’s Debut is Grim and Great

In ‘We Won’t Fade Into Darkness’, TJ Benson offers us a piece of his ‘strange, extensive and original’ imagination

TJ Benson
TJ Benson

by TJ Benson
138pp. Parresia Books
ISBN: 978-978-55583-2-2

There is a crucial moment in one of the stories in TJ Benson’s collection of short-stories, We Won’t Fade Into Darkness, when the narrator says grimly: “Gone are the days when people set up their own businesses for personal gain and profit, the business of a dying world is survival.”               

Much of the collection is about the need for survival in a moribund world. The stories arc around various conceptions of the notion of survival and are set mostly in the far or near future, where men must survive in harsh, authoritarian environments and negotiate life in a broken, deathly world. These stories are grim but also strangely uplifting. The breadth of TJ Benson’s apocalyptic vision is wide and never relents, neither does his hope. His pessimism is pervading but his compassionate portrayal of the characters in extreme situations is also redeeming. With each story, he asks relevant questions about survival, trust, friendship, power, and even death or the inevitability of it.

The 14 stories in the collection deal with variants of these themes. The first story, ‘Pretty Bird’, is an accomplished story of love after Armageddon. It examines the notion of love, trust and companionship in such times. In the aftermath of a decade long war with machines, the earth is all but destroyed and trust is a very hard thing to give out. A woman gives away her male partner because she suspects him to be among the group that destroyed the world through machines.

There are several stories like this. In ‘Jidenna’ a father sets out in search of his recalcitrant son in a dangerous world where a gaseous element, Nigerium, capable of creating cancerous rot in the male organ, is heavy in the air and men must wear an invention called cancer diaper at all times. The story is set in an autocratic matriarchal futuristic society where women rule and men are endangered species. This is one of the best stories in the collection, for many reasons. The futuristic setting is expertly drawn and the sense of foreboding is deliberate. This sense of foreboding is also evident in ‘Life on Earth’ in which a witch and a scientist find themselves on the moon reminiscing about life on earth just before its final destruction.

Benson’s stories are speculative but some read like fables. Stories such as ‘Nana’ and ‘The Killing Mountain’, which are clearly allegories of present day Nigeria. The author sees a grim future if the country continues the way it is.

There is a striking similarity between TJ Benson’s work and that of the great Italo Calvino, especially in Cosmicomics and, to a lesser extent, Adam, One Afternoon. There is a feeling when you read Benson’s stories that, beneath the surface, the author is drawing attention to the more brittle portends of our present life. This is true of the best stories in the collection, ‘Passion Fruit’ and ‘Alarinka’. The former story is set in an alternate history in which the British never left and the most important books of our present are prohibited commodities of the future. The latter story is a kind of The Road meets 1984 meets Never Let Me Go. It is the fascinating poignant story of a traveler in a post-apocalyptic Nigeria where the world is sequestrated in multipurpose skyscrapers. Here, languages on the brink of extinction are being sold in minute quantities for pints of blood.

TJ Benson’s imagination is strange, extensive and original. His greatest strength is his bracing ability to conjure tales out of outlandish concepts and make them simple and plausible. The major problem of speculative fiction is that the writer runs the risk of explaining far too much. Some of the earlier stories in the collection fall prey to this. But Benson never loses the human story.

This collection is a searing portrait of Nigeria on the brink, a testament to the prodigious talents of an author who, through this book, has so audaciously announced himself as a great Nigerian writer of the present and the future. ✚

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