Dystopia in Science Fiction: Q&A with Cat Hellisen

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I recently came across a blog post by The Guardian describing South African speculative fiction as the new Scandinavian crime fiction for British readers. Since the amazing success of Lauren’s Zoo City and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, it seems that South African spec-fic is well and truly on the international map.

It may come as a surprise to some, but South Africa has a rich history of science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction, most notably the “hard” science fiction adventures of Jan Rabie, and the speculative fiction of JM Coetzee, Karel Schoeman and Eben Venter. Why the sudden resurgence of interest in South African SF&F and speculative fiction?

People also forget Dave Freer, who's been writing for Baen for many years, though he's since moved to New Zealand. He often slips South African characters into his novels and draws on our military past and mindset. I think there is not so much a resurgence of interest, as it's simply easier now as a South African to query and submit novels overseas. Before publishing accepted that the internet was not going away, it would cost a fortune to post work overseas, and now there's a wealth of up-to-date information freely available online, so South Africans can hone their craft without having to go to university.

Cat, your novel When the Sea is Rising Red and Daniel Browde and Josh Ryba’s recently released graphic novel Rebirth see the return of a much darker edge to the vampire myth. Do you feel there is a drive to redeem this once fear-inspiring race from the embarrassment of glittering skin and Victorian sensibilities propagated by the Twilight series?

If there is a drive, I'm not part of it. I quite like the freedom writers have to take a creature of myth and reinvent it to suit their own purposes, so I'm not particularly interested in pushing for a return to Hammer Horror vampires. And I'm rather a fan of Victorian sensibilities – the surface of repression hides some interestingly perverse depths. As for my own work, I used vampires to show how society can marginalise a group of people based on what they eat and look like, even if the differences are nothing more than superficial.

Margaret Atwood once caused great outrage by insisting that she does not write science fiction, but rather speculative fiction. One can understand her reticence, given the rather bad reputation of SF as stories about slimy monsters chasing after girls in gold bikinis (sorry, Star Wars fans). You are all women writing in what has traditionally been a male-dominated genre, often accused of being low-brow escapism featuring flat, archetypal characters. How do you approach the challenge of writing well-rounded female characters (who are so often reduced to the roles of “the prize”, “the femme fatale” or “the wicked witch” in SF&F)? In short, how does one set about writing about real women (or people in general, for that matter) who just happen to occupy fantastic or alternative worlds?

Science fiction and fantasy have always been safe spaces for writers to map out the inadequacies of the world they live in, so I don't think that has changed. While I don't set out to write any kind of moralising fable, it's inevitable that the influence of growing up South African will seep into my writing.

Luckily for me I've always assumed women were people, so writing them as people hasn't been the problem. Fantastic worlds are ultimately set-dressing – they can influence the way you look at the story, but they are still simply a space for characters to act. If your characters aren't believable as people, then no number of fancy props and extravagant stage-setting are going to hide that for long.

You represent an exciting new group of speculative authors in South Africa. Who else should we be reading?

Nerine Dorman does dark ritual-magic-fuelled urban fantasy set in Cape Town and the surrounds – you could have a look at her novel Inkarna. And I believe we'll be seeing good stuff from Liam Kruger and Toby Bennett one day.

You will be discussing “Dystopia in Science Fiction” at the upcoming Franschhoek Literary Festival (Click here to book your ticket). Give us a sneak peek into the themes you will be looking at.

I can imagine we'll look a bit into the two-sided coin that is Utopia vs Dystopia, and possibly at how dystopia these days is often confused with post-apocalyptic or post-disaster fiction. (The two can feed into each other, but they're rather different.)

LitNet is launching their second annual science fiction-writing competition for high school learners soon. Any advice for those hoping to pen the prize-winning story?

Don't send in your first or even second draft. Revise, revise, revise. And write free and unfettered by convention, but edit with publication in mind.


More interviews:
Q&A with Karen Jayes
Q&A with Lauren Beukes
Q&A with Rachel Zadok

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