With acknowledgement to prior publication in Locus Magazine, November 2009.
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.[table “23” not found /]
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 140 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.'
[table “22” not found /]
[table “21” not found /]
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