Nicky Drayden on How South Africa Puts the Science in Science Fiction


Cover detail from The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden/© HarperCollins Publishers

I love space opera and off-world science fiction as much as anyone, and I’m a sucker for time travel stories no matter how hard they bend my brain. But what really captures my mostly organic heart are books that lay out the future of the planet we live on, and there’s no way to paint a realistic portrait of Earth in the decades and centuries to come if we don’t show scientists in Sao Paulo creating miniature black holes, neurosurgeons in Jakarta preforming brain transplants, or tech entrepreneurs in Lagos producing wearable devices for augmented reality.

I chose to set The Prey of Gods in Port Elizabeth, South Africa because I’d visited way back in college, and I thought it’d be interesting to imagine how the experiences I had there could translate into a work of speculative fiction. I incorporated a lot of those experiences into the book—the rural townships, the open-air souvenir shops, the dik-diks—but moving my story to the year 2064 required me to use a different lens to focus on a future where South Africa is a world leader in renewable energy and artificial intelligence, and is pioneering advancements in genetic engineering. And though we are quite far removed from having to worry about snarky, sentient robots taking over the country, this story is built more upon fact than fiction, as South Africa is already boldly using the technology of the future to solve the needs of today.

Renewable Energy

In the book, the precocious, ten-year-old Nomvula is obsessed with the solar well in her township, a machine that sucks drinking water out of the atmosphere. Its tank is as big as a rondavel hut, and there are solar panels on its roof. Nomvula’s been itching to spread her secret wings and fly up there to see them for herself, but since the water well is the township’s social hub, someone or another is always hanging about.

In sun-drenched South Africa, renewable energy visionaries are currently making headway in the commercialization of thin film solar cells, which will significantly reduce the price point of the technology and revolutionize how we produce energy in the future. This technology is especially beneficial for remote regions where power lines might not be an option. Also, new infrastructures like the Jasper Solar Energy Project are already providing electricity for 80,000 homes, helping to reduce the numerous blackouts plaguing the country.

Medical Research

Riya Natrajan, the pop diva in The Prey of Gods, got the fictional T-12 series of immunization shots when she was a child, and although Riya is one person out of a million for whom the shots aren’t effective, for most people this combination of vaccines and genetic editing has rendered adverse health conditions a thing of the past.

In reality, South Africa’s medical history is known for pioneering the first heart-to-heart transplant back in 1967, and it’s continuing to make waves in other areas, including an artificial larynx that better approximates speech with a non-surgical device that uses tongue movements to trigger pressure sensors. Scientists are even using AI to model and predict HIV drug resistance.

Artificial Intelligence

Speaking of AI, startups like Clevva, a virtual advisor software using AI to help guide employees in decision making, are springing up all over Southern Africa. They are not yet the ubiquitous alpha-bots that appear in the novel, running errands and serving as an all-in-one tech device, but they certainly are the precursors. These neural networks do everything from populating news content on football tournament sites to using AI equipped drones to predict crop yields. The intent of such AI is not to replace human labor, but to free journalists up to do more challenging work, and to provide valuable information to farming consultants to maximize crops.

Looking Onward and Upward

Even with both our fiction and our feet on solid ground, there’s still room to look towards the stars. South Africa is home to the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere, the MeerKAT, which will soon be integrated into the SKA (square kilometer array), making it the largest telescope in the world. Most of the components for the array are being manufactured in the country as well, and along with these other scientific advancements, it will create many career opportunities in science and tech fields.

Yes, South Africa is home to an amazing assortment of wildlife, and is known for its cultural diversity and breathtaking landscapes, but it’s important that our fictions reflect that it’s also a leader in everything from cell culturing to putting microsatellites into orbit. When we look at setting our science fiction in locales around the world, we need to scratch deeper than our preconceptions, and seek out the contributions they’ve already made to the world of science so that we can imagine a truly vibrant image of the future.