The physicist‑turned-YA novelist talks about choosing to set The Upper World in south London, and how it was snapped up by Daniel Kaluuya for Netflix
Had it not been for his secondary school caretaker, physicist-turned-novelist Femi Fadugba might never have gone on to study material sciences and quantum computing at Oxford University. “I don’t usually tell people this story because it sounds like something out of a movie,” he says, laughing, on a video call from Peckham, south London. “He gave me a Quantum Physics for Dummies book when I was 11. It was only a couple of years ago that I found his phone number and called him up. He told me that he had a PhD and was really into physics, but just wasn’t able to pursue it.”
Similarly, had it not been for his career in quantum physics, Fadugba might never have written his debut sci-fi novel, The Upper World – a book about time travel set in Peckham and deeply informed by the study of atoms, matter, energy and relativity. “I decided I wanted to write this book because I’d have conversations with people who would ask me to explain quantum physics. They’d always be super fascinated and wanted me to recommend a book, but I couldn’t find one that I could put my hand on my heart and say: ‘You’ll dig this.’”
So he set out to do exactly what Toni Morrison had asked of anyone frustrated by the lack of diverse stories in the landscape of literature: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
The Upper World is a uniquely thrilling, heart-wrenching young adult novel that follows two teenage protagonists. Esso and Rhia exist in different time periods, 2020 and 2035 respectively, but are connected by a life-changing event – a bullet heading for an alleyway and set to cause irreversible harm. When Esso is hit by a car, he is transported to a mysterious place where he discovers that he can see into the past and the future. He then seeks to change the course of this tragic event, which somehow involves Rhia – a girl living in foster care who is desperate to learn the truth about her parents.
“Peckham is full of people who look like me. People from somewhere else, but also from here,” says Fadugba. His eyes light up whenever he talks about the neighbourhood. “I’ve seen two decades of change in Peckham, so I felt comfortable trying to project another couple of decades. I also just really like this place.”
Now aged 34, Fadugba, who was born in Togo, moved to England from the US in 1997, when he was nine years old. He spent much of his childhood moving between a boarding school in Somerset and various African countries with his parents, when his father was working as an interpreter for the UN. But the summers and half terms at his aunt’s house in a Peckham estate had the biggest impact on him. “As a Nigerian, there aren’t many places in the world, including Nigeria and including most of England, where I feel so at home.”
The idea of feeling at home is something Fadugba struggled with when it came to his career in science, however. In addition to Oxford, he studied at the University of Pennsylvania and taught science “I published in PRL [a peer-reviewed scientific journal], which is where Einstein published. 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 problems.”
He eventually left academia and went into the energy sector, working full time at a solar finance company. He didn’t start reading fiction until his late 20s (naming Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Stephen King and Orson Scott Card as particular favourites) but something clicked, and he decided to teach himself how to write. “I had a couple of chats that convinced me that writing was something you could learn and didn’t have to be born with. That was the switch for me.” He still had the urge to communicate scientific ideas and theories, but wanted to do that through fiction rather than academia.
Perhaps that’s why The Upper World, despite its humour, is also enjoyably educational. Theories relating to time and space are woven into the narrative. The appendix is full of equations relevant to the plot, such as the speed of light and the Pythagorean theorem. But deep down, the novel is about grief, loss and hope. “I was dealing with a similar situation to what Esso goes through, in terms of losing someone before their time, because of some madness. The part in the book where someone gets shot: there are kids and adults who are dealing with this in real life. I felt a responsibility to explore what that meant.”
An important part of the novel is its investigation into the concept of free will. As the two teenagers fight to change the future, the psychological and sociological influences on a person’s destiny are a central part of the narrative. “For the black community in the UK, so much of the tension is fundamentally about free will. Are our people in the position that they’re in because they made bad decisions or was it actually [out of their control]? It’s tough. I do think we are a product of our environment, but at the same time, if I’m standing in front of a kid who is in a shit situation, that’s not a helpful thing to say. We have an obligation to explore both sides, instead of making the false choice that only one of them is true.”
What makes The Upper World so groundbreaking is how it straddles multiple realities and truths. It’s geeky but cool, otherworldly but also very south London, a genre-defying book for which Penguin Random House Children’s won the rights after a “crazy” 15-way auction. It 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,” says Fadugba in disbelief, speaking of the whirlwind that ensued in June 2020, straight after he sent his manuscript to publishers. “I still don’t know how that happened, but apparently, it happens. A bunch of studios got hold of it – the big ones. Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions and Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment. You can circle a month around the period where I got my book deal and I got the Netflix deal. It was exciting and also very hard to process. Even now, I still talk about it as if it happened to someone else.”
A big reason why the mammoth successes have yet to sink in is because they came at a personally difficult time. In early 2020, Fadugba had been living with his wife in Kenya when the country’s president tweeted that they would be shutting the borders due to the pandemic. “I packed up 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 a whole year in my aunt’s spare bedroom, separated from my wife, while the world went down.” The couple finally reunited in June 2021.
It has all 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 speaking about his new life. He humbly smiles while talking about the fact that he will be executive producer on the Netflix film. “It’s a strong team,” he says. “Eric Newman [the producer of Narcos, Children of Men and Bright] has the experience of making sick films and shows. Daniel knows how to navigate both worlds. He’s from ends, but he’s also an Oscar-winning actor.”
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 has had the experience of having his books adapted into films, and he gave me a metaphor. If you design ankara suits and then someone buys it and turns it into a bikini, that bikini could go on to sell more than your suit. Even though the Netflix team has been really faithful to the vision, you have to let it breathe in whatever direction it needs to.”
So what does Fadugba see when he looks into his own future? “I’m currently writing a film with a couple of mates, and a well-known rapper called CS.” He’s also working on the sequel to The Upper World, which will focus on “quantum mechanics and the multiverse”. But, he says, “my biggest purpose has always been about education. I don’t mean that necessarily in terms of getting all kids into Stem [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]. I think it’s more about getting kids to explore all the different parts of their mind. There’s no reason why Peckham couldn’t 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 gaming to facilitate maths and physics education. Looking at what he has achieved so far, with his physics career and his first ever attempt at writing fiction, very little seems impossible. “I was born in a civil war. There have been too many times that things could have gone left,” he says, referring to everything from his family’s immigration struggles to his time spent in Rwanda, to living in a council flat and “seeing all kinds of shit go on”. “When I think about the stuff that has happened to me, I think to myself: ‘I was given this [gift]. Enjoy yourself, take care of your mental health. But use it.’”
An edited extract from The Upper World
After the collision, I expect to turn and see a pumpkin-coloured bench stuﬀed with people waiting for the 78, 381, 63 or 363. And, on the other side of the road, I expect a barbershop, followed by a Western Union, then a pub, then a corner shop selling fufu and Oyster-card top-ups – the same rota of shops that repeats itself across Narm, interrupted only by the odd pound shop or chain cafe.
I expect to see a Range Rover with a dent in its front end and I’m ready to go ballistic on the driver, threaten to sue him, punch him, both. I expect – no, I hope – to see a little boy, sitting safely on the pavement, in roughly the same shape and condition I’d met him.
Instead I can barely see my own hands. Darkness has swallowed them. And inside the darkness are echoes: half-familiar screams and hushed voices, each one 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, this is a dream, and I’m alive. Scenario B: I’m dead, and this is either heaven or hell.
A bead of sweat tumbles down my forehead. Above the echoes, I can hear my heart pounding and my breaths getting shorter. In all the Sunday school lessons I remember, not one mentioned heaven looking like a barren wasteland filled with screams. Not to mention the scorching heat. Please let this be scenario A.
The Upper World by Femi Fadugba is published by Penguin (£7.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.