Cyberpunk Thriller

Zoo City is set in an alternate Johannesburg, where criminals or those who have serious moral failings, get landed with an animal familiar as a permanent attachment.

Image by Jeff Attaway, via Flickr CC.

Zoo City, the award-winning novel by South African Lauren Beukes, is to be turned into a film. Producer Helena Spring, also a South African, won the rights, and will be looking for a director. Spring’s credits range from the Oscar-nominated South African films, “Yesterday” and “Red Dust” (a not so good courtroom drama about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission), to the silly, but lucrative, Leon Schuster comedies “Mama Jack” (he’s in blackface for most of the film) and Mr Bones. Her most recent film is “The First Grader,” which is winning awards all over the place. So she seems to be in good company with Beukes, who earlier this year won the Arthur C Clarke award for Zoo City. The book also won a British Science Fiction Award for best art work – for designer Joey Hi-Fi. It is a great cover — far better in my view than the one on the North American edition.

Zoo City is a ‘cyberpunk thriller’ set in an alternate Johannesburg, where criminals or those who have serious moral failings, get landed with an animal familiar as a permanent attachment. They also get the added benefit of a psychic power. The book’s protagonist is Zinzi December, a former journalist and drug addict, who ended up with a sloth on her back after causing her brother’s death. She spends her time writing copy for 419 scam emails until she gets roped in to searching for a missing singer (her talent is being able to find lost things).

The concept of the animal familiar clearly owes a lot to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, although the idea plays out very differently.

Zoo City is incredibly innovative, and Beukes is clearly a really original voice in South African literature. She can be compared to China Mieville, another Arthur C Clarke award winner (in fact, here they are photographed together). They both write wildly innovative sci-fi/fantasy — Mieville calls his work weird fiction — set in dystopian urban environments. This kind of fantasy is very different from the escapist wizards and fairies you get in Tolkien and his clones. It’s gritty and real, morally complex, and politically aware – though I think Beukes is not yet quite at Mieville’s level.

I enjoyed Zoo City, though for some reason about two thirds of the way through the book my interest started to flag. Despite the weirdness and invention of Beukes’s language, context and characters, I found the storyline ultimately a little disappointing. I preferred her earlier novel, Moxyland, which I think deserves a lot more attention. The story of corporate and political power gone mad, and the use of technology for surveillance and control in a futuristic Cape Town, has powerful resonance in these days of Carrier IQ, Occupy Wall Street and the 99 percent.

Further Reading

A power crisis

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The meanings of Heath Streak

Zimbabwean cricketing legend Heath Streak’s career mirrors many of the unresolved tensions of race and class in Zimbabwe. Yet few white Zimbabwean sporting figures are able to stir interest and conversation across the nation’s many divides.


After winning Italy’s Serie A with Napoli, Victor Osimhen has cemented his claim to being Africa’s biggest footballing icon. But is the trend of individual stardom good for sports and politics?

The magic man

Chris Blackwell’s long-awaited autobiography shows him as a romantic rogue; a risk taker whose life compass has been an open mind and gift to hear and see slightly into the future.

How to think about colonialism

Contemporary approaches to the legacy of colonialism tend to narrowly emphasize political agency as the solution to Africa’s problems. But agency is configured through historically particular relations of which we are not sole authors.

More than just a flag

South Africa’s apartheid flag has been declared hate speech by a top court. But while courts are important and their judgments matter, racism is a long and internationally entrenched social phenomenon that cannot be undone via judicial processes.