After Atlas, by Emma Newman

Salvation has come and gone for most of Earth’s population, barely holding on as the environment is eroded along with their aspirations of ever living in free societies again.  Unless they’re incredibly wealthy, of course. Carlos Moreno, however, is nothing of the sort, a wage slave owned by the English Ministry of Justice, just trying to get through the next murder case and hang on to the dream of one day being owned by no one but himself, and doing his best to avoid all mention of Atlas, the Pathfinder, and those who left to seek God.

When someone close to him is murdered, though, and Carlos is asked—told—to investigate the murder, he finds himself being drowned all over again in the details of his childhood and former life after Atlas left, confronted with a past he would just as well forget.  After Atlas is an excellent example of an imaginative and accomplished writer’s ability to take the same basic premise and create two entirely different stories out of it.  It is also a stark view of the future we all face, without the prospect of a convenient ship to take anyone away to a better existence.

Newman’s use of first-person present narration, juxtaposed with the conflicts between technology users and non-users in the development of the murder case lends the novel a private eye noir feel, even as Carlos watches people have dinner conversations with interlocutors who are only there via technology and does all his research via a networked personal assistant implant.  It isn’t a complicated plot, but it is a satisfyingly logical one, with twists and turns that increase the claustrophobic feeling of Carlos’ story and the hopelessly devolving situation on an increasingly distracted and intellectually depressed Earth population.

Readers who enjoy near future science fiction narratives will get pulled into Newman’s dystopic vision of Earth, whether or not they’ve read Planetfall first, however an understanding of the events of the first in this series will certainly help. Those who look for mystery elements blended into science fiction or fantasy stories will like the pace and logical twists of this character driven story.  There are more layers to this novel than at first meet the eye, giving the reader plenty to chew on while contemplating the eventual demise of modern society.

Advertisements

It Takes Two: The Ballad of Lost Souls

Parable of the Sower and The Heart Goes Last

This one brought to you by the U.S. presidential election.

Parable of the Sower, for anyone who’s read it, has distinct parallels with today’s United States, even though it was first published over twenty years ago.  Minorities scrape a life out of bombed out residential streets while whites live in gated compounds with military-grade security, all presided over by an inept president who doesn’t seem to give a shit about the lives of the people, even if he had the wherewithal to actually fix anything.

The environment has gone to hell, it barely rains in southern parts of the country, and the north is guarded against people trying to emigrate for a better life.  Wage slavery is a thing again, and the only ones doing well are corporations.  But Parable of the Sower also contains a message of hope and self-determination, an undeniable statement that the people in the novel–and those the allegory is really about–are not going to take the world lying down.  Those some may give up, others are going to fight, and find a unity that can’t be defeated by mere hatred and bigotry.  It’s a message we could all use, in these dark times.  Even though we’ve lost a visionary in Octavia E. Butler, we can still read her words and take heart.

Margaret Atwood made her name in the speculative fiction world, with Oryx and Crake, and the Maddaddam trilogy.  Though many cite The Handmaid’s Tale, Maddaddam was what brought her to the forefront in climate change, dystopian fiction and showed that literature could take on these topics in a smart, ironic way that was both entertaining and horrifying.  As if that already needed proving, but that’s a topic for another day.  

But this post is not about Maddaddam, but The Heart Goes Last.  Until last month, her most recent novel, The Heart Goes Last deals with climate change and post-corporate-takeover America on a deeper level than Maddaddam, tracing the story of a middle-aged, middle-American, middle-class couple as they keep trying to take the easy way out of the dystopia.  While MaddAddam is a series about fighting, The Heart Goes Last is a novel about giving up.  

While MaddAddam openly pushes the ridiculous as a contrast to the real world–a covert, ugly sort of ridiculousness that can’t be wiped away by closing the cover of a novel–The Heart Goes Last camouflages the bizarre beneath a veneer of the expedient, the necessary, the no-other-choice.  Perhaps the best part about Atwood’s novel is the depths of irony it plums.  Or doesn’t.  It’s difficult to tell where sincerity ends and irony begins; it’s difficult to hate people who are so irretrievably inept at everything.  Are they reaping the rewards of their own inaction, or innocent victims of a world gone mad?

Either way, both of these novels are good reads for bad times.

The Book of Phoenix, by Nnedi Okorafor

The
future and the past collide in The Book
of Phoenix
, a prologue to Okorafor’s Who
Fears Death
, as an old man finds a cave full of old computers out in the
desert and stumbles upon a story from the distant past—and the future.  Our future, that is.  When that old man begins to listen to
the story of Phoenix, we come face to face with the present taken to its
logical extreme.  With aliens,
wings, and a bit of magical realism, the reader is taken on a turbulent ride
through the life of Phoenix Okore.

The Book of Phoenix, unlike many future
dystopia novels, lives purely in a fantasy realm of its own making, like a
world in which matter is not subject to the usual forces of gravity.  Okorafor writes a brand of fantasy that
builds on Western African and other folklores, using the validity of those
beliefs and magics to interrogate the commonly held assumptions most American
whites make every day about those they other in order to define their own
identities.  Okorafor’s use of
estrangement is an affective tool in building a narrative that relies on the
‘found footage’ trope to tell a story of the world’s apocalypse.  Her rare blend of escapism and bleak
futurism provide a compelling story that keeps the reader hooked.

The
novel uses first-person narration to tell how Phoenix was born in a corporate
research tower, a created human with strange powers that the people who made
her hope to use as a weapon, most likely against the colonized peoples they are
already oppressing.  The use of
first-person often relies on exposition, which may have the effect of pushing
readers out of the future world that Phoenix lives in, and stretching the
suspension of disbelief at the wonders achieved even by those least qualified
to be stewards for the world.  Having
Phoenix tell her own story, though, is important to the narrative, and helps to
portray Phoenix as both powerful and fallible, able to achieve impossible
things while also a victim of her own strong emotions and the ignorance of her
own history in which she has been raised.

Readers
interested in dystopia that remembers the rest of the world—not just North
America or Europe—will enjoy traveling with Phoenix as she seeks asylum and
acceptance across continents and oceans. 
Those who like their fantasy to stray more towards magical realism or
the supernatural will enjoy Okorafor’s use of myth and folklore to build a
world in which nearly anything is possible.  Readers looking for a novel that is part of a connected
world of stories should check out The
Book of Phoenix
and its sister novel Who
Fears Death,
with a further stop at Kabu
Kabu
, Okorafor’s collection of short stories which was published between
the two.

Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler

Lauren’s
life is constrained to the total square footage of the cul-de-sac in which her
family has lived her whole life. 
Lauren’s community is lucky, though.  They have a wall. 
They have guns.  They have
each other.  In a narrative that is
eerily familiar to our modern world, Lauren tries to navigate a world that
would kill her as soon as look at her, a world in which dogs have gone from
family pets to merciless predators, a world in which the government doesn’t
even make a pretense of caring for its citizens.

Parable of the Sower is a classic work
of science fiction that will probably always have resonance with the world in
which we live, precisely because it embraces the themes of change and human
compassion.  Though it depicts a
world in which humans seem to have lost all sense of their humanity—hoarding
food, murdering for the merest scrap, abusing drugs that turn them into violent
animals—there are those tiny sparks of kindness and joy that make every
dystopia compelling.

The
novel is written as a compilation of journal entries that Lauren keeps over a
short period of her life.  Butler
displays a stunning mastery of narrative, creating a personal dialog that
embraces all the naïveté of an eighteen-year-old woman, but written in the
matter-of-fact tones of one who has seen far too much in her short life.  Though the reader meets many of the
other residents of Lauren’s community only briefly, Butler imbues them with
that individual spark of humanity that turns each into a living, breathing
person.  Butler doesn’t shy away
from harsh realities, and neither does Lauren, but the precision and deft
touches with which the author distinguishes her intent from the narrative of
her character is not often matched in fiction.

Anyone
looking for a master dystopia that exemplifies the metaphor of modern life
needs to read Parable of the Sower.  Those interested in novels that
speculate on the philosophical, as well as physical ramifications of societal
collapse will be intrigued by Lauren’s interpretation of religion and what it
means to a people under duress. 
This novel is a modern classic that treats with issues of poverty, race,
and community, and should be required reading for every U.S. citizen.

The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

If
there’s anything Margaret Atwood has shown with her MaddAddam series, it is
that nothing is off-limits to her satire. 
Now, with The Heart Goes Last,
she explores the limits—and opportunities—of subtext.  Where MaddAddam took capitalism to its logical limit and
beyond, The Heart Goes Last takes a
step back and imagines a world that looks a lot—too much—like today, with a
cast of characters who are not loner geniuses or particularly special at all,
but fallible, imperfect people.

Instead
of writing a story asking, “What would you do?”… if you lost your house, your
job, your community, she gives us a novel in which Stan and Charmaine do the only things they could logically
be expected to, in those situations, leading to their inevitable participation
in the Positron/Consilience project. 
Their lives are predictably mundane, even unto the familiar straying
husband.  And, predictably, this is
where the story starts going off the rails.  But not for the reasons you might expect.

This
novel is much more meditative than at first meets the eye.  While a character’s choices might be
predictable and not really choices at all, every character has a complicated
and often dark back story that has led up to these choices, that informs the
ways they go about life every day. 
The microcosm of Stan and Charmaine’s relationship and life as a married
couple plays out in the ways that the world around them bends and stretches,
reaching depths of despair and ugliness that at once seem outrageous and yet
perfectly natural and predictable. 
Living half your life in prison for the good of society?  Reasonable.  Living in a retro 1950’s gated community while at the same
time helping to build lifelike robots for commercial consumption?  Explainable. 

Readers
of Atwood will perhaps find a little more room for thought in this offbeat
novel than in her previous work. 
Readers of near-future dystopian fiction will enjoy contemplating just
how accurate Atwood’s vision is. 
Those who crave character-driven stories will enjoy the ways that Atwood
opens up her characters to the careful reader.  And those not afraid of a good helping of the
ridiculous—because this is Margaret Atwood, after all—should definitely pick up
this novel.

Tracing Our Lineage

No, this isn’t going to be about ancestry or anything like that, at least not in a literal, Biblical sense.

I read a book a while back (maybe a month, I read a lot of books, so sometimes it seems like longer), called The Country of Ice Cream Star, and while it was a very engrossing dystopian novel about a young woman–an extremely compelling young woman–named Ice Cream Star, I was most taken by the way in which the author, Sandra Newman, adds a mythology of the world ending and then what happened after.  My intention was–still is–to write an essay on mythologized dystopias, but I had an idea today and thought I’d throw it out there.

Do you remember reading the first few books of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time (be honest, we all know everyone read The Wheel of Time, or at least knew someone who was reading The Wheel of Time in the late 90′s), and being intrigued by the feeling of loss Jordan slipped into the narrative every time something came up about the world before the Breaking?  Sometimes I think the best reason for the Forsaken coming back–besides driving the world towards another inevitable Breaking–was so that we could get more of a feel for how amazing the world used to be, and how much the current tiny humans don’t know they’re missing out on, and then feel sad about it.  It was this lack of mythology, an almost immediate pulling away from interrogating the history of the ridiculous and blood-soaked world of Westeros–and don’t forget the vast, unknowable, Orientalized lands of the Dothraki, et al–that really made me lose an interest in A Song of Ice and Fire, long before the rape and murder and rape and rape.

But I digress.

The point is, The Wheel of Time, epic fantasy explosion of words that it is, is also in its way an ancestor of the modern fantasy dystopia that we all know and love and make movies out of.  The Wheel of Time gets lumped into big stories like The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire a lot because of the pseudo-medieval world-building but really, Jordan wrote a woman-centric story that actually uses the bloodlines of people to trace the history of the world and teach people what they need to know to lead in this new, crappy world they’ve inherited.  Now, critiques about the specific ways that Jordan wrote women aside, both The Lord of the Rings and Song of Ice and Fire were pretty patriarchal and while some commenters may have thought that Jordan’s characters tended to emote a lot rather than behaving like stoic, repressed adults, Jordan actually gave his characters time to think about how their shared past had led to the world as they knew it in the present, and what they wanted for the future (presumably less Breaking of the World).  All of the main characters were getting themselves out there and living and feeling and doing, just like the generally more uninhibited ragamuffins and vagabonds we’re used to finding in our post-apocalyptic worlds.

So anyway, The Country of Ice Cream Star. Ice Cream is part of one of the many small-ish groups of people who now inhabit the north east of the United States–Massa Woods–who roam about looting suburban housing developments that have been abandoned after a medical/ecological catastrophe that only hinted at and never really been named within the novel. Though people generally learn how to read and learn an oral history of their groups, very little knowledge has survived which tells how they got there, or why people only live until about twenty years of age before dying from cancer-like symptoms (think: the half-lives in Mad Max: Fury Road).  Every sign or billboard that Ice Cream encounters, every piece of equipment that no longer works, has a story that the inhabitants of her world have created, but it often bears little resemblance to the story a reader could construct–a reader of this modern era–from the same clues.  

A lot of our ability as readers to really inhabit the modern dystopia or post-apocalyptic novel, I think, comes from early exposure to stories like The Wheel of Time, and the long string of long-winded storytelling it engendered.  No one, I think, would be able to keep faith with either Rothfuss or Sanderson if they hadn’t first kept up with, and then survived Jordan’s death during, The Wheel of Time’s run.  Sure, we have many dystopian novels which lay out the world’s past in grinding detail–The Hunger Games, the Divergent books–but those stories trace their lineage more to a Orwellian heritage than to Jordan or Brooks or any of the other 90s epic fantasy writers I’m sure my many, many readers will tell me about when they reblog this.  After all, The Lord of the Rings found its standing in the late 90′s and on into today, where now a little bit of nostalgia will get you nine-plus hours of CGI orcs and rocks.  All of our beloved comics are getting rebooted in films that trace character origin-stories and try to make us forget the days of Cartoon-Batman and the Riddler.  We want to understand how it all could have come to be.  I’d wager that we survived Oryx and Crake’s literary incursion into fantasy genre-space because enough readers had got used to the idea of a secret history related in disparate parts through various characters.

And so on.

I’d love to hear what other readers have to say about mythology in dystopia, and dystopia in fantasy.  And of course I never mean to write exhaustively about anything because there’s a good deal I’ve read and forgotten, and even more I haven’t read.

Maybe someday I’ll get around to a more literary post about this topic.

The Country of Ice Cream Star, by Sandra Newman

Called “breathtakingly ambitious” by
Kate Atkinson, The Country of Ice Cream
Star
is as much the epic of Gilgamesh as it is Homer’s Odyssey, as much Oryx and
Crake
as it is Hamlet or the Morte Arthur.  All we know, at the beginning, as that something has
happened to change the world as we know it irredeemably.  What follows is a harrowing journey
through a world where what you don’t know can and will kill you. 

Ice
Cream Star is a young woman growing up in the woods of Massachusetts, part of
the Sengle tribe, a warlike band that thrives on its ability to lie and steal,
who roam instead of staying still as some other tribes have taken to
doing.  She divides her time
between scavenging in derelict housing developments and her brother, the
Sergeant, to manage the unruly band of Sengles.  Ice Cream tells her story as she lives it, revealing what
little she knows about how the world got to be this way, along with details
about her life and the lives of those close to her.  Ice Cream, like the reader, doesn’t know much about the
world, but unlike the hungry reader of this novel she thinks she knows
enough—to get by, to take care of her Sengles, to deal with any problems that
come her way.  Until the inevitable
day when she finds out she doesn’t know enough, not nearly so.

Not
only has Newman created a beautifully complex character in Ice Cream, she’s
imagined a new English that attributes the cultures from which it has sprung
but which is also rich and engaging in its own right.  It’s many the futuristic science fiction or fantasy novel
one reads in which all of the characters speak exactly the same as we do
today.  The dialects of Newman’s
novel provide a further immersive layer to an already engaging read.  We follow Ice Cream from the
Massachusetts woods, to old New York City—now called the city of Marias—to the
Marine-held Washington, D.C.  In a
quest to save her Sengles from the horrible cancer-like disease that ravages
every person on the continent by the time they are twenty years old, Ice Cream
is willing to make a pact with the devil himself and risk everything, including
her own life, to get the cure that stories say the Russians hold.

In
a semi-ironic nod to Cold-War era science fiction in which Russia is the
ultimate enemy, Russia really is the ultimate enemy in this novel, though in
ways that Ice Cream, and the reader, have to put together from clues scattered
throughout the novel.  Though the
many-layered plot and the slow-reveal provide continual areas of interest and
engagement, the protracted love-interest plotline and the narrative gymnastics
required to maintain it, did begin to wear thin around the half-way point.  The reader is well-rewarded for
sticking it out, however.  Ice
Cream’s self-conscious, at times confessional telling of the story bring out
the immaturity inherent in her personality—she is just a teenager, for all the
responsibilities place upon her and the amount of living she and all her
Sengles do in such short lives—and the burgeoning self-awareness that allows
her to contain vast contradictions in her mind.  Love and hate can coexist.  Murderous intent lives with a great-hearted charity and care
for all people, even enemies.  The
desire for power wars with and cooperates with the urge to let go all
responsibility. 

The Country of ice Cream Star takes part
in the same tradition of near-future storytelling as Oryx and Crake and Parable of
the Sower
, but is also sure to be enjoyed by readers who liked The Hunger
Games series, William Gibson’s Spook
Country
, or Ernest Cline’s Ready
Player One
for their tales of questing beneath the watchful eye of a
sinister unknown.  For as much as
Ice Cream learns about her world, there is always someone behind the scenes,
seeming to pull the strings of her life without her even realizing it.  The
Country of Ice Cream Star
will satisfy readers looking for a cast of
characters more diverse than the pale-skinned heroines that gloss the pages of
most dystopias, for both its diversity and its well-written story.  Readers who are not bothered with
having more questions at the end than the beginning will be intrigued by
Newman’s novel.