It was a brisk autumn afternoon in the grungy backstreets of Johannesburg. Moving in fits and starts, a draft manuscript of Charles Stross’ latest Laundry Files novel danced along the pavement, buffeted by the wind. The margins full of notes, he was undecided how heavy to lay on the tech and magic. Should I go all out, from www brain implants to wizards, or keep things relaxed, just a little social media and a touch of voodoo? At the same time and place, Philip Pullman, pique on his tongue and time to kill, was looking for a place to relax into a pint or two. But just as he spied a promising pub, the draft manuscript whipped up and slapped him in the face. Peeling the papers away and holding them at arm’s length, he entered and sat down, ordered a glass of bitter, and took a look at what fate had sent his way. Immediately intrigued, he didn’t notice when the beer arrived. So absorbed, in fact, he began scribbling his own notes—character needs animal familiar,a strong, toothy one—but which? Crocodile? Alligator?... And this one? Mongoose? Sloth? Pullman so deep in concentration, it took the man sitting at a nearby table several tries to get his attention. “Hi, my name is Bill Gibson. Looks like you’ve got some run ons, hanging clauses, and more than a few over-indulgent metaphors there. Let me see if I can’t help you tighten up that story a little—give it an edge you can cut with, you know?” The rest, as they say, is Lauren Beukes’ 2010 Zoo City.
The above introduction would seem to render Zoo City imitative rather than original. That was only half the intention. By setting her story in a fully realized, near-future version of Johannesburg, giving her main characters singular voices, and having her own thematic aims, Beukes transforms the tropes and styles of Stross, Pullman, and Gibson into a combination of her own making. The influences are readily apparent, but the creation is of its own design—at least mostly.
Zinzi December is a former journalist, former drug addict, former inmate, now entrepreneur, trying to squeeze a living out of said grungier side of Johannesburg. Her animal familiar a sloth, the two survive by running email scams and finding things—the latter a magical talent Zinzi has for locating objects people have misplaced or forgotten where they left them. Her remit including lost persons, in the early going Zinzi is contracted to locate the missing half of a set of twins who are part of the recent pop sensation, iJuci. Using her journalism skills, Zinzi sets about organizing interviews and tracking down clues, all the while trying to straighten out a personal life in tatters from earlier life choices. At first seeming a straight forward seek-and-find, the deeper Zinzi gets into the search, however, the more threadbare her hold on reality becomes.
Written in tight, cutting prose, Beukes does indeed evoke William Gibson, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Pat Cadigan, and other modern stylists whose visions are vividly realized on the page through acute prose. As a whole, the novel finds a midpoint between Gibson’s scalpel and the tech zealousness of Stross. Numerous are the occasions in exposition and dialogue that provide that certain writer-ly touch that go far in a reader building trust in the writer. Zoo City’s details concrete and edged, Zinzi’s Johannesburg comes to life beneath Beukes’ keen pen.
But that South African culture is brought out via character is perhaps how Zoo City earns its accolades. Zinzi’s contract requiring her to interview a substantial number of people from various corners and niches of society, Beukes takes full advantage of these conversations to draw out not only clues and hints for the missing person, but also to divulge poignant details of Johannesburg and Africa beyond. While on one hand it is a contrived narrative technique, on the other, the manner in which Beukes handles it is so culturally and socially engaging that one forgets to fault her for simple tactics.
With echoes of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, Zinzi’s story is interrupted at intervals with excerpts from modern media. Featuring book and film reviews (including the comments section) and social media (like MyFace and Spacebook—sorry), it also assays video games, ring tones, newspaper articles, and other ways and means of social and technical interaction. Never applied in ‘internet puppy’ fashion (i.e. Stross) Beukes displays a subtler imagination (the band names are great) while showing real insight into humanity’s social side—the icing on the cake the manner in which these excerpts complement Zinzi’s lifestyle and Johannesburg as a whole.
But Zoo City, for as wonderful the setting and characters are presented, combines plot devices in a manner that, though it may be just a pet peeve of mine, remains a juxtaposition to be reckoned with.
Beukes’ descriptions of place, technology, social system, etc. do a wonderful job of concretizing the setting. Though near-future, the Johannesburg she imagines feels like a real place, the details tight and gritty. But into this tangible setting are introduced two intangible elements of fantasy: the animal familiars and the magical talents of some of the characters, e.g. Zinzi’s finding ability. Though it’s obvious for the majority of the novel the familiars are intended to inform character rather than plot, and thus are relatively unobtrusive, with plot train pulling into climax station the animals are utilized in a fashion that doesn’t entirely cohere with the manner in which they’d been employed to that point. Beyond disrupting the mood, they likewise fly in the face of the reality the setting had been endowed with; Johannesburg loses its grittiness.
And the same must be said of the magic. Magic without limits creates a story without limits, but when part of a story’s aim is relevancy, you need limits. As it stands, the text begs questions like: if Zinzi has the magic of finding, why doesn’t someone else have the magic of invisibility, and if someone can have either magic, why can’t the antagonist have the magic of impermanence and simply vanish—all questions that have no place in Beuke’s overall import. Introducing unregulated fantastical elements into a setting that is obviously intended as real destabilizes the integrity of the overriding story. Beukes’ intents remain clear, but coherence takes a hit given the dependency on a plot element which the author can use to contrive at will.
Cyberpunk and magic are tough to mix, and as a result Zoo City lacks synergy. This fact is particularly evident in the indulgent ending that muddles the proceedings a la Laundry Files. In short it converts what had been a poignant look at the backstreets of Johannesburg (Benoit’s story was particularly affecting) into a cheesy genre serial killer beast story. From a storytelling perspective it is thrilling and exciting, but from a thematic perspective is not only distracting, but counter-active. Fracturing the concrete vision of South Africa Beukes created and undermining the material interaction Zinzi has with the world, the fantastical elements detract from rather than add to the narrative.
Despite the muddled usage of the speculative elements, Zoo City remains an intriguing work of science fantasy for its portions reflecting on present day concerns. Particularly South African, the novel realizes a superb vision of near future Johannesburg via a wide selection of characters idiosyncratic to the region and its issues. Though the fantastical elements detract from the realism/relevancy of the vision, Beukes’ intents—character study amid socio-cultural commentary and presentation—remain clear. Written in smart, sharp prose, one hopes Beukes continues to write in the genre but eschews the pointlessness of any such Laundry Files milieu.