by Lauren Beukes
It starts with a shot. As soon as the needle pricks her skin, Kendra’s bloodstream is flooded with corporate-sponsored nanobots that will invade her system and harmonize with it, protecting her from disease, clarifying her skin, and even making her literally glow. They will also make her a part of a new viral ad campaign for the soft drink Ghost, give her an unquenchable craving for the product, and brand her with a ghost logo that glows beneath her skin. In Kendra’s world, selling one’s soul and identity to corporate industry is nothing new. Aidsbabies grow up in worker schools that are mined for talent by the corporations. Mobiles are tied to identities and equipped with “defusers” that can effectively taser the user at the behest of Corporate. The greatest punishment of all, however, is disconnection from the network. Losing your phone means losing your id chip, your ability to enter and exit doors, your ability to pay and purchase, your ability to receive or deliver news.
Unlike Kendra, Tendeka has no desire to bow down to corporate law. Inspired by a mysterious online contact, he decides to lead his own revolt against the corporate powers who have a stranglehold over the city. His actions will kick off a chain of events that will affect even the corporate-insulated Kendra.
The story is told from four apparently only tangentially-related perspectives, but as the story proceeds, the characters’ lives begin to intersect. Curiosity, boredom, and the promise of a good story lead Toby, an easy-going rich-boy podcaster, to provide Tendeka with rather half-hearted aid in his rebellion. When Tendeka’s project starts to require a bit of sophisticated hacking, Toby ropes in his old friend, Lerato, a programmer for a massive powerhouse corporation. Toby finally runs into Kendra, and again scenting a story, ends up dragging her into more trouble than she can possibly imagine.
Each of the characters provides a radically different set of motivations and perspectives. Kendra is the innocent, so “terrified of losing anything” that she spends her life trying to capture those fleeting moments on film. She is the only one of the four to follow the corporate edicts and literally swallow their dogma. Tendeka is initially unbending in his repudiation of the current system, considering it a “moral stand” worth the sacrifice of everything. Lerato grew up as an aidsbaby in a corporate working school and will do anything to get ahead and escape her past. She is willing to play the game but is always on the lookout for ways to cheat. Although his attitude is superficially similar to Lerato’s, Tendeka was born with a silver spoon and the assumption that the rules simply do not apply to him. While I found it rather difficult to fully sympathise with any of the characters, I do think they serve the narrative well. Moxyland is a story about perspectives, about media spin and the control of ideas and emotions, and these four disparate viewpoints add depth to the theme.
At the same time, I do think that Moxyland is a less mature effort than Zoo City, with a noticeably less well-developed world. Personally, I’m a bit sceptical that we’ll end up depending completely on phones; I’d predict bionics or at least computerized contact lenses would happen before all of the infrastructure is completely dependent upon mobile devices. The defusers, too, were a little problematic: why don’t people wrap their phones in insulation or at least drop them when they’re about to go off? It’s not like anything is physically attached. There were several other plot points and aspects of the worldbuilding that remained unexplained.(show spoiler)
As with Zoo City, I was also rather disconcerted to discover that, yet again, Beukes doesn’t really touch any of the racial issues that would seem to be inherent in a political and socioeconomic struggle in a near-future Cape Town.
Beukes’ style is apparently one that you’ll either love or hate, and I was fortunate enough to thoroughly enjoy it. As always, the book has a few quotable gems. A few of my favourites:
“Humanity is innately damaged. It’s a flaw in the design code. We’re weak. We’re fallible. We need to be told what to do, to be kept in line.”
“There’s a difference between tradition and culture.”
Another is Kendra’s response to the outcome of one of her photographs:
'Did you fuck up?'
'Ha! That's the great thing about working with damaged materials. You'll never know.'
My favourite aspect of the book was also its heart: the exploration of the ways that truth can be intentionally reshaped by emotion and perspective. As one character notes,
“Fear has to be managed. Fear has to be controlled. Like people.”
And as for the title? One of the games that Toby plays is called Moxyland. It appears friendly and cute and fuzzy, and there are bright colours and kindly guides who spout rules and rhyming aphorisms. But the second you enter the game, gangs of older, more experienced players band together to take down the n00b:
“It's not about making friends with kids all over the world, it's about getting ahead, getting one over.”
No matter how well-laid your scheme and how advanced you think your play might be, you won't get past them.
Welcome to Moxyland.