Zoo City review

Zoo City Cover Lauren Beukes Angry Robot

How to enjoy book awards without having to actually write a novel

(A review of Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes)

There are three ways to gain pleasure from book awards (assuming that you are not one of the nominees yourself; if you are, congrats. Nice to see you here).

One is to have read all the books on the shortlist and therefore hold a valid opinion about which one is best. This never happens. Ever. Even the judges have to pull all-nighters skim-reading and pretend they’d read them ages ago.

Scenario Two is much more achievable: To have read at least one of the nominated books, and thus be allowed to hold forth, loudly, about how the one you bothered to buy should totally win the award in question (or, was such a pile of crap that it should never have been nominated).

Scenario Three is the nicest of all: To see a book you genuinely loved on the list, and for that book to actually win. That’s what happened to me when Zoo City won the Arthur C Clarke Award last year, and I got to feel smug and proud despite having had nothing to do with the book. You hear that? A way to feel smug and proud without having to do anything except read a book. Don’t tell me you’re not impressed by that.

Right now, with the nominee list for the 2012 Arthur C Clarke Award not yet announced, having an opinion about last year’s winner is the best you can do. So, get thee to a bookshop and swot up fast. Here are some of my favourite things about Beuke’s book.

1 The concept of being animalled. In Beuke’s world, criminals have a permanent reminder of their crime, an animal who is linked to them for life. The tether between person and animal is strong, and separation is unbearable. It’s a cool, visual conceit, and something that’s not vampires. (Or werewolves). Something original. Phew.

Now that those with a less than pristine past can be identified with just a glance, the animalled are quickly ostracised. Let’s face it, excluding people who are different is something humans have always been good at. The suburbs become gated communities, and the Zoo City of the title is slang for where the cons and their critters reside.

2 Urban grittiness. I like urban fantasy when it shows me streets that are real. Streets that have dirt and junkies on them, litter and blood. When she came out of prison with a Sloth on her shoulders, no one would rent Zinzi a place anywhere nice, and in fact she kinda liked the broken down tenement she found in the Zoo City ghetto. It was dirty, and crowded, and noisy – just like prison. The scenes in the downtown slums are easy to visualise and are always believable, uncomfortably so. The detail makes the magic and the noir elements feel very real.

3 Zinzi December. What a name, what a woman. Here’s a female lead, written by a female author, winning a SF prize in a year where everyone shouted a lot (a lot) about there being a lack of female SF authors these days. Zinzi is the kind of heroine I like – cynical, clever, with healthy disregard for authority. Her downward spiral is in the spotlight, not her love life. No, she’s not proud of what she’s done, or what she does now. And nor should she be. She stays away from the drugs these days, but is involved in some dodgy internet scams to pay the bills and has no legit alternatives to turn to instead.

4 The pop culture. Like the slums, Lauren gets this right. Remember I said there were no legit alternatives for Zinzi? Well, what if she uses her natural talent to help out some bad people, and earns enough to stop hustling for a while? People with animals also have a magical talent, a shavi, and Zinzi’s talent is finding lost things. Keys, love letters, toys, jewellery. She could find bigger stuff, yes, but she prefers to stick to the easy stuff. Less trouble that way. She advertises her services to find things people have lost, and attracts the attention of a pop mogul who’s lost his teen singer. She should know better than to get involved – the darkness surrounding the case is palpable – but the money and the armed heavies make it hard to walk away.

So she takes the job, to find a lost teen idol, a cookie-cutter cutie who is adored for her innocent image. She’s a beauty, an angel, a role model. And she needs to be found before the media discovers her disappearance and infers anything sordid. The gossip magazine culture and the fake saccharine pop stars are perfectly done, and excerpts from YouTube style web pages (complete with comments), song lyrics and tabloid columns are slipped neatly between the chapters.

Bonus Scenario Four: being able to say that none of this year’s list are as good as last year’s winner. Read this now and you still have a chance to enjoy this scenario.

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