AiW Guest Graham Riach.
On the front cover of issue 16 of Jungle Jim,a starry sky hangs low over two Zulu tribesmen, assegais held high behind their shields. Looming towards them is a muscle-bound giant with an insectoid robotic head, crushing a third tribesman underfoot, while steam fires from two top-mounted exhaust flues. The writing on the UFO above them declares the edition devoted to South African Sci-Fi.
What, though, might it mean to write Science Fiction in a country where, as Hedley Twidle puts it, ‘you couldn’t make this shit up’? Fredric Jameson, in ‘Progress versus Utopia’ (1982), says that sf displaces the ideological contradictions of the present onto the future. The combination of violence with uneven development on the issue’s cover suggests that his theory might have some currency here. Sf is often interested in the ethics of the encounter with the unfamiliar, and the juxtapositions brought about by changes in technology – these are of particular interest in a country still marked by a history of colonialism and the struggle to negotiate the contradictions of modernity.
For sf to be properly South African, at least in the eyes of the Science Fiction & Fantasy South Africa (SFFSA) organization’s annual Nova short story competition, there are some criteria to be met. According to their website, ‘Nova SF expects stories that have a scientific or technological basis, usually with a plausible (even if it does require suspension of disbelief) plot or premise.’ More than this, ‘the story must be intrinsically South African, with the human or physical environment having a direct influence on the plot, characters or outcome of the story’, and have ‘a reasonable climax, twist, or at least a denouement’.
Jungle Jim has similar, if less prescriptive demands, asking for ‘narrative-driven genre or genre clash fiction that is imaginative, provocative and dramatic, drawing on African environments, characters, concepts, culture and myth, whether set in real worlds or those imagined.’ These guidelines raise some important, if hardly new questions about what South African fiction should be, and about what readers are thought to expect from it – How big a role do publishers play in shaping what gets written and read in and about South Africa? Is sf to be absorbed into old debates about the need for African authors to represent their country (in every sense), or might it provide a space to do something else? There is perhaps a distinction to be made here between South African sf and sf from South Africa, the former marked by its setting and concerns, the latter by the nationality of its author or its site of production.
In terms of readership, Deirdre C. Byrne has blamed a ‘disparity between levels of technological literacy’ for the genre’s frequently lukewarm reception in South Africa. It would make more sense to first point the finger at ‘old fashioned’, lo-fi literacy, but still, in a country that struggles to provide water and electricity, never mind the internet, the familiarity with technology sf demands could put it beyond the ken of potential readers. More interestingly, Byrne also draws attention to the entanglement between sf and America in the South African imagination: ‘Since science fiction novels, films, and TV programs generally reach South Africa from the United States, the inaccessibility of an American lifestyle is associated with the science fiction genre.’ For better or worse, Jungle Jim’s pulp aesthetic maintains this association, although the opening story, Rossouw Nel’s ‘The Dead Yank’, suggests that homegrown sf might be ready to take the genre into new territory [see here for AiW’s extract from Nel’s ‘The Dead Yank’].
This story describes the narrator’s encounter with a ‘handlanger’, or day labourer, who is needed to load ‘chlorocell canisters’ onto a thruster-powered ‘wa’ bound for Koeberg. So far, so South African – the language and location are clearly situated. The handlagers waiting at the city gates ‘looked like able seamen, half of which were lascars’, but one, the Yank, stood out: ‘He was wearing a dress that hung down to his ankles, a naughty violation of the sumptuary laws.’ Gender norms are made strange here, and are further disrupted when we find out that the narrator, a merchant trader, is a woman, and a lesbian – she describes the Captain of the Watch as ‘a man I would’ve bedded if I were otherwise inclined.’
This is not the only twist the story holds. It is revealed at the end that the Yank is one of the ‘Teddyboys’, a group thought to wait in ambush on the peripheries of the city. He is described for most of the story through the racist stereotypes usually reserved for Africans – he is sullen, ‘uncivilised’, and commended for knowing his place – but turns out to be an ‘American-African’, presumably the name for some future population in a radically different South Africa. He flees the trader’s vessel mid-journey, and is next seen dead, crucified feet-up in a public execution.
On the surface, the story seems to be making a fairly obvious statement about the evils of racism, the race reversal providing the requisite O. Henrian twist in the tail. The anxieties this future projection reveals about the present, however, are a bit more complex. The story encodes unease over energy provision (Koeberg is the site of South Africa’s only nuclear power plant), unemployment, gender and sexuality, class, and white disempowerment. Although these issues are hardly unique to South Africa, they do encapsulate some of the major concerns of the postapartheid period. If any parallels with the American model remain, they are less to do with material aspirations, and more to do with the two countries’ frontier myths, and the accompanying fear that in these porous places, past dominance may be repaid in kind.
It is uncertain what role Jungle Jim might play in shaping the future of sf in South Africa – the readership is at present small, and the budget smaller. The space the magazine provides for such speculative projections of contemporary societal malaise, though, is both unique and welcome. As the magazine’s back cover proclaims:
WANTS TO HEAR FROM YOU!
See also AiW’s Q&A with Jenna Bass – co-founder and editor of Jungle Jim pulp fiction magazine – where Jenna talks about Jungle Jim‘s aesthetic and award-winningJoey Hifi’s cover of JJ16, amongst other things.
There are five extracts from Jungle Jim stories (issues 9-16) on AiW, including ‘The Dead Yank’ by Rossouw Nel.