5 Jan 2015

Book Review: MoxyLand

Of all the genres of literature, urban afro science fiction is one of the rarest, a genre that combines contemporary Africa with a futuristic take on science fiction. This is why when I heard of MoxyLand by Lauren Beukes, I knew I just had to find this book and read it.
Lauren Beukes is a special figure in the modern African literary scene. A third generation indigenous White South African, Beukes has always attracted interest because of her status as the first internationally successful White, female South African Science Fiction/Fantasy writer. A lot of comparism has been made between her and South African Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer because of the themes of corruption, race and apartheid that are tackled in her work. Before Beukes took on fiction full time, she had worked more than a decade as a journalist and photographer, giving her unmitigated access to South Africa’s fringe societies and subcultures, exposure that would come to give her fiction work authenticity in the future. This is why MoxyLand, her first novel and only truly sci-fi book is so special.

MoxyLand (which if I were to split hairs, is technically a cyberpunk novel) is set in a post-modern South Africa where multi-national corporations have subsumed the government and now control the daily life of the citizens. The books start long after this take over occurs and introduces us to a world where everything you do is monitored and sometimes controlled by the big corporations. Mobile phones have gone way past a means of communication to the very soul of society, a portable way to carry your entire life. Most transactions are carried out by phone and interactions are endured through that filter. In this new South Africa, there is nothing worse than having your phone disconnected temporarily; having your phone disconnected permanently is erasure. Once that happens you cease to exist. It is in this climate that we meet the four main characters in the book; Toby, a White narcissistic trust fund baby who has gained relevance and notoriety through his live stream blog, Tendeka a street activist and night-time vigilante, Kendra a upstart photographer who tries to separate herself from the rest of ‘plugged in’ art community by shunning modern technology in her work and Lerato a street smart computer programmer for one of the biggest corporations who is a borderline sociopath and consummate schemer.

The book follows these four characters as they interact and try to manipulate the technology around them for their gain, fight against the crushing control of the corporations and create an identity in a world that enforces uniformity, in their own unique ways. Kendra signs a contract where she allows a soft drink corporation turn her into a walking billboard for a new soft drink called ‘Ghost’ through the use of nanotechnology in return for increased health and support for her art. Tendeka sources for funds for his social work by working for a cyber-terrorist called *Skyward vandalizing property of the corporations. Toby the blogger helps Tendeka carry out his acts of Vandalism in exchange for the chance to film it all for his international fanbase and Lerato provides technical support for these terrorist attacks as a way to provide herself a backdoor into the corporation’s computer systems so she can glean information which she will then use to her own advantage.
Fan Art of Kendra, Toby, Lerato and Tendeka. 

As the novel progresses, things devolve into chaos, the actions of the main characters and their sidekicks snowballing to several surprising climaxes. Just like real life, MoxyLand has no happy endings, but it does deliver a number of timely lessons.
This is what I loved about MoxyLand

First of all, MoxyLand is a kickass novel by a female African author, Sci-fi is a heavily sexist genre with work by women writers being ridiculed and considered as less to 'male' writers. So MoxyLand already comes extra special because of it's author.

DIVERSITY: MoxyLand was simply put, a diverse novel. By using four view points, two female and two male, one white, one gay, all from different sub cultures and social strata, Beukes manages to capture as wholly as possible life in Post-corporation South Africa, it makes the reading far more engaging and was something that impressed me.

BELIEVABILITY: A big problem many science fiction novels have is that the technology described in the novels usually don’t stand up to scrutiny when tested out. Beukes delivers an underlying technology that works and is believable. Bioluminousity is something that scientists have already managed to replicate in labs, our phones are already working at breakneck speed and completing tasks that ten years ago would have been unbelievable. Live Streaming is already a thing. Beukes takes science that is in its infancy and shows us the places it could take us if we aren’t careful. The fact the science is so believable is what makes MoxyLand so terrifying.  

LANGUAGE: Ms Beukes manages to switch between the colloquial languages of each sub culture so effortlessly that it is easy to immerse oneself fully in the book. The book starts In Media Res so there is little backstory. This forces the reader along with the accurate language and tone of the book to commit and fast.

Like many of our African writers, the ending of MoxyLand was not as solid as it could have been, particularly with how Kendra’s arc was resolved. It could have been tighter or more thought out, but then again, MoxyLand was Ms Beukes first novel and it can be excused.

MoxyLand is a brilliant African Cyberpunk novel, one of those books that expand the horizons of what is believable and possible with African fiction. I’d recommend everyone read it. 

Edwin Okolo


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