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

The Steampunk Aesthetic and Ideal in Literature and Film: A Primer

How important is steampunk? Is it a literary genre? A film aesthetic? Or just a subculture that has co-opted bits and pieces of Victorian dress and mixed it with a wry twist of sci-fi?

A Young Adult Anthology

The term steampunk is not as old as the literature that inspired it. A term coined in the 1980s as a tounge-in-cheek reference to the rise of cyberpunk, it was originally a shorthand for the work of three authors in the 1980s:  KW Jeter, Tim Powers and James Blaylock. While these authors were the first to consciously use the term, the work that inspired theirs is late Victorian and the rise of steampunk as a cohesive genre began in the 1960s and 70s, solidifying in the 80s. A key example of 1980s steampunk is Elementary BASIC – Learning to Program Your Computer in BASIC with Sherlock Holmes by Henry Singer and Andrew Ledgar. This may have been the first fictional work to co-opt Charles Babbage‘s Analytical Engine in an adventure story: Victorian meshed with the 80s in an educational adventure book.

The first influences of steampunk literature can be found in the scientific romances of Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and HG Wells, the precursors to the now extensive and complicated genre of science fiction. These experimental writers introduced the concepts of an alternative history where steam power had triggered a golden, mechanical age (or sometimes a post-apocalyptic dystopia caused by these wondrous machines). Steam punk is, essentially, a mash of alternative history, futurist thinking and mechanical aesthetic. Some call it speculative fiction, others retro-futuristic, and maybe even straightforward imaginative fantasy. In movies, it is adopted as an aesthetic, mostly as a Rule of Cool, but sometimes as a tidy hand wave to support plots that require certain tech in an age unlikely to have it. It can, however, imbue a movie with the freedom to speculate and create a sandbox for the director to play in.

Steampunk Jewelry

While not as mainstream as many other literary genres (most people probably can’t name a steam punk author as quickly as an American crime writer) it has nonetheless influenced genres outside its own. Consider the area of punk clothing: metal meets lace and cogs meet corsets. There are websites dedicated to such clothing, (Blue Banana, Kate’s Clothing and famously Alchemy Gothic) though it is expensive and often its adherents become adept at making their own clothing.

But most people can recognise steam punk when they see it: movies such as The Prestige, The Golden Compass, Hellboy, Hugo, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events have a clear steampunk aesthetic. I would argue that Twelve Monkeys has an element of steampunk. The first movie to showcase it was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927, and Terry Gillam’s Brazil in 1985 continued building on the tradition. There’s a blend of steam punk and the wild West, made famous in the movie Wild Wild West, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. It has also been seen recently in Doctor Who season 7 in the episode “A Town Called Mercy”, though only in a relatively minor capacity.

Ultimately, my take on steampunk is that it is more of a tool and aesthetic more than a cohesive way of seeing the world. Steampunk means many things to many people: this article itself was germinated by an argument over whether the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies could be seen as steampunk. Considering that Arthur Conan Doyle himself wrote some of the seminal scientific romances (the Professor Challenger series), it isn’t too many steps removed to see that Ritchie may have referenced this in the Sherlock Holmes movies in very small aesthetic details. (I still don’t think it is nearly enough to be considered steampunk). But, steampunk can be whatever the author or reader want it to be: like science fiction, it is at heart a speculative genre, and that frees up the author to write in a splendid, challenging fashion. While the fashion can be a bit staid, it can still manifest in jewelery as beautiful as traction farthing pendants and the Nevermore Fob Watch. It is a remarkable genre, though often buried under disdain for the perceived geekiness of it.

Your reading list:

Steampunk – Ann VanderMeer, Jeff VanderMeer
Steampunk II 
Steampunk III
1,000 Steampunk Creations by Grymm and John
Steampunk Gear, Gadgets and Gizmos 
Steampunk! The Bestselling Anthology (Young Adult)
Steampunk Prime by Mike Ashley
The Art of Steampunk by Art Donovan
The Mammoth Book of Steampunk by Sean Wallace
Steampunk Poe by Megan Byrant
Corsets and Clockwork by Trisha Telep
Steampunk Holmes by PC Martin
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Steampunk Version by Zdenko Basic