“Oh, you’re a writer,” says the nice old lady, a third-year-running ringleader of her local book club.
“What do you write?"
I want to answer her question, but I can’t simply come out and say it, not without some form of semantic armour.
“Speculative Fiction,” I say boldly, like one of the guys who wasn’t Spartacus. It’s a term that rings of self-importance. Of literariness. A broad term to encompass the fantastical what-if.
Then she asks: “What’s that?”
I slump a little.
At this point, she’s left me with no choice but to use the two words I’ve been trying to avoid for not only the past three minutes but the past three years.
“Uh, science fiction,” I concede.
“Sort of. With some fantasy. But not typical fantasy. Or science fiction. A blend. But neither really.” At that point, like someone flapping his arms and kicking his legs in quicksand, I want to hurl other gloopy descriptors at her:
Any bloated guff to bypass the feeling of being a fanboy man-child resigned to using Microsoft Word to build his worlds because Industrial Light & Magic won’t take his calls.
And then a funny look comes my way. A look I’ve seen fairly often. One that suggests: the world is an interesting place, full of actuality and ambiguity, of strange truths and complex deception, of tragedies and comedies, of characters that swing in and out or heroism and villainy at the drop of both a megaton bomb and a mistimed tweet, of government corruption, escalating crime rates and corporate mass murderers, and yet you’ll somehow sit at your little desk and make things up, things that can’t ever exist, whilst having the bones to go around calling yourself a real writer?
Publishing Science Fiction
I’ve recently had a novel published with the Umuzi imprint of Penguin Random House, South Africa. It’s entitled The Raft, and it’s about a man looking for his son in a world in which every person on earth has lost his and her memory.
Some might say it’s science fiction. Some might prefer to call it speculative fiction. In the end, the issue isn’t the label. Labels will be labels — essentially meaningless, like Almond Toast used to describe a shade of brown hair dye.
The issue is rather our feelings towards the move … what we think of brunettes in general, if you catch my drift.
The process of publishing has been, for the most part, a positive one. There was immediate interest in the manuscript, and since its release, it has been met with encouraging feedback.
So why has it been so awkward and uncomfortable to explain to South African people that I’ve written a sci-fi novel?
Is this curious reaction all in my head, a childish aversion to being seen as a child, one with infantile interests in glorified campfire stories?
Or is there a genuine stigma to overcome here, a public misunderstanding when it comes to what science fiction is all about? And if so, why so?
A Fiction Unto Itself
It’s no secret non-fiction sells better in South Africa than countries like the USA, where fiction wins out.
If I were to speculate on why this is, I’d guess that South Africa as a country is a sort of fiction all unto itself. A place of such improbability, tall tales and far-fetched wonders that we don’t need any more fiction in our world. We may feel that we’re living it.
And if that’s the case, then South Africans may crave incorruptible reality as a form of escape the way others crave imaginative fabrication. For instance, we have a small handful of commercial movie and literary stars, but boy, do we have sport stars. In droves.
Because sport is facts and figure in HD action, off the page and on the field. Our sporting heroes overcome tangible obstacles to us, rack up actual points, experience genuine emotions, take on genuine opponents with genuine motivations, and no match seems to be without its share of twists and turns.
Sport allows South Africans all the thrills of a Hollywood blockbuster, but with all the real-world factors to sate our hunger for unfettered reality. The superhero-like mythologies surrounding our sport stars, coupled with the tragicomic troupe of parliamentary caricatures on the DStv channel next door, seem to be more than enough fiction for our basic escapist/entertainment requirements.
The reason, as far as I can tell, is that South Africans are a preoccupied lot. We have a heap on our plates, socio-economically speaking.
We’re dreamers, sure, but when we dream, we dream of real things. Family. Security. Health. Money. Time. Our fantasies aren’t about flying off on magic carpets. They’re fantasies of feeling safe in our homes.
As a result, we can also overlook the fact that our noble commitment to making sure there’s a ceiling above our heads means that we don’t always mind our ceilings made of glass. Thus, the arts may be seen as a pastime of the privileged, and not merely in a monetary sense. Just privileged enough to have the time and inclination to sit in front of a computer and make shit up — y’know, like four hundred page science fiction novels.
Some South Africans may see my tendency towards fantastical fiction as a reflection of my privileged state, my excess of time and thought-space in a country where every second of time and burp of thought is taken from us the way scraps of metal and wiring are appropriated in the war efforts.
It becomes a question of perceived value. In a First World country, sci-fi writers may not only thrive but be lauded as the secret, creative architects of the future, whilst in South Africa, sci-fi writers may only be seen as adult cartoon-watchers riffing on American and British pastimes.
And, in some cases, there may be a small point. If the walking dead of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead can be construed as a critique on American consumerism, then how does the motif translate into South African zombie fiction?
We can’t be making the same sly point as the Americans, since consumerism doesn’t appear to be one of our major ideological issues. Therefore, by using the trope, what are we saying?
Should we be saying anything (if only as a subversion, à la Shaun of the Dead), or are we happy just to have our “local take” on it?
To express our fandom?
It’s not that speculation fiction should preach, God no, but the reason the same figures and tropes are allowed to exist, thrive and evolve is because there’s often a basement allegorical truth about each of them, one that we respond to in ways we aren’t even aware.
Why else do ghosts, witches, star-fighters, superheroes, zombies, aliens, wizards and wolves in the woods keep recurring in our fiction? Well, because they’re not only entertaining, but useful to us — willing to take any number of preferred forms, whilst remaining endlessly open to saying all the things about the world we’re too afraid to say outright, the things that scare us, may result in us being ostracized … or may be too bold and hopeful for us to come out and flat-out ask for.
It’s an affordability that’s no secret to the world.
Star Wars is the hero story the USA needed after a failed war, essentially, a hippie mystic’s rage against the machine.
Godzilla revealed Japan’s post-war anxieties regarding radioactivity.
The Matrix expressed our collective millennial uncertainty.
We might not directly pick it up, but that’s not the point. We aren’t meant to. Primarily, we’re meant to be entertained. Beneath the bullet-time sequences and the buildings coming down, however, we invest more of ourselves into what we’re watching because something resonates, something deep and real. An honest subtext.
A secret love-letter slipped our way under a table. Even time-travel stories, the most seemingly unlikely of science fictions, aren’t really about going back or forward in time at all.
At heart, they’re parables about the importance of respecting the present, how today exists as both a product of yesterday and a powerful instrument of tomorrow. Quite simply, time travel stories implore us to think before we act, whilst reminding us of the capacity each of us have to exact enormous change on the world with even the smallest interference. But it gets even braver and weirder than that.
If I tried to sell you a two-hour Freudian allegory on a human male’s fears regarding pregnancy and birth, presented by perhaps the most genuinely feminist protagonist in the latter half of the twentieth century, you might be inclined to go out dancing instead.
If I told you, no, no, silly me, it’s really a Deep Space suspense horror featuring murderous extraterrestrials … then you might say, well, that sounds a lot like Ridley Scott’s Alien (and proceed to advise me on my pitching skills before admitting you’ve made other plans anyway).
The truth is that fiction needs a bigger voice in South Africa, and science fiction, being the loudest of all fictions, could be our way of breaking through.
As with District 9 by director Neil Blomkamp and Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, the world seems to respond to our science fiction.
And they should. We’ve got lots of new things to add to an already impressive global canon, but a canon that still reaches out for fresh takes and alternative perspectives. So let’s give it to ‘em.
Let’s tell our stories in ways the world (and we) could be more inclined to acknowledge them, and freely re-tell them, and wield them for the powers of enlightenment over the media-inclined powers of fear-mongering.
I do of course see the inherent cheapness of having to turn abused refugees into intergalactic aliens, but that doesn’t mean science-fiction is the cheap way of being seen or heard. It’s simply the genre with the largest toolkit.
That’s why the Americans worship it, as do the British, as do the Japanese. Science fiction is the genre of invention and re-invention. Of expansion. Of universal truth. Of absolute fabrication. It’s the genre of freedom itself.
In the end, science fiction should declare that we’re not only a country of looking back but one of looking forward.
Besides writing, producing and reading more of it, we should also, as a nation, be rewarding it. Hell, at least admitting it exists. We could start with new shelves at our local book stores, so that oddball novels such as my own don’t have to nestle in the brilliant but genre-irrelevant company of other South African novels under “General Africana”.
We could be using speculative fiction in schools to encourage readership in a generation willing to spend their pocket money on a US science fiction blockbuster every other week, or wait up for it on TV on Saturday nights, or display a favourite make-believe character on their t-shirts.
And hey, if we develop enough national interest in it, we may even find the money and confidence to put more quality science fiction films and shows into production, invigorating an industry of trained writers, artists and creative technicians desperate to create more than graphics-based toothpaste ads.
Why not? Science fiction and speculative fiction should really be our thing. A country with a past and present as rich, eclectic and paradoxical as our own, should, in fact, more than most, empower us with a more dexterous capacity for speculative thought, a penchant for prediction, a knack for finding new ways of being heard.
But it doesn’t.
Science fiction remains silly. Puerile. Problem solving for imaginary problems. And reality is what we’re really interested in, right? An immediate and real-world reply to our collective befuddlement over preventable issues like power shortages, water-shedding, attacks on unwelcome aliens, wastelands of semi-homeless citizens, ideological enslavement, totalitarian governments, superstitious medicine, crime-worship, Draconian corporate alliances … and other such outrageous plots.
And so, ring-leader of the book club, yes, I should admit proudly, I have written a South African science fiction book. Not because I don’t believe there’s anything more important in our country to write about, but because it’s fun for me — how I like to get away for a bit — and also because what’s most important lays ahead of us, not yesterday and not even today.
There’s a future to create.
It hasn’t been made yet, so I can’t say how it pans out. But I’ll offer my thoughts. I may even entertain you with some outlandish options (I don’t literally think the world’s going to lose its collective memory in a single moment, but between my efforts to tell a fun and engaging story — my main aim, after all — I might have a thought here and there on things like self and segregation). I also see your unspoken point, hypothetical lady, that some of what we read in science fiction may be far-fetched. Unrealistic. Unlikely to ever happen.
But then, hey, as South Africans, perhaps there’s a more important, overarching reality to accept, one we should deal with before anything else: the only impossible thing in this world is what can be done about the past.
Cover Image: Fred Strydom