Moxyland, by Lauren Beukes
Lauren Beukes is a South African science fiction writer. The South African bit is interesting, but not that important. What’s important is that she’s a good science fiction writer.
Moxyland was her first novel. Her second, Zoo City, recently won the Arthur C. Clarke award (SF’s answer to the Booker). I read Moxyland first for the very simple reason that Amazon had it on sale at 99p. What can I say? I’m a cheap date.
Anyway. Moxyland is set in South Africa in the very near future. It features four twentysomething viewpoint characters, none of whom are sympathetic and none of whom has anything like the control of their lives they think they do. It’s a novel of youth in rebellion, and of a society which anticipated and co-opted that rebellion long before the youth in question ever thought of it.
Kendra is a hip street-photographer taking corporate sponsorship from a soft drinks company. She agrees to a deal which involves having her DNA altered so that the corporate logo will appear embedded and glowing under the skin of her wrist. There are benefits – a boosted immune system – but she doesn’t read the fine print. She’s valuable intellectual property now, and she has a new found craving for a certain delicious fizzy drink.
Toby is a blogger from a wealthy upper-class family who’s now living a self-consciously street lifestyle. He’s promiscuous, vacuous and thoroughly unlikeable complaining about his “motherbitch” and her demands on his time. He only sees her because his comments section indicates she’s a popular character on his blog, and because she gives him his extremely generous allowance.
Lerata is a successful programmer working for a large corporation. In the new South Africa there’s still an Apartheid, but now it’s between the corporate elite and the masses (referred to by the corporate insiders as “civilians”. Colour no longer matters, but society is still as stratified as it ever was. Lerata is probably the book’s least succesful character being a fairly stereotyped ruthless executive (contrast Richard Morgan’s protagonist in Market Forces who’s far more ambiguous).
Finally there’s Tendeka. He’s a wannabe revolutionary who runs unsuccessful rehabilitation programs for street kids while railing furiously against injustice and inequality. He also organises pointless acts of anti-corporate vandalism: defacing billboards and crashing an art gallery event (where his act of protest is initially misunderstood as an attempt at performance art). Naturally he’s from a nice middle class family.
All four think of themselves in various ways as outsiders, but for each of them it’s more pose than real. Kendra differentiates her art by using archaic and unreliable print film rather than digital, but her work is subsidised by her wealthy lover. Toby’s blog is titled “Diary of a Cunt” but his lifestyle is paid for by his mother. Tendeka is a classic middle-class perma-protestor fighting for people he’s not actually one of (however much he’d like to be). Lerata carries out minor acts of corporate sabotage without ever threatening her own privileges.
Of them all it’s noticeable that only Lerata comes from a background that’s remotely disadvantaged (she grew up an aids orphan). That’s long behind her, and now like all of them she’s living a life that’s actually pretty comfortable. This is alienation as lifestyle choice.
Beukes’ future is in many ways much like our present (in more ways than you’d imagine, as an afterword makes clear). A key development is that mobile phones are used for access to government services and for making payments, which means that disconnection is now a criminal sanction and permanent disconnection an effective exclusion from functioning in society. The phones even have built in taser-like features which the police can activate so stunning the owner. You carry your own corporal punishment in your pocket.
I thought that last point far fetched. In the afterword Beukes mentions hearing after she wrote it of a police officer independently musing with a friend whether such a thing would be possible one day and how convenient it would be.
Otherwise the characters spend their time at bars and galleries, online in complex virtual realities or in multi-player computer games (the games and virtual realities already exist – not the specific ones of the novel but ones almost exactly like them). The novel slyly mocks its own characters here. From their perspective they’re living edgy lives and pushing boundaries. Here’s Tendeka though on PlusLife, his own preferred online hangout:
I spent more time on doing up my place. It’s pretty humble, designed to be bio-friendly, all recyclable materials, solar panels on the ceiling, a wind farm in the garden. Not that you need to generate energy in-world, but it’s the principle. It’s a shining example to throw into contrast the kind of excesses the neighbourhood attracts, which is why I chose this location specifically.
There’s a flickering on the horizon, and at first I think it’s some bug in the software, but as it spreads, multi-coloured, I figure that someone has hacked the sky. It’s doing a northern lights thing. And that’s the beauty of Pluslife. That here you can actually have an influence on the world.
There he is, sitting at a computer designing an online house with solar panels and wind farm in a virtual world with neither a real sun nor real wind. Meanwhile Toby, short of money, logs on to a children-only multi-player game under an assumed identity so that he can steal in-game objects for out-of-game payment (that’s something else that’s already here in the real world). At one point he goes massively out of his way to crush the online avatar of an 8-year old girl who beat him up in-game. Fight the power…
As Moxyland develops the different characters’ stories start to intertwine (sometimes too much so – there are times here where Beukes relies a bit too heavily on coincidence). Tendeka get involved in a genuine criminal conspiracy organised by someone he’s only met online. He brings Toby on board, who gets help from his old friend Lerata who likes to hang out with Toby to prove to herself that she’s not just another suit. Kendra flits around their peripheries.
This then is a novel that’s working at two levels. On the one hand there’s a fast moving cyberpunk drama where outsiders fighting the system are drawn together as the fight against corporate totalitarianism leads to possible terrorist outrage.
The other level though is much more subversive. Yes, there are cyberpunk trappings but most of the more disturbing elements of the novel already exist today. The characters think they’re outsiders and seem like protagonists, but really they’re neither. The only thing that’s real is that people do actually get hurt. The revolution may be here, but it turns out it will be televised after all.
Moxyland is not a novel driven by literary style. Beukes can write, but she’s not about the finely hewn sentence. There are a few small infodumps, but generally the setting detail is nicely woven in as natural background to the characters. Here’s Toby in one of the books more classically cyberpunk moments:
I take a shortcut through Little Angola, which I only realise is a terrible mistake when I’m hit a double blow by the smell of assorted loxion delicacies and the chatter of warez in the overbridge tunnel market. The warez are outmode. It’s not just that they’re cheap useless, cos who really needs a tube of bondglue or six, except for the street kids, and there are better highs for less, but cos they’re all fucking chipped. This is non-reg, but the cops have better shit to worry about, especially when it doesn’t impact the corporati. The whole audio chipping thing was outlawed almost as soon as it hit. I mean, it was bigtime initially, with cereal boxes and toys and freeware and fucking appliances all chirping their own self-importance, jingles, promos, sound-effects, celeb endorsements, so that house spouses had to wear ear blanks to get through the supermarket. It was only a matter of time before the multinationals made it illegal, or specialised use only, but then notions of illegal don’t extend to the developing. Most of the stuff now comes down from Asia or central Africa, so the chips in here aren’t even speaking English or Xhosa or any of the other eleven nationals; it’s all Cantonese and Portuguese and Kinyarwanda.
What makes this novel rewarding though isn’t those standard SF motifs. It’s the undermining of its own characters credibility and in a way of the credibility of these sorts of characters in the genre more generally. Their ideas are sold to them. Their rebellions change nothing that wasn’t planned to change anyway. They’re consumers who’ve purchased hip outlaw lifestyle options.
In an interesting afterword Beukes flags how much of the novel is based on real life. Even the corporate sponsorship is essentially true. Nobody’s having their DNA tweaked (yet), but tobacco companies used comparable techniques in South Africa after cigarette advertising was banned. Here’s Beukes on the reality underlying the fiction:
They seduced hip young things to be brand ambassadors for the price of free cigarettes. They staged provocative theatre at bars and restaurants like a faked srip poker game with models. And they dropped milllions on the most outrageous events, from Peter Stuyvesant’s swanky mansion pool parties to Lucky Strike’s private concerts, flying out international rock acts and house DJs for one night only. The height of the debauchery was a million Rand party train with multiple dancefloors and five different bars, snaking through the Cape winelands on its way to a secret destination for a luxury picnic. If you’d missed the ARG-style clues, subtly disguised as a Lucky Strike target with only a phone number stuck up at the back of a bar, you missed out.
She notes other elements of the novel also already exist, from cellphone wallets to corporate-funded private universities to transgenic dogs with glow-in-the-dark genes. Even the death of a bio-engineered artwork which forms one of the novel’s central scenes is based on a similar event that already happened in New York. As with so much science fiction, this isn’t really a book about the future. It’s a book about the present.
For those who’re interested there’s an excellent review of Moxyland here by an old friend of mine. He’s very good on the book, and his points on the role of evolution as metaphor are absolutely spot on (as is his citing of Avril Lavigne as a real world example of the corporatisation of dissent that Moxyland skewers so well).