Zoo City author Lauren Beukes on how to write a sci-fi novel

“Trust the reader” says Lauren Beukes, the author of Zoo City and The Shining Girls

Lauren Beukes
Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes won a calvacade of awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award, for her second SF novel Zoo City. Speaking to SciFiNow about her upcoming book The Shining Girls, Beukes gave us some advice on writing science fiction, avoiding infodumps, and why you can’t just have characters driving onto airport runways.

How important do you feel the “write what you know” rule is when you’re writing sci-fi/fantasy?

I think if you’re going to write the incredible you have to make it credible. And the way I do that is by rooting it in reality. Zoo City is actually a ridiculous conceit, that there are magical animals that attach themselves to criminals. But the fact that I did a research trip to Hillborough and I spent so much time talking to people and walking the streets and finding those journalistic telling details, anchored the insanity and the fantastical. So I think you can go wild but you have to anchor it to something to make people buy into it and to feel the real intent and also risk and danger, you know, to make it believable, to make it credible to put your character in peril.

So the real world needs to be as convincing as possible in a fantasy novel?

Definitely. There is a scene in the movie Red where they just drive onto the airport runway,  I have been to airports and that just blew all the credibility for me. I was like “there is no way you could do that in an airport, that’s ridiculous!” There can be superheroes and  Helen Mirren with an AK47, that’s fine. But don’t tell me you can go driving onto an airport runway! So I think it’s very important to have that balance, and to balance the fantastic with credible, real details. And I guess it makes it more meaningful.

How do you balance a complex plot with an outlandish fantasy element?

I think a lot of that comes intuitively, I think it’s important to read as much as possible. I read a lot of noir before I started writing, and watched a lot of noir actually. I think we underestimate how important it is to get other media influences as well. I think just take as much as you can, really understand the genre that you’re writing in. You know, it’s that old Picasso maxim: You have to know how to draw before you can do crazy stuff.

Zoo City spaces out the information about how the Zoos came to be. What advice would you give about allowing the reader information and letting it flow smoothly?

I think you have to trust the reader, I think you can give them clues without having one character sit the other down and explain it to them in a big infodump scene. Again, looking at other influences, looking at movies, if you look at a movie like Children of Men. You know, the amount of information that comes from the background, from posters in the background or an advertisment playing on the tube line, there’s so much information that’s kind of hidden in the details. Give people information in the details, make it implicit and not explicit and trust your reader. Trust your reader to be smart enough to figure it out.

The technique I used in Zoo City was definitely stolen from Alan Moore, who does that all the time. Watchmen has a comic book threaded through that is actually a big exposition point. And you’re wondering what the hell this comic book is doing, and he also has this article, telling you what the Watchmen are like before. In V for Vendetta we’ve got showtunes interspersed in between that are actually vital plot points and give you a lot of background information and character information as well.

Zoo City has lots of slang and locations that are specific to South Africa. Do you think you need to worry about readers not understanding or recognising these things or is it important to just go ahead?

Again, it’s balance. I think if you’re going to have a completely alien world, whether that’s another planet or Johannesburg, you need to create enough context that people can figure out what’s going on. I always used the slang in a context that you could figure out the sentence even if you didn’t know what that word meant.

I remember reading one particular Philip K Dick, it might have been The Man in the High Castle, and it ends with a line in German. And in the days before the internet, I was like “This is clearly critical but I have no idea what this means! You know, the final sentence of the book and I don’t know what it means and I have no way of finding out, this is terrible.” So you do want to avoid that, you don’t want to stymie your reader. So again it’s a balance between implicit and explicit. I think the important thing is context, give them enough clues so that even if they don’t know the exact meaning of the words they can guess it.

Lauren Beukes’ new novel The Shining Girls is released on 25th of April and you can pre-order it for £10.39 at Amazon.co.uk