Arts and Culture

Jo'burg during the fall

Chris Roper

The best science fiction writers are those who can make you part of an extended universe without resorting to that awful trick of the padded series.

The best science fiction writers are those who can make you part of an extended universe of ever-evolving but disparate books, without resorting to that awful trick of the padded series. If I see one more book entitled The Uggabugga Saga: Vol 94—The Caverns of Cliche, I’m transferring my allegiance to Mills & Boon. At least that’s honest writing.

All of which makes it important to cherish the considerable talent of Lauren Beukes. Here we have a writer who can construct a world that is impossibly futuristic, at the same time as being irrevocably, painfully now. Zoo City can be read as allegory or prophecy, as magical realism or grimy satire, as cyber-noir or cyber-smartie.

The cyber-smartie tag is a reference to the deconstructed fashion sense of the Soweto smarties, a trait shared by Zinzi December, Zoo City‘s cool, broken, sexily displaced lead protagonist. It’s the unthinking fashion to label as punk, with a qualifying adjective, any narrative that bends away from what’s considered mainstream, and that chucks in a couple of dirty urban metaphors. That would be doing a disservice to Zoo City. In the same way that democracy is a different construct in the Third World, so is this kind of science fiction a little different to its Western cousins.

To choose one example—the conceit of animals as symbiotic entities to humans is familiar from someone like Philip Pullman (name-checked in Zoo City). But whereas in Pullman’s His Dark Materials books, the animals are (roughly speaking) manifestations of people’s souls and characters, and embedded in a Western, Jungian framework, in Zoo City they’re a punishment for criminal deeds, and speak in complicated ways to animism and ancestor worship.

So Zinzi December’s constant companion is Sloth, and the two evil heavies are Marabou, a woman with a huge Stork hanging on her back, and Maltese, a man whose companion is “a Maltese Poodle dyed a ludicrous orange”. The most vivid scene in the book features an albino crocodile in a pool, but I won’t describe that any further. It’s one of those startling images that will remain with you, and you need to experience its shock at the end of the nicely paced narrative.

What’s Zoo City about? Phew. Neither pre- nor post-lapsarian, it’s about a Jo’burg that’s always already lapsing, into a state of chaotic dystrophy that its current-day denizens will find scarily familiar. The characters are beautifully sketched, and very Jo’burg.

If there is criticism to be levelled, it’s at the disjuncture between the first half of the book and the second. Page one is awkward (“morning has broken and there’s no picking up the pieces”), the last pages are accomplished, dramatic without unnecessary embellishment. But it’s a journey that’s as much about the slow revelation of Zinzi’s character, as it is about the evolution of a style palette.

Forget the quibbles, though. This is a fascinating book, and Beukes a fabulous writer. Fans of 21st century writing that’s as technologically connected as it is authentically fractured will devour Zoo City.

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