Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland is completely nuts. I don’t think I’ve ever both fought with and raced through a book like this before.
Moxyland is the dystopian-future story of four young South Africans who live, breathe and (occasionally) try to escape their tech-saturated, corporate-ruled world. Their lives become entwined through a series of coincidences and chance meetings, and each character affects the others directly or covertly. It’s hard to say anything more than that, because the plot starts at word one. One thing that can be said, though, is that this book is really difficult to track down! None of the brick-and-mortars I visited had a copy, and it had to be shipped over to me from some other branch. And I haven’t seen it on shelves since. Puzzling.
First things first: it’s absolutely awesome to read a work of fiction set in your home town. There’s something incredibly special about being able to look out of the window and see the street corner you’ve just read about. At the same time, the Cape Town of the book feels like a foreign, ultra-cosmopolitan place, which makes for a good contrast and prevents the reader from being too bogged down by the setting (not to mention, it’s more accessible to out-of-towners). Beukes puts her journalistic experience to great use in populating the world with the weird and wacky, local-is-lekker types who fill her novel’s streets.
The most challenging things about Moxyland are the pace and density. The book starts off at a steady tick and only increases in pace as the narrative evolves – chapters get shorter, action gets tighter, characters become more focussed and determined. But simultaneously, reading speed seems to pick up and pages start to turn more quickly, trying to keep pace with the page-by-page action. And the novel is filled – absolutely jam-packed – with crazy concepts and tech and future-world jargon. Some of it is so strange that it takes a while to cotton on to exactly what it is. It’s all so well integrated in the world and text that none of it feels out of place, but it takes a while to get used to the constant flood of weird words and futuristic stuff. I’ve never had so many ‘I wish I’d thought of that!’ moments in such quick succession before. Eventually, by the end, it’s hard to imagine that all the cool tech doesn’t exist (yet). For someone who loves to be on the cutting edge, it’s thrilling.
It’s hard to choose a favourite character, because whichever one you’re reading is probably your favourite of the moment (though I had fairly little patience for Tendeka’s naive aggression). Each perspective is distinct and each character has their own slang and way of thinking. Each of them demonstrates a differing familiarity with the ubiquitous technology, which in turn affects their position in the world. Lerato the programmer and Toby the vidcaster, the tech supremos, are successful in their own ways. Kendra, who shuns new tech in her art, and Tendeka, who relies on others to figure it out for him, do less well. That being said, it’s refreshing to see the technology depicted neutrally – as a tool for success, a battleground for meaning and control, perhaps, but benign in its own right. The real evil is the corporate superstructure that regulates society, and the people who put the miraculous inventions to their own nefarious uses.
This book represents, to me, the epitome of what South African fiction should be – a story that is intrinsically local, written by a South African with contemporary themes in mind, but one that avoids the tired and expected cliches of race struggles, crime and apartheid*. Essentially, it’s fiction that looks past its own nose and just does its own thing. Publishing a sci-fi story in South Africa is practically unheard of. Good to see the trend is changing.
I’d built up this book for myself for a while. Reading the extract in Something Wicked**, checking to book out for free online, knowing it’s a setting and genre that I love. Expectations were high, and they were met. It’s a hugely challenging and fun adventure through places both familiar and strange, encapsulated in a rich, coherent world. Highly recommended, especially to the SAfricans.
*Not to say that these aren’t valid themes to explore, but they shouldn’t define what we expect from local fiction.
**I think. Memory fails.