Moxyland by Lauren Beukes
Published: Angry Robot Books, 2009
“A frighteningly persuasive, high-tech fable, this novel follows the lives of four narrators living in an alternative futuristic Cape Town, South Africa. An art-school dropout, and AIDS baby, a tech-activist and an RPG-obsessed blogger live in a world where your online identity is at least as important as your physical one. Getting disconnected is a punishment worse than imprisonment, but someone's got to stand up to Government Inc. - whatever the cost.
Taking hedonistic trends in society to their ultimate conclusions, this tale paints anything but a forecasted utopia, satirically undermining the reified idea of progress as society's white knight.” ~from barnesandnoble.com
I’ve previously read Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, which I thought was spectacular. Moxyland, her first novel, is also a pretty terrific book, and it cements my decision to read any further fiction she publishes.
Moxyland weaves together the stories of four different narrators in a horrific near-future dystopian Cape Town, South Africa. There were some elements of the society, such as the ID-cellphones that police could activate as tasers, that still happily only exist in the realms of fiction. Other elements, such as people farming digital items in online games for real money, or people selling their bodies to companies as advertising space, are all too real. Moxyland’s society is a place that is designed to use its people as a disposable and renewable resource. In this world, who you are matters much less than who you know, and who you can influence. Carefully controlled PR and advertising manipulate the crowds to keep the powerful in charge.
A major factor in how much a reader might enjoy this book is how strongly they feel about the four narrators. These main characters are the heart of the novel, and they each display a strong, realistic personality. They are all deeply flawed characters, and I think that the reader’s sympathy for them (or lack of it) will be defined by their specific emotional reaction to each of these distinct types of people. Moxyland is very character-centric, so it would be difficult to enjoy if you aren’t invested in the wellbeing of the four narrators.
I found the tragically self-destructive characters to be the most compelling. My favorite narrator was passive, powerless Kendra, the ‘art-school dropout’, who is fixated on the obsolete art of old-style photography. As an ironic attempt to take control of her own destiny, she accepts an offer to be ‘branded’ by a soda company. She’s injected with nanotech that improves her physical and mental state, at the cost of an addiction to the company’s brand of soda, called Ghost. Watching Kendra’s desperate, confused struggle for autonomy was heartbreaking. Tendeka, the blindly passionate would-be revolutionary ‘tech-activist’, was also a very sympathetic narrator to me. He wants so desperately to help the disenfranchised that he would give almost anything of himself. Unfortunately, his passion and his trust in his comrades make him an easy person to twist toward more extreme measures.
The other two narrators, the disloyal, irresponsible, blogger Toby and the backstabbing, corporate-ladder-climbing AIDs baby Lerato, garnered much less sympathy from my corner. Toby’s slang-filled, drugged-out narrative segments were often amusing, but I couldn’t stand him as a person. Lerato’s competence, intelligence, and material success made her stand out from the others, but I found her ever-present contempt for others grating. However, all of the narrators made necessary contributions to the overall effect of the story. I felt that the lives of the four protagonists balanced each other beautifully, and each viewpoint highlighted elements of the others.
One minor complaint I have for Moxyland is that it sometimes seemed a bit claustrophobic. The story is very intensely focused on the four major characters, their thoughts and their perceptions. None of the other characters are really fleshed out at all, and the locations seem very minimally described. The first person present narration made it feel kind of like reading four very well written streaming blogs. Also, since the four protagonists are quite familiar with their community, they never take time out to explain things explicitly to the reader. As a result, it took me a little while to get used to their society and jargon. I liked this approach, but I can see where it might make the book hard to get into at first.
My Rating: 4.5/5
I really enjoyed reading Moxyland, though I think that some elements of Beuke’s dystopian future are frighteningly plausible in today’s world. The novel is very focused on the four protagonists and their thoughts, with little time for development of side characters or scenery. The four main characters, Kendra, Toby, Tendeka, and Lerato, were very well-developed, and they each had believably flawed personalities. I found their interwoven stories tragic and moving, but I can see where it might fall flat for readers who don't find themselves sympathetic towards any of the main characters. It’s a pretty short novel, and the first-person-present narration makes for a quick read. Lauren Beukes is definitely an author whose career I plan to follow!
Note on Rating: I’m becoming aware that my 5-point rating system does not quite have the level of finesse I would prefer for labeling books. I thought of using a 10-point system, but I’m afraid that I would just end up using 6-10 as scores instead of 1-5. My new plan is to include half-points in my current rating system. Since my blog has only been around for a few months, I’m pretty sure I still remember all my initial reactions to the books I’ve reviewed. Therefore, I’m going to go through and tweak the previous ratings by a half-point where necessary.