Fiction Reviews


(2008/9) Lauren Beukes, Angry Robot, 7.99, pbk, 314pp, ISBN 978-0-007-32389-0

Near-future, urban, hip, streetwise, and peopled with a set of young protagonists, Moxyland is a literate cartoon for the early 21st century, and the book comes out (coincidentally) within a year when the growing World's urban population first outnumbered the World's rural population. (That was 2009 in case you did not know.)

This offering comes from the new Harper Collins imprint Angry Robot (AR) that aims to cater for the younger (older teenage to twenties/young thirties something) readers who may not be being served by traditional SF/F publishing. Concatenation has had a couple of press releases from AR but nothing else, hence no review copies for its review team or catalogue for the forthcoming season's book release lists. So I guess perhaps Concatenation is too middle-of-the-road for AR: though we get plenty of Harper Collins, Voyager and other news. However I received Moxyland with the Odyssey 2010 British national convention cum Euroconference goody bag. (We got no souvenir programme book this year but a couple of Angry Robot novels instead, which was something, and it provided an opportunity to see recent AR offerings.) And so, dear internet surfer, you are able to see this review.

Moxyland first came out in South Africa in 2008, but was not released in Britain (or N. America) until 2009. Indeed, it is written by a South African and its story is set there. Having said that, it could really have been set in any major mega-city's rundown suburb that borders more affluent parts. It does not have one (or two) principal protagonist(s) but several, the only thing of which they all have in common is their young age and that they live in Cape Town, S. Africa (though as I indicated this really could be any megacity).

Kendra is struggling to become established as a photographer and lives with a far older boyfriend (as a resource more than love). Her artistic selling point is that she still uses old-fashioned chemical film rather than taking electronic, digital pictures. In part to help her career she agrees to be sponsored by a company to be injected with nano-bots. These begin to give here health benefits but also she finds herself increasingly addicted to a particular brand of soft drink.

Lerato is a budding software jockey who has managed to secure a junior corporation post. She also helps out with hacking for some of the subversive groups with which some of the other protagonists have links.

Tendeka involves himself with some community work, though harbours a fantasy that in another life he might have been Che Guevera.

Toby is a spoilt brat of rich folk whose principal motivation seems to be to promote his on-line 'Diary of C*nt', and this last itself neatly sums him up: he is immaturely obnoxious.

All these characters eventually interact as they each seek to fulfil their ambitions with each eventually confronting authority albeit in the end with very differing results.

The world of Moxyland is very personal-tech centred: you really cannot do anything without a mobile phone, which is both your communicator (both telecom and cyberspace) and also your ID. The corporates seem to run everything (including sponsoring graffiti) and life does (as ever) seem to be divided between the haves and have nots.

Moxyland has a 1984-ish cum Gibson cyberpunk-ish feel to it and as the narrative hops between the characters we increasingly get a feel for the near-future in which it is set. It is an unforgiving world in which the majority have to struggle to survive but in which there are are also darkly humorous elements to life. Notwithstanding Kendra's induced soft-drink addiction, the authorities are obliged to read out (so as to avoid treading on civil liberties) what and why they are going to do what it is they are about to do to control you and, in the course of the book (I will not spoil it), this includes deploying some extremely hostile biotech on crowds. This illustrates something about the book I said earlier, in that it is a 'cartoon' in the sense that cartoons visually distil messages down to their essence and then exaggerate characteristic features. Moxyland is very much a cartoon in that the future portrayed contains elements that we can recognise today, but they are simplistically exaggerated: Moxyland does this well!

Moxyland is a colourful assemblage of ideas that does work as a whole, lending much merit to this book, and so it may well be your cup of tea. If you do like thoughtful, street-wise cyberpunk peopled with a young cast then do check Moxyland out.

I have to say that for me personally, it did not push all my buttons the way I like, though there were a couple of enjoyable episodes. Most of the novel's ideas have been done before especially the 'big brother' type society iconically written back in 1948. Another example is the idea of 'blanks' (those stripped of ID and so are denied goods, transport, access to buildings etc) was also far better explored earlier, by Max Headroom a quarter of a century ago in the late 1980s. Also, what may (I fully admit) be a strength for some the use of hopping between multiple protagonists to explore a rich future was for me a bit of an effort: sorry, I like my explorations of rich portrayals to be more linear with a single (or at the very most a double) perspective. Keeping on track of who is doing what with and to whom in a complexly portrayed strange future takes a bit of effort and for that I do expect a solid return in the form of new concepts and/or sense-of-wonder if I am to put that effort in. Of course, as I said, this actually may be a plus for yourself especially for younger readers who may not have had the years of being steeped in the genre: this is not a huge criticism for there is nothing wrong in the genre renewing itself, just do not expect oldsters to get excited about the new packaging when they are already familiar with contents. (And neither think I am being critical of the young; be thankful you have more of your life ahead of you.) Also, for me, Moxyland is a depressing book in that none of the protagonists seemed able to surmount their own personal, petty agendas and address the bigger matters around them. This, again, is not a criticism of the book; I am just explaining why it was not a book for me. (For those of you who know me, my professional life has been involved in science and I have seen over the decades how it has been misrepresented and some of its spin-off technology misused as we slowly trash our planet. So Moxyland was personally more than a little depressing.)

Of course you are most certainly not me and I am sure that for many Moxyland will be fresh, hip (or whatever the in-word of the moment is), and invigorating. My advice: have a browse and see for yourself. For those who like this sort of thing it is a real treat.

Jonathan Cowie

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