Review of Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human
Originally appeared in the Sunday Times. Reprinted with permission
This is not a book that you can take home to meet your parents.
Apocalypse Now Now is a book that makes neither friends nor excuses, ruthless in its satire and gleeful in its descriptions. It is the latest newcomer to the growing South African speculative fiction genre, hot on the heels of Sister-Sister by Rachel Zadok, The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, Space Race by Alex Latimer and Sunday Times Fiction Prize winner For the Mercy of Water by Karen Jayes. In brief: Apocalypse Now Now is set in contemporary Cape Town (thankfully sparing us any description of the mountain or the wine farms), an excellent setting for a supernatural chase. Baxter runs a pornography supply at his school, negotiating the gangs and politics with ruthless cunning and a complete disregard for social niceties. He is a misanthrope, and a somewhat charming reprobate who is mostly clever but is also as annoying as a teenage boy can be. His girlfriend Esmé is kidnapped, and he is thrown into Cape town’s exceptionally seedy supernatural underworld. We meet with Boer War-era psychics, half-springbok boys, inter-dimensional gatekeepers and a pirate queen armed with Uzis. There are fight scenes, wise and grizzled warriors and mecha, which made my inner twelve year old happy. Overall, it cannot be faulted on the variety of its cast and settings – the book melds local mythology with pop culture in a way that is almost self-consciously awesome.
But this is where it is very clear that this book is heavily influenced by Lauren Beukes in a way that potentially overshadows Human’s own voice. The world-building, the wry observations, the inserts of alternative media, the cocky, irreverent narrator – it very much bears the shape of South Africa’s current rising star. It even has similar jacket treatment, courtesy of the fabulously-talented Joey Hi-Fi, that cover designer of lore. I thoroughly enjoy Beukes’ work – my reviews of Zoo City and The Shining Girls make that clear enough. But I didn’t pick up one of her books – I picked up Charlie Human’s work. And it is clearly a debut work – some of it could have used more polish, and perhaps more fleshing out. Esmé, for example, is nothing more than that tired trope of manic pixie dream girl. She’s sexy and petite and Goth and that’s about it. Oh, and she smokes, which I suppose is somewhat rebellious in 2013, given the laws against it. I know she’s not really the point, just the MacGuffin that drives the story, but I found her and Baxter’s great romance rather flimsy. They are, after all, just teens. That any teen relationship is given such importance is unfortunate – Baxter might have been more interesting if he wasn’t just a spotty teenage brat with a god complex and a chip on his shoulder.
That said, this is still a refreshing read with fantastically sharp humor that takes no prisoners. While his life flashes before his eyes, there is a flashback of a happy playground and children on swings. Baxter is dismayed to realise that it is also playing a jingle from a popular washing powder commercial. Ronin, the supernatural detective/martial artist he turns to for help is fantastically rounded, and the alternative history of the Boer war is a masterpiece. The book also spares no contempt for Cape Town’s obnoxious upper classes and airs while also taking potshots at the stark divide between the rich and poor of Cape Town. And, mostly importantly, it doesn’t have a neat and tidy ending, which suits the book perfectly.
Ultimately, Apocalypse Now Now is something delicious and different, and while it could have used more polish and a little more depth, it is still more interesting than many of the year’s offerings thus far. The ending has left a nifty little backdoor for a sequel, and knowing publishing trends these days, chances are that it will become a trilogy.
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