EXTRACT: The Wisdom of Adders

An extract from the novella by Dan Wylie.Dan Wylie

It was the Entu. Right enough, but it looked nothing like she had envisaged. In a great broadening swathe across the flat country to the west, a tongue of shimmering silver flecked with rust and peppery black flanked a twinned strip of concrete highway, like the striped down a skunk’s back. Immediately below them this tongue was petering out in tufted grass, the surface broken up and the roadway narrowing to scale she could recognise. To the east, the track curved away towards the hills of home.

And now she could locate what had disturbed her – not so much an emptier sough of wind across that waste areas, but a scent: metallic and caustic.

“Is it the Atomscorch?”

“Not really,” said Mali. “An extension of it, I suppose. The edge of Nummers’ industrial zone, as far as it got before the oil and power died out. Take a look.”

Through Mali’s telescope she could see that the bare areas constituted of bleached gravel shot through with granules of glass and laced with streaks of poisonous black. Here and there were visible ribs of old drainage channels and stubs of rusted stanchions or half-buried elbows of massive machineries.

“No grass,” Shawn noted. “It has to be seriously toxic – radioactive even.”

“I doubt that. A hundred years after the accident, not so much radioactivity left, even in the middle of the Scorch. People even living and breeding on it, with deformities sometimes though. Like MuKechnie.”

“Oh. But it got some close to home!”

Realising as she said so that this, really, was the point of real decision. They had in effect completed three sides of a square, and they were probably just a good day’s walk back along the Entu to get home. Her Spartan flat, her familiar sheets.

Or head west and north and into the total unknown.

She was momentarily distracted by a movement further up the highway, nothing much, no more than a flapping of some discarded rag, perhaps. But as she watched through the telescope, a figure straightened up from behind a sloping slab of concrete. At this distance, half a ki or so, she could discern only a sense of blackened shabbiness under some sort of greatcoat, a beard maybe. The figure appeared to have filled a sack or bag with something and began to drag it across the blue-grey gravel towards the edge of the open swathe. Following him, she now saw that a kind of bunker had been established against a slight slope, so covered with the surrounding materials, its asymmetric entrance so tiny, it was all but invisible. Through the narrow slot another figure now immerged, equally ragged, coated with disguising rags and dust, but Shawn had the impression it was a woman. Together the pair crouched in front of the bunker, and she could just make out a shimmer of heated air between them; some kind of smokeless fire, or heating unit.

“What are they doing?”

“Scavengers,” said Mali. “Getting out heavy metals, maybe, or melting glass down for trinkets.”

There were no other signs of life. They waited. There seemed nothing else to do. Shawn was reluctant to try to cross this strip of bleached disaster in broad daylight. To the west the sky seemed heavy with a kind of fervent bronze energy; she did not want to go any closer to that, but wondered what the territory north of the Entu might hold in store. And she wondered when she ought to tell Mali to go home. It was getting late in the day; maybe in the morning. And there was, she had to admit, a certain apprehension lurking in the pit of her belly about spending this particular night alone.

Mali, for his part, seemed content to sit in silence, self-contained as a carving in oiled teak.

Shawn watched the ragged couple for a while in their mysterious activity, but could make nothing of it. Then she noticed they had straightened up and were staring down the highway. Shawn followed their gaze with the telescope. Out of the wavering haze, the sun dropping a brassy glaze over the wasteland, emerged two figures, then three, no, four – tall, spiky, seeming for a time to float on molten glass. The scavengers began to scurry and bend, hiding or preparing things it was impossible to say. Advancing, the newcomers resolved into four horsemen. In that light, they seemed plated with metal and to bristle with spears or rifles, or both; Shawn couldn’t make out. As she watched they urged their mounts into a gallop; by the time they reached the bunker the scavengers had vanished. The horsemen halted and circled, raising a threatening swirl of dust. One dismounted and bent to peer into the lop-sided slot of the bunker.

The Wisdom of Adders can be purchased from Amazon. Read the review here.

REVIEW: The Wisdom of Adders

BY ALAN MULLER

Adders by Dan Wylie

Addo, Adder, Addis. To Shawn Xaba, the protagonist of Dan Wylie’s The Wisdom of Adders, these places may just as well be one and the same. In 2170 South Africa, places have been stripped of their historical weight by an ecological cataclysm, rendering most of the country’s landscape barren and largely unpopulated except for a few isolated communities and freeway bandits. Set in (what used to be) Grahamstown, and the Eastern Cape, the young Shawn, after abandoning her work post and missing curfew, is sentenced to collecting coal from the “Coastal Line” near Port Alfred some 60km away. In a world where motorised travel has become a thing of the past, this is, of course, easier said than done.

To add to the arduous journey, Shawn, accompanied by the mysterious Mali, must navigate the Atomscorch – a landscape ravaged by radioactive fallout from a malfunctioning nuclear reactor some 100 years prior. Additionally, after global capitalism and industry had ravaged the planet, there had been the “Millennial Mission of Twenty-One Hundred”; a failed mission to colonise Mars that resulted only in the eventual death of the cosmic colonisers on the planet. Between the reader’s present and 2017, there has also been a near total loss of historical context and knowledge as places and institutions take on new names that are mere homophones of the places they used to denote. Port Alfred is reduced to Palfred which has since been overcome by rising sea levels while national highways like the N2 and N10 have become the Entu and Enten and home to bandits and are traversed only by brave merchants who scour the Atomscorch for “trinkets and techno-baubles”.

Wylie’s post-apocalyptic novella is at once both an emptying out and filling up in terms of its ecocritical approach to such a disaster. While the landscape is initially all but emptied of its flora and fauna (humans included), nature proves resilient and increasingly intrude into the narrative as it progresses. The novel begins and ends with the elusive adder while a jackal proves omnipresent yet is only as visible as it chooses to be. More striking though, is the discovery that Shawn and Mali make in Adder (an area west of what was Grahamstown); a species long thought eradicated by humans and the Atomscorch. Nature, it seems, has a way of bouncing back from the most aggressive assaults.

Although nature and acological crises come to the fore in The Wisdom of Adders, the novella’s plot and setting are not entirely emptied of their political baggage. A centralised government may be something of the distant past and is not even mentioned but racial politics does rear its all-too-familiar head. While South Africa has become “a country of browns”, there are rare racial exceptions in the form of ‘Throwblacks’ like Mali and even rarer ‘Whitebacks’ like the Tharfields. While the backstory of why Mali’s lineage remained black is unclear, the Tharfields openly boast about their 1820 settler roots and how they remained ‘pure’ by resisting what they saw as shameless miscegenation as the population shrank.

The Wisdom of Adders is a stylistically slick novella that incorporates poetry into its already lyrical prose. Before embarking on her journey, Shawn is befriended by the mystical Stormchaser who gives her a collection of his poetry to take along. She and Mali read some of these to one another along their journey and the reader is able to glimpse a flash of Wylie as a poet also. Having published seven collections to date, his poetry is able to stand on its own but complement the novella well in their ecocritical themes. Wylie’s seventh collection, Slow Fires seems to function as a poetic genesis for this novella with its focus on the lives of animals and inevitability of the cycle of birth and death (read Finuala Dowling’s review of the collection here). The novella also mirrors a scene from a poem titled “Even a darkness which may be felt” as people run to scoop up locusts, making the best of an approaching swarm.

The Wisdom of Adders joins a growing body of outstanding ecocritical speculative fictions to emerge from South Africa in recent years such as Henrietta Rose-Innes’ novels Nineveh and Green Lion, Cain Prize-winning story “Poison”; and Nick Wood’s “Thirstlands” and “Of Hearts and Monkeys”.

The Wisdom of Adders can be purchased from Amazon.

WORK/LIFE: Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okafor

Nnedi Okorafor is a professor of creative writing and literature at the University of Buffalo and has degrees in rhetoric, journalism and English. She writes African-based science fiction, fantasy and magical realism for both children and adults. Her books novels include Who Fears Death (winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and Le Prix Imaginales for Best Translated Novel), Akata Witch (an Amazon.com Best Book of the Year), Zahrah the Windseeker (winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature), The Shadow Speaker (winner of the CBS Parallax Award) and Lagoon (finalist for Best Novel in the British Science Fiction Association award for Best Novel and a Red Tentacle Award for Best Novel). She is currently working with Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu (Pumzi) on a feature film, Camel Racer, with Triggerfish Animation Studios.

What does “writing” mean?

Removing ideas/narratives/thoughts from my mind and putting/structuring those things in a way others can understand them.

Which book changed your life?

The Talisman by Stephen King and Famished Road by Ben Okri.

Your favourite fictional character?

Omar on the show The Wire.

What are you working on at the moment?

Multiple novels, film projects and a comic book series.

Describe your workspace.

Spacious, isolated, sunny, close to the refrigerator, cushioned and technologically advanced.

The most important instrument you use?

My brain.

What’s your most productive time of day?

The early morning.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I wait.

How do you relax?

By working out, drinking tea, using mint oil on my skin, hanging out with my daughter.

Who and what has influenced your work?

This question is too broad. Like the title of the Douglas Adams novel – Life, the Universe and Everything.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Don’t waste your time talking about it; do it.

Your favourite ritual?

Working out 6 days a week.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Taking a break because of eye strain.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

I accept myself as I am, flaws and all. So this is not a way I think of myself.

What are you afraid of?

Spiders, wind farm wind mills (yes, it’s totally irrational), tornados.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

Cultivate your love of writing, as a practice and an art above all things.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

There are many things I am proud of. I don’t think hierarchically, so I don’t put things above things. The “tiniest” thing could be the reason the “biggest” thing exists. Everything is connected.

Okorafor will be participating in the upcoming Open Book Festival in Cape Town, which runs from the 7 – 11 September 2016. Find out about her appearances here.

Afterwards, the search

BY ALAN MULLER

It is usually with a certain measure of apprehension that I approach a novel of over 400 pages. Fred Strydom’s debut novel, however, has left me questioning my prejudice based on pagination. The premise, essentially, is simple: a man goes looking for his son. What Strydom does with this simple premise, however, is what positions The Raft as a must-read, even for hardened “realist” readers. The novel opens some months after a mysterious event known as Day Zero that seems to have reset the mental odometer of every person on earth back to zero. With no memories to maintain social relations, nuclear families dissolve and individuals are forced to fend for themselves as fragmented memories (sometimes) come back to them.

It is in this (a)historical context that the reader is introduced to the novel’s protagonist, Kayle Jenner, who remembers almost nothing except for dreams of a son who is no longer with him. As the months pass, Kayle begins to ‘remember’ a family; a wife, and a daughter who was killed in a hit-and-run incident shortly before Day Zero. Strydom’s treatment of the novel’s relative absence of chronological and therefore reliable memory is where the text finds its primary strength.

Cultural theorist Chris Barker defines ‘space’ as “an abstract idea, an empty or dead space which is filled with various concrete, specific and human places” (2000:292) and defines ‘place’ as the focus of “human experience, memory, desire and identity” (291). By eliminating memory and identity, Strydom essentially empties space of human places, rendering social and physical borders useless and open to renegotiation. Social organisations are redefined and restructured, giving rise to a number of ‘communes’ that are governed by a mysterious organisation known as The Body. The Body has the ability to read an individual’s dreams and memories, and to punish members of the commune who do not regularly take their dream suppressants. Due punishment comes in the form of being tied to a raft and being set adrift on the ocean for an uncertain length of time. After Kayle is found to be in contravention of commune laws, he is set adrift on such a raft but, after washing up on a deserted beach, realises that the leather umbilicus that was to keep him tied to the commune has come undone. Once beyond the repressive strictures of the commune, Kayle decides to search for a son whom he does not know and who may not remember him at all.

Additionally, the erasure of both individual and collective memory affords the text a lot of elbow room and perhaps complicates what it means to be a ‘South African’ novel. Although the novel is peppered with place markers such as the sign reading “WELCOME WELKOM BETTYSBAAI”, the South African cultural landscape is devoid of its collective memory. Making no mention of race, colonialism or apartheid, the novel manages to avoid telling a well-known South African story yet still manages to work the slight local references into its pages. In discussion with Andrea van Wyk, Strydom qualifies his motivation for using the genre of speculative fiction to tell his story:

Maybe we don’t have to commit ourselves to introspective and retrospective fiction. Maybe, for a change, we can try speculative fiction; fiction about where we are possibly headed as opposed to where we have come from.

This being said, the main criticism I have of the novel (and it isn’t a big one) is that there is no mention of the racial diversity that would undeniably still exist in an acultural and largely ahistorical South African landscape. A point of contention that arose at a number of panels at the 2015 conference of the African Literature Association held in Bayreuth, Germany, was that science fiction often sees a Western white man ‘save the day’. If one were to level the same criticism at The Raft, one might argue that Strydom deviates from this convention only slightly by having a South African as the redeeming protagonist but he is nevertheless a white male.

Strydom’s prose is efficient in the manner of the later Cormac McCarthy in that it eschews overly adjectival fluff, distilling the novel – despite its length of just over 400 pages – to a form that takes up only as much room as it really needs to. Kayle Jenner’s journey is guided by the recounted memories of those he encounters as he searches for his son, Andy, so, while the novel does have a single protagonist, the multiple narrative perspectives are welcome and refreshing without becoming bewildering. These guides include the wise gardener, Moneta; pregnant Jai-Li; astronomer and pilot of the Chang’e II, Shen; and the perfect paterfamilias and robot, Father. As a whole, The Raft makes great strides toward legitimising the genres of science and speculative fiction – genres often considered ‘pulpy’ or ‘airport fiction’ within the South African literary market – by delving into matters beyond world-building and merely spinning a good yarn. The novel’s existential questioning and Kayle’s search for identity in a world informed by fragmentary and often fallible memories, leaves the reader with one question that avoids easy answers: who am I really?

The Raft is published by Umuzi and is set for publication in the US by Skyhorse Publishing during 2016. Listen to Strydom in discussion with Andrea van Wyk here.