Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium may not be doing much for the reputation of South African alternate reality fiction, but fortunately there’s so much more high-quality local stuff around since the release of District 9 that it shouldn’t make too much difference in the long run. In the vanguard of SA speculative writing is – of course – Lauren Beukes, the success of whose The Shining Girls means she can now be counted as part of the international establishment for sci-fi and magical realism.
I mention Beukes here, because she’s credited as both mentor and inspiration by Charlie Human in the acknowledgements section of Apocalypse Now Now, the Capetonian’s debut novel. Her influence is almost palpable throughout the book. Perhaps that’s unfair to Human, but there are broad enough similarities in his tale of a hidden world of mythological creatures, shamans and warlocks which lurk behind the respectable surface of Cape Town’s middle class suburbs and the mystical characters of Zoo City that comparisons are unavoidable.
Beyond those surface similarities, however, Human takes his story in a very different direction to anything Beukes has done in her three novels, and by doing so proves that there’s plenty of ideas as yet unexplored within the genre locally. Apocalypsed Now Now tells the story of 16-year-old Baxter Zevcenko, a Capetonian Holden Caulfield for the Facebook generation. Privileged, white and resentful of everything (especially his autistic brother) Zevcenko is moody, cynical, disaffected and, frankly, downright unpleasant.
Zevcenko’s world is already odd and dark and only vaguely believable: where the school playground is dominated by gang warfare between the drug pushers and the arms dealers, the boy’s solution is to become a porn baron and sell his wares to both sides. If that’s fantastical, though, all belief must be suspended when the paranormal element kicks in and it turns out the demons in the fantasy flesh fests that are Zevcenko’s best sellers aren’t actually well hung stars in costume…
Starting off from stories of the almost-forgotten Afrikaans medicine men known as ‘sieners’, Human weaves an entertaining story of comic book violence and paranormal horrors that takes in San mythology, the Boer War and the changing face of Cape Town.
Human doesn’t hang around long enough to think about that too much though, and the book’s pace is spectacularly quick. Sometimes, this is great – there are plenty of twists to keep the reader on their feet and lots of humorous vignettes to enjoy along the way. Human is knowing and funny, and while some of the one liners and punsare packed with Roger–Moore-as-James–Bond corn, there’s enough that work to leave the final balance in Human’s favour.
Sometimes, however, you are left wishing the novel would slow down. By the end it could well be that all the loose ends have been neatly tied up, I just don’t know if I remember them all well enough to be sure. It feels as though if Human wanted to, he could write the definitive insight into the dark corners of South African private schooling, for example, and be properly terrifying without needing the gross-out horrorand comic-book mad men who give their demon-slaying shotguns a name that feature in Apocalypse Now Now.
Then again, if Human were to go all po-faced we’d have missed the humorous vignettes that litter the book.
For example, in the zombie strip club (where the material being taken off isn’t clothes):
Politicians are delicately sucking the marrow out of dismembered pinkie fingers, and several members of the national cricket team sip congealed blood from Martini glasses. The Cape Town elite, it seems, are into zombie chic gourmet cannibalism. Fucking poseurs.
And quickly on to the next joke:
Human brain by the looks of it; a small congealed pink mess surrounded by squiggles of marinade and topped with an artfully carved cucumber. Even gourmet cannibalism is a rip-off.
Human almost never fails to not take himself too seriously. There’s even a few artful jibes at the role of journalists and digital marketing folk in the hip new connected world – his own background, in fact.
At the start of the book, there’s the danger with Apocalypse Now Now is that the title is the cleverest thing about the book: it obviously isn’t, but even by the end there’s the nagging suspicion that in many scenes the wordplay came first and the novel was built around that. To go back to the earlier comparison, whereas Beukes’ books are cleverly layered with meanings and allegories and set in painstakingly detailed worlds, the only extra dimensions to Apocalypse Now Now are a set ofalternate realities which can be traversed with a pair of physical totems in the shape of a giant octopus and a very large mantis.
Don’t at all think that’s a criticism. The world needs skop, skiet en donner as much as it needs Battleship Potemkin. And as far as Human adds range to the slowly evolving genre of South African sci-fi and fantasy, Apocaplypse Now Now is a very strong debut and I’m looking forward to reading more.