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NOTE: Spoiler warning!
Moxyland by South African author Lauren Beukes is Neuromancer for the social networking generation. At its heart it is a dystopian techno-thriller that borrows many of the tropes of cyberpunk: a megacorporation/government that practices corporate apartheid; Frankenstein-esque flesh-machine monsters; shifting online personalities; GM art; and a drug-like attitude to branding. What Beukes does well is update the cyberpunk myth to the Facebook generation, so that Kendra is a cyborg by dint of being a walking advertisement for a soft drink, riddled with nanotech like the blurbflies of Jeff Noon’s fiction.
Similarly, Lareto is a quasi-terrorist hacker and bored middle-class dilettante who is willing to shatter the system that cradles her just for a bit of perverse fun, and compares well with Toby, the lazy casual criminal, who snorts anything he can get hold of, entertains himself with anarchy and revolution, and yet is perfectly happy to live off mum.
My only real problem with this book was the ending, which I’ll come to shortly, because it was the thing that stuck with me for a long time after reading it.
Beukes’ world is wonderfully rendered, although some of the details of her future world don’t quite ring true. I’m not convinced by apartments that constantly rotate (imagine the nausea!), although there are at least apartments that sway with the wind. The megacorps, who prove willing to entertain terrorism and mass-infection of the populace so the government will increase Big Brother-style laws, are an acceptable trope of the cyberpunk genre, and so the suspension of disbelief is easier – and probably not a million miles from reality.
Beukes shifts between perspectives, which I always like, but sometimes her voices use a few too many similar turns of phrase which, although perhaps attributable to a local vernacular, weakens their individuality somewhat. Perhaps a South African resident in the city would notice more subtlety than I did; I confess to ignorance on South African dialectic patterns. I was also, on my initial reading, frequently irritated by the characters’ often too predictable behaviour. I’m still undecided whether they’re actually unlikeable characters, but on my second reading of the book I have come to enjoy spending time with them in a way I hadn’t during my first read-through.
Despite all this, I really enjoyed the story, until I got to the last third of the book where it became a more mixed experience. This is where Beukes bugged me for the best part of six months. Throughout the book there is a strong thread of humour (mostly of the dark variety), but as the narrative begins to tie up, it’s worth noting that the narrative becomes much more oppressive. There really is no hope and no future for these characters – and a creeping sense of dreadful anticipation rises. Too many of our heroes become pointless corporate casualties – which is surely the point, but won’t be to every reader’s liking. The novel’s dark humour also thins somewhat towards the end, which robs us of a chance to more easily digest the bleak denouement.
It’s this bleak summation of humanity that remains with the reader, not the hipster references and electric prose, and this makes Moxyland one of the most promising and yet, to this reviewer at least, most disappointing books I’ve read this year. At the same time, I have to confess this debut reveals an inordinate amount of talent and its characters and plot stayed with me for a very long time afterwards. At the rate I read, few books have such a long-lasting impact, which is praise in itself.
With Beukes’ second novel, Zoo City, apparently optioned for a movie adaptation, I have no doubt that Beukes will be one of this generation’s top speculative writers. I’m really looking forward to more of her work.