Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

I ended up reading two of Beukes' books in fairly short order, but the first one last. They're not in a series, so that isn't the issue. What is is how assured her debut novel is. It really took my breath away, and the ending was so stunningly well-realized and dark as hell that it knocked me for a loop for a while.

So, let's break this down. I am thoroughly enjoying her books set in South Africa - the setting is unlike most of what I've read before, and yet, in ways, eerily familiar. This book is described as cyberpunk, which I suppose is a fairly accurate representation of genre, but again, too close for comfort to our own.

This book follows four interlocking narrators - Toby, a beach bum rich kid videoblogger, who lives off his trustfund (when his mother hasn't cut it off), sleeps around, and plays videogames for fun and profit. One of his contacts is corporate, Lerato, a young woman orphaned by AIDS, brought up in a corporate school and educated to take her place as part of their corporate welfare - that, no coincidentally, provides them with a ready workforce. She's smart and not above bending the rules. Through Toby, she helps Tendeka, a young gay activist desperate to make his mark on the city he lives in, with sometimes more passion than planning. And more tangential to this story is Kendra, a young photographer who opts into corporate branding on the genetic level, thanks to nanotechnology.

These four stories are gradually interwoven together, but when the last pass at each character came along, I was still surprised by the turns they had taken. At the end, every story becomes very troubling indeed, in ways that are totally earned, but unforeseen.

I'm not the hugest fan of really bleak books, most of the time. But what frustrates me even more are books that pretend they're going to be dark and brooding, and then wuss out on actually having those dire promises come true - characters survive when they look like they're going to die, and something waves its magic wand over the scene to make improbably happy endings. If you want to go dark, go dark. Do it, don't just pretend.

Moxyland is pretty much the opposite. For most of the book, it was fascinating, but not that troubling. The pieces were being set in place, however, and when they started to fall into place, it was startling. This is a world where corporations and government are far too closely intertwined, where being disconnected is a summary punishment, where corporations manipulate dissent in order to further their own aims, and the people they sell their products to seen as disposable as the products themselves.

To say much more would spoil it. But this is such an assured debut. As much as I enjoyed the urban fantasy ride of Zoo CityMoxyland is even better.

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