/ 9 September 2011

Juxtaposing fantasy with the familiar

South African writers who dare to venture into the fantastical are accused of writing “untruths”, said Gwen Ansell, chairing “Science Fiction and Fantasy in the City” at the M&G Literary Festival.

Ansell and panellists Tom Learmont, Lauren Beukes, Louis Greenberg and Sarah Lotz put the spotlight on “speculative fiction”: an umbrella genre encompassing science fiction, horror, fantasy, the supernatural, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction. South African Neill Blomkamp’s blockbuster movie, District 9, is a cinematic version.

Ansell suggested that such fiction could instil a sense of “wonder and hope” in young readers because it explored a world of endless possibilities. She called on local publishers to promote the genre because “children need to stop reading Charles Dickens”.

Lotz, author of Dead Lands (a young-adult horror novel about a zombie apocalypse in the mountainous suburbs of Cape Town) said South African fantasy is rooted in an awareness of sociopolitical issues. Not necessarily an attractive combination for those who read only “to escape”.

Greenberg agreed with Ansell that the most successful stories juxtapose fantasy and horror with familiar settings. “You don’t have to make up environments. There’s enough in South African cities to scare us,” he said.

New landscapes
Greenberg and Lotz co-authored the horror novel, The Mall, under the pseudonym SL Grey. “We took an existing city [Johannesburg] and created a new one beneath it, one that feeds off it like a tick,” said Lotz.

Beukes, author of Zoo City, which won the world’s premier science fiction prize — the 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award — said overseas recognition was not enough. She called for greater local support for science fiction — not only from publishers, but from literary scholars, parents and readers.

Beukes celebrated the “subversive nature” of urban fantasy in South African literature. “It allows writers to critique and educate about the human condition in an interesting and creative way,” she said. Beukes compared this with other countries, where the genre tends to be more “conservative”, and full of “castles, kings and princesses” — references that are “removed” from South African children.

Ansell and her panel’s vigorous presentation of the merits of the genre proved to be a pre-emptive riposte to a later festival session in which literary scholar Leon de Kock derided speculative fiction as “a cute and fuzzy thing”.

Ansell hailed the influence of social media in making books more accessible to local readers. The new technology, she said, should challenge publishers to reduce the prices of books in stores.

For more coverage from the M&G LIterary Festival, see the special report.