Written by Lauren Beukes
Synopsis: Zinzi has a Sloth on her back, a dirty 419 scam habit and a talent for finding lost things. But when a little old lady turns up dead and the cops confiscate her last paycheck, she’s forced to take on her least favourite kind of job – missing persons.
Zoo City is the first read in Ellie's 2012 sci-fi challenge, and I think she picked a brilliant book to start with. I'm not exactly new to the science fiction genre, but this book is the perfect bridge for readers who want to get a taste of sci-fi, but don't want to commit to a fully-fledged Asimov or PKD world. There are subtle changes to the world we live in, which is manifested primarily through the creation of 'zoos' (which I'll explain soon), but otherwise it's a very similar world to the one we live in. There are no science experiments or machines to wrap your mind around, and it doesn't matter if you've never even thought about what it'd take to survive in a post-apocalypse dystopia. If you live with your eyes open to the disparity that exists between people, especially in places like South Africa where the novel is set, then you're more than equipped to read and appreciate this novel.
Zinzi is the protagonist and has a rather chequered past. She's a recovering addict, murdered her brother and was once a journalist who stole money from her editor/boyfriend. Now she's estranged from her parents and lives in one of South Africa's ghettos, known as 'zoo city'. Zinzi, as well as most of the other people in the apartment and neighbourhood, is a zoo, meaning that she has an animal which has 'attached' itself to her since she committed her criminal offence. This is quite similar to the daemons in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials except these aren't a physical manifestation of one's soul, but are instead, according to popular belief, the manifestation of your guilt. Zinzi's animal is a sloth, and their connection is strong. Like the daemons in Pullman's trilogy, they aren't tied by a physical string, but their separation is unbearable and should the animal be removed completely, or dies, the zoo will be visited by 'the undertow'. In addition to being a physical demonstration of her criminal past, the sloth imbibes Zinzi with a special ability, the ability to find lost things. And it is the search of lost keys, rings, photos and other paraphernalia which pay Zinzi's rent. Well that and writing the template emails for those lousy scammers claiming "you could receive $3 million if..."
It is a fine line between too much and too little when it comes to releasing details about what caused the dystopian or sci-fi aspect/element of a novel, but in this case I found myself wanting a little more. By the end of the novel you have all the answers, but I found myself pulled away from the story trying to work out exactly what a zoo and what the undertow was, especially in the first half of the novel. The inclusion of psychiatric reports and documentary excerpts to fill in the gaps were an interesting and informative way to fill in the gaps of knowledge, I just wish they'd been a little earlier in the book. That said, the zoo element of the book was very interesting. It's pretty much the only difference that exists between this world and the one we actually live in, and it serves as a physical demonstration of the disparity that exists in society, especially amongst people considered to live in the shadows of society. The investigation Zinzi finds herself on really explores this issue, and considering the location is South Africa, I think it makes some poignant statements on the current state of society.
I felt like the story went a little off the rails towards the end, but this was an entertaining book that I really enjoyed reading. If you've been looking for a nice and un-intimidating way into science-fiction then I think you'll find this book the one for you. It's almost a little young adult-y in places, but again, that's just another way of making the book easy to get into. A good start to the challenge and the year!