SciFi Discussion – Zoo City

It might have been cold the Tuesday before last, but Manchester SciFi book clubbers braved the elements and ventured to the Madlab for a discussion about Zoo City by Lauren Beukes.

“Zoo City is set in an alternate version of the South African city of Johannesburg, in which people who have committed a crime are magically attached to an animal familiar – those who receive such punishment are said to be “animalled”. The novel’s chief protagonist, Zinzi December – who was “animalled” to a sloth after getting her brother killed – is a former journalist and recovering drug addict, and is attempting to repay the financial debt she owes her drug dealer by charging people for her special skill of finding lost objects, as well as making use of her writing abilities by drafting 419 fraud emails. The book’s plot focuses on Zinzi’s attempts to find the missing female member of a brother-and-sister pop duo for a music producer, in return for the money she needs to fully repay her dealer.”

Zoo City book cover

Did We Like It?

Overall opinions seemed to be quite positive. In a new twist to established mcsrf tradition, we each awarded points out of five. There was quite a wide spread of points awarded, the mean being 2.72 out of 5.

Some of us found it slow to start, although others were drawn into the story quite quickly.

No Spaceships or Robots?!

Disappointingly there were no spaceships or robots in Zoo City. In fact, there was no futuristic technology at all. It was magic rather than science. We promptly and unanimously agreed that Zoo City was not Science Fiction. Indeed, on the back cover of the book there is a message suggesting that it be filed under “Urban Fantasy”. Oddly, Zoo City won the 2011 Arthur C. Clark Award, the most prestigious British science fiction award.

We did note that SciFi stories are often about times of change and Zoo City is set at a time when becoming Animalled is still quite new. The first recorded instance being that of an Afghan warlord who became animalled with a penguin. Pairing up with a warlord carried a significant risk of death, such that the penguin was furnished with body armour!

We felt that there were many aspects of the book which we would have liked some explanations about. For example, the emotional relationship between a person and their animal, the animals and the undertow, the shavi, where the animals came from and the weird e-mails from spirits. Whilst science fiction readers generally like some explanation about how things work, the characters in the story were into drugs and black magic, so they probably wouldn’t care too much about such things.

We did like the sections from the internet since it resembled the way in which we might look things up during the course of a reading a book. However we think this might make Zoo City date somewhat. We cringed at the reference to Lady Gaga!

The City in the City

There was much talk about the way in which Johannesburg was described. We liked the setting and the urban dystopia of the city. Some of us felt that the book was very much about the city and that Johanesburg was described faithfully, with parts of the story having been set within the gated communities, the slums, the sewerage system and random night clubs. We liked the evocative descriptions of the city, with stark separation between different areas.

Zinzi December and Sloth

The central character, and the only one that was really developed was Zinzi December. We like her! There are good and bad parts to her nature. It mattered to her that she was responsible for her brother’s murder. Animalled with a sloth, she was an anti-heroin who could not win more than half victories. She’s vulnerable and fearless, yet was unable to save the kids from iJusi, and bad guy Odi only died because the really bad guys, Mark and Amira, were not paid to save him.

Sloth was no good at hiding emotions when Zinzi was trying to play it cool. We didn’t expect Sloth to save the day, although he does kind of.

Animals and South African Culture

For most people who were Animalled, the animal was very visible. This raises questions about prejudice, marginalisation and racism. Was there an analogy between Black and Animalled?

The animals were clearly a manifestation of guilt and it was brilliant that guilt could manifest itself as a white alligator! We wondered whether there was any link between the crime or amount of guilt and the type of animal.

We were a bit confused at times by the use of different names for people, particularly Mark and Amira, also referred to by their animals, The Maltese and The Marabou. There was also the use of many italicised words that we did not know the meaning of. This was both alienating and added an authenticity to the story.

Crime and Punishment

As a crime story it wasn’t great. There was wonderful texture but it came to an end without really explaining how it got there, which, it was suggested, is a problem with crime fiction in general. Perhaps there was too much crammed in, since the book essentially has three stories, animals, the 419 scams and the murders. Quite a few people said they were impressed enough that they would read other books by Lauren Beukes.


It wasn’t SciFi, there were no robots or spaceships, there was a lot that was left unexplained, Zinzi was the only character worth a mention and the city was the star!

Quote of evening:

“If you keep killing people, do you get a flock of animals?”

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