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Two men and two women etched in gray-scale with a box containing a red X where their faces should be

Moxyland is a near-future science fiction story, set in South Africa. It follows the lives of four people: Kendra, a newly minted corporate sponsor; Toby, a narcissistic, privileged kid playing at independence who records his adventures on his BabyStrange coat; Tendaka, a small time, play-acting terrorist with big dreams and but small-time mentality; and Lerato, an AIDS baby who has climbed the corporate ladder with no qualms about stepping on people as she does but spends her free time hacking, undermining and sneaking around with Toby for thrills. Moxyland is the story of how their lives collide, intertwine, and eventually spin out of control.

I am going to share a very embarrassing story, because when I finished this book and went, "how ludicrous!" about some of the details, I immediately felt guilty and hypocritical.

When I was in junior high and the first years of high school, the big things were Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger apparel. It was status, plain and simple, and the rush of my peers and myself to acquire these clothes (with appropriate branding, meaning: glaringly obvious) looking back now is both silly and terrifying. We begged our parents for these shirts and jeans and sweatshirts with branding of these male fashion designers (which is an entirely different can of worms) in order to fit in, to look cool and to flaunt that we had money and therefore, some quality that would make us more appealing to know as people.

My contributions to this embarrassment were a $26 neon green Calvin Klein shirt with the initials in blue squares and "Calvin Klein" in small print underneath those, a $32 dollar gray Tommy Hilfiger shirt with his name emblazoned across my boobs, and a sweatshirt with the same, plus an messy rendition of the American flag that was at least $50. This money, now that I think about how far I could stretch it even today, makes me boggle. All for the honor of having status and wearing a man's name on my body — advertising his work for free to fit in and be a part of a culture.

I am glad to say I wore the ugly neon green shirt to tatters, the same with the Hilfiger tee, because they were clothes I was given and I wore them a long time instead of buying more or discarding them even long after the fad had passed. The sweatshirt was borrowed by a friend who never returned it (but in reality needed it more than me, given financial situation and winter). I never bought another piece of apparel by them; I moved on, horrifying enough, to JNCO jeans with their huge bell bottoms, one with a roadkill squirrel on it, but at least the brand name was often covered by my equally baggy shirts, as I sought to hide my body from judgmental teenagers because it didn't fit the right mold.

What does this story have to do this Moxyland? It's about branding, and social status, and wanting a certain lifestyle, however problematic the choices made to acquire it become. My story is vaguely harmless and non-technological, but if you spin out the scenario with anything else — technology, morals, politics, our bodies — it becomes a more problematic situation.

For the first half of this book I had absolutely no clue what was going on. We start with the centerpiece: Kendra, who is going in to be injected with the nanobots that will turn her into a walking billboard for a soda company while guaranteeing her perfect health but also an unquenchable desire to drink the product, aptly named Ghost. Her choice to do this and then to document the changes to her body on her camera are heart-breakingly sad. The move subsidizes her lifestyle as an art school dropout, allowing her to continuing working, even if she has to do it with her on-again, off-again loser boyfriend, ten years her senior. Her story connects us with all the rest: Toby, whose BabyStrange coat records his adventures for Diary of a Cunt, through him; Lerato, who indulges Toby's whims by playing chicken with her corporation and risking them finding out she's fooling around on them; and then Tendaka, who is being urged along on a path of petty vandalism and protest toward violent, ineffectual terrorism by a person we only know as skyward*. That handle becomes ironic later on.

These people seem, throughout the novel, thoroughly disillusioned with their lot. They all want more and better, some for less noble reasons and others because they feel the system is broken and there's nothing left to do about it but try to bring it down, but their efforts are at best lackluster and at worst, self-defeating and reminiscent of angry children who want the attention of a parent. The events keep building and unfolding in boggling patterns that seemingly make no sense until the final act, when things start dialing up, chapters get short, and the conclusion sucker-punches you in the face, lights you on fire and leaves you with the realization that all those safe sex lectures were not even joking one little bit.

There are a lot of sociopolitical commentaries happening in this novel that I am unable to grok for whatever reason — complex political situations and discussions are not my forte, and my knowledge of South Africa is nonexistent — but the side-effects of the government and corporate canoodling here made me pause. Our own phones as the future's version of social security cards? Our own phones as the means of governmental control? It sounds far fetched, but is it? The world as its presented here is a cacophony of social media melding with government and corporate influence. One thing I faced here: do you fear the government more or do you fear the corporations more? Where does one end and the other begin? Are they on the same side? It seemed so, but then I had my doubts. When the book had reached its mid-point I had utterly no clue which side I would choose, but by the end for me it became clear that the answer would inevitably have to be more complicated than merely choosing a side. These characters are catalysts of a culture war where there is potentially no "right" side amid the major players. They live in a future in which they and people like them have been manipulated by the corporations that are seemingly everywhere and by the lack of checks and balances that allow them to be. It's a world where "disconnect" means you effectively vanish from the grid, and are unable to exist in the world without dealing with the underbelly for survival. It's not a pretty world Beukes invites us to visit, and the people she introduces us to aren't going to be people who save it, either. This story is a blast of dirty realism of a potential future and there's little happiness to be found.

However, I appreciated the diversity of this cast: different genders, races, classes and sexualities are represented, as well as how each person navigates the complicated and frustrating social landscape. They are all deeply complicated and unhappy with the various ways corporations are integrated into society without really knowing why because it's all they've known; no part of any of their stories feel like a cheat once we reach the end. The story is tightly focused on how these people are complicit with regards to the events that unfold, and the story does this without making it about that diversity. It simply is.

This was a great story and really made me consider marketing and branding and advertisement — both of products by companies and us as individuals — in ways that creeped me the hell out. There's a lot to unpack here about technology and the way we use it. There's also the ways we become our own aggressors by allowing the governments and corporations meant to be serving us to use that technology for their own ends, to hurt, control, and herd us like animals while also stripping our rights to complain.

I liked it better than Snow Crash, she says idly, before she's eviscerated by the Internets.

Other Reviews:
A Fantastical Librarian, Susan Hated Literature, Val's Random Comments


Date: 2012-08-16 03:48 pm (UTC)
zachariah: (Default)
From: [personal profile] zachariah
Better than Snow Crash?! That's it, where's the unsubscribe button? :P

Date: 2014-01-12 07:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I think, in a way, that it had too much going on, which meant it took me a while to get into it. I think it is one that would reward a reread though. I think Beukes is one of those authors that I've added to my "always check out" list.

(I've never even read Snow Crash)


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