Part 3 – South African SF – i.e. Speculative Fiction, not just Science

For this update I aim to discuss two articles by Deirdre Byrne, a Professor in English at the University of South Africa, and in the light of this, to extend my own article recently published in Vector, the British Science Fiction Association's critical journal, entitled: ,The search for South African SF (Vector 247; May/June 2006; p.16).

Byrne has published at least two articles on science fiction in South Africa - one was written and presented as the country was heading towards its first democratic elections (Association of University English Teachers of Southern Africa - AUESA conference, 1993); the other published more recently in a journal called PMLA, by the Modern Language Association of America (2004; pp. 522-525). Byrne's articles are rich in interesting and complex material - I hope only to focus on a few of the issues that she raises.

One of the main concerns I hope to address emerged from a comment made to me by a potential publisher for my book The Stone Chameleon i.e.: 'black people don't read science fiction.'
This is obviously not true in a wider world context - thus, for example, there is an organisation dedicated to supporting and promoting writers of 'colour' in SF (speculative fiction more broadly) in North America, called the Carl Brandon Society: http://www.carlbrandon.org/.

However, there may well be limited numbers of black readers and writers of science fiction in its' purest form in South Africa. Thus, when I raised the issue of genres amongst black high school pupils between 16 and 18 years of age, there was familiarity with a diverse range of genres, but not science fiction. Why should this be?

Both of Deirdre Byrne's articles make the point that South Africa is a relatively poor country with stark contrasts and diverging experiences around technological - yet alone reading - literacy. Thus broader access to scientific models and discourse is a relatively recent phenomenon, as this was neglected in the 'gutter education' provided during apartheid in segregated black schools. Even though a new national curriculum has attempted to extend scientific learning and literacy, this remains problematic due to resource shortages in South Africa in areas such as trained teachers and equipment. (Thus, at Oscar Mpetha High School, the writing workshop I held in 2004 was conducted with pen and paper as there were no computers for student use at the school.)

With limited access to science and technology, the writings of hard science fiction will remain opaque and lack attraction to the majority of potential readers in South Africa - as Deirdre put it in her most recent article (2004) the 'demand - supply cycle' for science fiction in South Africa remains impoverished. Science fiction, without significant changes in education and technological access, will in all likelihood stay a locally small and marginalised genre.

Byrne's (1993) survey of South African magazines such as Contrast , Staffrider and Sesame revealed a paucity of science fiction and a predominance of 'social realist' fiction during the nineteen eighties and early nineteen nineties. This is not altogether unsurprising as, with the pressing socio-political concerns of the time, there was a growing movement for 'relevant' fiction that confronted the issues of the time directly, for example in the consolidation of COSAW (Congress of South African Writers: cwww.thewritersnetwork.org/cms/index.php?id=196″ target=”_blank”>http://www.thewritersnetwork.org/cms/index.php?id=196).

However, science fiction also has a history of confronting political issues (perhaps more obliquely) through the use of both dystopias and utopias - e.g. 1984 by Orwell, We by Zamyatin; Brave New World by Huxley (dystopias) and Le Guin's The Dispossessed (utopia). Byrne (1993) makes the point that the harsh penalties of opposition to the apartheid state may have encouraged a cultural passivity that could have been antithetical to the curiously questioning and anti-authoritarian mood of much science fiction.

And yet there were attempts to construct stories opposing the 'grand narrative' of apartheid, by writers as diverse as Gordimer, Brink, Breytenbach, La Guma and Themba, amongst many others. These were not couched in the language of science fiction, however - but I think 'language' is indeed the key issue here.

Byrne raises an extremely interesting point about the nature of South African experience - categorising it as a heterotopia a la Michel Foucault's (1970) definition in which "such a state of things are 'laid', 'placed', 'arranged' in sites so very different from one another that it is impossible to find a place of residence for them, to define a common locus beneath them all" (xviii - cited in Byrne, 1993, p.36). That is, there is no unitary experience of South Africa - and eleven official languages in which to carve up what it means to be 'South African'.

What could one thus argue to be quintessentially 'South African', which may perhaps be authentically represented in South African fiction? An old (white) South African advertisement from the nineteen seventies might have manically chanted that it was "braaivleis (barbecues), rugby, sunny skies… and Chevrolet!" (The residents of Soweto and other black townships at the time would no doubt have disagreed.) Apartheid served to reinforce an experiential chasm between state defined groups of people, that even today seems slow to merge from behind electrified residential walls and township shacks.

What - if anything - can thus form part of a uniquely South African (science) fiction narrative?
Byrne argues for the importance of landscape in South African fiction, as analysed by John M. Coetzee (1988) in White Writing. The wider geographical landscape may form part of a common South African heritage, despite ongoing disputes and redressing issues of ownership, access and colonisation. Another motif of central importance - given South African history - is the notion of 'race' and difference, i.e. the Other.

Both of these issues - land and difference - are apparently effectively addressed in a 'meta-science fiction book' (Byrne, 2004) by Michael Cope, called Spiral of Fire (1987), which I have hope to read and review here sometime soon.

But it is also clear that the language of science (fiction) does not necessarily hold sway in South Africa. This is not to say that it is a primitive place, pre-scientific in understanding and experience - these are colonial notions based on beliefs of Western civilisation as a teleological end-point for socio-cultural development. There are a multitude of discourses operating in South Africa, as befits the diverse (and sometimes fractured) nature of experiences and cultural contexts, which underpins the diversity of the country's human resources.

Thus, the broader rubric of speculative fiction may better encompass varied yet intrinsically South African narratives - for example, as manifest in the works of Zakes Mda (http://www.zakesmda.com/index.html), who credits the traditional (amaXhosa) oral traditions of storytelling behind him. Mda also makes the interesting point that his work was called 'magical realism' before he'd even read the South American 'magical realists' such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Researching these writers, Mda believes 'magical inspiration' has a common source in oral traditions, with Marquez apparently citing his grandmother as the source of his 'magic'. A further revelation seemingly made by Marquez was that his grandmother had received the 'magic' from the stories that were told by African slaves. Certainly West African literature in addition has also been noted to have a 'magical realist' slant, as displayed in writing by Ben Okri and Kojo Laing amongst others.

The classificatory labels of these stories are perhaps less important than their richness and variety - as I mentioned in my current blog (July/August 2006) - stories can add to a healthier state of affairs, both individually and collectively. That is, the more stories we have - however we wish to classify them - the emotionally richer we can all potentially become…

And politically that is why I think it is important to pursue and encourage diverse stories from all parts of the world - to contest 'grand' narratives that attempt to simplify, yet end up damaging the world, with an 'us - them' rhetoric of hate. Our stories are meant to help us reach out, understand, and share the complexities of what it means to be human in the world and the cosmos beyond.

Foucault, M. (1970) The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Pantheon.