Wednesday, July 1, 2009
THE LAUREN BEUKES INTERVIEW
Probe is the bi-monthly fanzine of Science Fiction South Africa (SFSA). The interview was really just an excuse for me to meet prize-winning journalist, writer, columnist and novelist Lauren Beukes. Lauren had come out of nowhere to become 33% of South Africa's conventionally published Science Fiction authors with her clever, groundbreaking, cyberpunk riff, Moxyland. As a long time Sci-Fi nerd I couldn't resist the opportunity to pick her brain.
THE LAUREN BEUKES INTERVIEW
For a nation with such an increasingly uncertain future and a reasonably well-developed literary culture, South Africans have been surprisingly slow to develop a speculative fiction tradition for themselves. Apart from a few blips, speculative fiction set in, and about South Africa has been thin on the ground.
Lauren Beukes's Moxyland explores a kind of Africa we haven't seen or read about before. It is a technological, futuristic, hyper-urban, dark continent that rises beyond the condescending visions of romantic primitivism that seems to pervade so much fiction set in Africa. The Cape Town 2018 setting is kind of a statement in itself, reminding us that the future is going to happen to us too.
One can argue with Lauren's conclusions. That we're headed for a fascist dystopia of mass distraction, a future of corporate apartheid and omnipresent surveillance and oppression enabled by the very same shiny consumer gadgets the masses are clamouring for right now. SF's record is not very good at predicting specifics. But then again, what IS going to happen if the gulf between rich and poor continues to widen at the current rate? What will happen if we give up our freedoms of movement expression in exchange for an orderly police state? Why is Lauren Beukes the only one asking these questions?
I asked Lauren Beukes to tell us about Moxyland and herself over coffee and a few emails.
BA: What are your influences?
LB: I've always loved speculative fiction. I love authors like Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash) and Bruce Sterling (Globalhead), David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas), Jonathan Lethem (Wall of the Sky, Wall of the Eye), Margaret Atwood (Oryx & Crake) and especially Alan Moore (Watchmen). As a kid, I read a lot of 2000AD. I still have all the old comics.
BA: Where do you get your ideas from, the cellphone thing in particular?
LB: The story is inspired by all the interesting places technology and culture intersect and the socio-political stuff happening in South Africa, but I didn't want to write just another apartheid novel.
The novel is about surveillance society and scary epidemics and slippery online identities, among a whole bunch of other things. I took inspiration from real-life events, like the fascinating way people are interacting online, from the Belgian woman who reported the virtual rape of her online avatar in Second Life as a real crime to real-world police or the Chinese guy who killed his former partner over a virtual sword. There seems to be this weird schism developing in how people experience online life.
As for the cellphone taser, it was inspired by yobs in the movies who won't stop talking and how great it would be to just zap them. It would be great for personal safety too, if you could zap muggers with your phone.
BA: Where does the developing world feature in all this?
LB: Well, the developing world is part of the high-tech economy too, except there the focus is a little different.
BA: You mean like child coltrane miners risking their lives to mine materials for the latest cellphones in the DRC?
LB: Exactly, but it doesn't have to be real mines, you get virtual mines and sweatshops too. In online games like World of Warcraft you can make real money by performing the tedious tasks like mining gold or earning artefacts or building up characters for rich and lazy players who just want to have fun. It's happening a lot in China at the moment. And actually, China is a very interesting place to watch generally. Take the Great Firewall of China for example – the way the government censors websites and has these adorable cartoon cops who pop up to warn you if you're venturing into restricted space. It's really crazy, evil Big Brother-style censorship mixed up with this cute factor.
BA: So, what do you think is going to happen when the technology needed to play in online virtual worlds filter down to the very poor as cellphones have today?
LB: All these online worlds and games, like World of Warcraft (and projects like Amazon's micro-task outsourcing agency Mechanical Turk) presume you have leisure time and access to a computer with decent bandwidth. The poor in SA have a lot of free time, but limited access to the technology. But wouldn't it be fantastic if we could get some virtual sweatshops going here, provide employment playing games?
BA: The media is mostly a source of disinformation and a tool of
control in Moxyland. If you consider the unequal access to mediums such as the internet and satellite television today, do you think that
the 'info-rich' are less susceptible to being manipulated by
propaganda and misinformation through the media than the 'info poor'?
Or, does having vast amounts of information about every conceivable topic at your fingertips merely make you susceptible to more sophisticated forms of disinformation?
LB: We're in a very interesting time where you can tailor your media to suit your opinions and reinforce them. You don't ever have to be exposed to a TV channel or a website that disagrees with you or challenges you (unless you're going there to troll).
I can relatively easily filter Fox News or rabid right wing sites right out.
But on the flip side, Google is a great equaliser. Do a search on
reproductive health and you'll get as many anti-choice websites coming up (some disguised, appallingly and packed with disinformation) as pro-choiceones. So, it's important to be savvy too, to play the rational sceptic andreally do your research.
We see it a lot with people STILL falling for (and forwarding) email scams, petitions, Microsoft giveaways, 419s, urban legends and how-to-avoid rapewarnings, all of which could be debunked with one click through to Snopes.com or a simple Google search.
I do think those who don't have easy access to information and the Internet
(or heck, a solid education) are at a serious disadvantage where they're at
the mercy of popular media, politicians and community leaders. Look at the
recent xenophobia attacks or the popular support base for Jacob Zuma that
would ignore the constitution and our justice system and throw out even the
possibility of a corruption trial.
There's a reason countries like China and Zimbabwe clamp down on the
Internet and restrict information.
What the world, and South Africa especially, needs most is education, and
not the paint-by-numbers syllabus stuff either. We need to teach kids to
think, to interrogate the world, to understand context, to fully explore the
spectrum of greys that falls in between the black and white of core issues
and make their own, thoroughly informed choices.
BA: The virtual violence seems to escalate through the book. From
kiddies fantasy land to immersive Quake style first person shooter
until it eventually breaks into the real world through Scorpions
Elite. Are you saying virtual violence leads to the real thing?
LB: Absolutely not. It's the other way round. The violence in the games, even in
a kids' gameworld as saccharine and innocent as KiwiPop (what Toby calls
Moxyland) is a reflection of the real world. That's really what the book is
about, this glossy cute pop veneer over the dark undercurrents of our
society that rush fast and deep and will suck you under.
As Toby says (p116 I think), "What, like the kids' games? That Moxyland
shit? Murder and mayhem. Training them to be savage, don't you think? It's
not about making friends with kids all over the world, it's about getting
ahead, getting one over.'
The hackneyed old video-games-leads-to-violence argument is a grossly
Violent games might attract more violent or unhinged personalities (ditto
with horror movies, metal bands and hey,kitchen appliances) but there are
millions of people who use games like Resident Evil or GTA or rock out to
crappy American hard rock bands to defrag from their day and vent their
And there was a recent study that showed, contrary to what you'd expect,
that most players actually find it a relief to get killed in a game because
it relieves the tension.
For most of us, it's cathartic. For the very, very, very few who veer that
way already, it *might* wind up their antisocial tendencies or reinforce
violent thinking and behaviour.
Video games, music, movies, guns, samurai swords, bad parenting and Satan
don't kill people. People kill people. (although it's certainly easier if
they have guns. I'm a big fan of gun control)
BA: The concept 'corporate apartheid' has been used by several
reviewers to describe the setting for your book. Do you think such a
state is any more resilient to change than the racial apartheid that
we have (at least in law) just abolished?
LB: While Original Apartheid was an evil, racist national state policy, the
conceit of the novel, corporate apartheid, or its real-life equivalent
economic apartheid, where the rifts between rich and poor are growing
exponentially, may well be more insidious and, in the long term, more
damaging. (This is something British economist George Monbiot holds close to
his heart, if you're interested in further reading)
It's easy to identify an oppressive regime and fight against it (a little
harder to actually overthrow it, if the 46 years we spent trying is any
But how do you fight against an emergent socio-economic trend? This isn't
government-imposed policy. Who is the enemy? How do you take down the big
bad wolf if the big bad wolf is something as huge and nebulous and seemingly
insurmountable as growing poverty?
Again, it comes down to education and giving people choice and agency in
their own lives. Educating the poor, empowering them to get jobs or training
them in practical skills (like good farming practices, rotating fallow land,
not cutting down trees so as to avoid deforestation and desertification),
educating women about reproductive rights and contraception and giving them
an education full stop.
And, of course, curtailing rampant corporate interests and reinforcing
I think genetically modified crops could be exactly what Africa needs, for
example (inconclusive studies about health factors notwithstanding, we've
always tampered with genes with selective breeding of animals and crops, we
just do it in a lab now). Crops that are bred to withstand harsh and arid
conditions, that can supply a bigger yield to feed more people - that's a
good thing. Monsanto creating crops that don't seed, so people have to keep
buying them year after year after year - not so good.
Ditto big pharmaceutical companies that refuse to release generics of
life-saving medicine or try to patent gene sequences.
Or Arms Corporations who knowingly sell weapons and defense systems to
countries that don't need them and can't afford them. (refer Mark Thomas' As
Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela about BAE Systems selling impoverished
Tanzania a military air control unit that wouldn't suit their needs and that
they couldn't afford or knowingly supplying a corrupt Iraqi regime with
weapons that they knew Saddam couldn't pay for to the tune of 100 million
pounds, knowing also that they'd be fully covered for the loss by the
British taxpayers AND that they could then add that loss to Iraq's war debt,
crippling the country and doubling their profits!)
Or companies (and countries) that just don't give a fuck.
BA: Moxyland has been warmly received and reviewed.
What does all this success and positive critical attention feel
like when you add in the incoming kid and the ludicrously hip job of
cartoon scriptwriter ?
LB: Ridiculously privileged all round. I've been wonderfully surprised by how
well the book has gone down and the amazing buy-in from people like HoneyB
at African Dope to make it more than just words on a page.
My job is fantastic, best I've ever had, creative, collaborative,
challenging and energising every day with the best bunch of people you ever
Where I am now, it feels like the start of things.
I know the incoming alien queen (just call me Ripley) is going to be very
absorbing and my biggest handicap at the moment is finding time to do
everything I want to do anyway, but it'll work out as long as the words keep
coming. It's about discipline as much as inspiration.
BA: You sound like you lead a pretty intense life. What, if anything,
do you do to make sure you smell the flowers and relax?
LB: If you'd asked me five years ago, I would have been able to say
skydiving, but I gave that up - any sport that involves jet fuel becomes an
expensive habit. Um. Reading, hanging out with my fantastic and hilarious
friends whose own whimsies and creative endeavours from animation to design
are really inspiring, watching movies and smart TV like The Wire or Invader
Zim or The Mighty Boosh, more reading, spending time with my best friend and
tuning fork (more useful than a sounding board) and creative partner, my
husband, Matthew and our soon-to-be baby daughter aka The Alien Queen.
Lauren Beukes spends her time writing cartoon TV shows (Pax-Africa for Clockwork Zoo), books, short stories, columns and the occasional magazine article. Her previous book, the rollicking non-fiction Maverick: Extraordinary Women From South Africa's Past (Oshun 2005) was nominated for The Sunday Times Alan Paton award. She lives in Cape Town.
Benny Alberts is an occasional freelance journalist and full time security infrastructure consultant based in Saldanha.
Creative Commons-Benny Alberts 2008