Zoo City drew a lot of attention last year. It was nominated for a bunch of awards and raked in rave reviews by the dozen. I wasn't quite as lyrical about is as some bookbloggers but is was certainly an interesting work. Moxyland is Beukes’ first novel. It has received its share of attention in the wake of all the attention for Zoo City but I hadn't gotten around to reading it yet. It was originally published in 2008 by a South African publisher but I read the Angry Robot e-book edition. If you are considering buying a copy I suggest you go for the paper version. The epub I read had too many formatting issues for a professional publication. The text itself however, is very much worth reading.
In near future South Africa, you’re a nobody if you’re not connected. Without a connection, you can’t pay, don’t have access to public transport or numerous public places. Your cell is a wallet, passport and access to the all important virtual life all rolled into one. The providers of all this technology and entertainment are fiercely protective of their business and have seen to it that there is a huge amount of legislation backing them up. Violations of their copyrights and terms of service carry heavy penalties, including jail terms and, perhaps worse, being disconnected. Not everybody is pleased with the level of control corporations have over everyday life. Despite the repression, resistance is growing.
I must admit I had a hard time getting into this novel. Beukes employs four points of view, with chapters named after the point of view characters. They are all written in the first person and Beukes uses language to show us the circles and subcultures these characters move around it. It’s a fine piece of writing but it took me a while to get a handle on all four. Especially Toby, who uses a lot of slang, took some getting used to. I guess it didn't help he is a real prick (as more than one character points out to him over the course of the novel). Beukes is not so liberal with her use of Afrikaans and various African languages as in Zoo City though.
The four main characters are all drawn to a nasty game of deception, resistance and illegal activities. One area where Beukes succeeds gloriously is creating a sense of suspicion bordering on paranoia. The corporations may have to means and legal right to monitor just about everything, there are always ways around such security screens. Hackers are still a step ahead of the people trying to close holes in security, the arms race between corporations and hackers is still in full swing. In fact, with the fierce competition between various corporations and despite severe penalties in contracts with employees, the lines between who belongs to what faction have blurred considerably.The whole novel is saturated with a sense of Big Brother paranoia. Online it impossible to tell who is looking over you shoulder or who is hiding behind a screen name until it is too late.
Beukes' views on the development of cyberspace and information technology is one that is at the same time disturbing and in serious danger of becoming reality. As commercial interests on the Internet become more important to the economy and absolutely vital to the entertainment industry in particular, the war between those who want more control and enforcement in cyberspace, and those who would keep the Internet 'free'. The penalty of disconnection for very severe violations has been discussed in various nations. Although I don't think disconnection would be anywhere near as severe a penalty as depicted in Beukes' story, the novel does raise the question if the net is becoming a necessity.
One of the things I found very interesting about the novel is that in between all the cyberpunk themes, Beukes' also includes the story of photographer Kendra. She is one of the people who have embraced the imperfections of analogue technology. Working with traditional film and chemicals, she incorporates them in her work. The element of chance, the random imperfections that can occur at any step of the process, even at the point of reproduction, are vital to her art. It's a bit reminiscent of the situation vinyl is still around in an age where CDs are on the way out. To reinforce this contrast, Kendra shows her work at an exposition that includes a work of art created by biotechnology. It's a prime example of the ideas and twists Moxyland has to offer.
I've just scratched the surface of the many ideas Beukes has poured into this novel. There are strange, and very unethical, forms of advertising, comments on narcotics, elaborate new forms of entertainment and dubious techniques of law enforcement and crowd control. Most of it seems disturbingly plausible, and all of it technically possible. Where the cross genre novel Zoo City contains a dominant fantastical element, Moxyland is a chillingly realistic view of the possible future. One that, despite the obvious problems with it, seems to be in the direction we're taking. Moxyland is a novel that takes a lot of time for all pieces to fall into place. I was doubtful I would end up liking this novel, but as the story progressed, I grew steadily more impressed with what Beukes has created. The novel requires a bit of patience but it rewards the reader with a very strong finale as well as lots and lots of food for thought.
Author: Lauren Beukes
Publisher: Angry Robot
First published: 2008