HAnd without his high school principal, physicist-turned-novelist Femi Fadugba may never have studied materials science and quantum computing at the University of Oxford. “I don’t usually tell this story to people because it sounds like something out of a movie,” he laughs on a video call from Peckham, south London. “He gave me a Quantum Physics for Dummies book when I was 11. Only a few years ago I found his phone number and called him. He told me he had a PhD and was really interested in physics, but just wasn’t able to pursue it.
Likewise, without his career in quantum physics, Fadugba might never have written his first science fiction novel, The upper world – a book on time travel located in Peckham and deeply informed by the study of atoms, matter, energy and relativity. “I decided I wanted to write this book because I would have conversations with people asking me to explain quantum physics. They were always super fascinated and wanted me to recommend a book, but I couldn’t find one that I could lay a hand on my heart and say, “You’re gonna dig this.”
So he proceeded to do exactly what Toni Morrison had asked anyone frustrated by the lack of diverse stories in the literature landscape: “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you have to write it.” .
The upper world is a particularly gripping and heartbreaking young adult novel that follows two teenage protagonists. Esso and Rhia exist in different time periods, 2020 and 2035 respectively, but are linked by a life-changing event – a bullet heading into an alleyway and poised to cause irreversible damage. When Esso is hit by a car, he is transported to a mysterious location where he discovers he can see into the past and the future. He then seeks to turn the tide of this tragic event, which somehow involves Rhia – a foster girl desperately seeking the truth about her parents.
“Peckham is full of people who look like me. People from elsewhere, but also from here, ”says Fadugba. His eyes light up whenever he talks about the neighborhood. “I saw two decades of change at Peckham so I felt comfortable trying to project another two decades. I also really like this place.
Now 34, Togo-born Fadugba left the United States for England in 1997 when he was nine. He spent much of his childhood moving from boarding school in Somerset to various African countries with his parents, while his father worked as an interpreter for the UN. But the summers and half-sessions at his aunt’s house on an estate in Peckham had the biggest impact on him. “As a Nigerian there aren’t many places in the world, including Nigeria and most of England, where I feel so comfortable.”
The idea of feeling at home, however, is something that Fadugba has struggled with in his scientific career. In addition to Oxford, he studied at the University of Pennsylvania and taught science “I published in PRL [a peer-reviewed scientific journal], this is where Einstein posted. I was at the peak of my career. But at the same time, something about writing equations for my whole life seemed too abstract and removed from real life issues.
He eventually left academia and entered the energy industry, working full time at a solar finance company. He didn’t start reading fiction until his late twenties (naming Chimamanda Danger Adichie, Stephen King and Orson Scott Card as favorites) but something clicked and he decided to self-study to write. “I’ve had a few conversations that convinced me that writing is something you can learn and don’t have to be born with. It was the change for me. He still wanted to communicate scientific ideas and theories, but wanted to do so through fiction rather than academia.
Maybe that’s why The upper world, despite its humor, is also pleasantly educational. Theories relating to time and space are woven into the narrative. The appendix is full of plot-relevant equations, such as the speed of light and the Pythagorean Theorem. But deep down, the novel is about grief, loss and hope. “I was facing a situation similar to what Esso is going through, in terms of losing someone before their time, to insanity. The part of the book where someone gets shot: There are children and adults who face this in real life. I felt the responsibility to explore what that meant.
An important part of the novel is its investigation of the concept of free will. As the two teenagers fight to change the future, psychological and sociological influences on a person’s fate are central to the story. “For the black community in the UK, a lot of the tension is fundamentally about free will. Are our employees in the position they are in because they made bad decisions or was it in fact [out of their control]? It’s hard. I think we’re a product of our environment, but at the same time, if I’m standing in front of a kid who’s in a shitty situation, that’s not a useful thing to say. We have an obligation to explore both sides, instead of making the false choice that only one of them is true. “
Which makes The upper world it is therefore revolutionary to know how it straddles multiple realities and truths. It’s geeky but cool, from another world but also far south of London, a genre-defying book for which Penguin Random House Children’s won the rights after a “crazy” 15-vote auction. He also grabbed the heart of Daniel Kaluuya: The Oscar-winning actor will not only star in the Netflix film adaptation, he will also co-produce it.
“My book leaked to Hollywood,” Fadugba says in disbelief, speaking of the whirlwind that ensued in June 2020, just after sending his manuscript to publishers. “I still don’t know how it happened, but apparently it does. A bunch of studios have taken it over – the big ones. Monkeypaw Productions by Jordan Peele and Plan B Entertainment by Brad Pitt. You can circle a month around when I got my book deal and the Netflix deal. It was exciting and also very difficult to deal with. Even now, I still talk about it like it happened to someone else.
A big reason why the gigantic successes have not yet flowed is because they have come at a personally difficult time. In early 2020, Fadugba was living with his wife in Kenya when the country’s president tweeted that they would close the borders due to the pandemic. “I packed my life in two days and went to my aunt’s house [in Peckham]. My wife is American and had to go back to her family. I spent an entire year in my aunt’s guest room, separated from my wife, while the world fell apart. The couple finally reunited in June 2021.
It has been incredibly stressful, Fadugba tells me. “The gradient of change was insane.” But he’s grateful, of course. I can see how visibly excited he is to talk about his new life. He humbly smiles as he talks about being executive producer of the Netflix movie. “It’s a strong team,” he said. “Eric Newman [the producer of Narcos, Children of Men and Bright] has experience of making sick movies and shows. Daniel knows how to navigate both worlds. He comes from the ends, but he’s also an Oscar winner.
I ask him if he’s nervous about whether the adaptation will be as good as the book. “My agent put me in touch with Nick hornby, who had the experience of adapting his books to the cinema, and he gave me a metaphor. If you design ankara costumes and someone buys them and turns them into a bikini, this bikini might continue to sell more than your costume. Even though the Netflix team has been really true to the vision, you have to let it breathe in the direction it needs. “
So what does Fadugba see when he considers his own future? “I’m currently writing a movie with a few friends and a well-known rapper called CS.” He is also working on the sequel to The upper world, which will focus on “quantum mechanics and the multiverse”. But, he says, “my main focus has always been education. I don’t mean necessarily in terms of getting all the kids into Stem [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]. I think it’s more about getting kids to explore all the different parts of their minds. There is no reason why Peckham cannot be the theoretical physics capital of the world – I mean, there are reasons, but there are no good reasons.
His plan is to find a way to use music, virtual reality, and games to make math and physics education easier. Looking at what he has accomplished so far, with his career in physics and his very first attempt at writing fiction, very little seems impossible. “I was born into a civil war. There have been too many times that things could have gone, ”he says, referring to everything from his family’s immigration struggles to his time in Rwanda, to living in a social apartment and“ seeing all of them. kind of bullshit go on ”. “When I think about what happened to me, I think to myself: ‘I was given this [gift]. Treat yourself, take care of your sanity. But use it.
‘Within the darkness are echoes’
An edited excerpt from The Upper World
After the collision, I expect to turn around and see a pumpkin-colored bench crammed with people waiting for 78, 381, 63 or 363. And, across the road, I’m waiting for a barber shop. , followed by a Western Union, then a pub, then a corner store selling fufu and Oyster-card refills – the same store rotation that repeats itself across Narm, interrupted only by the odd bookstore or the chain of cafes.
I expect to see a Range Rover with a bump in the front and I’m ready to throw ballistics at the driver, threaten to chase him, hit him, both. I’m waiting – no, I to hope – to see a little boy, sitting safely on the sidewalk, in much the same shape and condition as I had met him.
Instead, I can barely see my own hands. Darkness has engulfed them. And within the darkness are echoes: half-familiar screams and muffled voices, each loud enough for me to hear, but not clear enough to make out the words. My mind draws its own imaginary lines in the dark, filling it with demonic creatures with jagged teeth and talons. Scenario A, I think, it’s a dream, and I’m alive. Scenario B: I’m dead, and it’s either heaven or hell.
A drop of sweat tumbles down my forehead. Above the echoes, I hear my heart beat and my breathing shorten. In all the Sunday school lessons I can remember, not one mentioned paradise resembling a barren desert filled with screaming. Not to mention the scorching heat. Please let it be scenario A.