Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes: Fred Patten’s review of Arthur C. Clarke Award winning SF book.

by Patch O'Furr

zcZoo City, by Lauren Beukes

Johannesburg, Jacana Media, June 2010, trade paperback R150,00 (344 pages).

Okay, I have a thing for listing books by their original editions, but I can’t really expect anyone (except Rakuen Grolithe) to order this from South Africa. The international edition (383 pages) was published by Osprey Publishing/Angry Robot in Botley, Oxford, UK, in July 2011, and distributed in the U.S. by Random House; U.S. prices hardcover now o.p., trade paperback $15.00, and Kindle $5.99.

“Zinzi has a Sloth on her back”. Literally. Zinzi December is required by both law and magic to go about with a live sloth clinging to her back, or hanging out of her handbag or backpack, for her involvement in her brother’s death. If she tries to get rid of or kill it, or gets too far from it, she will be almost instantly reduced to a cloud of ash.

She is not the only “animalled” character in this winner of the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award (for the best science-fiction novel first published in the U.K. during the previous year). In this alternate-world novel (that almost every reviewer has said should be classed as “urban fantasy” or “magic realism” rather than as s-f), the “Zoo Plague” has been in force worldwide since the 1990s. Everyone guilty of murder, or of being responsible for someone’s death, is “assigned” a domestic or wild animal familiar known as a “shavi” for the rest of his or her life. The shavi is linked to the human’s lifespan, so an animal that’s outside of its natural habitat, or would normally die of old age, will live as long as its human does.

As this is a “mark of shame”, animalled people tend to be outcasts and end up in slums. Zinzi, a recovering drug addict, lives in a trashheap ghetto in Johannesburg, Elysium Heights, known as “Zoo City” for all the animalled people (pejoratively called “zoos”) living there. But shavis also bestow minor magic talents on their bearers, and Zinzi’s talent is that she can find lost objects and people. Zinzi, more commonly called Sloth for her shavi, has turned her talent into her living.

Lost a small item of personal value?  

I can help you find it for a reasonable fee.

No drugs. No weapons. No missing persons. (p. 14)

But when Zinzi is hired by a rich old lady to find her lost ring that was washed down a sink, it takes Zinzi and her Sloth two days to track the ring through Jo-burg’s sewers to get it back, and she returns to find the old lady murdered and herself a police suspect. When this ends with her released but the ring and her payment confiscated by the police – well, Zinzi is penniless (or, being South African, rand-and-centless) and forced to accept a missing-persons job, after all. Odi Huron, a notoriously reclusive top music-industry promoter, wants her to locate Songweza Radebe, a secretly missing new pop-music starlet, before her official launch party in three weeks.

The Angry Planet reprint quotes a review by Cory Doctorow: “A remarkable, gritty, noir urban fantasy. The story writhes back and forth like the best noirs, Chandleresque, but filled with unknowable magic and set in an ultra-gritty Jo-burg that makes District 9 look like a holiday camp.” Zinzi’s search for Songweza leads her and Sloth to not only Jo-burg’s even-less-reputable underworld (which she expected), where the crime bosses are all animalled, but also to dark surprises and a deadly plot that only someone who is animalled could discover. Zoo City is one of those noir murder mysteries in which everyone seems to have “a secret that they will kill to keep hidden”. Each of the everyones has a shavi; a dog or monkey or rat or sparrow or tapir or Marabou stork that accompanies him or her everywhere. And once you’ve got a shavi and everyone knows that you’re a killer, further killing seems easy.ZooCity-front-72dpi-RGB

Zoo City is a sardonic, tightly-written crime thriller set in the exotic locale of Johannesburg, full of usually-understandable South African slang and political references (Beukes knowledgeably writes for an international readership), with the added magic of all the shavi. Zinzi lives with her boyfriend, Benoît, who is animalled with a Mongoose. It and Zinzi do not like each other:

“I take hold of the laptop on either side and gently tilt it over the edge of my desk. At thirty degrees, the Mongoose starts sliding down the front of the laptop. He wakes with a start, tiki tavi claws scrabbling for purchase. As he starts to fall, he contorts in the air and manages to land feet first. Hunching his stripy shoulders, he hisses at me, teeth bared. I hiss back. The Mongoose realises he has urgent flea bites to attend to.” (pages 7-8)

Zinzi is meeting Benoît at Makhaza’s Bar, a popular Zoo City hangout:

“I shrug Sloth off at the holding pen by the door. He sways himself onto the branch of a dead tree hung with fairylights and already well populated. A doughy Squirrel quickly stuffs the remains of a chocolate bar into her mouth and chitters reproachfully at Sloth, then bounds higher, past a preening Indian Mynah and a Boomslang looped casually from a fork in the branch, as motionless as the mannequins.

‘Don’t get too close, buddy,’ I warn Sloth. Unofficially, there’s a code of conduct, but animals are still animals. And animals can be assholes, too. The Mongoose is curled up in the corner in the sawdust. He slits his eyes open, then pretends to go back to sleep.” (p. 52)

The shavi are only borderline anthropomorphic. They don’t talk, but they do seem to relate to humans more than the average pet, especially the wild animals and the non-mammals:

“The Mongoose is sitting to attention on the spot where my doormat used to be. […]

The Mongoose gets to his paws and pads off down the corridor towards the fire-escape. He pauses and looks back expectantly over his shoulder.

‘Really?’ I say. I’m wearing a t-shirt, panties and a pair of socks, and it’s freaking cold out there.

The Mongoose sits down again and waits.

‘Okay, hang on. For fuck’s sake.’ I close the door and yank on my yellow leather coat with the ripped lining. Sloth mumbles sleepily.

‘S’okay, buddy. I think I can handle Operation Retrieve Drunken Idiot Boyfriend on my own,’ Sloth makes approving chewing noises and goes back to sleep.” (p. 69)


“‘I get it. You’re making a mistake, but I’ll take your money. How much are we talking?’

‘If you bring her back before the official launch and intact?’ He smiles thinly. I know what that means. Sweet. Innocent. Un-animalled. ‘R50,000.’ Sloth takes a sharp breath at the amount. All very serious indeed.” (p. 91)

The shavi are more helpful to their humans than the average wild animal:

“‘I am so sick of your mouth,’ — says, reaching into the back of his jeans. But he doesn’t get to pull the gun, because Sloth drops onto him from the ceiling. — goes down under a ball of fur and fury. The gun goes skittering across the floor, skidding under the bed. I start to scramble for it, think better of it, and change direction.

Then Sloth screams. I stop dead, a frame-grab of a girl bending down to snatch up a kettle. I close my hand over the handle and turn, very slowly, to see that — has Sloth’s arm wrenched backwards at a terrible angle, his knee between Sloth’s shoulders, pressing him into the linoleum. There are deep gouges on —‘s face and neck. A chunk of flesh has been torn out of his cheek by sharp little herbivore teeth.” (p. 308)

(Forgive the dashes, but at this point, it would be a spoiler to reveal Zinzi’s attacker’s name.)

The climax returns to the beginning, revealing dirty secrets about that old lady’s unsolved murder and about a grisly way to make the Zoo Plague work for you. It is VERY dramatic, VERY bloody, and packed with shavi, good and bad. Raymond Chandler with animals.

Zoo City is mostly Zinzi December’s first-person narrative, but every so often there is a two- or three-page interlude that has nothing to do with her story, but fills in some of the background about the animalling: when it started, its parameters, its social effects, and so on; the extreme limits that Zinzi doesn’t experience, but that tells the reader how animalling works.

Something else that many reviewers have done is to compare Beukes’ shavi with Philip Pullman’s dæmons in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy, especially in the first novel, The Golden Compass. Pullman’s trilogy is even mentioned by Beukes, on p. 77. The shavi don’t talk like the dæmons do, but otherwise they seem very similar; and The Golden Compass is accepted by most furry fans as an anthropomorphic novel well worth reading. So is Zoo City.

Lauren Beukes is identified as the head scriptwriter at South Africa’s largest animation studio, Clockwork Zoo. She has two more non-anthropomorphic novels to her credit, first published in South Africa, then in international editions: Moxyland and The Shining Girls. The cover of the trade paperback edition of Zoo City is by John Picacio. Beukes has her own website for Zoo City: http://laurenbeukes.com/books/zoo-city/

– Fred Patten