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Bookish Delights: The Golden Compass Meets Zoo City

book cover art for Zoo City by Lauren Beukes and The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman

A while back I had the coincidental fortune to read Zoo City by Lauren Beukes directly after Phillip Pullman's The Golden Compass. For those not aware, a central focus in The Golden Compass is the symbiotic relationship between humans and inexplicable creatures called daemons. Daemons are the manifestation of a person's soul in the form of an animal companion, not entirely unlike a familiar. Humans and their daemons keep each other company, provide support, and sometimes act as an intuitive entity. Zoo City has a similar conceit, with the exception that only murderers have the misfortune of being tethered to an animal—or so it can be assumed. These people are referred to as aposymbiotes or "zoos" and are outcasted by society, doomed to a life restricted to the lowest rung of society.

At one point in Zoo City, Beukes makes a cheeky reference to a fictitious documentary within the universe called "Steering by the Golden Compass: Pullman's fantasy in the context of the ontological shift." Obviously, the novel is heavily inspired by the trilogy, and it got me thinking, why the hell should I not explore this? It's an interesting concept. These two works compliment each other strikingly well that it would be a shame not to cross-reference them in order to explore a few of the themes further.

Wearing Sin

Both books are rife with religious overtones, The Golden Compass being the most heavily afflicted of the two. A key element of both novels is the physical conceptualization of sin. In Pullman's universe, scholars have begun to suspect that a mysterious particle called Dust has a tangible connection to original sin via daemons, compounding permanently in a human once a child reaches maturation. Although Dust is only fleetingly referenced in the first installment of the His Dark Materials series, it plays a larger role explaining the bond between human and daemon later in the series. The antagonists' primitive understanding of the particle leads them to perform gruesome experiments in severing the bond between children and their daemons in an attempt to preserve their innocence. Once separation (called intercision) occurs, the host either dies or become a empty husk.

Intercision also exists in Zoo City, though it's never explained whether anyone has successfully separated from their animal in this manner. Often, the animalled person will perform separation or outright destroy their animal as a form of radical suicide. Such actions forcefully bring about the mysterious calamity known as the Undertow—a reference to hell's undertow—which is a zoo's ultimate fate. But I'll get back to that later.

It's easy to argue that animals in both universes symbolize a physical manifestation of the soul. Both novels support a system in which humans and their animals are aposymbiotic, or symbiotic beings that live apart from each other. It is impossible for people in either book to be removed from the vicinity of their animal without experiencing extreme negative effects, namely pain and severe anxiety. Furthermore, the physical state of each is directly passed to the other (in Zoo City, the connection seems to be one-way with the human influencing the animal and not vice versa).

In Zoo City, one is only unfortunate enough to be bestowed with an animal once they commit the ultimate crime. In religious circles, this is thought to be original sin. At first glance, applying these rules to The Golden Compass's universe legitimizes the theory that everyone is born with original sin; however, a few key things leave this open for debate in my opinion.

For starters, the rules are unclear. It's only implied that murder will land you with an animal familiar, but it's never fully explored whether this applies to indirect murder as well. My speculation is that this is likely true because it seems to work as a functional "shadow of guilt" that hovers over the person for the rest of their life. Given this theory, a possible interpretation is that original sin doesn't exist within the universe, and when applied to The Golden Compass universe, means that the initial speculation regarding the link between original sin, Dust, and daemons is false.

While this ultimately makes The Golden Compass incompatible or at least inconsistent within Zoo's universe, it supports the explanation given later in the His Dark Materials series (mild spoilers): Dust pertains to consciousness, not original sin. Where then, do the daemons fit in?

My belief is that viewing the animals in either novel simply as the personification of sin is reductive. Both of these works are about the conscious, self-awareness, and redemption. While Zoo's animals function as a scarlet letter for their owners, they are portrayed as loyal companions who care for the safety and wellbeing of their owners, and also grant their host access to an otherworldly talent, such the ability to find lost objects. Though most struggle to coexist with the burden of their sins either emotionally or physically, some are able to live out average lives.

Additionally, neither novel offers explanations as to the animals' true purpose. Daemons are capable of shape-shifting until maturation, which also coincides with the presence of Dust, so a possible interpretation for The Golden Compass could be the death of self. Or am I reaching too far?

The Undertow

Ahh, the Undertow. Described as a sort of apocalyptic undoing for zoos in Zoo City and always referred to as an entity. An ominous being of evil that exists to drag you to justice for your transgressions. The Undertow is coming for you. Applied to The Golden Compass, it defines a system that is consistent with the "rules" of both novels: if your animal dies, so you do and vice versa.

But it's not that simple. The Undertow is your karmic destiny, and it'll come for you eventually. In this regard, I don't consider it much removed from the notion of destiny (which plays a huge part in The Golden Compass). You can fight the Undertow, but for how long? You can rebel against your destiny...or can you?

It's a universal quandary that ties these universes together. Death is inescapable, but it's the way you handle that truth that defines you as a person.

Although they're radically different stories, they're great companion pieces. Each novel presents a complex world filled with utterly nerve-wracking action that spans the scope of the human psyche. Both authors paint their stories with a palette of grays so beautifully it's hard not to become immersed. It's that simple theme, the struggle against basic human nature that makes these two novels delightful reads.

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