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March, 2006 : Criticism:

Kirinyaga and Beyond

Mike Resnick's African Diaspora in Space

Let me begin by asking a question: How important is it to protect one's heritage and traditions? Is it (A) somewhat important? (B) quite important? or (C) supremely important?

Now, for those who are African-Americans, how important is it to preserve your African heritage, your ancestors' way of life? Is it worth killing a goat in order to read its entrails and foretell the future?

Assuming the answer is yes, would you go further and (with their consent of course) put the old and sick out for the hyenas to eat? Before you answer, consider the warning of the mundumugu or spiritual leader/witch doctor in Mike Resnick's short story "Kirinyaga," that "You cannot destroy the part without destroying the whole" (29). Failure to put the aged out will upset the delicate balance of nature and ruin the village. First, "the hyenas will starve." Even worse, "If the hyenas starve, the grass eaters will become so numerous that there is no land left for our cattle and goats to graze. If the old and feeble do not die when [our God] Ngai decrees it, then soon we will not have enough food to go around" (29).

Does the answer change now?

Assuming the answer is still yes, Mike Resnick has one last question to ask, a question echoed throughout his novel Kirinyaga: Would you be willing, should you be willing, to strangle a newborn baby born feet-first because your culture believes it to be a demon? Even if a white person with great power told you not to? Put another way, because of the threat posed by that official, would you violate your heritage and let that child live, thereby opening the door for more and more interference until eventually nothing whatsoever remained of your way of life?

To help us delve into these questions, Resnick sets up the scenario that forms the backdrop for Kirinyaga. It is the year 2129 and Africa has been industrialized and polluted. The lion and the elephant and the rhinoceros are long extinct, and the lush savanna has disappeared. The Kikuyu have been westernized, cast out of "Paradise" in which they lived "in harmony" with their "environment." Now they wear "Western clothes," use "Western machines," live "Western lives," and "have forgotten their origin and their traditions" (11-12). In short, they are now merely Kenyans, and Kirinyaga, their mountain, has become Mount Kenya.

Recently, a dissident group insisted on following ancient rather than modern ways, and the government permitted them to relocate to the new Kirinyaga, an orbiting space station or terraformed "planetoid" high above Earth with an "authentic African landscape and climate" (Dunman 2). Their leader or mundumugu is Koriba, an elderly man who seeks to preserve the old ways and beliefs of his forefathers.

This task is not easy, however, partly because of Maintenance, the organization which Koriba must contact periodically in order to adjust Kirinyaga's orbit and thereby its tropical climate. Like the Europeans who originally invaded Africa, Maintenance often sees Kikuyu customs as barbaric and intolerable. Koinnage, the village "paramount chief," believes that resistance to authority is both futile and dangerous. He warns Koriba, "You can leave the aged and the infirm out for the hyenas to eat, and they will look upon us with disgust and call us godless heathens. But . . . killing a newborn infant is another matter"—one they will not tolerate (13). Koriba replies that the Eutopian charter will not permit them "to interfere," and he refuses to apologize for their traditions "to the white man" (14).

Whatever one thinks of Koriba's position, it is obvious that he is the only person on Kirinyaga who is committed to standing firm against the Europeans. Koriba believes that giving in even once to Maintenance's demands will start Kirinyaga down a slippery slope to ruin that his ancestors have already traveled. As a character, Koriba is fascinating, a combination of old and new. He is a product both of his African past and two of the world's best universities. He even keeps a state-of-the-art computer in his boma (home). At the same time he teaches, like Jesus, through down-to-earth parables. Telling a fable to children about a hare who outwits a mighty lion, he says "it shows that the weaker can defeat the stronger if he uses his intelligence," and that an intelligent hare can "destroy the lion of Maintenance" (16).

The representative who investigates Koriba's act of infanticide seems harmless, a barren woman named Barbara Eaton. But even her name—Eaton—is a warning, and Koriba approaches her as if she were the first European ever to set foot on African soil. To him, she is an enemy and he immediately takes "the offensive" in their dealings. Koriba tells Eaton her name before she can introduce herself and goes on to instruct her as he does the villagers. When she asks what a mundumugu is, he explains that while he is a "witch doctor" who "casts spells and interprets omens," his major role is to serve as "a repository of the collected wisdom and traditions of his race" (20).

In the verbal battle that follows, Koriba is easily a match for this enemy, though he can't change her mind. He informs Eaton that the baby he strangled "was born with a terrible thahu [curse] upon it," for it was born "feetfirst" (21). Therefore, it was a demon. Eaton cannot believe that a man who graduated with honors from Cambridge and has two postgraduate degrees from Yale could believe such a primitive thing and commit such an abominable act, yet he insists the child was a demon and rejects her suggestion that such children be adopted elsewhere, perhaps by those, like herself, who cannot have children of their own. Koriba informs her that they will not change their "way of life because it makes you uncomfortable" (22). He believes that "the first time we betray our traditions, this world will cease to be Kirinyaga and will become merely another Kenya, a nation of men awkwardly pretending to be something they are not" (23). To make his point, he tells a parable about a hyena who was once beautiful but became ugly as a result of "trying to become something" it was not—in other words, a man (25). Such is the danger of permitting a dominant culture to corrupt your own.

Does Koriba believe the child was a demon? For that matter, does he actually believe his claims to villagers that he possesses magical powers and can turn them into insects if they ignore his counsel? The answer is no. As Koriba sits smelling "the scent of bananas" and the "pungent odor" of a slaughtered bull (24), the only thing he believes in is saving his people's heritage. He will use almost any trick or strategy to achieve his goal, for the price of failure is too high. His people have been driven from their own land and even their own planet. The only place the original Kikuyu exist is on a space station, and their position is increasingly precarious. It is not just that white overseers seek the slightest opportunity to shape them in their European, Christian image, but that Koriba's own people, including their chiefs and village Elders, are constant backsliders. Again and again they are tempted by the baubles of technology and forget why they came to Kirinyaga in the first place. What would be the harm of giving modern medicine to infants and the elderly, or installing modern plumbing so their lives would be more comfortable? Koriba must use all his wits to navigate between the Scylla of European neocolonialism and the Charybdis of his people's weakness.

Though "Kirinyaga" is the titular tale of Mike Resnick's novel, other chapters or stories depict Koriba's skill in coping with such pressures. The longest story, "Bwana," warns against "the siren song" of European "technology" (66) and makes clear why Resnick called his collection, Kirinyaga: A Fable of Utopia. "To the true Kikuya," Koriba says, Utopia "means to live as one with the land, to respect the ancient laws and rituals, and to please Ngai" (93-94), their ancestral god. In "Kirinyaga," Koriba visits his chief after meeting with Barbara Eaton, determined as ever to preserve their Utopia. He informs Koinnage that the firstborn of expected twins must be killed, "for one mother cannot produce two souls" (161). Koinnage is upset but Koriba assures him that based on his experience with "civilized men," Maintenance will resort to bureaucratic grumbling but will never act.

Of course, Koriba is lying. Koinnage and others are comforted, but Koriba knows his history too well and decides to prepare for an eventual invasion. He summons Ndemi, a brave young boy and tells him to find ten friends. They will be a secret, warrior force, and Koriba will teach them "one last tradition of the Kikuyu" (31). Koriba believes that Ndemi is the only hope for Kirinyaga's survival. Once again, the Kikuyu will have "to fight for their freedom," as they did under the fierce leadership of Jomo Kenyatta. Once again, they will take "the terrible oath of Mau Mau," and if necessary, maim and kill and commit "atrocities" until finally they achieve Uhuru, the Swahili word for freedom.

Though the ten stories that compose Kirinyaga were published separately over time, Resnick considers it to be a novel rather than a collection ("Author's Afterword," 289). Whatever the case, it is "the most honored science-fiction book in history" ("Author's Afterword," 288). Among its many awards are two prestigious Hugos, one of which was given to the story/chapter "Kirinyaga." Clearly, a major reason for this work's popularity is Koriba's continuing, increasingly difficult mission to preserve a Kikuyu Utopia against growing opposition, especially from his own people. In particular, Resnick explores two crucial questions that unify this work and engross the reader: Is Koriba right in his mission to preserve Kirinyaga's heritage and prevent change, and will this Utopia succeed or fail?

We begin to get answers to these questions in "For I Have Touched the Sky," which Resnick calls his personal favorite ("Author's Afterword," 290). In it, a brilliant child, hungry to learn, is denied the opportunity because she is a female. Koriba tells Kamari that "no woman is permitted to read" (41). "It is not fair," she says, and he replies, "No . . . But it is just" (42). In a passage that recalls Frederick Douglass's Autobiography and the reasoning against teaching slaves to read in the antebellum South, Koriba says, "If women start reading, some of them will become discontented, and they will leave, and then one day there will be no Kikuyu left" (44). Indeed, the printed word of the Europeans, "turned us first into slaves, and then into Christians, and then into soldiers and factory workers and mechanics and politicians, into everything that the Kikuyu were never meant to be" (54). Kamari's intelligence is so incandescent that Koriba fears that "one gifted little girl" could "carry within her the seeds of our destruction" (54). With precocious force, Kamari tells her mundumugu, "You are not an evil man, Koriba. . . . But you are wrong" (57). She finally hangs herself, but not before leaving a couplet in a language she invented herself. It reads, "I know why the caged birds die—For, like them, I have touched the sky" (61).

In my 1995 interview of Mike Resnick, he confirmed Kamari's judgment of Koriba. "Koriba," he said, "is a moral, honorable, intelligent man who just happens to be wrong; he's not a villain, and I think that forces the readers to do some serious thinking" ("A Talk With Mike Resnick," 41). As the stories continue, more and more villagers echo Kamari's words, and their traditional fear of and respect for the mundumugu erodes till even children bluntly tell him he is wrong and merely tolerate him. In another story, "The Manamouki," a woman who came to live in Kirinyaga refuses to be circumcised. Wanda tells Koriba, "The fact that a rule exists does not make it right. . . . I will not let them mutilate me in the name of some foolish custom." She adds, "There is a difference between custom and stagnation . . . If you stifle every variation in taste and behavior in the name of the former, you achieve only the latter" (148-9).

The same belief, that rigid customs lead to stagnation or worse, is expressed by other characters. In "Song of a Dry River," the Chief's mother tells Koriba that "All living things change—even the Kikuyu. . . . They change or they die" (173). Koriba remains stubborn, and the drought he ordered to reestablish his authority kills a baby and causes calamity. In time, the Chief, who formerly feared Koriba's displeasure, rebels: "I say that some of our ways need changing. If . . . [the Europeans'] god is a greater healer than Ngai, who is to say that he may not also bring better weather, or more fertile cattle, or richer soil?" (246). However, it is old Jandara, a contemporary of Koriba, who delivers the most forceful criticism: "[I]f change is not evil, then perhaps lack of change, such as we have striven for here, is evil, or at least wrong" (247). Since some of the young men have committed suicide out of boredom and lack of purpose, Jandara's statement is especially troubling. Once warriors had challenges to fill their lives, such as an enemy like the Maasai whom they fought and stole women from. Now there are no longer any real human or animal enemies, and they don't even need the spears that Koriba insists they carry.

Eventually, Koriba feels "betrayed by the people I had tried to lead, by the very world I had helped to create" (253). Ndemi, whom Koriba trained to be his successor, rejects his teachings and leaves Kirinyaga, vowing to return and oppose him. The boys ride bicycles, and the adults embrace European medicine, which is far superior to Koriba's spells and herbs. Even the scarecrows are replaced by mechanical contrivances. They don't require Koriba's blessings, only power packs. The ancient belief that homes must be round because demons hide in corners fades; soon the Kikuyu will imitate the square dwellings of Europeans. The Utopia for which Koriba has fought so hard fails, seduced by European comforts and conveniences, or what Gardner Dozois calls "the brightness and rationality of our tidy, shiny modern world" (147).

In the epilogue, "The Land of Nod," Koriba leaves Kirinyaga, returning to Nairobi. There, in a teeming city "filled with corners" (265), he lives with his son Edward, a modern black European who considers his father's views primitive and foolish. In Nairobi, Koriba visits an elephant cloned from a species that has been dead for two centuries. Koriba is the last Kikuyu, and Ahmed, the last elephant. They are both anachronisms, and just as Koriba finds himself surrounded by a Europeanized Africa he hates, so is the elephant "eternally" confined in a small space by a force field. Learning that authorities intend to kill Ahmed because he is too expensive to maintain, Koriba decides to give them both their freedom. Aided by Kamau, a timid descendant of the "indomitable" Jomo Kenyetta, he takes the elephant to Mount Marsabit and sets him loose on land contaminated by radioactive waste. Then he follows the elephant, knowing that his remaining days are few. In the process, he finally comes to understand that a Utopia can exist only for one "man who knew his own mind and would die before compromising" (284). His mistake, the "thing" he "had not realized is that a society can be a Utopia for only an instant—once it reaches a state of perfection it cannot change and still be a Utopia, and it is the nature of societies to grow and evolve" (284).

Ultimately, Kirinyaga warns us that good men can be wrong and that true believers, however principled, can cause misery to those who follow them. In his work, Mike Resnick forces us to evaluate the validity of our own cherished beliefs, no matter how certain and unassailable they appear to be. While the simple and uncorrupted way of life Koriba fought for is attractive, it is also folly, and we should hope that in our own lives, we choose more wisely.

Works Referenced

Dozois, Gardner, ed. The Year's Best Science Fiction, Sixth Annual. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.

Dunman, Susan. "Kirinyaga: A Fable of Utopia" (Review), SciFi Weekly, 3 April 2005

Resnick, Mike. Kirinyaga: A Fable of Utopia. New York: Del Rey, 1998.

Rosenman, John B. "A Talk With Mike Resnick." Dark Regions, ed. Joe Morey. vol. 3, no. 1, 1995.

Copyright © 2006, John Rosenman. All Rights Reserved.

About John Rosenman

I'm an English professor at Norfolk State University where my favorite courses are World Literature and a course I designed in how to write SF and Fantasy. I'm scheduled to have three SF novels published this year, two by Mundania Press and one by Scrybe Press. I've published over 250 stories in places like Weird Tales, Galaxy, Starshore, The Age of Wonders, Whitley Strieber's Aliens, Cemetery Dance, the Hot Blood series, and elsewhere.


Mar 13, 15:37 by IROSF
Thread for the discussion of Mike Resnick's Kirinyaga, or John Rosenman's discussion.

The article is here.
Mar 14, 07:03 by Lois Tilton
It was interesting to revisit Kirinyaga, which seems even more timely in some ways today.
Mar 29, 12:43 by Dotar Sojat
I met Mike Resnick at FenCon in Dallas. Seemed to be a good guy, and KIRINYAGA sounded really keen. I did not, unfortunatly, pick up a copy of the book, but this article has spurred me to find it.

Mar 30, 07:19 by Lois Tilton
I've never read the novel version, I wonder how much it was revised. Ought to pick it up.

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