I had watched the recording of the mission twice. It was my first assignment as a case officer. We were scheduled to arrive at 5.25 in Marrakech, 16 June of the year of our Lord 1955. We eavesdropped on an engineering company, the proprietor of which went by the name of Keswyn Muller. We would then produce a brief report on Muller to assist the consultants back home. I wasn’t used to watching myself on tape and was impressed by the aplomb with which I handled the arrangements in the field. I looked calm, cool, and untouched by the stress. For that I could thank in advance the senior officer, Simon Six. He gave me the space to prove myself. I was looking forward to the camaraderie Simon and I were going to develop. There were other advantages to working with him. I had never stayed in a hotel before and the two rooms he had selected in the Grand Marrakech were luxurious. If I felt any nervousness about being around fair-skinned men and women for the first time I was wise enough to keep it to myself.
Our buildings were strung along a forested lane behind a number of checkpoints. Security was discreet but I knew that my profile and silhouette were being logged as I walked to the clinic. It was a converted trailer, designed to be hitched to a truck and moved to a different location if necessary. The blinds were permanently pulled down. The chimney belched white smoke which was lost amongst the trees and bright sunshine. I had been through a first vaccination and I already hated the experience. Once I had been through the second round I would not be able to leave the grounds. We couldn’t take the risk of transferring a virus to another place and time.
I went through the doors and sat at the examination table where my blood pressure was taken by a pair of old-fashioned cuffs. It left bruises on my arm. Samples of blood and tissue were extracted and filed away. The medical cart opened to receive my offering, revealing the purple bulb in its refrigerator compartment. Lights ran across the top of its body as it produced a drop of universal serum.
The injection was the most uncomfortable part of the process. The attendant had a way of lining you up just so, then stapling a cold pin under the skin of your inner arm, which left you with a sense of violation, as if the machine had come too close to your inner being.
Afterwards I had a ringing sound in my head. Then came a spell of dizziness. I lay on a couch in the next room for the better part of an hour, attended by the cart, until the sensation passed. In exchange for the discomfort I was protected for a period of ten days from any known agent of disease, manmade or artificial.
When I had recovered enough to stand, I was escorted behind a dense radiation curtain. I put my hands over my eyes while the walls shone a fierce white ray onto my person. I could feel the light penetrating right to my bones. For some minutes thereafter I could see no more than indistinct shapes. By the time I recovered from the blindness the clinic had given me a clean bill of health on the system. It printed my silhouette on imaging paper. Later I could compare it with my reflection for signs of exposure. Before the dangers of serving in a foreign time had been established, some unlucky souls had begun to lose their outlines. After a while they couldn’t recognise themselves in a mirror.
I didn’t have time to indulge my fears of reflection sickness.
From chapter one of A Spy in Time by Imraan Coovadia
I first met Imraan Coovadia in his home in Gardens District, Cape Town, in 2016. It was a friendly call. Imraan was supposed to have been my main contact at the University of Cape Town while I taught a course there as part of my Leverhulme Fellowship.
It is interesting to note that in 2014, as I was setting up my application for the Fellowship, no African university in Nigeria, Kenya, or Uganda was interested either in me or in science fiction.
So, like many Westerners wanting to work in Africa, I was channelled into South Africa. Not that I’m anything other than very grateful, to Imraan and his colleagues. Imraan is the director of the creative writing programme at the University of Cape Town. Perhaps UCT’s openness to SFF comes from its long tradition of nurturing talent that blossoms into speculative fiction, such as Lauren Beukes, Henrietta Rose-Innes, and Diane Awerbuck.
In the fall of 2016, there was no University of Cape Town for me to go to. Basically, it was closed, and in 2016 the fear was that the radical students really wanted to close down the university permanently. Decolonisation by closure.
South African universities are funded retroactively. The next year’s funding is based on the number of students who successfully graduate the previous year. It was looking as though the FeesMustFall movement was targeting final exams and graduation. That would mean that UCT and others would have no money to fund the next year’s studies.
Imraan had been supportive of some of the protest’s aims, but he also didn’t feel that going to “campus with sticks to discourage other students from showing up was what a university was for.” He got involved in the controversy and became a target for comment.
Imraan and I talked mostly about the protests and the books we liked. He didn’t mention he was writing a science fiction novel at all. A lot of our time was spent admiring Imraan’s lovely boisterous baby boy.
Cut to Manchester, March 2017, at an evening reading by Moshin Hamid of his fine (and Booker long-listed) speculative fiction novel, Exit West. Moshin’s publisher was bubbling with enthusiasm. “We’ve just had in this superb science fiction novel about time travel from South Africa [A Spy In Time]. It’s by ... by ... I can’t remember his name. It sounds Indian.”
Something clicked. “You don’t mean Imraan Coovadia?”
I was furious and amused. Imraan you dark horse, you said nothing about writing science fiction.
So this article is the only one of the hundred interviews in this series that was conducted by email instead of in person. Email interviews are not conversations. The form makes it very difficult for the interviewer to edit themselves out of the text, and to clear a space for the speaker. The questions are the only thing that move the interview forward.
GR: I haven’t read most of your previous novels. Tales of The Metric System, which has been compared to David Mitchell because of jumps in time, is still not, in my view, speculative fiction. In fact it seems that this is your first science fiction novel. What lies behind your move into outright science fiction?
Imraan: I couldn’t see any way to go further or deeper in the direction I had been going, for the moment or maybe forever, and I wanted to try another angle of approach, I guess. Also, because of Borges, I had been re-reading Robert Louis Stevenson, remembering Treasure Island and Long John Silver and Kidnapped. And I thought, he’s such a clear, logical, vivid, and eerie writer. Such perfect story-telling. Wouldn’t it be great to try something like that in a totally different tradition?
GR: The jump to Marrakech in 1956 is convincing, with its camels waiting beside the train and its jewel dealer in the hotel lobby. Did you find old documentary footage on YouTube? Old photos?
Imraan: All the usual tricks! Maps, old novels, newspapers.
GR: I was intrigued by your world in A Spy in Time. The sun has gone supernova some centuries before and Johannesburg has survived? I’m not actually sure there would be any planet left if the sun went supernova. I also got confused as to how Enver’s sister could be working on the parts of the planet that were turned into glass by the blast. Only parts?
Imraan: The supernova is not from the sun but from a star nearby enough to do damage (apparently they can cause chaos for light-years in every direction!)
GR: I was intrigued by the robots, called consultants. They are directing time travel for purposes too arcane for humans to even understand. They need humans to go back in time to fight a threat that human beings can’t comprehend. They speak a language that maps a possibility that is too complex for people to follow. Why do so many of the consultants have a somewhat human form—hands, and something like a head?
Imraan: The consultants are constrained according to the old Asimov principles; they can’t actually do anything to harm human beings themselves. But they can lead human beings to harm themselves for the general good. Why do they have a human form? I think they have to. Otherwise, in story-telling terms, computing just becomes a gray goo, that’s everywhere, invisible, unpersonified, which may be where it’s going.
GR: On a first reading it’s hard to tell, but it seemed to me that when your hero comes “back” to his world after the far future, it’s a slightly different version of the world with one giant shopping mall and holographic ads. It wouldn’t be surprising if Envers didn’t notice, because after all his past has changed too. For example why do you have DROWNED continents after the sun has gone supernova? Did I understand correctly?
Imraan: I think you’re right, but I haven’t entirely determined whether he’s disoriented or whether his reality is slightly altered. I’m very struck by the Capgras syndrome—when people start to believe that their family and friends are imposters because they’ve lost the neurological signal of familiarity.
GR: If he is moving from reality to reality without realizing it, what does this line from the memorial service for Simon Six signify?
I had the feeling of having stepped from one dream into another, and another still further away, so that by now I was so far away that I could never make it back to my origin. I shivered and was lost in my cone of rain amongst these men and women in their black coats.
Imraan: It’s probably a version of a mood most writers, most people, have. Descartes has it at the beginning of his Meditations.
Often in my dreams I am convinced of just such familiar events—that I am sitting by the fire in my dressing-gown—when in fact I am lying undressed in bed! Yet right now my eyes are certainly wide open when I look at this piece of paper; I shake my head and it isn’t asleep; when I rub one hand against the other, I do it deliberately and know what I am doing. This wouldn’t all happen with such clarity to someone asleep.
Indeed! As if I didn’t remember other occasions when I have been tricked by exactly similar thoughts while asleep! As I think about this more carefully, I realize that there is never any reliable way to distinguish being awake from being asleep.
GR: When he returns to that Johannesburg, the refugees are white people. Is this passage meant to turn the tables of history on them, so that they are left struggle to build lives from smashed cultures?
Beyond them were the camps for refugees from the drowned continents, laundry hung on the cement walls. They were supposed to be superstitious about robots, despite the best efforts of the government. They spoke in a language of their own which they believed was unintelligible to machinery and machine translation. They gambled, fought, made useless political protests on the broadcast channels. Brought up their pale children to be pickpockets and hologram actors.
Imraan: South Africa’s obviously a place of hallucinatory experiments in styles of blackness and whiteness; this is probably just a lighter version of such an experiment. Race hangs so heavily on us that we can’t imagine it could be different.
GR: Prime numbers are very important in this story. There is a section in which Lucan talks about super-prime numbers and their role in cryptography, and says that Mueller’s ability to crack them gives him the key to all the information in the agency. What’s that speculation based on? Is it true?
Somebody with a formula to make prime numbers can read any secret. Counterfeit any currency. He could find a way through every electronic safeguard. Enter and control the mind of any automatic device. Consultants, surgeons, carts.
Imraan: Well, prime numbers are the core of our information system, even more important than during wartime; they’re only safe in a traditional universe though (as far as I can figure it out). In a multi-verse they might be much less secure and therefore our machines, etc much less secure. But mostly I’m borrowing from all that amazing material on cryptography in WW2. What happened in cryptography in the Cold War hasn’t been told yet, as far as I know.
GR: Talk to me a bit about reflection sickness. What is it? Do people’s faces actually change with time travel? Is it part of coming back to a different reality? What might it signify?
Imraan: I thought it would be a good syndrome to suffer from for time travelers. I don’t know what it signifies. Inability to settle back into yourself?
GR: Here’s the question the Leverhulme grant is meant to answer, so please answer this one. What’s your relation to speculative fiction ... did you read a lot of it when you were a child?
Imraan: Yes. I read tons of science fiction. There was no or almost no television. I didn’t see Star Wars until I was twenty. So I read whatever I could find, and in the accidental way you do when you’re a kid in a country which is in some ways totally cut off from civilization or actively opposed to civilization. Somehow science fiction and speculative fiction did turn up here (I feel Elon Musk must have read a fair amount of it). And it could be Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, or those weird paperbacks with alien women in bikinis and men with blasters in their hands. Strange to remember how much fun they were to read. As to my relation to it, I’m curious but skeptical. There’s lots I love, and that I think is terrific in science fiction (much more than, say, in crime fiction). But there’s also a certain indifference to style. It doesn’t mean science fiction writers aren’t good or great stylists, just that I don’t think they’re loved or hated on that basis. And with someone like, say, Stephen King, as close to a secular saint as you can get in a genre writer ... I just can’t sympathise with the diffuseness. Compression seems like such a core value for an art form.
GR: Your first novel The Wedding was published in 2001. Your 2009 novel High Low In-Between won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the University of Johannesburg Prize. Tell us a bit more about your previous fiction and non-fiction.
Imraan: I guess I’m kind of out of sight, out of mind, with things I’ve written. At the time I was convinced I was doing the best I could. I may not have been, or I may have been unable to see the flaws in what I was trying. I started writing a kind of comedy that nobody needed and ended writing a kind of tragedy that nobody believed, is probably the best summary of my career. I did try to write about South Africa in a way that I didn’t think had been done before, and to see it from angles that hadn’t yet been explored. At the time I thought I was being more democratic than the—almost entirely white—writers who dominated the scene. In retrospect probably not.
GR: You’ve studied at Harvard and Yale, and your UCT profile lists your research interests as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English and American literature, philosophy and literature, political and social thought of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries including Adam Smith, Hazlitt, Hume, Edmund Burke, and Swift, and contemporary fiction. How has that background played into your fiction?
Imraan: Almost certainly in bad ways at a deep level. But there are some good things about going through the literary academy. You learn, very quickly, where you stand with regard to academic thought and academic abstractions, and maybe you try to do work you believe in. It helps, to some extent, that you learn not to waste words (if you didn’t learn it from Hemingway, as I managed not to learn it). But also, you know, Swift, Hazlitt, Hume, they wrote down the most radical things that they could (okay, maybe not Hume, he was too careful). And that’s not a bad lesson to learn.
GR: You evidently teach, research, and write fiction. Has working at a university and teaching—both academic courses and creative writing—impacted on your fiction?
Imraan: It must have made it worse, no? It must have. But how? Possibly because I have the safety of being a teacher and that reduces the riskiness of writing. Possibly because you get used to telling people things rather than convincing them or tricking them into believing them, which are the skills of a good writer, I think. Also, working and teaching are ways of whiling away years. And at the end of those years, probably some time before you actually die, you’re going to be stone-cold dead from an imaginative point of view. I’m planning to stop writing before that point.
GR: What’s your view of the film The Matrix?
Imraan: Permutation City, the Greg Egan novel, is better, I think, and more cinematic.
GR: One of the characters in Tales of the Metric System (2014), written before the FeesMustFall protests, says of a new university that “Biko would say it’s an institutional disease for white people in this country. They want to speak on behalf of others. Even when they are with you, they want to speak in your place.” That shows, I think, sympathy for the FeesMustFall, the decolonizing protests. What was your position during the protests?
Imraan: Achille Mbembe put the whole situation in a nutshell far better than I could. He said—I’m paraphrasing awkwardly—that, yes, we should free ourselves from “whiteness” (in all the disfavoured senses of the word), but we should also ask ourselves why is it that we continue to be attracted to it. In a more practical way, who wrote all those amazing science fiction novels that thrilled us when we were ten and eleven and twelve? As a child I couldn’t use the main library in Durban—there was a small segregated library for Indians the size of a shoe shop—so I really distrusted the students who tried to burn down the libraries. On the one hand they’re unnecessary, now that we have Kindles. On the other hand, they’re libraries. What harm did they ever do anyone except convince a few of us to waste our lives as writers?
On occasion I like J. M. Coetzee’s stylized pessimism—“It’s bad when I write, it’s worse when I don’t.” But to be honest the situation in South Africa is uneven. There are amazing young writers in Cape Town, and at UCT where I teach. Amazing black and white writers. They’re always going to create interesting spaces and conversations, however bleak the external circumstances. (Up to a point: the recent outbreak of cannibalism may be such a point.) I only worry that writing is too heartbreaking a profession to send them into.
GR: What would you most want readers to know or take away from this interview?
Imraan: I’d like them to explain to me what they’re not getting from what I write, what fantasies are not fulfilled, what hopes, what concepts. In exchange I’d like them to know that writers really work in the darkness, or at least late evening, and can’t know the point of what they’re doing.
Imraan is still busy rewriting his novel for the publishers. They are recommending turning the villain into a woman. I am suggesting that he change the gender of the hero instead. Or leave it as it is.
Watch this space.
- The Wedding (2001)
- Green-Eyed Thieves (2006)
- Authority and Authorship in V. S. Naipaul (2009)
- High Low In-Between (2009)
- The Institute of Taxi Poetry (2012)
- Transformations: Essays (2012)
- Tales of the Metric System (2014)