(I don’t often do book reviews, but when I read something that I get excited about and have something to say regarding, I do. Here’s one.)


So the varsity year has finally ended, and I’ve now got time to settle down with the small mountain of reading that I’ve been hoarding. One of the first books on that list is Charlie Human’s Apocalypse Now Now, also published as Bokveld Binnekort in the Afrikaans.

A lot of the book reviews I have read are simply a synopsis of the plot and tantalising hints (read dreadful spoilers) of some of the juicier twists. This is not going to be one of those reviews. The people who write blurbs for a living précis and tantalise far better than I could ever do, so I’ll let them do their job and just focus on mine. That is, telling you my opinion on the book and if you should buy yourself a copy or not.

I have this idea, that I’ve held onto for most of my writing career: that South African Genre Fiction is going to change the world. We have so much material here, just living in this country is so rich, and messy and complicated and amazing that it makes a perfect story substrate http://violininavoid.wordpress.com/2013/11/19/writing-joburg-a-guest-post-by-abi-godsell/. Apocalypse Now Now is a pretty good indication that I might not be crazy. This Dark Action/ Urban Fantasy/ Coming of Age story is a sharp and dirty, no punches pulled, sex, violence and snappy one-liners kind of story. It is dark, it is rough, it contains what is mostly considered foul language, but it doesn’t do so in an attempt to be the coolest-kid-on-the-playground. It does it because, mostly, dark and rough make for very funny, very South African punchlines. Living here is pretty rough sometimes, and Apocalypse Now Now seems to draw on that, as well as the adaptations we make as a society to the just-under-the-surface currents of anger and violence and fear. It is a story that trades grave statements about complexity and contradiction(mostly, sometimes it mixes both) for blood and guts and laughter. It’s rich and it’s layered and filled with in-jokes, sometimes neat, sometimes a tad annoying, and most of all it’s fun to read. It makes living in this country a little cooler and more exciting for the magic it brings into those rough and funny spaces of Cape Town.

I’ll be honest, I’m not the biggest fan of the mother city. Quite an avid anti-fan if you will. Charlie Human appears to be a big fan though, because a love of the city is something that comes through in his writing. Heck, I’m even willing to like the city he creates in his pages, because he writes it with such passion and detail that it’s pretty hard not to. Bear in mind, that I don’t live there, so I have no way of knowing if it stays true to the actual city in any significant way, but I do know that I like it.

The other significant thing I found in the story was characters I liked reading about, who didn’t get, unduly, on my nerves. That’s something pretty rare for me, and really made the story accessible and enjoyable.

About the highlight of the book though was its pace. This story moves fast and potently. You can hear it’s rhythm as it moves from arc to arc. If it had a soundtrack it would classy vintage rock, solid and racy. There are some craft decisions that Mr Human has made that I disagree with, and some references to South African fauna that drive me crazy (I don’t really think we talk about lynxes in this country), and some references to systems of belief that are a tad on the irreverent side, but the pace and the quite frankly beautiful plot construction make up for that. Reading this story is a bit like running on cornstarch (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4xkvCcAers), if you stand around too much and delve and pick you will find things that bog you down, but if you let yourself run at the pace the story guides you, it’s one of the coolest sensations you’ll have ever had.

So, bottom line. Does it have some problematic areas? Yes. Does it have areas of awe and brilliance that as a writer I’m pretty jealous of? Yes. Should you buy a copy and read it? Definitely. You should read it, because reading this book is a bit like living in this country. Human himself says that there are no grand metaphors about South Africa in his book, and I’m not contradicting that (because that would be stupid as he is the author). What I’m saying is that reading this book had elements of what I have experienced living in this country that I have looked for in other urban magic stories and not found. So no, it’s not Suspended Revolution with representational magic, and I didn’t read it and am not reviewing it as such. But reading it is like walking along an unfamiliar route in a familiar part of town. There will be in-jokes you don’t get, words, spaces and places that you don’t recognise. There may be things that offend you a little, and stretch your sensibilities and step on your toes. There will also be moments of recognition, and moments of delight. These things are how it is here. Plus, having awesome supernatural monsters and cosmic forces at work in your neighbourhood, or on your train-line, or in your street, is decidedly cool.

But that isn’t the only reason. After all the above is just my opinion and I’m just a voice on a screen. You should read it because it’s there, a whole book of South African urban fantasy and dark action, and because you haven’t quite lost faith in this country’s genre fiction producing ability. You should read it, and talk about it, and read it some more, so that the people who are creating fiction like this know what you liked, and hated and want and feel. South African Spec fic is an infant genre. That means that you have the ability, as a reader and a buyer, to shape it into whatever you want it to be. Provided you get off your seat and read and talk and comment and request and complain and debate. Read it because it is a cornerstone of the industry, and we build the industry of our dreams on such cornerstones.

P.S. To have a look at what the author himself says about his book, so you don’t get brain fat from over-processed opinions like the review above (which should be read with caution and as part of a balanced reading plan), have a look at his guest post on Lauren Beukes awesome blog: http://laurenbeukes.com/spark-apocalypse-now-now/



6 thoughts on “Review: Charlie Human’s Apocalypse Now Now

  1. Love South African fiction of many types, Beukes, Orford, Meyer etc etc, but I thought this was one of the worst written books I ever paid £8 on Kindle for!!

    Adolescent writing about an adolescent and the Cape Town references didn’t add a thing, unlike the Beukes use of Johannesburg.

    Adolescent Now Now

    • Hi Alan,
      This sort of discussion is really important, not just for the individual works but for South African writing as a whole. Thank you for taking the time to reply.

      I think that ANN was certainly written in a specific style, and that that style is not for everyone. I wasn’t crazy about it, but I had friends who really loved it.

      As for the Cape Town references, I really enjoyed them, as a city non-resident. I felt a bit alienated from Beukes Johannesburg, despite living there, which made me sad. Point being I think I’m not as neutral as I should be on the portrayal of SA’n cities in spec fic.

      What sort of things do you look for in SA’n sci-fi and urban magic? And for you, what sort of thing makes the use of a city legitimate and valuable for a story?

  2. I enjoyed your review, followed through to Lauren Beukes’ blog and was alienated by Charlie Human’s own account of how he came to create the character. So do I get it and read it, or do I think again? It’s very interesting how a reviewer can make a work seem more interesting and worthwhile than it actually is. I found CH’s misrepresentation of Machiavelli irritating, if predictable, and his tabloid obsession scary.
    One of the books I most admire is South African: Nadine Gordimer’s “The Pickup.” I was absolutely astonished at how true the voices rang, how well she understood migration and cultural alienation, how cleverly she placed the people in their contexts – then disturbed by the dislocating ending. I think this is as a good a picture of the reality of urban life for millions of people in any of the mega-cities in the world, as one is likely to read.
    Keep writing!

    • Hi Sylvia,

      That’s fascinating, and I take it as a huge compliment! In terms of whether to commit to spending money on the book, there are a few things to bear in mind. Firstly, I think it is a pretty general rule that writers struggle to talk about their own works (It feels a bit like trying to write a dating site profile for a family member for me!), so Human’s words are not nessecarily more true to the reading of the work than others. Here are a couple of other voices you can get to see if the balance of the responses make you want to read it ( they give away more of the plot than I think is fair to in a review, but I’m a stickler for the old school reveals) http://www.bdlive.co.za/life/books/2013/10/08/book-review-apocalypse-now-now http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17457008-apocalypse-now-now
      Normally I would recommend trying it out at a local library, before deciding if you want to take it home with you, but I know that a niche book like this would even be hard to find in an average SA’n library…
      I have not read “The Pickup” yet, but after the way you talked about it I am certainly going to find myself a copy! Thank you! Just for interests sake, is there any Cairo sci-fi/urban magic floating around in English that you’re aware of?
      Have a great week,
      Keep growing magical things

  3. My goodness, you ask a great question! Life here is surreal enough at the best of times. I have no idea about Cairo urban magic lit – will give it some thought. Egypt has produced brilliant writers, but in this genre?

    One thing that has really changed since 2011 is the way people interact with public space. Nowhere more obvious than in the “claiming” of certain sites, e.g. Tahrir Square, the Raba’a Al-Adwiya mosque, and in the emergence of graffiti. All around Tahrir and Mohammed Mahmoud Street you see some really powerful art and comment, disturbing and often bitingly satirical. In my experience of Cairo in the past, the only major public pix were of the leaders – Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak; or advertisements, of course. See a thoughtful article on the subject:


    Enjoy “The Pickup”! I am filled with admiration for Nadine Gordimer, as for Margaret Atwood. Women writers of power and vision – we need more of them.

    • That was a really good article. Thank you for pushing it my way. Speaking of women Writers of power and vision, have you come across any if Ursula le Guin’s science fiction?

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