Monday, August 24, 2009

Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

While reading "Moxyland," Lauren Beukes' dystopian fantasy, published by Angry Robot, I kept asking myself, where are the "parents," the serious people who will take charge and protect these four dysfunctional children; and, therein, I think, lies the rub or at least the theme of the work. The four protagonists, who tell the story in alternating first person segments, are children without supervision in the literal and figurative sense; they are orphans, cut off, without father and mother.

Oh, don't misunderstand me, they have supervision all right, in spades, dealt to them electronically by some disembodied corporation that employs them as consumer fodder; however, in truth they are castaways in a world where the "virtual" and the "real" have converged and melded. They are children, like those of Golding's "Lord of the Flies," left to their own devices or the vagaries of fate within a virtual universe controlled by an unseen hand.

In thinking about the book over the last week, I have concluded that "Moxyland" can be read as a prequel to "Brave New World" or "1984." High praise indeed, I whisper, and yet I think the work deserves it. In that regard, I would not place the book in the science fiction section of my local Borders; instead, I would set it near Huxley and Orwell or maybe next to Sartre's "Nausea" or Camus' "The Plague."

Are you crazy, you might ask. Have you lost your mind? I don't think so but if you insist it is science fiction, then I must conclude that the book is really a book of ideas like John Brunner's "Stand on Zanzibar" or Harry Harrison's "Make Room Make Room." Nevertheless, even here I have trouble, because Beukes' book is more grounded in the here and now and consequently does not amaze as much as Brunner and Harrison; but, instead, warns and points at a near future, almost on our doorstep, that we should take heed of (even though we might be helpless to stop it).

In a nutshell, "Moxyland" involves four protagonists, who tell their stories in the first person. They live in Capetown, South Africa, approximately ten years from today; and, although apartheid is not mentioned, its effects seem obvious.

The protagonists are: Kendra, a young photographer; Tendeka, an activist and would-be terrorist; Lerato, a corporate employee and computer programmer; and Toby, a rich kid, working on his master degree in literature at the local University. Each one is connected to the virtual world and tangentially to each other. However, each one is disconnected from family and friends. Instead, they inhabit the virtual universe, where avatars could hide a fourteen year old or a corporate boss.

As I said above, they are orphans in both literal and literary sense. For instance, Toby's mother cuts off his stipend and he is forced to make money as a "gonzo" reporter; Lerato is an aids baby, raised in an orphanage as a ward of a multi-national corporation.

Beukes sets the four off on a collision course, which ends in disaster for some of the participants.

One of the most telling images in the book is a self-portrait done by Kendra. It is a photograph of herself. Because she uses old, analog equipment and antiquated film stock, the image is black--not blank, black. An interesting image, especially, when the author tells the story in the first person. Here the "cogito" fails; the "I" of the persona refuses to reflect the vision of the constructed other. In other words, no images come to the viewer to instruct or inform the viewer. Isn't that a bit like the avatar of the other in a computer game?

In that regard, another major theme of the novel is the way that the virtual is bleeding into the real. Toby plays various games in which, through his first-person-narration we are not sure if he is in a game or in life. The reader has difficulty determining what is real and what is not and eventually so does Toby.

As the virtual seeps in and absorbs the real, human beings become consuming fodder and living advertisements for certain global products. Within this context, the orphan, un-weaned from the real mother, continues to imbibe the corporate milk, which results in addiction and infantilism.

As I said at the beginning I think "Moxyland" can be read as a prequel to "1984" or "Brave New World." If we project the story line into the future and I think the book invites it; either, a fascistic Big Brother will arise, probably a virtual one, like the Wizard of Oz, or an unseen manipulative hand will continue to control and manipulate as in the Huxley novel.

In conclusion, the novel is a book of ideas; well written, edgy, and prescient.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for the review, Keith. It means a lot and I don't know if authors tell reviewers that enough. Not just for spreading the good word, but that a total stranger connected with the words you laboured to assemble into story.

    (And now I'm going to have to go fill the embarrassing gap in my lit education and read Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar.)

    Hope you don't mind if I post a link back to the Authonomy / Moxyland short story competition here, for anyone who might be interested: