sff she-read #2: ZOO CITY, by Lauren Beukes
“Think of it as my mascot. Let’s say you have some lucky rabbit’s foot. I have my Penguin. You keep your rabbit’s foot safe in your pocket. I keep my Penguin safe in customised body armour.” — Dehqan Baiyat
Fun fact about Lauren Beukes: Her last name apparently has two syllables, “byoo-kəs.” I learned this from her Writing Excuses appearance, so it’s dimly possible that non-Mormons will pronounce it differently. But she didn’t correct the Mormons. So I suspect it’s right, and that the Mormons were speaking our language all along.
Fun fact #2: She is in fact a white South African, not a black American. Presumably the fact that I assumed the latter based on the cover of ZOO CITY says more about me than it does about her.
Anyway, I sort of hesitate to put the above as the flagship quote for ZOO CITY, because I don’t want to suggest that only appreciators of Warren Ellisoid humor will appreciate the book. But it does highlight one of the cool things about Beukes, which is that she knows her big magical conceit — namely, and I think I give little away by this, y’know, look at the cover, but OK, SPOILERS, that people who commit crimes (loosely defined) are burdened and marked by mysterious animal companions, usually accompanied by a vaguely Xanthian magic talent — has room for humor. Hence, a film-school dropout turned terrorist with a Penguin (animal companions are never named but always capitalized) in customized body armor. Who is pretty much in there just for color. I like that kind of color.
Beukes is content not to get too wonky about the metaphysics of aposymbiosis (or “animalling”), and the alternate early-twenty-first-century milieu makes that plausible; they’re figuring out the limiting conditions on aposymbiosis much as we’re still figuring out AIDS and cancer. But, of course, you sort of know that the plot simmering behind the disappearance of one half of a hit pop duo is going to have to involve animals somehow. And it does.
And I’m realizing that, although I liked ZOO CITY considerably better than ALL THE WINDWRACKED STARS (and also better than the recent installments by George R. R. Martin and Pat Rothfuss, which is just to say that I’m not merely saying Beukes is good for a girl), my impressions are qualitatively similar in the end. Really cool animating conceit; really good worldbuilding, better than ATWS; spots of really beautiful (or brutal), poetic writing and imagery, and a first-person voice that pulls you along; but something of a mismatch between the rather intricate plot dynamics and the canvas on which they take place — in part, again, because the way animalling works isn’t well-specified enough that you can work out what’s going to happen (or, if you’re bad at prognosticating like I am, look back and say “I can see where that came from”). You can get a lot of it, in fairness — the source of Zinzi’s mysterious emails, the reason for Odi’s reclusiveness, probably even the nature of Maltese and Marabou’s magic talents. But the basic reason all this stuff is happening hinges on a magical wrinkle that isn’t ever (I think) foreshadowed.
Maybe this is a little bit necessary, I don’t know. I’ve been going back to the example of JHEREG that I made in my post on ALL THE WINDWRACKED STARS, and I have to admit (SPOILERS for JHEREG, the book was written in 1980, deal) that there is one vaguely deus-ex element in that equation, and that’s Pathfinder. Without Pathfinder’s ability to protect Aliera’s soul from the Morganti weapon planted on Laris, Vlad’s solution falls apart, and I don’t think that ability was well foreshadowed in JHEREG. It feels less deus-ex in the context of the later books, where it’s clear that all Great Weapons have this property (not just the one Aliera happened to own) and where, whatever the initial reason for them, in general all the things Brust did in JHEREG are pretty smoothly integrated into a not completely specified but very coherent and compelling cosmology. But I digress.
The other thing that didn’t quite work for me in the climax of ZOO CITY was the sudden explosion of brutality. We’re not quite in “everybody dies” territory, but there is a lot of gruesome maiming and death of named characters in a very short interval. This is not necessarily untenable on its own; the Red Wedding in A STORM OF SWORDS is a great example of pulling it off very well. I think it ties into the issue of motivation. The motives behind the Red Wedding are absolutely clear; the reason it’s such a coup is not that it’s brutal, but that it’s a very smart move that’s perfectly in character for the plotters. In ZOO CITY, you don’t get the same satisfaction from the climax, because it isn’t as well motivated either by character or by (anything you could reasonably know about) circumstance.
It’s occurred to me that you might very reasonably discount my opinion on the climax because, well, I’m not African. Beukes’ Johannesburg is presented pretty even-handedly as an early-twenty-first-century city; the animalled live in the crappy parts, so that’s where we dwell, but there are nice parts, and the overall impression is not post-apocalyptic or anything. But, for all that, we are not spared the horrors happening in more northerly parts of Africa — they come mostly through the history of one character, and don’t figure at all in the main plot, but they do serve as reminder that even civilized Jo’burg is much closer to and more inflected by all of this than, say, Detroit would be. (Somewhat weirdly, goings-on in the Congo and Rwanda are much more salient in ZOO CITY than South Africa’s history of apartheid; in fact, Beukes makes what I imagine to be the conscious choice to use “black” and “white” very sparingly as descriptors of characters, although you can figure most of them out. I don’t know if this is a flaw, it’s just a little odd. Maybe this is an American obsession with race coming to the fore? Maybe American reviewers don’t really have the moral standing to get snotty about other countries with histories of apartheid? All very real possibilities.) Anyway, the point of all this is that a sudden explosion of brutality for no especially comprehensible reason, with gratuitous casualties and no particular aesthetic payoff (not that it isn’t well written — what I mean is there’s no awful moment of, I don’t know, call it coalescence, a la the Red Wedding, where suddenly find yourself watching the last fibers give way in the guillotine’s rope), may have more of a place in an African journalist’s world view than it does in that of, say, a guy who’s lived in affluent suburbs of the northeast US and studied or worked at well-heeled private universities literally his entire adult life. This is not especially to reverse my judgment on the climax — I still feel like there was something missing. But I’m prepared to concede regional differences.
Anyway. This is my version of a four-star review, maybe four and a half. I will definitely pick up MOXYLAND, hopefully sometime in 2012, and will eagerly await whatever Lauren Beukes writes next.