Released: April 2014
There are a number of things in the first few pages of Charlie Human’s debut novel, Apocalypse Now Now, that give you a heads up on this probably being a book unlike much else you’ve read before. I know for sure that I haven’t read a book that opens with the internal dialogue of a slightly psychopathic teenager, namely Baxter Zevcenko, running a wildly successful porn syndicate in his high school in South Africa. It’s an opening that doesn’t leave you too clear as to where the story is going and, in a mostly positive way, it doesn’t really become clearer as the story unfolds either. Whilst trying to manipulate ‘peace talks’ between two rival gangs at his high school as a way of ensuring the continued success of his own sordid business, Baxter’s life takes an even darker turn when his girlfriend, Esme, disappears and is suspected to be the latest victim of the Mountain Killer. An increasingly erratic Baxter – who is almost in shock at how strongly the kidnap of his girlfriend has affected him, when he was previously so successfully emotionless – embarks on the hunt for Esme’s captor and, as a result, discovers the twisted supernatural underbelly of contemporary Cape Town.
Charlie Human is being described as a part of the growing South African scene of speculative fiction, within which the only other recognisable name for readers outside that country might be Lauren Beukes, who was Human’s mentor throughout his writing of his first book. It is not hard to see inflections of Beukes, and particularly her own urban fantasy Zoo City in Human’s debut. He also holds a strong resemblance to the group of writers that have been umbrella’d under the group ‘weird fiction’, particularly the writing of China Mieville, if not quite reaching the sophistication of Mieville’s own twisted fantasies. They both share a fondness of tentacled deities for sure; fans of Human’s tentacled monster should move straight on to Mieville’s Kraken after reading this.
The way in which Human does differ from these predecessors is both the strength and the weakness of Apocalypse Now Now, in that where other writers would be more restrained, Human is truly maniacal in his writing. Once the story is fully embedded in the supernatural underworld of Cape Town, it starts to read like a fever dream, the imagery and characters are intense and come thick and fast, but to the point where they fail to hold much presence and where it is hard to remember their exact purpose and background. There are some that do, the little centaur-like boy who is half human, half springbok, and the Anansi Queen, a spider-zombie woman who presides over the Flesh Palace, a brothel/porn movie studio where all of humanity’s most twisted desires can be realised – these characters really are peculiar strokes of originality. They don’t get a huge amount of time to get expanded upon however, before the story moves on at its frenzied rate.
Despite this, and despite the gearing up to the finale feeling that a train moving so fast that bits of it are falling off along the way, Apocalypse Now Now is never a boring read. What makes it most compelling is probably the uniqueness and appropriateness of its setting, in addition to Human’s interest in including South Africa’s shadowy history into the history of the characters and of the supernatural world as well. His descriptions of Cape Town make it easy to see why it works so well as the scene of an approaching apocalyptic disaster. If Apocalypse Now Now is the beginning of an influx of innovative South African speculative fiction, I can’t wait for more.