Angry Robot paperback �7.99
review by Jonathan McCalmont
"All right Mr DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up," cooed Gloria Swanson at the end of Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950), as the last
fragments of her sanity dried up and blew away at the prospect of returning to the screen. An ageing beauty still convinced that she is loved,
still convinced that she has it, and still convinced that the world remembers her...
There is something of the Gloria Swansons about contemporary science fiction's obsession with cyberpunk. Nearly 30 years after William Gibson
published his The Gernsback Continuum, and over 25 years since Neuromancer (1984) won the Hugo and Nebula double, SF is still
returning to those dirty streets with their oppressive corporate presence and their throngs of technologically hip outcasts. SF still thinks
that it is cool. SF still thinks that it is glamorous. SF still thinks it is relevant.
Why else would people still be publishing novels like
Rainbows End (2006), or Halting State (2007), or
Little Brother (2008), or
River Of Gods (2004), or
Pashazade (2001), or The Windup Girl (2009)? Like elves and dwarves or rocket-ships
and monsters, the basic building blocks of cyberpunk are now part of science fiction's DNA. When it comes to writing about the near future, SF
authors cannot help but return to the iconography of cyberpunk. To that vision of individuals as technologically hip outsiders trapped between
a life on the streets and a life in the rat race.
Some have argued that cyberpunk is to the 20th century American empire what cosy catastrophism was to the British Empire: an expression of a future
profoundly broken; a future of lost promise, of dark days ahead, and of pre-millenarian tension. That is certainly one way of looking at the original
works of cyberpunk, their plagiarists and the works of post-cyberpunk that came after them. But another way of looking at cyberpunk is through the
lens of class.
Gibson and his ilk embody the plight of the post-World War II intellectual. Educated, middle-class, vaguely bohemian and vaguely politicised they
knew enough to realise that they will never completely fit into the class system as it was then. Sure, they might take day-jobs but they were never
likely to be happy fitting in to that great button-down grey world of career, family and consumerism. This is why corporations loom so large in
cyberpunk literature. They are 'other'...
Maybe they take the form of the vast post-industrial Japanese arcologies of Neuromancer. Or maybe they are the psychotic legal entities
stripped of human personnel and allowed to tear up humanity's first attempt at the singularity as in Stross' Accelerando (2005). Either
way, their depictions scream out, in the cyberpunky parlance of our times, 'do not want'. But what else are nice middle-class kids to do if they
are not going to fit in?
Well they cannot live on the streets. Nor can they live by the sweat of their brows. Maybe they can live by their wits, and by their ideas...
It is no accident that one of cyberpunk's most enduring images is cyberspace: a universe of pure ideas stripped of physical being. The archetypal
cyberpunk protagonist is a Mary Sue for the archetypal cyberpunk author: a clever and cool guy who is forever trapped between the horror of middle-class
conformity and the impossibility of joining the working-classes. Cyberpunk is not a literature of technology or social change. It is a literature
of class anxiety.
But then things started to change. The fates had listened to the cyberpunks and the real world started to buy into their millenarianism. Computers
became big business. Job security went out the window. Culture fragmented leaving the middle-class with no party line to toe. The economy opened
up opportunities for real-life cyberpunks. Fortunes were made. Kudos was accumulated. Books were written.
Novels such as Stephenson's Cryptonomicon (1999), and Gibson's Spook Country (2007), represent the changing economic realities that
cyberpunk failed to keep up with. Where once cyberpunk protagonists were outsiders and rebels, now they were programmers working for hi-tech
start-ups and lifestyle journalists interviewing the latest hip young thing for a fictional analogue of Wired magazine. The literature
that once communicated a sense of estrangement from one's own social class was now a smugly aspirational riff upon the values of the contemporary
Nowhere is this trend better expressed than in Doctorow's Little Brother: a Triumph Of The Will for Wired readers. A novel
animated by the feeling that it is okay for the government to crack down on brown people but they should leave the white middle-class kids alone.
For Doctorow, the state and the corporations are the same: they use things like DRM and the Patriot Act to deny the children of the middle-class
their god-given right to the trappings of the kind of regimented, conformist and consumeristic lifestyles that once so repulsed and alienated the
original cyberpunks. The literature of status anxiety reborn as the literature of class entitlement...
Of course, some authors have been wise enough to sense the shifting winds of politics and economics. To realise that yesterday's nerdy outcasts
are today's iPhone-sporting elites, and so they moved the action out of the west and into the emerging economies of the old third world. A third
world which, under pressure from the World Bank, is trying to replicate the economic 'miracle' of Thatcherism and the ensuing emergence of a vast
and over-educated non-professional middle-class.
In Jon Courtenay-Grimwood's Arabesque series Reaganomics come to a fictional Ottoman empire. In Ian McDonald's River Of Gods, and
Brasyl (2007), the cyberpunks come to a fragmented India and a sunny,
sexually-liberated Brazil. Lauren Beukes' first novel Moxyland is very much a product of these twin traditions of cyberpunk writing: it
is set in South Africa ten years hence, it features tech-savvy outsiders living on the borders of an oppressive corporate culture, and its
protagonists are all solidly middle-class.
Given the grand evolutionary pattern of the cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk sub-genres, it is tempting to write Moxyland off as an unadventurous
work of genre, a book that happily toes the party line and which refuses to do anything different. But to reach that conclusion would be to ignore
Moxyland's greatest achievement: its savagely cynical tone. Moxyland's protagonists are spectacularly unsympathetic.
Kendra is a photographer. Well... I say 'photographer' but, in reality, she's a pretty girl who lives off of a much wealthier and older man while
trying to convince people that using film to take photos is sufficiently 'out there' to make her an artist. Oh, and she has just agreed to be
injected with nanobots that will make her addicted to a soft-drink in return for unspecified physical benefits.
Toby is a swaggering pustulating anus. Born to hugely wealthy parents he is nominally a student but, in reality, he spends all of his money on
drugs, girls, expensive clothes and the technology required to keep his hilariously inane blog/ podcast/ livestream 'Diary of Cunt' on the air.
Tendeka is a nice middle-class lad who is convinced that he is Che Guevara. He spends his days in a local football club where he helps poor kids
by denying them corporate sponsorship money on the grounds of ethical purity and lambasting them for their failure to help him live out his pathetic
anti-corporate fantasies through the medium of petty and pointless vandalism.
Lerato is a high-flying corporate programmer who was brought up in an AIDS orphanage turned corporate workhouse. She lives a life of luxury on
the company dime while openly loathing the mindless sheep she works with. In her spare time, to prove that she's not just a corporate stooge,
she hacks for Toby and Tendeka.
Together, these eternally adolescent twenty-somethings give us a snapshot of a future South Africa filled with the kinds of 'radical individuals'
that can only express themselves fully through empty consumerism and directionless impotent rage. They are a generation of young people who have
internalised the social iconography of technological alienation without actually being alienated at all. Indeed, one thing that the novel makes
abundantly clear is that the corporate forces that govern future South Africa are quite happy with the niches these people inhabit.
They are cogs in the grand machinery of the corporate state: Toby is a useful trend-spotter, Kendra is an advertising billboard, Lerato's illicit
activities make her due a promotion, and Tendeka's social activities and insurrectionism provide either good PR opportunities or excuses for
cracking down on people who stray too far from the path. The assimilation of these characters to the corporate over-culture is so complete that
they are mostly kept in line by the threat of 'disconnect' - having their cell-phones cut off.
Indeed, one of the more interesting aspects of Moxyland is the way that it refuses to follow the recent trend of exoticising cyberpunk.
The novel is ostensibly set in South Africa but aside from a few 'ethnic' names, it could be set pretty much anywhere. The book's characters
occupy the generic landscape of cyberpunk. Their attachment to the culture spoon-fed them by the corporations and the internet is only matched
by the extent to which they are disconnected from their own native culture and identity.
Moxyland functions best if seen as a form of social satire similar to Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris' TV series Nathan Barley
(2005), or Mark Wernham's Martin Martin's On The Other Side (2008), in that
it deconstructs the myth of the cool outsider by reducing its characters to the status of victims. Ignorant playthings of institutions and actors
further ahead of the curve than they are. Indeed, one of Moxyland's recurring motifs is that of an evolutionary arms race, the constant
battle to act and react to the environment and other species in order to keep one's position in the food chain. The motif first appears when
Kendra is injected with the nanobots:
"Just my immune system kicking into overdrive to war with the nanotech invasion. But it's only temporary. People adapt. Evolve. It's all in
the manual, although I haven't read all the fineline. Who does?" [page 14]
This is a person who has just agreed to have her DNA altered by a corporation scientist known only as 'Dr Precious'. She has been injected with
nanotechnology and yet she did not bother to read the fine print of her agreement. She did not bother to find out all the details of what was
going to happen to her. This lack of awareness is also apparent when Tendeka starts vandalising the city's video billboards:
"They keep upgrading the security. It's like a game. We make a move, they up the stakes. Used to be any kid with a decent connect and junior
school programming could do this - hack the central server, fuck up all the adboards, and replace the video with your own stuff." [page
Tendeka sees his anti-corporate activities as just a game. He does not understand the stakes and he does not truly understand his position in
the cultural food chain. Moxyland returns repeatedly to this evolutionary motif in order to make a point about individualism and dissent:
it is not easy to be a genuine outsider.
The hippies that inspired Gibson and the punks that gave our subgenre its name provided us with templates for individualism: easy, off-the-shelf
identities that were tried and tested in the field. By dying your hair green or going all environmental you could be different to the conformists
out there... but not so different that people thought you were insane and you wound up living all on your own. However, as these cultural niches
opened up, the corporations saw the opportunity to sell things.
Dissent was swiftly commoditised; innocent smoothies for the hippies, Avril Lavigne for the punks. The trappings of alternative culture were
assimilated and turned into tools for selling things. In order to stay 'alternative', people had to react. To push the cultural boat out that
little bit further. To become a little bit more different. But with each change made by a new generation of teenagers, the advertisers and
recruiters changed with them.
It is an evolutionary process. Change... Adapt... Change... Adapt... Books like Little Brother and
Cryptonomicon demonstrate that what was once the reserve of the alienated outsider is now part of the bourgeois mainstream. This is the
process that ultimately consumes the characters in Moxyland: there is always someone further ahead of the curve than they are and, in
this case, it is the corporations.
The characters' integration into the system means that they have no independent moral compass. They have no vocabulary through which to conceive,
let alone express a genuine act of rebellion. This means that when the characters are eventually forced to act against their corporate oppressors,
their activities are either indistinguishable from rubbish publicity stunts or they are little more than the quests that make up your average
massively multiplayer online RPG.
"The big guy in front yells. 'Death to corporate art!' and Emily, the woman who dissed my work, laughs scornfully and really loudly. 'Oh god!
Performance art. How Gauche." [page 176]
"And I finally twig why it's so packjammed down here. The protest. Great fucking timing, although maybe that's the point - to make it more
challenging." [page 207]
The simple joy of Moxyland is that it does not let up on its characters. From the very second that Beukes introduces her cast, she is
making them look foolish and unsympathetic. The plot plays out as a huge conspiracy to reveal the book's characters as the self-serving and
self-deluded little toss-pots they undeniably are. By the end of the book you will be smiling grimly as some die, some become addicted to fizzy
pop and others get rewarded by their corporate masters for their acts of 'rebellion'.
Moxyland is a viciously cynical read. It is the first nail in the coffin of cyberpunk, sealing in the bloated and malodorous corpse of
yesterday's individualistic and non-conformist fantasies. Moxyland is a wake-up call to a generation of science fiction writers that have
been slumbering for far too long: if you want to write about the future then you cannot do so on terms that were set nearly 30 years ago: just
as the mainstream of culture has evolved, so too must the ways in which thinkers formulate their opposition to that mainstream. Yesterday's
outsiders are today's elites. Science fiction must realise this. It must find a new way of giving voice to our collective alienation. It must
evolve or die. It must stay ahead of the curve.