by Lauren Beukes
The most frightening dystopias are the ones you live in. As scary as Unwind by Neal Shusterman is, and even as haunting as the story remains for me, I know that it takes place in a world after a second American civil war fought around one issue: abortion. I don’t see that happening in the immediate future. (You may disagree, of course!) Lois Lowry’s The Giver is a great story about a society that has become perfect, but it’s so alien that it doesn’t really cause me too much heartache. Ah, but then you come to George Orwell’s 1984. Now there’s a scary book: newspeak isn’t being handed down by the government, but so many seem to be moving to an overly-simplified vocabulary. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 similarly sparks my fear receptors: how many people have forgotten how to think because they’ve never learned to read?
If you like your dystopias frightfully real, read Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland. Most dystopias take place in the distant future after some sort of event that changes the world. Not here. It’s 2018 in South Africa. Everything happens through your phone. Your bank account is wired to your phone; if you want to pay for something, simply point your phone at it. Every building is wired for security that reads your SIM card. Don’t have your phone? You can’t get in – or out. Police msg warnings to your phone when you get out of line. If you persist, the cops “defuse” you – they release a strong electrical shock through your phone. The most extreme punishment is disconnect. No more phone. No more way to get into any building. Or pay for anything. Or ride public transportation. Or get paid.
Moxyland follows four characters through this incredibly real world. One is a corporati, trying to find ways to rise in the ranks. She is one of the privileged few. One is a rebel, trying to help street kids that can’t afford their own phones, and thus are non-entities. One is a societal leech, trying to get more viewers for his streamcast by any means possible – even if it means some corporate espionage. One is an artist, trying to find a way to live, and willing to even sell her body for corporate advertising. These four lives entwine in surprising ways as a group attempts a rebellion against the corporati, against the society that has grown up around the phones and the haves and have-nots.
The novel reminded me a lot of 1984 in its general lack of plot; the characters are very real and three-dimensional, but they’re not the star of this novel. The focus lands primarily on the messed-up world Beukes has invented. That’s not to say there isn’t plot; the characters are active and involved and the reader does grow to care for them, even the jerk that drives a chunk of the plot. However, like 1984, the plot is not the thing you’ll walk away remembering. The setting itself will haunt you. I will also warn: If you hated the end of 1984, you’ll likewise hate the ending of this novel.
This is not a pretty book. This is not a pretty world. It’s foul-mouthed, it’s frustrated, it’s dark. It’s also just a step away from today.