Dissing Cape Town’s Topia.

The Creator feels obliged to buy The Big Issue. Vendors are fairly persistent and probably have keys in their pockets. Telling them to go away and boil their bums is socially unsympathetic, furthermore raises the possibility of bodily harm. Therefore one buys a large amount of glossy paper which cannot be used for any productive purpose other than sorting the stems and seeds from a quantity of poor-quality dagga; one buys this horrid magazine simply so as to be able to wave it defiantly at the next vendor. How we all suffer in our small ways.

It might be different if there were anything in the magazine at all worth reading, but there isn’t. Notwithstanding, Lauren Beukes provides a near-pastiche of something worth reading in her column, to which the Creator invariably turns with a degree of glumness, flipping past the celebrity and corporate propaganda. Beukes does not much like celebrity and corporate propaganda. Of course, challenging celebrity and corporate propaganda in a text devoted to celebrity and corporate propaganda might be seen as futile, or even as collaboration. Then again, this celebrity and corporate propaganda is being used to allegedly serve the interests of the people socially marginalised by the system which feeds on celebrity and corporate propaganda. Perhaps this confuses Beukes almost as much as it confuses the Creator.

Hence, having heard that Beukes had written a book called Moxyland, the Creator waddled off and bought it and gradually, over the ensuing ten days, attempted to read it. It could be assumed from the cover and the blurbs, not to mention the avowed position of the author, that the book would be opposed to celebrity and corporate propaganda. Therefore it would be worth reading. Or would it?

A few days later the Creator found a remaindered copy of James Hawes’ Speak For England (significant that it was remaindered), a book written by a disaffected Briton opposed to celebrity and corporate propaganda. Like far too many allegedly funny books these days, it criticises “reality TV” (Moxyland‘s comparable target appears to be the weblog) but it does find a few interesting things to say about the contemporary world. Speak For England has, as its hero, a confused, self-loathing schlemihl nostalgic for the good old days of the Flying Scotsman and a time when you could kid yourself that anything in the press was worth taking seriously, a man disappointed by everything in his universe, especially himself.

However, by circuitous means he comes upon some people who genuinely believe in everything which he has lost — survivors of a Comet IV air crash living out a bizarre Anglophilic cargo-cult existence in the New Guinean jungle — who might, just possibly, serve as a contrast to the lost souls of Blair’s Britain. Among these lost souls are Blair himself, Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell, who appear as their unnamed selves (respectively geekish idiot, preening moffie and Glaswegian hardman). But there are more — the youth (who are awful), the central character’s schoolmates now in media and public relations (who are awful), the press lords (who are awful) — what has happened is that Everybody has Lost Touch with the Values of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future.

Well, fair enough. Of course, Hawes is internally ironic about the whole thing. Who could take Dan Dare seriously, other than one of the Argentinean Air Force heroes of the Malvinas conflict and his gorgeous and clueless daughter? Notwithstanding, though Hawes may not believe in the ideals the book sets forward, though his hero is a Pooter among Pooters, Hawes delights in depicting the decadence into which Merrie England’s inhabitants have fallen — people who do nothing (because there is nothing to do), care about nothing (there’s nothing to care about) and yet are scared of everything except a cocktail or a line of cocaine or an engorged phallus. Things Can Only Get Better, sang New Labour in 1997, and Hawes is peeved that they lied. Perhaps he voted for them, or something.

Beukes is seemingly trying to do something vaguely similar to Hawes, but her method is remarkably different, because unlike Hawes she employs not one character who is remotely likeable on any scale of values which the Creator can comprehend. Possibly the characters are pretty, or entertaining if one is sufficiently drunk or stoned. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine waking up next to any of them with any pleasure, because they would all talk about the things which interest them, and the things which interest them are absolutely uninteresting.

How can this be? It is because not one of these characters is in any way a productive human being. All of them are absolutely alienated from other people; none is in a sexual or emotional relationship. The political activist despises and manipulates the people in his clique because he is secretly taking orders from someone he met in cyberspace. The corporate publicist holds her corporation in contempt. Admittedly the videoblogger believes in what he is doing (if there is such a thing as a positive character in the text, it must be him) but what he is doing is plainly garbage and his entire life is a cardboard monument to self-centredness. As for the professional medical guinea-pig, she surfs through life without ever understanding anything around her. All these people are convinced that they are the centre of the universe. All of them are clearly a hideous waste of valuable oxygen.

It’s hard to believe that this is accidental. It is true that the Creator has known plenty of people who have some of these characteristics, and if Beukes works in the field of media, propaganda and spurious arts she probably knows even more. However, most people have at least some redeeming features; Beukes’ characters seem to have been carefully chosen to have none. Is there a message here?

Perhaps it is intentional, perhaps unintentional, but there is certainly a message. In the future, corporations rule. Well, there’s a novel proposition for you; have we ever heard it before? Oh, yes, in 1952, in The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth. William Gibson’s Neuromancer was written way back in 1983, when Beukes was just a teeny tot (Moxyland is pretty ostentatiously cyberpunk, though without much in the way of cybernetics and a definite dearth of punkishness — the elements of both are a sort of veneer beneath which is the same old South Africa.

What South Africa? There is no South Africa, just Cape Town. As is common in Cape Town, nobody goes anywhere outside of town. Rural areas are spoken of with a shudder; apparently they are just too awful for words. In any case, somehow the government won’t let you go there (nobody says why). Government? What government? In South Africa now, everybody talks politics incessantly, but in Beukes’ Cape Town there is no Mayor, no President — a brief mention of a Minister of Safety and Security is all there is, and nobody cares about him (or possibly her). The only evidence of the existence of a government is the occasional appearance of police suppressing demonstrations. (There is no crime, or to be precise there is no foregrounded crime although it is vaguely talked about.) Again, however, the demonstrations are small, diffuse and lack support. Hardly anybody cares.

But on the other hand, nobody cares about the corporations. They are the air everybody breathes. Everybody has a logo on everything and everything fixed has a billboard stuck on it. This is accepted by everybody except the political activist who wishes to protest against falsity, although he has no idea of what reality might be, having no personal experience thereof.

Everybody is efficiently controlled by their cellphones. You can do anything with a cellphone, and anything can be done to you. If you misbehave your cellphone turns into a stungun and knocks you over. It’s monitoring you, and it can easily demonstrate your misconduct — which justifies your cellphone being cut off. Without a cellphone you cannot access the Web (a fate worse than death) and you cannot access your bank, so you cannot buy anything. It is clever of Beukes to make an icon of hideous consumerism into an icon of authoritarianism.

However, of course, most people don’t have those cellphones. Most people don’t have jobs. Such people exist in the background of the book; they are the suffering masses on behalf of whom the activist acts (never, of course, communicating with them in any way, except to demand that they show up at rallies — Beukes seems to have had some experience of such activists in the real world). The money to build the affluent enclaves in which the entirely bourgeois cast of characters live must have come from somewhere — but where? Nobody seems to make anything or do anything, nobody has power over their lives. It’s a society existing in a void.

By this time it seems that Beukes has been reading a lot of Naomi Klein; the hostility to advertising reflecting No Logo and the vague notion that big business wants to reduce government to the level of a police force reflecting The Shock Doctrine. If so, all credit to Beukes again for making the concepts so accessible. But within this, there is a problem.

Fredric Jameson (all rise and uncover, please) once remarked that every dystopia contains a utopia. Zamyatin’s We has its enclaves of freedom which the Benefactor must suppress. Huxley’s Brave New World has its Savage; Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has the inside of Winston’s and Julia’s heads and the inside of Julia’s thighs. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is located in a future where Gilead has already been destroyed. The whole point about a dystopia is to propose an alternative to the horror in the foreground.

Unfortunately, Moxyland seems to have no alternative. Are these odious, childlike people living in a city-wide padded cell really the future? The critique of radical resistance which Beukes presents is powerful, as is her presentation of the omnipotence and omniscience of corporate culture. But if the bad guys are inescapably in charge, there are no actual good guys and the people who think they are good guys are deluded, gullible clowns, then the book itself becomes nothing more than corporate propaganda with an illusory dose of attitude.

In other words, the book appears to be a substantial expansion of Beukes’ column in The Big Issue. Does this mean that she does not know what she is doing? Or is she the most sophisticated corporate propagandist around, doing knowingly what the characters in Moxyland are doing unconsciously?

Alternatively, is the book a cunning satire on the political defeatism of the South African middle class, whites, coconuts and all? Is it a brilliant jest against our false liberators? The Creator is perhaps dumb — a stunning acknowledgement to make — but it seems impossible to tell. Only Beukes knows for sure, and if Moxyland is any guide, she isn’t going to tell us.

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