**spoiler alert** This is the second dystopia Atwood has written, and I think it's less successful than The Handmaid's Tale. Her vision here is of a n...more**spoiler alert** This is the second dystopia Atwood has written, and I think it's less successful than The Handmaid's Tale. Her vision here is of a not-too-distant future in which the US is divided into corporate-owned gated communities where the (biotech) companies' owners and highly-paid skilled workforce live and the lawless, sprawling urban wasteland where everyone else lives.
Unlike virtually every other Atwood book I know of, the two main characters are male. The narrator, Jimmy, and his childhood friend Crake grow up inside one of the gated communities, bonding over Internet pornography and shared cynicism. As Crake grows up, it becomes evident that he is a genius, so he gets accepted to an elite science-and-technology school and drafted into a biotech firm while he's still a student. While he works there, he cooks up an apocalyptic plot to release a superbug disguised as a libido-enhancing pill once he's perfected his own synthetic race of humanoids, which he designed as an answer to everything he's identified as "wrong" with human nature. For example, the "Crakers" have photosynthetic pigment in their skins, which means they do not have to kill to eat. Crake also designed them to be cheerfully promiscuous and have obvious signals of sexual receptivity, thus eliminating conflict over sex. Crake's a real humanitarian, except for the whole "kill off Mankind 1.0" part of his plan.
Structurally, the novel suffers from being too long and taking too long for the story to move forward. Indeed, the whole thing is told in flashbacks, with Jimmy reminiscing as the Crakers pester him for stories of their creator. Atwood erred on the side of too much description in Handmaid's Tale as well, but that was a shorter novel (maybe 100 less pages than Oryx and Crake) and the society she was revealing to us was better realized.
Also, a lot of touches that were clearly meant to be satirical fall flat. One of Crake and Jimmy's favorite pastimes in youth is playing computer games, and the games Atwood comes up with are transparent attempts to shock us with the nihilism of her young antiheroes. Also, every other object in the novel is given some cutesy brand name. This is clearly an attempt to mock the corporatization of global culture, but the effect is just irritating.
None of the characters particularly register, either. Two of Atwood's trademark Elusive Women figure in this novel --- Jimmy's mother runs off while Jimmy is a preteen, for reasons we never learn, and when Jimmy meets up with Crake again when they are adults, and Crake is designing his new species, Crake has a mistress named Oryx, who never allows either man to get to know her, though she sleeps with both. The difference between these and other Elusive Women (say, Grace Marks in Alias Grace, Zenia in The Robber Bride, Joan in Lady Oracle or Marian in The Edible Woman) is that the others either revealed themselves to the reader if not to the men in their lives, or (like Zenia and Grace) gave us enough interesting possibilities that we cared to speculate as to their true natures. These women elude not only Jimmy and Crake, but also the reader.
The men, though given (many) more pages of character development, are nearly as flat. Crake is a clear instance of metaphor abuse: he is indicated to be "mildly autistic," as the college he attends is nicknamed Asperger's U. and he disparages his old high school as containing "wall-to-wall neurotypicals." As his autism never appears in his behavior or becomes relevant to the story (indeed, it is never mentioned except in the chapter titled "Asperger's U."), I suspect it was only brought up to underscore the single salient point of his character, which is his detachment from the rest of the human species. The sole salient point of Jimmy's character seems to be that he is not Crake. (less)
This is Atwood's most famous book, and even though I don't think it's her best, I think it deserves its fame for the power of its ideas and the clarit...moreThis is Atwood's most famous book, and even though I don't think it's her best, I think it deserves its fame for the power of its ideas and the clarity of her vision. It details a nightmarish future America in which women are chattel of men, seen through the eyes of Offred ("Of-Fred"), a Handmaid (read: concubine) in the house of a high-ranking military officer. While she eventually escapes, for most of the book the plot takes a back seat to a detailed, evocative description of the setting. Offred regales us, is many flashbacks, with glimpses into her past, in which she was married and had a daughter, and in which she lived through the transition from contemporary eighties (the book was written in '85) America to the theocratic Republic of Gilead.
The story moves slowly, but the society Atwood envisions is so riveting the pace seems just right. She achieves just the right balance of the bizarre and the believable.
This book is also notable for its depiction of women's cruelty to other women. Though this is a common theme in Atwood's writing, it is expressed most vividly here, through the characters of Aunt Lydia (a trainer of Handmaids) and Serena Joy (the Commander's wife, who in her former life was a televangelist who urged women to stay at home and serve their husbands).
A subtle and insightful glimpse into the workings of fear-based, authoritarian governments. Its detailed examination of the relation between authorita...moreA subtle and insightful glimpse into the workings of fear-based, authoritarian governments. Its detailed examination of the relation between authoritarian politics and the control of language and media is worth reacquainting oneself with, especially now.
I also recommend reading Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language," which may be included in some editions of 1984.(less)
This is a tricky one to review, because while there's a lot I loved about it --- it's very satisfying in a narrative sense, with a lot of long-running...moreThis is a tricky one to review, because while there's a lot I loved about it --- it's very satisfying in a narrative sense, with a lot of long-running threads resolved and tied together, and it gives us much more of Dr. Allison Mann's backstory --- I absolutely hated the answer to the question of what caused the XY-killing plague.
Without going into spoileriffic detail, I'll just say I thought it was an obnoxious injection of magic into what had been a non-magical, realistic world. I have a biochemistry degree, and I had been impressed at how little head-slapping Bad Science this book contained (a frequent problem for science fiction of the "mysterious plague" subgenre) and at how well Brian K. Vaughn had succeeded at writing technical dialogue for Dr. Mann that wasn't gibberish to someone who actually knew what all the words meant. But all that goes right out the window in this volume ... in earlier volumes, the series had flirted with the idea that magic exists (prescient dreams, red herrings about enchanted rings or ancient amulets), and I had liked the tension between these elements and the dogged realism of Dr. Mann's search for the cause of Yorick's immunity to the plague. But in this installment, instead of stepping up the juggling act, Vaughn seems to have chosen to drop one of the balls.(less)
A very interesting book, written in dazzling, synesthetic prose. (The language is actually so vivid as to be distracting from the plot, which is proba...moreA very interesting book, written in dazzling, synesthetic prose. (The language is actually so vivid as to be distracting from the plot, which is probably intentional, since the narrator spends much of the novel feeling overwhelmed and confused).
The story is set about a thousand years in the future, in a technocratic, totalitarian One State that is essentially a worldwide Soviet Union taken to its logical extreme. The narrator is a mathematician numbered (nobody has names --- they have serial numbers) D-503. (Even though individual names have been abolished, though, I still detected a gender-delineating convention in these alphanumeric signifiers: male characters' "numbers" start with consonants; female characters' with vowels.) D-503 has designed, and is supervising the building of, a spaceship with which the One State hopes to colonize other worlds, and show them (these other worlds are assumed to be populated) the glory of Communism. However, after meeting a beautiful woman with revolutionary leanings, D-503 notices his loyalty to the One State wavering. He suffers a crisis of conscience, vacillating wildly between loyalty to the One State and to his mysterious new lover. His feelings for her are strong, stronger than anything he's ever felt before, but the One State is all he's ever known, and until meeting her he's been absolutely sure that it is the best of all possible governments. He is also constantly tempted by one of the State's secret police, who follows him around and whom he thinks of, naively, as a guardian angel, and by advertisements in the State Gazette for a new surgical procedure that guarantees happiness and moral certitude by removing the imagination.
The preface to this book, written by its translator, Mirra Ginsburg, claims that We is a superior work to Orwell's 1984, particularly in the realm of psychological realism. I am not sure I believe that; I've read 1984 several times, and am always newly struck by the subtlety of Orwell's political and psychological understanding. He made up mechanisms in his totalitarian society by which natural human inclinations toward creativity, independence, love and friendship could be subverted or worked around to guarantee that no popular resistance movement could ever take root; Yevgeny Zamyatin's tale is set so far in the future that such elegant solutions are no longer necessary for the most part. There was also no idea in We that seemed to me to have anywhere near the power, complexity and fiendish elegance of 1984's "Newspeak."
Besides 1984, other later works We reminded me of were Brave New World (in the philosophical tug-of-war between freedom and happiness that forms the central issue in both books), Ayn Rand's Anthem (another futuristic totalitarian dystopia in which people are numbered instead of named, and in which romantic love leads a gifted male citizen to rebel), and the short story "The Cold Equations" (chiefly for the language --- both rely a lot on mathematical figures of speech --- but also for the crudely utilitarian ethics espoused by characters in both works).
There's an important difference between We and Anthem, though. The philosophical argument advanced by We sets up a pair of opposing values: Freedom vs. Happiness, and Reason vs. Passion. Reason here is allied with happiness/unfreedom; a perfectly rational person, who acts always (and only) in his own material best interests, will not necessarily value freedom particularly highly. In this book, as in Brave New World, freedom is often described as a burden or a curse, and having some wise, all-knowing authority make all your choices for you ensures a better outcome than you, mere mortal, could guarantee yourself if you were master of your fate. The State here is highly technologically, medically and scientifically advanced, so it's taken as given that it really has worked out the best way for people to live. The issue, of course, is that people are *NOT* perfectly rational, and those irrational parts of us, in Zamyatin's view, are not dispensible imperfections to be smoothed away by State Science, but are actually a crucial part of human nature. For Rand, reason is everything, and reason always points her heroes toward autonomy and self-sufficiency. Her State makes errors, assigning a superintelligent man to a life sweeping streets to prove an ideological point (i.e., everyone is absolutely equal, so work assignments should be given randomly rather than tailored to individual interests and aptitudes) and thereby guaranteeing his restless unhappiness. Zamyatin's State would have that character designing spacecraft, and thus putting his intelligence and imagination to purposeful, rational use rather than idly dreaming and exploring.
Thus the last line of this novel --- "Reason must prevail" --- takes on a much more ambiguous, sinister tone than it would in Rand's novel.(less)
I'd heard a lot of really good things about this series, and now that I am finally reading them, I see that all the praise is totally justified. These...moreI'd heard a lot of really good things about this series, and now that I am finally reading them, I see that all the praise is totally justified. These books are exciting, suspenseful, emotionally engaging, flawlessly plotted and fiercely political. They also keep surprising you with the unexpected depth of their deceptively simple characterization and worldbuilding.
In the first book, we're introduced to Katniss Everdeen, who is sixteen years old and head of her small household, caring for a younger sister and a widowed mother who had fallen into a deep depression after losing her husband when the coal mine he was working in caved in. Katniss keeps her family fed by hunting wild game and gathering edible plants in the woods near where they live.
We are also introduced to the totalitarian state of Panem, which has taken the place of the modern USA (and maybe some of Canada and Mexico as well) and which is comprised of 12 districts, demarcated by geography and industry (District 12, where Katniss lives, is in Appalachia and its economy is centered around coal mining), and a capitol city, which is not Washington DC but somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. The districts are vassal states of the Capitol, subject to economic exploitation, military occupation and a horrible yearly reminder of their enslavement: the Hunger Games. Each year, every district has to surrender one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18, chosen by lottery, to fight to the death in "the arena," which isn't really an arena but a wilderness environment that's been extensively booby-trapped, scattered with weapons and survival gear (for those lucky enough to find them, and skillful enough to use them effectively), and stuffed full of hidden cameras to broadcast the action on TV. People in the Capitol love the Hunger Games, because they're such a spectacle (Suzanne Collins compares them to Romans, not only because of the gladiator fights they love to watch but also more explicitly, giving them Roman names like Claudius, Caesar, Cinna, Octavia, or Cato where people in the Districts have different names; she also gives them outlandish fashions and hairdos to heighten their air of decadence and artificiality), but to everyone else, they're hateful and cruel.
The action of this first book starts when Katniss and her sister attend the "reaping," or the ceremonial drawing of names of people who will go to the Hunger Games; Katniss is worried because it's her little sister's first year of being eligible. Sure enough, the sister's name is called, and Katniss jumps up to take her place.
The rest of the book deals with Katniss's odyssey to the Capitol, where she is introduced to the audience and we see through her eyes the contrast between the pampered, entertainment-obsessed Capitol dwellers and the marginal life she's accustomed to living in District 12. She struggles with her feelings about these people, because almost everyone she meets is kind to her, and not a bad person, but at the same time she knows that their wealth exists because of her, and her people's, poverty.
Most of the book takes place in the arena, where Katniss's wilderness skills keep her alive and allow her to hide from her competitors, some of whom have trained for the Games all their lives and will not hesitate to kill her. She struggles with the knowledge that she'll have to kill them; some of them she would have no problem killing in self-defense, but others, like a very small girl from another poor district who reminds her of her sister, and the boy from her own district, who once gave her bread when she was starving, get under her skin.
The most surreal aspect of the book is the fakery and theatricality of the personas everyone creates for the cameras, which they keep up in the arena. That contrast between the remoteness of their physical environment and the knowledge that the audience (and also their mentors and sponsors, who can send them gifts throughout the Games) are always watching, is just bizarre. The cagier characters, including Katniss, figure out that they have to play to their audience's expectations and feelings to get food, medicine and other helpful things from their sponsors. I have a really hard time reconciling the wilderness-survival elements of the story with the more claustrophobic, wheels-within-wheels interpersonal stuff --- not because Collins isn't making it work, because she is, but just because it's so inherently jarring. It's so off-putting I'm amazed Collins manages not to alienate me completely from Katniss, but she does.
This book occupies a lot of the same thematic territory as the Japanese movie "Battle Royale," and in a lot of ways it's telling the exact same story: kids fight to the death in a future police state. But I think The Hunger Games tells the story better, because it gives us a deeper, longer look at all the characters, so that we know who they all are, and start to care about them, before they start dying.(less)
At the start of this installation in the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss and her friend and teammate from District 12, Peeta Mellark, are getting ready...moreAt the start of this installation in the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss and her friend and teammate from District 12, Peeta Mellark, are getting ready to go on a victory tour through the twelve districts. The creepy President Snow tells her that it's her responsibility to calm the people in the districts down, as there's been unrest in several of them since Peeta and Katniss's defiant refusal to kill each other at the end of Book One. (The way she's supposed to do that is, inexplicably, to keep pretending to be madly in love with Peeta, only MORE! And BETTER! Or her whole family will DIE!! ... yeah, I found that whole storyline annoying, ludicrous and contrived).
I can't say too much else about the plot of this book without spoiling it, but I can tell you this one is just as exciting and action-packed as the first, with the suspense ratcheted up several notches now that Katniss has made an enemy of the Capitol. In this book, the influence of "Battle Royale" starts giving way to the influence of "Spartacus."
There are other elements besides the plot worth discussing: relationships between characters get a lot more complicated and messier in this installment, as Katniss, Peeta, and Katniss's other close-friend-and-possible-love-interest, Gale, have to deal with fallout from Katniss and Peeta's very public romantic entanglement during the previous year's Games. (See, Katniss had been faking the romance to try and catch the interest of outside sponsors who could help her get through the Games, while Peeta meant every word he said. And as this book starts, he has just found out that Katniss hadn't meant every word *she* said ...) It's a classic love triangle, and while there's nothing new here, the characters are well-drawn enough and the emotions real enough that it works. Which is more than I can say for the reality-show aspect of the novel.
We also meet more interesting supporting characters (and delve deeper into the background and motivations of existing supporting characters, like Cinna the costume designer and Haymitch Abernathy, the District 12 winner of an earlier Hunger Games who "mentored" Katniss and Peeta, coaching them on how to stay alive in the arena) and see more of the other Districts. District 12 has also changed, very much for the worse, since Katniss and Peeta's victory: there's been a brutal law-enforcement crackdown, with a new Head Peacekeeper just sent in from the Capitol. Katniss realizes that the reason for the crackdown is her defiance of the Capitol, and she agonizes over what she ought to do to protect the people she loves from further punishment.
Now, the thing that bugged me the most about this book: President Snow. He's got a huge country to run, and a civil war to avert, and yet he has all this time just to hang around giving Katniss the creeps? The man behaves like no despot I've ever heard of, and while his actions make no sense in the context of statecraft, or rebellion-quashing, or the consolidation of power, they are very obviously intended to ramp up the drama for Katniss. So when he's not being one-dimensionally, cartoonishly Evil, Snow is, essentially, relegated to the role of dramatic background music. Dun dun DUNNNNN!
(I realize the above doesn't really read like a four-star review ... I guess what that means is that, while the book has lots of problems, I still really enjoyed it, and it's problems aren't so bad that they got in the way of me enjoying it. It was less, "okay, Book, you've lost me" and more "This is ridiculous! .... But what happens next??")(less)
I read a lot of comic books, and they mostly fall into two categories: comics about grown men wearing tights, and comics where people say "fuck" a lot...moreI read a lot of comic books, and they mostly fall into two categories: comics about grown men wearing tights, and comics where people say "fuck" a lot. Transmetropolitan is a comic where people say "fuck" a lot.
Other than that, it's awfully hard to categorize. It's about the return of its protagonist, Spider Jerusalem, to investigative journalism after five years of almost complete isolation from the world. His editor has called him up asking about a book Spider was supposed to be writing, and Spider realizes he can only write when he's down in the middle of what he writes about, which is life in the City.
Once he's gotten himself set up in a crappy apartment and a regular job writing a newspaper column, Spider discovers a Big Story: a huge conflict brewing between City police and a group of people called "Transients", who have had themselves surgically and genetically altered to look like extraterrestrials. Spider immediately smells a rat, and goes to the scene of the riot and bangs out a column full of his observations and suspicions. The column is a sensation, and Spider winds up with a better apartment and an assistant, a beautiful young woman whom he decides to tutor in the art of gonzo journalism.
That's the plot, but the essence of this book is more in the bizarre details of character and setting that make Spider and his City unique. Here is the kind of person Spider Jerusalem is: his mountaintop cabin, where he's been hiding from the world all this time, is defended with minefields, "smartguns," a security A.I., and an "Ebola bomb" (triggered, one assumes, by someone entering the cabin in his absence). As he leaves for The City, he blasts this bar, the one place he's ever left his cabin to go in the past five years, into flaming wreckage with a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher. The man is never without a ridiculously high-powered weapon, which he draws and pulls on people (and inanimate objects) whenever the whim strikes him. One of his favored weapons, in one of the book's many Swiftian touches, is a "bowel disruptor", a pistol-sized raygun capable of rendering any opponent helpless with diarrhea. The concept of overkill seems not to exist for him.
The above paragraph makes him sound one-dimensional, which he's not, really. His hostility and paranoia are extreme, but they are not his entire psyche. Not quite, anyway. He also has a commitment to Truth: wherever he thinks people are being lied to or stolen from, especially by people with a lot of power, he wants to nail the crooks to the wall for everyone to see. One doesn't find him all that easy to admire or sympathize with on that count, though, since his pursuit of Truth and Justice is so heavily tinged with sadism. He might have once heard the dictum "Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," but it's only the latter half that he really takes to heart. There are a couple of times when he shows kindness, like when he adopts a starving mutant cat and when he tries to comfort his assistant after one of his rants makes her cry, and while these do add depth and nuance to his character, they're not enough to make him into anything resembling a good person.
I also have to say something about the art in this volume, because it's phenomenal. The level of detail in every panel is just amazing, and adds to the messy, anarchic texture of the story. Each panel, especially the crowd scenes, is like a page in a "Where's Waldo?" book in terms of how much is going on in it. (less)