Moxyland: Lauren Beukes

I get a bit compulsive about things I like. Hearing a great song by a new band will lead to me getting everything else they’ve ever done. Reading a great book by a new author has me hunting down short stories they wrote in university. I recently picked up the 1964 Swallow Press edition of Anais Nin’s treatise on DH Lawrence, not because I think it will actually be that great (because having read Nin and excerpts of this very work, I’m pretty sure it will be overblown and full of ridiculous psychoanalysis), but because I love Lawrence and seeing this on the used bookstore shelf, I could not resist it. So given how much I loved Zoo City, it was only a matter of time before I got around to Moxyland, Lauren Beukes’ debut novel.

The little box on the back pretty much sums it up:

File under

Science Fiction

  • Digital Natives
  • Corporate Wars
  • Future Tech
  • Teenage Riot

Check, check, check and check. They left “New Addictions” off that list, but that is pretty much what you get here. Toby is the most native of the digitals telling this story, wearing his BabyStrange everywhere, a tech fabric coat that he uses to video everything that happens around him and upload for his streamcast. He complains about his “motherbitch” and smokes a lot of sugar: “…with the amount of sugar I’m doing, she’s lucky I can remember the colour of my eyes without a mirror.” (Which is just such a great line. I could read it a million times and still swoon a little reading it again.)

Lerato gives us the corporate wars take in this world where citizens are divided into corporate and civilian, a kind of haves and have-nots grouping. A corporate ID will get you into the good clubs, the good restaurants, even the good transportation. In exchange, you work for a company that controls every aspect of your life.

Even if you’re not corporate, though, like photographer Kendra, you’re still connected and controlled. Your phone lets you onto the train and into your apartment, but also tell the authorities where you are and allows them to remotely taser you if you show even the faintest opposition to the regime.

Opposition which is here represented by Tendeka, the fourth point-of-view character. He’s earnest as hell and anti-corporate, working hard to create something positive for homeless, disconnected kids. But he has bigger dreams of taking down the whole system, and this is where all these people come together.

Like Zoo City, Moxyland plops you down and takes off running. Little is explained, and it’s all on a need-to-know basis. Beukes is a great writer, and puts together beautiful sentences that propel the story forward with wit and charm. Even though the world is not quite the one we live in, you can see how it could easily evolve out of ours. For instance, Beukes shows us over and over the natural progression of the kind of over-the-top policing we saw at the G20 here in Toronto (oh, burning cop car preventing me from seeing Thao!) with Moxyland cops that don’t take the slightest bit of shit, and who have even developed strategies to make sure they don’t ever have to:

‘This is an unlawful, unlicensed gathering. You are advised to disband immediately.’ It’s pre-recorded. Legislation bars the cops from opening their mouths unnecessarily. There’s too much room for human error, which means ammunition for the human rights groups.

And she points to the natural outcome of the world of rampant branding and capitalism that we live in: people themselves being branded. Kendra is actually physically addicted to a soft drink, thanks to a branding campaign she takes part in that fills her body with nanotech. It’s a hectic, busy world, and detailed in a way that feels real, so you can slip right in and join the ride.

But all the things I loved about Zoo City that I see here—the quick pace, the witty dialogue, the story yanking me along by the hair because everything is happening so fast!—work because Beukes gave us a great anchor in the main character. We ride along with Zinzi, see things unfold as they unfold for her, live in her mind and fall in love with her. She’s the calm in the centre of the storm. But Moxyland gives us four perspectives, flitting back and forth between them, never staying in one place too long. It’s hard to sympathize very strongly with any of these characters, and easy to get confused about just what is going on. And with no real ties to anyone in the book, I found it hard to actually care about finding out. The story is just as interesting as Zoo City, but the characterizations are far less compelling.

Given the nature of the plot, I can understand why Beukes felt she needed these four different voices. We need Tendeka to tell us about the protest, we need Lerato to tell us about the tech, we need Toby to record it all for us, and we need Kendra to set the tone. They each have a unique perspective that flesh out different aspects of the world, but I’m not sure that four different points of view was the best way to do that. I felt tugged back and forth. I enjoyed these people, but I didn’t care about them.

Happily, this was her first book, and her second book is all the things I like about this book, minus all the things I don’t like. So my hopes are high for her third outing. Which will no doubt sport another “very, very good” from William Gibson. Seriously, can we talk about this for a minute? His blurb for this one ends with “very, very good.” His blurb for Zoo City was “very, *very* good!” Will the next one be “very, **very** good!!”? I mean, I hope that the book is in fact “very, **very** good!!”, but I also hope that will not be the blurb for it.

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