Zoo City

Zoo City coverWelcome to Zoo City:

People who would happily speed through Zoo City during the day won’t detour here at night, not even to avoid police roadblocks. They’re too scared, but that’s precisely when Zoo City is at its most sociable. From 6pm, when the day-jobbers start getting back from whatever work they’ve been able to pick up, apartment doors are flung open. Kids chase each other down the corridors. People take their animals out for fresh air or a friendly sniff of each other’s bums. The smell of cooking — mostly food, but also meth — temporarily drowns out the stench of rot, the urine in the stairwells. The crack whores emerge from their dingy apartments to chat and smoke cigarettes on the fire-escape, and catcall the commuters heading to the taxi rank on the street below. (132)

What I like about this passage is its incongruous homeliness. Despite the fact that none of the details are original — several are close to cliche — and for all that it’s clear that Zoo City is a pretty beat-up place, this isn’t a judgmental portrait. These people may be caged, but they’re not animals. Our narrator is matter of fact about the meth being cooked alongside the food; if we didn’t already know by this point, we probably wouldn’t be too surprised to learn that she lives here, that she is part of the community she sets out for our consumption.

It’s clearly a place for people short on choices, however. Zinzi Lelethu December is out of prison but far from out of debt, and has been forced to turn her journalistic tricks to 419 scams: a role she’s good at playing, but not happy about. What’s weighing her down is the novel’s fantastic conceit, so thoroughly normalised that taking the above passage in isolation you might miss it. In Zoo City‘s alternate day after tomorrow (the novel is set in March 2011), there’s a new outcast class, sufferers of a fantastical condition termed Acquired Asymbiotic Familiarism by researchers, and animalism or worse on the street. Its defining symptom is the appearance of a flesh-and-blood animal familiar (and these are animals, not talking pets), it seems to afflict those condemned by society or even by their own conscience (justice be damned) and those affected are excluded, exoticised, or both; and they need places like Zoo City to live. The resonances with Pullman’s His Dark Materials in this setup are unavoidable but, apparently, coincidental, although the similarity is acknowledged and there is at least one witty reversal: familiars often reflect their host’s inner character through a mirror darkly. So Zinzi’s sloth, which appeared after the death of her brother, tells you that she’s smart, sharp, and constantly on the move.

As she has to be, to navigate the competing currents that make up the novel’s plot. There’s her desire to pay her way out of her scamming debt; her uneasy relationship with Benoit, a Zoo City hustler whose presumed-dead wife may in fact be alive; the cryptic emails that keep mysteriously appearing in her inbox; and her private enterprise, her magical talent for finding lost things. It’s the last of these that provides most of the forward motion in Zoo City, as Zinzi is recruited by two deeply shady animalled, on behalf of mysterious music mogul Odi Huron, to track down the missing half of the twins that make up his latest pop sensation. The quest takes her, naturally, out of the zoo and into the wilds of the middle and upper class enclaves of Johannesburg: and back, in some cases, into the circles in which she used to swim.

So far so noir, an impression reinforced by the cool terseness of Zinzi’s narration and, at times, of Zinzi herself — “There are two things in the interrogation room with me and Inspector Tschabalala. The one is Mrs Luditsky’s ring. The other is twelve and a half minutes of silence” (28) — and by the pervasive unfairness of the unfolding story. AAF confers something between the stigma of the ex-con and, as the pervasive presence of AIDS reminds us, the stigma of the disease sufferer. Like those, it is based as much or more on assumptions as it is on any empirical reality. Found documents scattered through Zoo City tell the story of AAF — the journal article, the documentary synopsis, the prison tales. The fantastic nature of the conceit has put some reviewers in mind of Jeff Noon’s surreal Vurt (1993), although I was reminded of the more rationalised fantastic of Kit Whitfield’s Bareback (2006). Either way, for most of the novel what’s striking is how low down in the mix it seems to be: a back-note, not a central flavour. It’s only quite late on that it becomes clear, not just from those found documents, how much the existence of AAF has shaped the society Beukes describes.

More immediately obvious, however, is the care with which Beukes sketches the jungle of Johannesburg, and the people Zinzi meets. We watch, fascinated and helpless, as they are used and use each other in turn. Like Beukes’ first novel, Moxyland (2008 South Africa, 2009 UK, 2010 US), Zoo City is distinguished by its texture. The husbandry of information is mostly superb; the glimpses of Zinzi’s world captivate, from the gated high-rise where a broken lift means the wealthy residents simply throw their rubbish out of the windows, to be cleaned up once it hits the ground, to a “Great Gatsby by way of Lady Gaga” (219) nightclub and Zinzi’s own cluttered, crappy flat; and the various characters Zinzi meets, from Huron himself, to popsters Song and S’bu, to current and ex lovers Benoit and Gio, are captured with precision and detail. Per John Clute’s review, Zoo City is indeed an energetic read; but it’s Zinzi’s binding voice that makes it a visceral one, and more transporting than the earlier novel.

Less welcome is the way in which the marketing-driven cynicism familiar from Moxyland — “it’s not just about the music anymore,” Zinzi is told, “it’s about the brand” (120) — becomes here something of a red herring. Shadowing the brisk surface narrative is the Undertow, a metaphysical darkness that threatens to consume those with AAF. It is the attrition of stigma, and the burden that the novel’s villain seeks to use power and privilege to escape. The impeccably chroegraphed ending that Beukes contrives from these ingredients however, is a betrayal, an imposition of justice that everything else Zinzi has told us, and everything Moxyland might have lead us to expect, insists is unearned. And it diminishes an otherwise fine novel, even if the clue was there from the start. The thing about a zoo, after all, is that it’s a lie: the real world is a jungle.

Short Story Club Post-Mortem

So, another round of short story club is complete. For reference, here are the links to the various stories and discussions:

As previously mentioned, I’d now like to open the floor for a more general discussion. There are two topics here. The major one is the stories themselves — which ones you liked, which you didn’t, what patterns or trends you spotted. And the minor one is about the logistics of the club — too many stories? Too few? Too similar? All feedback welcome.

Short Story Club: “Throwing Stones”

Plenty of comment for the final story, starting with Lois Tilton:

This is a lovely fantasy, mannered and sensuous. There is also a subtle subtext about the nature of gender roles that rouses echoes of our own culture.

Karen Burnham goes into more detail:

Baker offers a beautiful tale of identity, politics, power, and love, all intertwined together. Tuo feels just slightly alien, slightly Other, in an effectively disconcerting way. The gender power reversal works well, and the relationship between the goblin and the man, both physical and emotional, queers gender on several levels. Of course, much is left to the imagination of the reader. But in an allusive tale, the poetry of the prose is key, and lines such as:

I leaned forward and pressed my lips to the slick skin of his forehead; it tasted of salt and fish and something acrid I could not identify. The immediacy and honesty of it hit me like a gust of dry wind blowing fog from water.

show a mastery of craft — the repeated use of water imagery, the contrasts of dry wind and lake fog, and the overall rhythm of the piece all come together to make this tale well worth reading.

Matt H wasn’t so impressed by the gender reversal:

This is a story about a society with inverted gender roles, but the story feels like it was written about a woman in a male dominated society, then had all gender references inverted in revision. Certainly it doesn’t read any differently than its opposite, except perhaps to readers so new to the genre that they haven’t encountered a story challenging gender roles before. The story finally approaches interesting territory as the narrator is given a transient female body via magic, but the author seems like she’s in a hurry to reach the ending by this point and nothing much is done with it.

However:

all that said, I found myself won over to large degree upon finishing the story. Nothing about the writing jumped out at me as really superlative, but as a whole I was impressed with the execution: the slimy, amphibian true form of the goblin, the narrator’s hatred for his own body, the way the goblin’s chaos infects and destroys the narrator’s life in a way that he observes but doesn’t see as important, and then the implication that the goblin is here acting as an agent of Ru, the very goddess in whose name the matriarchs suppress the men in their society. These elements weren’t enough to turn this story into one more to my particular tastes, but they did make it unexpectedly enjoyable to read.

For Chad Orzel:

It’s very well written and paced, and what we see of the world is nicely detailed. But it seemed a little too obviously to be making a Point, and as a result didn’t really connect with me. Despite the fact that it’s a well put together story, I still found myself doing the “Yes, you’re very clever, now move it along,” thing, and that’s never good. But, of course, the usual disclaimers apply– it’s entirely possible that this is an idiosyncratic reaction on my part.

The one thing that struck me as a real flaw in the story, and not just something that failed to work for me, was the passivity of the narrator. I mean, this is supposedly a person who has embarked on a dangerous plan to subvert the basis of his whole society, and yet he never takes any initiative, ever. He doesn’t approach the goblin until the goblin notices him first, he just sort of falls into the relationship with the goblin without really wanting it, and he doesn’t really have a plan for how to get into the Temple structure until the goblin practically pushes him into it.

Maria Lin appears to disagree:

You could call “Throwing Stones” a romance, as the whole of it centers upon the relationship between these two characters. Baker manages to make slimy, froglike creatures sensual, which is some feat. Both the narrator and Luo are reserved, calculating people, but for the narrator at least the strength of emotion pushes through and makes things more complicated. By the end of the story the narrator has entered training in the temple, but their conspiracy has yet to be revealed, and the relationship between himself and Luo remains uncertain.

Because “Throwing Stones” leaves the stone still poised to be thrown in the end, the reader is left to come to their own conclusion about what will happen when our protagonist starts making ripples in his society. Baker has written a neat story with a sympathetic narrator that is worth checking out. She is also apparently working on a novel set in the same world, so if this story appeals you might have more to look forward to.

And for Pam Phillips:

The story attempts to turn our expectations about gender upside down, like the customers at the teahouse being powerful women, or the narrator blaming his/her shyness on being male (rather than just being born shy). And yet, I still mostly read both the narrator and the poet as men. Both feel stifled by the society they live in. Tuo wants the narrator to “throw a stone” into the lake of civilization, raising ripples that will someday lead to change.

But what is the change they want? The way the women in Jiun-shi are keeping (at least some) men from being what they want to be, suggests that no matter what, one side will oppress the other. Or maybe the idea of a city ruled by women is just trying to get us to think about how our world feels to some people. And this is where trying figure out what this story wants to be gets all slippery on me.

So, as ever, the floor is open. And pop back next Friday for a general discussion of the short story club — favourites and least favourites, what worked and what didn’t.

Short Story Club: “Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of Her Glory”

Some quite divergent opinions for this story. We start with Rich Horton, in the June Locus:

I was impressed last year by Paul M Berger’s Interzone piece “Home Again”. Now he contributes a brilliant story to Fantasy, one of the stories of the year so far, “Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of Her Glory”. Loran, an old elven warrior, has taken Jessica, a young human, as his wife, and the pair visit a tourist attraction, the ruins of the Gray Fort, one of the last human redoubts in the long war that ended with humans enslaved. We learn of the pair bond between the two, such that they both feel and sense what the other does, and some of human/elf history that led to the current debased state of humans. The title artwork is a very clever invention, and nicely reflected in the story’s two parts, one from the POV of each character. The direction the story takes is on the one hand predictable, but nicely executed, and with some ambiguities and surprises that give it freshness and depth.

For Pam Phillips the story is

the sort of story I was hoping to find when I decided to join the Short Story Club at Torque Control.

A elf, Loran, and his human wife, Jessica, visit a ruined fort. From the first words, the story does an excellent job of portraying how the bond between them allows them to share sensory input, but not thoughts.

Their conversation is filled with suggestions of an epic history, war, conquest, and resistance. Loran is so arrogant, you just know he has underestimated his wife. That we confirm when we read Jessica’s side of the story. I like the Rashomonization in getting different meanings from the same events, but I could live without the verbatim repetition of dialogue.

Only after the story is allowed to take shape, do we get to the conceit that spawned it: a stereogram that can only be comprehended by a bonded pair. This stereogram is wonderful enough, but the best part is the way it pays off in the ending.

Excellent.

And for Matt H it’s the best so far:

Perhaps the most interesting part of the setting, and probably the concept the author meant to actually show in the story’s “stereogram”, is the nature of the colonial government. Loran’s narrative makes it very clear that the Elves only respect strength and were in fact disappointed when they finally defeated humans. Unlike the colonial powers of our world, they don’t seem to be extracting labor or natural resources. There’s likewise no equivalent of the White Man’s Burden, or at least, not since the war ended, since they see humans as only being worthy of respect when they are capable of fighting the Elves. Yet Loran says that in his role as a sort of regional governor he is responsible for “teaching” the humans under his control. What could he want to teach them, then, if not to fight back again? It seems like we are meant to conclude that he has essentially planned his own murder. Although this level of manipulation seems well beyond his ability to comprehend human psychology, even Jessica’s despite the link between them, at least we can say he shaped the outline if not the detail of what happened. Thus what might have seemed like a rousing stick-it-to-the-man ending becomes fairly ambiguous. As readers we’re predisposed to be sympathetic to Jessica’s stand, but when we realize that in doing so she’s adopting the values of the colonial power, suddenly it doesn’t seem like such a good idea. Loran has made her into a William Wallace when humanity would be better served by a Mahatma Ghandi.

But Lois Tilton is ambivalent:

The narrative follows the stereogram pattern by relating the story first from Loran’s point of view and then Jessica’s. What’s going on here is subversion of the notion of the noble High Elf, as Loren regards himself, revealing them as a race that would destroy another civilization to give its people the perverse gift of recovering their own capacity for martial glory – and themselves a partner for war that they could consider worthy even as they destroy them. Loren’s own words indict him even more thoroughly than Jessica’s version of the events. I love the vision of the ruined fort, the scene of former glories, even knowing that the vision is false. But too much of this story depends on the notion of the marital pair-bond, which I can’t help finding contrived.

As is Chad Orzel:

I ended up being unimpressed with this, and I’m not sure exactly why. Mostly, it’s that I could see exactly where it was headed from about the point where the brain-sharing thing was explained, and knew it exactly by the time she picked up the dagger. The shift in perspectives was not that much of a revelation, and the whole thing unfolded with a sense of inevitability rather than a sense of wonder.

But again, as I say, I’m not really sure why my reaction to this is a jaded “Meh”– it’s not like there’s a huge glut of psychically linked elf stories on the market, and as a technical matter, it’s well done. Berger also deserves credit for having a return of magic without turning it into a My Awesome Werewolf Boyfriend kind of story.

It’s just… Something about the way it all unfolded wound up feeling, for me, more like the completion of a checklist than a compelling story. Remark about technology making humans weak, check. Remark about our world being too amazing to be true, check. Change in perspective making “courtship” seem really creepy, check. One of linked couple able to hide thoughts and plans from the other, check. And so on.

I’ll be interested to see where everyone else comes down on this one.

World Fantasy Award Winners

Have been announced:

Best Novel: The City & The City by China Mieville
Best Novella: “Sea-Hearts” by Margo Lanagan
Best Short Fiction: “The Pelican Bar” by Karen Joy Fowler
Best Anthology: American Fantastic Tales ed. Peter Straub
Best Collection: TIE: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya and The Very Best of Gene Wolfe by Gene Wolfe
Best Artist: Charles Vess
Special Award — Professional: Jonathan Strahan (for editing anthologies)
Special Award — Non-Professional: Susan Marie Groppi (for Strange Horizons)

Not, perhaps, the most surprising list of winners there’s ever been, but a good list for all that. Congratulations to all. I’m much more a fan of giving The City & The City awards as fantasy than as science fiction, although in my heart of hearts I’d still have liked In Great Waters to take it. And I am, of course, absolutely delighted with Susan’s win, which is both thoroughly deserved personally, and a brilliant cap to the magazine’s tenth year.

London Meeting: NK Jemisin

The guest at tonight’s BSFA London meeting is NK Jemisin, author of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, its forthcoming follow-up The Broken Kingdoms, and the Hugo- and Nebula-nominated short story “Non-Zero Probabilities.” I’ll be doing the interview — so I hope to see you there, but if you can’t make it and have a question you’d like asked, feel free to leave a comment here.

As usual, the meeting will be head in the upstairs room of The Antelope: 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

There will be people in the bar from 6-ish, with the interview starting at 7. The meeting is free, and open to any and all — not just BSFA members — and there will be a raffle with a selection of sf books as prizes.

Short Story Club: “The Cage”

I have belatedly added my thoughts on last week’s story, so now on to “The Cage“, which as a couple of people note, appeared as part of a paranormal romance/urban fantasy month at Tor.com. This was a bit of a stumbling block for, say, Bob Blough, although it seems to have won him over:

“The Cage” by A.M. Dellamonica is more interesting than the urban fantasies and paranormal romances offered this month because it’s not simply regurgitating the tropes of those specific subgenres. Unfortunately, it does involve werewolves (albeit, a standard horror trope) and so I had to work hard to become interested in the story. The writing is much better and the characters are characters instead of ciphers, but the story about a young girl needing to be caged each month at the full moon is old and tired as well. The characters and writing style do make up for these cliches to a certain degree, so I give it a qualified thumbs up.

Matt Hilliard had issues with the worldbuilding:

In fact, I spent the entire story struggling with the worldbuilding. Not the picture it paints of Vancouver, which seemed readily believable (and probably based to a large degree on the author’s experience there), but of everything having to do with the werewolves. It seems that werewolves successfully hid the fact they even existed right up to 2002, but now are helpless in the face of anti-werewolf vigilantes. Most of the action of the story revolves around the struggle to deal with a baby werewolf, and while that was an interesting spin on the werewolf concept, one I hadn’t seen before, it again doesn’t make sense given the story’s invented history. The werewolf’s surrogate mother comes from a long line of werewolves, and yet she seems to be inventing procedures for raising a werewolf baby from first principles. She knows a werewolf society that will take the child in but for reasons never articulated they will only do so at age five, even though it’s clearly in their best interest to keep poorly constrained baby werewolves from bringing disrepute and thus further persecution on werewolves as a whole. Also, I don’t know anything about Canadian law, but the villain apparently traveled to Canada, found a werewolf’s associate, tortured this person to get the werewolf’s location, went there and killed her, and now is in danger of escaping conviction because he said it was self defense. How is that even remotely believable? What about the whole torture thing? Was that self defense too?

Lois Tilon wasn’t convinced by the premise either:

If werewolves, like the normal kind, are pack animals, isolating the puppy is not the way to raise it, and waiting until it is five years old would be much too late for socialization at its apparent rate of development.

The author seems to have gone to a certain amount of trouble to establish her protagonist’s sexual ambiguity in the first scenes, but if this was her intention, it was undercut by the illustration and the too-cutesy blurb: The littlest werewolf has two mommies.

Although it didn’t tip off Pam Phillips:

The tone is light, well sprinkled with chuckles. A pleasant bit of fluff, with just enough peril to keep it from getting too nice.

There is a bit of a gender detection test, which I flunked, despite several obvious clues. Worse, it wasn’t until the third read that I realized that almost everyone in the story is a woman. Except the villains. It all seems utterly normal, which is the point. Eventually, even a lazy reader like me will figure it out. For anyone else who feels dumb about this, the baby is a little clue-impaired himself.

Chad Orzel divines a lack of substance:

The closest thing to a Serious Point in this is having the innocent werewolf saved by Vancouver’s lesbian community banding together to throw a wild party, about which the best thing I can say is that it doesn’t hammer home the parallel between gay rights and supernatural rights as hard as it might. It’s not a story you can hate– it’s a little too insubstantial for that, plus there’s the adorable werewolf puppy– but there’s not a lot here to love, either. It’s cute and clever, and that’s about it.

Evan seems to have liked it most:

Since I don’t read a lot of PR books, I might be missing the people who’re trying to subvert the conventions of the genre, but this is the best piece that I’ve read so far in that vein. Werewolf hunters as psychopaths and sadists rather than bad-ass superheroes is a subversion that resonates with a lot of my complaints about the entire genre, not just its PR subsections (cyberpunk did us a disservice, I think).

The thematic spine of the story is, of course, the ties here between othered communities. Normally, an LGBT community (or another outsider community) springing to the defense of ‘monsterkind’ here would be a bit obvious, but somehow she manages it here without making it too terribly unsubtle. Normally outsider communities don’t like to go around borrowing trouble, but in larger cities, there’s a sense that the more people who band together the more powerful you become. So it makes sense, narrative-wise that the whole community that this women has access to would come out and stand up. This isn’t simple, of course. Just witness the difficulties transgender persons have had getting properly represented by the ‘mainstream’ LGBT organizations. It’d have amped up the realism a bit more to show the phonecalls that she made, so that we could see not just who came, but who couldn’t be bothered and who actively didn’t want to come.

I also like how government is presented as complicated, with multiple levels and factions. Too often, especially in literature coming from the notional left, or from any non-centrist ideological position, that government is one single block oozing evil and simpering henchmen. The evocation of this here wasn’t necessary to the plot, but I thought that it was a nice touch all the same.

Any more for any more?