Beukes, Lauren. Moxyland

Lauren Beukes, Moxyland (2008). Review originally appeared on Aargh.

If you are going to write an archetypically bursting-at-the-seams first novel, then cyberpunk is an excellent genre in which (and bursting slightly out of which) to write it.

We get four narrators: Kendra, a Z-list schleb photographer, interested in the aesthetics of both obsolete and prototype technologies; Toby, a vile trustafarian with a magic vlogcaster suit; Tendeka, a slightly naïve community organizer and political activist; and Lerato, an AIDS orphan done good as a hacker with a snazzy corporate day-job. They roll around, exemplifying themselves and their world, occasionally explicitly brushing against each other, occasionally suggesting some more obscure, behind-the-scenes connections, until a horrific police crack-down on a rather intricate scene of civil disorder draws their four narratives together for the final act.

One of them melts.

I saw a review somewhere which suggested that Beukes has written a globalized, homogenized cyberpunk dystopia, in which corporate totalitarianism usurps any strong sense of place. I have to disagree – at least inasmuch as Beukes doesn’t hold back on the South Africanisms, both vocabulary and speech rhythms. In fact, I wonder about the extent to which Moxyland is two novels, depending on a reader’s familiarity with South African English: there’s something quite gleefully trolling about asking some of your readership to dip into stockpiles of negative capability earmarked for alien civilizations, just to cope with how some people are really talking today. Swak is not drek but it could feel that way. (I think the brand names – “it’s going to be toyota” etc. – are Beukes’s own near future neologisms, but I’m not sure).

One drawback for the relatively non-South African reader (South Africanness is all relative hey) is that they may hear less of the differentiating nuance of the four voices. With its multiple viewpoints, and its headlong worldbuilding, the first half of the novel could almost be a disaster. But there’s plenty to pull you through. There are some sharp science fiction conceits. That bio-sig pen, for instance, which mixes a little of your DNA into the drying ink of your signature, and the delivery of a bouquet surrounded by GM butterflies programmed never to stray too far from your office desk: both had me hopped up to my eyeballs with readerly trust. Beukes also has a gift for what I’ll lazily and imprecisely call “set-pieces.” She knows how to layer and pace volatile situations where snap decisions matter. And there are nuggets of beauteous prose prosody: “. . . yield a juicy maggot, let alone mielies. It’s all cliché, a communal sepia-toned memory that all us Aidsbabies have in common . . .” or “It’s a mural, giant-scale and kif skilful, of a Nguni cow in profile.”

(Not that I dislike disasters, necessarily).

Given the black humour which pervades the book, it’s possible Beukes did miss a trick by making Toby quite so unlikable – I think most readers will be able to feel comfortably superior to Toby, whereas Beukes was clearly capable of making his voice theoretically abhorrent but actually quite charming.

But maybe it’s not a missed trick so much as a deliberate trade-off: it sharpens the allegory. By the end of Moxyland, it is not difficult to interpret the fates of the four characters as characteristic fates (or median fates, or modal fates) of the values they embody. I think perhaps cyberpunk and allegory are both ways of writing that are constitutively invested in representing the systemic (e.g. really showing the workings of capitalism and patriarchy, not just how they present themselves to us. Doxing them, if you will). So it’s pretty damn yaris to discover allegory operating so multifariously and nebulously within a cyberpunk novel.

One small example. If there was a sf-style exposition of how phones work in Beukes’s world, I missed it. It doesn’t matter: the phones make total sense anyway. The technology seems to involve some degree of bodily integration (police use your own phone to sort of tase you), so the job could have been done – plot-wise – by neural implants, but it was a masterful stroke to go with phones instead. That’s because phones are far more allegorically suggestive. It is very easy to elide the phones with “all the ways in which we are reliant on technology, especially networked technology which opens our lives to inspection and control by state and/or private sector bureaucracy,” at least as a working hypothesis, while we gather clues about the mechanisms involved. Having a phone means being governed in particular ways, but not having one means belonging to an underclass.

In this, perhaps the phone has a logic in common with the animal of Beukes’s next, rather more polished novel, the urban fantasy Zoo City. That is, the (lack of a) phone in Moxyland, like the animal in Zoo City, is a way of symbolizing social stratification, but without absorbing or displacing the kinds of stratification we already know about – economic, racial, gender – instead the phone gets wriggled back inside the interlocking matrix it’s supposed to symbolize, complicating it even further.

I wonder if there are some fruitful connections here between governmentality and gamification, or at least gaming more generally. There is certainly some interesting stuff here about gaming, reality, and various intricate blurrings and nestings of the two. The title puts the spotlight on this aspect. And I'm dying to ruminate on race and Kendra's skin. But I won’t get into any of that now: this was meant to be a short review ^_^ and besides, there have already been some intriguing pixels spilled about this book: not least this brace over at Strange Horizons; Sean Green asking some interesting questions about the portrayal of activism (and pointing out the precise timing of the novel’s publication, post Iraq invasion and subprime mortgage crisis, pre Occupy); Martin Petto on Beukes and Gibson; and Jonathan McCalmont also on the broader context of cyberpunk, positioning Moxyland at the satirical end: deconstructing the myth of the cool outsider by portraying such characters as victims. I think he’s right about the “smiling grimly.”