Every once in a while a novel comes along that’s touted as new, exciting, daring, meaningful, poignant, fresh, full of big ideas, etc. That’s what I’ve heard, so that’s what I was expecting and hoping for in Lauren Beukes’ novel Moxyland — especially since it has a nice blurb from William Gibson and has been compared to Neuromancer.
Moxyland takes place in a futuristic (2018) Cape Town, South Africa. The Cape Town setting is unique, and I was hoping to explore it a bit, but Beukes did not make use of her setting — Moxyland could have taken place anywhere. This Cape Town of the not-too-distant future is a police state run by big corporations where the police control people through government-approved cell phones. Software on the phones lets the police punish citizens by tasing them or cutting off access to their bank accounts and credit lines. In Cape Town, we meet four young adults:
Kendra is an art school dropout who has become an advertisement for a soft drink company. They pumped her up with biotechnology that makes her healthy and beautiful and gives her some of the attention she craves, but the biotech also makes its brand name glow through her skin and gives her a constant craving for their soda. Toby is a vlogger whose wealthy mother (“motherbitch”) has just cut him off because he spends all his money on drugs, girls, and expensive clothes. Eager for the website hits that prove people are paying attention to him, he spends his days walking around Cape Town looking for cool stuff to livestream to his vlog, “Diary of Cunt.” Lerato is an AIDS-baby who was raised in a corporate/government orphanage. She now works for them as a programmer, and she’s got an easy life in the posh corporate world, but she can’t quite manage to stay loyal to the corporation that’s given her everything she’s got. Tendeka wants to be a revolutionary, so he rallies kids, coerces them into not accepting government sponsorships, and uses them to commit useless acts of vandalism and civil disobedience. He manages to pull Toby, Lareto, and Kendra into his latest schemes against the Cape Town government.
These four young disillusioned people can’t manage to effectively change their world or their places in it. They have no noble ideology (beyond the vague feeling that things should just be “different” than they are), and the things they do just end up causing more harm than good. They are ineffective when they attempt to rage against the corporate machine because they are selfish and thoughtless and they refuse to give up what the corporation offers — technology, fashion, status, their favorite soda, and the feeling of being connected.
I like this idea, but I didn’t like Moxyland mostly for the simple reason that I despised every character in the book. Every single one of them was pathetic, hateful, nasty, rude, cynical, sarcastic, and said “fuck” nearly every time they opened their mouths. Not only did I dislike them and think they were pathetic — they all had these same feelings toward each other. They all irritated me and each other and it was pure misery to be around them.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? Lauren Beukes wanted me to dislike all her characters and was, therefore, successful in that aspect of her novel. Because they are such a loathsome bunch of people, I cannot sympathize with them. In fact, I start to root for the corporation instead. I think this is the message, the warning: If we buy into what the corporation is selling, we should expect to become pathetically horrid creatures who deserve to be at its mercy. I like this message, but I spent eight hours with my face contorted into a grimace of disgust and I wish I had that time back. Moxyland would have worked better for me if there had been just one character who was different and who I could like. Instead, they all felt like nearly the same nasty person to me. They all had the same voice.
I listened to Brilliance Audio’s version of Moxyland, narrated by New Zealand actor Nico Evers-Swindell, who’s just as nice to listen to as he is to look at, though he needs to work on making his female characters sound more feminine. Brilliance Audio, I’m glad to see that you’re producing Angry Robot titles, but next time would you please include a picture of Nico on the back of the CD box? You usually have a picture of the narrator but his face is missing from Moxyland, just like the faceless people in the cover art. That way, if I don’t like the story, at least I can entertain myself by looking at Nico. Thanks for listening.
Lauren Beukes is talented and I think she accomplished what she wanted to with Moxyland. I can’t really blame her for not writing it for me, and my 2.5 star rating reflects my lack of enjoyment of this novel and not Ms. Beukes’ promise as a new SF author. Therefore, I am definitely on board for the next Beukes novel. In fact, Zoo City is already in my TBR pile.