Science fiction has struggled to achieve the same credibility as highbrow literature. In 2019, the celebrated author Ian McEwan dismissed science fiction as the stuff of “anti-gravity boots” rather than “human dilemmas”. According to McEwan, his own book about intelligent robots, Machines Like Me, provided the latter by examining the ethics of artificial life – as if this were not a staple of science fiction from Isaac Asimov’s robot stories of the 1940s and 1950s to TV series such as Humans (2015-2018).
Psychology has often supported this dismissal of the genre. The most recent psychological accusation against science fiction is the “great fantasy migration hypothesis”. This supposes that the real world of unemployment and debt is too disappointing for a generation of entitled narcissists. They consequently migrate to a land of make-believe where they can live out their grandiose fantasies.
The authors of a 2015 study stress that, while they have found evidence to confirm this hypothesis, such psychological profiling of “geeks” is not intended to be stigmatising. Fantasy migration is “adaptive” – dressing up as Princess Leia or Darth Vader makes science fiction fans happy and keeps them out of trouble.
But, while psychology may not exactly diagnose fans as mentally ill, the insinuation remains – science fiction evades, rather than confronts, disappointment with the real world.
The case of ‘Kirk Allen’
The psychological accusation that science fiction evades real life goes back to the 1950s. In 1954, the psychoanalyst Robert Lindner published his case study of the pseudonymous “Kirk Allen”, a patient who maintained an extraordinary fantasy life modelled on pulp science fiction.
Allen believed he was at once a scientist on Earth – and simultaneously an interplanetary emperor. He believed he could enter his other life by mental time travel into the far-off future, where his destiny awaited in scenes of power, respect, and conquest – both military and sexual.
Lindner explained Allen’s condition as an escape from overwhelming mental anguish rooted in childhood trauma. But Lindner, himself a science fiction fan, remarked also on the seductive attraction of Allen’s second life, which began to offer, as he put it, a “fatal fascination”. The message was clear. Allen’s psychosis was extreme, but it showed in stark clarity what drew readers to science fiction: an imagined life of power and status that compensated for the readers’ own deficiencies and disappointments.
Lindner’s words mattered. He was an influential cultural commentator, who wrote for US magazines such as Time and Harper’s. The story of Kirk Allen was published in the latter, and in Lindner’s book of case studies, The Fifty-Minute Hour, which became a successful popular paperback.
Psychology had very publicly diagnosed science fiction as a literature of evasion – an “escape hatch” for the mentally troubled. Science fiction answered back, decisively changing the genre in the following decades.
To take one example: Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream (1972) purports to reprint a prize-winning 1954 science fiction novel. The novel is apparently written, in an alternate history timeline, by Adolf Hitler, who gave up politics, emigrated to the US, and became a successful science fiction author and illustrator. A fictional critical afterword explains that Hitler’s novel, with its “fetishistic military displays and orgiastic bouts of unreal violence”, is just a more extreme version of the “pathological literature” that dominates the genre.
In her review of The Iron Dream, the now-celebrated science fiction author Ursula Le Guin – daughter of the distinguished anthropologist Alfred Kroeber – wrote that the “essential gesture of SF” is “distancing, the pulling back from ‘reality’ in order to see it better”, including “our desires to lead, or to be led”, and “our righteous wars”. Le Guin wanted science fiction to make strange the North American society of her time, showing afresh its peculiar psychology, culture, and politics.
In 1972, the US was still fighting the Vietnam War. In the same year, Le Guin offered her own “distanced” version of social reality in The Word for World is Forest, which depicts the attempted colonisation of an inhabited alien planet by a macho, militaristic Earth society intent on conquering and violating the natural world – a semi-allegory for what the USA was doing at the time in south-east Asia.
As well as repudiating the worst parts of the genre, such responses implied a positive model for science fiction. Science fiction wasn’t about evading reality – it was a literary anthropology which made our own society into a foreign culture which we could stand back from, reflect on, and change.
Rather than ask us to pull on our anti-gravity boots, open the escape hatch and leap into fantasy, science fiction typically aspires to be a literature that faces up to social reality. It owes this ambition, in part, to psychology’s repeated accusation that the genre markets escapism to the marginalised and disaffected.
In 2010 it was the centenary of the formation of that dubious political and geographical structure, the Union of South Africa, which would shape the focus of Plaatje’s many projects until his death in 1932. It was also in 1910 that he founded his second Setswana-language newspaper, Tsala ea Becoana.
Two years later, Plaatje was one of the eminent group who formed the South African Native National Congress, which would later become the African National Congress (ANC). In 2012, when the ANC celebrated its centenary, Plaatje’s name was often cited, although he has been more readily associated with a cosmopolitan, erudite – “elitist”? – strand in the ANC that did not fit with the populist brand emphasised by the party in the shift from Thabo Mbeki’s presidency to Jacob Zuma’s.
There was another hundred-year anniversary in 2016, this time of the publication of Native Life in South Africa. The book was Plaatje’s seminal response to the passage of the Natives Land Act of 1913. This notorious piece of legislation set a traumatic tone for the dispossession, segregation and violent oppression that would characterise late-colonial and apartheid South Africa as the 20th century wore on.
Here was Plaatje in strident “Give back the land!” mode, an appealing figure to those advocating for more radical approaches to redressing the disenfranchisement of black South Africans.
The year 1916 is also significant in the field of Plaatje studies because it was when he contributed his short bilingual English-Setswana essay “A South African’s Homage” to the Book of Homage to Shakespeare.
Here again, we have the paradox of Plaatje writ large. The “Homage” signals his future undertaking as a translator of Shakespeare’s plays into Setswana. He saw this as complementary work to his wider promotion of the language. Yet his affinity for Shakespeare cannot be disconnected from his attachment to Britain and to its empire, his role indeed as an imperial apologist, which can seem difficult to reconcile with some of his other political and literary credentials.
To make sense of this requires a deeper understanding of Plaatje’s historical context as well as his life’s trajectory, and the people, convictions, accidents and circumstances that shaped it. Happily, this is made possible by historian Brian Willan, who has chosen Plaatje as the main focus of his own life’s work and who knows his subject better than anyone else. Willan wrote a biography of Plaatje in 1984. The book seemed definitive until, in 2018, Jacana Media published his Sol Plaatje: A Life of Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje, 1876-1932.
A magisterial biography
“Magisterial” is a word too often applied to biographies that don’t quite merit the moniker. But in the case of Willan’s book it is entirely apt. This may not be the final word on Plaatje. Nevertheless, it is a text to which all future scholars and researchers working on Plaatje will have to refer.
At almost 600 pages it is an encyclopaedic tome, documenting Plaatje’s life and times in rich detail. The true achievement of the book, however, is that it manages to do this in an engaging manner and with a prose style that – while never “chatty” – imagines a kind of conversation with the reader.
One can follow the chronological narrative, through 18 chapters marking out distinct periods in Plaatje’s astonishingly productive life. Alternatively one can dip into and out of its pages, navigating its riches via the index, or even flipping idly between phases and themes.
Fortunately, Willan is neither zealous nor jealous when it comes to his subject. His collaborations with other scholars have yielded fruit in various other Plaatje-oriented publications. In 2016, Wits Press published a collection of essays on Native Life co-edited by Willan, Bhekizizwe Peterson and Janet Remmington.
Mhudi gets a new collection
Later this year, Jacana will publish a similar collection, co-edited by Willan and fellow Plaatje biographer Sabata-mpho Mokae, focusing on Plaatje’s novel Mhudi. I am fortunate to be one of the contributors to this volume.
Mhudi appeared in 1930 after an exhausting 10-year battle to get it into print. So 2020 marks another centenary of sorts.
What are we to make of this novel, with its eponymous heroine and her husband Ra-Thaga, whose lives coincide with major colonial-era clashes in the first half of the 1800s?
It seems, by turns, to be an imperial romance and an allegory that is critical of empire; a naïve vision of interracial cooperation and a reminder that history is relentless in its cycles of violence.
Is it an affirmation of tribal tradition, or a feminist riposte to patriarchal culture? Is it a patchy experiment in need of an editor, or a genre-busting proto-postmodern pastiche influenced as much by oral narrative traditions as by the polyvocality of Shakespearean drama?
What is beyond question is the significance of Mhudi as the first novel in English by a black South African writer.
The next wave
The novel’s original publisher, Lovedale Press, sadly faces the prospect of closure. But it is encouraging to note that other independent publishers have committed their resources to keeping Mhudi current. Blackman Roussouw’s Strandwolf imprint has brought out a new edition. Jacana also has plans to publish another edition alongside Willan and Mokae’s critical volume on the novel.
It is to be hoped that, by the time we reach the centennial celebration of Mhudi being published by Lovedale (1930) and the centennial commemoration of the author’s death in 2032, the new wave of scholarship on Plaatje will have challenged readers to grapple with this enigmatic, protean polymath anew.
Warning: this piece features frequent coarse language that may offend some readers.
Since Adam Mansbuch’s 2011 bestseller, Go the Fuck to Sleep, book titles have been swearing profusely to grab audience attention. The author followed up on the winning formula with You Have to Fucking Eat and Fuck, Now There Are Two of You.
Book covers compete with a barrage of information and images, so it’s no wonder many writers resort to shock tactics. It works. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck is testament to this, selling 2 million copies and translated into 25 languages. Without the “Fuck” this would very likely have been a different story.
In the English language, at least, fuck and other words on the more extreme end of profanity are the last frontier of using language to shock. In 2020, we find ourselves in a place of extremes so they come in quite handy.
But with so many fucks on book covers, where do writers go from here to express our fear, horror, rage and disgust?
Heard it all before
Eventually we become desensitised to the overuse of words. Shit, a taboo for older generations, is now so lacking as an obscenity it is written on the covers of notebooks and pencil cases available in stationery chain stores popular with schoolchildren, such as Typo.
According to a 2019 ABC study of 1,538 subjects, Australians are seeing and hearing more coarse language than they did five years ago, both in the media and in public.
“In line with this normalisation of coarse language, concerns relating to the use of coarse language in the media have diminished over time,” the study found. Of people studied, 38% were offended by coarse language on TV, radio or the internet in 2019, compared with 47% in 2011.
Tennis, one of the last bastions of politeness, does constant battle with players like Nick Kyrgios who rack up massive fines for dropping the F-bomb on the court.
Fines, like detention, seem to be on the train that has left the station when you consider reputable online booksellers currently carry almost a hundred books with fuck in the title. Most of these are self-help books, because we are, obviously, quite fucked and need help, and cookbooks, such as Yumi Stynes’ The Zero Fucks Cookbook. Kitchens seem to be a hotbed of fucks, a trend set some time ago by Gordon Ramsay.
Meaning and language are in a constant evolution and can act as a moral barometer. Expressing the fears and horrors of her times 200 years ago, author Mary Shelley created a “fiend”, formed through “unspeakable” horrors. Some initially derided the work as “disgusting”, but the extremes of her Frankenstein left an impact on literature and society of mythic proportions, without resorting to profanity or cheap tricks. She left the unspeakable to our imaginations, yet it broke boundaries and challenged our understanding of life and human nature.
In 1959, the unabridged edition of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published with several instances of fuck. The edition was banned. In 1963, fuck was included in the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, triggering complaints to schools, libraries and the police.
Taboos and standards are forever in flux and younger generations always seek a boundary to break through. In our times of consumption and greed, we are eating our way through those boundaries at a great rate, along with as many of the Earth’s resources as we possibly can.
Several hundred book covers later, fuck is completely worn out.
Sure, there is still coarser language that will work for a few years until it also becomes a meme; until we wear it out as a book title or, perhaps, if we think too hard about what it means and how we might use it.
Language can only evolve creatively with a dynamic culture, deep education and critical practitioners of the literary arts, within and outside of the academy. Words are weapons; they are our way of making sense of life and without them we are unspeakable.
Language and how we use it really matters. It creates knowledge, culture and community. If we are to navigate our way through the future and avoid reaching a place of anarchy, we need a language for it.
Resorting to coarse language on book covers could be a symptom of society’s collective misery, but it could also be attributable to the starvation of the arts by government and a desperate need to grab readers’ attention. If literature loses the power to shock then it loses an important mode of engagement, according to postcritical theorist Rita Felski. It’s enough to make you want to swear and curse and scream. Unfortunately, as a word to save for extremes, we have really fucked up fuck.
Donna Mazza’s new novel has an f-word in the title but it’s Fauna.