Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

William Gibson says Moxyland is a Neuromancer for the next gen. It’s an apartheid dystopian cyberpunk thriller set in South Africa, and it’s a RIDE.

“What’s really going on?

Who’s really in charge?

You have NO. F***ING. IDEA.”

Moxyland is a book that’s slightly hard to describe. Attempts include: “a new kind of SF munching its way out of the intestines of the wasp-paralysed caterpillar of cyberpunk” (Charles Stross) “a funny… disturbing… politically charged urban speculative thriller” (GQ) and “I’m not completely sure what’s happening now but holy sh*t that’s cool” (me). It’s weird, it’s raw, it’s original, it’s Snow Crash and Neuromancer all smushed together for the new generation (even William Gibson thinks so), and it’s an absolute must-read for any science-fiction fan – or, hell, anyone who watched District 9 and thought the accents were kind of cool.

Like District 9, Moxyland is set in South Africa; like District 9, it uses South Africa’s past to tell a story about its future. Its premise is a familiar one. A few decades from now, a new kind of Apartheid has been established: between the wealthy and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, the corporate and the pitiful kids running on the street. The government is essentially owned by massive syndicates who run a fast-paced, dangerous and massively commercial nation. The world is submerged in consumerism and technology, to the point that what happens to you online is as important as what happens to you in real life – and being “disconnected” from the virtual world is a penalty seen by some as worse than death.

Kendra – Sponsorbaby and high-tech soft drink addict

Kendra from Moxyland

In this obsessive, claustrophobic society, four very different people tell an intertwining story of life and death in the wired world. There’s Kendra, a sensitive and melancholic photographer, pressurised into becoming one of the new wave of “sponsorbabies”. Injected with brand-new nanotechnology leaving a soft-drink company’s logo glowing on her skin, she gains enhanced physical and mental abilities, plus all the benefits of being connected to a powerful corporation. But this comes at the cost of becoming a walking advertisement and developing an addiction to the high-tech soft drink she’s advertising.

Toby – An over-entitled futuristic Nathan Barley

Toby from Moxyland. Oh God, what a complete and utter Nathan Barley

Then there’s Toby, an over-privileged, over-entitled thrill-seeker, armed with his parents’ money, few morals and less sense. He runs a 24-hour vlog stream poetically entitled “Diary of Cunt”, on which he bitches to the general public about anything and everything occurring in his personal life – which, thankfully enough, is about to get a lot more interesting, as he gets sucked into the world of “real-life” gaming (think ARGs with Google Glasses) and the not-entirely-legal activities of his peers.

Lerato – AIDS orphan and elite programmer

Lerato is part of the social elite. Cocky, confident, and cynical, she has been headhunted since her childhood for her intelligence and programming skills. Now she’s torn between her high-flying professional lifestyle and the demands of her sisters. AIDS orphans like her, they’re drawn to the cultural traditions and customs they’ve never really experienced, while she couldn’t care less. She looks out for herself above all else – and she’s quite prepared to break the rules and deceive whoever she needs to in order to get ahead. Or, where Toby is involved, just to have some fun.

Tendeka – Freedom fighter willing to risk it all

Tendeka rounds out the group as an idealistic “freedom-fighter” against the new regime. Anti-corruption, anti-consumerist, and most of all anti-corporate, he has a naive and romantic view of the world. He and his lover Ash spend their time running projects to feed and shelter the numerous street children of Cape Town, but he’s got his eyes set on loftier and riskier goals. His increasingly dangerous pursuit of them gives us, if not a strict “plot”, a framework the novel grows around.

Each character shows us a different facet of their world: from the consumer public, to the wealthy businesspeople, to the desperate “losers” to the system, struggling to survive. The four of them are wildly diverse. Black and white, male and female, gay and straight, rich and poor… they reflect modern South African society. Their characterisation is clear and their voices are distinct and realistic – but not necessarily likeable.

SF in Moxyland: The apartheid of the future, the apartheid of the present

The setting provides an unusual and welcome note, quite apart from the localised sparkle it adds to the novel. The book exaggerates aspects of 21st century South African society such as the huge class divide and the clash between past and present, to act almost as social commentary. The wider social themes in Moxyland are, however, familiar to most science fiction readers: virtual worlds allowing escape from a harsher real one, a apathetic and brutal government bought out by corporations, wild consumerism and image obsession dictating daily life. It’s enough to make you want to buy a motorcycle and some leather jeans. Well, almost.

Yes, in some ways, Moxyland is an old-fashioned, gritty, dirty, angry cyberpunk story – not that there’s anything wrong with that – but in some ways, it’s completely original. It’s slick, stylish and pop-culture smart, not to mention bursting with dense and punchy prose. One of its strongest points is that its language is wild and totally immersive: sci-fi terminology alongside evocative descriptions of a recognisable Southern Africa, world-weary snarkiness alongside bitter observations about life in a society constantly looking for “more.”

In conclusion: Moxyland is an exhilarating, bleak, and frightening read. Its fractured world is bizarre enough to fascinate, and just familiar to our own to be scary. It’s at once a fun novel and a warning. It’s clear from the beginning that it’s not the kind of book to have a happy ending: its conclusion, in fact, is just as grey and ambiguous as the various morals of its cast. But it’s the kind of book that stays with you, whether it’s for the prose, the humour, characters, the details of its world – or for the impact of its social commentary.

The future is plushies! Monster Moxy stencils! Not for bitchmonkeys.

Also, it uses the word “bitchmonkey” and some editions of the book come with effing adorable Monster Moxy stencils. (That’s the thing on the cover. Look at that damn thing.) If that’s not enough to convince you to read it, then you should just put your suit on, go to work, and spend the day slaving away for The Man. Even if it’s the weekend. Even if it’s a holiday. Bitchmonkey.

Buy Moxyland the paperback

Buy Moxyland the eBook