Frankenstein’s creator was nothing if not bad-ass. Not only did the monster’s inventor keep a dead spouse’s heart in a jar where it could be seen every day; the author was also a trailblazer in the science fiction genre. And, she was a woman.
A number of female sci fi writers have followed in the footsteps of Mary Shelley, Frakenstein’s creator; among them the likes of Ursula LeGuin, Nnedi Okorafor and, in the dystopian sub-genre, Margaret Atwood. Now, South African women authors are making their own forays into the realm of speculative fiction.
As JT Lawrence, author of Why You Were Taken – a story set in a dystopian futuristic Johannesburg – notes, the democratisation of publishing means that readers and reviewers are actively seeking out under-represented voices. But that doesn’t mean that the women who are tackling subjects from bomb-detecting locusts to hot alien love affairs have it easy. Says Melissa Delport, author of the Legacy series, “My publisher once told me that male readers don’t like to read female authors. Considering that sci fi is a genre that generally appeals more to male readers, we have a built-in challenge.”
Maybe that male bias is to be expected, given that topics like robotics and rockets have, traditionally, been promoted amongst men rather than women, right down to school level. Even Lawrence admits that she is sometimes taken aback when she comes across a fellow female cyberpunk author. “Science fiction has always had a pervasive male culture and a gender equality problem, despite Mary Shelley’s contribution in the early 19th century. Just looking at the pert, scantily clad women needing rescuing on vintage sci-fi covers will tell you all you need to know about the genre pre-2000. In a way, the sexism today bothers me more than those pulp covers because it’s so insidious. It’s so built in. I’ve been a feminist since I could toddle and even I catch myself doing a double take when I see female authors: why is a woman writing hard sci-fi, I wonder. What is the appeal? Which is really strange, because I don’t have the same reaction to female scientists, or engineers, or hackers. And this is despite knowing that the Nebula Awards have recently been dominated by women. All I can hope for is that we’ll all evolve swiftly and that my daughter won’t be at all surprised when she learns that her mother writes novels about #roborights and androids that can bleed. It’ll be obvious to her that female spec-fic authors are more than necessary — books like Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ comes to mind — because we bring an essential perspective to the genre that men can’t.”
So why, if it’s difficult to gain traction as an author in this genre, do women writers love it? Probably because it’s like a license for your characters to be, and do, whatever they want. For Sibongile Fisher, whose short story A Door Ajar won the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize, the allure lies in “admitting that the lines between magic and life are blurred that in fact magic is life, and life is magic. The term speculative fiction is an umbrella genre, making it very inclusive. A story with a realistic setting but a magical plot is speculative fiction, sci-fi, fantasy and horror all rolled into one. It is a playground for an ungovernable imagination.”
Delport feels the same way. “It’s pure escapism. The joy lies in building worlds.” And Lawrence agrees: “I find writing speculative fiction is more invetive than regular fiction. All of a sudden, the boundaries of what is ‘real’ are softened and more permeable. It’s an exciting way to write. We can have all the best parts of non-spec: humour, suspense, psychological thrills … but we get to add robotic pirañas in, too.”
There are drawbacks, though. Delport, who also writes romantic suspense novels, says that her books in the latter genre have far out-performed her nine speculative fiction books. Even in the broader world of publishing, sci fi is a niche. Put that niche in the South African sphere, where anything that sells 10 000 copies is considered a bestseller, and you can see why local publishing houses are reluctant to invest money into what they view as a hard sell.
Not that this is deterring authors. Delport notes that many writers have become experts at marketing themselves, especially over social media. Lawrence definitely falls into this category. And, like Delport (whose largest reader base is located in the United States), she’s looked beyond borders to grow her following. “Why You Were Taken was turned down by every major publisher in South African because ‘sci-fi doesn’t sell’, despite the worldwide data that says it’s a hot category. Now SA authors of all genres no longer have to linger on our extremely limited playing fields. International print-on-demand publishers and ebook retailers like Amazon have blown it wide open. I sell books in my sleep to readers in the US, UK, Canada, Mexico, and India. I’m serving the very market that local publishers refused to see. Speculative fiction is trending hard and my work is finding its way onto hundreds of hungry Kindles.”
This being the case, we can probably look forward to seeing even more authors enter the realm. Delport believes that the growth of young audiences will see to this. “A lot of readers have been created through the development of the Young Adult genre. It’s been a significant development, because before authors like John Greene, you went straight from Enid Blyton to your mom’s paperbacks. And, since a lot of the books in this category are dystopian, we might well see the genre grow as its fans grow older.
Fisher is also excited about what the future holds. “Sales might be small but they don’t represent consumption. We’re coming into our own; we’re shifting – all industries are. The Nommo awards introduced by ASFS (the African Speculative Fiction Society) are evidence of this change, evidence of a growing internal gaze and celebration of African writing.”
As Lawrence says, “We’re living in the future, and it’s a great place to be.”