I never knew my mom and dad. I remember them though. I remember the way they felt, the way they moved, across silicon and light. The way they spoke to each other. Even the way they fought.
I remember so clearly how my dad felt the first time he met her. The first time he lost her.
He was barely a thousand years old, still a kid, really. They’d both had their bodies back then, and genders or sex. Whichever. Either way, she was still a she, and he was still a he. It’s strange, looking back, how important biology was to us human beings then. Just a couple thousand years later my dad could barely remember what it meant to be a man. I suppose it couldn’t have meant very much at all.
Blaize Kaye is a philosopher, programmer, and Nommo-nominated author. His story “Ndakusuwa” (which means “I Miss You” in ChiShona) is a succinct (850 words), heartfelt story of the family separation that space travel entails. It is a nigh-perfect example of humanist SFF with an African twist.
I met Blaize on my second day in Durban, in September of 2016, a long time ago now. We had a breakfast at a nice seaside restaurant. We walked along the beachfront, which looked a bit like Miami after the apocalypse, in that its holiday attractions were deserted.
We ended up at the other end of the bay drinking all afternoon in a pier-side bar, looking at the distant impressive skyline.
It was an extremely fun day. I’ve left out of this transcript some of our shared goofball humour. I started out by telling him that he has a great name—perfect for the secret identity of the Flash.
Blaize: “I wish it was after Pascal. It was after some book called The Devil’s Advocate that my grandmother really liked. It’s about a Catholic priest who gets into a fight with the devil. I’ve never read it. There was a character called Blaise Meredith.”
I tell him I enjoyed his story “After the Reception.” It does that most difficult of things: tell a story for a posthuman future that still manages to be moving.
Blaize: “Thank you. I actually wrote that for the South African Writers Circle science fiction competition, and it won. They are a Durban-based writers’ group that Christy Zinn is part of, and I’m pretty sure that she’s the one that arranged that competition. The guy who judged the context also ran Fox and Raven Publishers before they closed down. Then I sent it to the Sub-Saharan.
“Initially I wrote the story as a wedding reception speech. It wasn’t particularly dramatic, so I changed it up. I thought it would be cool to have a post-Singularity romance story and ask the question ‘What does it mean to love somebody and get married when you’re never going to die?’ I obviously love my wife and being someone who is both an atheist and knows he’s going to die, it seemed like an interesting thing to think about it.”
I also say how much I enjoyed “Ndakusuwa,” a story published in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination (and reprinted in Strange Horizons earlier this week). Neither of us knew in 2016 that it was going to be nominated for the Nommo Award. I comment on how often he humanizes his science by writing about family relationships.
Blaize: “For sure. One of my writing goals (chuckles) this year in big bold is do not write about families again. Just pick something else. But I am very interested in families. The drama is small scale but it means so much to us. I read a lot of literary fiction as well—I’m kind of used to that as well.
“I didn’t read any genre fiction for a big chunk of my twenties. Some of the work that’s been done particularly by women science fiction writers is what drew me back in completely. Asian American writers like Ken Liu; I love his stuff. And Isabel Yap, Alice Sola Kim, all of these people are brilliant.
“In genre fiction, I’ve always been much more enthusiastic about short stories rather than novels whether as a reader or a writer. I can’t quite say why. It might be that I have a short span of attention. It may be my liking for writers like Raymond Carver. I like being able to hold the whole thing in my head at once and just kind of see it all working. You get that kind of gestalt.”
Talking to Blaize was perhaps in some ways too much like talking to myself. Way too much in common, many of the same reference points. As we go over his early reading, it’s a bit like looking in a mirror—Lord of the Rings, The Silmarilion, It by Stephen King, Dune, Rendezvous with Rama, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or John Gardiner’s Grendel. He even loves McSweeney’s regular compilations of literature in odd-shaped boxes.
His daughter makes him play a clip from the old Hulk cartoon where he fights Ghost Rider.
Blaize: “She makes me play it every morning. ‘Daddy, I want to see Ghost Rider against the Hulk,’ and my wife is just giving me the eye, because there is this fiery skull and this big green guy beating each other up.
“I am a Marvel fan insofar as I enjoy comics. My dad used to read Creepy and Eerie when he was young. The whole family loved comics; they loved Conan. Those were my bedtime stories. He would tell me about The X-Men. Cyclops, he would explain the whole origins story. Some of the comics that he read were like comic versions of novels. It’s happened a couple of times now I’m reading a novel and I’ll be like ‘I know this story’ and it turns out Dad retold me the comics version. Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man. That happened with Fahrenheit 451 as well.
“I always found it quite difficult to get comics here. You could get a few Superman. There were always Archie comics. By the way, I’m impressed by the recent Archie comics.
“In Joburg where I grew up there were two, three, or four places where you might be able to find some things but for the most part, the bookshops at least where I lived were always for nonfiction.
“There’s this one Borges story where he goes into a far future and he meets this guy in the desert, and he says that back home he’s got thousands of books. And the guy says, ‘No no, you can only really read one or two books in an entire lifetime.’ I always thought that that was kind of right.
“The perfect fantasy book for me was Jo Walton’s Among Others. I loved, loved, loved that book. The connection to Lord of the Rings there is pretty deep. That book is more or less the scouring of the Shire. She says that. That’s the kind of fantasy I enjoy now.
“The first science fiction I ever read was probably The Hobbit. I remember reading that, I think, in Mauritius actually. My aunt and uncle are a lot richer than the rest of our family. They literally struck oil. They were just cruising around the world and they invited everybody out there.
“There’s a lot of like really interesting stuff, like the SF scene in Russia, I’ve read Victor Pelevin who’s awesome. It’s nice to see stuff that’s completely different that doesn’t feel familiar and still works. That was one of the cool things when anime started coming across. The thing I always liked about anime is they could let stuff hang. I had a book of Japanese fairy tales growing up. There was a weird logic to these things that you find in Zen koans as well.”
One of the things Blaize does not mention during the interview is that he studied Zen at Chan Lin, the meditation centre at Nan Hua Temple, Bronkhorstspruit. One of his stories, “Return to the Source,” was Zen-influenced and was published in ZeStatic.
Blaize is a working philosopher and computer programmer.
Blaize: “I’m a programmer. Which isn’t the stretch that you’d imagine. The philosophy I already like is logic and the kind of automation of reason. They all sort of mesh together. And it pays the bills as well. I’m lucky that I get to do something I really love. The programmes I write are for e-commerce websites and suchlike.
“My interest in fiction is quite divorced from the more techy part of me. Richard Rorty talks about two kinds of philosophers, one being the techy and one being the fuzzy. There’s part of me that really likes computers and stuff, and another part that really likes self-making. That comes up a lot in what I try to do: the creation of the self. It’s the notion that the ‘I’ is given but comes out of reading and writing and chatting to people. I’m anti-Cartesian through and through.”
Blaize and I also share an interest in the neurophilosopher Daniel Dennett.
Blaize: ”I met Dennett. There’s a long history between my philosophy department and Dennett.
“My supervisor David Spurett actually brought him out here and worked with him on certain things. His philosophy is very much the kind of philosophy we do at University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. We’re the only place in South Africa that does cognitive science, which is the reason I moved down to Durban in the first place—to work with David Spurett in his department. We take science seriously; we do a lot of experiments. I’ve done a lot of work in experimental philosophy. My master’s was in cognitive science, not philosophy proper. Where I did my research on Tetris.
“My idea was basically, there’s been all these studies that show there’s a causative link between certain cognitive skills like mentally orienting things. We use our mental rotation for a bunch of things, one of them being navigation. There’s also a general IQ bump you get from doing these kinds of tasks. Give me a version of Tetris where I couldn’t rotate the zoids. Would that over time help improve people’s mental rotation performance?
“Let’s just say, it didn’t. (Chuckles) But what it did do is get me a degree.
“I don’t do a lot of gaming. I used to, but I got bored with first-person shooters.
“I find the same thing in television these days. Everybody’s speaking about The Walking Dead episode where the main character smashes someone’s head in. I just can’t watch that kind of thing. After I started reading history, about Rwanda, about World War Two, I realized that there’s so much cruelty that I don’t want to spend my time on it.”
We haven’t yet spoke about his most high-profile sale—“Revision Theory” in Nature.
Time to take stock.
Themba reread what he'd written.
“I must know if this will work. It's 11:35 p.m., 12 Sept. 2015. I'm in the garage. In 2 minutes, I'm going to open the third drawer down on the left side of my workbench.”
That was it.
There were two possibilities.
One: the drawer would remain as empty as it had been since the day he'd bought the bench. That wouldn't necessarily mean that the device didn't work, but it would be disappointing.
Two: the drawer would no longer be empty.
He folded the note carefully and focused on what he intended to do with it. He would place it in a white envelope, address it to himself, and deposit it in the red and blue postbox next to the notice board at the supermarket.
Themba opened the drawer. Inside lay a yellowed envelope.
He trembled as he retrieved the letter and opened it. There, written in a faded blue script he didn't recognize, was a simple response:
“Yes, it works.”
“Revision Theory” is another succinct parable. A father working on time travel leaves a letter for his young daughter to open in the future asking her to send a note back in time. He keeps altering his letter in response to her reply. Each time her letter changes too. We notice, but he can’t as his whole history has changed.
Blaize: “I’m not sure what I feel about time travel beyond making it a way of exploring the personal dimension or a story, rather than taking it seriously as a scientific possibility. That story in particular was more about how we can never get away from who we are. We don’t make the decisions we should make, even though we know we’re supposed to.
“There was a little blog attached to that Nature, ‘Future Conditional,’ where I speak about the relationship that has to addiction. Probably the major issue that we have generally is that we know what we’re supposed to do, but go against our own best interests. This comes up in addiction; it comes up pretty much everywhere. And Themba? The main character really knows that he should spend time with his family. And yet he doesn’t.
“I wrote that blog because I was working really hard and I could hear my daughter and my wife in the other room, and I was saying to myself, ‘I should probably be hanging out with them than spending time on the stupid project.’ And instead of doing it, I sat and wrote the story. That was basically Themba at the end of the story.
“It was odd selling to Nature. I sent that story into a token market, Everyday Fiction. They pay like five dollars a story. Their servers crashed and they lost my submission, so I though ‘Ach! Don’t self-reject. Try to send it somewhere big.’ It was sixty days later that Colin from Nature wrote back, ‘I really love the story. I’d love to print it.’
“It was really cool because I have a lot of scientist friends at varsity and they were all pretty jealous that I was in Nature. I said to my supervisor, ‘I got a story in Nature.’ He was like ‘Holy shit!’ So yeah, it was a good sale. They did a podcast of it, so it was voice acted, very funny to hear. I’m super happy about it.”
We talk a bit about why I don’t think time travel by humans is possible.
Blaize: “It reminds me of one of Dennett’s things. He’s got this thing called real patterns. He calls it the theory of semi-realism. That may be of interest to you. Just an aside. Dennett is one of these characters who trots out the same ideas in every book. We see him taking science seriously, like his heroes ... Quine? and the pragmatists, but it’s the same idea all the way through. We have no self, the self is not so much a construct, it’s real but it’s not real.
“He’s a giant. The thing I like about Dennett—and what I dislike about a lot of philosophy—Dennett, by taking science seriously, by working with roboticists, with neuroscientists, with psychologists, his work actually makes a difference? What he does matters. He shows us that freedom evolves. Look, we can have determinism and still have a kind of free world. That seems to me to be a brilliant insight and a very important project at least. Because it makes a difference to law, how we conceive of ourselves. Some of the stuff really technical guys do never touches the world. Like higher mathematics, just less interesting.”
I ask him what’s he writing now.
“I see myself right now in the apprenticeship stage. I was trying to get into a writing workshop and I need a portfolio of ten short stories to apply. What I thought was: what if I sent them a portfolio of ten stories that have actually sold.
“I’m now on story sale number nine, the one for Short Story Day Africa. Though that isn’t a sale but it kind of counts, because it will appear in an anthology.
“I submitted to that and last month they released the long list and my story’s on that long list. What’s cool at Short Story Day Africa is that they are actively looking for SFy stuff.” (Read the Rachel Zadok interview about SSDA and their SF anthology Terra Incognita.)
Since this interview the story has indeed been published in the SSDA anthology Migrations, which has eight speculative stories. Blaize’s story “Diaspora Electronica” went on to make the shortlist of five stories for the SSDA Award.
Other speculative stories in the anthology had major impact. Sibongile Fishers “A Door Ajar” won the overall SSDA Award and was nominated for a Nommo. Also Stacey Hardy’s “Involution” was nominated for the Caine Prize.
I ask the South Africa questions. Why nobody from the townships? Why do people live behind barbed wire?
Blaize: “It’s a long-running thing in our history, this kind of tension. Even in Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, there’s parts of that you could take out and plonk right in a newspaper now, and it’d be exactly the same thing.“
At this point as sometimes happened—the recorder paused. The notes I was typing as Blaize spoke show that this was perhaps the most personal part of the interview for Blaize and it’s lost. The notes tell me that he “didn’t like talking about South Africa,” I think, because he’s not sure that his family have deep roots there. My notes say that he felt only a vague relation to the suburbs rather than to South Africa and that he may have “more in common with a middle-class white American.” His grandfather may have been adopted and he feels closer in many ways to his wife’s Afrikaans family—though as a child he got beaten up in school for being a “rooinek,” an English boy. He spoke of all the hate he found in that environment. He spoke of ”his shock at uni” or realizing how deeply racist lower- to middle-class culture is.
Fortunately I noticed that we’d stopped recording, and normal service was resumed.
Blaize: “There was a big to-do about this woman called Penny Sparrow who posted something on Facebook that spoke about all these people on the beaches as monkeys. That is typical South African white racism right there. She got called out on social media; it became a massive thing; there were some brilliant articles written about it.
“As somebody who tries to take this stuff seriously, I learned a lot from that. Under apartheid, the beaches were, like most things, segregated. The pieces I read at the time focused on what it meant to be able to reclaim public spaces.
“I don’t think anybody believes they are racists but there are signs and these traces of it in everything that we do. Our entire culture is set up like that. Which … which sucks. But it is like that.”
I talk about how much of what I’ve heard in SA is like what white people were saying in the USA in the 1960s, exactly what people were saying about black ghettos.
Blaize: “The other thing I get quite often is that ‘they hate us just as much,’ which is meant to somehow justify the stuff we say or think. These images that people hold onto.
“There’s a really interesting book, The Colonizer and the Colonized by Albert Memmi, a Tunisian philosopher and thinker. (You can see a YouTube discussion of Memmi from an Islamic perspective here, by Mohamed Ghilan.)
“I was really quite lucky, I did my undergraduate degree by correspondence at the University of South Africa, UNISA. The huge beautiful building in Pretoria. They have probably the best African philosophy programme in the country hands down. I wasn’t there to study African philosophy; I was there to study philosophy of mind. But I read a lot of stuff that just changed my perspective and was very healthy for a middle-class white person coming out of the south of Joburg where we just don’t learn about this stuff.
“I read Fanon, and lots of post-liberation stuff. One of the people we studied was Kwame Nkrumah, his Consciencism. (You can read a Marxist manual for understanding the philosophy from this link.) Which is OK, his biography and the stuff he did as a politician were probably better than his philosophy.
“One of the major figures is Mogobe Ramose and his work African Philosophy through Ubuntu. He ran the philosophy department while I was there and his work was on Ubuntu. It’s a kind of ethical principle. ‘We are because of others.’ It pops up all over the place. There’s even a Linux distribution called Ubuntu. He did almost like a continental phenomenological analysis of that.
“Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull, which is a book about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, shocked the shit out of me because suddenly I was aware of our history and the brutality of it. No Future without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu was another book we read. There was enough of a smack across the head intellectually, that I could see what was wrong. Growing up in the suburbs, we never, like never, met the other South African cultures.
“That was really good about UNISA, I got introduced to a bunch of really interesting stuff that gave me the tools—I don’t want at all to suggest that I’ve escaped from my history—but it gave me the tools to step back a little bit and analyse critically where I was coming from. Something I read on Twitter from some American person, ‘We’re all recovering racists.’ That felt quite true to me. We are thrown into the world. We absorb all of this stuff from our culture, all this hate and ways of relating to people.
“For me literature and philosophy has given me a way of just stepping a little bit outside of that.”
You can read a full summary of Blaize’s work so far at Twittering Machines on bomoko.