Monday, 12 September 2011

Thoughts on Zoo City

It almost feels redundant writing anything about a book that has already won the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award, not to mention one of the coveted tentacles from the Kitschies. Instead I’ll compare it to two other novels that I’ve enjoyed, ones that sprang to mind as I turned the pages of Beukes compelling second novel.

The thing that struck me most about this story was how it resonated with Tim Powers’s Last Call and William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Not obvious bedfellows I grant you. Allow me to (attempt to) explain.

Gibson’s short, clear and confrontational prose owes much to the Noir tradition (of which I’m still woefully unread). So it goes with Zoo City. Zinzi December is straight talking ex-journalist and recovering addict. It only goes to serve the novel that prose is unvarnished and heavy-hitting. This isn’t to say Beukes’s sentences and paragraphs are rough and unfinished, instead that they convey a world where the veneer of social pleasantry has peeled back, or burst altogether, like a weeping blister.

Another point Zoo City shares with Neuromancer is that both deal with people living at the extreme fringes of society, making ends meet where ever they can, but frequently falling foul of the law and a system that no longer cares for them, something of a perennial topic this decade. Zinzi is under no illusion that she’s circling the bottom, but there’s a fighter’s spirit in both her dialogue and the prose of the novel. Note also how Zoo City is written in the first person, another nod to noir (or Hardboiled) detectives of the 30s and 40s.

<Spoiler Warning>
Tim Power’s novel Last Call is a desolate road trip through the heart of an occult America, where a powerful individual challenges poker players to a game called Assumption. I felt there was an element of this character in Beukes’s character Odi Huron, who employs the protagonist, Zinzi, to find a missing person. Huron is a powerful music mogul with a shadowy past and it comes as no surprise to discover he is much more than he seems.

Much of Zoo City is concerned with the animalled population (those with familiars) who have mashavi (supernatural gifts) and how they use these powers in the real world. This too made me think of Last Call, where the normal world is subtly subverted to allow for magical to seep in, but is still firmly attached to technology and the trappings of contemporary living. What Beukes does so masterfully is create a mid noughties world where people with familiars are now a new underclass, not readily accepted socially, but impossible to ignore.

I’d recommend all of these books if your ‘to read’ pile is looking a little low. Gibson and Powers are well worth discovering, and Beukes has already marked herself as one to watch in a genre that is crying out for fresh, female blood (and not in a Stephanie Meyers way I hasten to add).

As an aside, Zoo City scores bonus points for having a female, black lead in a genre that declares itself progressive but clings to white male, protagonists with conservative tenacity. Zinzi never once flounders around after her love interest, navel gazes about her situation or needs rescuing. She’s fully formed, hard as nails, jaded and fallible. That she’s also a smart cookie with a cunning and devious mind only makes her more likable as a protagonist.

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