Her name had been in the air I breath for quite a while, but I first ran into Lauren Beukes at Nine Worlds and LonCon this past summer. She was openly critical of capitalism and obviously interested in fighting for social justice. What would her novels be like? Would that same thread of passion and opinion be threaded through her stories? I didn’t doubt it. Passion has a way of worming its way into everything you do, and Beukes was clearly passionate. Moxyland was her first novel and my first Beukes read. Though I had heard her make an off-hand comment about how it could have been better—first-novel-retrospect syndrome I suppose—it is still a great book. Cyberpunk-y and fast-paced, and full of exactly the kind of social commentary I was hoping to find.
“The biggest fairy tale is that justice works because it doesn’t.” -Lauren Beukes #nineworlds
— Book Punks (@bookpunks) August 8, 2014
Moxyland debuted in South Africa in 2008 and was then picked up by Angry Robot in 2009. It takes place in 2018, just four years away from this reader, and it feels close—not in that “this is in our near future” way, but in the “this is happening somewhere right now” way. Which is all the more terrifying. Much of the novel riffs on things technology is already able to do—the cell phone you can use to unlock the door to your house, the automated payment systems that allow you to buy things like train tickets on the same phone, the tracking of criminals through their phone GPS and sim cards—and since its publication several things that Beukes describes have come to pass (something you can read more about in Beukes’ end note to the Angry Robot addition of the book).
Though the novel feels decidedly cyberpunk, it is because we are living in a cyberpunk age, and not because there is anything particularly stunning about the extrapolated technology. As Beukes herself says, “The thing is that it’s all possible, especially if we’re willing to trade away our rights for convenience, for the illusion of security. Our very own bright and shiny dystopia is only ever one totalitarian government away.”
I loved Beukes’ writing style from page one. Short sentences, smart references (some real, some invented), and a “throw ’em in the deep end and hope they don’t drown” approach to introducing the reader to this piece of fictionalized Cape Town. I read the first page several times—I was disoriented, but then again, I was supposed to be—and after a round with each of the novel’s pov characters (there are four) I had slid irretrievably into the style and the world. What do you mean I need to get some sleep because I have to work in the morning? MORE MOXYLAND. What do you mean I have to stop reading because my commute is over, and I’m at work now. HOOK ON THE MOXYLAND IV. And etc.
There is no short way to describe the story, as it is the individual stories of each character that combine to make a labyrinthine trail of conspiracy and action. Kendra has signed up for nanotech branding that has made her the property of a corporation. Tendeka is a devoted activist. Toby is a rich douchebag vlogger, and Lerato is a talented and egocentric corporate codemonkey. Kendra was my favorite, Toby was annoying as fuck, Lerato was equal parts mildly irritating and mildly interesting, and Tendeka was nice, though a bit irritating too. The multiple pov characters help convey the idea of how complexly activist circles and government repression are woven (and how they are can intertwine), and help Beukes to provide a nuanced look at activism itself.
We see activists liberating billboards (in this case hacking them and distorting the advertising on them or using them to broadcast their own messages), activists attempting to “be the change”, activists trying to start community programs for homeless kids, and activists attempting to make a difference online. We also see the resulting corporate cow-towing (necessary to get the funding for the community projects), control, police repression, and futility. Activism itself seems to spur more corporate and government control, and in such a way as to garner no criticism from the larger populace. In short: we see a fairly realistic portrayal of activists and their options, as well as a nuanced perspective on how those ideas are seen by various parts of the population.
Take Tendeka, the novel’s central activist figure. He is an idealist. He wants to help the homeless kids with a graffiti project, but he believes that taking corporate funding is hypocritical. He has married a pregnant refugee , despite being gay, in order to secure her visa. He believes in living by example, right down to the design of his house in Moxyland’s version of Second Life. I have met people like this. It isn’t an unusual stance, though it is also the kind of stance that tends to wear down year for year as cynicism and a lack of visible success becomes more and more evident. Beukes’ portrayal of this activist figure felt realistic without being condescending. Tendeka is not portrayed as naive or stupid, but as desperate: desperate to have a positive impact on the world and desperate for the means to do so. If you have ever done activism, you have met someone like Tendeka: didactic, righteous, uncompromising, and sometimes a real hinderance to action because of it, with a big heart and pristine intentions. He comes close to being a trope—but he is far too flawed, too complex, too conflicted, far too human for that label.
When Tendeka is convinced to take corporate sponsorship for the community art project, we see the positive effect that it has on the kids involved (positive goals, clean clothes, a free lunch), and yet we are constantly reminded of how controlling and detrimental the corporations can be, how desperately they need to be reigned in. Who is right? Who is wrong? Is it more important to get financing? Or to remain “pure” of corporate meddling, but never be able to get the project off the ground in the first place? When you look at the spectrum of opinions we hear on the activism shown in the book and the effect each decision has on the community, one thing becomes clear: there is no fucking answer and social justice is not clear cut. A step forward can feel like a step back, and every decision has to be carefully weighed. In a twisted, corrupted world, it might not be possible to make a good decision.
In a twisted, corrupted world, it might not be possible to make a good decision.
When skyward*, an anonymous online friend of Tendeka’s, succeeds in radicalizing him by exploiting Tendeka’s desperate desire to make a difference, the results are disastrous. Tendeka’s projects have had a high emotional and financial pricetag, and they haven’t made much of a difference. *skyward has no trouble egging him on to more violent actions. Along the way, we are given the perspective of many characters on these actions (and the ideals behind them), both from pov and sideline characters. Their opinions serve to further illustrate the complexity of the issue, from *skyward who believes you’re either blowing shit up or you’re not a real activist to Mr Muller who is glad that at least with the current government controls he doesn’t have to be afraid all the time. None of their arguments are set up as an obvious straw-man, easily disregarded; each one is food for thought. In Moxyland as in the real world activism and idealism can be sickingly complex, dangerous, unrewarding, and even deadly but are always necessary.
This is a life or death fight, one that is not based along classic lines of good and evil, a point that Moxyland’s dark (yet bold) ending underlines. The only characters who do not get a particularly nuanced treatment are the police and you know what? I can live with that.
Seven point five out of nine cans of Ghost. (Though if you consider the fact that Ghost is one of the corporate monster’s softdrinks, maybe that isn’t a good thing. In which case just replace that rating with Seven point five out of nine cans of rainbows.)
Where I got it: Nine Worlds
Where you can get it: The Book Depository (free shipping to everywhere!)