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.
What 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.