Alettie van den Heever’s dystopian novel Stof (Dust) (2018) is set in the year 2081, in the aftermath of a massive ecological disaster. Global food security has been largely decimated, apparently due to the sabotaging of genetically modified crops. Those who manage to escape famine and disease are at the mercy of rising dust levels and the murderous glare of the sun – consequences of unfettered climate change. Where Cape Town once was, the technologically advanced and highly exclusive enclave of Meconium exists. Meconium exercises total control over its residents and the impoverished phayas (outsiders) living on the outskirts, even mining their excrement for minerals. Likewise, all plant seeds are strictly controlled by Meconium, since in this desertified world plant seeds have become extremely valuable.
Enter the main protagonist, Amper Molooi, a 16-year-old girl with dreadlocks. Amper is herself a phaya who happens to be, unwittingly at first, the custodian of a secret cache of plant seeds. Not only does she inherit her grandmother’s collection of seeds, but she is also the sole heir to a wealth of phantasmagorical “saadstories” (seed stories) about various indigenous plant species. Amper eventually discovers, through various tribulations, that she belongs to a long line of “saadhoeders” (seed guardians) who are affiliated with Aiag, an underground environmental movement that opposes Meconium ideologically. With the help of Foos, a young man from Meconium, Amper eventually reaches Ikabod, the seed guardians’ rural enclave in the present-day Northern Cape.
Stof is an obvious example of speculative fiction and, as Steenkamp (2018) has suggested, can be read through the lens of W.H. Auden’s four modernist worldviews as applied to science fiction by Samuel R. Delany (1990): On the one hand you have Meconium which conforms to the image of a miraculous New Jerusalem, made possible by the ingenious use of technology, but which could easily descend into a totalitarian Brave New World. On the other hand you have Ikabod, which seems to offer a more idyllic Arcadian existence but is under constant threat of degenerating into a harsher, more unforgiving Land of the Flies.
Taking a cue from Barendse (2013) and the work of Lyman Tower Sargent, an influential theorist in the field of utopian studies, I argue that Stof can most aptly be classified as a critical dystopian text. The critical dystopian text depicts an imagined society that is regarded by readers as being much worse off than their contemporary circumstances but contains at least one utopian enclave or the possibility that the dystopia may be supplanted by a utopia (Barendse 2013:57). Ikabod arguably represents such a utopian enclave, or at least the possibility of change for the better, and the world depicted by/in Stof can therefore be regarded as a critical dystopia. Conversely, in the classical dystopian text, hope exists only outside of the text.
Judging from its reception, many readers find Stof somewhat daunting. Steenkamp (2018), for instance, describes Stof as a challenging, often obscure novel and likens the reading of Stof to dancing a tango. What might such a reaction be ascribed to? One probable explanation is the strange “toekomstaal” (futuristic language) used in the novel. Numerous reviewers alluded to this (Meiring 2018, Marais 2018, Steenkamp 2018 and Burger 2019), while others pointed to an apparent link between the seed stories scattered throughout the novel and Khoi-San oral tradition (Steenkamp 2018 and Marais 2018). These remarks – particularly those regarding the novel’s language and its seed stories – served to a large extent as the catalyst for the present research paper. Taking these two textual elements as primary foci of analysis, the overarching purpose of this article is to interpret and establish Stof as an ecocritical text. From this overarching purpose statement flow the following three research aims.
First, I set out to describe the most salient features of the language in Stof to try to account for its strangeness. Features include but are by no means limited to: the use of climate- and dust-related expressions; names of novel diseases and ailments; technological jargon; various examples of neologisms, portmanteaus, inflections and derivations of existing words and phrases; the use of different idiolects and regional dialects; code-switching; and abundant scatological utterances. I argue that it is mainly through the strategic mixture of all these linguistic features that Van den Heever succeeds in constructing a futuristic language – one that ostensibly leads to a sense of estrangement in the reader.
Estrangement as a concept in literary theory was first established by the Russian Formalists and serves to elicit in the audience a feeling of critical distance – especially if that which is being represented has been rendered “ordinary” through repetition. As Shklovsky put it (quoted in Du Plooy 1992:567): “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” Thus, the audience is prompted to see things anew from a fresh perspective. According to Brecht (in Abrams and Harpham 2009:7), one textual function of the estrangement effect (Verfremdungseffekt) in drama – though it can equally be applied to a work of prose – is “to evoke a critical distance and attitude in the spectators, in order to arouse them to take action against, rather than simply to accept, the state of society and behavior represented on the stage.” Along these lines, I argue that the estrangement effect in Stof, precipitated mainly through its unfamiliar language, serves to sensitise or orient readers towards the powerful social commentary delivered by the novel – in this case social commentary of an overtly ecocritical nature – and ultimately a critical reflection on the status quo.
Secondly, I analyse the seed stories in Stof to ascertain whether, and to what extent, they are reminiscent of Khoi-San folklore. I rely largely on Guenther (2017) for this comparative analysis. In all, I identify fourteen seed stories that are sporadically weaved into the novel and serve as a rich intratext. I conclude that while the seed stories in Stof differ from traditional Khoi-San mythology in that they focus mostly on plants rather than animals or the figure of the shaman, there are indeed similarities. Not only do Amper and Bettina perform the role of traditional shamanistic storytellers, but the mythopoetical stories also clearly draw on the new animistic paradigm elucidated by Guenther (2017) in which the ontological boundaries between different entities and phenomena are blurred, thus problematising the stark anthropocentric distinction between the human and the non-human. Furthermore, the seed stories in Stof implicitly underscore the importance of vulnerable indigenous knowledge systems: Just as Amper is tasked with preserving her grandmothers’ precious seed collection, so she must preserve her grandmother’s imaginative legacy – her seed stories.
In the third and final section of the article I explore the interplay between Van den Heever’s novel and the theoretical tenets of new materialism and dark ecology. According to Jemima Jafta, one of the central characters in the novel, even dust has a “story” to tell. Jemima’s outlook is therefore akin to the suppositions of new materialism – a recent development in material ecocriticism whereby human and non-human agency and the narrative potential of anorganic matter are fundamentally reconsidered. The two opposing ideological factions or enclaves in the novel are then contrasted: On the one hand there is Meconium with its technocratic approach to environmental issues, of which their single-minded pursuit of diversity and their absolute control of human waste are the most pertinent examples. On the other hand one finds the seed guardians of Aiag/Ikabod. The latter group are proponents of Timothy Morton’s notion of dark ecology in which the human and the non-human are placed on equal footing and humankind’s fallacy of control and mastery over nature is rejected in favour of a more sustainable logic of future coexistence.
Dystopian literature is generally regarded as a suitable vehicle for the delivery of social commentary. Yet Stof does not offer any simplistic solutions to the complex environmental challenges facing humanity today. On the contrary, even the apparently utopian lifestyle proffered by Ikabod is nuanced, since even among these people we observe signs of humanity’s potential for both greed and conservation. The novel thus complies with Delany’s (1990) requirement that speculative fiction sustain the tension between utopian and dystopian visions of the future throughout. In the end, Stof also merely tells a story, but the novel suggests that human beings can construct new narratives which may have potentially far-reaching implications for our relationship with the non-human environment. Van den Heever’s novel can therefore be read as a disquieting yet hopeful ecocritical warning.
Keywords: Alettie van den Heever; critical dystopia; dark ecology; eutopia; Khoi-San mythology; material ecocriticism; Timothy Morton; new animism; new materialism; speculative fiction; Stof