SF in SA 21. Identity, belonging and ecological crisis in South African speculative fiction by Dr. Elzette Steenkamp (Apr 2014)

This study examines a range of South African novels which situate their narratives in futuristic or ‘alternative’ milieus. It investigates the ways in which these texts, despite their association with the ‘pulp’ genres of science fiction and fantasy, are in fact deeply concerned with the very issue that ‘serious’ South African authors have been examining for many years – alterity. Whilst many of the texts in question contain elements of the fantastic and/or tropes common to the SF genre, they have been broadly categorized as ‘speculative narratives’ for the purpose of this dissertation.

Within a South African context, the value of science fiction to the field of literary studies has yet to be fully recognized. This is partially due to science fiction’s association with ‘pulp’ fiction and low-brow escapism, but can also be attributed to the widely-held perception that SF has more to do with shiny machines and spaceships than with actual people. Due to the country’s complex history of colonial and apartheid oppression, South Africa’s literary landscape is highly politicized and much attention is paid to the narrative representation of human conflict, particularly the issues of race and gender.

In “Subversive, Undisciplined and Ideologically Unsound or Why Don’t South Africans Like Fantasy?”, originally a paper presented at the 1991 AUETSA Conference hosted by Fort Hare University, Felicity Wood asks: “Why is there so little fantasy in English South African literature?” (32). Wood, writing prior to the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994, suggests that the tendency to utilize the realist mode in English South African writing:

can be related in part to the way in which the South African situation has been perceived as so huge, all-important and dramatic that many South African writers seem to think that to write something gripping and powerful, all one needs to do is reflect the situation, in as straightforward a manner as possible. (Wood “Subversive” 32-33)

However, the success of South African-born Neill Blomkamp’s Oscar-nominated SF film, District 9 (2009) has resulted in an unprecedented boom in local science fiction and fantasy. Lauren Beukes’s SF noirZoo City (2010) has recently been bestowed the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke award, indicating growing international interest in South African SF. In a recent article featured on The Guardian’s popular book blog, “Putting South African Science Fiction on the Map”, David Barnett predicts that “it might well be that South African spec fiction is going to be this year’s Scandinavian crime novel scene for British readers” (n.pag.).

Despite these achievements within the fields of science fiction film and literature, very little has been done in the way of scholarly articles examining the role of science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction in South Africa literature. The field of South African speculative fiction presents a rich, uncultivated area of study which allows for the exploration of a range of themes relevant to the South African condition, including (but by no means restricted to) the issues of gendered and racialized inequity. This dissertation aims to address this dearth, examining how South African futuristic narratives not only explore identity formation in a deeply divided and rapidly changing society, but also the ways in which human beings place themselves in relation to Nature and form notions of ‘ecological’ belonging.

The Southern African texts chosen for the purpose of this study exhibit traits common to both the SF and fantasy genres, as well as certain elements of satire, thus maintaining numerous structural links with traditionally ‘socially conscious’ genres.[1] This study offers close readings of these speculative narratives in order to investigate the ways in which they evince concerns which are rooted in the natural, social and political landscapes which inform them. Specific attention will be paid to the texts’ treatment of the intertwined issues of identity, belonging and ecological crisis.

Given the broad scope of this investigation, readings are informed by a wide range of theoretical works. This study draws on the field of eco-criticism, most notably the work of post-colonial eco-critic, Anthony Vital, South African eco-critic, Julia Martin, and the eco-philosophy of Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, as put forward in A Thousand Plateaus. Post-colonial theory will be applied where it relates to the construction of the self in relation to (an)other. In this regard, Homi K. Bhabha’s seminal work, The Location of Culture, has proved invaluable. The philosophical writings of Jacques DerridaFreya Mathews and R.D. Laing on the subject of the problematic relationship between self, other and non-human other will also be utilized. Furthermore, this dissertation will also make use of critical theories in the field of science fiction studies, including the work of Adam Roberts and Donna Haraway, with particular focus on the role of the hybrid other (i.e. the cyborg, the clone, the alien and the genetically engineered donor) as symbolic novum in science fiction narratives.

A range of historically, geographically and culturally diverse Southern African speculative texts will be examined. These include novels published during the height of the apartheid era in South Africa (J.M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael KNadine Gordimer’s July’s People, and Karel Schoeman’s Promised Land); several contemporary post-apartheid speculative narratives (Eben Venter’s TrenchermanLauren Beukes’s Zoo CityJane Rosenthal’s Souvenir, and Jenny Robson’s Savannah 2116 AD); a popular South African film (Neill Blomkamp’s District 9); and three short stories (Nick Wood’s “Thirstlands” and “Of Hearts and Monkeys” and Henrietta Rose-Innes’s “Poison”). This study assumes a culturally specific approach to primary texts while investigating possible cross-cultural commonalities between Afrikaans and English speculative narratives as well as the cross-fertilisation of global SF/ speculative features.

Chapter one of this thesis examines two speculative novels dating from the late apartheid era in South Africa, namely Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People (1981) and J.M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K (1974). These novels have in common the representation of a racially-fuelled South African civil war, and both texts see the displacement of protagonists from besieged urban settings to unfamiliar, imagined rural environments. Coetzee’s elusive protagonist, Michael K, embarks on a journey from the war-torn city of Cape Town to the farm of his mother’s youth in Prince Albert. In a similar shift, Nadine Gordimer’s Smales family is forced to flee their urban home and take refuge in the rural village of July, their former servant. These geographical moves to speculative non-urban spaces allow for the questioning of entrenched categories, boundaries and identities and stage encounters between self, other and environment whilst acknowledging the interconnectedness of these sites of conflict. This chapter explores the intersection of social and environmental injustices in these two novels.

Chapter two focuses on the Afrikaans farm novel (plaasroman) in English translation and highlights the ways in which this genre has traditionally served to justify and naturalize the Afrikaner farmer’s right to the land. Karel Schoeman’s Promised Land (1972) and Eben Venter’s Trencherman (2006) are identified as speculative, parodic returns to the plaasroman which illuminate ambivalences and aporic moments inherent in the trope of the boereplaas. Both these texts question the traditional plaasroman’s validation of the myth of a spiritual verflechtung between the farm and its paternal heir, and suggest that the untenable systems of control and regulation imposed on the ecology of the farm in these novels are analogous to unsustainable attempts at preserving the insularity and exclusivity of Afrikaner culture. In many ways, these speculative rewritings of the traditional plaasroman signal a return of the repressed, laying bare all that must necessarily be disavowed in order to maintain the myth of the boereplaas and its ‘rightful’ heirs.

Chapter three of this study introduces Jenny Robson’s speculative Young Adult novel, Savannah 2116 AD (2004), which is set in a futuristic South Africa in which a group of elitist conservationists institute an accord allowing ordinary citizens, known as Homosaps, to be herded together in reserves in order to save endangered African wildlife. This chapter examines the ways in which Robson not only utilizes the familiar trope of the child as mediator of environmental and moral redemption, but also identifies the South African landscape as a fraught and contested space in which the founding of (to use Freya Mathews’ phrase) an ‘ecological self’ is necessarily problematic. Social concerns have become irrevocably intertwined with the global issue of environmentalism and it is suggested that this novel questions the relation between the environmental degradation of the Southern African landscape and social and political exploitation. Savannah 2116 AD draws on both local (i.e. South African) and global experiences of oppression and displacement, as well as the relationship between such injustices and certain modes of conservationism, in order to create a fantastic world in which the tension between the redemptive impulses of the natural self (the child) and the devastating effects of institutionalized segregation and subjugation is explored.

Chapter Four draws on Adam Roberts’s notion of the symbolic “novum” as the embodiment of alterity or the “point of difference” (6) in a science fiction text, as well as Donna Haraway’s conception of the cyborg in order to explore the ways in which the figure of the clone in Jane Rosenthal’s speculative novel, Souvenir (2004) represents gendered difference and fragmented female experience. This chapter also explores the ways in which Rosenthal utilizes the South African trope of the Karoo landscape as ‘belonging to no one and therefore to everyone’ and the tradition of the Karoo travelogue in order to address questions of belonging and identity formation in relation to an increasingly ecologically threatened world.

Chapter five compares Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009), and Lauren Beukes’s recent cyberpunk novel, Zoo City (2010) and suggests that both texts not only address local concerns such as racism, xenophobia, violence and poverty, but also make use of a boundary-blurring cyborg or trickster figure in order to interrogate the conceptual divides which continue negatively to affect human/animal relations. This section draws on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s notion of ‘becoming-animal’ and shows how this idea is exemplified by the interstitial characters of Wikus van der Merwe, whose transformation from human to ‘prawn’ is chronicled in District 9, and Beukes’s protagonist, Zinzi, who is both physically and psychically linked to an animal familiar (a sloth) due to an error in judgement which results in the death of her brother. Both these speculative human/non-human couplings, calls to these protagonists to engage their sympathetic imaginations in hitherto unheard-of ways, can be seen as resulting in a heightened sense of responsibility and hospitality towards a non-human other, which can also be interpreted as the racial other in both instances. Such rethinking of human/animal relations allows for the imagining of productive and absolutely just spaces between fixed territories or boundaries, a kind of multiplicity that is akin to Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of the rhizome.

Chapter six of this thesis focuses on South African speculative short fiction, specifically Nick Wood’s futuristic short stories, “Thirstlands” and “Of Hearts and Monkeys”, and Henrietta Rose-Innes’s “Poison”. Each one of these stories evinces the need for social and environmental responsibility in an environmentally devastated future realm, and highlights the interconnectedness between self, human and non-human others and environment. This section offers discussions on theories from the field of Environmental Psychology, R.D. Laing’s writings on the process of identity formation, and Freya Mathews’s notion of an ecological self and explores the ways in which these concepts relate to the above-mentioned short stories and their treatment of questions of the self’s entanglement with and accountability for both human and animal others as well as the natural environment. This final chapter will also establish the extent to which the theme of an intertwining between conceptions of the self, the other and the environment as another relational other can be read as central to the South African speculative novel.


Barnett, David. “Putting South African Fiction on the Map”. 26 May 2011

<http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2011/may/26/south-african-science-fiction> Accessed: 21 August 2011.

Wood, Felicity. “Subversive, Undisciplined, and Ideologically Unsound or Why

Don’t South Africans Like Fantasy?” Language Projects Review. 6.3-4 (1991): 32-36.

[1] There are of course plenty of examples of socially conservative speculative fiction and this thesis by no means suggests that all speculative texts can necessarily be considered socially transgressive. The texts included in this study have been chosen specifically for their socially conscious elements.

Author BIO:

Elzette Steenkamp holds a PhD in English Literature from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. Her Doctoral dissertation dealt with the representation of ecological disaster in South African speculative fiction.

Elzette has worked as the Production Manager of the Afrikaans-language academic journal LitNet Akademies. She is currently associated with the UK-based software company Alemba.

Her recent work includes a chapter titled ‘Future Ecologies, Current Crisis: Ecological Concern in South African Speculative Fiction’ in Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, edited by Kim Stanley Robinson and Gerry Canavan. Her full PhD thesis can be seen here: http://eprints.ru.ac.za/2977/1/STEENKAMP-PhD-TR12-75.pdf