As you can probably surmise from the huge collection of tags I've attached to this book, there is A LOT of stuff going on here!
Even the structure of tAs you can probably surmise from the huge collection of tags I've attached to this book, there is A LOT of stuff going on here!
Even the structure of this book is complex and multifaceted: two stories, told by two narrators, in alternating chapters. The first narrator is Shira Shipman, a young, upper-middle-class Jewish woman who has recently become a wife and mother. Her life is also almost completely controlled by her employer, a huge biotechnology corporation, not only because they have a very strict, conformist corporate culture (there are even rules, unwritten of course, dictating how women of varying degrees of seniority within the company should dress), but also because Shira lives in what is essentially an upscale version of the company town: it's like a sealed-off, climate-controlled suburb/office park where everyone in the middle and upper ranks of salaried workers and management lives and works. Shira's narration, especially in the early chapters, is therefore suffused with nervousness, and a sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop, since her husband has recently been promoted and their family moved into a bigger, nicer house. Shira is certain there must be a catch, since she knows she's not exactly a team player, and not exactly in her bosses' good graces.
When the other shoe does drop, Shira packs up and leaves, heading to a place that's the polar opposite of the stuffy corporate-controlled environment she's just fled: it's a free Jewish settlement out in the middle of nowhere, unaffiliated with any of the major corporations that dominate this denuded, radiation-spoiled future Earth. Her grandmother (who brought her up) lives there, and she soon learns that her mother, who left her when she was born, is also coming to stay there. She also soon finds that her grandmother and the father of one of her childhood friends are working on something mysterious and fantastical: a robot that looks, talks thinks and feels exactly like a person, but has superhuman physical and mental abilities.
This robot, who is named Yod (a letter in the Hebrew alphabet; Aleph through Tet were his predecessors, all but one scrapped because of horrible, sometimes deadly, flaws), might be the most interesting character in this novel. That's saying a lot, because this novel is stuffed to the gills with interesting characters. Unfortunately, Shira Shipman isn't one of them --- that's the biggest thing that disappointed me about this book, that practically all of the real-time narration is done by the most boring character. (The other narrator, Shira's grandmother Malkah, spends almost all of her chapters telling the story of the seventeenth-century Rabbi Judah Loews --- also called "the Maharal" --- who created the Golem to protect his people, living as they did in the ghetto of Prague, where Christian mobs could attack them at will. This story is also hugely interesting, but because it's all very external to Malkah herself, the reader doesn't spend as much time in her mind as they do in Shira's. And that's a pity, because Malkah's mind seems like a fun place.) Yod owes his moral and emotional complexity entirely to Malkah's programming; her involvement may well have been the thing that saved Yod from the fate of all the failed attempts before him.
(And now, a random note on terminology: Yod is not a cyborg. There are some cyborgs in this book, but Yod is an android. Cyborgs are people who have been technologically augmented; androids are humanlike technological constructs. Carry on, then.)
Chaos ensues once people outside the tight circle of people who've been working on "the project" learn about Yod and his abilities. There's a lot of corporate-espionage type stuff, amped up by both the apparent absence of laws in this future world (assassination raids, abduction and hostage-taking are apparently standard practice), and the immersive nature of the "cyberspace" the denizens of the free settlement must navigate to earn their livelihood, since they specialize in cybersecurity. (Cybersecurity being very important in this world, what with all the aforementioned corporate espionage.)
This conception of cyberspace --- a three-dimensional "space" that you, virtually embodied as an avatar, move around in to talk to other people, download data, build firewalls or "patrol" existing firewalls looking for signs of intrusion --- is pretty much ripped from the pages of William Gibson's novels, as is the anarchic, impoverished megacity in which Everyone Else (i.e., the poor and the non-corporate) lives. "The Glop" (from "megalopolis," which is one of my favorite science-fiction neologisms ever, and one of the minority that seems like real people might use it) looks a lot like a lower-tech version of the Sprawl from Gibson's novels; Marge Piercy even acknowledges this debt in an afterword.
Derivative as all this is, I still found the worldbuilding in this book to be pretty solid. It helps that Piercy spends most of her time developing settings that aren't the Glop or corporate bubbles: her most original, most interesting "world" is the small, tight-knit community of Tikva, which marries freedom and openness with airtight security and a technological specialization that basically buys them their autonomy. (As in, every major corporation wants to buy their firewalls, so they all tolerate the upstart little city-state's existing outside any one of their control). It's a really interesting, well-realized picture of an intentional community, with a sharp focus on day-to-day survival in an uncertain world.
Another juxtaposition this settlement (and the book as a whole) tries to embody is that of future and past. Everyone in Tikva is a practicing Jew, and Jewish religious and cultural identity are just as integral to the place's cohesion and survival as its cutting-edge technology.
But the best thing, in a novel where everything is done amazingly well, has got to be the characters. I did not find Shira very interesting, but almost every other character who was in the book for longer than a scene or two was absolutely fascinating. And even Shira, though boring (to me), was well-developed, believable and even relatable. She evolves over the course of the book, and we see a lot of different aspects of her character: her feelings of confusion and betrayal when she has to confront her mother for the first time, and her slow metamorphosis from a closed-off, emotionally stunted, timid woman to someone bold, spontaneous and loving, which coincides with her finally moving past a schoolgirl crush on another character. And Yod! Yod is an absolutely masterful work of creation; he's not human, exactly, and he's also not male in the way that a man is male (psychologically, that is; physically he's quite male), but he is certainly a person, and despite the title he is not an "it." (His ambiguous status comes up when he wants to participate in some ritual, I forget which, that is restricted to Jewish men. He wants to be considered, not just human, not just a man, but specifically a Jewish man). His emotions were about half familiar to me (as an autistic person, I am well acquainted with the angst of wondering whether one is really human or not) and half alien (he was made for violence, and takes a predatory delight in it that bothers the moral and relational parts of his psyche), and all beautifully described and conveyed through his confused-but-eloquent speech and his halting, work-in-progress manner. He's definitely one of my favorite non-human characters I've ever encountered....more
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 lotI 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. ...more
At the start of this installation in the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss and her friend and teammate from District 12, Peeta Mellark, are getting readyAt 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??")...more
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. TheseI'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....more
**spoiler alert** So, the first time I read this book (which turns out to have been exactly four years ago, to the day) I was so excited I gave it fiv**spoiler alert** So, the first time I read this book (which turns out to have been exactly four years ago, to the day) I was so excited I gave it five stars, but now, on rereading it, I do see some flaws, so I knocked my rating down to four.
I reread it just now because I had just gotten the third book in this trilogy, MaddAddam, as a Christmas gift, and at the beginning of that book there's a "Here's what's happened so far" plot synopsis. I found I did not remember a lot of what had happened in The Year of the Flood, so I figured a reread was probably in order.
And that leads into my primary criticism of the book --- there's not much plot, and what there is, you don't really remember. It sort of all happens at the end, all at once, in a confusing jumble, while the rest of the book is a long, slow progression of flashbacks and waiting.
(This was my biggest problem with Oryx and Crake, too --- so much of it was just Jimmy hiding out in abandoned houses, telling us his life story in flashback. This book has two characters doing much the same thing, only with more interesting life stories.)
This book successfully addressed a lot of my other problems with the first one, though --- I completely take back my statement about the worldbuilding being weak. The two protagonists of this installment in the series have lived less sheltered lives than Crake and Jimmy, so they have seen more of the world, and can relay a more complete picture to us, the readers.
The biggest new addition to the worldbuilding in this book is the God's Gardeners, a nascent religious movement that embraces simple, sustainable living in harmony with the environment and with all other animals. Both of the narrators have been a part of this group at some point in their lives --- the first narrator, Toby, is an older woman who joined them after they staged a demonstration at her workplace and enabled her to escape her abusive boss, and who stayed there for years, eventually becoming a sort of authority figure in the movement; and the second, Ren, is a young woman who spent most of her childhood among them and only left when her mother decided to return to their previous life in one of the rich, walled-off corporate enclaves, which she remembers but Ren does not.
I love the God's Gardeners. I love their philosophy, I love the detail Atwood lavishes on their modest living arrangements --- they grow a garden on the rooftop of a mostly-vacant building in a nasty neighborhood, which is also where they live, and they sell their excess produce at an open-air market. Most of their material possessions are salvaged --- "gleaned" is the word they use. They don't bother with electricity or running water --- what water they have is rainwater, and they have some kind of composting toilet rigged up. I love that they are shown living this kind of back-to-nature life in the heart of a decaying city.
Another thing I love about the God's Gardeners is their mythos. Atwood begins every chapter with a sermon preached by Adam One, who is the closest thing they have to a leader. These sermons are beautiful, and the God described in them is one that I could almost believe in. They are comforting to read, with their language of brotherhood and belonging. Each one starts out with an invocation of one of the many "saints" the God's Gardeners venerate, who are mostly famous biologists like Dian Fossey, Rachel Carson, E. O. Wilson, Carolus Linnaeus, Stephen Jay Gould, David Suzuki and Francis Crick (what, no Saint Watson or Saint Franklin?), but some of them are actual, old-school saints like Julian of Norwich and Francis of Assisi. If you have much background in biology, these Saints' Days will be delightful little Easter Eggs for you --- the ones you know, you'll smile at Atwood's gift for deploying them aptly, and the ones you don't know, you might be moved to learn more about.
There is also a Hymn at the beginning of every chapter, which Atwood has said are most strongly influenced by the styles of William Blake and John Bunyan, as well as actual Anglican hymns that I guess Atwood grew up singing. I like these, too.
I also love the characterizations of individual God's Gardeners --- Atwood introduces us to each one, gives them all unique personalities and skill sets, and she seems to love them all. Even the ones who are somewhat ridiculous --- there's the overly sentimental Nuala, who cries at the drop of a hat and "flirts with anything male," and there's the drug-addled Philo, called "The Fog" for his mental state. These characters could just be punchlines, but in Atwood's hands they have dignity and courage. Nuala has a genuinely kind heart, and she can pull herself together in a crisis and keep everyone else's morale up. She is also clever with her needle. And Philo can pull himself out of the fog that is his namesake sometimes, and provide occasional level-headed suggestions. He is unflappable and absolutely loyal to the other Gardeners.
There are also straight-up heroic characters, like the wise mushroom and medicinal-herb expert Pilar, who also keeps the community's bees. She seems like an unassuming old woman at first, but as Toby gets to know her and learn from her we find out just how much she knows, not only about plants, fungi and beekeeping but also about the world outside the Garden, and the Gardeners' ties to important scientists in the corporate world. We also find out that she can be fearsome --- she's the one who teaches Toby about poisons, including the Death Angel mushrooms that become so important to the plot later on.
And there's Zeb, who would not be out of place in a Neal Stephenson novel. He's a big, brash biker type who teaches "Urban Bloodshed Limitation" (a.k.a. martial arts) to the Gardener children. These techniques are not about beauty, sporting competition or meditation --- they are designed to end street fights quickly and decisively in the practitioner's favor. He is the Gardeners' primary liaison to what they term the Exfernal World (which I take to be a portmanteau of "external" and "infernal") and to other Gardener communities in other cities.
One of the things that Zeb does in this capacity is help move around refugees from the corporate enclaves --- a whole lot of the Gardeners, and pretty much their entire leadership, was once scientists working for one biotech company or another, but who left because they thought the work they were being asked to do was morally wrong. But some of the scientists who come to the same realization stay on, acting as moles for the Gardeners, telling them what's going to come down the pike in the realm of bioengineering projects, and working on their own projects aimed at restoring Nature to its original, unmolested state. (The one example of this that I can remember is a bacterium designed to digest asphalt.)
This is the part of the book where we start to see characters and plot points from Oryx and Crake seeping in: one of the refugees Zeb brings in to stay briefly at the Gardener commune before moving on to her eventual safe house is Jimmy's mother, who is finally given a bit more depth, and reasons for her random disappearance and cryptic postcards.
Near the end of the book, a raid by local authorities forces the Gardeners to disperse, and even though both of the narrators had already left the community well before this happens, it definitely changes the tone of the story. Ren and Toby start moving; Ren meets back up with her childhood best friend, with whom she's been in sporadic phone contact, and eventually also meets up with Toby --- they must've been holed up fairly close to one another. (These books are very unclear about geography. That seems to be a common problem with the subgenus of dystopia that has isolated enclaves of relative wealth and technological sophistication surrounded by vast wastelands of poverty and devastation; there's a lot of attention paid to characterizing the enclaves, and to drawing contrasts between them and the outside, but not usually very much invested in showing how one place outside the enclaves differs from another. It's a curious flattening of physical and human geography, and it always bugs me and makes the world seem smaller than it's supposed to be.)
Anyway, the very ending is a sudden explosion of violence and chaos at the end of a long, long stretch of nothing much happening. This violence comes from the three escaped prisoners who are now introduced --- well, one of them has been in the story for a while, as he's the boss from hell that Toby escaped from when she joined the Gardeners however many years back it was. He was violent then and he's only gotten worse since, having been in and out of "Painball," which is the thing Atwood seems to have come up with by asking, "What would be more brutal than the prison system we have today?" What it involves is randomly assigning prisoners to teams (red and gold, marked by color-coded tattoos on the hands) and having them battle to the death, armed with modified paintball guns (source of the terrible, *terrible* namesake pun) that shoot balls of, not paint, but some corrosive substance that causes the flesh it contacts to rot. Atwood says that prisoners are given a choice --- instant death by firing squad, or that. She goes on to say that all women prisoners, whatever their crime, and also all political prisoners, choose the firing squad. Anyone who survives Painball is rendered permanently unable to do anything but eat, sleep, rape, and murder. (She calls it being "reduced to the lizard brain.")
So, this is a story about all sorts of unbelievable things, from lion/lamb hybrids engineered for kooky religious reasons, to glow-in-the-dark rabbits, to extra-smart, malevolent pigs, to sheep that grow colorful hair extensions, to road- and bridge-melting bacteria, to a worldwide pandemic spread by a sexual-enhancement pill, and the thing I've just described is what I am having the hardest time accepting. There is no reason for a system like that to exist. And not because people are good, either --- because it would cost more, be ridiculously hard to keep secure, and inevitably involve some escapes. The only reasons I can conceive of for her to have included it are 1) another indication of gratuitous depravity and social decay, like the video games and Internet sites Crake and Jimmy bond over in the first book, 2) a reason to bring back Toby's nemesis at the end of the book (which she wouldn't have had if she'd had him killed or locked up until the end of his natural life, as would probably happen under our current US laws), and 3) an excuse for a really bad pun.
And, speaking of really bad puns, that brings me to another problem I had with the first book that did not get any better in this one: the cheesy brand names. I understand why she does it --- it's a satire of creeping corporatocracy --- but a lot of them just aren't funny, and there are so many that it gets really annoying.
Anyway, I still liked this one a lot better than the first one, and this one also somewhat improved my impressions of the first one. The God's Gardeners were great --- it was no accident that what stuck clearest in my mind between first reading it and rereading it were little details of the Gardener lifestyle. Characterization and worldbuilding are incredibly well done here --- plot is still a bit uneven, though I am starting to be in awe of her ability to tie so many story elements together and not lose track of any of them!...more
A very interesting book, written in dazzling, synesthetic prose. (The language is actually so vivid as to be distracting from the plot, which is probaA 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....more
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-runningThis 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....more
A subtle and insightful glimpse into the workings of fear-based, authoritarian governments. Its detailed examination of the relation between authoritaA 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....more
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 claritThis 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).