Dystopia in Science Fiction: Q&A with Rachel Zadok

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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?

Speculative fiction allows writers a space in which to explore our realities, whether they be political, social or environmental, and expand on them to see where we might be heading. Also, writers are growing a little tired of the constraints of social and political fiction in South Africa. We have such a long literary history of apartheid novels and farm novels and the like, and speculative fiction allows us to break through those constraints. Allows us to pass on social messages while going on a thrilling ride.

Lauren Beukes set The Shining Girls in Chicago, stating that she 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?

I can’t speak for other readers, but I enjoy fiction that has a post-apocalyptic feel. It’s exciting … to cast your mind into a world where the characters live on the edge. Break out of the mundane safety of the everyday. If characters are at constant risk in dystopian worlds, pushed to the edge, it’s an escapist rush. Get your heart racing without ever getting off the couch.

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?

I don’t think my writing falls into the category where I need to write fantasy/sci-fi female archetypes/stereotypes. It’s reality with a twist, uncomfortably familiar yet strange. Traditional sci-fi is also more science-based, speculating about possible futures by expanding on science, whereas speculative fiction is more about social issues.

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

Henrietta Rose-Innes, Sarah Lotz, Louis Greenberg, Nerine Dorman, but readers should not confine their minds to a single genre. Read everything and judge it on merit rather than on genre – expand your mind and your tastes.

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.

Anything is possible with a panel of five erudite passionate women, some of whom refuse to confine themselves to genre. So I doubt we’ll be confined by the topic.

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?

First rule of writing is to read everything you can get your hands on to fill your head with ideas. And then, once you have your story down, let it rest. Then revise, revise, revise.


More interviews:
Q&A with Cat Hellisen
Q&A with Karen Jayes
Q&A with Lauren Beukes


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    Joanne Macgregor

    "readers should not confine their minds to a single genre. Read everything and judge it on merit rather than on genre – expand your mind and your tastes." - I couldn't agree more!

    PS Loved your panel discussion at Franschhoek Lit Fest 🙂
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