Bloodline: the epic behind the epic, the tragedy behind the tragedy [Part 1]


There was a time before people, and there will be a time, perhaps soon, perhaps late, when the world will be after all the people are gone. It’s a cosmic certainty that at some point in time, all human beings not matter where we are, will be no more.

Recent films like The Martian explored the theme of what it may be like to be a single inhabitant on a single planet. Every footstep is a world first. Every hill walked, is the first time a man summits a particular geographic beacon on that world.

Other films like Interstellar and Alien Covenant have recently explored the idea of human beings spreading our seed across the Solar System and in the interstellar systems beyond. The message woven through the psychological fabric of both these films is the idea of transcending our fate – our mortality. Leaving this mortal coil in order to colonise other reaches of space, and perhaps beating the infinite odds of extinction.

The Avengers Infinity War film also probes the same psychological morass – how can finite beings in a finite universe ever hope to transcend mortality and insignificance?

Three score and one or two years ago, I was in High School, watching films like Highlander [which came out in 1986], and with the Return of the Jedi [1983] still swilling in my grey matter. Both these films had to do with cosmic human connections to the universe. In Highlander, men could transcend time over consecutive centuries, and insodoing carry with them vast, valuable and intensely intimate experiences of a lived-in world, personal histories unconstrained by the limits of mortality or even geography.


In Highlander, the ideas of genealogy, history and memory, made a powerful impact on me, hemmed in as I was in Apartheid South Africa, trying to grow up as an English-speaker who loved English but surrounded in the Free State dorp of Bloemfontein by Afrikaans speakers. The idea of transcending time and space either backwards or forward through history appealed especially because I was not having the happiest experience as a teenager either at home or in High School. The thought that one’s bloodline connections made one greater than the sum of one’s body parts was compelling then, as an immature adolescent.


Star Wars ushered in dizzying thoughts of paternity and possibility. What if one wasn’t just some obscure farm boy from the Free State vlaktes? What if one was related, without knowing it to Princess Leia on one side, and Darth Vader on the other? What if the fate of the universe depended on whether one went this or that way?


The fact that I was related to someone of note – the Dutch landscape artist Tinus de Jongh – who’d had incredible adventures, and brushed shoulders with Kings and presidents, someone who scratched the surface of South African landscape art at a time when there were very few artists, gave a little credulity to these fantasies.

In 1987, I wanted to conjure a new world with some of these themes, but I wanted my world grounded on Earth, and yet bringing much of the Star Wars universe here too. I knew for this fantasy world to feel authentic, it would need to be grounded in history, real artifacts, real geology and geography, and that required extensive research. The mistake I made as a 15-17 year old amateur writer, was to anchor the story in the here-and-now. That meant I had to find a real place in the real world of 1987 to locate my world.


I chose the mountainous and snowy Cairngorms, historically and currently the wildest area in Europe, and made it into a kind of Scottish Wakanda. It was a world in this world, but a hidden world. It was a world in which modern people disappeared and reappeared with exotic tools and strange histories. It was magical place but also a place where the fate of the world would be decided.


This meant the hero could be walking along the Champs Elysee one moment, or attending the French Open [France and Scotland appealed to me then, and still do], and hours later one could enter a world of castles that were at once medieval and high tech. I wanted to combine familiar old world themes with space age possibilities – on Earth. Call it teenage angst, but I wanted the story not to end happily ever after, I wanted it to have a strong dystopian feel. The hero emerges and survives enormous challenges, participates in unthinkable battles with catastrophic casualties…but ends up with a ruined world, a world at its end.

I think I was intuiting the imminent ruin of my own family [my mother died weeks before the book was finished], as well a sense of a ruined country, and a ruined world. I wondered, I suppose, whether the new South Africa, whatever that would be some day, would be a country worth having. And since the 80’s was about the cold war, and nuclear anniliation, those dystopian thoughts extended to a nuclear war and nuclear winter. Was it worth growing up, only to find oneself in cultural and radioactive ruins?

And thus the central question of the story:

Can life go on after the end of the world?

The narrative then, in a similar vein to Highlander, seemed to question, celebrate and navigate the very question of survival in terms of mortality and immortality. What is it? If you managed not to die, would you really want to live forever? What would that be like?

In November 1989, a few weeks after my mother’s death, I finished the book on the morning of my matric science exam. I got the lowest grade for that subject, an E, but at least I passed. It was a traumatic time for many reasons. A few weeks later my wisdom teeth were pulled out, a very bloody affair, then I turned 18 and took a train to Pretoria to begin 1 year of compulsory military service. A few months later I survived a car accident that sliced off the top of my knee.

It was during the middle part of that year that someone broke into my kas – a steel locker in a military dormitory – and stole my clothes, boots and the book I’d taken with to edit and finetune. Two years work not lost, but stolen. Two years of time gone.

Bloodline is available to purchase here.