Pearl looks back at the protestors. One of the handwritten banners stays with her. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” it reads.
I’ve been keen on Lauren Beukes’ writing ever since I read Zoo City on a whim a few years ago, and my opinion that she’s an author worth following was confirmed when I read Broken Monsters. Her career started with the gritty South African SF novels Moxyland and Zoo City, and while she’s moved on to do comics (Fairest) and into more horror/thriller territory (Shining Girls, Broken Monsters), all of her work has been excellent. Needless to say, I was eager to dive into her first collection, Slipping, which collects an assortment of short stories and nonfiction articles written between 2003 and 2014.
The stories in Slipping can feel rough compared to Beukes’ newer works—some are a bit too short, others lack the same polish or care as her later works. That’s understandable, since many of them were written before Beukes published Moxyland in 2008. The collection’s something of a glimpse into her writing origins, not just from how it collects her early fiction pieces but from the insight it offers into her career as a journalist. Readers who’ve wanted to see Beukes return to her earlier, grittier Joburg-SF days will find this collection right up their alley. As much as I liked Broken Monsters, set in my hometown Detroit, I enjoy her fiction set in South Africa for the authenticity she brings in writing about it, and because it introduces a locale that’s not as well-known or common in fiction here in the States.
Slipping is a goldmine of stories that veer sharply towards the dark and unsettling. Beukes doesn’t shy away from complex themes, and they begin to form common, underlying threads across her work: humanity’s tenuous relationship with technology, dehumanization and exploitation by corporations, privacy in the age of governmental surveillance, the bombarding influence of social media and reality TV, the love-hate world of toxic relationships and domestic violence, poverty, race relations, gender inequality. These themes crop up just as often in Beukes’ journalism as her fiction, and you can see her focusing on these same issues in her latest novels. She’ll probably keep writing about them as long as humanity at large keeps grappling with them.
Beukes often uses a SF framework to look at our pursuit of better living through technology, and how it can become an unhealthy obsession. The title story, “Slipping,” follows a sixteen-year-old girl who lost both legs in an accident, now rebuilt as the next generation of biomedical devices, a living, breathing, proof-of-concept demonstration. She participates in special olympics-type races against similar girls, broken and rebuilt and cut into products, breaking themselves further in hopes that an investor will shower them with money by picking their gadgetry for mass production. “The Green” is about low-skill, low-wage workers hired from dead-end lives to strip-mine an exotic jungle planet of its flora and fauna; that the planet’s lifeforms are hostile to humans is no concern to the company, who uses its workers as guinea pigs—zombies, in fact, sent to find the next fungus or bug that can be medicinalized, weaponized, or merchandized. “Branded” and “Pop Tarts” deal with cultures altered by social media, with people marketing themselves for the fame and glory of being the next big thing.
Not all of the fiction fall into the realm of genre; some are more mainstream pieces tinged with weird elements or magical realism. Most of these deal with unhealthy relationships from a decidedly feminist perspective. “Algebra” is an A-to-Z primer of a failed, toxic relationship, from its lustful beginnings to its self-destructive end; I love its unique structure, and found it both oddly relatable and a self-perpetuated tragedy. “Parking” has an obsessive niceguy traffic cop stalking his crush’s parked car, offering to let her off the hook for a parking ticket in exchange for one date. “My Insect Skin” is so intense and real it’s chilling, a story I’m loath to spoil… I found it deeply humane but horrific and disturbing.
It seems like a strange choice to include nonfiction in a fiction collection—my original fear was that they were there to increase the page count, since even with them the collection doesn’t break 300 pages—but they’re just as strange and informative and varied as the fiction. Several touch on Beukes’ background as a journalist, short snippets describing the grittier side of Johannesburg. “All the Pretty Corpses” offers insight into the origins of The Shining Girls, examining why gender issues and domestic violence have played such a key role in her fiction. Another is a letter written to her five-year-old daughter about real beauty versus the expectations of “beauty” saddled on women by marketing and society. They may lack the supernatural and fantastic elements found in Beukes’ fiction, but they’re every bit as powerful, if not more so due to the added weight of reality. Reading them gives a better understanding of where Beukes is coming from.
Don’t let me sell you on the idea that every story is a downer, because not every one is. Some are upbeat; others are just plain weird. “Unathi Battles the Black Hairballs” is an homage to Japanese anime and Snow Crash-style gonzo postcyberpunk futurism, a tongue-in-cheek tale where a chic mecha pilot’s karaoke session is interrupted when monstrous black hairballs attack Tokyo. It’s a fun piece that goes far over the top in its gonzo craziness and weeaboo tropes; it’s not my cuppa, but it’s more palatable as a short than it would be as a novel. And then there’s “Ghost Girl,” a cute story about an architecture student who becomes haunted when the ghost of a tween goth girl latches onto him. It could have been a downer—the ghost girl is dead, after all, and she lashes out when the architect prioritizes his girlfriend over his friendship with the lonely ghost girl—but it ends up as a touching story that’s aware enough not to ruin its own sense of wonder.
#ColdWarFairyTale II He opened up the warhead and found her heart. All glass and nuclear love.
I wasn’t sure what to expect with Slipping, though I did have high hopes going in since I already thought Beukes’ novels were fantastic. Her short fiction and nonfiction turned out to be equally impressive; while these early stories may have rough edges, they have the same themes, voice, and power that made her award-winning novels so successful. Lauren Beukes is a major talent in the genre, a shining figure of the weird and speculative: her writing is beautiful, her imagination is breathtaking, and the way she weaves boundless creativity with deft social commentary is something to behold. If you enjoy avant-garde science fiction, weird and unsettling tales, dark explorations of important issues through the lens of speculative fiction, you will probably enjoy this volume. Whether you like SF-as-social-commentary or fiction that’s just plain weird, this collection is for you.
I received an e-ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Slipping is scheduled for release on November 29th, so make sure to grab your own copy.
- Muse (2010)
- Slipping (2014)
- Confirm / Ignore (2010)
- Branded (2003)
- Smileys (2005)
- Princess (2008)
- My Insect Skin (2003)
- Parking (2005)
- Pop Tarts (2004)
- The Green (2012)
- Litmash (2012)
- Easy Touch (2009)
- Algebra (2006)
- Unathi Battles the Black Hairballs (2010)
- Dear Mariana (2004)
- Riding with the Dream Patrol (2011)
- Unaccounted (2011)
- Tankwa-Karoo (2014)
- Exhibitionist (2006)
- Dial Tone (2005)
- Ghost Girl (2008/2011)
- Adventures in Journalism (2005)
- All the Pretty Corpses: On Violence (2013)
- Judging Unity (2006)
- Inner City (2013)
- On Beauty: A Letter to My Five Year Old Daughter (2014)
Title: Slipping: Stories, Essays, & Other Writing
Author: Lauren Beukes
First Published: 29 November 2016
What I Read: Tachyon Publications ebook
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via publisher)
MSRP: $15.95 pb / $9.99 ebook
ISBN / ASIN: 1616962402 / B01G5V6FO2