Future without white people

Novel asks whether, given the chance, you’d relive life in exactly same way, says Tymon SmithFuture without white people

Imraan Coovadia uses the genres of adventure and science-fiction to think about race in a different way
Imraan Coovadia uses the genres of adventure and science-fiction to think about race in a different way
Image: Alon Skuy

Over the last four years since the publication of his previous novel, Tales of the Metric System, Imraan Coovadia has been watching, with scepticism and dismay at events playing out on the campus of the University of Cape Town, where he heads the creative writing programme.

In Johannesburg last month he admitted that perhaps the disruptions and racial anger that spilt from the Rhodes Must Fall protests into the Fees Must Fall protests provided the impetus for his new novel, a time-travelling, spy-thriller science fiction tale with an Afrofuturist infusion.

The book – a departure for a novelist whose previous work employed a more social realist approach to issues of history, race and identity over the course of South Africa’s journey from the indignities of apartheid to the tensions of the democratic era “comes out of [my feelings about the fallist movement] but also out of the desire to escape from it.

Most things South Africans do are simultaneously super-South African and also part of a desire to escape from South Africa and its narrow problems completely”.

In Coovadia ’s version of the future the world has been destroyed by a supernova, leaving only Joburg, with its deep mining tunnels as the sole surviving city where an agency run by robots sends members of the predominantly black surviving human race back in time to ensure the end of the world will never be repeated.

The hero is novice agent Enver Eleven, whose journey takes him backwards and forwards in time from Marrakesh in 1955 to Brazil in 1967 and the surface of Jupiter many thousands of years in the future.

In this world white people, while not part of the present, are firmly part of the past and so agents such as Enver must learn how to interact with and protect himself in a world once predominantly controlled by whites.

Coovadia sees the science-fiction genre as a useful means to “maybe think about race differently or take other more imaginative angles towards it”. Enver’s journey provides him with an opportunity to explore the idea that, as Coovadia puts it, “beneath race we’re controlled by quite elemental qualities of who’s familiar, who’s strange to us, who’s a friend, who’s an enemy, who’s superior, who’s subordinate.

I think part of this [book] is an attempt to look at those feelings and say irrespective of where you stand in the system, how do those feelings work on you and how do they propel you to do certain things?”

Unlike many time-travelling tales which focus on how small changes to the past can have drastic consequences, here even the smallest of changes to the narrative of the past are frowned upon because, as Coovadia says, “the agency in this book hates the idea that there could be multiple universes because that would create extra human suffering … and so their entire philosophy and culture is devoted to suppressing butterfly effects”.

Acknowledging the influence of the adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, Coovadia sees this book, ironically in the light of its time-travel narrative, as his best attempt to tell a “story that unfolded naturally without being over-laden with sense impressions and the things I’m usually interested in.

“It’s a book written almost entirely without flashbacks, in which the story goes from A to B to C to D.”

Enver Eleven’s adventure is a solid, well-told science-fiction story that, like the best examples of the genre, offers imaginative and intelligent contemplation of where we might end up, while also providing a space for the contemplation of where we are now and how we got here. It’s best understood as Coovadia’s response to the idea of eternal recurrence posited by Friedrich Nietzsche, which asks if you could imagine reliving your life, would you do so in exactly the same way.

For Coovadia : “That’s one thing when you say it for an individual person but what about for history and for African history, which is full of disasters and catastrophes?”

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