The late 1990s saw the first case of what became known as Acquired Aposymbiotic Familiarism (AAF) – or, more bluntly, the Zoo Plague.  Anyone who does something bad gains an animal (which is apparently an extension of their selves), a magical ability of some sort, and the threat of destruction by the “black cloud” of the Undertow. That “something bad” is deliberately vague, because nobody in the alternate present/several-months-hence of Lauren Beukes’ novel knows precisely what causes this condition; which of course means that people can place their own meaning on to it – but to become a “zoo” or “animalled” is certainly a social stigma.

On that note, meet Zinzi December, one-time journalist, now living in the Zoo City area of Johannesburg. Responsible for the death of her brother, Zinzi now has a Sloth and the ability to find lost things; she earns her money from the latter, and from a sideline in 419 scams. When her current client turns up dead, Zinzi has to take the best job she can get, which is being hired by a music mogul named Odi Huron to find the missing half of his latest act, the teen duo iJusi. You don’t need me to tell you that it’s not as simple as that.

But hold on, because that makes it sound as though Zoo City is a noir-ish mystery with fantastical overtones – which it is, but the mystery is not the most important thing; rather, the investigation seems to me a device to facilitate a journey through the book’s world (the city, that is). And one of the most striking things about that world, as both John Clute and Niall Harrison have noted, is how low-key its fantasy is; the presence of animal familiars aside, if you didn’t know there were magic in the novel’s world, it would be easy to miss. This is magic so thoroughly integrated into the world that it becomes just another tool to be used in life (as Zinzi says, “You do what it takes, you take the opportunities” [p. 346]); in this regard, Zoo City reminded me of The City & the City (the presentation of the Undertow, as an overt irruption of the possibly-supernatural into real life, also recalled for me the latter novel’s Breach), though where Mieville’s novel puts its fantastical construct front and centre, Beukes’ keeps its one hidden like an individual tree in a forest.

Adam Roberts coined the term “worldbling” to describe showing off through world-building; when I’d first finished Zoo City, I thought to myself, this novel demonstrates the opposite of worldbling.  But, having since read Clute’s review, I’m coming to a slightly different view: if this novel has any worldbling (and I do think it has some), it’s of the Cook’s-tour kind, not about the magic, but about the place. And Zinzi’s travels in the city are extensive, taking in glitzy clubs, the sewers, and more besides. She also finds herself taking on many roles during the course of the novel: as well as the standard finder of lost things, she will step back into her old journalistic circles, and act out parts in face-to-face scams; she’ll be the lover she is, and perhaps even the lover she once was. I think this is where AAF really comes in at a metaphorical level; to acquire an animal in Zoo City is to become displaced and different – literally so, as a part of you manifests as another creature; but also displaced from society, and Zinzi is not the only character who is forced by circumstance to become someone else. Even the area which is now Zoo City used to be different.

I think I’d agree with Niall that the ending of Zoo City lets the book down somewhat. There’s a too-strong sense of pieces being moved into position on the gameboard, in a novel that doesn’t initially feel as though it has a board. However, Beukes’ telling is what carries the day; quite apart from anything else, the momentum of the story and narration is gloriously unstoppable.

Lauren Beukes’ first novel, Moxyland, has been on my shelves waiting to be read for some time. After this, it won’t be staying that way for long.

Lauren Beukes’ website

This review is posted in support of ‘women and sf’ week at Torque Control.

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts about the Award.