Zoo City, Lauren Beukes

Angry Robot, 2011 reprint of 2010 original, 413 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-85766-055-8

Given the tottering stacks of stuff to read that I’ve got looming over me like so many unfulfilled obligations, it’s not as if I’m actively looking for reading recommendations.  I’ve got enough reading fuel in the basement to last me for years; why should I pick up something new?

Because new is cool, that’s why.  When the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke shortlist was announced, the only book on the list that intrigued me was Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City, and the drumbeat of a few fervent fans within the SF blogosphere was enough to convince me that I should check it out.

The number one reason given by its fans was that the book was different, and they’re not exaggerating.  Set in an alternate world’s Johannesburg, Zoo City is a fresh take on urban fantasy: In a world where serious criminals are made conspicuous thanks to the visible presence of an animal familiar that grants them special powers, our narrator investigates the disappearance of an up-and-coming pop-star.  Narrator Zinzi December is neither wealthy nor virtuous: not only is she confined to the titular ghettos where despised “zoos” end up, one of her many sidelines involves writing 419 scams for credulous first-worlders in order to pay her drug dealer.

As far as contemporary fantasy takes on noir plots go, Zoo City is a bit of a gem.  Beukes being South African herself, the setting of the novel is vividly rendered, and quickly comes to become one of the novel’s most appealing aspects.  Her journalistic training also serves her well in depicting the various overlapping classes that make up Johannesburg, and how they interact.  Our heroine Zinzi may not be wholly original in the urban fantasy subgenre, but she comes close: poor black South African women with attitude aren’t exactly familiar protagonists, and her inner monologue is refreshingly different from anything else published lately.  Even considered purely on its non-fantastic aspects, Zoo City does very well as a thriller set in an unfamiliar environment.

But the point of the novel is that it’s fantasy, and it’s Beukes’ treatment of her premise that makes Zoo City equally satisfying as a genre novel.  Not much of the premise is over-explained, but thanks to hints left in the narration and pieces of world-building scattered in the interstitial pieces between chapters (including one of the most creative use of a fake IMDB listing I’ve seen so far), we gather that something strange happened during the nineties, and that semi-sentient animal companions suddenly started appearing next to criminals.  The specifics of the change remain poorly understood (something that may annoy readers unwilling to completely let go of their disbelief), but two things are clear: familiars give their owners special powers, and if the familiar dies… the owner dies as well in a spectacular fashion.  For SF&F readers who enjoy playing with an idea in their head, there’s plenty of interesting material here to think about.  (Worry not; genre precedents such as Pullman are explicitly name-checked in acknowledgement.)

Fortunately, Zoo City doesn’t make the mistake of letting the concept being the novel’s sole reason for existing.  This isn’t one of those pocket-universe SF novels where the plot ends up tied to the fantastic premise and where mysteries about the world are solved at the same time as the protagonist finds the solution to a smaller scale enigma: Zinzi just deals with the world as it affects her, even as her investigation lands her in dangerous situations.  She’s got plenty of complicated relationships, and those play out convincingly even in a world where animal familiars are commonplace.

Still, there’s little else to say here but: Good story, well told.  Plenty of imaginative elements, slick writing, interesting plotting and a satisfying combination of unusual setting, clean prose and matter-of-fact social relevance.  It’s both new (in atmosphere and ideas) and comfortingly familiar (in plotting mechanism and writing style): I had a really good time with this novel (despite a far more conventional ending than I expected) and gladly join the small army of Beukes fans.  I’m thinking that Zoo City deserves a few nominations, that Beukes is fast coming up as a writer to watch, and that I ought to read her first novel Moxyland in a hurry.  And that, fellow readers, is why we shouldn’t let our stack of things to read dictate what we actually end up reading.  There’s a lot of new stuff out there, just waiting to be discovered as soon as we step off the beaten path.

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