Saturday, April 2, 2011

Zoo City - Lauren Beukes

Zoo City by South-African author Lauren Beukes is one of those books that is doing well this awards season. It's nominated for the BSFA and Arthur C. Clarke. Not surprisingly, I have missed it completely when it was first published by Angry Robot. When they offered the e-book for £1 to celebrate the BSFA nomination, I decided to have a look at it. It is surely one of the more interesting books of the year. Angry Robot publishes a lot of material that defies easy classification and Zoo City is one of those works. It is somewhere between science fiction, mystery and urban fantasy. That being said, interesting is not enough to win an award. In the end I feel it is a good book, but not quite award winning material.

The story is set in an alternate Johannesburg. In the 1990s a world wide plague caused people who committed a crime to be given an animal companion and a magical talent. This highly visible sign of a criminal past stigmatizes people to such a degree that in Johannesburg at least, most of them are found in the ghetto of Zoo City. Zinzi December is one of the animalled. Her companion is a sloth and her talent consists of a knack for fining lost things. Although raised in a privileged household, Zinzi developed a bad drug habit that eventually caused her to commit a murder. After serving her time in prison she is now making a modest living finding lost objects for people. She also has a large debt with the wrong kind of people she is trying to pay off by writing scam e-mails to fleece rich people out of large sums of money. She has a real talent for it. In fact, she makes the Nigerians look like amateurs.

One line of business Zinzi usually avoids is finding missing people. Her talent isn't limited to objects but she finds the mess and risks involved in missing people cases much more trouble than it is worth. One day she is approached by a couple of animalled working for the somewhat notorious music producer Odi Huron. He wants her to find the missing half of a brother-sister pop act he is currently promoting. The girl has gone missing several days ago. Against her better judgement, Zinzi accepts the case.

I guess the greatest attraction of this book is the concept of the animalled. Apparently it is (partly) inspired by Philip Pullman's dæmons in the His Dark Materials books. I haven't read those so I must admit I missed it completely. The idea of an animal companion shows up in fantastic literature a lot after all. I thought Beukes' way of going about is was a bit ... impractical. We see all manner of companions, from relatively small and harmless creatures like a butterfly or a hedgehog to big cats and even six meter Nile crocodile. Keeping one of those in an urban environment must be a bit of a pain. Not to mention the trouble of keeping some of the creatures with more delicate dietary requirements alive. And keeping them alive they must, having your animal die on you, or even just being separated, can cause intense pain and often death. It's an intriguing idea but there is something of a contrast between the concept of animalled and the setting that requires a large dose of suspension of disbelief. Despite the near future setting, this might put off the hard science fiction fans.

The novel is written in first person and the present tense, a technique that appears to be popular at the moment. In this case it gives the reader a vivid view into Zinzi's mind. Her past weighs on her and there is an ever present sense of guilt for her crimes, as well as a certain discomfort about the necessity of participating in an e-mail scam. She's intelligent, resourceful and very capable of taking care of herself in the harsh environment of Zoo City. Although she is no angel, Zinzi is clearly a character you can sympathize with.

Beukes' use of language is another area where opinions are going to be divided on. One of the things that struck me about the writing is the use of Afrikaans and various African languages in the novel. For someone who's native language is Dutch, Afrikaans always has a certain attraction to it. I thought the phrases themselves and the way Beukes works them into an English text very interesting. It might be a bit confusion for someone who does not have the benefit of speaking Dutch though.

A second thing that drew the attention is the way Beukes describes Zinzi's environment. Especially early on in the novel, witty descriptions of what Zinzi sees around here tend to be overwhelmingly present in the text. To give an example from the first chapter of the novel:
The apartment had been Art Deco in a former lifetime, but it had been subjected to one ill-conceived refurbishment too many. But then, so had Mrs Luditsky. Her skin had the transparent shine of glycerine soap, and her eyes bulged ever so slightly, possibly from the effort of trying to emote when every associated muscle had been pumped full of botulinum or lasered into submission. Her thinning orange hair was gelled into a hard pompadour, like the crust on crème brûlée.
The tea tasted like stale horse piss drained through a homeless guy's sock, but I drank it anyway, if only because Sloth hissed at me when I tried to turf it surreptitiously into the exotic plastic orchid next to the couch.
Zinzi meeting with a client - Chapter 1
It is entertaining is a way but the clever descriptions and witty metaphors are not going to be universally loved. Personally, I think she overuses it a bit in some sections of the novel.

Rereading Angry Robot's mission statement I think this book is the embodiment of what they are looking for:
Traditional SF and fantasy has been ploughing an entertaining furrow for many decades, but to our way of thinking much of it is missing a trick. To the new generations of readers reared on Dr Who and Battlestar Galactica, graphic novels and Gears of War 2, old school can mean staid, stuck in a rut. “Crossover” is increasingly the way forward and you’ll find plenty of it here, without batting an eyelid. New heroes and new settings, or maybe just reinventing the wheel, we’re not fussed – if there’s an energy in a book that gets us jumping up and down, we’re all over it.
Zoo City is certainly not traditional, it contains elements of many genres. It's unusual in many ways. The writing, the setting, the themes are all elements that will generate debate. The novel challenges preconceptions of the genre, it made me think about fantasy, science fiction and its many sub-genres in a much wider sense than just this story. It's a novel that is sure to gather a wide range of opinions about it. I don't always like the choices the author has made, I think there are people who are going to thoroughly dislike this novel for all the genre fusion Beukes put into it, but I've seen a number of rave reviews as well. Personally, I think it is worth reading just for the discussion this book could generate alone. An intriguing novel. If you are looking for something out of the rut, as Angry Robot puts it, you could do worse than Zoo City.

Book Details
Title: Zoo City
Author: Lauren Beukes
Publisher: Angry Robot
Pages: 296
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-0-85766-056-5
First published: 2010

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