Moxyland by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot Books, 2009)
Reviewed by Niall Harrison
“Full of spiky originality,” declares Charles Stross, on the cover of Moxyland. “A new kind of sf, munching its way out of the intestines of the wasp-paralysed caterpillar of cyberpunk.” We’ve heard this too often, haven’t we? And it’s not true of Lauren Beukes’s first novel. To the contrary, it’s a book that would be all too easy to reduce to a string of buzzwords. Individuality, conformity, conspiracy. Wired, urban, dense. Terrorism, gaming, marketing. Cadigan, Sterling, Stross.
The word missing from the list is knowing. The cast of Moxyland know their world is artifice; they know that everything, every interaction and object, is probably designed to sell. That’s the air they breathe. That’s what one of them, artist Kendra Adams, feels impatient about; that’s why she eschews a digital camera for an old-fashioned film one. “There’s a possibility of flaw inherent in the material”, she argues. Digital is too perfect, too controlled, and in its perfection lies unreality. What interests her is the “background noise” captured while you’re focusing on something else.
Those details interest Beukes, too, I think. Other things too, of course: in an afterword, she emphasises the plausibility of some of her novel’s more prominent conceits: proprietary, corporation-run universities; law enforcement robots; use of mobile phones to deliver a disciplinary electric shock; biotechnological art; corporate co-option of rebellion for its own ends. But what marks the novel out is its texture.
Set in Cape Town in 2018, Moxyland is told in four voices. First-person in a near-future setting is always a high wire act; the narration must be different enough to evoke a changed world but not so different as to sound implausible or just silly. Differentiating four such voices is an even bigger ask but Beukes makes a reasonable fist of it and her characters’ personalities and situations are distinct enough to make up for any tonal similarities. In addition to navel-gazing Kendra (“I feel like the tarps sop up emotional residue along with the dust drifting down to settle on the carpets”), we meet: Toby Ward, self-consciously slangy blogger, spoilt and obnoxious (“It’s always fun to infringe on people’s personal space”); Lerato Mazwai, AIDS orphan, now a programmer indentured to the corporation that raised her, gossipy and shallow (“this fat chick across the aisle keeps giving me these dirty looks”); and Tendeka Mataboge, middle-class activist working with street kids, profane but unfailingly empathetic, even when being threatened (“Compared to what he must have gone through getting here, who the fuck am I that he should be afraid of me?”).
It’s the glimpses of these lives in this setting — Lerato’s upbringing, Tendeka’s struggle with corporate sponsorship of his aid programmes — that snag the attention, more than the overarching manipulation they struggle against. The novel’s conclusion is never really in doubt; Moxyland wears its cynicism on its sleeve. But it’s a sharp, sly ride, not new but proficiently done. You’ve heard this too often, as well, but indulge me: Beukes is one to watch.
This review was originally published in Vector #263.