Beukes’ debut novel is not without flaws, but still distinguishes itself in a crowded genre
In some respects Moxyland is a typical – in some ways even stereotypical – cyberpunk novel. We have the sketchy characters on the edge of society, disenfranchised by a ruthless combination of corporate culture and technology, characters that use that self-same technology to varying degrees to get by/make a living/circumvent the system. We have a near-future world run not by governments but technologically omnipresent corporations. Being that it is set in a not-too-distant future Cape Town, South Africa, we could call it Apartheid™ Inc. Indeed, the divide between haves and have-nots is not defined by skin color but by corporate identity. Corporate employees, i.e., corporate citizens, enjoy better housing, better public transportation, better social status – all of the perks of being on the top tier of a stratified society. We have a world racked by ecological/medical/sociological disasters: whole generations of orphans whose parents died as the result of AIDs – so-called aidsbabies – and raised in corporate orphanages. It is from these orphanages that corporations groom the best and brightest to serve them; Lerato, one of the four first-person narrators of Moxyland, comes from one of these corporate creches. Then there is the technology. Many of the staples of cyberpunk are here. Gaming and virtual worlds have grown from diversions to ways of life, for many – and consequently tools employed by the corporate world to manipulate and control the masses. Then there is the nanotech – microscopic nanobots that keep you looking and feeling healthy and flash, but also serve to make you a walking, literally glowing advertisement for a certain product – not to mention making you addicted to said product. Well then. So far it seems we having nothing so much as a standard genre knock-off of William Gibson, et al. Fortunately author Lauren Beukes is a good enough writer – excellent at times, in fact – to use all of these familiar elements and still manage to write a fresh, entertaining novel. Furthermore, she is also clever enough to introduce some original elements into an otherwise formulaic, if well written work. One of these elements is the cellular or mobile phone. No, really. Science fiction – much of what constitutes the “good” kind, at any rate – may be set in the future but it isn’t really about the future but about the present. By looking at what may happen tomorrow, the author presents a commentary on what is happening today, be it good or bad. As one character tells us in Moxyland:
Don’t let anyone tell you that apartheid has nothing to do with South Africa now. Those roots run deep and tangled and we’ll be tripping over them for many generations to come.
As for phones, Beukes cleverly extrapolates our ever-increasingly ubiquitous use of mobile consumer technology to bring to life a near future in which we no longer use cash or even credit cards; transactions are handled by phones. We don’t use keys or even finger-pad key codes to enter our apartments, we use our phones, which are uniquely identified with us – in fact we don’t carry ID cards; our phone is our ID (and you thought your iPhone was precious now). Some of this is already happening today, of course – shopping by phone, banking by phone, etc. – and will undoubtedly continue to spread. Pretty cool huh? Technology making our lives easier and more convenient, as it should. But there is a flipside to this brave new cellular world that Beukes clues us in on, one that is naturally dark and problematic (it wouldn’t be cyberpunk, otherwise). People in the near-future of Moxyland have become so dependent on their phones – location-based technology has become so intrinsic to everyday life — that the populace at large is easily controlled through them. There is not much worse than a disconnect, whether it occurs because your phone was lost or stolen or because the authorities are punishing you for a crime. In fact, the police have no need to taser an uncooperative suspect; they can be tasered via their phone. This, the ubiquitous mobile phone, the gee-whiz technology that untethers us while keeping us connected at the same time. This, the technology that has become a necessary convenience and business tool in the first world. This, the means of improving the lives of those in the third world – in countries with little modern infrastructure the mobile phone is bringing access to the Internet, banking and micro loans for populations that would otherwise be isolated. This becomes the technology – one of several, actually – with which the corporate oligarchs, the corporate apartheid, gain control of the populace in Beukes’ Moxyland near-future. She takes the current concern about location-based technology and issues of invasion of privacy and illegal surveillance and takes them to a logical and disturbing conclusion. This makes Moxyland the stuff of good science fiction and takes it beyond the realm of stock cyberpunk. As the author herself says in an afterward:
The thing is that it’s all possible, especially if we’re willing to trade away our rights for convenience, for the illusion of security. Our very own bright and shiny dystopia is only ever one totalitarian government away.
Moxyland’s Characters? They’re full of Moxy … and Ghost
Against this dark, near-future of a backdrop Moxyland presents us four disparate characters that serve as our first-person narrators. Like Moxyland as a whole, in some ways these are stock characters. We have the thirty-something perrenial protester, the dreadocked do-gooder/would-be revolutionary from a middle-class background who really believes his own rhetoric, so much so that it becomes his tragic flaw. Then there is Lerato, the exact opposite – the aidsbaby who is not only tech savvy but corporate savvy, the penultimate pragmatist and survivor, who, if she’s helping stick it to the man, isn’t doing it so much as for a belief in the rhetoric as because a) she’s a l33t hacker with teh skilz who simply can; and b) she might be able to learn some things she can use to her own ends. Then there is Toby and Kendra. Kendra is a twenty-something art-school dropout and photographer who prefers the antiquated medium of film. It wouldn’t be a cyberpunk novel without someone interested in the technology of the past. Then there is Toby, a twenty-something video pod-casting hipster, one who gets buy on Mom’s money when he can’t quite get enough hits on the Interwebz or dig up some work as a l33t gamer. At first glance this all sounds yawn inducing, if not cringe-inducing. I’ll be honest, any of these people in real life I would avoid like an insufferable plague, so it’s to Beukes’ credit as a writer that she makes us – or maybe I should just say me, here; other readers may feel otherwise about Moxyland’s cast – if not care about these characters, at least interested enough that I want to know what happens to them. I even found myself rooting for Toby, albeit very mildly. In fact by the end of Moxyland each of these characters is fleshed out to a degree that they transcend the brief descriptions I’ve given here — but not by much, perhaps, but they do. I think this is a problem here with first-person narration, particularly in the hit-and-run fast-pace at which Moxyland moves (another not uncommon characteristic of many cyberpbunk works); we get inside the characters heads but rarely to any significant degree. Furthermore, because they narrate in the way they would speak, with all of their future slang and colloquialisms, it becomes a distraction for the reader — it does help give us a sense of their character though, particularly with Kendra and Toby. But it is only Lerato that lets us see much beyond her surface veneer – somewhat ironically, perhaps, as Lerato arguably is the least sympathetic character of the four, in some ways. But then given the context of her youth, it’s dififcult to fault her for cycnicism that borders on nihlism.
Damn You English Professors! *shakes fist*
I usually would try and avoid this sort of thing, but there is one aspect about Beukes’ use of first person narration that I would feel remiss if didn’t comment upon. Unfortunately it requires that I at least hint at what happens to the characters at the end of the story, at least in a very broad sense. I should note that this issue I have with the first person narration in Moxyland – which switches back and forth among our four protagonists – is one that probably is only an issue for others of my ilk. This ilk being students of literature who derive at least part of their literary bent from the various literature profs we had in college, not to mention honors English teachers in high school. These ranged from intelligent, vibrant and passionate teachers to stuffed shirts who hadn’t read anything new in decades and were just milking tenure. Anyway, just to be clear: I’m talking literary snobbism here, kids, and I’m copping to it. In essence this has made me sensitive to literary convention. Now convention, like all rules, are sometimes meant to be broken. But like so many other conventions and rules, they exist for a reason, these literary practices. In any event, if you can’t fathom what could be a problem with a first person narrator and what happens at the very end of a novel, then this issue I have likely won’t be an issue for you. But if you are sensitive to these sorts of things, you can probably already guess what I’m talking about. Either way, if you haven’t read Moxyland yet – and lets be clear, you should, by all means – but plan to, and don’t want to have any inkling of the plot/ending whatsoever, you’ll need to STOP READING momentarily (don’t worry, you’ll get ample warning). Let it suffice to say that while not without its flaws Moxyland is a good, at times even great example of science fiction and particularly the cyberpunk subgenre. Consider the fact that it’s her first novel and it’s rather astounding. How does it compare to her second novel, Zoo Land? I can say that Zoo Land is even better; it is an amazing work, again considering that Beukes is so new to the art. It’s a joy to discover a young, contemporary author like this Beukes; let us hope there are many more works where these two came from. Now then, as for that rest of it, namely that spoiler …
SPOILER ALERT Will Robinson! SPOILER ALERT
Okay, if you’re still reading, you’ve been warned. I mean it. Stop reading if you don’t want any hint of a spoiler. As you can see, I’m taking advantage of the gee-whiz theme this site uses to put the rest of this review in a drop down box. Again, don’t click below if you wish to avoid a potential spoiler. [learn_more caption=”DANGER! Click here for Literary Snob Spoiler! DANGER!”] So, for those of you who clicked, I’ll cut to the chase. Two of the four characters – two of our first-person narrators – aren’t alive at the end of the novel. I won’t say which two, nor discuss any details in an attempt to keep the spoiling to a minimum. Now, when you’re dealing with first person narration, there are conventions as to handle the death of the narrator. One of our two characters is narrating right up to the moment of death, however – this bugs me, for obvious reasons. How can she be telling us her story if she’s dead? Are we supposed to be standing next to her the whole time? But we’re not in the story. So who is she telling this too? Was it written down somewhere? No, we know what’s going on in her head right up until she ostensibly departs this mortal coil. Is it some inner monologue she keeps in her head? If so, the author needs to establish this early on. Otherwise, my willing suspension of disbelief is shot to hell in a most jarring manner. See, the thing is, if I hadn’t been educated in literary convention, this wouldn’t bother me. It probably wouldn’t even occur to me that this should be an issue. But some teacher or professor pointed this out to me a long time ago – that first person narrators, as a rule, shouldn’t die in the end – at least if they are narrating right up to the moment of their death without some other convention to explain how it is we, the reader, are hearing the words straight from the characters mouth. And now I’m intractably fussy about that sort of thing. Again, I don’t think this will be an issue for most readers – just the literary nerds and geeks out there. I’d be curious to know if any of Beukes’ editors had an issue with this or otherwise brought it up in the course of editing the book. In any event it’s a small criticism in the larger scheme of Moxyland.[/learn_more] Postscript. The author photo used above is originally from a story about Lauren Beukes in the The Daily Maverick, a South African (I”m guessing) news website. The photo is by one Victor Dlamini; presumably one or the other holds the copyright. I couldn’t find a decent PR photo of Ms. Beukes, but I did find this one — and it’s a great portrait, to be sure. I had to use it. I believe it’s use here constitutes fair use and doesn’t run afoul of copyright laws. However, if either Mr. Dlamini or the Maverick has a problem with me using the image here, please contact me and I will remove it post haste. Postcript, Part the Second: I deserve some sort of award for writing a lengthy review of a cyberpunk novel without resorting to using the word dystopia once. The fact that it appears in a quote from the author herself doesn’t count. No go read Moxyland.