Writer Cat Hellisen was riveted by Masha Du Toit's new novel. She sits down with the author to talk about her world-building process, dystopian futures in fiction and writing for readers around the world.
The Babylon Eye is a futuristic novel that definitely draws on post-dystopian fiction, but bypasses the usual "now we must survive in a new world" and instead hints at a past event while focusing strongly on the now. There is also modern and alien tech alongside the idea of a world ravaged and changed. I was reminded of Miyazaki's films, especially since there is a strong ecological undercurrent. What and who influenced this story and world?
MASHA: Miyazaki is definitely a big influence! His films often deal with very grim topics such as war and the destruction of nature, but they have a core of beauty and reverence for life. I'm thinking particularly of Princess Mononoke, with the stunningly beautiful depiction of the Deer God, the protector of the forest. There's nothing cynical about his work, and I respect that.
The world I created for The Babylon Eye was strongly influenced by the work of writers Emma Bull, Garth Nix and Tad Williams, all of whom have written about words with very different rules and realities co-existing. I loved the idea of a border-world, a space where people from very different cultures live and work together and create a new reality of their own.
I have also noticed that there seems to be a trend in popular culture to depict the natural world in a new way-- not as a monster to be defeated or controlled, but as a tragic beast, a creature fighting back against human domination and injustice. I'm thinking of the tragically dying magical creatures in the Hellboy movies, or the defiant apes in the new Planet of the Apes films. Those were also an inspiration.
Elke Veraart is a character with a past, and when we meet her she's in prison, released only because of her skills with the enhanced dogs known as gardags. She's essentially being given a pardon to do something that goes against her moral code. She's suicidal, lonely, and filled with guilt. But the Elke we unravel turns out to be strongly principled, and in her own way, emotionally vulnerable. It is this vulnerability that is both her downfall and what saves her. You've given us a character that presents a visual mask (horned, once part of a gang, trained with the police, now in prison) that covers up an emotionally complex and careful person. What was it like for you, building Elke as a character—was she based on anyone you know?
MASHA: Elke was a fascinating character to write. In many ways she came out of my need to write an adult character. My previous books have all featured teenage protagonists. I found that I desperately wanted to write about somebody who has had a fairly long life already, and whose past informs her actions. That's more difficult to do with a younger character who hasn't had quite as much experience yet. I loved the process of finding out who she is. She came into my imagination whole, as if I was gradually getting to know a stranger. It's one of the things I love most about writing, getting to know a character, not just what they look like or how they behave, but the sense of their presence.
Meisje is the other star of the story, and I loved her. I can be quite leery of animal PoV characters within a human narrative, but Meisje felt real and believable, as a dog that is both a dog with doggy needs, but also an enhanced creature who can mind-link with a human handler. Just from the way she was written I'm going to guess you're a bit of a dog person—what gave you the idea for the gardags, and how did you go about writing her (and other gardags in later stories).
MASHA: I am very much a dog person. I had just started planning this book when my own dog, Anastasia, died. I poured all my love for her and grief at her death into this story. Meisje is a white shepherd too and she's an unashamedly idealised portrait of Anastasia. I used to do a lot of training and obedience work with Ana. One of the secrets of dog training is to put yourself in the dog's place, to try and understand their point of view without projecting your own needs and assumptions onto the situation. That has probably bled into the story too-- the attempt to understand a creature who is so very different from myself.
We've touched a little on the ecological message that lies beneath the surface in your novels. Elke herself was once part of a Greenpeace-like eco-terrorist group, and this shades a lot of her actions and nudges the plot toward its conclusion. What was the background for the eco-terrorism and the changed world, and how did it influence your world-building?
MASHA: The world of The Babylon Eye is quite a lot more chaotic than in ours. Centralised government has fragmented under the pressures of mounting population and dwindling resources. Ordinary people have to take on duties that used to belong to the police, game rangers, or the army. Some of them found peaceful, cooperative ways to deal with the various challenges of the energy crisis, climate change, rising sea levels, pollution and the destruction of the natural world. Other people preferred more direct, and more violent ways to deal with those issues. Elke was brought up in one of the gentler, cooperative communities. She lost that home and, as a young teenager, joined a gang that hunted poachers and assassinated them. What happened to her in that time still dominates her life by the time the story starts, more than twenty years later.
The Babylon Eye is ultimately science fiction in that contact has been made, and humans and Strangers share tech in a limited way. There is also smuggling and black markets in drugs and alien world-contraband. Elke makes friends with and is aided by members of various Stranger castes, but they still feel mysterious. What can you tell us about the Strangers and the way you included them in your world?
MASHA: One of the things I wanted to explore with this story was the idea of identity, and the impossibility of pinning it down to anything concrete. What is it that defines a human? What is normal, and what is alien? Why do we organise ourselves into groups and tribes? The Strangers are only "strangers" from the point of view of the people in our world, after all. I tried to build in a lot of complexity and many contradictions. Just as in our reality, the people who inhabit this world do not share any single idea about who they are and where they've been. There are many different and contradictory histories, different explanations for who the Strangers are, and what motivates them. Of course, I have my own ideas too! I tried to weave in clues for the reader to pick up on, for them to figure out where the assumptions and prejudices of the characters end, and where the truth begins.
You are South African, and The Babylon Eye is sort-of set in Cape Town, albeit a vastly different Cape Town from the one we know now, and the majority of the book takes place in a Portal-Station out to sea. Although I can see the influences in the naming and in parts of the setting, the book feels universal enough to be enjoyed by anyone—was that intentional, and how did you go about balancing these aspects of telling a story set in a region that is unfamiliar to much of the US and UK while still making it accessible to international audiences?
MASHA: Most of the readers I've interacted with have been from countries other than South Africa, so that has probably influenced me in making my work accessible to readers from other countries. I do work in a lot of little in-jokes and details that South Africans are more likely to pick up on, but nothing that's central to the story.
I based a lot of my planning on creating a version of South Africa that had never been a British colony and a world in which Germany won the First World War. This was an interesting game for me, as I had to make sure all the names and terminology were more Portuguese, Dutch and German rather than English. I wanted to create a setting that could draw from the aspects of South African culture and landscape that I find inspiring, but was also noticeably different.
Masha du Toit is an artist and writer living in Woodstock, Cape Town. She was trained as a visual artist, majoring in sculpture at Michaelis and went on to study bronze casting at the Natal Technikon. After many years teaching the creative use of digital technology, she finally focused on her true passion: writing and illustrating her own stories. Masha can also be found on her blog and on Twitter, @mashadutoit.
Interview by Cat Hellisen a.k.a @CatHellisen