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Lauren Beukes

We were at Stones, playing pool, drinking, goofing around, maybe hoping to score a little sugar, when Kendra arrived, all moffied up and gloaming like an Aito/329. “Ahoy, Special K, where you been, girl, so juiced to kill?” Tendeka asked while he racked up the balls, all click-clack in their white plastic triangle. Old school this pool bar was. But Kendra didn’t answer. Girl just grinned, reached into her back pocket for her phone, hung skate-rat style off a silver chain connected to her belt, and infra’d five Rand to the table to get tata machance on the next game.

But I was watching the girl and as she slipped her phone back into her pocket, I saw that telltale glow ‘neath her sleeve. Long sleeves in summer didn’t cut it. So, it didn’t surprise me none in the least when K waxed the table. Ten-Ten was surprised though. Ten-Ten slipped his groove. But boy kept it in, didn’t say anything, just infra’d another five to the table and racked ‘em again. Anyone else but Ten woulda racked ‘em hard, woulda slammed those balls on the table, eish. But Ten, Ten went the other way. Just by how careful he was. Precise ‘n clipped like an assembly line. So you could see.

Boyfriend wasn’t used to losing, especially not to Special-K. I mean, the girl held her own ‘gainst most of us, but Ten could wax us all six-love baby. Boyfriend carried his own cue, in a special case. Kif shit it was. Lycratanium, separate pieces that clicked into each other, assembled slick ‘n cold and casual-like, like he was a soldier in a war movie snapping a sniper rifle together. But Kendra grinning now, said, “No, my bra. I’m out”, set her cue down on the empty table next to us.
“Oh ja, like Ten’s gonna let this hook slide. ” Rob snorted into his drink.

“Best of three.” Tendeka said and smiled loose and easy. Like it didn’t matter and chalked his cue.

Girl hesitated and shrugged then. Picked up the cue. Tendeka flicked the triangle off the table, flip-rolling it between his fingers lightly. “Your break.”

From the opening of “Branded

When Moxyland hit the UK in 2010, we thought we knew how to read it—as witty cyberpunk about tough street kids using new tech. In fact the book had been brewing since at least 2003. With its breathless pacing, its African setting and characters, and its prescience about viral marketing, Moxyland looks more like a foundational text for African science fiction. It’s the earliest story I can find that is based on technological innovation that has happened in Africa, in advance of America or Europe.

Lauren Beukes: “At the time South Africa was very much about apartheid literature and Struggle literature. The perception was that you had to write important political books. Then you had to try and parse this new reality in a realistic way.

“Post-apartheid you had to try to figure how to explain the world now and how you felt about it. There were beautiful books like Diane Awerbuck’s Gardening at Night, which won a Commonwealth Book Prize, and a number of books about growing up white and coming to terms with being complicit in this system, and how things changed.

“It felt like that was what the market wanted. Nobody wanted to publish fantasy or science fiction, especially the kind of fantasy that people wanted to write in the mode of Robert Jordan or George R.R. Martin ... I guess, more European science fiction and fantasy. And you still see a lot of writers in South Africa doing that. I haven’t read Cat Hellisen’s books but I believe it’s classic fantasy not set in South Africa.

“In 2000, I was thinking about the ideas that became Moxyland. I was interested in the way that South Africa was using technology, in a manner that the rest of the world wasn’t.

“I was a freelance journalist writing across the board for a number of different magazines, including a cell phone company’s in-house magazine ... doing interesting stuff with tech medicine and using very basic Nokia phones in a University of Cape Town programme, where they were monitoring people’s symptoms in remote rural areas where they didn’t have landlines or a doctor or a clinic.

“So they trained up their counsellors and created drop-down menus, and asked people how they were, and used central database storage via SMS. So ‘the patient is presenting these symptoms so she needs to get to a clinic’ or ‘She’s absolutely fine so all she needs to do is keep taking her meds.’

“In South Africa we were using SMS to set up secret parties. A lot of brands were trying to co-opt youth culture. I wrote a story about British-American tobacco. I worked undercover on one of their party trains, when they spent a million rand on Lucky Strike (Lucky Strike was a cigarette brand being promoted by holding parties on trains). They would advertise with secret stickers and then you’d have to text the number to get onto the guest list.

“When I was in the States, my friends thought texting was a bit strange. Nobody was using text messages yet, to group text. This was 2000, 2001—and in New York.

“We hustle in South Africa and I don’t mean that in any negative sense. There are two Xhosa words which get to the heart of this: koketla—which means ‘to make something of nothing’, and iketsetse, which means ‘do it for yourself.’

“I think, as South Africans, being isolated so long under apartheid and sanctions, it meant we had to figure out a lot of stuff. When it came to reading science fiction, there was one little shelf in the bookstore with eight titles—and three would be by Stephen King.

“We couldn’t get hold of American comics, I could only get hold of British comics such as 2000 A.D. We were incredibly isolated and it was really hard to get hold of science fiction books. I remember that back in the 1990s, a guy started up a business. He would fly to the States, fill like five suitcases full of books and fly them back, and you could either buy them online via mail or you could go to his house and just browse.

“South Africa has a major inferiority complex. We look overseas for success and for our models. I started out writing literary fiction. But then the story of Moxyland started to develop from the pieces I was writing about technology and marketing. Also, there was a lot of activism at the time around corporates and advertising, looking at their pervasive social influence.

“So in 2003 I wrote a short story and it came second in the first SL magazine story competition. It was called ‘Branded.’ It was basically the poolroom scene in Moxyland in which Kendra comes in and she has the Ghost logo as part of her skin. Toby gets what she is, but in that draft he wasn’t like a star blogger.

“Then I took a Masters in creative writing at UCT (University of Cape Town), which was amazing, having people take my work seriously. André Brink was my supervisor. He was incredible. I was writing straight literary stories, but the tutor encouraged me to bring in ‘Branded,’ and the class had such a strong reaction to it that they said I should write that as my novel.

“I don’t think André Brink knew quite what to do with Moxyland. He was incredibly supportive and he really pushed me on character development, but I don’t think it was exactly what he signed up for.”

At this point I wonder if Lauren Beukes isn’t the best known of the new generation of South African novelists. Isn’t UCT proud of her, do they mention her in their recruitment material for the course?

Lauren: “At the time nobody knew what to do with it. I was one of the only people in the class who didn’t get a distinction.

“It took me a year to sell it. I struggled. I’d been commissioned to write a nonfiction book, Maverick, about extraordinary women from three hundred years of South Africa’s past, starting with a woman who was a translator between the Khoisan and the Dutch, up to Helen Joseph and Brenda Fassie, the Madonna of the townships, openly bisexual. It had a lot of success by South African standards, which means you’ve sold thousand copies.

“I sent Moxyland to Philip K. Dick’s agent, who said it was like trying to have sex on a skateboard ... which is apparently a bad thing? I think it sounds great, right?

“Jacana published it in South Africa. Maggie Davey. They break a lot of amazing new voices. I don’t think anyone else would have published it at that time because it was too weird. Maggie read it on a plane to the Frankfurt Book Fair, and by the time she landed we had a book deal.

“It then took a year and a half of rewrites. It took me four years to finish because I was afraid, I was very afraid. It was a lot easier to talk about writing it than actually writing it. I only finished it because UCT threatened to throw me out of their Masters programme.

“The book got a tiny cult following and then was off the map. A book in South Africa has three to six months on the shelves and then it’s gone, it's over. Then I got a local agent and I managed to get a deal with Angry Robot. It was a two-book deal and they wanted a sequel to Moxyland. But the story’s been told. So that’s when I wrote Zoo City. And I got an advance, which was amazing. It was £8000 for both books.

“Angry Robot was really fun and they had exciting ideas. They put in the Moxy label stencils and things like that.

“I approached the African Dope indie electronica label, and I said, ‘can we put together a soundtrack?’, and they said ‘hell yeah!’ I wanted to put the CD inside the book. The publisher wouldn’t say yes, so Fletcher and Honey B did the final mix. You can buy it digitally online.

“Arthur Attwell did e-books before anyone else in South Africa, so Moxyland was one of the first e-books here. The soundtrack was embedded in the e-book, to play in specific chapters. Nobody had done that in the world before. But then it disappeared because of format changes.

“We had a great launch party. I was three months pregnant at the time. I got actor friends to recreate the world of Moxyland a little bit. We had a door-bitch with a list of names, and she would say, ‘No, I’m sorry you have to go to the non-corporate entrance.’ André Brink and his wife were sent round to the back door and I had to intervene to get them in.

“At the non-corporate entrance you got harassed by the bouncer for ten minutes. He went on way too long and I had to call him off. Then you received a little test tube, and were told that you might be infected and you had to take the sample to lab to be tested. We had a tiny bit of caustic soda in some of the tubes, which turned red in the test. If you were infected you got a shot of apple sours via a syringe. It was super fun. And we had the stencils from the book; there was a treasure hunt. We had activists outside protesting some of the corporate stuff in the novel, and it was so realistic that people didn’t want to take the flyers. I had a major South African actor stand up and deliver a corporate spiel, as if he was launching the Innertech programme and looking to enlist people.

“Nobody had ever done that before in South Africa and it wasn’t the publisher, it was me, because I thought it would be fun and playful. I’ve had to live up to it ever since—but yeah. It didn’t get documented, but people talked about it. There’s always been a lot of interesting stuff going on in Cape Town.”

I talk a bit about how the novel seems to me to be a dream image of technology and culture at the time of its writing. I was intrigued that Moxyland was unambiguously dated to 2018.

Lauren: “I really didn’t want to put a date on it. I was forced to.”

GR: “Forced to?” (I am thinking at this point, who could force Lauren Beukes to do anything, but I let that slide.)

Lauren: “I didn’t want to say 2018 because I was writing about the now. But whatever.”

GR: “Apart from anything else, it’s going to be 2018 in two years’ time.”

Lauren: “I know, I know. In 2008 it seemed a long way away. I read a really interesting review by an activist who talked about how clear it was that the novel was dealing with the early 2000s, because Tendeka (a lead character in the novel) is so isolated. That’s not how activism works now, what with Twitter and Occupy.

“I knew some activists and I’d done some social issues writing. I wrote for The Big Issue for a very long time and did a number of interesting investigative stories. I got some work for international magazines ... and one company felt patronizing when they saw an opera called Bastards and they wanted journalists to go interview controversial bastards. It felt kind of insensitive.

“Tendeka was my way of getting at that. Tendeka is a character—I want to shake him because he’s getting it so wrong. They all are—they think they are somewhere else and they’re not. I love the unreliable narrator. When you cross the individual stories with each other, you see that the characters have got things fundamentally wrong, it’s upsetting.

“Tendeka is blinded by anger, frustrated by the system, he’s lashing out. He trusts skywards* which was based on the user name of a friend of mine. Someone who loves the book has started a games development company called skywards*.

“I was interested in who we are in virtual worlds and who we pretend to be. That ties in with Toby playing the fighting game. You can be someone else, you can misrepresent.

“In Second Life there was interesting activism happening. They recreated the World Trade Centre and then people who had lost loved ones sat underneath the Centre as it fell down around them. It was a way of making art, of processing grief, of being human.

“I was also interested in a real case of a woman who reported a virtual rape. Her avatar was given a pair of sunglasses, but it was a piece of programming that took over her avatar and forced it into degraded sex acts. She experienced that as a real rape. She went to the police station to report it and the officers were completely bewildered.

“There was a real-world murder that happened when someone stole a man’s virtual sword in, I think, World of Warcraft. He reported it the police, who just didn’t get that it was a real theft. And so the guy went and killed the other guy over a virtual sword. Not that different from killing someone over money, because money is virtual as well.

“I wanted to play with this idea that Tendeka has this really lovely boyfriend and he’s so ferociously trying to do the right thing and he gets so angry and so worked up that he gets blinded. He’s manipulated. A lot of the stuff he’s doing is thrashing against the system ... he’s essentially throwing a stone through Parliament’s window. It smashes satisfactorily, but it’s not actually achieving anything.

“Lerato thinks she can play from inside and can’t. She’s the most powerful character and the most morally ambivalent as well.”

GR: “Moxyland took four years to write and Zoo City took one?”

Lauren: “I had a deadline, I had to finish and I had to take it seriously—and I had money. I was working full time at the animation company called Clockwork Zoo with my partner. He was the show’s director and I was the writer, leading a team with Sam Wilson and Sarah Lotz.

“I recruited Sarah after I saw a magazine called Something Wicked—edited by a guy called Joe Vaz, an actor who got killed in Starship Troopers. I read a story about a zombie servant who had plastic surgery to look like Brad Pitt. And I thought I had to meet her.

“The show we wrote was called URBO: Adventures of Pax Afrika, a science fiction kids' show. Nobody was paying any attention to what we were doing because it was a kids' show. It ran for three years on SABC 3, 2006 to 2009, for 104 episodes. It was South Africa’s first full-length animated TV show. We eventually had a team of hundred people working on it.

“That’s what taught me how to write visually. The kids are going to cry if they don’t know what’s going on, or you get the emotion wrong. With kids' animation, you don’t have time to mess around. You just have to get into the giant robot attack. That’s where a lot of my pacing has come from.

“Also the world in the story has a lot of corporate governance, and the kids are rebelling against it. Very proto-Moxy, Moxy for kids. We did some interesting episodes. We had an episode where a viral monster is attacking the city. The only way to defeat a viral monster is with a multi-pronged attack. You have to eat healthy AND take medicine. This was at a time when hundreds of thousands of people were dying because the government wasn’t distributing anti-retrovirals, didn’t believe in them. We specifically wanted to make a point that you need to take your medicine as well.

“It’s not on YouTube. SABC took it down from YouTube. It’s really depressing.

“In one of the episodes this dodgy children’s entertainer called Frothy the Bear, a guy in a bear suit, gets hold of the robot manual and takes over the robot army. Then a character called Clemence makes the robots realize that the manual has been misinterpreted, and so rewrites it. It was quite a transparent religious analogy—so much so that one of the Christian storyboard artists refused to work on that episode.

“We did cute things like giant monsters or a gorilla robot who takes over the city, but we brought in a lot of social issues and what we wanted was to say to kids, in a way, that they did think for themselves ... so that we weren’t like Captain Planet, ‘Look, children, this is what you must learn.’

“Zoo City got nice reviews, and then quietly sank in South Africa. I wrote it when I’d just had my daughter, I just did a research trip to Hillbrow to talk to people and scout for locations.

“I was worried about writing a black woman protagonist. The protagonist was white for about three thousand words, but I thought, no, this just is not right at all. Started again with Zinzi. I was afraid of writing a black woman character even before identity politics (which is important) and representation. It felt stupid to write a white character in Jo’burg.

“I wanted to make Zinzi right. So I hired Zukiswa Wanner to be my control editor. I asked her to read it, and I paid her a thousand rand to let me know what she thought. You have to understand I was super-broke at the time. She read the book and sent me five pages of notes. There was amazing stuff like ... people don’t actually smoke tik (meths) in Jo’burg. So there’s that opening scene in which the lights don’t work because someone’s used it to smoke meths. I did say okay, there is one tik smoker in Jo’burg on her block. And you’d never buy a Stuyvesant cigarette on the street; you’d buy a Remington Gold.

“But she didn’t answer my question, so I called Zuki. ‘What’s your big question?’ I was like ‘Oh! Is she ... is she ... black enough?’ Zuki burst out laughing for about two minutes and then said, ‘What is black enough? Have you created a character who is absolutely informed by her upbringing, her race, her sexuality, her gender, and the things that have happened in her life? Yes. You’ve done that.’

“Zuki had just published Men of the South, which is her second or third novel. She started getting crazy emails from people saying, ‘You’re obviously a man, a woman could never get it right like that. Your husband or your boyfriend wrote it for you.’

“It’s that idea that we’re not allowed to speak with each other’s voices. It’s important to imagine each other. I understand that we need more black writers and writers of colour writing their own story, it’s incredibly important. But life here is diverse. I want to write about that and I will do research to make sure I’m not fucking up or be patronizing or misunderstand. That’s not to say I’m perfect and I don’t make mistakes but I am trying hard to do it right.

“So Zoo City did OK in South Africa, but Angry Robot got dumped by HarperCollins. Finally, Angry Robot managed to save themselves as an independent. Zoo City came out in the UK, and it won the Clarke Award.

“I was up for the BSFA Award and the Clarke, but we didn’t know it was going to win. And I was so broke. The animation company I ran with my husband closed down; we had my daughter’s school fees to pay. Friends of mine threw a fundraiser to get the eight thousand to go to London to the awards. I got there and I didn’t win the BSFA. I got to the Clarke Awards and the judges couldn’t even look at me and I thought, ‘Ah I have SO lost.’ I spilled red wine down my front. I put my speech away. I just said to myself, ‘It’ll be Ian MacDonald and how awesome is it to be here on the shortlist. This is amazing. To have made it this far is absolutely incredible.’ And then China Miéville announced Zoo City. And my brother leapt to his feet and yelled ‘Yeah!’, and shoved me onto the stage without my speech. I was in shock, and my hands were shaking for half an hour afterwards. And I was high for a week afterwards.

“I’d worked hard and took risks, but I also had so many breaks. To have people actually respond to your work ... it was so humbling. It was so overwhelming. I know, it sounds so like an Oscar speech. I was filled with this insane gratitude.

“That changed my life. Because of the Clarke, Zoo City came back into print in SA, and mainstream press became interested. I came home to a three-year-old and she didn’t care about the award. She was just happy to have her mom back. I did a photo shoot at the Book Lounge and she was annoyed because people kept coming up to get a book signed. And she was like ‘Excuse me, we’re reading here, why are you interrupting us?’ She finds my celebrity really annoying.

“The one thing she appreciated was when I did that Wonder Woman comic. She was like, oh I get it, I am actually proud of you.

“DC asked to do a Wonder Woman in South Africa. I was really worried about that because it could be a white saviour story.   I really didn’t want to do that. And we have such issues in this country from xenophobia to corrective rape, which is the most disgusting euphemism.

“Anyway they hunted me down during the Broken Monsters book tour in 2014 in LA. I’d seen Mike Maihack’s artwork from his online stuff, which was playful, cute, cool illustrations of superheroes and of great women. And I realized the only way I could do this was a kid’s Wonder Woman. It will look like a classic Wonder Woman adventure, and she’s fighting her nemesis The Cheetah. Cheetah has got Circe and Medusa on her side, so Superman has been turned into Super Pig with the little forelock. Medusa has turned Batman to stone. Wonder Woman is surfing on the wing of her jet and she flies in, and uses her bracelets to reflect back Medusa’s gaze and she saves the day. Then this giant hand comes in and yanks The Cheetah out of shot. It turns out that it is a game being played in Soweto by a little girl. She’s been playing with her sister’s dolls and has drawn all over them. She is in so much trouble.

“It becomes about the power of the imagination. She’s washing the toys in the back yard in a plastic crate and the plate would make the perfect invisible jet, so she starts playing with her own invisible jet. Then her sister comes home and the dog gets excited and goes running across the road to meet her, just as a car comes. The little girl saves the dog by throwing the crate just in front of it. She saves the day. She superheroes up and puts stars on her jeans. It’s about the superhero within and the imagination allows her to find her courage and imagination.”

The Clarke had immediate impact. Her agent told her to make the most of the spotlight and the result was Lauren’s next novel.

Lauren: “Shining Girls was launched on the back of the Clarkes. I came up with the idea and wrote the first twenty thousand words. My agent took it to Frankfurt and it became the book of the Fair. When you get the spotlight, you think you have to keep it, but light is easy to share, so try to reflect the light as well.

“Broken Monsters raised 350K rand for bookdash.org. Bookdash’s dream is that every child age five has a book of their own. So it creates these works for the creative commons that you can download and print at home, or even print it and sell it and make money if you want to. We sold the artwork from Broken Monsters for 1,500 rand each and got the money to print 36,000 kids’ books.

“If I can leverage my success in ways that are interesting for other people, do fun things and some good, then that’s really satisfying.”

At the time of the interview (September 2016), Lauren’s short story collection, Slipping, from Tachyon, was still being edited. She was hoping to get some of her comics work included.

Also in 2016 her horror-fantasy series Survivors Club was collected into a graphic novel, published by Vertigo in the USA. The series was co-written with Dale Halvorsen, with art by Ryan Kelly, Inaki Miranda, and Bill Sienkiewicz.

Her next novel is due in 2018. It’s about an oncovirus that wipes out most men, focussing on a mother who is trying to protect her son, who has survived. I mention to her that the story “Branded” sounds like a pioneering piece, SF focused on a technological Africa.

Lauren: “I was just one of the first people through the door. All of us in South Africa, we were all in this plastic bubble, kind of smashing against walls. We could see the wide world out there, what we wanted to do, with South African twists on that. I was just somebody who stumbled against the exit. And then the doors opened.”

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Geoff Ryman is Senior Lecturer in School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester. He is a writer of short stories and novels, and science fiction and literary fiction. His work has won numerous awards including the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award (twice), the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award (twice), and the Canadian Sunburst Award (twice). In 2012 he won a Nebula Award for his Nigeria-set novelette "What We Found." His story "Capitalism in the 22nd Century" is part of Stories for Chip, edited by Bill Campbell and Nisi Shawl and published by Rosarium.
4 comments on “Lauren Beukes”

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