Blank Like Me
(Angry Robot, 2010)
For a white South African novelist to not explicitly mention race, yet at the same time make it utterly central to her work, is not exactly unheard of (see J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace); but in Moxyland, Lauren Beukes bleeds her characters of color as effectively as the smear masks they wear for anonymity, not for simple provocation, but to warn of the self-replicating nature of segregation.
Set in a corporate-dystopic vision of Capetown, Moxyland is relayed in the present tense by four narrators; all are young, bleeding edge, deeply selfish. To this American reviewer, their names are race-neutral: Kendra, Toby, Lerato, and Tenedka, and none are ever described by their skin tone. Over 200 pages into the American paperback, Lerato attends a traditional “meaningless memorial” which gives some insight into her roots. At four pages long, however, the scene becomes a distraction from the thrust of the novel which is, roughly, driven by five of what Rudy Rucker calls SF “power chords” (“the equivalent of heavy musical riffs people instantly respond to…”): nanotechnology, constant mediation, virtual reality, corporate espionage, and art-school provocation / terrorism.
Kendra is an unknown photographer who agrees, in the dregs of a pathetic relationship, to be injected with experimental nanotech which both enhances her physically and gets her addicted to a soft drink called Ghost. Toby records his degenerate nightlife and micro-fame attempts on his BabyStrange coat and dabbles in immersive V.R. programs (including the titular Moxyland, which features “little blobby monsters” that occasionally brutalize him). Lerato works in the Communiqué section of one of the many corporations which are just as dominant as the state, if not more so; unhappy with the rate of her ascension, she looks to defect to another corporation—a delicate, dangerous offense. Tenedka is a community activist, graduating from Situationist-style pranks to violent terrorism at the behest of an unknown avatar named skyward*, who seems to represent “serious” people. All are intimately connected through a highly-believable yet difficult-to-track series of collisions.
But most important is the world they live in: there are those who work for corporations—and lead plush, or at least comfortable lives—and those left out in the cold, where, at any sign of disturbance, the cops can “defuse” their phones, delivering a high-level shock to their flesh and temporarily wiping out their IDs and access to currency, which effectively renders them invisible. And if that doesn’t work, there are always the nano-modified attack dogs known as Aitos.
This is Beukes’s major power chord, delivering her intent and attack; when she strays from it, she loses focus, fading into tepid social criticism. Tendeka’s crew rips apart a flesh-and-speakers piece of controversial art which reeks of Ballard-lite; gallery patrons are sent up as hypocritical snobs. Tenedka himself, the firebrand revolutionary, has a wealthy background he can retreat to; Lerato, the most vicious of the corporati, is an AIDSbaby orphan, raised by the state. Toby, rich, arrogant, and mostly useless, is supported by his rich “motherbitch.” These easy stereotypes and obvious reversals are held in check by Beukes’s amphetamine pace, cutting humor, and nervy situations, culminating in a train station riot and its subsequent, horrific fallout. Few end their entertainments so cold-bloodedly and so well.
While clearly in debt to William Gibson and other nascent cyberpunks of the ’80s in the creation of her own private corporate dystopia, Beukes’s offering is so fresh and terrifying because it repurposes South Africa’s decommissioned policy of apartheid for a new century of “Truth and Reconciliation.” The racial divisions have passed, but their fundamental logic has stuck. There are still citizens and noncitizens. Only now, your status has nothing to do with your skin color, but everything to do with where your allegiance lies.