Monday, 1 March 2010


Lauren Beukes
Angry Robot Books

2018, in some unnamed South African city. Not that you’d know it was South Africa; apart from the occasional African flavour to the name of a character or location, everything in 'Moxyland' is so homogenised that this could be London, or Singapore, or Chicago. Everyone speaks the same, too – blending casual technobabble with casual profanity and teenage skaz, as they talk their way around the bleeding edge of popular culture and anti-establishment politics in a city where the former is trying too hard to shock and the latter is dangerous indeed. This is what the world looks like, once the internet has smeared any kind of cultural identity across all corners of the world and technology has infiltrated our lives to such an extent that to separate oneself from it is to separate oneself from society. Advertising is omnipresent, and intrusive on a level far beyond the webpage pop-ups and data-mined Facebook ads which niggle us today. Giant corporations exist on a separate plane from ’civilians’, their employees treated as a cut above the masses, while corporate executives hold complete control over every aspect of their workers’ lives – the feudal lords of a new world.

The most unsettling thing about 'Moxyland' is that this is a world clearly recognisable as a descendant of our own, the near-future setting making every erosion of civil liberties or cultural landslide all the more shocking for their proximity to events we read about in the news. This is a novel of horror and social realism as much as science fiction, taking the familiar and showing how easily it could turn on us. Our modern world is one in a state of tremendous flux, as the exponential curve of technological development clashes again and again with a social system no longer able to cope with it and too slow to adapt. 'Moxyland' is one way the world could develop, one frightening in its imminent possibility. Technology is integral here – your phone is housekey, communicator and bank card all rolled into one, and disconnection is a penalty more crippling than any physical punishment or prison sentence. The more centralised and automated the systems which govern your day to day life, the easier it is to control; 'Moxyland' is an examination of what happens when society forges its own chains, examining the balance between the technology of convenience and the surrender of freedom.

It’s also a chilling, effectively written novel. Its protagonists are an unlikeable group, for the most part: a self-centred celebrity wannabe, a short-tempered anarchist, a naïve artist who’s sold out, and a ruthless security programmer on the corporate fast track. They might not generate much early sympathy with the reader, and the slow burn of plot development can make the novel difficult to get into. The depth and pace of the society Lauren Beukes’ characters inhabit, however, and the sheer intricacy of the world she has built, are enough to pull you in. This is a place where corporate advertising departments put their brand – quite literally – on up-and-coming athletes, musicians and artists; where the fluffy, cartoon aesthetics of online gaming for the pre-teens does nothing to disguise the violence of the behaviour they propagate; where advertising hoardings squat unassailable in a sea of viciously intelligent barbed-wire; and the publicity-starved broadcast every moment of their lives on the internet in a hope of getting that one big break. In this teeming, dynamic city - so like the world we know, but yet so alien – subtle, back-seat character building lets those characters slide quietly under your skin. You might not like them, but by the time the novel builds to its climax you’ll certainly care what happens to them.

And 'Moxyland' isn’t a novel which lets its characters off light. Actions have repercussions, good guys don’t always win, and there are no easy answers. This uncertainty builds real tension as the novel progresses towards its climax, as the various strands of reality weave around each other and the relentless minimalism of Beukes’ style evokes an oppressive atmosphere to match that hanging over the city – a tension leading to an utterly terrifying scene in which the police deploy biological weapons as a crowd-control measure.

Worse than the moment when electric-shock devices built into the protesters’ phones are activated, worse than seeing the faceless riot police turn as one and march away, is the sugar-sweet recorded announcement as bio-agents fill the air, listing the progression of symptoms with merciless compassion and ending with the following:
‘South African Police Services strongly advises citizens exposed to the M7N1 Marburg variation for their protection to report to an immunity centre immediately. Should you be too weak to report to an immunity centre, please call the South African Police Services and we will dispatch a mobile service to collect you. Again, this service is free, provided in the interests of public health and safety. The South African Police Services are dedicated to serve. How can we help you?’ (p.219)
The disbelief of the protesters – and those simply caught in the wrong place and time – is something shared by the reader. Surely no government, no matter how divorced from its citizens, could travel so far down that path? But humanity has willingly placed the tools of fascism in the hands of those with the motive and the will to use them, men and women who care only for power - as one says, ‘any action is justified in a state under terrorist threat.’ (p.293). It doesn’t take much effort to recognise the parallels with recent history, or even with current affairs – the uncomfortable question Moxyland raises is whether it’s truly terrorist to oppose a system which no longer recognises the rights of its individual citizens. There is a line between terrorist and freedom fighter, that much is clear – but when does it get drawn, and who gets to do the drawing?

This review was originally written for