At the weekend I watched District 9, the South African science-fiction film. In one way, it’s a rollicking action film, with a feel not too far away from Children of Men – automatic weapons battles being followed by hand-held cameras. In another way, it deals with massive issues like xenophobia and inhumane treatment (err, a bit like Children of Men). Being South African, and being about a situation where a large number of aliens are living in a shanty town with few rights and to the disgust of the humans around them, it has clear parallels to apartheid. It also touches on the more recent problems with violence towards and between refugees and immigrants from other African countries. There’s one glaring issue with the plot (spoiler alert) which is that these aliens (called ‘prawns’ as a term of abuse) appear to be making or at least holding powerful weapons that only they can use, but spend their time selling them to humans rather than, say, using them to defend themselves or even for their own gain.
Other than that, it was a good story, with a hapless hero who simultaneously becomes less human and yet more human as the film progresses.
It reminded me that ages ago I signed up to the fans’ group of Robot Army Books, and that since then I’d read one of their books and not done anything about it. Moxyland by Lauren Beukes is also South African, and is set in a Cape Town a few years from now. It follows four young people with different backgrounds as their lives collide in what I’d have called a cyberpunk plot. Society is divided, and there is a form of apartheid, only not based on race (so much) as it is on whether you are part of the corporate world or not. Genetic experiments in advertising, graffiti-based hacker terrorism, new means of social-order control and the hassles of trying to make a living from online gaming form a world that is perhaps sliding into a dystopia while fooling itself that it’s on the brink of a new dawn.
Both stories have some common themes, with societal division and oppression being perhaps an obvious product of the South African experience. Another was an increasing and sinister role for corporations – in District 9 it is not the government but a multinational company (called MultiNational United or MNU) which is ‘dealing’ with the prawn problem and seeking to exploit the alien technology through any means – and I wonder whether this is just coincidence based on two plots or whether this is also a common theme in South African speculative fiction.
Whatever the reasons, I’m certainly going to try and find more South African SF and see if it’s as good as these examples