Zoo City: enter a Johannesburg filled with Pullman-esque familiars and Gibsonian mystery

The genres of sci-fi and fantasy as we know them today had their main origins in Europe and America; they still remain dominated by Westerners, and for that matter by men too. Which makes Zoo City, an urban fantasy set in author Lauren Beukes’s homeland South Africa, a bit of a change. In recent years Beukes has received critical praise both for this novel and for other works, notably Moxyland (her previous book) and The Shining Girls (her subsequent one). Lately I got around to giving Zoo City a go.

Zoo City takes place in an alternate history; in this reality animal companions are linked to humans spiritually. An idea that’s not quite unique, since Philip Pullman did it already. In Beukes’s version, animals only attach themselves to those humans responsible for the loss of another person’s life. Inevitably, this has led to much discrimination being directed at these ‘animalled’ by other people. The details and the implications of the phenomenon are worked into the book convincingly, giving much depth to the setting, a nice touch being the multimedia element added by excerpts from fictional articles, websites, etc. In fact the book’s world as a whole, in terms of other aspects as well as its spec-fic ones, is brought to life compellingly – the shamans and street-vendors, the descriptions and conversations, everything working to provide a real sense of place. Both the fantasy details and the real-world details contribute to the impression of a problematically stratified society. It brings to mind District 9‘s use of the South African location for its real-life parallels with that film’s depiction of anti-extraterrestrial intolerance.

In terms of plot, Zoo City‘s a mystery story revolving around a child pop-star’s disappearance. That said, it’s no tight slick thriller; in honesty, this sprawling tale withholds secrets less through clever twists than by digressing into numerous subplots while sitting on info as long as possible. Some scenes, particularly the climactic one, also seem a little contrived and melodramatic to me. I’m more impressed by some of the novel’s less significant passages, those smaller parts where Beukes uses her keen observations to create character or atmosphere, than I am by the try-hard feel of its over-the-top set-pieces.

Whatever else it is, Zoo City‘s something a bit out of the ordinary. And in some respects, such as its creation of its setting, it’s really first-rate. It has some flaws common to works written early in novelists’ careers, is sometimes a bit of a mess, but it’s a fun read on the whole. Yes – a loud, messy, fun story.

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