Saturday, 21 January 2012

Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

I'm returning to this review with a bit of distance. Sometimes it's necessary to let a book settle in your mind before you make an accurate judgement. With this distance, I have tweaked my original review, and increased the book's star-rating as a result.

Moxyland 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, 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 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.

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 not fleshed out enough or just unlikeable characters. But with time, I have come to enjoy spending time with them in a way I hadn't during my first read-through.

Despite all this, I wanted to give this book a four or five, until I got to the last third of the book. 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 becomes unrelentingly oppressive without enough light to really allow the reader to enjoy the story. There really is no hope and no future for these characters. Too many of them become pointless corporate casualties, which leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Beukes' pessimism overwhelms, in my opinion, and the society she has created is weakened by the ultimate revelation that actually the megacorporations are as evil and faceless and ruthless as they are in every 80s science fiction film. There really is nothing these hard-nosed corporate bastards will do for a quick buck, and for me, this sentiment is just too simplistic. There really can be no room for nuance in her 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. And yet, 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.

As I've mentioned above, this reminds me of Jeff Noon's Vurt, with its wry knowledge of science fiction and media savvy, but I felt that book had a more ambiguous ending, which was both more moving and more realistic. That said, Moxyland would be much easier to imagine as a film (and I hear her sophomore novel, Zoo City, has already been slated for a possible film release).

I have higher hopes for her next novel, which seems much cleverer, and presents compelling characters with dubious morals, even from the start. But regardless, 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.

Rating: 3.5/5

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