Apartheid’s Mutating Legacy: On Masande Ntshanga’s "Triangulum"
Masande Ntshanga | Triangulum | Two Dollar Radio | May 14, 2019 | 367 Pages
The Western sci-fi canon is no stranger to colonization and conquest. Popular variations on the theme include role-reversal—wherein the wider, whiter, world is outmatched by high-tech alien invaders (see: War of the Worlds), and redemption stories—in which a colonial foot soldier recognizes the moral faults of his mission, defects, and goes native (see: Avatar). Both subgenres can be read as a sort of therapeutic, counterfactual exercise on the part of the Western author who, in crafting stories about different worlds meeting, inevitably reiterates the primity of the only one they know. Spanning roughly fifty years from South Africa’s recent past to its near future, Masande Ntshanga’s sophomore novel, Triangulum, employs an altogether more thoughtful melding of historical and sci-fi colonial narratives. Following the life of an anonymous narrator, we inhabit not a country that has enjoyed a conclusive, triumphant end of apartheid, but rather one still plagued by alien rule which mutates, subtly and insidiously, beyond recognition.
The bulk of the narrative is developed in scenes of our narrator’s youth, alternating selections of memoir and regression therapy recordings. The memoirs, penned just a few years after the dissolution of the official apartheid government, depict her world as one of dull, persistent estrangement—both domestically and institutionally. Her father Lumkile, is ill; her mother, Nobomi, distant; parents who, despite their own political convictions, both had served as collaborators, carrying out bureaucratic duties during apartheid. For the sake of fitting in with her peers, she’d been enrolled in a school run by ex-missionaries. The principal purpose of this education being paternalization, routinely informing her that it was their thankless Christian duty to intervene on a population incapable of self-direction.
While maintaining an oblique relationship to the sci-fi genre, these glimpses of a post-apartheid upbringing allow Triangulum to explore three hallmarks of alien narratives: colonization, assimilation, and abduction. Indeed, the narrator herself lays the relationship bare: while passing a statue of the queen which presides over the town center, she likens growing up in South Africa to life among the remains of an alien civilization: All around are relics commemorating figures who subjugated the local population, made obscure by time passed.
While the early memoirs are reflective and observational, the regression therapy recordings, which recount her teenage years, allow our narrator to take reins of the plot. Between the two periods her father’s illness has progressed, and her mother has been “abducted”: a disappearance which, for the time being, could read as either political or supernatural. Coincidentally, multiple girls from her school have gone missing, and believing their disappearance may be connected to that of her mother, our narrator takes it upon herself to investigate. Throughout this pursuit, she has recurring hallucinatory visions of “the machine,” a shifting geometric form which seems to offer some sort of oblique guidance. Also along for the ride are Part and Litha, friends who know about her visions and seem remarkably willing to join her, having their own dysfunctional home lives to escape. Their pursuit, in turns fantastic and horrific, unfolds in an almost Lynchian loss-of-innocence-and-discovery-of-burgeoning-sexuallity-via-ill-advised-junior-detective-roleplaying arc—complete with glimpses of high society partying, drug dealing, and sex trafficking.
Towards the end of their search they track down a drug trade underling, but find his grieving mother instead. She describes how her son had believed himself a god in the days before overdosing and drowning in the family pool. Their investigation leads them along the periphery of abject moral corruption: a deep-seated, intoxicating drive towards exploitation and self-destruction.
During this period our narrator is also introduced the idea of Block Time, an ontological position which states that rather than progressing in a linear and unidirectional manner, events are fixed and eternal, our subjective experience best understood as a slice passing through a static four dimensional block. Implicit in this conception of time is that all events are predetermined, enduring, inevitable; a notion well articulated by the ebbing, non-chronological nature of the manuscript. Events take on an eternal, recurring quality: our narrator is always losing her mother, always tending to her dying father, always escaping her clinical adulthood by pursuing a mysterious lover / political radicalizer.
The book’s final act, Five Weeks in The Plague, crowns this notion of the perpetuity of events. Thirty years after the dissolution of the original apartheid regime, international investors have devised redevelopment plans for South Africa and the continent broadly, constructing The Zones: corporately-owned planned cities of 200,000. Sourcing labor from their populace while deferring healthcare, education, and critical infrastructure, they spur local protests and comparisons to modern labor camps. This new exploitative configuration is driven in part by South Africa’s touted potential for “information trading,” with outside entities now profiting not from the extraction of precious metals, but from the mined data of populations whose behavior needs to be understood by encroaching developers.
Just as her parents before her, our narrator finds herself collaborating with an exploitative alien regime. Operating out of a newly erected and conspicuous tower—reading something like the mothership hovering above the city, or antenna beaconing the coming invasion—our narrator begrudgingly aids in the development of more and more outlandish and invasive methods of data collection. The play with alien invasion tropes really shines here: not least of which in the introduction of her boss, a Silicon Valley guru who oversees this population control enterprise remotely, and favouring rule via dopey local proxy.
Feeling guilty and complacent, our narrator doesn’t shy away when she finds herself courted by two competing entities which aim to subvert the techno-colonial ambitions of her day job: The Tank, a righteous hacker collective fronted by a reformed Silicon Valley upstart; and The Returners, an eco-terrorist outfit with quasi-mystical leanings. Differing in principles (technophilic and pragmatic; technophobic and nihilistic), both ring true as platforms liable to emerge in the face of exponential disenfranchisement and environmental degradation. The Returners’ indoctrination is more thorough and radical, stating humanity must be forcefully returned to a pre-industrial period, halting the suicidal momentum of the “path of the machine.” By chance the universe created man: the lonely subject emerging out of, and into the world of objects. Unable to recognize or empathize with objects, man learned instead to exploit—expanding, extracting, and creating the conditions of his extinction.
There’s an immense finesse displayed in covering neo-noir, apartheid’s mutating legacy, humanity's ecological death-drive, and so on, all while braiding together different chronologcal threads without things coming off as disjointed or bloated. But the success of Ntshanga’s sophomore novel is largely thanks to well-executed non-linear patterning of the narrative package. It doubles-back, layering over itself, both static and building, like the roiling transformations of the machine—events recurring eternally, horrific and fantastic.