Two Views: Moxyland by Lauren Beukes
Reviewed by James Trimarco and Paul Raven
20 November 2009
Moxyland is a near-future novel, set in Cape Town about ten years from now. It shows readers a world in which corporations' hold on our minds and bodies has sharply intensified. It's not a particularly original conceit—the future imagined as a struggle between the freedom-seeking individual and homogenizing, faceless corporations will be familiar to readers of William Gibson's early novels, Marge Piercy's Body of Glass, various comic franchises, and, more recently, Jon Armstrong's Grey.
Yet Moxyland manages to breathe new life into this subgenre by capturing the peculiarly cynical voice of a generation that has absorbed so much branded messaging that it literally cannot imagine a gesture—not an utterance, not a political strategy, not even an act of violence—intended to do anything but stimulate the media for marketing-related purposes. It's a very dark world Beukes takes us to, and if she leaves us a trail of breadcrumbs leading to some brighter place, the crows have picked it nearly clean.
But Moxyland isn't the kind of book readers turn to for uplifting messages about the future. Instead, it provides a curious and stylish look at the way four very different people deal with a world that measures their worth by the number of eyeballs they can attract. There's Toby, who becomes a voyeur in his own life, recording his most sensitive moments in hopes of attracting readers to his vlog. The young activist Tendeka takes the opposite position, openly resisting corporate rule, but relying on strategies that seem borrowed from a particularly guerilla ad campaign (his actions include jamming a video billboard and disrupting an art opening).
The other two principle characters present positions somewhere in the middle. Lerato is a computer programmer who works for a major corporation and therefore enjoys the privileges reserved for the "corporati." In a move that seems particularly significant in a South African novel, Moxyland's future includes a remixed apartheid in which the individual's status is determined not by race but by corporate employment or lack thereof. As an orphan, whose parents died from AIDS and who has earned everything she has, Lerato is proud of her power. Yet when others begin to mount an insurrection, she risks her status by providing the codes and logistical data they need.
Finally, there is Kendra, an up-and-coming artist and photographer. She seems to resent the expectation that she milk every relationship for increased exposure, yet she is the character whose compromise is most dramatic. In exchange for increased mental and physical health, she allows herself to be injected with nanobots that make her crave a soft drink called Ghost. This is the book's opening image and perhaps the central one: the sensitive young artist who becomes a walking advertisement for a product she doesn't even like, and who then resorts to recording her body's transformation as a form of quiet and hopeless resistance.
While the dialogue in Moxyland is consistently witty, my favorite scenes are the ones where the catty back-and-forth is broken up with Beukes's action scenes, many of which depict floundering attempts at political defiance. One standout is the art opening where Kendra unveils a series of photographs taken with an old film camera. She is concerned that her work will be upstaged by an already established art star's installation, a "lab-manufactured plastech bio-breed" made of living flesh, which observes the crowd and responds with an ever-changing song of groans, hisses, and whines (p. 165).
The conversation and networking opportunities are cut short, however, when Tendeka and his followers burst into the gallery and start hacking the sculpture to pieces with traditional African machetes. Beukes's voice shines here, not in her description of the action itself but in her treatment of the crowd's response. People can't figure out whether the violence is real or a marketing device or somehow both: "The audience is rapt, camera phones clicking. There is a scattershot of applause, and laughter, as the others move in . . . It's only when the artist starts wailing that it becomes apparent that this was not part of the program" (p. 175).
Other memorable moments include a young software designer who falls in love with her teacher and writes him a love letter in the form of a computer virus; and Toby's redemption, which comes only after he accidentally films a friend's death in hopes of getting good material for his vlog.
Moxyland isn't a perfect novel. It's Beukes's first, after all, and she at times indulges her talent for wit in ways that interrupt the flow of the story. Furthermore, the book alternates between chapters told in first person by each of the four main characters, a device reminiscent of Irvine Welsh's landmark Trainspotting. However, Beukes fails to give each character a fully distinctive voice, and this robs the technique of its power.
Nevertheless, Moxyland makes a refreshing and thought-provoking debut, and offers an interestingly secular update to the cyberpunk cannon. It shares the jazzy language associated with early masters like Gibson and Sterling, but lacks the spiritual logic often found in their work. Their protagonists of '80s cyberpunk were often jaded and cynical, but believed in salvation through technology, what Erik Davis would call techgnosis. The hope of transcendence through uploading the soul into cyberspace or through evolution into a posthuman future put the sound of church organs in the backgrounds of these books.
Lauren Beukes's writing has none of this sensibility. Like the cellphones in her novel, which are required to get in or out of every building but which also deliver a debilitating shock whenever the police wish them to, the technology in her world is necessary for survival, sometimes a point of pride, and often dangerous. But it is not an avenue toward redemption. That, in Moxyland, comes rarely, and occurs, if at all, through human relationships of trust and respect.
I honestly can't remember the last time I read a science fiction novel that included explicit dates in the text. Refusing to anchor one's novel into the temporal flow of reality ensures the author can avoid the pointed fingers and hoots of "you got it wrong!," not to mention make an easier claim for its metaphorical truths over its literal ones. Perhaps it's because Lauren Beukes has come to writing novels after a decade as a freelance reporter that she has chosen to explicitly date the events that occur in Moxyland. After all, the eye for detail and character possessed by the better class of journalist is much in evidence, too, as is the carefully-maintained distance from passing judgement on the events being reported.
Moxyland takes place in Cape Town, South Africa, less than a decade from today. The line between government and corporation has worn so thin that neither is entirely sure where it ends; meanwhile, the citizens are corralled by heavy-handed policing, terrorist threats (real, imagined, or engineered), and random disease epidemics . . . not to forget the more traditional grinding poverty and paucity of political representation. Rising young photographer Kendra has managed to score a sponsorship deal whereby she receives some experimental nanotech bloodwork in exchange for becoming one of a select few taste-makers promoting a soft drink called Ghost, to which the nanotech makes you an addict. Meanwhile, video-blogger Toby is mooching off his moneyed mother and looking for the next Next Big Thing, while helping out social worker-cum-Spartacus wannabe Tendeka, whose billboard hacking exploits will go that much more smoothly with the clandestine assistance of Toby's corporate almost-girlfriend, Lerato. Everyone's trying to scrape through the day and come out on top (or at least not too much further down than they were before), but in a city that's host to augmented reality games that turn out to be more real than their players expected and the constant threat of being made "disconnect"—made a legal non-person by having your cellphone SIM erased—for some infringement, real or otherwise, staying alive and vaguely free is the only game in town.
As should be apparent, the immediate touchstone for Moxyland is cyberpunk. All the key concerns are here: hip young malcontents; urban environments; violence, crime, drugs, and civil unrest; hubristic corporations and glove-puppet nation-states. Much of the cyberpunk style is manifest, too, in a fast plot with plenty of eyeball kicks, delivered with expletive-peppered street-speak in both first-person narration and dialogue. The common misconception of cyberpunk is that it is "about" computers and networks; while that may be true of many of the minor copyists of the subgenre, cyberpunk was about the effects that living with computers and networks would have on people. As such, Moxyland drinks deeply of the same well, and shares a similarly dystopian vision of our near and networked future. Technologies are ubiquitous and slightly advanced in Beukes’s Cape Town, but they are never the stars of the show, as they might have become in the hands of a more traditional "hard" SF writer—indeed, some of the throwaway ideas would make great short stories. Kendra's sponsored nanotech infestation started out as one, as it happens.
But the notions of mobile phones doing double-duty as identity card, passport, and punishment vector (the police can signal them to release a taser-like burst of voltage to a suspect), of corporations manufacturing dissent in order to justify strengthening this totalitarian grip, of nanotech-boosted police dogs, of engineered riot-control viruses that will kill you within three days unless you pop to a clinic for the free cure (and a chat with your friendly local law enforcement operatives about the incident where you picked it up) . . . all these could easily have become stand-alone tech-focussed stories in their own right. Beukes leaves these little gems unpolished at the side of the road en route to the bigger issue—namely the sort of corporate totalitarianism that could allow such things to exist in the first place.
Also present and correct is cyberpunk's habit of starring thoroughly unlikeable protagonists. While there were plenty of times I found myself empathising with Beukes’s leads, none of them are people I'd want to sit down and have a drink with. Perhaps that's a function of my background, though; I've known many people much like the archetypes of Moxyland's cast, even shared chunks of their lifestyle at certain times of my life. And while I'm not one for regrets, I'm in no hurry to return to those circles—because they are closed loops, Möbius strips. Kendra inspires the greatest degree of residual pathos—the driven photographer striving to document the experience of her life in the ludicrously retro medium of photographic film—but her inability to take control of her own life beyond her art is as frustrating for this reader as it must be for her. At the other end of the scale is Toby, the spoiled, self-loathing/self-loving trust-fund art-school-drop-out-turned-blogger, always on the look out for the next big thing . . . on the proviso that he can find an angle to make it boost his own visibility and kudos. He's the sort of boorish moral vacuum that sucks the life from small art scenes at the same time as propelling them into wider recognition, and every town has one or two just like him.
Tendeka's proxy here in the UK would be a miner's son turned Socialist Worker hawker and protest agitator; his motivations are clear, believable, and sympathetic, but he's fallen to the seductions of a pseudo-terrorist methodology in frustration at the bureaucratic obstacles presented by trying to change the system from within, and it slowly twists his idealism into a Jesus complex that ends in the worst possible way. And then there's Lerato, plucked from a corporate school for AIDS orphans and fast-tracked into the cut-throat office ecosystem of the businesses who effectively manage South Africa's government behind the scenes. Turning her back on the horrors of her childhood and grabbing the only opportunity to escape a similar fate that she can find, she's a ruthless climber, ostensibly working for The Man but believing she's balancing it out by selling corporate secrets and aiding protest groups like Tendeka's billboard hackers.
There's a sense of ineluctable doom hovering over Beukes’s characters that is hard to overstate. Toby is so meticulously callous, a narcissist nihilist, his BabyStrange media coat reflecting back the broken world that he documents as he blags his way through it; Kendra is so thoroughly useless, a victim of her own sense of perpetual victimhood, like a psychological version of Toby's coat that projects her inner state back inward again, leaving her unable to break the habit of handing herself to people who only want to exploit her; Tendeka is so militantly gullible, so desperate to be convinced he can make a difference that he'll sacrifice himself and the people he wants to save; Lerato is so bitter that she's unable to taste anything else any more, so hollow she'd chime if you flicked her with your finger, so skilled at self-justifying her next move in the game that she's (unwittingly) more of an asset than the corporate drones who play strictly by the three-ring-binder rulebook.
What unites them all is the way their attitudes lock them inevitably into their endings; they are products of their environment, and hence its victims as well. "This is what we're making ourselves into," Beukes seems to be saying. "These are our options." They're not pretty. You can fight the system face on, and be crushed; or you can stoke the system's engines, and become assimilated by it.
Another point of unity in Moxyland is that everyone lies—in a society where privacy is a privilege, where identity is a binary (you either have one or you don't, and woe betide you in the latter case) and where dissent can get you killed, it's another necessity for survival. Beukes’s foursome lie with the swiftness and instinct of those who've never known a time when they didn't need to. There's no real suggestion that these are unreliable narrators, however; Beukes lets us judge her characters—and her world—for ourselves by supplying the true events as they happened, and messing around with narrative ambiguities would jar badly with this journalistic approach.
The results are harrowing, more often than not, and especially toward the end. As Tendeka walks casually away from the bomb-blast he has just triggered, he tells us plainly that he doesn't so much as look back over his shoulder for the street-kid sidekick who helped him set it up; the implication is a cold and instant assumption that Zuko's usefulness for the project has passed. And here's Toby, packing fast to go on the run after witnessing Tendeka's gruesome death at the hands of an engineered riot-control virus: " . . . I have the total sony exclusive on the untimely and grotesque death of a terrorist. Or a martyr. Depends on who's paying."
It's easy for me, in my position of middle-class white British privilege, to look at South Africa and see a success story—after all, they freed Nelson Mandela after everyone made a fuss about it, and we helped get rid of all that nasty apartheid stuff (with the help of some nice cricketers) a while ago. Things are on the up by now, surely? But as Beukes points out in her afterword, while apartheid may appear to be gone, the tendrils of the social systems that perpetrated it are still threaded beneath the crazy-paved patchwork of South African society. Race is still a massive issue—as are class, poverty, AIDs, and a form of colonialism that is (and, in some respects, always was) more about businesses than nation-states. Those tendrils can all too easily link themselves up again, fracturing and pushing apart the paving above them with the slow patient pressure of rhizomes regrowing from a seemingly scorched patch of earth . . . and technology can act as a fertilizer. This is Beukes’s warning: that we should beware of strangers bearing gifts, because what we get for free always has a hidden price.
All this discussion of sociopolitical nastiness may distract from the fact that Moxyland is a novel, and hence a form of entertainment. And I hope my engagement with it suggests that it is good entertainment, because it is. It's a strong fast zap to the brain that eschews science fiction's lingering tendency to chase technological gosh-wow in favour of using its toolkit to vivisect the kids of tomorrow. Its occasional stylistic excess is more than balanced by its seriousness of subject, and while there may be those who will criticise Beukes for dragging the genre down into dystopian drum-beating with her concrete political metaphors, I think I'd like to hear more voices like hers, not fewer.