Dystopia in Science Fiction: Q&A with Lauren Beukes

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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 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?

I think it’s a global phenomenon – the success of books like the Twilight and Harry Potter series have shown that there’s an appetite for genre fiction, and movies like District 9 have shown that we can do it with a local twist.  The Arthur C Clarke Award certainly shone a spotlight on genre fiction in South Africa, but super-agent Oli Munson, who represents Sarah Lotz and me, also has a lot to do with pushing it. PornoKitsch have been soliciting South African writers, specifically after I won the Kitschies Red Tentacle, but other writers, like Cat Hellisen, have done it entirely on their own, while zines and anthologies like Something Wicked, Jungle Jim and Bloody Parchment have been championing local genre fiction for the past few years.

You set The Shining Girls in Chicago, stating that you wanted to separate the story from the politics of apartheid. Both Moxyland and Zoo City address very real social concerns in contemporary South Africa, including the plight of refugees, HIV/Aids and issues of segregation.  Karen Jayes’ For the Mercy of Water deals with the threat to our planet’s natural resources, and When the Sea is Rising Red (Cat Hellisen) also touches on the issue of economic segregation. Do you feel that the speculative space of SF&F allows us a lens to address the myriad of social, economic and environmental concerns that South Africans are faced with today? And can we do it without getting too entangled in the quagmire of apartheid politics and the old recriminations that go along with it?

Apartheid is a poison tree – we’ve cut down the trunk, but the roots are buried deep and we’re going to be tripping over them for years to come. You can’t look at South Africa today without acknowledging that. It leaks into society and if fiction is going to reflect society, no matter how fantastically distorted the lens, it has to be part of that narrative too.

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 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, for that matter) who just happen to occupy fantastic or alternative worlds?

You write interesting people whose lives are informed by their gender, their sexuality, their race, their economic background, their culture, their experiences. You give them problems and strengths and toss them into difficult situations that will test who they are.

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

Charlie Human, Sam Wilson, Louis Greenberg, Osiame Molefe (although he’s veering towards non-fiction at the moment), Lisl Schwartz, Henrietta Rose-Innes to some extent. Pick up a copy of Jungle Jim, Something Wicked and Bloody Parchment to get an idea of new voices that are up and coming.

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 think we’re going to veer off the topic quite quickly to talk about social issues and mad, wonderful ideas.

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?

Anchor your wild ideas in reality. If you want to make the incredible seem credible, you need a solid, recognisable base. Riff off your experiences; don’t be afraid to make it local; but don’t succumb to cliché either. If you’re going to have Aids orphans or car hijackings, do something incredibly interesting and surprising with them.


More interviews:
Q&A with Cat Hellisen
Q&A with Karen Jayes
Q&A with Rachel Zadok

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