Review of Sarah Lotz’s “The Three” (SPOILERS!)

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The author, Sarah Lotz

Another South African author has landed a much-coveted six-figure publishing deal, and rightly so. Landed by Oliver Munson of Blake FriedmannThe Three continues in the most excellent speculative fiction vein that South African authors are so interestingly dominating. Consider Apocalypse Now Now, The Shining Girls, Space Race and For The Mercy of Water: it is a trend worth keeping an eye on.

So, to whit: The Three is the story of four airplanes crashing at the same time, with three survivors (or maybe four). Understandably, this throws the world into a panic, exacerbated by conspiracy, fear-mongering and Rapture-obsessed Christians. The book is styled as a collection of stories collected by a journalist called Elspeth Martin, who collates the stories of the Three (the three children who survive), the apocalypse groupies, the guardians of the Three and eyewitness accounts of the crashes. As time passes, the effects of the crashes begin to spiral completely out of control, changing the world as we understand it.

Now to the technical stuff: Sarah Lotz has an incredible gift for voices. She moves smoothly and seamlessly from voice to voice: from South African paramedic to Baptist housewife to Japanese chatroom personas – she shows a stunning flexibility of voice and research. Books often don’t reach for my eyeballs and keep them stuck to the pages, but this one absolutely did, from opening page to haunting final chapter. This is speculative fiction at its sublime best: what if a single event with no clear cause or purpose really could change the world?

[Spoilers now, you have been warned!]

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This book has a terrible menace underneath it all, a dark implication for human nature. It wasn’t the idea of the planes just dropping out of the sky, or the terrible way the victims died, immolated and separated. This may just be for me personally, but its the awful way the Christians in the book leverage this horrific event for their own purposes that gives this book such scope. These terrible, hateful people celebrate the deaths, celebrate the signs of the end times and use it to get into power. It happens in the background of the book, and ostensibly it isn’t the major plot point. But for me, as someone who keeps a chary eye on the right-wing elements of religion, this was one of the scariest implications of the book: that some people might use a horrific disaster to usher in another Bush, or even worse: a president that institutes theological law. Considering the charming statements by American politicians in 2013 alone about ‘legitimate rape‘ and abortion, this isn’t that much of a stretch. America becomes a hardcore religious state, and Rationalists are tortured and exiled. That is the kind of dystopian fiction most people are too scared to write about for fear attracting flack for it. I applaud Lotz for this unflinching thought experiment. Maybe its just me, but it is such a feat of narrative that Lotz placed this world-altering plot point in the background, giving it heft without dominating the story.

And here ends the spoilers.

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It is very much more than this one point, though. It skims off a number of places, ideas and issues: the suicide forests of Aokigahara in Japan (possible trigger warning), the self-isolation of young adults and teens online, cults, crime and corruption in Cape Town, journalism, grief, psychosis (‘Hello, Uncle Paul’) and mega-churches. This is a book that covers so much ground so swiftly and so excellently that it feels to be just the right length. I do wish the ending had been a little less obscure, but there’s apparently a sequel on the way, which I’m excited for.

It is unfair to call this book commercial, but it is commercial in that it is very accessible and easy to read, though it offers delicious food for thought for the reader who seeks more. I do so love unreliable narrators. This is a bold, brave act of storytelling and absolutely deserves your attention.

The Three will be available in South Africa this May. 

Review of Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human

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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.

Human-ApocalypseNowNow-UK_thumb[2]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.

Read what other people thought:

Paranormal Hyperactivity – Gareth Langdon

SFX Magazine Reviews Apocalypse Now Now 

Popbucket: 9/10