She only installed it this afternoon, snuck in undercover with security, so it's the first time I've seen it in the flesh. It's gruesome, red, and meaty, like something dead turned inside-out and mangled, half-collapsed in on itself with spines and ridges and fleshy strings and some kind of built-in speakers, which makes the name even more disturbing: Woof & Tweet.
I don't understand how it works, but it's to do with reverb and built-in resonator-speakers. It's culling sounds from around us, remixing ambient audio, conversations, footsteps, glasses clinking, rustling clothing, through the systems of its body, disjointed parts of it inflating, like it's breathing, spines quivering (166-7).
In the Cape Town of the near future, the lives of four twentysomethings—- an obnoxious, narcissistic blogger, a sponsor-augmented artist, an artistically-inclined activist, and a corporate hacker—- find their lives entwine as each faces the cheerfully oppressive powers-that-be. Lauren Beukes has positioned her brilliant first novel ten years or so in the future, somewhere between the real-world present and nearly any technologically-based dystopia you care to name. You'll recognize this world. Despite the presence of security forces with genetically-altered dogs, the most insidious forms of oppression are the ones the people welcome, because they're shiny and come with killer apps and we can no longer manage our lives without them.
Beukes has taken a hundred interesting ideas, about the politics of oppression and subversion, the pervasiveness of technology, the conflation of online and actual identities, and created a plausible future. She enters a space inhabited by people such as Robert Charles Wilson and William Gibson because she weaves these naturally into the story with minimal infodump and maximum concern for prose style and characterization.
The plot grows gradually and sinisterly--"like it's breathing"-- from the experiences of the four major characters and their associates. Toby, a trust-fund-baby blogger with little conscience and an inflated sense of himself, seeks the most interesting experiences and stories. He consequently dabbles with forbidden technology, the eponymous roleplaying game, and the anti-government artist/activist, Tendeka. Tendeka is a contradiction: an activist who requires corporate support, a paranoiac who trusts an unknown cyber-acquaintance. Kendra, an artist of a different sort, accepts sponsorship and personal augmentation-- in return, she's a walking advertisement and addict, beholden to a beverage called Ghost. All connect to Lerato, who works for a powerful corporation, but uses her knowledge and access to assist her friends. She has confidence she can keep her actions undetected and undetectable. All of these characters play games of duplicity and disguise, and therefore must be aware that circumstances may not be as they appear. And all have become addicts of a sort, dependents on technology and the systems that create and market it.
Beukes understands how to employ the edges of ideas; we're plunged into each character's reality with little more explanation that one would see in a conventional novel. The slang, the future tech, and the relationships must be gradually understood. A positive aspect of this novel, it nevertheless results in initial confusion that may dishearten some readers. The four narrative voices present additional problems. I'm certain I would know Toby's narration, even if it weren't identified, but I wish overall the voices had been further differentiated. However, I believed in the four protagonists and their worlds, and found the supporting characters drawn with brevity and clarity.
Certainly, we've seen many of this novel's core elements before. One might think of the cyberpunkers or Philip K. Dick, Charles Stross or early Stephenson. For me the novel most brings to mind Cory Doctorow's Little Brother and while it won't likely sell as many copies, it is technically better-written, with better-drawn characters-- and a far less optimistic conclusion. Beukes programs a unique reality from similar data. She worked twelve years as a journalist, and she has culled Moxyland from the stories around her, remixing post-Apartheid revelations, township interviews, privacy concerns, and covert corporate ad campaigns into a dark vision of the future. If astute readers may see where this is going, Beukes makes the journey worthwhile.
Author: Lauren Beukes
ISBN: 978-0-00-732389-0, 0007323891
First published: 2008 (South Africa, the United Kingdom).
2010 (United States of America).