“I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence against women.)
a is for algebra
“It’s all equations,” she says. “It’s all explainable.” Like we could break down the whole universe into factors and exponents and multiples of x. Like there is no mystery to anything at all.
“Okay, what about love?” I shoot back, irritated at her practicality.
And she ripostes with: “Fine. xx + xy = xxx.”
She has to explain the bit about chromosomes. This is her idea of a dirty joke. Later, I wonder if this was also her idea of a come-on.
Don’t worry, she repeats, her back to him, laying out things with serrated edges and conducting pads and blunt wrenching teeth. You can’t dehumanize something that isn’t human.
Pearl looks back at the protestors. One of the handwritten banners stays with her. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” it reads.
I love Lauren Beukes, and I generally dig short stories – especially those belonging to the SF/dystopia genre. So I was pretty psyched to get my hands on an early copy of Slipping, Beukes’s very first collection of short fiction and non-fiction essays. (There’s also 2014’s Pop Tarts and Other Stories, which I’m not counting since it’s comprised of just three short stories – all of which appear here.)
Slipping starts off a little meh; not meh-bad, but meh-disappointing for a writer of this caliber. The titular “Slipping,” told from the POV of a sixteen-year-old girl who was recruited by investors and remade into a bio-engineered athlete after losing both legs in an accident, boasts some wonderful world-building – but the story’s religious aspects ultimately turned me off. Much to my relief, things start to pick up with the fourth story, “Branded” (corporate-sponsored nanotech) and mostly just get better from there.
The fiction generally has a science fiction/dystopian bent, with a few fantasy and contemporary pieces mixed in. There’s even a fairy tale of sorts: a modern-day retelling of “The Princess of the Pea” that’s both a critique of celebrity culture and an ode to female masturbation that (spoiler alert!) is all kinds of awesome. While all are unique and imaginative, a few themes are common across many of the stories: transhumanism, e.g. through technological advancements in prosthetics, nanotech, neuroanatomy, etc.; an erosion of privacy/the rise in the surveillance state; and a rise in corporate control, most notably over our bodies and selves.
My favorites are the more overtly feminist stories, of which there are quite a few. By linking pregnancy with Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, “My Insect Skin” posits that pregnant women are on the cusp of becoming something “other” – from whore to Madonna, maybe – a point driven home by the street harassment the not-yet-showing narrator encounters while out for a jog early one morning. In “Parking,” a Nice Guy ™ parking cop falls in “love” with a woman from afar … and then tries to blackmail her into a date. “Litmash” is a fun – and entirely too short – twitter exercise (part of a fic-festival), in which followers proposed genre mashups for Beukes to storify in 150 characters or less. (I don’t know which I like better: #Sex&TheDystopianCity or #MyLittlePonyNoir.)
Also worth a mention is “The Green.” In the distant future, poor laborers are recruited to harvest (read: strip-mine) plant and animal matter on alien planets. Unsurprisingly, the biotech company sees its low-skilled workers as disposable: as much as, if not more so than, the organisms it harvests. Enter: zombies, both living and dead.
Whereas “The Green” imagines how corporate greed and a disregard for human life (see, e.g., Henrietta Lacks, the Tuskegee syphilis study, Martin Shkreli, Mylan’s EpiPen price hike, to name a few) might manifest in the future, Beukes turns her lens on the military-industrial complex in “Unaccounted.” Staff Sergeant Chip Holloway – a stickler for paperwork and procedure – tries to account for everything that’s transpired under his command – including the illicit torture of the military’s ittaca captives. Abu Ghraib, but with aliens.
The non-fiction isn’t as plentiful, but it’s every bit as powerful. “All the Pretty Corpses” laments the banality of violence against women – and also reveals the all-too-personal inspiration behind The Shining Girls, which involves the death of a family friend whose murderer was never brought to justice. Similarly, “Inner City” follows Beukes as she prepares for Zoo City. Her research takes her to Hillbrow, a dilapidated and forgotten neighborhood in Johannesburg, and a refugee camp that’s been condensed into a church. The book ends with “On Beauty: A Letter to My Fiver-Year-Old Daughter,” which is fierce and lovely and defiant, but also bleeds despair for the future of her wonderful, brave, and kind daughter. For all of the five-year-olds who are already well on the way to learning that they’ll be judged on outer beauty, no matter what’s in their hearts and minds.
Overall, Slipping is a fairly solid collection; the worst I have to say about the odd three-star story is that it’s merely forgettable (yet still readable enough). But the other pieces, the ones I lost myself in/to? Those will stay with me for a long time to come.
Muse – 3/5
Slipping – 3/5
Confirm/Ignore – 3/5
Branded – 5/5
Smileys – 5/5
Princess – 5/5
My Insect Skin – 5/5
Parking – 5/5
Pop Tarts – 4/5
The Green – 5/5
Litmash – 5/5
Easy Touch – 4/5
Alegbra – 5/5
Unathi Battles the Black Hairballs – 4/5
Dear Mariana – 4/5
Riding with the Dream Patrol – 4/5
Unaccounted – 5/5
Tankwa-Karoo – 4/5
Exhibitionist – 4/5
Dial Tone – 3/5
Ghost Girl – 4/5
Adventures in Journalism – 4/5
All the Pretty Corpses – 5/5
Judging Unity – 5/5
Inner City – 5/5
On Beauty: A Letter to My Fiver-Year-Old Daughter – 5/5
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: Speaking generally, many of the stories are based in South Africa (Lauren Beukes grew up in Johannesburg and now lives in Cape Town). According to the 2011 census, 79.6% of the population of South Africa is black; the stats for Johannesburg are similar. Consequently, I pictured many of the characters as POC by default.
“Slipping”: Tomislav the promoter is Russian. When she was fourteen, MC Pearl lost both legs in an accident, after which she suffered depression and isolation. She was recruited by sponsors who paid for extensive surgery and body mods, transforming her into a super-human athlete: a runner with removable organs, nanobots in the blood, neural connectivity, cameras in her eyeballs and microphone in her ears. Now sixteen, she’s in Karachi for the Games+. One of her competitors, Siska Rachman, is a quadraplegic who’s operating a dead girl’s body remotely. Pearl’s dad is an alcoholic who abandoned the family. Pearl’s doctor, Dr. Arturo, is from Venezuela.
“Branded”: The narrator is a “waster” – a drug addict of some sort.
“Smileys” – Thozama is a widow. Her daughter is an alcoholic who is HIV+, as is her grandson (her daughter’s son).
“Princess” – The Princess runs off with her handmaid, an economic refugee from Ecuador.
“My Insect Skin” – The narrator has a miscarriage in a public restroom while being harassed by a man outside.
“Pop Tarts” – The narrator’s best friend Koketla, a reality star, changed her name to Jude in order to make herself more palatable to American audiences.
“The Green” – The narrator’s homeless mother had her at fourteen; mom later dragged her to a sterilization clinic so the same wouldn’t happen to her (and for the government incentives). Her lover Rosseau died in a workplace accident; his body was turned into a zombie, using alien flora, by the biotech company they both work for. Distraught upon seeing his corpse shamble around the base, she tries to kill herself. Members of her team take/abuse drugs in order to perform/cope.
“Easy Touch” – Hilda and Oscar Varone – the would-be marks – are from Mexico. They lie about having a six-year-old son, Gael, who was paralyzed in a car accident.
“Unathi Battles the Black Hairball” – The story is set in Tokyo, but Unathi is from South Africa. Presumably the other characters are all Japanese unless otherwise noted.
“Dear Mariana” – Stalker Claudia types a goodbye letter to her ex, using Mariana’s own vintage typewriter.
“Tankwa-Karoo” – Rethabile and Jamie are a gay couple.
“Judging Unity” – A profile of Justice Unity Dow, a judge, human rights activist, and writer from Botswana.
Animal-friendly elements: Not overtly, though two stories might interest my fellow vegans:
“Unaccounted,” which is basically Abu Ghraib with non-human aliens. “You can’t dehumanize something that isn’t human,” the torturer insists. You and I and Staff Sergeant Chip Holloway beg to differ. (See my review for more.)
In “Exhibitionist” (not discussed above), an artist’s manager arranges to have to the gallery where her work’s being shown vandalized. The installation that bears the brunt of the abuse isn’t her photography exhibit, but rather a sound installation made of blood and flesh by Khanyi Nkosi:
Most people are here to see Khanyi Nkosi’s sound installation, fresh returned from her São Paolo show and all the resulting controversy. It’s the first time I’ve seen it in the flesh. The thing is gore-deluxe, red and meaty, like something dead turned inside out and mangled, half-collapsed in on itself with spines and ridges and fleshy strings and some kind of built-in speakers, which makes the name even more disturbing—Woof & Tweet.
I don’t understand how it works, but it’s to do with reverb and built-in resonator-speakers. It’s culling sounds from around us, remixing ambient audio, conversation, footsteps, glasses clinking, rustling clothing, through the systems of its body, disjointed parts of it inflating, like it’s breathing.
It’s hard to hear it over the hubbub, but sometimes it’s like words, almost recognizable. But mostly it’s just noise, a fractured music undercut with jarring sounds that seem to come at random. Sometimes it sounds like pain.
It’s an animal, right? Or alive at any rate. Some lab-manufactured plastech bio-breed with just enough brainstem to respond to input in different ways, so it’s unpredictable— but not enough to feel pain, apparently.
“It’s gratuitous. She could have done it any other way. It could have looked like anything. It could have been beautiful.”
“Like something you’d put in your lounge? Please, Kendra. It’s supposed to be revolting. It’s that whole Tokyo tech-grotesque thing. Actually, it’s so fucking derivative, I can’t stand it. Can we move along?” I run my hand along one of the ridges and the thing quivers, but I can’t determine any difference noticeable in the sounds. “Do you think it gets traumatized?”
“It’s just noise, okay? You’re as bad as that nut job who threw blood at her at the Jozi exhibition. It doesn’t have nerve endings, okay? Or no, wait, sorry, it does have nerve endings, but it doesn’t have pain receptors.”
“I meant, do you think it gets upset? By all the attention? I mean, isn’t it supposed to be able to pick up moods, reflect the vibe?”
“Christ knows. I think that’s all bullshit, but you could ask the artist. She’s over there schmoozing with the money, like you should be.”
It’s reminiscent of something out of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam series; think: pigoons, bred to grow human organs; glowing rabbits; and rats with snakes for tails. Only here it’s a mini-Jabba the Hut meets a DJ table. Or something. (I don’t know much about musical equipment, okay.)
Anyway, the death scene:
The man jerks her head back further and, bowing his legs, moves his arm as if to slice across her throat, only at the last instant—so late that she winces back involuntarily—deflecting to a side-swipe—not at her, but at Woof & Tweet, just in front of them.
The thing emits a lean crackle of white noise. The audience is rapt, camera phones clicking, as the others move in, five of them, with one guarding the door, to start laying into it. It’s only when the artist starts wailing that it becomes apparent that this was not part of the program.
The pangas tear into the thin flesh and ribs of Khanyi Nkosi’s thing with a noise like someone attacking a bicycle with an axe. The machine responds with a high-hat backbeat for the melody it assembles from the screams and skitters of nervous laughter. It doesn’t die quietly, transmuting the ruckus, the frantic calls to the police, and Khanyi wailing, clawing, held back by a throng of people.
The bright sprays of blood make it real, spattering the walls, people’s faces, my photographs, as the blades thwack down again and again. The police sirens in the distance are echoed and distorted as Woof finally collapses in on itself, rattling with wet smacking sounds. They disappear out into the streets as quickly as they came, shaking the machetes at us, threatening, don’t follow, whooping like kids. With the sirens closing in, one spits on the mangled corpse.
Khanyi is kneeling next to the gobs of her animal construct, trying to reassemble it, smearing herself with the bloody lumps of flesh.
Self-Portrait is covered in a mist of blood. I move to wipe it clean, although I’m scared the blood will smear, will stain the paper, but just then Jonathan takes my wrist, wraps his arms around me and kisses my neck.
“Don’t ruin the effect, sweetheart,” he whispers, his breath hot against my throat. “Do you know how much this is going to be worth?”
I glance up at the cameras again. The beady red lights, the unblinking lenses recording everything. Already the cops are asking for the footage. Jonathan kisses my neck again and grins. “You were magnificent.”
I guess “Exhibitionist” is about the monetization of art, though I can’t help but wonder what, if anything, it says about exploitation (of sentient non-humans; of life, or the components thereof; of suffering) as art.