Author Lauren Beukes
Things You Might Like
- A new spin on an old idea
- Unfamiliar location
- Believably flawed central& supporting characters
- A SFworld where the characters don’t fully understand the world they inhabit
- The odd curiously formatted chapter
Things You Might Not Like
- Some slight overuse of obscure African slang
- Possibly too many supporting characters
- Action sequences are sometimes confusingly written
Lauren Beuke’s Zoo City is a deserving Sci-Fi novel that takes the worn premise of animal spirit guides and makes it new. Just watch out for the pseudo-Afrikaans lingo.
4 out of 5 Guilty Symbolic Animal Spirits
In an excellent exploration of an extremely unfamiliar scenario in a somewhat unfamiliar world. Lauren Beukes brings to life a science-fiction world that is uniquely African and highly worthy of her 2011 Arthur C Clarke award win.
Near-Future SF is often considered to be one of the hardest of the SF sub genres to work within. Tomorrow, next month, five years’ time—they’re all things we all can imagine, however distantly. So when someone comes along with a novel about that near future, painting a picture that looks so radically different to the one we imagine, it’s an incredible gamble. In Beukes’ case, it’s a gamble that pays off big time.
The book takes you to a significantly re-imagined Johannesburg, now better known as Zoo City, named so because most of South Africa’s population of “Zoos” live there. An underclass of offenders of a an egregious sin who receive a kind of magically symbiotic animal that lives alongside them. All we have in the way of explanation is that around the mid-2000s magic and mysticism became very real.
Zinzi December is a young Zoo carrying a sloth on her shoulder, living a down-and-out in Zoo City. There, not only does she eek out a living helping to run 419 email scams, she possesses the ability to find missing objects.. This ability propels the centrepiece of the plot, where Zinzi is approached by some shady clients of a record company mogul to locate a missing twin from a sensational Afro-pop duo.
What makes Zoo City great is tough to pinpoint. Perhaps it’s the location that feels very much like a breath of fresh air, compared to typcal Anglo-American fare.
Or perhaps it’s Zinzi herself, whose flaws make her extremely believable. You don’t root for her. Rather, you become entangled in her world, and desperately want to watch her tear her way out.
Then there are the supporting characters, all expertly described and fleshed out so that even the smallest don’t feel one-dimensional.
There are also the skilfully interwoven alternative style chapters, some of which are formatted to look like famous websites. Most significant of these is an Amazon review page of a documentary about the first well-known Zoo.
For my money though, what makes Zoo City so very compelling is the world Lauren Beukes has created. How it all works is never fully explained, just snippets and titbits here and there. When you start reading it, you quickly want to know more, but gradually, even though all your questions may not be fully answered, you’re not unsatisfied. It’s a curious sort of realism, where everything isn’t explained because the characters don’t know what’s happening themselves.
In a lot of SF, everyone around has an exceptionally clear understanding of everything they’re dealing with, and it all makes perfect sense. The same is not true in Beukes’s Johannesburg. While the characters aren’t stupid–they know a great deal–but they also know it’s far from everything.
In that respect, Beukes has created a world that’s very much like our own. While we may believe that we know a lot, we also admit that we don’t know everything, and every day we might only get a single pixel more of the bigger picture clearly resolved.
That said, there are a couple of issues: The biggest one being Beukes’ habit of using South African slang. It isn’t just different slang in English, its slang in another language.
There’s also the sheer number of supporting characters, the way they come in and out made it fairly difficult to keep track of them all. Finally, there’s the ending, which I’m not going to spoil it for anyone, but for me the actual writing of it felt less than well described. Events felt tough to track, and they were flying by at a dazzling speed.
Overall though, Zoo City is an excellent work. A beautifully and grittily imagined world that doesn’t know entirely what it’s about and how it works, and is all the more realistic for it.
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