What does it mean to be human in a world where almost everyone has disappeared, inexplicably, in an instant, like a kind of religious Rapture? That’s the question (or at least part of it) posed by Andrew Miller in his debut novel, Dub Steps.
The story is set in South Africa some decades from now. Miller’s anti-hero, Roy Fotheringham, is a disillusioned, washed-out, middle-aged marketing executive, who specialises in creating immersive Virtual Reality spaces. In this future, walls are painted with a reflective substance called transmission paint on which holographic adverts are broadcast. Malls, crèches, brothels, all become VR spaces, because eh, “democracy is digital”. Roy’s claim to fame is the creation “Mlungu’s”, a VR club where punters can select and create custom avatars, making their sexual fantasies more ‘real’.
After yet another drunken night out, Roy wakes up to an eerily empty Joburg. Besides the bizarre genetically-modified pigs, there is nothing or no one else. Broadcast signals are static, white noise. The Internet is gone, along with cellphone networks and electricity. Virtual Reality is now nothing more than just plain old reality.
With nothing else to do, Roy steals an armoured truck and drives across the country, partly in a bid to find another living human being, partly as a kind of anarchic and nihilistic quest to physically purge himself of his demons. He breaks into houses, urinates and defecates on furniture, before stealing strangers’ family photographs. His soundtrack, as he drives across this empty reality, is the trance mixes of his late father, a failed international cricketer turned DJ.
When Roy reaches Port Elizabeth, he finds Babalwa, a 20-something township-bred call centre agent with a ‘coconut-accent’. After months of no human contact, the two immediately engage in raw, animal sex – a desperate attempt to claw back a connection to someone, anyone. The two eventually make their way back to Johannesburg, which has become a near jungle, plants forming cracks in tar roads, foliage creeping up concrete walls. There they find a small, disparate of group of other “left-behinds” and form a kind of tribe.
Despite their ‘freedom’ from technology, the members of the group try to recreate the routines of their former lives. They fence themselves in, creating a compound at what was once a prestigious private school in Houghton. They manage to devise a small Wi-Fi network. They learn to farm and domesticate animals, to harness alternative energy sources, and even create a human breeding project to perpetuate the human race. Each is given a function. Roy, the advertising exec with no real skills, creates a library of books and collects useless hard drives to preserve knowledge of a past that is all but useless, in the hope that maybe, one day, it might mean something. All the while, the groups searches for ways to travel further and communicate with other parts of the world, to see if anyone else is out there.
It is a return to a hellish Eden. “We watched the world reshape itself. The free pigs prospered quietly, growing in numbers and confidence, their enormous forms staking out swatches of turf, concrete and grass, which they now called their own. The predators followed them, of course. We slept listening to lions cough and hyenas laugh. We woke to the call of raptors. Vultures circled, and sometimes – often, in fact – I had the feeling they were waiting right above our property… We did our chores. We fed ourselves. The canned food went bad. The bottled water became sour. We became truly lonely. We became alone”.
The post-apocalyptic world is one of the most common tropes in the science fiction genre. And yet, Miller makes it fresh, full of layers and textured meaning. The story is told in flashback, with an elderly Roy recalling the years of the group’s almost-solitary existence and how they struggled to live with each other’s differences. Roy’s story is one of regret: “I have destroyed my life, in small increments, each thoughtless step adding unbearable weight.”
Miller’s sentences and chapters alternate between short and long, the rhythm of the words like the performance poetry the author practices, as well as Roy’s father’s dub step beats, that become the incessant soundtrack of the story. The structure mimics the way the music layers sound: building, climaxing and ebbing again, like the lives of each ‘tribe member’.
Dub Steps is a story about humanity in a post-digital world. It is about consumerism, sex, reality, love, regret, art, and friendship. It’s a critique of our current desire for virtual immersion, and an examination of the loneliness of the human condition. There is a sense of futility in the book, but also a yearning for a better future in which humans don’t endlessly repeat the mistakes of the past.
This book is yet more proof that science fiction is anything but shallow. Rather, it is a genre that is about philosophy, existentialism, our hopes and fears and dreams. Dub Steps left me wondering, ruminating, and chewing on the plot. It is as magical as it is frightening, and hopefully the first of many such novels for Miller, who won the Dinaane Debut Fiction Award this year, and whose talent rivals the best science fiction writers in the world.
“I started writing this to reach out to you, whoever you are, wherever you are. I needed to extend, I needed to push further. Simply dying, which I will soon do, and letting my eyes slip shut – leaving behind only what is in this house, these libraries, these rooms and rooms of computers and devices and failed connections, leaving that as my only message to you – I refuse.
I need to talk.
I need to tell you more – of myself and my time – and so I started, word by word, to explain, to tell my story, to leave a personal interpretation behind. For you. And of course – obviously for me.
But now, after this word and this one, and then this one, after the thousands and thousands of I’s and ands and buts, I am deeper than I expected. I am wrestling with time itself, the snake of my mists of story, ever rolling. I duck and push the hair out of my eyes, looking for the few things I know for sure will be there. I jump, pillar to pillar, and all else is lost, shrouded and vague, opaque.
I wish I had paid more attention.
I wish I had written it down at the time, because now there are only statues and monuments, presentations and experiences. Narratives. Design”.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Published by Jacana.
*Listen to my interview with Andrew Miller below (as broadcast on PowerFm 98.7 on 8 August 2015).