Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Lauren Beukes - Moxyland (2008)

"'What, like the kids' games? That Moxyland shit? Murder and mayhem. Training them to be savage, don't you think? It's not about making friends with kids all over the world, it's about getting ahead, getting one over.'
"'But don't you think it's appropriate? Considering.'"

'Moxyland' is a brutally cynical yet frighteningly believable look at state surveillance and viral marketing, and how digital technology's utopian potential can be co-opted by forces of social control. Set in a vividly realised near future Cape Town, and shot through with future slang, it follows its four young, frequently unsympathetic protagonists as they struggle to express their individuality in an increasingly corporate-sponsored world, and find out, in no certain terms, who really holds all the power. Lauren Beukes deftly evokes a dystopian near future, a divided society living in fear, still suffering from the after effects of apartheid. She uses her characters' differing backgrounds to explore the diversity of different peoples living in the city. Through the ambitions, fears, prejudices and viewpoints of her characters, Beukes expertly dissects the attitudes, disparities and jealously-guarded privileges that have shaped their society.
   The plot is kicked off when Kendra, an up and coming photographer, is injected with a nanobot tattoo by the makers of the soft drink Ghost as part of an underground marketing campaign. She soon finds herself caught up in the schemes of Toby, a smug, arrogant trust-funded blogger, Tendeka, a homosexual would-be revolutionary trying to balance his anti-corporate ethics with the need to secure funding for his programmes to improve the lives of Cape Town's streetkids, and Lerato, an AIDS orphan who has been put through education by corporate funding and now works for Communique in a high powered corporate position that she hopes to advance from by selling company secrets. As all four of them fight for their own autonomy against the government and corporate forces that control their lives, the full nature of that control is revealed, along with the awful trade-off that both the characters and their society has made of their rights for the illusion of comfort and safety.
   'Moxyland' presents a chilling portrait of a government which, hand in glove with the corporations that prop it up, has gone to war with its citizens in the name of protecting them. This is a government that uses the threat of terrorism to justify releasing bio-engineered Marburg virus on a subway full of people, that uses fake identities over the internet to lure would-be dissidents out of the woodwork, then uses those dissidents to justify greater power for itself. Beukes draws out the similarities between the totalitarian government and the corporations that prop it up; both are self-serving institutions that are nominally meant to have the interests of the people at heart, but both place their own bottom lines above human rights, and even human lives. The book is darkly cynical about the idea of any person maintaining their own agency in such an atmosphere. All of the characters believe they are acting in their own interests and to further their own agendas, but in the end all of them are revealed to have been manipulated by government and corporate forces to serve ends other than their own.
   Beukes asks some very interesting and pertinent questions about digital technology and internet culture, especially about their utopian intent verses their use as tools for government surveillance, corporate spying, and even the petty and vindictive use that people frequently put them to. The book takes its name from a children's game in the novel, a massive multiplayer online role playing game in which the rules are enforced by a cute monster character called Moxy. Tony plays it in order to earn some quick cash, and observes that the game doesn't encourage children from all over the world to play and interact with each other, but rewards those who form gangs and bully those weaker than them, which is cynically pointed out as being good practice for the real world. It's also echoed in what the government in the book is doing in its plan to entrap terrorists, hiding behind fake identities and sock puppets, the standard operating procedures of your standard internet troll, and it foreshadows Lerato's ultimate recruitment into the government's secret internet security force, after training in the playgrounds of petty corporate theft.
   It also goes some way to explaining the selfish, narcissistic outlook of the characters, who are very much products of their society. The characters are all compelling and well developed, and the book explores how their various flaws stem from the intersection of their personalities and their social positions. Lerato's ruthless ambition partially arises from her upbringing as an AIDS orphan with very little in the way of future prospects if she didn't get a very comparative corporate sponsorship. Tony is intelligent, witty and charming, but because he is a pampered, spoiled rich kid who has never had to do a day's work in his life, he is sickeningly self-obsessed and self-absorbed, with almost a sociopathic lack of empathy. His obsession with digital technology and live-blogging everything through the cameras in his jacket contrast him with the more down-to-earth Kendra, who has an abiding interest in analogue technology, reflecting her more grounded perspective before she is corrupted by selling her soul to a corporation. At the beginning, Tendeka does genuinely seem to care for the streetkids that he looks after, however his preciousness over his ideals, which lead to him not accepting corporate sponsorship for his streetkids project, winds up stopping him from helping them, unlike his lover Ashraf who is just as idealistic but a lot more practical. Tendeka has his family's money to fall back on, which allows him to be picky about where he gets his money from, but Ashfar, who comes from a poorer working class background, doesn't have that luxury, and realises the importance in actually getting the work done. Tendeka's own high ideals and his desperation ultimately make him an easy pawn for the government, and he winds up causing much more damage than he does helping people, despite his good intentions.
   'Moxyland' shows science fiction at its best, examining in unflinching detail our interface with technology and how this is changing both our society and ourselves. It does so with a diverse range of well-developed and believable characters, and with powerful, succinct prose. It ranks as one of the most disturbing and haunting dystopias in recent history. The end result is a stark warning that has only become more pertinent in the years since it was published.