A Punk Lolita fighter-pilot rescues Tokyo from a marauding art installation. Corporate recruits harvest poisonous plants on an inhospitable planet. An inquisitive adolescent ghost disrupts the life of a young architect. Product loyalty is addictive when the brand appears under one's skin.
Award-winning Cape Town author and journalist Lauren Beukes ( Zoo City , Moxyland , Broken Monsters ) spares no targets in this edgy and satiric retrospective collection. In her fiction and nonfiction, ranging from Johannesburg across the galaxy, Beukes is a fierce, captivating presence throughout the literary landscape.
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About the Author
Lauren Beukes ( The Shining Girls ) is an internationally award-winning and bestselling South African author. Her novels include Broken Monsters , Zoo City , and Moxyland . Her graphic novel work includes Vertigo’s Survivor’s Club , the Fables spin-off Fairest , and Wonder Woman . Beukes’s nonfiction has been published in newspapers, magazines, and anthologies including The Hollywood Reporter , The Sunday Times , Marie Claire , and Elle . Her fiction has won praise from the likes of Stephen King, George R. R. Martin, James Ellroy, Gillian Flynn, and her writing has been translated into twenty-six languages. Beukes's books have been regularly featured in best of the year roundups by outlets such as NPR , Amazon , and the Los Angeles Times . Amongst her many honors, she has received the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the University of Johannesburg prize, and the Strand Critics Choice Award. Beukes lives in Cape Town, South Africa.
Read an Excerpt
Stories, Essays & Other Writing
By Lauren Beukes
Tachyon PublicationsCopyright © 2016 Lauren Beukes
All rights reserved.
The gloves arrived in the mail in a box lined with tissue paper.
There was no return address.
They were elbow-length. Lace-up. Finest suede.
Muse-skin, the attached note said.
These will get you unblocked, the note said.
It was only when she put them on and sat down to write
That she realized there were fishhooks in the fingertips
That drew blood with every keystroke.CHAPTER 2
1. High Life
The heat presses against the cab, trying to find a way in past the sealed windows and the rattling air-conditioning. Narrow apartment blocks swoop past on either side of the dual carriageway, occasionally broken up by a warehouse megastore. It could be Cape Town, Pearl thinks. It could be anywhere. Twenty-three hours travel so far. She had never been on a plane before.
"So what's the best thing about Karachi?" Tomislav, her promoter, asks the cab driver, trying to break the oppressive silence — the three of them dazed by the journey, the girl, the promoter and the surgeon, who has not looked up from his phone since they got in the car because he is trying to set up a meeting.
The driver thinks about it, tugging at the little hairs of his mustache. "One thing is that this is a really good road. Sharah e Faisal. There's hardly ever a traffic jam and if it rains, the road never drowns."
"Excellent." Tomislav leans back, defeated. He gives Pearl an encouraging smile, but she is not encouraged. She has watched the World Cup and the Olympics on TV; she knows how it is supposed to be. She stares out the window, refusing to blink in case the tears come.
The road narrows into the city and the traffic thickens, hooting trucks and rickshaws covered in reflecting stickers like disco balls, twinkling in the sun. They pass through the old city, with its grand crumbling buildings from long ago, and into the warren of Saddar's slums with concrete lean-tos muscling in on each other. Kachi abadi, the driver tells them, and Pearl sounds it out under her breath. At least the shacks are not tin, and that's one difference.
Tomislav points out the loops of graffiti in another alphabet and taps her plastic knee. "Gang signs. Just like the Cape Flats."
"Oh they're gangsters all right," the driver says. "Same people run the country."
"You have gangsters in your government?" Pearl is shocked.
The cab driver clucks and meets her eyes in the rear-view mirror. "You one of the racers?"
"What clued you in?" Dr. Arturo says, without looking up. It's the first thing he's said all day. His thumbs, blunt instruments, tap over the screen of his phone. Pearl rubs her legs self-consciously, where the tendons are visible under the joint of her knee, running into the neurocircuitry. It's a showcase, Dr. Arturo told her when she asked him why it couldn't look like skin. Some days she thinks it's beautiful. But mostly, she hates seeing the inside-out of herself.
"Why do you think you're in Pakistan?" the driver laughs.
"You think anyone else would let this happen in their country?" He rubs his thumb and fingers together and flings them to the wind. "You think anyone else would let this happen in their country?" He rubs his thumb and fingers together and flings them to the wind.
2. Packed with Goodness
Pre-race. A huge +Games banner hangs above the entrance of the Karachi Parsi Institute, or KPI. It's an old colonial building that has been extended to accommodate them, the track built over the old cricket ground and into the slums. The original school has been turned into the athletes' village, classrooms converted to individual medical cells to cater to their unique needs. Pearl's, for example, has hermetic bio-units and sterile surfaces. The window has been fused shut to prevent polluted air leaking in.
In the room next door, they installed extra generators for Charlotte Grange after she plugged in her exo-suit and tripped the power for the whole building. Pearl can hear her grunting through the walls. She doesn't know what Siska Rachman has. Do the technically braindead still need to eat?
She sits on the end of her bed, paging through the official program while Tomislav paces the room, hunched over his phone, his hand resting on his nose. "Ajda! Come on!" he says, in that Slavic way that makes the first part of the sentence top-heavy. Like Tomislav himself, still carrying his weightlifter bulk all squeezed up into his chest and neck. He doesn't compete anymore, but the steroids keep him in shape. The neon lights and the white sheen off the walls make his eyes look bluer, his skin paler. "Peach" she was taught in school, as if "peach" and "brown" were magically less divisive than "black" and "white", and words could fix everything. But Tomislav's skin is not the warm orange of a summer fruit, it's like the milky tea she drinks at home.
Tomislav has thick black hair up his arms. She asked him about it when they first met at the Beloved One's house on the hill. Fourteen, too young and too angry to mind her elders, even though her mother gasped at her rudeness and smacked her head.
Tomislav had laughed. Testosterone, kitten. He tapped the slight fuzz above her top lip. You've got it too, that's what makes you so strong.
He's since made her laser all her unsightly hair. Sport is all about image. Even this one.
He sees her looking at him and speaks louder. "You want to get a meeting, Arturo, we gotta have something to show." He jabs at the phone dramatically to end the call. "That guy! What does he think I'm doing all day? You all right, kitten?" He takes her by the shoulders, gives them a little rub. "You feeling good?"
"Fine." More than fine, with the voices of the crowd a low vibration through the concrete, and the starting line tugging at her insides, just through that door, across the quad, down the ramp. She has seen people climbing up onto the roofs around the track with blankets.
"That's my girl." He snatches the program out of her hands. "Why are you even looking at this? You know every move these girls have."
He means Siska Rachman. That's all anyone wants to talk about, the journos, the corporates. Pearl is sick of it, the interviews for channels she's never heard of. No one told her how much of this would be talking about racing.
"Ready when you are," Dr. Arturo says into her head, speaking through the audio implant in her cochlear. Back online as if he's never been gone, checking the diagnostics. "Watch your adrenaline, Pearl. You need to be calm for the install." He used to narrate the chemical processes, the shifting balances of hormones, the nano-enhancing oxygen uptake, the shift of robotic joints, the dopamine blast, but it felt too much like being in school; words being crammed into her head and all worthless anyway. You don't have to name something to understand it. She knows how it feels when she hits her stride and the world opens up beneath her feet.
"He's ready," she repeats to Tomislav.
"All right, let's get this show pumping."
Pearl obediently hitches up her singlet with the Russian energy drink logo — one of Tomislav's sponsors, although that's only spare change. She has met the men who have paid for her to be here, in the glass house on the hill, wearing gaudy golf shirts and shoes and shiny watches. She never saw them swing a club, and she doesn't know their names, but they all wanted to shake her hand and take a photograph with her.
She feels along the rigid seam that runs in a J-hook down the side of her stomach, parallel with her hysterectomy scar, and tears open the velcroskin.
"Let me," Tomislav says, kneeling between her legs. She holds her flesh open while he reaches one hand up inside her abdomen. It doesn't hurt, not anymore. The velcro releases a local anesthetic when it opens, but she can feel an uncomfortable tugging inside, like cramps.
Tomislav twists off the valves on either side, unplugs her stomach and eases it out of her. He sets it in a sterile biobox and connects it to a blood flow. By the time he turns back, she is already spooling up the accordion twist of artificial intestine, like a magician pulling ribbons from his palm. It smells of lab-mod bacteria, with the faintest whiff of feces. She hands it to Tomislav and he wrinkles his nose.
"Just goes to show," he says, folding up the crinkled plastic tubing and packing it away. "You can take the meat out of the human, but they're still full of shit!"
Pearl smiles dutifully, even though he has been making the same joke for the last three weeks — ever since they installed the new system.
"Nearly there." He holds up the hotbed factory and she nods and looks away because it makes her queasy to watch. It's a sleek bioplug, slim as a Communion wafer and packed with goodness, Dr. Arturo says, like fortified breakfast cereal. Hormones and nanotech instead of vitamins and iron.
Tomislav pushes his hand inside her again, feeling blindly for the connector node in what's left of her real intestinal tract, an inch and a half of the body's most absorbent tissue for better chemical uptake.
"Whoops! Got your kidney! Joking. It's in."
"Good to go," Dr. Arturo confirms.
"Then let's go," Pearl says, standing up on her blades.
3. Forces Greater Than You
You would have to be some kind of idiot. She told her mother it was a bet among the kids, but it wasn't. It was her, only her, trying to race the train.
The train won.
4. Why You Have Me
The insect drone flits in front of Pearl's face, the lens zooming in on her lips to catch the words she's murmuring and transmit them onscreen. "Ndincede nkosi undiphe amandla."
She bends down to grab the curved tips of her legs, to stretch, yes, but also to hide her mouth. It's supposed to be private, she thinks. But that's an idea that belonged to another girl: the girl before Tomislav's deals and Dr. Arturo's voice in her head running through diagnostics, before the Beloved One, before the train, before all this.
"It's because you're so taciturn, kitten," Tomislav tries to comfort her. "You give people crumbs and they're hungry for more. If you just talked more." He is fidgeting with his tie while Brian Corwood, the presenter, moves down the starter's carpet with his microphone, talking to Oluchi Eze, who is showing off her tail for the cameras.
Pearl doesn't know how to talk more. She's run out of words, and the ones Dr. Arturo wants her to say make her feel like she's chewing raw potatoes. She has to sound out the syllables.
She swipes her tongue over her teeth to get rid of the feeling that someone has rigged a circuit behind her incisors. It's the new drugs in the hotbed, Tomislav says. She has to get used to it, like the drones, which dart up to her unexpectedly. They're freakish — cameras hardwired into locusts, with enough brain stem left to respond to commands. Insects are cheap energy.
Somewhere in a control room, Dr. Arturo notes her twitching back from the drones and speaks soothing words in her head. "What do you think, Pearl? More sophisticated than some athletes we know." She glances over at Charlotte Grange, who is also waiting to be interviewed. The big blond girl quakes and jitters, clenching her jaw, her exo-suit groaning in anticipation. The neural dampeners barely hold her back.
The crowd roars their impatience, tens of thousands of people behind a curve of reinforced safety glass in the stands high above the action. The rooftops are also packed and there are children swarming on the scaffolding of an old building overlooking the track.
The people in suits, the ones Dr. Arturo and Tomislav want to meet, watch from air-conditioned hotel rooms five kilometers away. Medical and pharmaceutical companies looking for new innovations in a place where anything goes: drugs, prosthetics, robotics, nano. That's what people come for. They tune in by the millions on the proprietary channel. The drama. Like watching Formula 1 for the car crashes.
"All these people, kitten," Tomislav says, "they don't care if you win. They're just waiting for you to explode. But you know why you're here."
"That's my girl."
"Slow breaths," Dr. Arturo warns. "You're overstimulated."
The insect drone responds to some invisible hand in a control room and swirls around her, getting every angle. Brian Corwood makes his way over to her, microphone extended like a handshake and winged cameras buzzing behind his shoulder. She holds herself very straight. She knows her mama and the Beloved One are watching back home. She wants to do Gugulethu proud.
"Ndincede nkosi." She mouths the words and sees them come up on the big screens in closed captions below her face. They'll be working to translate them already. Not hard to figure out that she's speaking Xhosa.
"Pearl Nit-seeko," the presenter says. "Cape Town's miracle girl. Crippled when she was fourteen years old and here she is, two years later, at the +Games. Dream come true!"
Pearl has told the story so many times that she can't remember which parts are made-up or glossed over. She told a journalist once that she saw her father killed on TV during the illegal mine strikes in Polokwane and how she covered her ears so she didn't have to hear the popcorn pa-pa-pa-pa-pa of the gunshots as people fell in the dust. But now she has to stick to it. Tragedy makes for a better story than the reality of a useless middle-aged drunk who left her mother to live with a shebeen owner's daughter in Nyanga so that he didn't have to pay off the bar tab. When Pearl first started getting famous, her father made a stink in the local gossip rags until Tomislav paid him to go away. You can buy your own truth.
"Can you tell us about your tech, Pearl?" Brian Corwood says, as if this is a show about movie stars and glittery dresses.
She responds on autopilot. The removable organs, the bath of nano in her blood that improves oxygen uptake. Neural connectivity that blows open the receptors to the hormones and drugs dispatched by the hotbed factory. Tomislav has coached her in the newsworthy technical specs, the details that make investors' ears prick up.
"I can't show you," she apologizes, coyly raising her shirt to let the cameras zoom in on the seam of scar tissue. "It's not a sterile environment."
"So it's hollow in there?" Corwood pretends to knock on her stomach.
"Reinforced surgical-quality graphene mesh." She lightly drums her fingers over her skin, as often rehearsed. It looks spontaneous and shows off her six-pack.
She hears Dr. Arturo's voice in her head. "Put the shirt down now," he instructs. She covers herself up. The star doesn't want to let the viewers see too much. Like with sex. Or so she's been told. She will never have children.
"Is that your secret weapon?" Corwood says, teasing, because no one ever reveals the exact specs, not until they have a buyer.
"No," she says. "But I do have one."
"What is it, then?" Corwood says, gamely.
"God," she says and stares defiantly at the insect cameras zooming in for a close-up.
5. Things You Can't Hide
Her stumps are wrapped in fresh bandages, but the wounds still smell, like something caught in the drain. Her mother wants to douse the bandages in perfume.
"I don't want to! Leave me alone!" Pearl swats the teardrop bottle from her mother's hands and it clatters onto the floor. Her mother tries to grab her. The girl falls off the bed with a shriek. She crawls away on her elbows, sobbing. Her Uncle Tshepelo hauls her up by her armpits, like she is a sack of sorghum flour, and sets her down at the kitchen table.
"Enough, Pearl," he says, her handsome youngest uncle. When she was a little girl, she told her mother she was going to marry him.
"I hate you," she screams and tries to kick at him with her stumps, but he ducks away and goes over to the kettle while her mother stands in the doorway, face in hands.
Pearl has not been back to school since it happened. She turns to face the wall when her friends come to visit, refusing to talk with them. During the day, she watches soap operas and infomercials and lies in her mother's bed and stares at the sky and listens to the noise of the day: the cycles of traffic and school kids and dogs barking and the call to prayer vibrating through the mosque's decrepit speakers and the traffic again and men drunk and fighting at the shebeen. Maybe one of them is her father. He has not been to see her since the accident.
Tshepelo makes sweet milky tea for her and her mother, and sits and talks: nonsense, really, about his day in the factory, cooking up batches of patés which he says is like fancy flavored butter for rich people, and how she should see the stupid blue plastic cap he has to wear to cover his hair in case of contamination. He talks and talks until she calms down.
Finally she agrees to go to church — a special service in Khayelitsha Site B. She puts on her woolen dress, grey as the Cape Town winter sky, and green stockings, which dangle horribly at the joint where her legs should be.
The rain polka-dots her clothes and soaks into her mother's hat, making it flop as she quicksteps after Tshepelo, who carries Pearl in his arms like an injured dog. She hates the way people avert their eyes.
Excerpted from Slipping by Lauren Beukes. Copyright © 2016 Lauren Beukes. Excerpted by permission of Tachyon Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
My Insect Skin,
Unathi Battles the Black Hairballs,
Riding with the Dream Patrol,
Adventures in Journalism,
All the Pretty Corpses,
On Beauty: A Letter to My Fiver-Year-Old Daughter,