Last month, Lauren Beukes scooped one of the science fiction world's major literary awards - and in doing so, heralded something of a coming of age for South African speculative fiction.
Beukes - who describes herself as "an author, scriptwriter and recovering journalist" - won the prestigious Arthur C Clarke award for her second novel, Zoo City. The previous weekend the novel was on the five-strong shortlist for the British Science Fiction Association awards, missing out to Ian McDonald's The Dervish House at the major genre gathering Eastercon in Birmingham. But the Arthur C Clarke award – which saw Beukes beat McDonald – will be more than compensation, as will the news at the weekend that she has been shortlisted in the John W Campbell award for best new writer, to be revealed alongside the Hugo nominations in the US in August.
Beukes's novel is published in the UK by the relatively young imprint Angry Robot, which also published her debut, Moxyland. Both novels are genre-busting, fast-moving affairs that offer something comfortingly familiar yet excitingly exotic – a novel that springs, obviously, from a foreign culture, yet which is written in English, and with British and European reference points as well as home-grown ones.
Zoo City, the novel which has brought Beukes so much attention (godfather of cyberpunk William Gibson is one high-profile fan) is a mash-up of near-future SF and urban paranormal fantasy, a noirish clash of sub-genres that is refreshing for its Johannesburg locales. Zinzi is one of the "animalled" – people with some kind of stain on their conscience who magically acquire an animal familiar which follows them around and amplifies their psychic talents. Think Pinocchio or Philip Pullman written by Raymond Chandler and you're maybe a quarter of the way there.
Of course, if Beukes's success in the awards were isolated, that wouldn't constitute anything like a "scene". But since 2009, when Neill Blomkamp's District 9 shocked Hollywood by being a thoughtful, intelligent, action-filled science fiction movie that came from South Africa, of all places, there seems to have been a growing spec fiction movement.
Around the same time Zoo City landed on my doormat, so did a proof of The Mall by SL Grey, to be published on 1 June by Corvus Books. Despite the fact that this novel is described as a cross between Fight Club and the Saw movies – a marketing move that might well get the torture-porn crowd interested but didn't tempt me – I've been impressed by Corvus's speculative fiction output so far (such as Jeff Vandermeer's Finch and Chris Becket's Holy Machine) so gave it a go.
And when I finished it, pretty much in a couple of sittings, I found myself creeped out to an extent that no horror story had achieved for a long time. I put it down next to Zoo City and realised that there was something very special coming out of South Africa. I contacted Louis Greenberg - one half of the writing team SL Grey, along with Sarah Lotz, who also writes zombie novels as Lily Herne – and he confirmed that what had been a feisty, small-press community scene was now moving determinedly centre stage.
The leading lights among the SA scene seem to include horror writer Joan De La Haye, fantasy author Craig Smith, and Andrew Saloman, who has just made yet another shortlist with his novel Lun – this time, for Terry Pratchett's Between the Lines award, which looks for debut speculative fiction authors.
As you might expect, a lot of South African writing is informed by the country's own recent history – how could it fail to be? Apartheid rears its head in one form or another both in Zoo City, where the animalled are segregated, and in The Mall, where the "browns" find their way from our world to the book's nightmarish mirror-world. And that, perhaps, is part of the attraction: speculative fiction works best when it refracts real life through a fantastical lens, and magnifies, and perhaps tries to make sense of, the mundane. South Africa has had a lot of real life in the past few decades.
Beukes is certainly doing her bit to put South African SF on the map. With SL Grey coming up next and their fellow authors grabbing a lot of attention, it might well be that South African spec fiction is going to be this year's Scandinavian crime novel scene for British readers.
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Putting South African science fiction on the map
Guardian.co.uk Books Blog: Putting South African science fiction on the map
Posted by Barbara Peterson at 9:12 AM