Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Nick Wood. Nick is a South African writer, currently resident in London, UK. Nick has published a YA SF book in South Africa entitled The stone chameleon, as well as about a dozen short stories in venues such as Infinity Plus, Interzone, PostScripts, Albedo One and AfroSF. He has also published and presented on (South) African speculative fiction in general. Nick is a member of the Clockhouse London Writers group and can be found at http://nickwood.frogwrite.co.nz/ , where (amongst other things), he is touting his second novel (tentatively titled Azanian Bridges.)
This is the story’s first publication.
Case Notes of a Witchdoctor
He’d reached the age where he’d seen it all—liars, psychopaths, the neurotic… and the completely insane. Psychosis it was, though, that still just about held his interest.
Like the young black man in front of him, sitting and grimacing, but trying hard not to tilt his head. He has some insight, then, not wanting to reveal a listening attitude in the silence of the sickly yellow room.
Not enough insight, though.
Mark spoke, to put the young man out of his misery.
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to stay in for the weekend, Kolile.” (Try as he would, he’d never been able to make the correct click on the X in Xolile’s name.)
This time he could see he had the patient’s full attention. “Please, asseblief doctor, I need to go home this weekend.”
Mark played with the orange government biro on the open folder between them, feeling a little bored, a little helpless. There was a limit to what he could do—and it was Friday afternoon, with rush-hour traffic no doubt building early along De Waal drive.
He took the pen and wrote with finality in the psychiatric notes—Provisional Diagnosis: Psychosis. Keep in for further observation.
He looked up. Xolile was sitting rigid, staring behind him.
Despite himself, Mark turned, to see the thick door and blank wall. He dropped his hand away from the panic button underneath his desk.
“What do you see, Kolile?” he smiled reassuringly and with certainty, keen to wrap up the consultation quickly now.
The young man looked him squarely in the eyes, as if oblivious to customary respectful gaze avoidance for his elders.
“An old white man,” he said. “I think he may be your father.”
Mark laughed then, loudly. His father had been dead three years.
He stood up: “You’ll feel better after a weekend in, on your medication. The staff are very good here.”
The young man stood up and held his gaze, until tears leaked from his eyes and he looked down.
“Please,” he said, “my mother needs me. I am sick, yes, but I think it is because the ancestors call me.”
Mark hesitated; he’d been reminded of caring for his own mother, for a good many months after dad’s death.
“Why do they call you?” he asked, cursing himself for delaying on what was surely a certain decision, but looking for a hidden delusionary system.
“To become a healer too, like you,” Xolile said, his voice muffled in the blue overalls, head bowed. Mark realised abruptly that the young man’s head was bowed to hide his tears.
“We shall see,” he said, opening the door. Staff Nurse Dumisane, who’d been waiting outside in respect for psychological confidentiality, came in and ushered the young man out.
Mark nodded goodbye and closed the door.
Friday at last, Friday, fucking Friday. The surf must be pumping at Kommetjie by now. Time to wash the working week off him in that frenzied cold water.
He closed the file on his desk; Xolile Ngubane. Shut.
He’d seen so many tears, so much snot en trane, this was no different.
But Xolile’s presence didn’t seem to have fully left the room. Mark could almost smell the lingering pain of his tears, the sourness of his body odour, his leaking desperation.
Still, he had seen it all. He picked up the file to leave the room.
“Where are you going, son?”
Mark dropped the file, having half-opened the door with his right hand. He peered back into the room, scanning the walls, the psychometric test cupboard, the desk, underneath the desk…
He stopped himself. Stupid, stupid, he really just needed a rest; it had been a hell of a week.
No one to go home to, though. Sharon had left eight months ago, and he’d left Jo’burg over a year ago now, to get away from a needy mother. There had been lots of leavings, with so few greetings anymore.
He picked up the file and sighed. At least the sea didn’t judge him. Muizenberg soon with a boogie board maybe, for, actually, he felt like a warmer and gentler swim. So, home first, pick up the board and head waves-side, before the beach bursts with manne jostling for board-space.
He stopped himself from announcing his plans to the air and cursed as he saw the black smear on his fingers. The cheap plastic biros tended to leak like an old man with a dodgy prostate. (At least he could still piss a few bubbles into the pot.) Throwing the pen into the bin, he wiped his fingers with some desk-tissues; it’s okay, man, just so long as he’d kept the file clean.
He hesitated, the wall was dripping sound. Leaning his right ear against the bricks’ clammy, slippery surface, he listened.
A quavering voice, soft but through cold stones, old stones—a leper asylum before it became a mad-house, so he’d heard.
A dim and distant voice, which was just repeating his name, over and over again.
So many voices lost here.
But this one knew him.
He had no answer. It was time to go.
Softly, he closed the door behind him and headed for the nurse’s station, along the banana-coloured hospital corridor. He nodded at a puffed up psychiatrist passing him; Jesus, that guy needed to learn to treat his patients more respectfully.
He took a right turn into the nurse’s station and the adjoining patient lounge, which was empty, as they were all out for their early supper. Behind the glassed sealed area Sister Mbolo and Staff Nurse Dumisane were standing, collecting night meds from cabinets, eyes flickering up to patient charts on the walls.
Mark stepped into the station quietly; file ready to be deposited alphabetically into the cabinet. He’d update online records next week.
He needed a swim badly.
Dumisane glanced at him, sieving a few tablets into a metal bowl. “Xolile to stay in then?” he asked, clicking extravagantly, to Mark’s ears. (He’s Zulu after all; Xhosa clicks come easy to him.)
The old man caught his eye, lounging just across the room. He didn’t recognise him, but he knew it wasn’t—it couldn’t be—his father. But dad had lain a bit like that, in the days following his stroke, limp and helpless and dumb.
Three weeks of silent helpless lying, before dying quietly, in the middle of the night, when no one was around.
But he’d done his grieving, processed his feelings, put it all behind him. He’d known what to do, after all. (Spilling himself verbally and with tears; off-loading to Sharon, while trying to hold mom together at the same time.)
Three months after tossing the last bit of dirt on his dad’s grave with his own hands, Mark had realised he’d put it all behind him. (Well within the stipulated normal grief time parameters: he’d been proud of that, until Sharon had punctured it by leaving without explanation.)
The old man in the lounge bent over and pulled a page from one of the ward Bibles. It looked like he was going to roll a cigarette with it. Despite himself, Mark smiled—certainly not dad, then.
“Dr. Bezuidenhout?” Dumisane was standing up straight, peering at him with obvious bewilderment.
“Um,” he said, “Kolile can go home for the weekend, but will need to be visited tomorrow by the community team, to get collateral information from his mother.”
“The community team’s off this weekend—I can go, I’m on duty and Sister and the others can cover me,” Dumisane smiled.
“Really?” The sister glowered at him and then laughed. “So he’s safe to go out?”
Mark paused, looking at the Sister, short and smiling, but knowing she was also pure steel underneath.
“He thinks his ancestors are calling him.”
“Oh,” she rolled her eyes. “Another ukuthwasa then. Bloody government’s to blame I tell you. They still haven’t created enough real jobs.”
He chuckled to himself as he picked up a pen. It was fine for her to say that!
He hesitated and then, for the first time in a long time, Mark changed his file notes using stale, scratchy white correction fluid, countersigning the change as the traffic grew rapidly louder along the road outside Valkenberg hospital.
He smelt burning and looked up in alarm. The old black man was smoking the Bible.
* * *
Mark woke with the sense of someone watching him.
Without even opening his eyes, he knew who it was.
“Hi, dad.” On opening his eyes, he was unsurprised to find his room empty. His dad had been dead three years, after all.
Mark rolled over, groaning, stiff from a late evening”s bodysurf at Muizenberg. As it had for many months now, the bed felt too big for him.
It was a bright and sunny master bedroom, looking out on a small but neat Rondebosch garden, orange bougainvillea framing razor wire and a hyperactive alarm. It was all somewhat on the dull side in long Cape winters, though. As for the children’s bedroom—well, that never happened, did it?
He walked stiffly through to the bathroom and splashed his face with clear and cold water.
Water always does the trick.
A pale and wrinkled face stared blankly back at him, gray hair hung lankly down alongside his cheeks. Shocked, he took several paces backed, slipped and banged his head against the towel railing. No stars, just a burning red blur in front of his eyes.
And an expressionless dead face.
It was his father’s face, not his.
Mark reeled backwards, averting his eyes.
God, it was as if dad had died without feeling, without thoughts, a pale husk of a once strong and fierce—but funny—man. It was early morning when we’d last seen him, but for moments he’d failed to recognise it was him, so shrunken and waxen he was.
Mark sat on the bathroom mat, its crinkly blue plastic fur tickling his naked thighs—but he couldn’t give a shit about that, quietly crying until thoughts came again.
Including one terrifying and growing thought.
He resisted it at first, hiding it away behind deliberate thoughts of beach or shopping, moving in safe and familiar spaces.
But there was no hiding from it—it kept popping back into his head.
He sighed. He knew he had a phone-call to make. He knew he had somewhere to go.
Mark stood up and faced the mirror. His own tired face looked out at him. He washed his face, shaved and dressed carefully and respectfully in white collared shirt and grey slacks. The house was too quiet, too empty—and the face in the mirror looked even emptier still, although he was just relieved it was his face.
Pulling his mobile from his trouser pocket, he speed dialed the ward.
“Staff Nurse Dumisane? Doctor Bezuidenhout here. I think I should come with you to visit that patient this morning. Ja, I’m ready—half an hour, hey. See you outside my house, you’ve got my address, ja nee?”
The street was quiet, still early on a Saturday morning in a cul de sac set back from the Main Road. The trees were in full bloom but starting to sway from the gathering South-Easter.
Mark jingled some coins in his pocket, deciding to text his sister in Jo’burg as a distraction.
He was going someplace he’d never been before; a place he’d always managed to avoid.
A black township.
The white Government Garage car arrived, an old Fiat, Staff Nurse Dumisane waving cheerfully from the rolled down driver’s window,
Mark got in, feeling even more anxious.
As they pulled off and headed down past Rondebosch station and across the wasteland of the Common, he felt his pulse start to race.
“So,” he said, “where are we going, again?”
Dumisane glanced at him sideways and then focused on the road, swerving to avoid a taxi pulling out suddenly.
“Gugs, been there before, Doctor?”
Ah, Gugulethu, not the worst thankfully, but no doubt bad enough, with very few—if any—white mense there.
Mark shook his head coolly. “”No, can’t say I have, Dumisane—any tips?”
The staff nurse gave a big laugh as he swung past a bus and the streets started to fill up, heading steadily away from the Mountain. “Stick close to me, doctor, and you’ll be fine.”
Houses had given way to wide and dingy council flats surrounding dirt yards, bright washing swinging from lines hanging out of windows or in courtyards.
The men on the street looked rougher and tougher and downright dangerous.
Dumisane pulled to a halt alongside a small brick terraced house, brightly painted in blue, with a small but neat path.
Mark raised his eyebrows discreetly. He’d expected more overt poverty, more visible desperation.
“We don’t all live in corrugated iron shacks, you know,” Dumisane said shortly, getting out of the car.
Mark felt a pang of shame; Dumisane was a damn good nurse and obviously a sharp reader of people. He still couldn’t stop himself looking carefully around, before opening the door and stepping outside to join Dumisane.
The staff nurse was already by the door, chatting in swift isiXhosa with a smiling middle-aged woman in a neat red dress and headscarf. He beckoned Mark over.
“This is Xolile’s psychologist,” he said. “Doctor Bezuidenout, this is Mrs. Ngubane.”
The woman gave a little nod as she took his hand with both of hers. “Please come in,” she said. “Would you like some tea?”
Mark smiled, wondering if the English resonance was intended for him. She led the way inside, into a small but neat kitchen with dining area. Mark noted the door through to the other rooms—or room—was firmly closed.
Mrs. Ngubane lit a gas cooker underneath a battered but ready silver kettle. She turned to Mark: “Five Roses or rooibos, Doctor?”
“Uh, rooibos please, Mrs. Ngubane.”
Dumisane was obviously a Five Roses man. She gestured them both to sit on stools arranged tightly around a small wooden table.
Mark turned as the door creaked behind him.
Xolile stood, the room behind him darkened, but he looked cheerful and neatly dressed.
“Hello, doctor, staff nurse,” he said breezily, stepping inside and closing the door behind him. He leaned back against the door and folded his arms.
Mark sat and drank his hot tea, looking at family pictures arrayed on the wall, while the conversation drifted awkwardly around Xolile’s interrupted studies. He’d been a physiotherapy student at UWC before he’d been picked up by a police patrol, wandering and confused, in the dunes near Monwabisi.
Mrs. Ngubane looked cross, reminiscing on the events, “You sure it’s not dagga, my boy?”
“No, mamma!” he said. His arms dangled by his sides, as she had already reprimanded him for the rudeness of folded arms, following up with a warning against hands in pockets.
There was a man in some of the photos, but only in those with a younger pre-adolescent Xolile.
Mark signaled to Dumisane. Dumisane would be able to get much better information from the mother if both were unburdened from the demands of English.
Mark put his empty mug down and stood up. “Is there a space we can talk in private, Kolile?” (Always, he struggled with the correct pronunciation.)
The young man stood up squarely, a good few inches taller than Mark. “Sure, doctor, the street.”
“The street?” Mark heard his voice almost crack with a sudden surge of panic. “Why the street?”
“A bedroom is too private,” he said. “The street is better.”
Mark wondered whether Xolile had guessed he was anxious there—and even more so at the thought of walking and talking in a township street. He seemed brighter and more lucid today—perhaps indeed it was a reactive psychosis—just maybe drug induced?
He followed the young man through the doorway, down the path and onto the pavement. A few men and women stalked past, turning to stare briefly at him.
Xolile smiled. “You’ll be fine,” he said. “Everyone knows me.”
So, for some minutes, they walked and talked, Mark probing about his past and recent present, looking for cues and clues as to the onset of his confusional state. His father had left suddenly when he was ten; they had no idea where or why. Prior to his admission, all he could remember was a gathering glow inside and his dead grandmother whispering in his ears, telling him he needed to become an isangoma, to heal his people.
Mark stopped. Xolile had turned into a main street, littered with spaza shops and large shipping containers filled with people doing business. There was a particularly appealing cell-phone company obviously doing great business inside a grey metal container jutting some way into the road, people spilling out into the road and pavement, taxis hooting past. Mark was relieved to notice that few seemed to look at him anymore.
Xolile gestured him onwards. Mark hesitated. He wanted to ask Xolile something for his own benefit, rather than Xolile’s. Ethically, such role reversals were generally frowned upon. There was something slightly freeing about being on strange streets, however, so he took a deep breath.
“My father,” he said, “is gone like yours, but dead. You saw him at the hospital and I’ve seen him since. What must I do?”
Xolile stopped. Mark noted he sighed slightly before speaking. “I saw an old man, who I guessed might be your father. Beyond that, I cannot help you at all, doctor.”
“But don’t your beliefs involve contacting the ancestors?”
Xolile looked straight at him and Mark could see amusement and something else etched on his face.
“My beliefs, not yours, doctor. Even then, I’m not sure of them myself. Look!” He turned to gesture at a shop behind them.
The shop had an open hanging canopy, dangling with jars filled with… strange looking shapes in syrup or brownish liquid, organs perhaps—or animal parts?
“Would you consult here? Would you take those things if prescribed, to help you contact your father?”
Mark spotted a placard outside. It was a doctor’s surgery, but not one that he recognised.
It looked as though Xolile had only just started. “Would you sacrifice a chicken—or a goat? Doctor, there are no shortcuts; you cannot pick and choose our beliefs, like a vulture that is fussy for only the best meat. You must swallow all the bones, too.”
The young man looked down, as if suddenly ashamed of his outburst.
Mark looked down too, embarrassed at asking, wishing he could retract his thoughts and words.
There was a muffled ringing noise. Xolile fumbled a cell-phone out of his pocket. “Nomfundo!” he shouted, turning away and breaking into rapid isiXhosa.
Ah, a girl!
Mark looked up as his father walked past.
For frozen seconds, he watched the stooped and familiar gait down the busy street, dad’s slight right-sided shuffle after an earlier warning from a left-sided stroke.
Then he ran, until he was alongside and in front of him.
It was an old man indeed, but with a craggy black face and silver pepper-corned hair, neatly dressed, as if off to a Saturday Church. The man looked at him uncertainly. “Police?” he asked, “or tourist?”
Mark raised both hands, ducking his head in apology as well.
He made his way back to Xolile slowly. He was still busy on his phone, talking excitedly and looking at the ground.
Mark looked around to track the smell of burning meat. A man and a woman were braaing a sheep’s head over a hollowed metal barrel. A few other people were gathering round, bringing drinks, perhaps from a local shebeen.
He felt exposed, isolated.
Xolile finished his call. “Sorry, doctor.”
Mark held his hand up. “Never mind,” he said. “I don’t suppose you saw me running after anyone just now?”
Xolile gave him a puzzled look.
Mark gave a wry smile. “No matter, perhaps it was all in my head.”
Xolile shook his head firmly. “No wonder you umlungu have such big heads,” he said. “You try and fit everything into it.”
Despite himself, Mark laughed. As he laughed, it suddenly dawned on him that just maybe he would never stop missing his father.
He no longer felt so certain of anything and everything, either.
They turned to watch people gather for food. “You fancy some, doctor?”
Mark laughed again: “Just a little taste.”
It was nice to be invited.
There were indeed new things to see—and new things to do.
Africa in Science Fiction
By Nick Wood
Late November, ‘Africa Si-FI’ season featured visual images by Kofi Allen flickering across the large screen in the Queen Elizabeth Hall forum on London’s South Bank: http://kamarazikofiallen.weebly.com/ Stylish, futuristic images, with (black) men and women in exotic clothes that alternatively shroud – or shine with shocking power – sometimes even encasing in bulky suits, seemingly designed to protect against a hostile environment or unseen alien threats. These were just some of the images heralding the beginning of a ‘Literature and the Spoken Word’ session on ‘Africa in Science Fiction.’
More pictures scrolled across the screen later, additional to the work of Allen, generally marked out by colourful artwork. These images also included posters for a film such as ‘Robots of Brixton’, as well as paintings and sketches juxtaposing ancient (‘tribal’) scenes sprouting into futuristic ones; shaman alongside spaceships: http://www.voice-online.co.uk/article/science-fiction-comes-africa
Then came the call to enter the nearby Purcell Room for the main event – revealing a panel of three, hosted by Toyin Agbetu, who enthusiastically engaged the two African SF writers present. These were the Gambian born Biram Mboob (who has a story in Afro SF, the science fiction anthology by African writers) as well as Tosin Coker, who identifies as one of the first black British women SF authors: http://tosincoker.com/
An opening gambit to the panel was the question purportedly posed to Octavia Butler about what good is SF to African people. (She was reported to reply: ‘What good is anything to African people?’) The panelists reflected on the importance of the genre to raising awareness and considering alternative future possibilities from the present; the possibility of changing futures by being aware of shaping pasts and current trends.
When asked about what had drawn them into SF, Biram Mboob stated that the pervading Afro-pessimism around the Millenium – particularly The Economists’s report on ‘The Hopeless Continent’ – inspired him to engage with western canons of science fiction (SF), with a view to writing subversive African versions. Furthermore, he found the ‘moral heart’ of SF appealing; asking the audience a rhetorical question – should we free or torture androids that become too human? Tosin Coker felt that SF had ‘chosen me’ and had been inspired (although initially daunted) by the writings of Octavia Butler. She was approached by the independent black film director Menelik Shabazz, who said to her ‘Black people don’t see ourselves in the future, so we don’t write ourselves into it.’
The panel discussed the crucial difference between science fiction about African futures and science fiction set in Africa, where the Continent acts as an exotic prop. Both panelists agreed they sought and brought African realities with SF, not SF with ‘black people in it.’ Biram read a work in progress, a novella focused on the development of a Cape to Cairo super-road shredding the Continent, his chosen scene focused on the Ngorongoro crater in Kenya (another country where he has lived.) Tosin’s reading focused on her book ‘The Mouth of Babes’, integrating African spirituality with engaging characters facing life lessons. As Tosin summarised, she also writes to ‘see herself’, as there are not enough ‘mirrors’ of black experience.
Finally, questions were solicited from a responsive audience. Asked about writing to entertain or teach, Biram said he felt it was fine ‘just to entertain’, as implicit in this was taking ownership of black representation – characters who would be more than just sidekicks or villains. He said he would like to ‘saturate space with ourselves, but not with stuff psychologically damaging to black experience.’ He went on to say that many people in Gambia live very richly in the present, but this is not to say they don’t think about the future. Tosin reiterated the message that ‘we don’t write ourselves into the future as if we are actually going to be there.’
When asked if anything was ‘off topic’ to them as SF writers, Biram said that although not off topic, the persecutory treatment of homosexuality in countries such as Uganda and Jamaica made him very angry. He disagreed that this negative attitude was an intrinsic part of African culture, but admitted it was ‘Tough to tackle, though.’ Tosin said she had dealt with taboo subjects and did not believe in censoring herself, but may hold back on anything that might directly hurt her family.
Kofi Allen – the artist mentioned at the beginning of this piece – commented from the floor that through ‘your words and my vision, our images and words’, black and African science fiction would eventually flourish. (The second half of the show was to address African SF in films, such as ‘Pumzi’ and the pending ‘Who Fears Death’ and ‘Zoo City.’)
This was an interesting and worthwhile event then; which, following as it does the Bristol based Arnolfini exhibit ‘Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction’, indicates a growing interest in the steady burgeoning of African approaches to standard SF tropes and ideas. http://www.arnolfini.org.uk/whatson/exhibitions/details/1300 I was unable to view this exhibit, but there have been several intriguing commentaries, notably Cheryl Morgan’s blog: http://www.cheryl-morgan.com/?p=13820 as well as ‘Africa Is A Country': http://africasacountry.com/2012/05/10/africa-in-science-fiction/
Finally, as ‘Bookshy’ reports in her recent review of Afro SF, although this development may perhaps be somewhat patchy Continent wide, i.e. focused mainly in Nigeria (leading light Nnedi Okorafor) and South Africa (leading light Lauren Beukes), it is not limited to these countries. http://bookshybooks.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/book-review-afrosf-science-fiction-by_23.html The Afro SF anthology additionally publishes stories by authors from Zimbabwe, Gambia and Kenya. The Apex Book of World SF 2 (2012) publishes Malawian author Daliso Chaponda’s ‘Tree of Bone’ and Zimbabwean Afro SF editor Ivor Hartmann’s story ‘Mr. Goop.’ Last year, the ‘Future Lovecraft’ (2011) anthology published Malawian writer Luso Mnthali’s story ‘People are Reading What You Are Writing.’
So, it seems, the (diverse) African giant awakes – not just economically – but to the possibilities inherent in SF. Africa steadily appears to becoming a more ‘Hopeful Continent’ – despite ongoing difficulties, including neo-colonialism – its eyes opening to staking an ownership in its own future, finally writing itself there. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/series/new-africa To African SF then, onwards and upwards!
Nick Wood was born and lived in Zambia and South Africa for 35 years before stints in Aotearoa New Zealand and now currently England. He wrote YA sf/fantasy novel called ‘The Stone Chameleon’ published in South Africa in 2004, as well as a batch of short stories published over the years.
2011 – A Year South African Speculative Fiction Gathers Momentum
By Sarah Lotz, Nick Wood and Tanya Barben
2011 has been a bursting year for South African speculative fiction, as it gathers further pace and push from the heralding, punchy impact of Lauren Beukes‘s first two novels. (2011 being split almost mid-year by the Arthur C.Clarke Award being presented to Lauren’s Zoo City.) Either side of this seminal event for South African speculative fiction lies various SF/F/H publishing successes for a growing number of local South African authors.
Nerine Dorman is doing great work in the indie horror world. She has published The Namaqualand Book of the Dead (Lyrical press) and is the editor of the annual Bloody Parchment Anthology. She also collaborates with Carrie Clevenger on a humorous paranormal/vampiric romance series (the first one is called Just my Blood Type). The Pornokitsch.com publishers – Anne Perry and Jared Shurin – launched Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse, with excellent stories in it from a host of SA writers (Sam Wilson, Lauren Beukes, Charlie Human and SL Grey).
The Irish SF magazine Albedo One (Issue 40), published Nick Wood’s alternative history story Bridges, set in a contemporary South Africa where apartheid has survived. Nick also presented an overview of South African speculative fiction at the University of Riverside, California, with one attendee in the audience being the Jamaican-Canadian author and GOH Nalo Hopkinson (who now holds a professorial post at the University.)
South Africa’s spec-fic magazine, Something Wicked, is still going strong as an e-version (it’s bringing out an anthology of the best of 2011 soon): http://www.somethingwicked.co.za/
Although a Malawian writer in origin, Luso Mnthali is currently a South African resident and her story People are Reading What You Are Writing was a clever story within the Moreno-Garcia and Stiles anthology (2011) Future Lovecraft. The anthology’s stories were bound by the engaging conceit of ‘Lovecraftian’ tales set in the future. Again, although not South African, Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor posted a fascinating series of blogs about Lovecraft, after winning the World Fantasy Award for her novel Who Fears Death:
Diane Awerbuck’s highly-lauded short story collection, Cabin Fever, includes a wonderfully creepy and psychologically disturbing story featuring the Mami Wata – when Diane tackles spec fiction, she does it superbly. Additionally, although not strictly horror/spec, Louis Greenberg wrote of Henrietta Rose-Innes’s Nineveh:
“Henrietta Rose-Innes, the Caine Prize-winning author of ‘Poison’, a story about a post-apocalyptic Cape Town, released her third novel, Nineveh, this year. Nineveh is what you might call subtle-spec, an ostensibly literary novel that gets weird when a plague of bugs takes over a hubristic new housing development south of Cape Town. In all her work, Rose-Innes is preoccupied with archaeology: digging away layers of history and meaning, and set squarely in contemporary South Africa and Cape Town where reality is often too bizarre and frightening to fictionalise, it is inevitable that strange things emerge from her imaginative excavations.”
Furthermore, Andrew Salomon was short-listed for the Terry Pratchett Prize for his novel Lun, which explored a variety of themes, including the smart and funny notion of a ‘sanctuary for tokoloshes’. Tom Learmont’s Light Across Time (Kwela Books) explored a novel evolutionary idea for extraterrestrials, back-dropped amongst a heady mix of zany theories and meticulously researched historical events.
Ken Sibanda’s The Return to Gibraltar was a welcome and enterprising SF debut by a black South African author – although he is now American too (Proteus Books). The novel involves an African American protagonist time-traveling to 1491 to help the Spanish Moors resist the Christian ‘reconquista’.
SL Grey’s The Mall (Corvus UK) was a dark and at times savage exploration of the life underneath (or parallel to, or even within) shopping malls, as experienced by a young white man and black woman, thrown unwillingly together by who knows whom – or what…
And, speaking of SL Grey, 2012 brings yet further exciting developments with the publication of The Ward, Grey’s second urban horror novel.
A ‘relative’ of SL Grey, Lily Herne, will follow up 2010’s wonderful YA zombie-SF novel Deadlands, with its sequel, Death of a Saint.
Also making an appearance in February 2012, Cat Hellison’s internationally published When the Sea is Rising Red. Although categorized as YA fiction, it’s undoubtedly a crossover novel, and its political undertones and cliché-smashing heroine have already been much praised by reviewers.
And, against this growing and exciting brew of South African spec-fic writers, Lauren Beukes has secured a spectacular hat-trick of book deals for her next novel, The Shining Girls (due out in 2013 from Random House Umuzi, Mulholland US, HarperCollins UK and Australia; various foreign rights have also been snapped up). As well as penning and producing documentaries and film scripts (including the screenplay for the forthcoming adaptation of Zoo City) she’s currently working on six issues of Fairest, a spin-off of Bill Willingham’s Fables comic series. It’s due in October 2012 and features a dark take on Rapunzel’s legend, set in modern-day and ancient fairytale Japan with yokai, yurei and yakuza.
2012 will also include the imminent anthology The Apex Book of World SF 2, with stories by Lauren Beukes and Ivor Hartmann amongst many others. You can see the TOC at Lavie Tidhar’s site: http://lavietidhar.wordpress.com/books/the-apex-book-of-world-sf-2/
Speaking of Hartmann, he plans to launch an African SF e-Anthology; there’s still time to submit, so get writing and go here: http://blogs.african-writing.com/ivor/2012/02/25/call-for-submissions-a-new-scifi-anthology-afrosf/
Roll on 2012, for the next thrilling wave of South African speculative fiction…
Nick Wood in conversation with South African author Tom Learmont.
Interview with Tom Learmont – 14th November 2011; in a nondescript pub, Mill Hill, London, by Nick Wood
I picked Tom Learmont up from Finchley Central tube station in North London and we made our way to a nearby pub for a conversation. Tom asked if this was my ‘local’ and I professed to not yet culturally assimilating into Britain, even after 13 years — the pub had been chosen purely for convenience’s sake — and was empty, bar a couple of people and a pile of discarded bottles! It must have seemed like a far-cry indeed from the reported vibrancy of his more familiar drinking space, the Radium Beer Hall in Johannesburg: http://www.theradium.co.za/
In good spirit though, Tom did not let the dullness of our surroundings phase him and we passed the time in lively conversation, while he nursed a pint of the local bitter. Tom spoke initially of the immediate inspiration for Light Across Time — he’d been gripped by Philip Jose Farmer’s book Tarzan Alive, which uses a biographical and scientific approach to transfer the legend of Tarzan into the realm of apparent credibility. Tom himself had a freewheeling range of ideas linking evolution and the geology of ‘weird events’ — such as strange lights and reported alien visitations — into a scientific narrative, providing the dramatic backdrop for a love story.
Woven into the narrative of Tom’s book Light Across Time are several detailed and seemingly first person accounts of historical locations — the first being Calais in the 1530s. I asked him how he had researched the accounts, as the level of close detail did indeed suggest first hand experience. He reported having bought a book concerning the ‘Lyell papers’, a first hand account of the times by Lord Lyell, for ten rand (less than a UK pound, little more than a US dollar) from Pick ‘n Pay (a South African super-market chain.)
Tom then went on to recount how the major scenes in the book had been written while on location, to try to ensure a more detailed sense of veracity, at such places as the Cradle of Humankind at Maropeng in South Africa. Some of the events were also based on ‘real’ experiences — Tom expressed some disdain for enforced novel writing blitzes inherent in such approaches as NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), as he is concerned these may end up with lots of words, but words somewhat decoupled from their underpinning experiences.
When asked about writing influences, Tom indicated Nabokov was a revered figure — so much so, that he was put beyond emulation — and a Nabokovian work forms a reference point in his book Light Across Time. Other listed SF/F influences are James Blish, Brian Aldiss, Theodore Sturgeon, Walter M. Miller and Barrington J. Bayley. More recent writers of influence cited were Adam Roberts, M. John Harrison, John Courtenay Grimwood, and Iain M. Banks. Echoing that last writer, there is a hint of Scottish brogue in Tom’s Southern African accent — a journalist by trade, he was educated in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and Scotland.
Tom has written one earlier book — composed back during the days of Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Britain, under Ian Smith’s white government — which is entitled After the Eclipse. The book was published by Discobolus under Tom’s pseudonymous surname Rymour, perhaps an echo of one his literary personas, Thomas the Rhymer, whom he calls a ‘putative ancestor’. After the Eclipse won the Sanlam Literary Prize in South Africa in 1998 and is a satire, inverting not only race but behaviour and custom, in a ‘futuristic’ Zimbabwe/Rhodesia, as told through a ‘spirit medium’ — Tom himself described the book as an (African) ‘Swiftian cacotopia’.
He thought the book’s initial success promised a career launch into fiction writing and became somewhat disillusioned when this did not materialize, but realized he would need to persevere — and so he has, with the publication of Light Across Time by Kwela Books in South Africa this year (2011). The book has met with polarized responses — Tom interprets this as indicative it is on the ‘cutting edge.’ (One of his admirers is the South African novelist and poet Christopher Hope.)
When asked about African perspectives in science and speculative fiction, he said Africa has a rich tradition of the fantastic and he has no doubt more rich fantasy work — ‘whether you call it fantasy or magical realism’ — will emerge from Africa, to accompany such works as Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City.
Currently Tom is living and working in Johannesburg and has written a set of interconnected short stories with different voices, spanning time but linked in theme, which he is calling ‘Radium Tales’ — all of them resonating from his beloved Radium Beer Hall in Jozi/Joburg. (More details can be found on his website: http://tomlearmont.com/ )
When I dropped Tom back at the Finchley Central tube, against a dreary and early darkening sky, I thought of how much he probably longed for the warmth, colour and vibrancy of his own ‘local’. I wait to see what rich tales will emerge from what he calls ‘the navel of Africa’.
This week’s story, opening our 2011 line-up, is “Thirstlands” by South African author Nick Wood. We apologise for the erroneous posting earlier of another story.
By Nick Wood
One thing I knew for sure; the rains were late here too.
I scanned the ridge of grey rock towering off to my left – there was no vast, unified surge of water pouring over the edge as I remembered only five years ago – just sparse, thin water curtains dropping from the escarpment into the sludgy green river over a hundred metres below me. Gone was the towering spray of vapour above, no water-cloud sweeping overhead. Deep in the wooded Batoko Gorge, the sluggish river struggled on through the trees. Good old Queen Vic – although she was long dust, her namesake waterfall here in Zambia was drying quickly too – this was no longer ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya’ either, no ‘Smoke-That-Thunders’.
‘Record,’ I said reluctantly, closing my right eye simultaneously to activate my neural cam. Du Preez is going to hate this.
A black-uniformed guard with an AK strapped across his shoulder stood nearby, clicking on his digital palm-slate. The payment request bleeped in my cochlea; with a muttered command, I sent the amount in Chinese yuan from the Office account in my head.
No, Du Preez is going to go absolutely mad, absolutely bedonered about this.
The guard moved on, accosting a young black man with an antiquated mobile phone cam. There were only five other people circling the viewing platform; none jostling for a view. I licked my lips, ever thirsty as usual.
<Is that all it is now? What a fokkin’ waste of time and money!>
Hell, I had no idea the Boss had joined me, watching through my eyes like a mind-parasite, tickling my cochlea with his electronic croak.
So I closed my eyes. In the reddish darkness of my interior eyelids I could make out a green light flicking on the right, virtually projected by Cyril ‘the Rig’s’ neural cybernetics. The Office was online, the bloody Boss in.
But there was still only a dull red glow behind my left eye-lid. Where are you, Lizette? What are you doing right now…and are you okay? You must know I hate having to leave you; but I’ve got to pay the bills, especially the damn water.
<So what happened about the fokkin’ rain forecast and the Vic` Falls deluge that we flew you out for?>
“Blown away, I think, gone.”
I spat the words out with resentment, each one drying my mouth further. Eyes closed, a faint tingle of water from the ‘Falls sprayed onto my cheeks – a tantalising tickle onto my dry protruding tongue. I pulled my tongue in before the sun could burn it into biltong steak. The water from my hip-flask sizzled sweetly for a brief moment as I swigged greedily, but then the ever-present tongue-throat ache was back.
Always thirsty, I took a final frustrated gulp and opened my eyes. I stretched my arms and fingers across the wooden railings of the viewing platform, but I couldn’t feel any more faint spray. The sky was becoming darker blue – still clear, the bloating red sun dropping onto the horizon.
No, there was no ‘smoke that thunders’, no constantly roiling crash of water anymore – all that’s left is an anaemic spattering of water, me, and a few other tourists scanning the ridge for a riverine surge that would never come.
Beyond, the surrounding green GM bio-fuel fields stretch to the horizon, leeching the river. Over the horizon, in slums on the outskirts of Livingstone, I’d heard there were crowds of desperate thirsty, probably starving, people gathering to watch their food shipped overseas as bio-fuels for SUVs and military tanks. I had taken the long way round to avoid the sight, so I don’t know if that’s the case for sure – or if it’s yet another web-myth. I’m not sure if even Cyril could tell me; I’d heard FuelCorps had censored the overhead sats. Anyway, there’s no market for video clips of that sort of thing anymore, not even from the last of the official news agencies.
<Hell man, I’m off to ask Bongani how we can jack up your visuals on your clips to see if we can get any of our online Avatar subscribers to pay for them. Not even our Chinese Stanley will want to meet Livingstone with the crappy shots you got there. Du Preez out.>
Ach ja, shit, and the Boss too, of course. I winced at the sharpness of his tone in my ear. I had no energy to reply – he never waits for one anyhow – and swigged another guilty sip.
There was a bleep in my cochlea – a wifi neural kit was requesting contact. I ignored it; it wasn’t Lizette.
“Hey – have you got the latest C-20 model?”
I looked at a man in the khaki Smart safari-suit, skin reddened by the sun, despite the generous smears of what looked like factor 100 white sun-block. His accent was vaguely Pan-European, the wispy greying hair underneath his dripping pith helmet disguising its original colour. He grinned at me and tapped his head. I’ve had the latest C-20 model inserted, no need for vocal commands, it’s all thought operated.”
“Mine’s an old C-12 model,” I said, scanning past him, along the escarpment and eastwards to the vast maize fields below, which looked as if they were encircling and attacking the shrinking strip of green riverine bush and trees. Perhaps I’d edit the clip later; momentarily too embarrassed to audibly cut my shoot.
The man went on talking, breathing hot meat and beer onto me and I wondered briefly whether he’d heroically Safari-Shot drugged game before eating it: “My Rig’s compatible with the latest web-designs from China and is wired into the optic nerve for six-factor zoom capability.”
“That’s good to hear, I’m afraid mine just does a job.”
It was then that I saw them, scattered on the edge of the trees, as if they’d died seeking cover from encroaching razor-wire. I knew the Boss would kill me, but I had to keep filming – it was the biggest elephant graveyard I’d ever seen and it had been months since anyone had last seen an elephant. Huge piles of bones, like stranded and stripped hull-wrecks of ships, some of them arching their white curves in neatly laid out patches – as if their death had been calm, deliberate and careful to acknowledge an individual, elephantine space for dying.
Jan du Preez may only want Live Game – me, I take what I can get.
The man turned to follow my gaze and grumbled with disappointment: “Bugger – just bloody bones, I thought you’d seen some real wildlife for a change. Did you know the C-20 also has full amygdala-hippocampal wiring that allows synchronous ninety three percent recall of emotion?”
“Really?” I looked back at him. For the past few years it felt as if my own feelings were desiccating; the barest husks of what they had been – what must it be like to pull out old video clips saturated with the original feelings, rich and raw with young emotional blood? It’s been over two decades since Lizette and I had watched hand-held video-clips of us and baby Mark, now three years gone to an accountancy career in Oz. Three years on from the hijacking that left him without a car outside our gates, but crying with gratitude he was alive, physically unharmed. Three years since I’ve been too scared to walk outside the house but weirdly okay to travel to so many other places. It’s been only two years though, since Du Preez contributed to the Rig in my head – to ‘Cyril’, who has helped to sharpen and hold my most recent memories.
Still, I’ve been thirsty ever since. I’m sure they buggered up my thirst centre at the same time they did the Rig neurosurgery – but the insurance disclaimers had been twelve pages long, the surgeons in denial.
The man opened his mouth again; sweat dripped off the end of his nose, as if his Smart Suit struggled to adequately regulate his temperature. I couldn’t resist a brief smile at the sight, but turned away, not wishing to say goodbye. Maybe old feelings should be left alone after all, left to dry and wither like fallen leaves.
“Command – cut!” I muttered.
So his Rig was better (bigger) than mine…big bloody deal. He’s not an African, just an effete tourist in a harsh land his skin can’t deal with, filtering it through his foreign money, fancy implants and clever clothes.
Red blinked behind both my eyelids when I shut my eyes, so I let Cyril randomly cycle a babble of blogs over me as I headed back to the car-park, the public toilet, and the chilly airport hotel, before the early morning flight home.
Home… and Liz.
The last kay home is always the longest, so I tried to coax more speed out of the car’s electrics. The time, though, seemed to drag on for an eternity, inching past corrugated iron shacks. There were people milling on the right of the road on the approach into Dingane Stad – mainly men, concentrated near a bridge overpass, no doubt jostling in hope to be picked up by passing bakkies or trucks for a desperate day’s work.
One old man near the road held out pale palms to me – but I’ve always avoided paternalistic gifts and dependency; this is Africa. I kept my windshields up, my doors locked.
The fields on the hill were brittle brown and eaten to dust by scraggly herds of cattle, watched by boys with sticks in hands, with shoulder-strapped and cocked Chinese P.L.A. T-74’s, that looked in danger of blowing off their legs.
No, still definitely no rains here either – shit man, we’re lucky we have our secret back-up, Lizette; a hedge against the soaring costs of privatised water
My eyes blinked heavily with the alternating early morning sunlight and the spidery-web shadows of overhead pirate cables snaking down from Council Electric grids and pylons into the shacks along the roadside. The cables will be cut by officials come sunset tonight and will have sprung-back magically by tomorrow morning. Crazy, man, absolutely bedonered, holding an impoverished community to electric ransom, when there’s so much sun for free.
My car was on auto as it turned into the long and bumpy drive past neighbouring sugar-cane fields up to our small-holding, an old disused farmhouse we’d bought at a financial stretch called ‘Cope’s Folly’…in search of a ‘simpler’ semi-rural lifestyle. Hah.
I closed my eyes and sent yet another desperate message, almost a plea: <I’m home, Lizette.>
The red light under my left lid continued to ache for moments.
And then flickered green: <About bledy time, Mister Graham bledy Mason.>
Relief flooded me. So she’s still pissed off with me. That’s something, at least.
The black electrified gates swung open to the car’s emitted password.
Liz was waiting, arms crossed, gum-booted and dishevelled in loose and dirty clothes, glowering. There was a barrow of carrots next to her – a good looking bunch, so no doubt due to go to the neighbouring township Co-op, as she’s done ever since we moved here and she started growing food.
We pecked cheeks warily, eye contact tentative, and I’m awkward with a complex mix of feelings. Lizette’s a big-boned woman, dark of skin, with wild woolly hair that she shoves back with a red Alice-band. Her black hair was greying quickly now, which she almost flaunts with a twist of her band – her brown eyes are lovely, I gave her a furtive glance, even when she’s angry. But the anger seemed to have dimmed, she was almost…anxious?
It’s not like her to be fearful – she still drives herself alone into the township when I’m away, despite what I always tell her about the dangers. Nah, I must be wrong. She can’t be nervous, not Lizzie.
She wheeled the barrow off to pack the carrots away in the shed. I stepped inside and through to the hot sunken lounge, with its big AG (‘almost green’) Aircon against the far wall. My presence tripped the air-conditioner switch with a ‘click’; whirring on. The web-portal was tucked away discreetly in the corner as she’d insisted when I’d had it installed for her, but the controls were on red, as if constantly locked, unused. But she’d sent me that response just before I arrived – and a new decorative screen-saver spiralled, a fuzzy grainy floating picture, hard to make out as I walked through to the kitchen to make cheese sandwiches for us and to grab a drink of water.
She was waiting on the single chair when I came back and she took the plate with thanks, putting it on the side table, as if not hungry. I sat on the couch opposite. She looked at the floor. Oh no man, was this going to be another rehash of the argument we’d had before I’d left? ‘Why can’t you demand to stay on local assignments, you’ve never been able to stand up to Du Preez, blah, blah, blah…’
“It looks like the garden’s been productive despite the lack of rain,” I said, breaking the silence, but putting my cheese sandwich down, suddenly not hungry myself.
She looked up at me and smiled. “Yes, our solar well-pump has helped, although I’ve been careful not to let the well drop below three quarters.”
I smiled back, relieved to see her relax. “A bloody God-send that was, you calling in the surveyor – you’ve always had damn good intuition, Lizzie.”
She grimaced and stood up, pacing restlessly over to the web-portal. What the hell did I say? Must be the swear words – she hated me swearing, never gets used to it, keen Church-goer and all – ‘bledy’ was the worst of it from her and even that had only arrived these past few years.
Her dark eyes brimmed with tears when she turned to face me. She leaned against the thin computer screen and the floating screen-saver froze and sharpened beneath the touch of her fingers. It was a picture of a little barefooted black girl in a broken yellow grimy dress, looking up at the screen, face taut with pain… And it looked like it had been snapped from the CCTV on our outside gate.
“Her name’s Thandi,” Lizette said, “She came here yesterday morning after you left – her tongue was so thick she couldn’t drink. She was dying of thirst, Graham. Dying, man, vrek, out on her little feet, true’s God. I didn’t know things were this bad! She’s just seven years old, Graham, but I had to dribble the water down her throat; her tongue was almost choking her.”
“So you gave her tap water, or water from the fridge,” I said, standing up.
She shook her head: “Nee, Graham, I gave her water from our emergency supply and called the village Traditional Leader to tell him about it and to find her mom – there are others like her, just down the bledy road, man. So I told T.L. Dumisane and said we could spare them ongoing three-quarters of our well supply…”
“Ach shit man, Lizzie, you didn’t, did you – that’s ours! Why the hell didn’t you ask me first? You’ve had free access to my head for three years now. And why didn’t you return my calls or let me know you were okay at least?”
“It’s hardly free,” she snorted, “I can only hear what you choose to tell me – and what would you have done and said, Mister Graham Mason?” She stood up tall and focused, as if suddenly sure of herself.
I hesitated, but just for a moment: “I’d have given her water from the fridge and told you to keep quiet about the well – you know we have to keep this a secret for our own safety, otherwise we’ll be the target of every Water-Bandit and tsotsi in Kwazulu-Natal!”
“See, I knew you’d say that and I hate arguing when I can’t see your face. I knew calling you would end up in a fight – I’m sorry I ended up saying nothing and worrying you, but I had to make this decision on my own. Dumisane is a good man, hy sal niks se nie… and there’s no way I can live here with children dying just down the road…no ffff….” She clamped her mouth with her hand and took a breath before releasing it and finishing through clenched teeth: ‘No… way!”
Lizette never swears – and only reverts to Afrikaans when she’s absolutely distraught – she seemed to crumple slightly, clutching at herself, sobbing. The little yellow-dressed girl fuzzed over and spiralled randomly across the screen. Of course… she’d always wanted a little girl too.
My anger emptied into a desperate sense of helplessness. I hovered for moments and then stepped forward to coax her to turn towards the screen. I could send her comforting emoti-messages from LoveandPeace Dotcom that should help soothe and calm her.
Her eyes froze me though – her dark, lovely, lined but frighteningly fierce eyes. I knew then with some weird certainty that if I tried touching her, turning her towards the computer screen, she would scream, hit and kick me towards the outside door and gate. Beyond that, I could see that there was no returning in her eyes.
My arms hung in frigid confusion as tears streamed from her blazing eyes.
Shit, what else was there to do? I could only reach out to hold her, awkwardly wrapping my arms around her taut, trembling body.
Her arms were rigid, almost pushing at me for moments but then she seemed to suddenly let go and the sobs strangled in her throat; her hair was thick and tickly in my face; my own eyes stinging from a sudden bite of emotion. I could smell the coconut fragrance in her hair and remembered it had been her favourite shampoo when we’d first met almost thirty years ago. Hell man, it must be years since we’d last really held each other.
Since Mark had left.
“Come,” she said, pushing me away but then taking my hand in hers, my shirt sleeve wiping her wet face.
She pulled me forwards.
Oh…right…so she’s not taking me out to see how the veggie patch has grown.
Dear God, I’d almost forgotten how much of a woman she was.
And, in the end – despite my constant thirst – I wasn’t nearly as dry as I feared I might be, either.
I left her sleeping.
Face relaxed, serene, dark hair thickly splashed over an oversized yellow pillow, she lay on her back, a soft snore issuing from her nose. It hurt to watch her and I felt strangely guilty to stare – weird man, we’d been together so long – so I rolled over quietly and pulled on trousers and shirt, making my way through to the front door.
The door flickered and dallied while it de-armed, so I toyed with the idea of getting a drink of water from the kitchen… No, a dry mouth never killed anyone in the short term. I scanned the weapon rack behind the door, eventually inserting a taser-rod into my belt, before clicking the electric gate open in the outside wall.
The dry mid-afternoon heat carried little of the past summer humidity in the air. I breathed a set of ten deep breaths to quell my panic and then stepped with jellied legs through the gate, clicking it closed behind me.
As the gate clanged shut, I noted a red sports car parked beneath an ancient oak across the road, its driver in shadow. No time to re-open the gate – it would just expose the house and Lizzie. So I deactivated the fence charge, rammed the hand-panel deep into my trouser pocket and backed against the gate, hauling out the taser. Shit, I should have gone for the gun instead.
The car door opened and a young black woman stood up, her arms akimbo, hands empty – dressed in workmanlike blue overalls, duffle-bag strapped over her shoulders, hair cropped squarely close to her head: “Kunjani, Mister Mason, I’m here about your water.”
They certainly hadn’t wasted any time; things must be pretty desperate in the township.
“Ngiyaphila, unjani wena?” I replied, easing the taser into my belt.
“I am well too,” she smiled with a slight twist to her mouth; I wondered whether she toyed with the idea of testing my paltry isiZulu – but thankfully her next words were in English: “I’m Busisiwe Mchunu, a hydro-geologist for the FreeFlow Corporation. However, I reserve room for a little private freelance work in the services of my community; strictly off the record, you understand.”
“Oh,” I said, with an African handshake of palm, thumbs grip, palm again: “Graham Mason, pleased to meet you – and of course I understand.” Wow, strong grip.
“I’m here to survey the underground water on your land – of course, before the white man, all of this land was ours anyway.”
Oh,” I said, “Is that a…veiled threat?”
She chuckled: “Don’t be so paranoid, Mister Mason, we amaZulu don’t veil our threats. It’s just an historical observation. Your wife looks out for us, so we’ve looked out for you.”
“Hello!” Lizette leant against the inside of the gate, back in grubby track-pants and shirt. “Who’re you?”
“I’m Chief Dumisane’s water rep, Mizz Basson,” said Busisiwe, walking across: “Just call me Busisiwe.”
“Pleased to meet you, Busisiwe, I’m Lizette”. They shook hands through the gate.
Lizette smiled as I gave her the controls. She rattled off a fluent phrase of what sounded like welcoming isiZulu for Busisiwe, who responded with obvious delight. I could tell they’d probably get on like a shack on fire.
“I’m just going for a walk,” I told them.
Lizette looked surprised as the gate opened: “Be careful, Graham.”
Yes, I do remember this was the path on which Mark was robbed and stabbed in the face; I have replayed his scarred face so many times in my head. But I know I need to do this, if I can.
It’s a short walk, but every step felt heavy, my legs stiff in anticipation of someone leaping out at me from behind the tall stalks of sugar-cane densely spearing both sides of the foot-path. The path bent sharply to the right as it had when I’d last walked it with Lizette four years ago, dipping down into the valley with an expansive view of the city, skyscrapers strutting their stuff against the clear sky; no fires today.
There, beside the path, lay the cracked and uneven boulder Lizzie and I had rested on, after we’d agreed to buy the small holding. My bum warmed as I sat down, the disarmed taser-rod stabbing into the small of my back. Around the city lay blackened Midland hill-tops, informally marking the southern perimeter of the Umgeni Valley. Dingane Stad, ‘Sleepy Hollow’ as it had once been known, or Pietermaritzburg by the white Afrikaners.
‘Switch off.’ The Rig fell absolutely silent, no lights blinked inside my eyelids, just the red constant heat of the mid-morning sun filtering through my eyelid blood-vessels.
It’d been two years since I’d been absolutely alone. Two years since the implant and I’d last been quiet in my head, cut off from the electric pulse of the world. Here, there were no hovering voices, no Cyril, just my own solitary thoughts.
My shirt trickled with sweat and with my thumb I killed the black Matabele ant biting my shin. It gave off an acidic stink as it died and I stood up quickly, but there was no nearby swarm, no nest hiding under the rock.
This is a hard place to be, but all I know right now is that this is where I want to die… this is where I want to lay down my bones, just like the elephants. Why? I have no bloody idea. Maybe it’s to do with the light on the hills, or perhaps just the bite and smell of an ant. The thoughts circled my brain, trapped and private, no place to go.
Still, as I walked the path home, my steps felt somehow lighter, looser, but never quite tension free.
‘Switch on,’ I said, as if re-arming myself for the world.
<Hey, where the hell you been? You must upload your video-clips from Vic’ Falls for the day!>
That bastard Du Preez. I glanced at my watch, it was after four. <Work’s over, I’ll do it tomorrow.>
<You’ll do it now! Jeez man, I’ve heard of sleeping on the job, but you just took the bledy cake on that one earlier with your wife.>
Shit, I must have forgotten to switch off, swept up in the day’s events and he had just…watched?
<Did you?> I asked.
No answer, but he must know what I was asking. <Damn you, Du Preez, cut Office.>
I stopped to take several slow and deep breaths, thirsty as hell.
Around the last bend, Lizette and Busisiwe were standing in the shade by Busisiwe’s car and turned to me as I approached.
Lizette shook her head.
I looked at Busisiwe. “It’s a shallow fresh-water aquifer,” she said. “It’s also pretty small – I don’t think it will last long, unless we get more rainfall.”
Lizette looked at me.
This is Africa, I wanted to tell her, doing this may salve our conscience in the short term, but will solve nothing in the long term.
I could tell in her eyes she knew what I was thinking, even without the direct link with Cyril that I’d pressed her so long to get, in the hope that it might bring us closer. I could also see resignation and uncertainty – for us; and all we had tried to build – and, despite this morning, I could also see a fear of the end for us in her eyes.
I opened my mouth, knowing my next words could finish everything.
I turned to look at Busisiwe. “Okay,” I said, “We’ll help.”
“Ngiyabonga,” she said.
Lizette put her arm through mine. Skin on skin will do me.
I’ll take this moment. I couldn’t be sure how long it would last. All I knew for certain was that I wasn’t ready for some endings and that the rains were late. Bloody weird, but I’m not quite so thirsty anymore either. Long may this last too.
Thirstlands (c) 2009 Nick Wood. First Published in Subterfuge, ed. Ian Whates.
South African writer Nick Wood’s short story, “Lunar Voices (On the Solar Wind)”, which won Redstone Science Fiction’s Accessible Futures Contest, is now up on their site.
SF in SA 10 (December 2009)
With acknowledgement to prior publication in Locus Magazine, November 2009.
South African speculative fiction over the ages
In this overview of South African written science or speculative fiction (SF), I aim to give a socio-historical account of the progress of the genre, as the fiction produced over the decades cannot be fully understood without appreciating the context in which it emerges.
Fully two years before the first appearance of Amazing Stories and Hugo Gernsback’s notion of ‘scientifiction,’ a South African writer called Ferdinand Berthoud appeared in ‘Weird Tales v.3(1)’ (January 1924), with a story called ‘The Man who Banished Himself’. Berthoud was to have a number of stories in the pulps over the years, including a story perhaps more provocatively entitled – from a contemporary perspective – ‘A white man never steals: A novelette of the South African veldt.’ This is a fascinating if slightly disturbing read: the story’s plot and characters, both black and white, twist and turn, in order to keep the veracity of the title intact – perhaps with some underlying authorial irony, perhaps not. ‘Webbed Hands’, which appeared as a cover story in ‘Strange Tales’ issue of December 1931 is more firmly within the speculative fiction genre. This is part horror-story, but with an underlying pseudo-scientific premise that the ‘brown savage’ monster at the heart of the story who is committing murders in locations throughout Cape Town is the product of a ‘renegade English promoter’ and an unknown – perhaps ‘unnatural’ – mother from ‘the center of Africa’ (p.171). The central potential theme for this (white) South African speculative fiction appears to be a fear of both ‘racial miscegenation’ and possibly what lurks within ‘central Africa’ too. (To be fair to subtleties within Berthoud’s story, as well as the socio-historical context of his writing, perhaps the ‘real’ monster is the white manipulator who gets his ‘just desserts’ in the end.)
A year after the publication of ‘Webbed Hands’ (1932), the psychologist R.W. Wilcocks, investigating the ‘poor white problem’ in South Africa under the Carnegie Commission, called for ‘legislation which inflicts severe penalties on sexual intercourse between races.’ One of Wilcocks’ psychologist protégés, H.F. Verwoerd, obliged by becoming an architect in the National Party’s introduction of apartheid in 1948, thus introducing a raft of racist legislation, including the aptly named ‘Immorality Act’, which was aimed at ensuring ‘white racial purity’ (and dominance).
Science fiction in South Africa during the apartheid years was a relatively subdued arena, given the socio-political exigencies of the time. ‘Black’ writing was discouraged as a potential outlet for grievances and political action, with apartheid policies dividing educational resources to try and maintain a large skill divide between a deliberately less literate black ‘underclass’ and a more skilled white hegemony. Realist fiction was thus seen as more ‘relevant’ to exploring the issues of living in South Africa, with many (black) writers challenging the status quo having their works banned or censored, such as Can Themba and Lewis Nkosi – see Peter McDonald’s (2009) ‘The Literature Police’ for more details.
An English South African writer who published internationally during the sixties and seventies was Claude Nunes, who wrote ‘Inherit the Earth’ (1966); Recoil (1971) with his wife Rhoda and ‘The Sky Trapeze’ (1980), with thematic foci covering concerns such as telepathic androids, aliens and ‘how to live in peace’ (Clute & Nicholls, 1993, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction). One (Afrikaans) writer also bucking the trend was Jan Rabie, who wrote a number of overtly science-fiction books, such as ‘Swart ster oor die Karoo’ (Black star over the Karoo, 1957), ‘Die groen planeet’ (The green planet, 1961) and ‘Die hemelblom’ (The Heaven Flower, 1971). These also tended to mirror dominant Euro-American SF themes however, such as space-travel and alien plants. (Rabie, however, was also part of a movement of Afrikaner writers beginning to challenge the dominant discourse of apartheid, known as ‘Die Sestigers’ (The Sixty-ers), which included Andre Brink and Breyten Breytenbach.)
As the political ‘heat’ within the country rose after the Soweto uprising and the death in detention of Steve Biko in the mid to later seventies, several books emerged of perhaps a more surreal/fantastic bent. Nobel Laureate John M. Coetzee’s (1980) ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ is one such book, with a magistrate caught between the brutal forces of Empire and the ‘barbarians’ supposedly waiting to invade. The censors suspected the book of being a thinly veiled allegorical allusion to both the apartheid state (as ‘Empire’) and the gathering forces of revolution or ‘swart gevaar’ (black danger), as the ‘barbarians’. Coetzee’s book, unlike Andre Brink’s earlier (1973) ‘Kennis van die Aand’ (Looking on Darkness), escaped a banning order. Coetzee followed this up with a near-futuristic dystopia called ‘The Life and Times of Michael K’ (1983), whereby a ‘simple’ hare-lipped gardener journeys to his mother’s rural birth-place through civil-war torn South Africa.
Michael Cope’s (1987) book ‘Spiral of Fire’ is set during The State of Emergency in South Africa and uses a meta-fictional science fiction plot in order to juxtapose exploration of a First Contact peaceful ‘alien culture’, with the reality of military devastation unleashed upon burning black townships.
Following the demise of apartheid in the nineties, there was a freeing up of literary constraints, although always operating within the parameters of publishing and marketing decisions. ‘Science fiction’ has tended to be low in the priorities of local publishing houses and I have heard an editor state it does not have a significant black readership. This may to some extent be true – the legacy of apartheid means that education and even just generic reading and writing has had a huge equality backlog to catch up on, between the ‘white’ and ‘black’ populations. Furthermore, it operates within a Western scientific discourse with tainted colonial associations and may perhaps be questioned both with regards to its relevance and its assumptions as to what is ‘real’ or central to lived experience in Africa. (Various religious and traditional/super-natural/alternative epistemological beliefs are still dominant across the world as well as Africa. For an excellent discussion on relevance, see Nnedi Okorafor’s online post – ‘Is Africa ready for science fiction?’)
Notwithstanding this, I think there are very promising swells in a growing South African wave of science – or perhaps speculative – fiction in its broadest sense. For Young Adult readers for example, there have been ‘South African flavoured’ SF books such as: Peter Wilhelm’s (1984) Summer’s End; Elana Bregin’s (1995) The Slayer of Shadows; Peter Slingsby’s (1996) The Joining; Robin Saunders’ (1998) Sons of Anubis; Jenny Robson’s (2004) Savannah 2216 AD; my own (2004) The Stone Chameleon and Lesley Beake’s (2009) Remembering Green amongst others. On the other side of the Limpopo River, although she is now US resident, there is Nancy Farmer’s (1995) Zimbabwean based The Ear, The Eye and The Arm.
With regards to adult writing, there has been a South African ‘science fiction and horror’ magazine called Something Wicked, which has published short fiction by writers such as Sarah Lotz, Dave de Beer and Richard Kunzmann in its initial ten issues, with a plan to perhaps go online/digital. (Richard Kunzmann, although he is Namibian born, has also written a trilogy of excellent South African crime thrillers with speculative-fiction elements, starting with Bloody Harvests.)
Operating for a mammoth 141 issues however, is the Science Fiction Club of South Africa’s (SFSA) magazine Probe, which has been in existence since 1969. Probe publishes both winners and runners up from its annual science fiction short story competition called the ‘Novas’ and has published stories by writers such as W.G. Lipsett; Gerhard Hope, Arthur Goldstuck, Liz Simmons and Yvonne Walus, as well as three collections of short stories from Probe entitled The Best of South African Science Fiction.
A worthy collection of perhaps more specifically broader African speculative/science fiction was published within Chimurenga magazine’s double issue (12&13) Doctor Satan’s Echo Chamber. Further, with regards to African writing, a South African short story that won the 2008 Caine Prize for best African writing in English was called ‘Poison’, written by Henrietta Rose-Innes; a story which was set just outside a post-apocalyptic Cape Town. Henrietta’s novels ‘Shark’s Egg’ and ‘The Rock Alphabet’ as well as perhaps Tom Eaton’s ‘The Wading’ are beautifully written fictions possibly akin to a South African version of ‘slipstream’.
There have been other science fiction stories published internationally by South African sf writers: Lavie Tidhar for instance spent a considerable period of time in South Africa and his ‘Bophuthatswana’ appearing in Farah Mendlesohn’s (2006) Glorifying Terrorism has clear South African concerns, delivered in localised language.
One South African writer who has been productive for a full decade with both books and short fiction is Dave Freer, who has written solo – his first book The Forlorn was published in 1999 – as well as teaming up at various points with Eric Flint and Mercedes Lackey. Dave has also written a solid batch of novellas and short stories, some peculiarly and specifically South African; such as Candyblossom, in The Best of Jim Baen’s Universe (2006). A South African based writer of Scottish origin, Paul Crilley, also publishes internationally and has a forthcoming YA novel due out in the USA in 2010, named the ‘Rise of the Darklings.’
Two recent books that explore the South African landscape as bifurcated by the urban-rural divide are Jane Rosenthal’s (2004) Souvenir and Lauren Beukes (2008) Moxyland. The hip multi-media style of Moxyland includes an accompanying urban soundtrack – the book itself is written in a fast paced style, steeped in South African language and within a near-future dystopian Cape Town separated by corporate rather than racist apartheid. The term ‘apartheid’ itself is not used within the novel as far as I am aware, which carries its history lightly but cleverly as it moves rapidly between shifting perspectives and ways of communicating towards its moving climax. Lauren is busy completing her second book ‘Zoo City’ and is a writer to watch – for both now and the future!
Likewise there is much to recommend Jane Rosenthal’s ‘Souvenir’ – a meditation on the diverse South African landscape and the mirrored shaping impact on relationships of the future. The narrative follows the work of a ‘barbiclone’ in the latter half of the twenty-first century as she balloons above the desert-like hinterland of the Karoo, down to the coast where a giant tsunami awaits, driven by collapsing ice-shelves from Antarctica. Although significantly slower than ‘Moxyland’, the pace is sufficient for the story. (It’s also good to see a major character of Nigerian heritage and who is a sympathetically drawn character in a South African product!)
In Afrikaans, Eben Venter has written ‘Horrelpoot’ (2006), now in translation as ‘Trencherman’, confronting a dystopian South African future. Finally, and not least of all – although it’s not strictly science fiction – South African ‘magical realism’ certainly fits under the speculative fiction umbrella. For me, the pre-eminent South African writer here is Zakes Mda, who has written a spate of works, of which his The Heart of Redness and The Whale Caller are particularly inspiring. As Gerald Gaylard (2005) argues in ‘After Colonialism: African Postmodernism and Magical Realism’, the ‘liberated imagination’ in these stories may also provide the basis for resolving many complex issues within postcolonial Africa.
There is thus a huge variety of South African speculative fiction potentially brewing for the future, as befits a ‘Rainbow Nation’. It will be interesting to see, as science takes a more secure educative role across the country, how this may impact on the development of the local version of the genre – particularly as more ‘black’ writing emerges, as well as writings in the other ten official languages and more. It is likely, given the recency of South Africa’s post-colonial experience, to be a burgeoning genre of both subversion and multiplicity, with much to recommend reading it!
Although this is not a comprehensive South(ern) African account, brief mention should be made at least of emerging literature in neighbouring countries, such as Zimbabwe – e.g. broadly speculative-fiction writers Dambudzo Marechera (d.35 years of age), Yvonne Vera, Ivor Hartmann and George Makana Clark. On the Indian Ocean coast side of Zimbabwe, the magical realist writings of Mia Couto illuminate the experiences of both human and animals within Mozambique. And so it goes on, stories from Africa, finally embracing Africa…
Nick Wood © 2009
South African science fiction writer Nick Wood is the author of one YA novel published in SA, The Stone Chameleon, and several short stories, of which you can read his "African Shadows" over at Infinity Plus. Nick has also been writing a series of articles about African and South African speculative fiction, which I highly recommend reading – the link includes articles by him and others, including Gail Jamieson of the South African Science Fiction Association (the SFSA).
So a lot to look at in there, and a good starting point, I think – we’ll have more about South African speculative fiction in the next posts.