Moxyland feat

Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland and fear of the future

I recall Beukes’ debut novel causing a bit of a stir on its first US printing in 2010. Adjectives like fresh, young, hip, dynamic and contemporary were used. It was described as a novel that engaged politically with the spirit of the time and did so in a way that brought cyberpunk style and technology closer to our modern age of designer gadgets, fashionable youth culture, digital media and early 21st century life.

It does all that in spades. The novel was originally written in 2008, not long after the financial recession bit but before serious renewed opposition to the institutions that birthed it arose. Technologically there haven’t been any developments since that undermine its setting, although in the intervening six years we’ve seen the birth of the smartphone and the tablet to name but one development. Politically the novel’s characterised by a bitterness and cynicism about the way the world is structured and the roles people are forced to play It’s a dispirited attitude, certainly, but this was before the Occupy Movement sprang up, before the Arab Spring and before Britain’s students took to the streets to protest the Liberal Democrat volte-face. Perhaps as a result of this historical positioning the novel allows no avenues to move toward a brighter future.

One of four key characters is Tendeka, a black South African who is involved with street art projects for Cape Town’s homeless kids and acts of minor civil disobedience. What’s most striking to anyone who has ever been involved with activism, protest movements or political agitation is just how isolated Tendeka is, and I think this is at the heart of my biggest problem with the novel.

Tendeka operates in a political vacuum: his only apparent allies are his boyfriend Ashlaf, his irritating acquaintance Toby – one of the other viewpoint characters and a remarkably close analogue to Nathan Barley – and whichever street kids have temporarily bought into his political views. There’s also an ambiguous figure known as skyward*, ostensibly a rich revolutionary agitator based in Holland, who Tendeka has only communicated with over the internet.

The two key problems here are the absence of other political agitators in the life of someone who is defined by this passion, and the trust placed in an ambiguous, anonymous figure by a person living in a high-tech corporate police state. Both are a difficult logical leap.

The first of these Beukes works to address by portraying her Cape Town setting as one in which political repression is intense, with police responses to even minor infractions being swift and harsh, and one in which most people are politically apathetic. I don’t find this hugely convincing as the city is also portrayed as riddled with poverty, starvation, disease and unemployment. Near-total civic apathy is not a common feature of cities riven with severe problems of this nature. Further, despite the heavy-handedness of the police responses seen in the novel we are still told about various neighbourhoods where it’s not safe to walk the streets, i.e. areas where police control or the threat of government-mandated force is insufficient to force lawful behaviour. These are clearly areas in which civic disobedience and rival power structures would take root, and there is no reason why they would only take the form of parasitic criminal organisations.

I don’t believe there’s a serious political activist who has ever lived who has not sought out affinity groups to some degree and for this reason, in this context, I don’t find Tendeka fundamentally convincing, despite being an otherwise well-drawn character.

The second problem is a lot simpler. Trusting a figure about whom you know nothing but who knows a suspicious amount about you and your activities is frankly idiotic, particularly when what you’re involved in are pretty minor activities. When I volunteered at an anarchist freesheet in Brighton I overheard numerous phone calls from tabloid journalists asking loaded questions about anti-capitalist protests, clearly fishing for quotes they could use to support their intended portrayal of forthcoming violence. More recently we’ve seen the story of Mark Kennedy, the police spy who infiltrated various environmental groups for several years, which comes on the back of decades of revelations about state infiltration of activist organisations. Serious activists are suspicious and media-savvy by nature, quickly becoming aware of the risks of infiltration and espionage. Tendeka is portrayed as not terribly bright – and prone to anger – but we still see his paranoia in effect on multiple occasions. Why, then, does he trust skyward* to the point of sharing information with them and following direct orders? Why does his paranoia not temper his enthusiasm and produce a healthy mistrust? It can only be because the entire novel hinges upon Tendeka doing what he is told by skyward*.

One aspect of Tendeka’s story I did really like was how Beukes walked us through the danger and tension of an act of sabotage he and his crew undertook, genuinely risking serious injury and other consequences, only to end by highlighting the almost meaningless nature of the act: disrupting an animated billboard for a few hours. It’s one of the points at which Tendeka role an activist fits into the context of his city and their story.

I was also a little frustrated by other character decisions, although not to the same extent as with Tendeka. Kendra, the photographer, was a fascinating character and I felt let-down that the conclusion of her story sees her passively walking to her death despite apparently being alert to what is coming. In retrospect I realise this was essentially true to her character, as Kendra is a deeply passive individual whose life and successes were often defined by more powerful or wealthy men. This is something that frustrates her and which she walks away from at points – particularly in her rejection of her boyfriend and art manager Jonathan and her relationship with the obnoxious Toby – but she was not a character whose personal growth resolved. She remained always the passive observer.

The character I’ve yet to mention is Lereta, a mid-level corporate lackey with buckets of arrogance backed by a fair amount of skill. Her talents seem to cover design, project management and high-level coding and hacking, which is a pretty broad skillset but I guess it matches her arrogance. She’s not a likable character, full of scorn and cynical disdain, but Beukes does cover how tough Lereta’s early life was. She leveraged her intelligence and focus to elevate herself from a refugee camp onto the corporate ladder. She’s an emotionally isolated person with little room left for sentimentality.

Lereta and Toby are the only characters to survive the novel’s proceedings, a fact which left me a little depressed. That’s neither here nor there in terms of the book’s merits; it’s just that Toby is an arrogant, misogynistic, clueless new media dipshit with his own webcast called Diary of Cunt (I didn’t bring up Nathan Barley earlier for nothing) whilst Lereta is a self-absorbed corporate opportunist who pulls up the ladder once she’s climbed it. Both get involved with Tendeka’s schemes but Toby does it only so that he can stream the proceedings on his webcast and Lereta does it partly as a favour to Toby – the two are somehow friends – and partly because she believes herself to be clever enough to never get caught.

That both of these narcissists survive when the naive but ideological Tendeka and naive but artistic and empathetic Kendra do not is a clear statement about the kind of world Beukes has built: it’s a corporate dystopia where hope and progress go to die. It is not supposed to be pretty or pleasant or have a nice outcome. It is a boot stamping on a human face forever, hardware and soft.

Moxyland coverWhat I conclude from all of this is that Moxyland is a product of the narrow slice of time in which it was written, after the financial crisis struck and the 2003 invasion of Iraq made a mockery of popular consent but before acts of popular resistance demonstrated that the mass will of democracy wasn’t yet down and out. It was written in a period of time when it may have appeared that there was no hope and there would be no resistance as our world slipped deeper into economic disparity and under corporate control. Given this I’d argue the novel is less ground-breaking than I have seen it described: bleak corporate-controlled high-tech futures have been ten a penny for three decades whereas stories in which youth culture, political courage and progressive ideas coalesce into something that breaks that mould are far rarer.

Moxyland is undeniably a fantastic novel. It is wonderfully paced, replete with consistently snappy and convincing dialect and slang, and nails a convincing near-future technologically and culturally. In particular it should be celebrated for the exceedingly rare achievement of portraying convincing youth culture in SF. I am however disappointed that it falls back on a conservative note for its ending, one in which egotism and selfishness win the day and idealism and beauty are consigned to pointless, ugly deaths, and in which the only possible reaction to a grim corporate future is to internalise its sociopathic values.

[Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland is published by Angry Robot Books.]

Comments
7 Responses to “Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland and fear of the future”
  1. Hi Shaun,

    Thank you so much for the thoughtful and incisive review. I think you raise excellent points on Tendeka’s isolation and his trust in skyward*. He is blindsided by anger (and probably a little bit of romantic arrogance – a Che Guevara / Steve Biko wannabe syndrome, where he wants to be the iconic solo hero and bring the state to its knees on his own) and his behaviour has been alienating to people like Ashraf of late – but yeah, activists are generally part of a community, you’re right.

    I also liked the way you pinned it to a specific time and what was going on politically in the world then and contrasting it with where we are now.

    I promised you an elaboration of our short chat on Twitter, so here are my thoughts in response to yours. But of course a book is a subjective animal and open to interpretation.

    Thanks again for the review and for the chance to discuss it.

    Kendra’s death is a tragedy because it’s at precisely the moment she switches from passive to active – when she makes a firm choice in her life. And yeah, she didn’t deserve it.

    Toby wasn’t based on Nathan Barley. I only ever heard of Nathan Barley when someone brought him up in a review in 2010. I based Diary of Cunt on something a friend of mine, Miles Keylock, now editor at Rolling Stone South Africa, was always threatening to write but never got round to. Toby is not based on Miles either. He’s his own awful beast.

    You should also look in to the history of apartheid, which this book riffs off quite a lot, from the idea of askaris (double agents within the struggle) and Lerato being threatened with “falling out the window” is a direct reference to Steve Biko’s death and this quite remarkable poem by Chris van Wyk, In Detention,https://filipspagnoli.wordpress.com/2008/10/23/human-rights-poem-55-in-detention/ about all the excuses apartheid’s special branch used for why activists died in custody.

    I don’t think the ending is conservative (or at least it’s not meant to be) so much as it is bleak as fuck.

    But it’s meant to be, I wanted it to be a terrible warning. I didn’t want to let these characters off with a happy ending because happy endings are hard won and mostly temporary (like the Arab Spring, for example, or the end of apartheid – you win the battle, the war goes on, we have to keep fighting, especially when the enemy becomes so much more nebulous, when there is no Big Bad, no end-of-level boss (ala the National Party and apartheid), where it’s the social fabric we live in).

    I believe in our ability to change – we are all the wonder and all the evil in the world and there is only us and we have to do better.

    The ending was intended (ah, authorial intentions!) like 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale, as a worst case scenario, a warning of where we could so easily end up – a call to action.

    I talked about this in a little bit more depth over in this blog post on why Moxyland is not like JM Coetzee’s Disgrace. http://laurenbeukes.bookslive.co.za/blog/2010/09/30/why-moxyland-is-not-like-disgrace/

    This review had some interesting comments on the unhappy ending: http://smorgasbook.blogspot.ca/2014/01/moxyland-by-lauren-beukes.html
    —-
    SNIP:

    “I’m not the hugest fan of really bleak books, most of the time. But what frustrates me even more are books that pretend they’re going to be dark and brooding, and then wuss out on actually having those dire promises come true – characters survive when they look like they’re going to die, and something waves its magic wand over the scene to make improbably happy endings. If you want to go dark, go dark. Do it, don’t just pretend.

    Moxyland is pretty much the opposite. For most of the book, it was fascinating, but not that troubling. The pieces were being set in place, however, and when they started to fall into place, it was startling. This is a world where corporations and government are far too closely intertwined, where being disconnected is a summary punishment, where corporations manipulate dissent in order to further their own aims, and the people they sell their products to seen as disposable as the products themselves.”

    Anyway, thanks again for your sharp commentary and perspective.

  2. Shaun CG says:

    Hi Lauren,

    Thanks for the considered response. I’m pleased you appreciated some of my points!

    I see where you’re coming from regarding Tendeka’s arrogance – it’s clearly a significant part of his character. And although I can’t off the top of my head recall how you addressed it in your novel, there’s a clear ahistoricity to the characters we see. I may be forgetting or have missed an early reference to suppression of information?

    That aside if Tendeka was inspired by Guevara or others of the same stature, unless he knew very little about them he’d know that they were all members of larger organisations, or founded organisations, or even travelled internationally to learn and understand more about the struggles of others elsewhere. Solidarity is not just a word! But of course, Tendeka never self-identifies as a socialist, nor I think does he even indicate awareness of the idea. (Again, I may be forgetting – my memory is very poor. I wrote the above piece the morning after finishing your novel.)

    Thanks for the mention of Biko – I was not familiar with him. My knowledge of apartheid is mostly limited to the common historical record, the UK punk opposition to apartheid (and those British public figures supporting apartheid it decried), my reading around the economically-rooted issues Naomi Klein raises in The Shock Doctrine, and what Adam Curtis has covered in his more recent documentaries – so it is very spotty! I also appreciated the link to the poem, which is chilling in its simplicity.

    It is a horrible thing to have to type but infiltration by police, secret police and government agents is something common to every nation-state – although certainly a racist apartheid state that feels under threat domestically and internationally will push this to very ugly extremes. The same is sadly true of police immunity to ‘accidental’ deaths in custody. I do not wish to draw a direct comparison between a post-imperial power and what a postcolonial nation suffered under apartheid, but I would point out the fact that in the UK no officer has been prosecuted for a death in custody since 1969 despite over 1,000 occurring. Of course, deaths in custody in the UK disproportionately affect non-white arrestees. A statistical drop in the water, no doubt, compared to what the ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations and individuals experienced in a different timeframe, but still a great injustice.

    Regardless, I could certainly stand to learn more about the uniqueness of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid and its legacy today, so thank you for pushing me on that.

    I didn’t intend to imply Tony is based on Barley – only that I found Toby a contemptible character who shared a lot in common with that caricature of ‘digital native’ media wannabes who survive mostly on the money of others. Toby, in his defence, has some genuine intelligence peeking out from beneath his obnoxiousness, something one could never say about Barley.

    I definitely see where you came from with the ending and your comments do resonate. Certainly a cautionary tale leaves more with a reader than a happy ending in which the day is saved and ends are wrapped up neatly!

    My use of the word “conservative” in the conclusion was probably a poor choice. It has clear political connotations, after all! What I meant was that I had hoped a novel which so well captured youth culture and modern forms of media and communication would have suggested more of a chink in the armour of power relating to these themes.

    I’ll chuck in a [SPOILER WARNING!] for anyone else reading this before I continue. The hopeful note that we do end with – Toby and Tendeka’s message – didn’t read as open-ended to me. This was primarily because of Toby’s total self-interest throughout the story. His friend’s death did shake him, and certainly his new, ah, characteristics might open new avenues for him, but I just don’t see the space for a complete ethical realignment in what we’d previously seen of him. (Perhaps this is because activist types, despite being optimistic about the possibility of a better world, tend to be pessimists about human patterns of behaviour?)

    There’s also a secondary weakness in that I can’t really see Tendeka’s final message constituting a ‘wake-up call to the people’ anyway. Perhaps overseas there would be public outcry, possibly leading to diplomatic pressure from other countries, but Tendeka doesn’t actually say anything that the police themselves hadn’t already announced to the hundreds if not thousands of people already infected. This all fits in with the cautionary aspects of the story as well as Tendeka’s naivety but it further undermines what little hope for change we see.

    Anyway, despite my grumbling about the ending I’m pleased that your message is “These characters are fucked because their future world is fucked and I’m sticking around because we’re not there yet.” The fight, I suppose, is to stop us getting there!

    Moxyland was the first of your books I’ve read and certainly won’t be the last. Thanks again for the opportunity to discuss some of these points further – Moxyland has certainly proven one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a while.

  3. Thanks back for the continued discussion. Just want to pick up on the one point about the ending.

    [HUGE SPOILERS]

    Oh god, no, Toby is definitely not going to have a change of heart. But he is going to shag a lot of women and delight in spreading the nanotech around, which acts an an antidote to the crowd control virus Inatech developed, screwing them royally (which of course is why they had to kill Kendra, to contain it, because they didn’t expect this as a side-effect) and possibly aiding and abetting a revolution, if not kicking it off directly, by immunizing the revolutionaries.

    It’s an AIDS allusion, of course, but a good AIDS. (Yeah. I just typed that sentence). By which I mean playing with and subverting the fears and spread of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and also riffing off the idea of virality in media.

  4. Shaun CG says:

    *facepalm*

    Oh, geez. I think large parts of what I’ve written are contradicted by the fact that I am an idiot and I missed that!

    This is what happens when you read until 4am.

  5. Or when the writer has a terrible fear of the dread infodump and leans too much on the side of being implicit rather than explicit, and some very important information can be easily missed in fast-reads of the book.

  6. And here’s an alternative take on the ending and what happened next, by Sam Wilson, who wrote it for a Moxyland short story competition. It’s pretty cool. http://www.samwilsonwriting.com/short-stories/the-minutes

  7. Shaun CG says:

    I enjoyed that, Lauren – it’s a good tonal fit with the world you built.