Thursday, 28 April 2011

Guest Post by Lauren Beukes: Worldbuilding Through Found Objects

I am immensely pleased to announce a guest post today by Lauren Beukes, the enormously talented author behind Zoo City and Moxyland. I was delighted to meet Lauren at Eastercon recently, and found her to be fantastically humble, down-to-earth and slightly bewildered by all the attention being showered upon her!

Without further ado, I hand you over to Lauren, who is planning to talk today about Worldbuilding Through Found Objects:

Blame movies. Blame the Interwebs. Blame Alan Moore.

There are few things worse than the info-dump – that moment in a novel or a movie when cool insider draws the protagonist aside, usually to a bar, and explains How Things Are.

It was something I really, really wanted to avoid when I was writing Zoo City. But in constructing an alternate reality where something fundamental has changed in the world, I needed to show at least some of the back-story and the global ramifications of the rise of Acquired Aposymbiotic Familiarism (AAF) or the “zoo plague”.

The conceit of the novel is sometime in the mid 90s (or, some cases indicate, even earlier) something in the world shifted. It started with reports from incredulous journalists of an Afghan warlord appearing on raids accompanied by a penguin in a bullet proof vest. He would become known, incorrectly, as Patient Zero of the new phenomenon unfolding around the world that touched off panic and lead to quarantine camps and medical testing in democratic countries and far uglier things elsewhere, before the world settled into an uneasy truce with the new ontology.

There are lots of theories about what the animals are, tying in to old belief systems, from totem animals to witches’ familiars, guardian angels, the devil on your shoulder, the monkey on your back, the scapegoat for your sins. And new beliefs too; scientologists believe the animals are physical manifestations of thetan energy, while some radical Hindu environmentalists believe that it’s toxic reincarnation – where pollutants like BPA have caused part of your karmic soul to breaks off and comes back as a separate reincarnation prematurely. What is clear is that you only have an animal if you’ve done something terrible – and that when the animal dies a seething, howling black cloud called the Undertow or Siah Chal comes to claim you.

In India, the animalled are a new caste, below the untouchables. “In China they execute zoos on principle. Because nothing says guilty like a spirit critter at your side.” In South Africa, where the novel is set, zoos are discriminated against and segregated, not by official government policy – in fact the constitution protects the rights of the animalled – but because no landlord in their right mind is going to let someone with an aardvark or a silverbacked jackal rent an apartment in a decent building. Zinzi, the novel’s protagonist describes her sloth as a furry scarlet letter”.

That’s a lot of information to dump right there. So I decided to avoiding dumping it altogether and instead create “found objects” that would reveal some of the back-story in a way that could be organically woven into the narrative - and allow readers to fill in the gaps themselves.

I’ve always admired the way Alan Moore uses everything from burlesque songs to Victorian erotica to beat fiction inserted between to make his stories richer and deeper.

But it’s also very much in keeping with our experience of the world where we gather context from absolutely everywhere. The newspaper headline posters tied to street poles, Twitter, Facebook, the Internet, office gossip, a snippet of overheard conversation, dinner party debate, movies, TV, music, advertising, pop culture. It all infiltrates and builds our understanding of current events, the world and our place in it.

I tried to do the same in the novel - to expand on my universe and the characters, using everything from a music magazine profile on antagonist Odysseus Huron and his new teen afropop sensation, through to extracts from a book of prison interviews, an academic paper on the Undertow in a psychology journal, a snippet from a real book on African mythology explaining the idea of mashavi – the uniquely South African theory that lost spirits of the ancestors take the form of an animal, a gossipy crime-watch newspaper column, and an IMDB-style website listing on a 2003 documentary called The Warlord and the Penguin: The Untold Story of Dehqan Baiyat, complete with spammy p0rnbot comments linking to explicit zoo sex videos.

I even got guest writers in on the operation who brought a new perspective to the found objects, namely Sam Wilson, Charlie Human and real-life music journalist Evan Milton.

It felt more natural and more interesting to write and, hopefully, to read.

If you've read Moxyland and/or Zoo City, then how about leaving a comment for Lauren, telling her how awesome she is!

With enormous thanks to Lauren for the post, and to Lee Harris at Angry Robot Books for arranging.


  1. Congratulations on the Clarke award! Good luck with the Hugos.

  2. I've read both Zoo City and Moxyland and adored them. They were the first books I went all fangirl over in my reviews and I still stand by that. I already congratulated Lauren on Twitter, but I'll so again, because this award was so very, very deserved! Good luck on all the other nominations!