This website provides access to my published and unpublished short stories, novels and opinion pieces. I wrote my first “novel” at age eleven, a meandering piece that petered out after some 130 handwritten pages.
As a child I stood in awe of writers like Andre Brink, the internationally-known prize-winning South African author who happened to be a family friend. Bookshelves lined the walls of his study. He seemed perpetually lost in thought and took surreptitious notes during discussions. His woollen jersey had leather patches on the elbows and he carried that slightly stuffy, bookish aura of the “successful writer”.
For a long time my idea of being a writer was synonymous with working in a comfortable study with a leather couch and a view on the ocean, doing writing retreats somewhere in Tuscany or Catalonia. One zips off a chapter every day or so in between sipping red wine and nibbling at plump olives and goat’s cheese. Little did I know that even successful writers struggled.
I grew up on a steady diet of Edgar Rice Burroughs, W. E. Johns and Louis L’Amour. My universe was populated with rugged, uncomplicated heroes like Biggles the WWI fighter pilot, Tarzan the Apeman, John Carter, and the Sackett brothers, along with all their pre-PC warts and carbuncles. This was uncritical acceptance of the rapidly vanishing memories of the frontiers of Western Civilisation and the adventures of the “White Tribe of Africa”, the Afrikaners, on the fringes of the British Empire. To my generation Blazing saddles (1974) was comedy, not social critique, and it resonated with the South African situation in so many ways. Simultaneously, I was struck by Soldier Blue (1970) and the Native Americans became tragic heroes.
With tail-end “colonial” literature as a foundation, I delved into the grand masters of science fiction: writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, A.E. van Vogt, Robert Silverberg, Ursula le Guin, E.E. Doc Smith and Walter M. Miller. The latter wrote A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I still consider one of the best scifi novels ever. Naturally also Frank Herbert’s Dune. The stories of these writers were driven by a familiar sense of adventure. Back on planet Earth colonies may well have been becoming independent while colonial empires collapsed, but space remained a stage for Caucasian conquest. In those days space was white and very American or European.
Once I wrote to Arthur C. Clarke, criticising him for the “misuse” of a South African titbit in one of his novels. To my surprise he responded. His wife was South African, he explained. Many years later, I read with dismay the allegations against him and have unfortunately lost the letter. Nonetheless, the contact served as further inspiration. I would write science-fiction writer and by age 13 I was off on a good start writing reviews of Afrikaans youth books for the Sunday paper Rapport.
Colonial-era writing, those mysterious blank spaces on colonial maps, and science-fiction, awakened in me a lifelong interest in history, archaeology and evolution. I knew much more about ancient civilisations in the Near East and Meditterranean, obscure tribes and ancient fossils than about the prescribed work at school. I had regular arguments with the Latin teacher about human evolution and South African politics. This angered my classmates for these exchanges invariably threw the Latin teacher into fits of religiously and racially motivated anger, which was no laughing matter. We still had corporal punishment in those days and the Latin teacher often relied on it to win an argument.
Several short stories in literary magazines, and a non-fiction publication later, it seemed to me that classic science-fiction was waning in the face of Fantasy. I had recognised by now that science-fiction tended to project fears and hopes of the present into the future. Might a lack of hope and expectations of the future explain the younger generations’ preference for fantasy?
Social anthropology, a colonial discipline par excellence, had long been “repatriated” to the West as social critique. With the luxury of introspection at one’s disposal, past was not what it used to be and writing about adventure – present, past or future – had become a more perilous affair. One should not even use the word “colonisation” to refer to the settlement of planets, as a space anthropologist recently argued. Reality had come home and fantasy was the way out.
Living in Germany as a political exile in the 1980s, I was struck by the cultural despondency of young Germans. Nazi abuse and misuse of culture lay at the roots of immense discomfort about taking pride in anything German. Some four or five centuries of Western economic and cultural domination of the world seemed to have spoiled the past for many young Europeans and Americans.
The Fantasy writer has utter control over the boundaries of good and evil. Does any scene harbour within it social or politically unacceptable or incorrect meaning? – Then simply redesign it. Only the pedantic narratologist would bother arguing that epics like Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, or Harry Potter harbour within them reactionary subtext. However, ultimately even Fantasy is not immune to post-modern introspection and cannot, ultimately, escape the devastation of social critique.
I had participated actively my generation’s rebellion against apartheid. As an academic and anthropologist I understand the power of “deconstruction” and related academic tools. Yet, the cultural despondency of younger generations seem excessive and ultimately ahistorical to me. Social critique has set the scene for its own demise and a backlash is sure to come. It is no longer unusual to hear that “the professors,” especially in the humanities, are “out of touch” with social dynamics outside the politically correct university islands.
Ideological instability in the Western world is dangerous, that much history has shown. It therefore seems hat we have some rebalancing to do, that there is a need to move away from destructive identity politics, to cultivate cultural self-confidence in a way that unites rather than divides people.
Science-fiction can help by reigniting the lost sense of adventure and to rebuild the cultural confidence needed to take the future by storm.
I hope to contribute to that. Thus far, I feel extremely lucky as a writer. The very first proper novel that I’d written, “Thomas and the Hole in the Universe”, was published and won a literary award. The very first film script I’d written, in partnership with a former friend, was sold to New Constantine Films, the producers of “Name of the Rose,” “The Constant Gardener” and the more recent film about Hitler’s last days, “The Downfall.”
Most of my current writing focuses on various fascisms and forms of identity that go along with these. What choices does the individual have when faced with large-scale systemic conflicts? How do people act ethically within unethical systems?
In this I am influenced by my upbringing under an Afrikaner nationalist system and experiences in the South African Defence Force; also by the several years that I had spent in exile, mainly in Germany, and my work as a consultant and trainer in different parts of the world. Also important is my background as an anthropologist and the systematic perspective that this gives one on different cultures and social systems.
Work in progress include a science fiction trilogy and several short stories in the making. One of the latter will appear in in the third quarter 2013 addition of Abyss & Apex. I am also working on a science-fiction script named “Survival”, and have a couple of other ideas.
Other writers, including scriptwriters, are welcome to get hold of me via the contact page.
#sciencefiction #scifi #arthurcclarke #socialcritique #postmodernism #colonialliterature