Powerful wordsmith offers a visceral brand of magical realism, writes Nechama Brodie
When William Gibson, the award-winning author of Neuromancer and the man who introduced us to the phrase "cyberspace" back in 1982, made the finishing touches to the manuscript for his book Zero History, the message he sent to his 23 000-plus Twitter followers was: "Now I can read first of two books by @laurenbeukes."
It's the Twitter effect. A Christmas beetle buzzes its wings in Africa and across the Atlantic a literary icon triggers an avalanche of praise for a toy-loving word ninja in Cape Town.
Gibson's discovery is South African scriptwriter, journalist and author Lauren Beukes, a pretty blonde with a wicked tongue and a penchant for speculative science fiction (with a side helping of political satire and social activism). In recent months, Beukes has also taken up the cause of Thomokazi Zazayokwe, 23, who was murdered last year, but whose case never got to court because the police failed to conduct a proper investigation. When the case against the alleged murderer was dropped last month, Beukes used her blog to draw attention to the manner in which the case had been handled. Her plea for justice gained widespread media attention. She is a woman who is powerful with words.
Beukes's first novel, Moxyland, saw her snapped up by Angry Robot, a London-based global crossover Sci-Fi, fantasy and horror imprint. Publishing director Marc Gascoigne says they were "looking for work that was a little different to traditional fantasy and somewhat moribund science fiction; writing that reflected a newer culture of computer game natives and genre mashups".
Moxyland was one of Angry Robot's first submissions and was eventually selected as one of the imprint's four launch titles.
In South Africa, the book's cult-like appeal saw it spawn a 14-track soundtrack in collaboration with African Dope Records, and a collectable toy, designed by Michelle Son and produced by community cooperative the Montagu Sew & Sews.
"Its appeal for me," says Gascoigne, "is that whether she faked it or is really that cool, Beukes caught an up-to-the-minute flavour of teen digital culture. Her technological predictions are so on the money that over a dozen have actually been reported in prototype or experimental form since Moxyland was published."
In August last year Beukes flew to Montreal to attend the 67th World Science Fiction Convention, where Angry Robot and the international edition of Moxyland were officially launched. In the halls of the Palais des congrès de Montréal, Beukes mingled with authors from around the world, exchanged ideas on remote-controlled spy drones and child soldiers in a panel on "the future of war", and was filmed flirting shamelessly with a company robot (you can see the clip on YouTube).
Beukes admits she finished Moxyland only because she had to hand in her MA, at UCT under André Brink. While the book took four years to complete, Beukes finished her second novel, Zoo City, in just a year - taking occasional time off as head scriptwriter at Clockwork Zoo and her freelance work as a columnist for The Big Issue and anonymous contributor to political satire site Hayibo.com.
"It's all Angry Robot's fault," says Beukes, regarding the turnaround time of Zoo City. When the publishers took on Moxyland, they negotiated a two-book deal. "As a journalist, I'm nothing without a deadline," she says. "The biggest motivator to finishing Zoo City was that someone pre-ordered it on Amazon! That made it very real. And very scary. There were people waiting for this book."
Set around a terrifying supernatural version of contemporary Hillbrow and, truthfully, not all that different from much of the real-life suburb, barring the voodoo, Zoo City is a dark thriller that uses threads of raw magic and primitive spirits as its narrative. The book's main character, Zinzi, is a lapsed journalist with a sloth on her back (literally), reduced to supporting herself by writing 419 scam letters for a crime syndicate and, occasionally, using a psychic-like ability to find "lost things" ("Small items of personal value. No drugs. No weapons. No missing persons").
In Zoo City, Beukes imagines a Joburg that is frighteningly accurate and simultaneously impossible. Like her other fiction works, this one is fast, frenzied, twisted and breathtaking. With an international release scheduled for later this year and an impressive foreign print run (20000 copies alone for North America), Zoo City should confirm Beukes as the natural heir to Gibson, possibly even Huxley and Orwell.
Beukes, who collaborated with designer Joey Hifi (aka Dale Halvorsen) to produce the local Zoo City cover, is also working on a number of Zoo spin-offs: design studio Am I Collective has created a range of vinyl toys; African Dope will mix up another hot "soundtrack"; and Sean Metelerkamp has agreed to a Zoo City-inspired photo shoot.
"She's good, and she's getting even better with every book. But don't tell her that. She's already insufferable," says Gascoigne.
Beukes, in turn, reveals that she struggles with compliments, and with the trappings of nascent fame. "There's a picture of me at the launch of Maverick, my first book. I'm so flustered I'm holding the pen upside down while trying to sign books."
She might play it coy, but don't expect Beukes to trade in her visceral brand of magical realism just yet.
Earlier this year, after reading an article on Salon.com where the author suggested director Kathryn Bigelow should stick to more feminine topics than violence and war (Nora Ephron's Julie & Julia was suggested as a positive example), Beukes wrote on her Twitter page: "I've been moved by that article to forswear violent speculative fiction. From now on, I'll be writing food-based rom-coms set in Tuscany. About women rediscovering who they really are through cooking/house restoration/affairs with young Italian men."
Minutes later creative writer Charles Human posted a reply: "[.] and then the undead Cosa Nostra attack and woman has to fight them off with WWII weapons cache found beneath [her] farmhouse."
Lauren Beukes eats zombies for breakfast.
- Zoo City is published by Jacana, R145