Sitting down to write this review of Lauren Beukes’s debut novel, my mind kept circling back to the name William Gibson. Partly this is because Moxyland is that rarest of beasts, a 21th Century cyberpunk novel, but I think the connection runs deeper than that.
Allow me a roughshod rehearsal of his career to date. Gibson has produced three loose trilogies which have moved progressively further away from both the future and the centre of the science fiction genre. At the same, his protagonists have made a similar progression; they have moved further away from youth, further away from the street. It is probably not unfair to suggest that this progression mirrors his own increasing age and social status.
So we start with the Sprawl trilogy (1984-1988) and the pointless punkery of Neuromancer where the protagonists are apathetic and criminal and effortlessly connected to the street. Or, to put it another way, youthful. At the other end of the spectrum we have the unfortunately named Bigend trilogy (2003-2010) where the protagonists have grown up and and achieved improbably Jon King-like transformations. If Cayse is a coolhunter then Case is the red meat she is after. These two poles are spanned by the Bridge trilogy (1993-1999) where the protagonists are caught between carefree adolescence and aimless adulthood. These are characters that have grown into jobs but not yet grown out of them. More often than not these jobs involve the knowledge economy and the creative industries.
It is a unique and incredibly distinctive milieu, one that Gibson has carved out for himself, and it is this that Beukes has so confidently plugged herself into. Not only would her characters be at home in Gobson’s world but, as a South African, her own world makes an appropriately cyberpunk setting for his concerns.
Amongst many aphorisms, Gibson is famous for suggesting that the future is here, it just isn’t evenly distributed. This is a great soundbite but is really just another way of saying that wealth is not evenly distributed. If the social safety net seems tenuous in the late 21st Century Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis of the Sprawl then it is virtually non-existent in the early 21st Century Johannesburg of Moxyland.
We are presented with a neat quartet of protagonists – two male, two female; two black, two white – who are safe from the street but for whom it is still very much a day to day reality, either because they have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps or because they are slumming. Kendra is an art photographer but has achieved this at the expense of becoming an art dealer’s kept woman. Toby is a spoilt little rich boy playing citizen journalist (I say citizen journalist, his videocast is called Diary of Cunt). Tendeka is a community organiser and social activist who is more in love with direct action than his boyfriend. Lerato was born into a corporate orphanage and has grown into a successful programmer who can’t resist jeopardising her security by dappling in the dark arts.
They are all, to be honest, unpleasant people; each attended with a fatal flaw, be that insecurity, selfishness, righteousness or arrogance. In other words, they are people we might all recognise in ourselves and our peers, particular in our twenties before the world has sanded down some of our rougher edges.
Beukes is 34 now and has an MA in Creative Writing and a decade of journalism under her belt. I think this last fact is present not just in her media-embedded characters but in her writing. It is there in the slice-of-life approach to Moxyland’s plot, it is there in the fascination with communication, it is there in the insertion of ersatz found material in the form of transcripts and the like and it is there in the occasional non-fiction tic to her prose. For example, on the very first page we get this example of the rule of three:
It’s nothing. An injectable. A prick… Art school dropout reinvented as shining brand ambassador. Sponsor baby. Ghost girl. (p.1)
That is Kendra – the soul of the novel – speaking. Both she and Beukes return to the rule in much more knowing style later:
I’m a demo model for their demographic. An angel of aspiration. A guinea pig for an appropriate alliterative beginning with g. (p. 68)
It is self-conscious writing to suit a cast of self-conscious characters. Toby may seem like the ultimate Barleypunk but self-awareness does lurk underneath the front; “like Diary isn’t an exaggerated persona already” (p. 202), he acknowledges at one point. But just because they are aware doesn’t mean they can act on this.
Moxyland follows the characters as, one way or another, they try to escape from their lives, to become involved in something bigger and more exciting. At this juncture I will confess hypocrisy: I’ve often complained that there is not enough science fiction which concentrates on the prosaic stories of the world of tomorrow rather than Earth-shattering, epoch-changing events. Now, when I get just that, I find Moxyland to be lacking a certain narrative drive. Beukes captures her characters lives but the novel sags slightly whilst she fully entwines them. Once she has, the novel gains pace with a fatalistic inevitability. Because, although there may be no ultimate conspiracy here, that is not to say the state and the market are not dark actors.
This is to be expected in a book about real people in the real world. This is a novel where the stakes are very much personal and when these ambitions come into contact with wider, more impersonal forces they are casually and callously crushed. Just as the characters are powerless against their own nature so they are powerless against the state and find that in the end, it is the state that shapes their very nature.