Sunday, February 22, 2015

Dox Capitalism: a mini-review of Moxyland (2008) by Lauren Beukes

If you are going to write an archetypically bursting-at-the-seams first novel, then cyberpunk is an excellent genre in which (and bursting slightly out of which) to write it.

We get four narrators: Kendra, a Z-list schleb photographer, interested in the aesthetics of both obsolete and prototype technologies; Toby, a vile trustafarian with a magic vlogcaster suit; Tendeka, a slightly naïve community organizer and political activist; and Lerato, an AIDS orphan done good as a hacker with a snazzy corporate day-job. They roll around, exemplifying themselves and their world, occasionally explicitly brushing against each other, occasionally suggesting some more obscure, behind-the-scenes connections, until a horrific police crack-down on a rather intricate scene of civil disorder draws their four narratives together for the final act.

One of them melts.

I saw a review somewhere which suggested that Beukes has written a globalized, homogenized cyberpunk dystopia, in which corporate totalitarianism usurps any strong sense of place. I have to disagree – at least inasmuch as Beukes doesn’t hold back on the South Africanisms, both vocabulary and speech rhythms. In fact, I wonder about the extent to which Moxyland is two novels, depending on a reader’s familiarity with South African English: there’s something quite gleefully trolling about asking some of your readership to dip into stockpiles of negative capability earmarked for alien civilizations, just to cope with how some people are really talking today. Swak is not drek but it could feel that way. (I think the brand names – “it’s going to be toyota” etc. – are Beukes’s own near future neologisms, but I’m not sure).

One drawback for the relatively non-South African reader (South Africanness is all relative hey) is that they may hear less of the differentiating nuance of the four voices. With its multiple viewpoints, and its headlong worldbuilding, the first half of the novel could almost be a disaster. But there’s plenty to pull you through. There are some sharp science fiction conceits. That bio-sig pen, for instance, which mixes a little of your DNA into the drying ink of your signature, and the delivery of a bouquet surrounded by GM butterflies programmed never to stray too far from your office desk: both had me hopped up to my eyeballs with readerly trust. Beukes also has a gift for what I’ll lazily and imprecisely call “set-pieces.” She knows how to layer and pace volatile situations where snap decisions matter. And there are nuggets of beauteous prose prosody: “. . . yield a juicy maggot, let alone mielies. It’s all cliché, a communal sepia-toned memory that all us Aidsbabies have in common . . .” or “It’s a mural, giant-scale and kif skilful, of a Nguni cow in profile.”

(Not that I dislike disasters, necessarily).

Given the black humour which pervades the book, it’s possible Beukes did miss a trick by making Toby quite so unlikable – I think most readers will be able to feel comfortably superior to Toby, whereas Beukes was clearly capable of making his voice theoretically abhorrent but actually quite charming.

But maybe it’s not a missed trick so much as a deliberate trade-off: it sharpens the allegory. By the end of Moxyland, it is not difficult to interpret the fates of the four characters as characteristic fates (or median fates, or modal fates) of the values they embody. I think perhaps cyberpunk and allegory are both ways of writing that are constitutively invested in representing the systemic (e.g. really showing the workings of capitalism and patriarchy, not just how they present themselves to us. Doxing them, if you will). So it’s pretty damn yaris to discover allegory operating so multifariously and nebulously within a cyberpunk novel.

One small example. If there was a sf-style exposition of how phones work in Beukes’s world, I missed it. It doesn’t matter: the phones make total sense anyway. The technology seems to involve some degree of bodily integration (police use your own phone to sort of tase you), so the job could have been done – plot-wise – by neural implants, but it was a masterful stroke to go with phones instead. That’s because phones are far more allegorically suggestive. It is very easy to elide the phones with “all the ways in which we are reliant on technology, especially networked technology which opens our lives to inspection and control by state and/or private sector bureaucracy,” at least as a working hypothesis, while we gather clues about the mechanisms involved. Having a phone means being governed in particular ways, but not having one means belonging to an underclass.

In this, perhaps the phone has a logic in common with the animal of Beukes’s next, rather more polished novel, the urban fantasy Zoo City. That is, the (lack of a) phone in Moxyland, like the animal in Zoo City, is a way of symbolizing social stratification, but without absorbing or displacing the kinds of stratification we already know about – economic, racial, gender – instead the phone gets wriggled back inside the interlocking matrix it’s supposed to symbolize, complicating it even further.

I wonder if there are some fruitful connections here between governmentality and gamification, or at least gaming more generally. There is certainly some interesting stuff here about gaming, reality, and various intricate blurrings and nestings of the two. The title puts the spotlight on this aspect. And I'm dying to ruminate on race and Kendra's skin. But I won’t get into any of that now: this was meant to be a short review ^_^ and besides, there have already been some intriguing pixels spilled about this book: not least this brace over at Strange Horizons; Sean Green asking some interesting questions about the portrayal of activism (and pointing out the precise timing of the novel’s publication, post Iraq invasion and subprime mortgage crisis, pre Occupy); Martin Petto on Beukes and Gibson; and Jonathan McCalmont also on the broader context of cyberpunk, positioning Moxyland at the satirical end: deconstructing the myth of the cool outsider by portraying such characters as victims. I think he’s right about the “smiling grimly.”


BTW, while we’re talking South African genre fiction: I just bought a book based totally on the title. Apocalypse Now Now.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

I am propped up in terror, thinking about prizes

There are three short stories nominated for the BSFA this year:
Ruth E J Booth for "The Honey Trap," published in La Femme, Newcon Press
Octavia Cade for "The Mussel Eater,"  published by The Book Smugglers
Benjanun Sriduangkaew for "Scale Bright," published by Immersion Press
I guess that's why they call 'em shortlists. Then again, the novel category has eight nominations (because of a tie for fifth place), so I kind of wonder how it happened. Why have only three stories made it onto the shortlist?

Either short fiction had a big tie for fourth place, which would have produced a hugely unwieldy list, so the BSFA went with a list of three rather than a list of fifty squillion, or (and I guess this is more likely?) only three stories managed to get up to the minimum of three nominations.

In a way that's not too surprising, given just how much short fiction is out there -- the nominations are going to be scattered pretty thinly. If so, it could suggest two things:

(1) I think this is the first year BSFA nominations have been restricted to four per member? Maybe if it had been, like, six nominations, then one or two more stories would have snuck onto the list (and perhaps the fifth-place tie for novel would also have been broken). That's assuming we think five is a good-ish size for a shortlist, and are kind of aiming for that size.

(2) It's perhaps an argument for authors who have published a lot in a particular year to go ahead and say which story they think is best to mitigate nominations-splitting. This may of course rub some readers up the wrong way ("how dare you tell me what to vote for!"). Those wrong-way-rubbed-up readers probably have a point, and they are free to punish any annoyingly bossy author by taking their nominations elsewhere. But if you're anything like me, you would probably prefer to see the author of your favourite story get nominated, even if it's for a different story, than for prolific and consistently good authors to receive split nominations and not even make the shortlist. (Lots of readers chatting about what they like could also do the job). Yoon Ha Lee wrote ten stories last year.

I could be completely wrong and confused about all of that.


I'm pretty interested in these prizes at the moment. I didn't used to be, and I don't know how long it will last. One thing which is quite striking is that the mechanisms for pinning rosettes on speculative fiction are so un-speculative themselves. Fandom could administer these prizes in any weird way we choose. There could at least be weird categories: most prophetic use of existing tech, most deniably fascist, best social justice war song, reflexive award for most contempt for receipt of this award. Hmm: go on, you think of some. Or there could be liquid democracy. Or there could be #nanowrimo-style tie-breakers, or Gladiators stuff.

If you are at all interested in avant-garde politics of any kind, you perk up whenever you spot a space where something new might be tested out, however heavily booked up that space is.

Here's another great idea: what if we all agreed to forego genre prizes for a year? No Nebula, no Hugo, no BSFA, no Kitschies, no World Fantasy Award, no Clarke, and maybe no Booker and no James Tait Black either, nope, nope, nope. Let's give some folks who probably deserve a rest a rest. Let's detox and see how it feels.

OK, maybe that's unfair to the authors who've worked hard on something snazzy, which happens to be coming out in the Year of No Prizes. But that's pretty easily solved: just let them be eligible in the following year (or perhaps shoogle things around, so that you have three or four slightly larger pools battling it out over three or four years, rather than one vast pool following the Year of No Prizes).

Why? The only way I can ever imagine it happening would be some kind of superviral campaign, filled with Big Name Authors, to donate all the prize money toward setting fandom's house in order in some way, or perhaps to some pressing cause. But that wouldn't be the real reason, for me. I'd just like to see what would happen.


Seriously was it just me and Ian Sales who nominated Tim Maughan's "Four Days of Christmas"? I feel like Ian Sales is stuck in a lift with me, and we are both wearing those elf hats.

The non-fiction complements to Tim Maghaun's story are worth reading. "Yiwu: the Chinese city where Christmas is made and sold." "The invisible network that keeps the world running."


Cecily Kane's blog post "The Drama Around" seems to me to contain some very smart, clear and constructive thinking about identity politics in short fiction. It opens up questions about tensions among the diverse hopes and aspirations of diverse fiction, particularly in the context of prizes.


Who called it the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer rather than the Noobula?

Friday, February 20, 2015


Among this year's Nebula nominees, I was happy to see Alyssa Wong's "The Fisher Queen." I kind of feel like we've reached peak mythology reworking, so I was surprised to discover how easily that story drew me in and started swinging me around.
... Most of the mermaids tangled in the nets are pale, with silvery tails and lithe bodies. This one is dark brown, its lower body thick, blobby, and inelegant, tapering to a blunt point instead of a single fin. Its entire body is glazed with a slimy coating, covered in spines and frondlike appendages. Rounded, skeletal pods hang from its waist, each about the size of an infant ...
One of the things I like about the story is its origin story:
I wrote “The Fisher Queen” as a wedding present for my friend, Katie. Since her favorite fairytale is “The Little Mermaid,” I really wanted to write her a mermaid story.