Corporations are legally people—how long before they become nation-states? Some of them own islands, or indeed, virtually entire countries. I’m not as pessimistic as some about our short-term survival odds in the coming century. Sure, we have problems, but we’ll muddle through—somehow. Yet if I had to pick which chilling dystopian vision of the future I feel is most likely, the corporations-own-us-all future is the one I’d choose. It’s feudalism all over again, baby—party like it’s 1214. Corporations wield increasing influence over our democratic processes. Governments, either through fear of losing big donors come election time or simple greed and corruption, are increasingly unwilling to stand up to behaviours and business practices that are counterproductive and dangerous in the long run. And so it goes.
This train of thought has become more prominent of late thanks to protests like the Occupy Wall Street movement. And I’m glad for it, because there’s a sense of complacency in some developed countries. We evangelize democracy in Africa, the Middle East, and southeast Asia … but when it comes to our own internal affairs, we turn a blind eye to the abuses of power politicians and corporations commit. We are unwilling to admit that ours is a hollow democracy, a frayed and decaying process. We have freedoms—but for how long?
One striking feature of Moxyland is that, while it picks up the corporate dystopian visions of its cyberpunk predecessors, it does so not in Canada, or the United States, or the UK, or even Japan. No, it’s set in South Africa. Its characters are artists and criminals, freelance bloggers and refugees, corporate citizens and self-proclaimed freedom fighters. The people in this book aren’t politicians, CEOs, or even protestors in the usual sense. And this isn’t about Wall Street, the 2008 meltdown, corporate lobbies on Capitol Hill, or News of the World. Lauren Beukes challenges us to look up from our Westernized tunnel vision of the world’s problems and consider that other countries are struggling with the same issues.
It’s notable that the only manifestation of governance we see in Moxyland is the police service. (And it isn’t clear whether they are publicly-run or outsourced to a corporate outfit.) The corporations are, if not in principle, then in practice the law. One of my favourite parts of the book happens early on, when Lerato is detained going through customs because someone reported her suspicious cough. She waves her shiny corporate ID and receives obsequious apologies, and as she walks away, she mutters that corporations should just go ahead and issue passports, make it official. After all, Lerato’s employer already assigns her roommate and pre-approves her dating pool. Why not go ahead and become a full citizen of the corporation?
Instead of the big picture, bird’s eye view of the world, Beukes takes onto the streets. We see everything from the level of the pawns of this game. Toby is the observer, somewhat above everything—but also inextricably involved, much to his dismay. Tendeka is the hot-headed idealist whose partner tries, very hard, to provide the balanced opinions he needs. Kendra is the artist in love with her anachronisms, using them to take refuge from a nihilistic worldview that threatens to swallow her up. And Lerato is the antihero, the corporate sympathizer—at least she admits she’s biased—who nevertheless has the kind of console cowboy flair that makes her an attractive character.
Truth be told, there is little to like about any of these characters. I can sympathize with their problems but not with their attitudes. Some of them, like Toby and, to some extent, Lerato, are fatalistic in their approach to the world: life sucks, corporations rule, deal with it. They do what they can to get their thrills. Kendra, on the other hand, is spinning her wheels. She’s trapped in a dead-end relationship and allows herself to get talked into a sponsorship deal she never really wanted. Her story, in my opinion, is the most tragic of all, and if any of the characters were my favourite, it would be her.
Its characters might not be likable, but they are diverse and richly portrayed. Like her world, Beukes spends considerable effort developing perspectives to deliver her story. Unfortunately, Moxyland falters in its execution of plot. It demonstrates that plot is more than a sequence of events; in this book, one thing happens after another, but there’s a distinct lack of any sense of causality. These characters seem to go stumbling around from one problem to the next with little motivation—they react, rather than act. The grand conspiracy at the end, while clever, is somewhat trite and not all that satisfying.
Moxyland is pregnant with possibility, but it never quite manages to realize much. I like its depiction of the corporate dystopia. Beukes’ extrapolation of current technologies—and how we use them—is modest in a very effective way. But a setting can only take a story so far, and Moxyland is adrift without a plot. Good books can be entertaining or thought-provoking—great books have to be both.