From the way this book was marketed I was expecting something along the Douglas Adams axis, in reality the book has more of a Kurt Vonnegut flavour.
The science fictional universe and the time travel therein are metaphors for nostalgia and regret, the ultimate message being how it is best to get on with your life. It is very cleverly done and some of the descriptions of the theory behind time travel and its relation to memory hover on the threshold of genuine epiphany.
However, at the risk of looking like I’ve missed the point, I would really have liked to hear more about the science fictional universe itself and the city of New Angeles/Lost Tokyo. I seems like a fascinating place, and one and which How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe offers a tantalisingly brief glimpse.
You only need to look back to the 1984 Doctor Who story The Caves of Androzani to see the inspiration for the current government’s unpaid “work experience” scheme:
The stews of the city are full of such unemployed riff-raff.
Most of them unemployed, Trau Morgus, because you have closed so many plants. It’s caused great unrest.
Easily settled. Those without valid employment cards will be shipped off to the eastern labour camps.
Yes, we might make that seem morally justifiable. I’ll put your interesting suggestions to the Praesidium tomorrow.
Naturally, should any special funding be required…
Most generous. Of course, the irony is while you’ve been closing plants here in the west, you’ve been building them in the east. So if the unemployed were sent to the eastern labour camps, a great many of them would be working for you again, only this time without payment.
I hadn’t thought of that.
Of course you hadn’t.
We can only hope that Cameron meets the same fate as Morgus.
A dark tale set fifteen minutes into the future and yet a world that is so well described and characters so vital that it leaves you bereft when its all over.
Comparisons are lazy but if William Gibson had written Trainspotting and set it in South Africa… well it wouldn’t be Moxyland, but might deserve to sit on the same shelf. This is intelligent cyberpunk written from today’s perspective, extrapolating the sociology of the near future in frightening detail. For a book published in 2008 it’s frighteningly prescient four years on given the strong arm response of governments to large scale unrest - how much separates kettling from a genetically engineered riot-control virus? Perhaps given the country’s history South Africans can see the signs more clearly than some.
The four protagonists are distinct, flawed and all sympathetic in their own way. The way their stories intersect resulting in them being seen from the outside and from within is compelling.
Having already read the author’s second novel (Zoo City) I probably now have a frustrating wait for the next Beukes novel, which I hope is as much of a tour de force as the first two.
There is a certain self conscious humour to be to be found in a particular type of genre novel. Often the novel is apocalyptic, containing demons, angels and/or the afterlife and usually it contains up to the minute cultural references. You get the distinct impression that the author was so impressed by Gaiman and Pratchett’s Good Omens that they were determined to write their own version. Sometimes they’re clearly emulating Douglas Adams as well.
I thought I detected this tone when I started reading The Coincidence Engine, but it soon turned out I was wrong. It wasn’t long before I was drawn into a unique story which dragged me relentlessly along in its wake not letting go of my collar until the last page. There is a lot of humour here, its true, not to mention numerous zeitgeisty cultural references, but the novel is far more than just another comedic genre pot-boiler. The humour is offset by a depth of detail, sometimes tragic, surrounding the central characters, people you end up really caring about.
Douglas Adams’s influence is clear - the central premise being what happens when someone actually builds something not unlike the Infinite Improbability Drive but this conceit is surrounded by fascinating layers of mathematical and philosophical musings that raise this novel above a normal narrative.
There are some niggles - the intrusion into the narrative of a judgemental authorial voice (in the first person no less) I found extremely jarring. The switch to present tense for the flashback involving Holderness and Banarcharski likewise interrupts the flow of the story.
But on the whole I enjoyed this engaging and unputdownable debut. I am interested to see what the author comes up with next.