Zoo City, Lauren Beukes. Angry Robot, December 2010, $8.99, ISBN 9780857660558.
Reviewed by Maya Chhabra.
Lauren Beukes brings to Zoo City the observant, cynical eye for the intersection of media, business, and pop culture that animated her debut, Moxyland, and pairs it with a funny, colloquial, and casually poetic first-person narrator and thriller pacing to take urban fantasy to the next level.
Zinzi December — brave, jaded, loving, irresponsible — grew up wealthy and had a promising journalistic career. Of magazine articles that offer “a better sex life, a better job, a better you,” she says, “Trust me, I used to write those articles. And just look at me now.” By the time we meet her, she’s out of jail and living in a Johannesburg slum, writing scam letters to cover her debts and using her magical talent for finding lost things to keep a roof over her head — and her sloth’s.
Because the world of Zoo City is not quite our own world, but one in which animals have recently begun bonding with criminals, giving them magic but also branding them as outcasts. While gradually offering hints about how Zinzi got her sloth, and how the “animalled” came to be, Beukes plausibly imagines a group that’s gained some legal recognition, but still faces overwhelming discrimination.
This fictional issue is only one of the threads Beukes effortlessly weaves into the plot. There’s also the very real discrimination faced by refugees in South Africa, the high crime rate that hits the poor hardest, a look at the consequences of addiction, scathing parodies of trashy journalism, and questions about the pressure on child stars. Yet Zoo City is never preachy. These problems form a natural background to Zinzi’s maturation.
Zinzi knows how to take care of herself. But over the course of the novel, she begins to feel responsible for others, specifically the runaway teen singer whom a creepy producer hires her to track down, and to re-evaluate her fraudulent activities. She’s also faced with heartbreak when her Congolese boyfriend receives some unexpected news from home, but her wrenching experiences lead her to become more dependable and less selfish.
Some of those wrenching experiences are pretty nasty indeed. The plot gets quite dark, and while the ending is more than hopeful, it’s frustrating that Zinzi can’t affect the outcome of the horrific climax despite her best efforts.
Zoo City stands out from a lot of SFF for its portrayal of technology, not at a futuristic or medieval level, but as it’s actually used today. Zinzi looks up medicines on her phone, and her boyfriend suggests using her small generator to start a phone-charging business. Online culture is also realistically integrated, from ephemeral memes to sadly perennial trolls. And the plot’s at its most harrowing when magic and computers come together.
Numerous, distracting formatting problems suggest that Angry Robot didn’t give Zoo City as much care as it deserved. But this irritant hardly detracts from the quality of this excellent book.
Also: “Cannibal penguin FTW! That is all.”