Moxyland

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.

An interview with Shana Worthen

As promised, here’s a short interview with Shana Worthen, Vector’s incoming Features Editor, whose first issue, to which I am very much looking forward, should be out shortly after my last. You can find her current online home here. And many thanks to her for taking the time to answer my questions.

How did you get involved with the BSFA?

I started with the London pub meetings. I moved back to London from Toronto in early July of 2005 and my first BSFA pub night was later that month. After a year of attending, I became a member. It was shareware logic: pay for something after I have already had my money’s worth — not that memberships actually subsidize the meetings. How I first heard of the pub nights, I don’t specifically know, but I had been looking for regular fannish meetings here before I moved over. My inbox tells me that I started following Ansible in that May, so that’s a possibility.

What are your interests within sf?

Novels, poetry, and criticism, primarily. i also really like tie-in reference books! I have a small but growing accumulation of science fictionally-related cookbooks, for example. Movies, occasionally. I am very much interested in science fiction-related artwork, especially landscapes and maps, but can’t say I follow it in any systematic way at this point.

I often read through self-imposed projects, whether an award-related list or a friend’s set of recommendations. For the last several years, I’ve been getting to know the subgenre of science fiction romance in particular. I’m currently reading a short list of books recommended by a friend as a way of getting to know some of the more recent American science fiction publications.

Although I have caught at least one episode per season of Doctor Who, I don’t usually remember to watch television series. I grew up without a television and still have poor televisual instincts. iPlayer is useful, but only if I’m reminded in time to catch something. I did have a long spell back in Toronto of watching lots of anime, but most of it had not been broadcast locally in the first place.

And what do you do outside sf?

Professionally, I’m a historian of medieval technology. It still seems improbable that my day job is teaching online for a university on the other side of the ocean, but it’s true.

Food is my major hobby. I love eating good things, and will cook if need be to have them. I love trying new restaurants, and reading food criticism and related essays and blogs. I mostly read cookbooks rather than cook from them. This also explains my science fiction cookbooks, many of which are only partially designed to be cooked with. I’ve been thinking a lot in the last year about why science fiction and fantasy tend to be so conservative in its use of food technologies. I’ve been dabbling in related academic work too: I have an article coming out next year on smoked foods in fantasy literature.

I like seeing new places, whether industrial tourism, museums, or countryside. I like theatrical musicals, drawing with watercolour pencils, and photographing reflections.

What plans do you have for Vector? What can we expect from your first issue?

My plan is to try to live up to the standard set in the last few years! I will be trying for clusters of related articles rather than the entire themed issues, however.

I’m starting off with the usual year-in-review issue, so the majority of the content will be looking back at 2010. I am happy to report that there will also be two new columns appearing in my first issue. Paul Kincaid is writing one which will revisit older short stories. Terry Martin began a column on graphic novels and comics for Matrix which will now be appearing regularly in Vector. Also, Anthony Nanson has an article on an Arthurian trilogy by Stephen Lawhead.

Are you looking for any sort of submission in particular?

Although Vector‘s focus will remain primarily on text, I would love to see interesting and varied submissions which look at science fiction more broadly. For example, I would love to read more critical work on science fiction drama and science fictional art exhibits. I’d be interested in seeing articles on the relationship between original texts and their adaptations, whether to film or graphic novel. I am actively looking for more articles on science fiction poetry.

Any submission I can learn something from is a good one.

How can people contact you?

I’ll be taking over the vector.editors@gmail.com email address soon; sworthen@owlfish.com is my usual email address.

Transition

Happy new year, everybody — hope you had a great break, and got plenty of reading done. I did, on both counts, although I haven’t yet read a single word of fiction this year, because I’ve been preoccupied with getting some things ready for Strange Horizons’ first issue of the year. There are some changes to our schedule and pay rates, detailed here, and we’re recruiting for a few positions, which you can find details of here.

But more importantly from the point of view of Torque Control, we’ve raised the Strange Horizons blog up to become a permanent part of the site. I’ll be blogging over there regularly from now on, and since my final issue of Vector is being prepared for printing at the moment, this seems as good a time as any to start phasing out my posting here. I’ll be around until the deadline passes for this year’s BSFA Award nominations — deadline midnight, on Friday 14th January — and possibly around intermittently after that, but I’ll be handing over to the incoming features editor, Shana Worthen, and the occasional post from Martin in his guise as reviews editor. We’ll kick things off tomorrow, with a post in which I interview Shana about her plans for the magazine.

The Dervish House

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (Gollancz, 2010)
Reviewed by Tony Keen
(This is an expanded version of a review that appeared in Vector #266.)

I am about to board a tram that will take me towards Necatibey Cadessi, where the action of Ian McDonald’s new novel The Dervish House begins. As in the novel, there is a Champions League match in Turkey in a few days, though it is Manchester United versus Bursaspor, not Galatasaray and Arsenal. This information is biographical to me personally, but it may help you understand why this novel connects with me so beautifully.

This summer, posters appeared advertising Dan Brown’s latest novel, showing various situations in which people are so wrapped up in reading Brown’s The Lost Symbol that they are ignorant of the dangers around them. In one, a man is merrily absorbed in his book while his barbecue turns into an inferno. I like to think that he would cast the Brown itself into the flames should some kind person show him a copy of The Dervish House, a novel that presses many of the same buttons as Brown’s book but is the work of an immeasurably more talented writer.

The Dervish House is the third of McDonald’s loose trilogy of ‘post-colonial’ novels, after River of Gods and Brasyl, both of which won the BSFA Award. These three novels (and the short story collection Cyberabad Days) take science fiction outside the normal First World settings of North America, Europe and Japan, and instead explore India, Brazil and, now, Turkey. In a lesser writer’s hands, the danger would be that such accounts could become patronizing. But McDonald knows how to avoid the traps of white colonialism. His interest in settings that would, for most writers, be non-traditional, goes back at least to Sacrifice of Fools, set in the Belfast in which he has lived for most of his life, a background most writers would pass over, or get horribly wrong. In the three recent novels, McDonald has plainly done his research; as a result he paints pictures of the countries that are vibrant and convincing, taking them on their own terms. Apart from the changes that have taken place recently, and further changes that McDonald predicts, The Dervish House showcases a fully-realised Turkey which is fundamentally the nation I remember from my own visits in the nineties and earlier this decade, and indeed, McDonald’s Istanbul is the Istanbul in which I am completing the final version of this review (like the novel, my visit began with a terrorist bomb). But McDonald never paints his pictures through infodump. A McDonald novel contains an enormous amount of information, but none of it is gratuitous.

As with the other two novels, a big science-fictional idea is central to The Dervish House. After exploring artificial intelligence in River of Gods and alternate worlds in Brasyl, McDonald now investigates nanotechnology. In approach, The Dervish House is perhaps most like River of Gods, where nine individuals were followed in order to tell the overall story of the novel’s tenth character, mid-twenty-first century India. Here, six characters’ lives interleave through a week in Istanbul, to tell the story of that city in the twenty-first century. The Queen of Cities, not any of the humans, is the novel’s central character, and it is to Istanbul that McDonald gives the novel’s opening and close.

Part of the story takes in Brown-style semi-mystical objects and secret codes written into the city’s architecture. For many a writer this would be enough for a whole novel; for McDonald it is almost a sub-plot, in a book that also covers terrorist schemes (one of which resembles the McGuffin of the James Bond movie The World is Not Enough), financial swindles, European football and the legacy of the military dictatorship of the Eighties, as well as the previously mentioned nanotechnology.

Yet, for all this richness, arguably The Dervish House is in some ways the least ambitious of the three novels. River of Gods, which is significantly longer, uses multiple narratives, ones that only briefly touch each other, to tell the story of a country, with a potentially world-changing conclusion. Brasyl, which is shorter, follows three narratives – one contemporary, one twenty-five years in the future and one three hundred years in the past – that converge finally in an unexpected but extremely dramatic fashion. The stakes in The Dervish House are far lower; though serious consequences could ensue, they are not on the same level as the potential threats in River of Gods or Brasyl, in each of which there is a serious possibility that the world could end.

The Dervish House recounts a single week in the lives of what are, essentially, a group of neighbours, whose lives are much more closely interconnected than those of the principal characters in River of Gods. The setting for the most part is the single city of Istanbul. There are flashbacks to people’s pasts in the Mediterranean area of Lycia (as someone who wrote a Ph.D. on the Lycian civilization, I can tell you that McDonald gets that right as well) and a brief trip to the north-east of the country, but these are not where the novel’s heart is. Overall, everything seems rather more circumscribed. But I would argue that the novel is not in any way weakened by this narrowing of scale.

It is also the most overtly political of the three novels, and perhaps McDonald’s most political work since 1996’s Sacrifice of Fools. This is partly because it is the least far into the future: 2026, as opposed to 2032 (Brasyl) or 2047 (River of Gods). But it is also because McDonald directly addresses current political issues. Some characters in the novel were born around 1960, and so can remember the 1980 military coup and the ruthless suppression of political dissent that followed. This is something to which the current Turkish population, especially those who were there at the time, have still to fully reconcile themselves, and the military’s role in politics remains something of a concern in modern Turkey, as the recent alleged ‘Sledgehammer’ and ‘Ergenekon’ plots show. McDonald also engages with the idea of Turkish entry into the EU; in The Dervish House Turkey is both in the EU and in the Eurozone (here recent events, specifically the 2010 crisis in the weaker members of the Eurozone such as Greece, Spain and Ireland, have rather overtaken the novel). It is a book from which McDonald’s own political views – liberal, understanding but with a clear moral sense of right and wrong, unmuddied by relativism – emerge more clearly than perhaps in the previous two novels.

Moreover, it is the most carefully constructed of the novels. The interweaving lives, the consequences of one character’s actions upon the others, the unravelling of carefully devised plans due to unexpected factors, all of these are diligently and coherently assembled. One might say that the dénouement is perhaps a little too neat, that everything is wrapped up a little too tidily, and that McDonald is a little too kind to his point-of-view characters in a way that he is not in River of Gods. But I would argue that these are minor quibbles and, for all that The Dervish House is in some aspects on a smaller scale than the earlier novels, it is the best-written of the three.

As I approached the end of The Dervish House, I found my speed of reading slowed down. This was not because I was bored or couldn’t face reading the novel – it is because I was enjoying the novel too much. I didn’t want the book to end and was trying to put off as long as possible the moment where I would have to leave McDonald’s rich world. This is one of the finest novels I’ve read since, oh, the last Ian McDonald novel. Another BSFA Award seems highly probable, and a Clarke nomination in order.

Now for that tram…

All Change

As those who were at the BSFA AGM earlier this year may remember — for that is where it was first announced — my time as features editor of Vector is coming to an end. Specifically, I’m standing down at the end of 2010, which means there are two more issues with my name on left to go (the first of which should be printed this week, and the second of which is not far behind). I’m feeling pretty good about the run, on balance; it’s been a rewarding experience, a privilege to curate a journal with such a fine history, and I hope has produced some things worth reading. Of course, everyone else who’s worked on Vector during the last five years must get credit as well: reviews editors Paul Billinger, Kari Sperring, and Martin Lewis; production editors Tony Cullen, Liz Batty, and Anna Feruglio dal Dan; my co-editor for the first year, Gene Melzack; and everyone who wrote an article or a review or a letter of comment. My thanks go to all.

But, while I’m in no danger of challenging Andrew M Butler for the title of longest-serving editor, five years feels about the right point to stand aside and let someone else have a go. The incoming features editor will be known to many of you, and certainly anyone who regularly attends the London Meetings, and I have no doubt that Shana Worthen will do an excellent job. I’m certainly looking forward to reading her first issue.

Meanwhile, things are also changing in another part of my sf life. As of today, I take over from Susan Marie Groppi as editor-in-chief of Strange Horizons; you can read her announcement of the handover here.

I’m extremely proud to be part of Strange Horizons. It stands for a lot of things I believe in — say, for speculative fiction, rather than sf and fantasy narrowly; for new voices, both in fiction and non-fiction; for diversity of all kinds — and is produced by a group of people I respect and admire. It’s the longest-running online sf magazine out there, and it’s entirely volunteer run and donation-funded. (One week left in this year’s fund drive! Prizes to be won! Just for mentioning the fund drive!) It is, so far as I’m concerned, a Good Thing.

And so I’m proud to be taking over the organisation and running of the magazine, while being conscious that I’ll be following in big, World Fantasy Award-winning footsteps. As Matt Cheney eloquently describes, Susan’s presence has been a huge part of what’s made Strange Horizons what it is, and while she’ll still be around as fiction editor, it’s going to be different. Still, I have things I want to do, even things that could be described as plans, and I’m excited about getting down to them. I’m also excited to be able to say that my replacement as reviews editor will be Abigail Nussbaum, because I can’t imagine anyone I’d feel more comfortable leaving that department with, and I can’t wait to see how it develops with her guidance.

One downside of all this change is that, as things move on, I’ll be posting less here, since it’s a BSFA venue — although I won’t be scaling back until after the women and sf week in December, at the earliest. But I might well be posting elsewhere. Further updates, as they say, as events warrant.

Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy

BSFA members should be receiving the latest issue of Vector this week:

Torque Control — editorial
No Easy Choices: Some Thoughts of an Adult Reading Children’s and Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy by Andrew M. Butler
Writing a Ruritania in a Post-Colonialist World by Farah Mendlesohn
Taking Control of the World: Kristin Cashore interviewed by Nic Clarke
Nicholas Fisk: Ten Short Novels by Niall Harrison
First Impressions — book reviewed edited by Martin Lewis
Resonances 59 by Stephen Baxter
Foundation’s Favourites: Catseye by Andre Norton by Andy Sawyer
Progressive Scan: The Sarah Jane Adventures by Abigail Nussbaum

The smashing cover photo is by Tom Ryan. This is Martin’s first issue as Reviews Editor, and he’s instituted a few changes — not least of which is his opening column, which you can read here.

As ever, we welcome letters of comment, or feedback on the forum.

Also of note: you can listen to Jonathan McCalmont’s interview of Lauren Beukes (from last week’s BSFA meeting) on the BSFA website, here.

Review of 2009

While I was away this week, BSFA members should have received the latest mailing, including Vector 262:

That Was The Year That Was — guest editorial by Ian Whates
The BSFA Award Shortlists 2009
The Vector Reviewers’ Poll — edited by Kari Sperring
2009 in Film — by Colin Odell and Mitch LeBlanc
Progressive Scan: Genre TV in 2009 — by Abigail Nussbaum
First Impressions — book reviews edited by Kari Sperring
Foundation’s Favourites — Andy Sawyer
Resonances 58 — Stephen Baxter
The New X: 2010 — Graham Sleight

Ian’s editorial covers the printer-related challenges (read: woes) the BSFA faced last year and, as you may be able to gather from (a) the fact that Vector contains the BSFA Award shortlists but not winners and (b) the fact that the mailing also contains a booklet featuring the nominated short fiction, those aren’t over yet. We’re working on it, though.

In the meantime, however: the previous mailing, you may recall, included a copy of Colin Harvey’s novel Winter Song:

Winter Song cover

As mentioned in Vector, Martin Lewis will be running a discussion of this book here, next week — so if you haven’t cracked it open yet, you have this weekend to do so!

JG Ballard: Art, Environment and Film

Over Christmas, BSFA members should have received the latest mailing, including the bumper-size Vector 261, and a copy of Winter Song by Colin Harvey. Mine arrived while I was away, and sat outside getting soggy, which is why it’s a bit rumpled; fortunately, Vector protected the novel.

Torque Control — editorial
Letters to Vector
The BSFA Awards — Donna Scott
Landscapes from a Dream: how the art of David Pelham captured the essence of JG Ballard’s early fiction — James Pardey
A Benign Psychopathology: the films of JG Ballard — Jonathan McCalmont
JG Ballard’s CONCRETE: thoughts on High Rise and Concrete Island — Lara Buckerton
An interview with Jose Carlos Somoza — by Ian Watson
First Impressions — book reviews edited by Kari Sperring
Progressive Scan: Ashes to Ashes, season 2 — Abigail Nussbaum
Foundation’s Favourites: The Voices of Time by JG Ballard — Andy Sawyer
Resonances 57 — Stephen Baxter
The New X: Careering — Graham Sleight

This issue was somewhat delayed, so the next two mailings (as mentioned in the previous post) should be following fairly hard on this one’s heels. Contributor copies of this issue of Vector will go out this week.

We’re using a new printer/mailing house, which seems to have had some teething problems. Most seriously, members have reported receiving torn envelopes and damaged or even missing contents — please contact us if your mailing was damaged,and we’ll sort out a replacement.

The thread for this issue on the BSFA forum is here; there’ll be a full news update, addressing the mailing delays and outlining plans for 2010, in the next mailing.

Vector 260: Fantasy and Mythology

A bit belated, this, for which I apologise. While I was away on holiday, the latest BSFA mailing should have dropped through members’ doorsteps. If you haven’t received it, let us know; it should have looked like this:

And the contents of Vector:

Torque Control — editorial
Letters — or, this issue, letter; keep ’em coming, though
Of Time and the River — Paul Kincaid on Robert Holdstock
Across the Dickian Multiverse — Hal Duncan interviewed by Tony Keen
Euripedes Bound: Hal Duncan’s use of Greek tragedy — Tony Keen
Other Views — Gwyneth Jones interviewed by Tanya Brown
First Impressions — book reviews edited by Kari Sperring
Progressive Scan — a column by Abigail Nussbaum
Foundation’s Favourites — a columnn by Andy Sawyer
Resonances — a column by Stephen Baxter
The New X — a column by Graham Sleight

There’s a little discussion of the issue in the BSFA forum. And inexcusably not credited in the issue is Drew Brayshaw, whose photograph provides the basis for the cover.

Also in the mailing, as the photo shows, is the latest issue of Focus, and the latest BSFA Special booklet: SF writers on SF film: from Akira to Zardoz, edited by Martin Lewis, who has posted about the booklet here. Adam Roberts has posted his contribution, on Blade Runner, here.

Last, but certainly not least: Matrix Online has relaunched. with oodles of features and reviews.

Review of 2008

The latest BSFA mailing should have been dropping through peoples’ doors this week, including Vector 259:

Torque Control — editorial
Letters — from Farah Mendlesohn, Bob Ardler, and Rich Horton
Vector Reviewers’ Poll — edited by Kari Sperring
You Sound Like You’re Having Fun Already: The SF Films of 2008 — by Colin Odell and Mitch LeBlanc
Progressive Scan: 2008 TV in Review — a column by Abigail Nussbaum
First Impressions — book reviews edited by Kari Sperring
Resonances — a column by Stephen Baxter
Foundations Favourites — a column by Andy Sawyer
The New X — a column by Graham Sleight
Celebrating 30 years of Luther Arkwright — Bryan Talbot interviewed by James Bacon

Enjoy, and send letters to the usual address; and, as ever, if your copy doesn’t arrive in a timely fashion, let us know. There is an updated website in the works, to be more fully incorporated with the main BSFA site; but if nothing else, I’ll put some content up on the old site next weekend.