Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A girl and her Sloth

Zoo City
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes


There's a blurb by William Gibson ("Very *very* good!") on the front cover of Lauren Beukes' Zoo City, and that seems appropriate.  Even though Zoo City is tagged as urban fantasy, we are definitely in Gibson-like terrain.  If it's not quite cyber-punk, it's the fantasy equivalent. 

Moxyland (Angry Robot)
Which isn't surprising.  Beukes' first novel , Moxyland, was clearly the great-grandchild of Virtual Light or Pattern Recognition.  Set in a South Africa that could be today -- or could be a future so near that it's out of date before you finish the book -- it features hackers, streamcast blogs, 'sponsorbabies' (nanotech implanted living advertisements), revolutionaries hiding out in the inner-city 'Sprawl', corporations that are indistinguishable from the government .... Charles Stross called it, "The larval form of a new kind of science fiction munching its way out of the intestines of the wasp-paralyzed caterpillar of cyberpunk."  Which seems like a very cyberpunk kind of praise to me.  

Chinatown (Special Collector's Edition)
China Town
This kind of fiction is as much a descendant of Raymond Chandler as it is of science fiction.  Neo-noir plots set on the fringes of society (but always involving the decadent and degenerate rich).  You could digitally re-master China Town, adding mutants and high tech hackers, giving Faye Dunaway a chic haircut and computer plug in the back of her neck, and it would all work just fine.  It's never been about the plot.  It's about the mean streets (or the mean paths of cyberspace) and the hard-edged, damaged-but-untarnished hero who's honest eye shows us the world we've made for ourselves.  Chandler himself complained while trying to write the screenplay to The Big Sleep that he couldn't keep the plot straight.  And really, we could care less.

The Big Sleep: A Novel
The Big Sleep
One thing's for sure:  Beukes is a good writer, with a sharp feeling for character and world building.  Zoo City, where the fringe of society survive on the borders of the law, is a place the police only come heavily armed and the respectable citizens don't come at all (or don't admit when they do.)  It is set in an alternate version of modern day Johannesburg, which shares our history -- but only up to a point.  This world also experienced (sometime in the last decades of the Twentieth Century, apparently) something called "The Shift".  There are hundreds of different explanations of what it is and what it did, but the world is unmistakably different.  And the same.  Africa is still Africa, torn by civil wars, plagued by AIDS, and South Africa, though far from perfect, is the haven the refuges flee to.  Zinzi December, is a former journalist and former junkie (she doesn't seem very proud of either) sent to prison for killing (or causing the death of her brother), who now makes her living finding lost things and writing stories for 419 scams.  Those are the kind familiar from your junk e-mail box, lamenting the sufferings of poor orphans and misplaced Nigerian royalty and promising great rewards to anyone kind enough to help (by sending money).  Zinzi is very good at tugging the heartstrings of the gullible.

Virtual Light
Virtual Light
The most visible effect of the Shift is the appearance of 'the animalled'.   All over the world, those who commit acts of deadly violence -- it doesn't seem to draw a distinction between deliberate murder and accidental manslaughter -- are gifted or cursed with a mysterious animal familiar.  They just show up, shortly after the incident.  No matter where the person is.  Even in prison.  And they aren't necessarily local animals.   Even their type seems to be random, although some claim that they reflect hidden aspects of the person's soul.  Zinzi has a sloth.

Along with the animal comes a special power or mashavi -- magical or psychic depending on your point of view.  Zinzi for instance, can find lost items.  In fact, she can see the threads that connect a person to the things he has lost, writhing around him like umbilical cords or tentacles.  It's not always a comfortable gift, but it allows her to function as a low-rent detective. 

I won't even try to summarize the plot.  Just like a novel by Chandler or Gibson, the plot is complicated, perverse and isn't going to stick with most readers very long.  It might not even hold up if you think about it too closely.   As I said before, plot has never been the point of this kind of fiction.  It's ultimately Zoo City, it's inhabitants, the strange world of the animalled, and the glimpses we get of the effect of the Shift on the wider world, that are fascinating here.  And they are very interesting indeed.  Beukes approaches the whole idea of her magical world with an almost scientific attitude -- she offers us multiple theories that never quite completely explain what has happened.
Pattern Recognition
Pattern Recognition

I sometimes think that the biggest difference between science fiction and fantasy is the direction in which they face.  Fantasy, even urban fantasy set in the present, is always looking backwards at the past.  Science fiction looks forward, toward the future, sometimes with hope, sometimes with fear -- usually with a mix.  If that's true, then Zoo City, despite its magic powers and mysterious animal familiars, is firmly in the science fiction mindset.  It's a portrait of a society dealing with change that comes too rapidly and that no one really understands. 

I must add a word of warning about the book's ending.  It is over-the-top violent and bloody and many readers (lovers of animals, humans included) might find it disturbing.  It's not uncommon in this type of story, for the ending to be the weakest point of the book. Part of the problem is main characters who are essentially observers, and who in the end don't really have much effect on the events they witness.  A bigger part is just what I keep saying -- the plot doesn't really matter, and when we get down to the business of tying up all the loose ends (or more often, not tying them up) that becomes a little too obvious. Gibson often suffers from that problem too.  (As did Chandler). In the best cases though -- and Zoo City is certainly one of the best -- the ending doesn't override the pleasures that come before it.

Gibson is right.  Zoo City is very good.

If you enjoy Books and Beasts, you might also enjoy our sister blog, Birdland West, which focuses on birds and wildlife around West Seattle, in Washington State.


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