Charlotte Wood's fifth novel is a disturbing yet beautiful and thought-provoking exploration into the misogyny lurking beneath Australia's good-natureCharlotte Wood's fifth novel is a disturbing yet beautiful and thought-provoking exploration into the misogyny lurking beneath Australia's good-natured, laid-back, egalitarian image. It is inspired, in part, by the Hay Institution for Girls, "an offshoot of Parramatta Girls Home that was reserved for the 10 worst offenders in the state in the 1960s and '70s. They were drugged and put on a train to the decommissioned men's prison in south-western NSW, where they were forced to march, look at the floor, never talk to each other, and endure rape and other violence." (Susan Wyndham, SMH) It is also inspired, or influenced, by the reaction to sex scandals over the years - far from being seen as victims, or equally responsible, the women in these scandals are vilified and denigrated - and hated.
In such ways do incredible true stories and a confronting dystopian fiction come together. In Wood's alternate present day setting, ten girls are drugged and taken to a remote sheep station, long abandoned and falling into ruin, in outback Australia (the state isn't clear but it would be either Victoria or NSW, most likely). They wake groggy and fearful, without their clothes or possessions, wearing old-fashioned clothes to which a leash can be attached and locked. Their heads are shaved, they're served small portions of the least nutritious food you can think of - Kraft-style Mac and Cheese, two-minute noodles, no fruit or veg - and bullied and beaten by the two men hired to guard them. Boncer and Teddy - and a young woman of dubious background herself, Nancy, who dresses up as a nurse with paper costume pieces and plastic toy stethoscope - are their guards. Surrounded by a high electrified fence, they are all locked in, trapped, but for the ten young women their lesson is to learn what they are, not who; and for the men, it is to teach them this.
This nightmare situation (as a female reader, I couldn't help but feel vulnerable, even threatened) is vividly rendered in Wood's delicate, descriptive prose and made all the more frightening by the idea, lurking beneath the surreal every-day existence depicted, that this plan wasn't even thought through all that well; or that, if it was carefully planned, it was planned by a truly cruel, evil fuck who has no regard for human life, health or sanity. It is the not-knowing, the ambiguity, the lack of information and facts that add to the tension and terror for the reader. Trying to imagine adults sitting down and planning this, justifying it, and then seeing it through makes my brain want to shut down. And yet, as evidenced by the real-life inspiration from the Hay Institution for Girls, it is entirely possible, today as well. It comes down to attitudes, to ideological mind-sets, to what a collective group of people believe is true and right. That's how we justify all manner of things, from bombing foreign towns to imprisoning Aboriginal peoples for minor infractions. Wood's ultimate triumph, in terms of ideas, is to remind us mutable our ideologies really are, and how, for as much as we like to think we are advanced, civilised, better than before, we actually have an awful long way to go. The reason, the ultimate reason why The Natural Way of Things is so disturbing and terrifying, is that there is a part of me that gets it, that understands that there is only a thin membrane of love, compassion and strength keeping women safe in this and many other Western countries.
I hear accounts of people claiming that feminism is no longer needed, isn't necessary, isn't important - that plenty of women not only don't consider themselves feminists, but have come to believe some strange version of reality in which feminism is a negative thing, a repressive or virulent, angry and hateful thing. What could be more successful to the largely-unconscious patriarchal agenda than this re-writing of feminism? Whoever owns the definition of a word, owns the word, and sadly, these days, women no longer own their own word. "Women are their own worst enemy" is a common enough saying - I say it myself - and I believe it is often, sadly, true. We constantly sabotage our own efforts at being - not just taken seriously, but treated equally.
This is captured in rather pessimistic ways by Wood's characters, from the two main female narrators - Verla, in first-person present-tense, and Yolanda, in third-person past tense - to the other eight girls unjustly imprisoned with them. Verla was involved in an affair with a politician and still, naively, believes that Andrew will come and rescue her, that she's different from the others, whom she judges almost as harshly as everyone else has done. Yolanda is the most clued-in, but she is also the only one who wasn't tricked into signing her rights away. She knew something was up, and she fought. They overwhelmed her and drugged her anyway, and she knows no one is coming for them because even her beloved brother was in on it. The other young women, all involved in various different kinds of scandals for which they took all the hate, represent different kinds of women, but none of them are particularly flattering. Barbs, the swimmer, is a big girl who suffers such a violent beating on their first day for speaking out that her jaw is permanently crooked, is obviously the butch one. Three of the girls become obsessed with their body hair, tweezing them out of each other's bodies, trying to maintain a look that they have long been trained to want. Hetty, "the cardinal's girl" (and doesn't that just make you cringe?) is depicted as small-minded and somewhat malicious. The list goes on, none of it flattering.
Yet such is the way Woods has crafted this novel that you come away with a clearer understanding: we're all flawed, none of us are perfect, we all make mistakes, and while you might not want someone like Hetty as a friend, or even value her as you would Verla, does she deserve this? Hopefully, the answer for all readers is a resounding NO! And as much as I'd like to think, "Oh this could never happen", a part of me doesn't really believe that.
I read this - in a day - just as the Briggs scandal broke, and the cricket player Chris Gayle got in trouble for his comments to a female sports reporter. An Age article brought attention to how the woman at the receiving end of Briggs' unwanted attention was being turned into the scapegoat rather than the victim, while following the Gayle story showed how quickly most of the country went from "His comments to a professional journalist were a swift means of reducing her from a serious journalist to an object for the male gaze" to "this is a complete over-reaction, lighten up, his comments were meant innocently, the political correctness police are going too far". That reporter understands her male-dominated world and distanced herself from it all, saving her job and her reputation, while the public servant in the Briggs' case was close to experiencing complete demolition because she made a complaint. It's telling. There is also the on-going discussions of the high rate of domestic violence in Australia, which is a huge problem and caused by, among other things, this over-arching lack of respect for women.
But none of this would be as memorable and hard-hitting if it weren't for Wood's writing. While I thought her control wasn't consistent and I found the use of present tense annoying and pointless for Verla's narration, overall it is beautifully and poetically written. Something incredible is done to violence when written in such simple yet beautiful language as this:
One big girl, fair-skinned with fleshy cheeks and wide, swimmer's shoulders, said irritably, 'What? We can't hear you,' and then closed her eyes against the sun, hands on her hips, murmuring something beneath her breath. So she didn't see the man's swift, balletic leap - impossibly pretty and light across the gravel - and a leather-covered baton in his hand coming whack over the side of her jaw. They all cried out with her as she fell, shrieking in pain. Some of their arms came out to try to catch her. They cowered. More than one began crying as they hurried then, into a line. [p.24]
The contrast of Boncer's 'swift, balletic leap - impossibly pretty' with the violent beating of Barb increases the shock value, the sense of wrongness and the realisation of powerlessness. Violence against women (such as domestic violence) has long proved an effective tool in the hands of misogynistic men.
At other times, especially after the power goes out (except for the electric fence) and they run out of food, and begin going crazy in their own separate ways, Wood's prose captures a primordial truth as well as day-to-day reality:
Yolanda hugged the squishy mint-green and baby-pink packages to her chest, squatting in the grief and shame of how reduced she was by such ordinary things. It was why they were here, she understood now. For the hatred of what came out of you, what you contained. What you were capable of. She understood because she shared it, this dull fear and hatred of her body. It had bloomed inside her all her life, purged but regrowing, unstoppable, every month: this dark weed and the understanding that she was meat, was born to make meat. [p.122]
It is a theme I've been interested in for some time now, this idea of shame and women's bodies, of the successful rewriting and control of women's bodies by, really, the Catholic Church and then, really, everyone. I'm very much of the mind that women need to reclaim their bodies, their right to their bodies but also how they value them and their needs and desires. I'm resistant to Yolanda's view, but I can understand it. And in many cultures around the world, past and present, women are controlled through the social traditions dictating behaviour and menstruation. As if, by teaching girls and women to see themselves in this low way, they remove the power that females rightfully possess, out of the age-old fear of woman's ability to create life. And as is often the way in literature, where this discourse of womanhood and power appear, so too does a representation of the landscape, the natural world:
When she wakes, her face printed with grass blades, she finds her way to a hillside of scrub. She walks in it like a dream, climbing the slope in the noisy silence. Silty leaves cling to the soles of her feet. There is the patter of wet droplets falling from the gently moving leaves far above. High squeaks and tin musical turnings of tiny birds. Sometimes a hard rapid whirr, a sprung diving board, and a large dove explodes from a vine and vanishes. A motorised insect drones by her ear. She looks upwards, upwards, and sees long shreds of bark, or abandoned human skins, hanging in the branches. The bush breathes her in. It inhales her. She is mesmerised by pairs of seed pods nestled at the base of a grass tree: hot orange, bevelled, testicular. [p.135]
A dichotomy of human-made vs. nature is a common-enough theme, but here rendered all the more turbulent and visceral by the circumstances, the very premise of the story. Even the title, The Natural Way of Things, speaks of this idea. It can refer to our determination to claim, possess and control - through language more than anything else - the natural world, which is also representative of womanhood (Mother Earth etc.), and also to a primordial, primitive and thus 'natural' way of life, an absence of so-called civilisation - relevant to Yolanda's increasing strangeness as she becomes one with the land, and Verla's ultimate decision. It speaks to the sadness I was left with at the end, which presents a kind of either/or scenario: either you live in the 'civilised' world and let it dictate who and what you are, or you shun it entirely, abandon it and become 'primitive'. Again, this is how we often grasp the world, and attempt to tame it: through words, and the positive or negative connotations of words. The ambiguous ending, with its taint of further horror balanced by a thin brush of hope, makes it clear who has really won in this world, which is really our world in disguise.
Make sure, when you start this book, that you have nothing planned for the day, because you'll want to read it all the way through in one sitting - and should. This is a book I will enjoy re-reading, and pondering anew. It has so far been nominated and longlisted for a couple of awards, and I hope to see it appear on more lists this year. It is a deserving book, working on multiple levels and one of those lovely rare treasures that can be interpreted and experienced in different ways by different readers, making it rich and unique. Comparisons have been made (in the blurb) to The Handmaid's Tale and Lord of the Flies, but 'comparison' is the wrong word for it: it is more that The Natural Way of Things has joined an on-going exploration into human behaviour, the powerful dominance of ideologies and their effect on both individuals and culture, and violence....more
The best speculative fiction - if not, by its very nature, all speculative fiction - explores issues of social justice and ethics, often along the linThe best speculative fiction - if not, by its very nature, all speculative fiction - explores issues of social justice and ethics, often along the lines of discrimination, prejudice and, beyond that, cloning, robotics - all things that ultimately lead to that unanswerable question: what does it mean to be human?
In 2012, a young medical student was travelling on a bus with a male friend in Delhi, India, when the five men and one teenaged boy on board beat her friend and dragged her to the back of the bus, to endure forty-five minutes of rape and assault. She died. The incident isn't isolated, but it's very blatant cruelty sparked protests and women-driven calls for change all across India. India may have a more obvious patriarchal ideology than Western countries like Australia, but when the bus driver in this particular case said in an interview that women are to blame for being raped, well that's not an Indian attitude at all. You here people - not only men, sadly - say the same thing in Western countries. Around the same time, a young Melbourne woman was raped and killed while walking home. We have a long way to go yet, in gender equality and respecting women.
Out of tragedy often comes something good, though, and one such example is Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, an anthology of shorts stories, graphic novel shorts, and one script written in collaboration between Australian and Indian women writers and illustrators. The title, according to the editors,
"suggested impossibilities, dreams, ambitions and a connection to something larger than humanity alone. ... This collection of stories embraces the idea of not just eating pie but of taking big, hungry mouthfuls of life and embracing the world. It's about the desire to have and do impossible things, especially things that girls aren't meant to do. We asked our contributors to re-imagine the world, to mess with the boundaries of the possible and the probable. ... Ultimately, this is a book about connections - between Australia and India, between men and women, between the past, the present, the future and the planet that we all share. If we had to name one thing we learnt in the process of making this anthology, it's the fact that when you eat the sky and drink the ocean, you are part of the earth: everything's connected." (Introduction, pages vii-ix)
Some of the contributors will be familiar to you; for me, an Aussie, the fact that my favourite author - Isobelle Carmody - was a contributor meant that I had to move this right to the top of my to-read list (I started reading it as soon as I got it, and actually finished it three days later - quite a feat for me at present!). Other names I recognised included Justine Larbalestier (I loved Liar) and Margo Lanagan (ditto for Tender Morsels). But I was blown away by so many of these authors and illustrators, unknown to me; I was truly inspired.
The anthology starts off strongly with the graphic short story, "Swallow the Moon", written by Kate Constable and illustrated by Priya Kuriyan. It is an uplifting, mystical sort of story, a story of hope and renewal around a deep core of tragedy. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, everything we know - all our 'stuff' - is gone; all that remains is the rubbish that drifts onto the beaches. The story was articulately told and beautifully illustrated.
It is from this story that the stunning cover illustration comes, too. It sets the tone and expectations for the rest of the anthology, which shows an impressive diversity of ideas and imagination, all linked by this common thread of a girl's place - and often, a boy's too - in society. Some of the other stories that stood out to me include "Memory Lace" by Payal Dhar - I am so a product of my society that I didn't see the 'twist' in that story! - "Anarkali" by Annie Zaidi and Mandy Orr, a graphic short story about a farming girl who is entombed alive for falling in love with the prince. She discovers she has the strength to escape, if she becomes one with her surroundings. In "Cast Out" by Samhita Arni, the familiar trope of exile into certain death for girls who exhibit sorcery - simply because it is not allowed - is given a strong, encouraging and hopeful ending when Karthini discovers a world in which she can be herself. In fact, that idea of finding your place, accepting yourself and being accepted by others, recurs in a number of these stories.
Several flip the gender imbalance on its head, like "The Runners" by Isobelle Carmody and Prabha Mallya, which also explores the idea of what it means to be human. As in some of the other stories, the central message is that how we perceive ourselves affects how we are perceived by others, and vice versa. If you are seen as human (meaning you are treated as one), you will be human.
Larbalestier's short story, "Little Red Suit" is a post-apocalyptic retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood"; it's not the only story to play around with well-known storylines and tropes. Environmentalism is also a running theme throughout this anthology, and it ties in well with the editors' comment about being connected to the planet. It made me think, what would this anthology look like if, keeping the same purpose and ideas and focus on girls, it was written by male authors? Because sometimes I wonder at that gender gap, that difference in perception that seems so hard to shift. What insights would we get? How do they see us, really?
Two of the stories - "Weft" and "Mirror Perfect" - deal with our contemporary society's obsession with appearance, and what we are willing to sacrifice for it. "Cooking Time", which I loved, questioned the point of survival for the sake of it, if there's nothing to enjoy. "Back-stage Pass", by Nicki Greenberg, is a short graphic story about Ophelia, and why she threw herself into the water, and the power of self that we gain when we take control of how we're 'written': how others perceive us, and the direction our lives take.
Each story offers something different to the conversation, in different styles and from different perspectives and genres. Some I loved, a couple I didn't quite click with, but overall, they showed how diverse we all are, women and men, girls and boys. We all have something worthwhile to offer the world. We can find safety and harmony and joy in working together and loving each other. And, ultimately, change is possible. ...more
I only learnt of this book this year, and I’m so glad I did! Set on a juggernaut called Worldshaker, in an alternate present in which the reign of QueI only learnt of this book this year, and I’m so glad I did! Set on a juggernaut called Worldshaker, in an alternate present in which the reign of Queen Victoria continues indefinitely, alongside the Victorian mentality. Col is the son of one of the elite families on the mobile city; his grandfather is the Supreme Commander and he is next in line. Everything in his neat, ordered world is right and good. But then one night a Filthy escapes from Below and hides in his cabin, a girl called Riff. The Filthies are barely human, he’s been taught, but this one challenges his understanding. His only other exposure to them are through the Menials, silent, tongueless and lobotomised servants ‘rescued’ from Below to serve the upper classes. Col’s encounter with Riff is the beginning of something new, dark and terrifying, as everything he believed in begins to fray.
This is a wonderful adventure story containing familiar elements and tropes but still a unique, standalone novel. While you will have a greater and more cynical understanding of the workings of this world than Col does, his path to understanding is rendered so vivid and nail-bitingly tense that it won’t matter. While it utilises the Victorian steampunk tradition, the story acts as an indictment on how we still treat others, even today, not only through class systems but through words and names alone.
At the back of the book are some great maps of the juggernaut, which I wish I’d known about sooner than I did, as they’re very helpful!...more
The third and final full-length novel in the Shatter Me series (which includes two e-novellas) decides firmly, once and for all, whether Mafi wanted tThe third and final full-length novel in the Shatter Me series (which includes two e-novellas) decides firmly, once and for all, whether Mafi wanted to write a science fiction/speculative fiction story, or a romance. The answer? Romance, in a sci-fi world. More than that, it's a coming-of-age story for its young protagonist-narrator, Juliette. Everything she's been through culminates in a triumphant ending in Ignite Me, and I can't say I'm at all disappointed.
Trouble is, how do you review the third and final book in a trilogy (or the fifth part in a series, whichever way you look at it) without giving away what came before? How do you review it in such a way that you are actually reviewing the final book while also, possibly, encouraging new readers to start from the beginning? That is, essentially, what I'd like to do here, but the truth is I read this in March - over three months ago - and it's not all that fresh in my head anymore.
For as much as I love a good romance - like, really really love - and for as much as Mafi delivers on that front, I am still disappointed by the thinly-sketched out world-building. This is a place of climatic catastrophe in our near future, a place that suffered a vacuum of power into which stepped a totalitarian regime (the Reestablishment) seeking to completely oppress the working people (which is almost everyone who isn't a soldier in the regime - and they, too, come from those families and are supporting them even while the repress them). Of course, the limited world-building comes from Juliette's limited worldview: not only is she ignorant of this world, as are we, but unlike us, she's not particularly curious about it. And that spells problems for the very ending, and the new step Juliette takes - which I won't spell out because it's a spoiler.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, though with less heat than before: There's no reason why a Young Adult title can't be intelligent, sophisticated, meaningful, and above all, well fleshed out. There's smarts here, and some really powerful imagery and insights, but as with so many other YA speculative fiction books, the world-building is thin on the ground. And that's a huge shame. I'm not asking for pages of exposition, endless descriptions of boring details. Just a few well-placed details, a timely explanation here and there where appropriate, would go far. There are hints, but they often get derailed because of how Juliette internalises everything and makes it personal.
"You think you've had it hard," [Adam's] saying to me. "Living in psych wards and being thrown in jail - you think that was difficult. But what you don't realise is that you've always had a roof over your head, and food delivered to you on a regular basis." His hands are clenching, unclenching. "And that's more than most people will ever have. You have no idea what it's really like to live out here - no idea what it's like to starve and watch your family die in front of you. You have no idea," he says to me, "what it means to truly suffer. Sometimes I think you live in some fantasy land where everyone survives on optimism - but it doesn't work that way out here. In this world you're either alive, about to die, or dead. There's no romance in it. No illusion. So don't try to pretend you have any idea what it means to be alive today. Right now. Because you don't."
Words, I think, are such unpredictable creatures.
No gun, no sword, no army or king will ever be more powerful than a sentence. Swords may cut and kill, but words will stab and stay, burying themselves in our bones to become corpses we carry into the future, all the time digging and failing to rip their skeletons from our flesh. [pp.120-1]
I love these powerful insights, I do; they're raw and honest and powerful and poetic. But I also need context for the characters' very existence. For the plot to make sense. And in a story like this, context is in world-building. Hints are fine. Using my imagination to fill in the gaps is great. But you need limits first, a border, an outline. Shatter Me has always been a bit sketchy on that front; or maybe that's because I'm an adult reader and not the intended audience. I'm slightly terrified of re-reading, as an adult, a science fiction-romance novel I read over and over again as a teenager, and finding I have the same complaints - because I didn't have them when I was younger, that's for sure. So how much of this is a real criticism and how much of it is a jaded adult griping, I can never really know for sure.
What undoubtedly saves this book, and the series, is Mafi's determined, unapologetic focus on the troubled relationship between Juliette and Warner, that seemingly psychotic, amoral, evil young man with the angelic face and hot body. The perfect villain-slash-hero. A complete fantasy, and yet Mafi succeeds in bringing the humanity out of Warner and rendering him believable. Ignite Me is really about Juliette moving past her earlier impression of Warner and learning about the person within, and coming to terms with her own feelings for him. Forgiving him, and herself. Letting go of her own black-and-white worldview to see the grey that's all around her. What we get is a rather tragic unearthing of Warner that just makes him all the more loveable.
This is Warner's room. And Warner, to me, is no longer something to be afraid of.
These past few months have transformed him in my eyes, and these past two days have been full of revelations that I'm still recovering from. I can't deny that he seems different to me now.
I feel like I understand him in a way I never did before.
He's like a terrified, tortured animal. A creature who spent his whole life being beaten, abused, and caged away. He was forced into a life he never asked for, and was never given an opportunity to choose anything else. And though he's been given all the tools to kill a person, he's too emotionally tortured to be able to use those skills against his own father - the very man who taught him to be a murderer. Because somehow, in some strange, inexplicable way, he still wants his father to love him.
And I understand that.
I really, really do. [pp.186-7]
Other readers have noted this, and I have to agree with them, that it's not necessary to demonise one character (in this case, Adam) in order to make another (in this case, Warner), seem like a better love interest. That said, people change, grow, go through crap and get moody - in general, Juliette isn't the only one figuring stuff out and acting like a cow at times. But while Juliette is discovering the "grey" in Warner, she seems to be cementing Adam in a narrow, black-and-white world, which just goes to show that she's still got a long way to go, in terms of growing up and growing wiser. As self-indulgent as she is, she seems incapable of truly thinking and caring about someone other than herself, at the rate of more than one person at a time. Then again, she is an adolescent. It's a hard, rocky road to self-realisation.
The climax, when it finally comes, seems rushed and brief compared to the long, drawn-out set-up that takes up the bulk of the novel. Yet I didn't mind it. I think I preferred it to a long, drawn-out climax. Climaxes should be brief - they should be climactic. But I did find the resolution at the very end to be a bit ... truncated. It works, and yet I wanted more. On the other hand, had I got more, it might have seemed unnecessary, indulgent, and taken away from the oomph of the ending. Thing is, overturning the entrenched, abusive dystopian power in place - the goal of such stories as this - is only the beginning. Rebuilding is a whole other story, and I would love to read that. The ending is the birth of a whole new world; a world that has a long way to go and will suffer greatly along the way; a world peopled by X-Men like characters (love it!). I don't know what Mafi is planning on writing next, but I don't feel ready to say goodbye to these characters or this world. Juliette doesn't need us anymore, it would be time for a new protagonist to step forward, into this equally-dangerous and unknown new world. I would love to be there for that journey....more
**spoiler alert** This review contains major spoilers.
The third and final instalment in the Divergent trilogy picks up immediately after the ending of**spoiler alert** This review contains major spoilers.
The third and final instalment in the Divergent trilogy picks up immediately after the ending of book 2, Insurgent, which culminated in a rather anti-climactic revelation. If you remember, the revelation was the climax of the novel, but didn't actually tell us anything much. The main problem with it is that, throughout this whole trilogy - and this is something that didn't solidify for me until I finished Allegiant - Roth failed to create the society of her post-apocalyptic, dystopic world convincingly. It isn't until you have the truth, as it is revealed in book 3, that you can even judge this. The problem is, in a way, similar to what you experience reading Lois Lowry's The Giver: these people are aliens - alien to us, the readers, anyway. They are "Other" but this distinction is never clear and so we can never really see their world from their perspective; thus, it never quite seemed realistic (to human nature) and I'm still not convinced Roth managed to pull it together in the final book.
The truth of Tris Prior's community, her fenced-in, half-ruined Chicago, is that she and all the other people's grandparents were put there because of a genetic flaw. Genetic manipulation conducted sometime in the past (i.e, our future), intended to solve our worst personality flaws, had unexpected negative consequences. As it is explained to Tris when she and her companions reach the military-science base not far outside the fence, the attempt to correct our genes resulted in damaging them.
"Take away someone's fear, or low intelligence, or dishonesty ... and you take away their compassion. Take away someone's aggression and you take away their motivation, or their ability to assert themselves. Take away their selfishness and you take away their sense of self-preservation. If you think about it, I'm sure you know exactly what I mean."
I tick off each quality in my mind as he says it - fear, low intelligence, dishonesty, aggression, selfishness. He is talking about the factions. And he's right to say that every faction loses something when it gains a virtue: the Dauntless, brave but cruel; the Erudite, intelligent but vain; the Amity, peaceful but passive; the Candor, honest but inconsiderate; the Abnegation, selfless but stifling. [pp.122-3]
Ah, good old genetic manipulation. It's irrelevant how original or not it is as a trope, because it's something we'll never get tired of talking about and exploring: what it means to be human, and whether we should deliberately alter our state of being - whether we should force evolution on ourselves. It's an obvious consequence of being philosophical, curious and thinking ourselves superior. Stories like this one play it out and you know, I can't think of a single example that doesn't deal with negative consequences. But such is the wonderful nature of speculative fiction: to explore and experiment and see. To play out a hypothesis without actually harming anyone. Because a lot of these moral and ethical dilemmas are ones we have to think our way through, not act upon in the real world.
Trouble is, in the case of Veronica Roth's Divergent trilogy, it's never really explained quite well enough, or convincingly. The bits of information don't quite add up to the whole. It seems to contradict itself, or simply not take the time to really give readers a good enough grasp of the situation for it to make sense. As a result, many of the new scenarios Tris and Four find themselves in don't quite make sense. Well, they do and they don't. For instance, after the genetic tampering made its way down through the generations and finally manifested, not in friendly, compassionate, intelligent, funny, easy-going and talented people (as I'm sure they were aiming for) but in a range of people who were all lacking particular key personality traits that you need in order to be "well-rounded", a civil war occurred.
The civil war became known as the "Purity War": those with missing genes versus those considered "pure", the people whose grandparents or great-grandparents hadn't undergone genetic tampering. Thus the half-destroyed condition of the United States and its decimated population (the Purity War, in other words, is the "apocalypse"). Afterwards, the Bureau of Genetic Welfare was established and a permanent solution to the "problem" of the genetically damaged people was found: to round them up and put them inside fenced-in communities, like Tris's home in Chicago, there to sort themselves out in their own way. Tris's ancestors established the factions, and the Bureau, seeing how well it worked (it restored a sense of order and calm), instigated it in the other secure environments. It was found that the genetic damage would correct itself with time, so they needed to give those people time. Tris is one of the "corrected" people: she is divergent, which means she never fit neatly into any of the factions. The aim was to have everyone become "divergent" - or healed - and re-enter society. The Bureau didn't expect the factions to try and kill the divergent.
That's it in a nutshell, but the explanations don't always gel with what we've seen. It's not that it can't make sense, but that we feel a bit cheated. Because we've been inside Tris's head all this time, seeing everything from her perspective, listening to only her thoughts, we're getting the perspective of someone who's just like us - a person like us who is in the middle of a very strange world. She's like a human surrounded by aliens, but aliens in disguise. We always knew there was something seriously wrong with Tris's world, but because Roth couldn't share many world-building explanations without giving everything away (and she couldn't, being stuck with Tris's perspective), there was no way to know that the problem wasn't so much environmental as medical.
While I was reading this, I got hung up on a few things like this. If, knowing the whole story, you were to go back and re-read all three books together, I'm sure it would work a lot better, because you'd have explanations for the way people behave. The danger, of course, with this kind of premise, is making it too black-and-white. As a person whose genes haven't been tampered with, I always found it hard to understand how Tris's people could have formed such neat factions (or, indeed, how anyone could say "I am THIS faction" and that completely sums them up). The explanation does make sense, it's the only way to explain it, because the people weren't - according to the story - properly human.
Always ironic, isn't it, the way these stories play out: try to make people into better humans, and you end up making them worse; not only that, but the unmodified people then set themselves up as "superior" - in this case, "pure" - and fail to see that by dividing people and establishing such drastic social and psychological barriers, they are becoming inhuman themselves.
This was something that I struggled with, in this book. My slight disappointment comes not because the explanations annoyed me, but that they were so ripe for exploring. It comes not from Roth having to hold back on the world-building out of necessity and plot, but that, when those considerations were no longer a problem, she still held back. She held back in so many ways, when it wouldn't have taken much for her to take a step closer to the kernel of truth at the core of the entire premise. I would have liked her to follow through, not hold back - not as much as she did, anyway. It seemed like such a perfect opportunity to delve into these thorny issues, but instead Roth remained firmly, stubbornly subtle. It wouldn't have taken that much to really make this a powerful story, to crystalise the issues and make readers really think. There's no need to dumb it down or hold back just because your target audience is adolescent; the opposite is true, in fact. Teenagers are smart, their brains are going through some major renovations and development, and they're thirsty for some mental exercise - even if they pretend otherwise. I wouldn't have liked this watered-down speculative fiction as a teen, and I don't care for it as an adult, either.
I've come all this way and I haven't even mentioned the plot, or the characters, or the ending - an ending which, I'm sure, surprised or shocked or even upset more than a few readers. Truth is, for as much I was disappointed at the way the revelations and world-building were handled, I still enjoyed this book for all the things it did well. Tris's character continued to develop and become more assertive, to the point where I actually started to like her.
Four faces his first real dilemma in Allegiant and has much to overcome within this one volume - he learns that he isn't in fact divergent, that he hasn't been "healed", and he starts to fall in with genetically damaged people who object to the way they're treated at the hands of the "purists" (another really interesting concept and consequence that fell short of thought-provoking brilliance). He goes through a lot and comes out of it a stronger person, which was really good to see as his character was always a bit static before. I still don't find him to be a particularly strong character, though - if anything, he got weaker the more we got to know him, as if all his charisma was purely on the surface and his character wasn't half as interesting (or maybe it's because he has "damaged" genes, hmm??) We also get to know him better because he narrates his own chapters. Disappointingly, his voice isn't dissimilar enough from Tris's that it's always apparent who's speaking - there were times when I actually forgot, and had to look for Tris or Four's name to know.
The plot is interesting, but for the sake of a fairly fast pace, it skims past things that would have helped flesh it out more, like the shanty camp Tris visits with the soldiers. There's some real social-justice-commentary going on in Allegiant, but it only ever brushes the surface and I thought that a shame.
...I start walking down one of the aisles, as most people take off or shut themselves inside their lean-tos with cardboard or more tarp. I seem them through the cracks between the walls, their houses not much more than a pile of food and supplies on one side and sleeping mats on the other. I wonder what they do in the winter. Or what they do for a toilet.
I think of the flowers inside the compound, and the wood floors, and all the beds in the hotel that are unoccupied, and say, "Do you ever help them?"
"We believe that the best way to help our world is to fix its genetic deficiencies," Amar says, like he's reciting it from memory. "Feeding people is just putting a tiny bandage on a gaping wound. It might stop the bleeding for a while, but ultimately the wound will still be there."
I can't respond. All I do is shake my head a little and keep walking. I am beginning to understand why my mother joined Abnegation when she was supposed to join Erudite. If she had really craved safety from Erudite's growing corruption, she could have gone to Amity or Candor. But she chose the faction where she could help the helpless, and dedicated most of her life to making sure the factionless were provided for. [pp.347-8]
Yes, all very valid, Tris, but what else? Aside from understanding your mother better, what else is going on here? It's a key and highly relevant social justice comment in this scene, and you've turned it into a small but sweet reflection on how great your mum was. Understandable, but does that have to be all?
But the ending, oh the ending! I really liked it. And it wasn't completely unexpected, because it's the main purpose behind using first person present tense - a tense that has become hideously over-used recently, like a ghastly new fad that everyone copies without knowing why. Want to know what the point of using first person present tense is? It's so you can kill off your narrator. You can't, technically (though you can because we're all about breaking the rules in English), kill off a first person past tense voice, because technically they're relating, or retelling the story. Though that's not really true either.
But let's stay on track: Tris dies at the end of Allegiant, and while she didn't have to die for the sake of the character, she did for the plot. It was the right move, and it made for a much stronger ending than the previous two books - and a very strong ending for the trilogy. Our engagement with the story becomes more emotional as well as intellectual. There's always that moment of utter disbelief, that faint hope that some miracle will occur a la The Matrix and the character will come back to life. From a craftsmanship, writing perspective, it was a great ending. From a plot perspective, it was a strong ending. But it does make me glad I wasn't more attached to Tris, or I would have been extremely upset.
All of that said, it could just be me. Maybe other readers found the world-building enough, the social commentary thought-provoking, the explanations sound. In which case, Roth did well. I can only speak to my own reading experience, which is a mixed one. I really enjoyed this book - didn't love it, but it was actually quite riveting at times. I wish it hadn't softened its punches so much and connected the dots more, and I wish that the characters had been more interesting, overall....more
This review contains quite a lot of plot description, which you may want to avoid. Skip down to read my spoiler-free review.
Juliette is safe in OmegaThis review contains quite a lot of plot description, which you may want to avoid. Skip down to read my spoiler-free review.
Juliette is safe in Omega Point, an extensive underground bunker for people like her, people with unusual gifts. She's safe from the Reestablishment and safe from Warner who wants to use her - or encourage her - to use her power for her own gain. But her demons follow her even here. Convinced that the people of Omega Point avoid her, warn their children away from her, are afraid of her or see her as the monster she sees herself as, she hides away in her training room, achieving nothing. With pain and death coming from any touch with her bare skin, only Adam, the Reestablishment soldier who helped her escape from Warner's sector, can touch her. But something's not right there, either.
When Juliette learns that Adam has been having himself tested for evidence of his own ability, she's concerned. When she sees what he's going through, the pain it causes him, she goes into an enflamed rage and causes severe damage with her gift. And when she learns that Adam's gift is essentially to disable other people's gifts, that he has been doing it instinctively but that Juliette's touch has been causing him pain because he's so open to her, the pain and sorrow are all hers. Knowing she can't take the risk of killing the man she loves, she makes the decision to separate from Adam.
It takes the harsh words of Kenji, their friend and the second-in-command at Omega Point, to shake Juliette out of her pity-fest, her wallowing, her misery, and motivate her to learn how to control her gift and focus on the bigger picture. When several of their team are kidnapped and held hostage by the Reestablishment, it is Juliette who is called upon to make a prisoner swap. But it is not Warner behind this ploy, it is his father, Supreme Commander Anderson.
The leader of the Reestablishment within North America, Anderson makes his twisted son sound like a kitten. His aim is perfectly simple: in order to break his weak son Warner out of his attachment to Juliette, he arranges for her to come to them so that Warner can kill her. But Anderson is so accustomed to everyone doing his bidding and behaving like petrified, useless idiots in his presence, that he has met his match and is about to learn a new - and painful lesson.
Now Juliette and her friends have an enemy in their midst: Warner. Hoping to exchange him for their imprisoned friends, they place far too high a value on Anderson's love for his son and Warner's worth. And Warner causes trouble until Juliette is brought to him, where she will learn new truths that will shake her fledgling understanding of the world and her self.
While I enjoyed Shatter Me, the first book in the series, and indeed found much to love, certain things held me back from fully loving it. I went on to read the e-novella, Destroy Me, which is told from Warner's perspective and fills the gap from the last time he saw Juliette to the next time he thinks he sees her, and reading that really got me excited for Unravel Me. But I could never have imagined how much I would love this book. I haven't been this engrossed and completely addicted and totally caught up in a YA fantasy novel since Eclipse and its predecessors. I can't express how all-consuming this volume was, how quickly I tore through it and how much I hated tearing myself away so I could get some sleep (or how long I stayed awake that night, thinking about it).
Again told in Juliette's distinctive and highly original voice, I found it easier to enjoy the poetry and symbolism in it than before, because while she does become as self-indulgent as in Shatter Me, each time she pulled back just before annoying me beyond salvage. And Mafi's prose really is something special, at times. Her writing is strong and confident here, well-practiced and smooth. Mafi is fully in control and no longer just experimenting (or building on an experiment). The style has become Juliette's voice and captures her character, her anxieties and even her slight split personality, extremely well. I couldn't imagine this series written in any other way. The prose is not just poetic, it's beautiful, and captures Juliette's consciousness and feelings in a way that regular prose could never do, adding an extra dimension to the story. Here's a sample from early on:
Now my mind is a traitor because my thoughts crawl out of bed every morning with darting eyes and sweating palms and nervous giggles that sit in my chest, build in my chest, threaten to burst through my chest, and the pressure is tightening and tightening and tightening Life around here isn't what I expected it to be. My new world is etched in gunmetal, sealed in silver, drowning in the scents of stone and steel. The air is icy, the mats are orange; the lights and switches beep and flicker, electronic and electric, neon bright. It's busy here, busy with bodies, busy with halls stuffed full of whispers and shouts, pounding feet and thoughtful footsteps. If I listen closely I can hear the sounds of brains working and foreheads pinching and fingers tap tapping at chins and lips and furrowed brows. Ideas are carried in pockets, thoughts propped up on the tips of every tongue; eyes are narrowed in concentration, in careful planning I should want to know about. But nothing is working and all my parts are broken. [p.2]
In the first book, I found myself torn between loving how the prose captured so perfectly Juliette's inner demons, her self-hate, her despair and victimisation, her loneliness and isolation, and finding that it went a bit too far, or that Juliette's extremely dismal self-esteem and sense of self-worth got tiring. I still think that Mafi didn't quite achieve a balance that time, but in Unravel Me the balance is just right. This is the story where Juliette grows, grows strong and confident and learns that she's more than a deathly touch, that she's not a monster, that she's worthy of love and loyalty. But it's also the novel where she questions herself even more, just along different lines than before. Warner makes her question so many things about herself, especially as owns up to her attraction to him. Every time she started turning into a character that I shook my head at and lost respect for, Mafi pulled back and turned the scene, the conversation, the theme, in another direction and not only kept Juliette the kind of person I grew to really like and admire, but she often threw interesting spanners into the works and took you, the reader, in whole new directions.
Our favourite characters - Adam and Warner - are of course back, and new layers to them are revealed. I could feel Juliette's love for Adam and his for her, as well as their pain at discovering that Adam isn't after all safe from her touch. And Warner, ah Warner. I am a complete and utter sucker for this kind of character, the bad guy in love with the heroine - it's such a perfect recipe for the best kind of emotional intensity and mental anguish! He is becoming increasingly complex and so interesting that he's starting to overshadow Adam - and as much as I love Adam, I'm not sorry for this new development. They each speak to the different sides of Juliette: the side of her that wants to feel love and protection, tenderness and compassion, and the side of her that is darker, grittier and capable of so much.
And then there's Kenji. In Shatter Me he was the mildly annoying soldier friend of Adam who I didn't quite trust: he was too perky, too silly, too much, and the way he turned up like that, well, I didn't trust him. And he annoyed me a bit. But oh does he come into his own here!! Kenji becomes one of the strongest and most interesting characters in the book. We learn that he has the power of invisibility, that he put on the goofiness as a tactic in Warner's sector because of Warner's "knack" (i.e., gift of empathy) for detecting traitors and liars. We learn that he is looked up to by everyone at Omega Point, that he was informally adopted by Castle, their leader, as a boy, and we learn that behind the smile is a very intelligent, very determined, very brave and loyal young man. He is the only one who tells Juliette to snap out of it, grow up and think of others, to stop wallowing and join them. I don't think he is or will ever be a romantic interest - Juliette's already got two, she doesn't need more, she needs a friend who will tell her like it is; besides, I don't like a heroine whom everyone loves, that's way too much and just not believable. But he, too, started to overshadow Adam. Makes me wonder how things with Adam will play out.
In fact, I have no idea where the story will go from here, and I love not knowing. The ending isn't quite a cliffhanger, though Mafi could have done that, but it does leave a really open ending, with a lot of key players and events sort of up-in-the-air. Things beyond Juliette's personal life are heating up and getting serious - and dangerous - and with this background context for the private war Juliette's going through as a character, it makes for one very high-adrenaline story. Waiting for the next book is going to be really, really hard.
There are plenty of surprises here, and lots of excitement. It's hugely gripping and deeply absorbing and will definitely keep you on your toes. I've always been a big fan of stories featuring people with special abilities, powers, gifts - my first foray into real fantasy was, after all, the Obernewtyn series. This satisfies the X-Men fan in me. I'm floored by how intense this book was, how emotionally engaging, how hard it was to put down. Mafi took all the things readers loved about book one and stacked more and more love on top of them. This is a sequel that more than holds up; in a way it supplants the first book entirely - yet this is an illusion, for without the depth and detail of the first book, this one would have much less meaning....more
Not so far in the future, a global economic meltdown results in devastating and wide-ranging consequences. When sixteen-year-old Alenna Shawcross wasNot so far in the future, a global economic meltdown results in devastating and wide-ranging consequences. When sixteen-year-old Alenna Shawcross was only five years old, the three countries of North America - Canada, the USA and Mexico - merged to form the United Northern Alliance, led by self-appointed Prime Minister Roland Harka, a charismatic army general, and set about trying to subjugate the rest of the world with the might of its armies and technology, to secure food supplies among other things. Within the UNA, resistance to the new order is fierce, and anyone found guilty or even suspected of working against the UNA is arrested and disappeared. This is what happens to Alenna's parents when she's just ten years old. She's spent the last six years in a state-run orphanage, along with many other children whose parents have likewise vanished, presumed dead.
Now that Alenna's in grade 11, she has to take the GPPT - Government Personality Profile Test - along with everyone else in her year. The test determines whether they are an "unanchored soul", someone who is predestined to becoming a criminal; the teenagers who fail the test are sent to Prison Island Alpha and left to fend for themselves. The age expectancy is only eighteen years old, and it's clear from the video footage that the teens on the island are at war with each other. Alenna isn't worried, though. She's quiet, bookish, completely unremarkable, and certainly not interested in going against the established order. So when she wakes up after the test to find herself stranded on the island, she's sure it must be a mistake.
Rescued from being forcefully recruited by the "Drones", who wear black robes and face masks and often file their teeth into sharp points, Alenna is taken to one of the villages in the blue sector by an older girl called Gadya. There she learns that the island is called "the wheel" by the inhabitants, and it's divided into six sectors. The Monk - the leader of the drones - controls four, they have one, and the sixth, the grey zone, is out-of-bounds.
Alenna is forced to adapt quickly to life on the wheel, where raids from the Monk's drones happen by day and night, and "feelers" - tentacles that come down from the sky, from something hidden behind the clouds, to snatch people up and take them away somewhere - mean that you can never let your guard down. Alenna also learns that nothing she was told in the UNA was true, and that there's some other reason for them being stranded on this island. When handsome hunter Liam returns from a scouting mission to the grey zone before the access tunnel collapsed, he tells them of the aircrafts he saw leaving from a hanger there. Veidman and his girlfriend, Meira, the unofficial leaders of the village, propose an expedition to the grey zone, an attempt to find a way off the island. Alenna volunteers, she's determined to get into the sector, after learning that her parents left a message for her, carved into a rock.
The expedition is perilous, because it means passing through the Monk's territory, and the group of twenty won't all make it the barrier sealing off the grey zone. The journey offers more than death, though: it offers a chance to understand what it's all about, a shocking truth that will change everything Alenna thought she knew.
Originally, I was going to read this last year after the author contacted me asking if I'd like a review copy - and seriously, how could I resist a premise like this one? But after some back-and-forth with the publisher who had to pass it on to the Canadian publisher, I was sent the wrong book (same title), so in the end I just bought my own copy and took my own time reading it.
It turned out to be a quick read because it's gripping and well-written. The apocalyptic world is clearly described and well set-up, as well as being believable, especially because it feeds off our own current predicament. The authoritarian regime that is established in the UNA is familiar, being common to science fiction, but also because it's reminiscent of Nazi Germany and other authoritarian states. And the purpose of the island and all those stranded teenagers, which is revealed at the end, is chilling not least because it's so believable.
Alenna herself is not a dominating character, especially at the start - she comes across as painfully ordinary, so her expectation of passing the personality test is understandable. Yet if there's one thing the island does, it is to create subversives, rebels, resistance fighters, out of people that wouldn't have turned into one otherwise. The irony is not lost on the inhabitants of the wheel. There, Alenna has to think quick and think smart to stay alive. She trains with Gadya in how to fight and shoot a bow-and-arrow, and pitches in to help from the get-go. She didn't waste time moaning over her fate or stubbornly refusing to acknowledge her situation, or any other annoying trait that other YA heroines have been guilty of. She's someone you come to respect and admire, for she grows and matures a great deal over the course of the novel. She's not a bland little "good girl", she keeps her own counsel and has to make a conscious effort to balance self-preservation and survival with helping others: in moments of danger, her character strengthens.
The plot is nicely structured, with just enough time spent in the UNA to establish what Alenna's life was like there, and just enough time spent in the village in blue sector for her to learn as much as she can and meet certain key characters, before the expedition begins and the action escalates. Even before then, though, there's plenty of action. Even Alenna's testing is a scene of tension and sci-fi horror. In terms of structure, description and action, the writing is great. Where it faltered a bit for me was in the lack of chemistry between Alenna and Liam, and in a few little plot-holes - or world-building holes I should call them - that cropped up and stuck out for me, especially as I kept waiting for explanations.
On the latter point, it was never explained where all their supplies came from; after all, they've been dumped there and abandoned. There's mention that the Drones' impressive fireworks come from a massive container left over from a previous purpose of the island, but that's the only thing that's explained. Where does Veidman get syringes from? Where do their pots and pans come from? They're not from raids on the old prison in the grey sector, because they've never been that far. These are little details, but oh so important in maintaining a firmly-rooted science fiction world. I tried to let it go, but it really did distract me, when an explanation could have been so easily slipped in. Likewise, a lot of Alenna's questions, which are really good questions, are fobbed off at the time with the promise of an explanation later, only to never be revisited. It was frustrating, especially because once Alenna's asks something, of course you start thinking about it.
As for her relationship with Liam, it was very sweet and genuine and endearing, but it was rather sudden, and we never really got to know Liam, so that he was sadly under-developed. It makes it hard to believe in their feelings for each other, or to feel anything between them. While romance isn't the point of the story, if you're going to include it, at least make it solid and tangible. They hardly spent any time together, and while I liked how the connection between them was handled - a shared past thing that somewhat explained their instant connection - it didn't get enough time to breathe and grow.
Those were the only two negatives I had with this book, though, and I don't want to over-inflate them. This is great science fiction, partly inspired, perhaps, by Lord of the Rings rather than The Hunger Games - a comparison that The Forsaken doesn't really deserve. For one thing, it's much better written. Yes, sure, THG was an exciting book and I did enjoy it, but Collins isn't a particularly strong writer and used present tense incorrectly. Stasse also uses present tense - a tense I have come to loathe over recent years because it's become so common and so poorly used - but she actually knows how to use it, for the most part. She doesn't write as you would write in past tense, just changing the verb tense. She stays in the moment as much as possible, and while I firmly believe that it would have been just as strong, if not stronger, were it written in past tense, it didn't ultimately detract from the novel.
If I had one other minor dislike it would be Gadya. She starts out as a strong and potentially interesting character, but later turns out to be mostly volatile and completely lacking in impulse control. She spends her time shouting and getting angry, and I got rather tired of her theatrics. It made me like Alenna more in contrast, and when Gadya calmed down at the end I felt she'd grown up in the process. There is, in these situations, a lot of growing up to do.
Rather than being character- or romance-driven, the focus here is on the world, the plot and the action, all of which are highly entertaining. The other book I was reminded of, was Iain Banks' Consider Phlebus, which I like to mention whenever I can because it was such a good sci-fi novel. I was reminded of it when learning about the Monk, a cult leader who's brainwashed his followers, whom the villagers think is also a cannibal, and is carried around on a stretcher by four drones. There's a section of Banks' novel featuring a morbidly obese cult leader who eats human flesh, while encouraging his emaciated followers to eat their own feces. Delightful image isn't it? He too was carried around on a stretcher, being unable to move - I won't say more because it becomes even more gross, though his end is nigh. Anyway, the Monk brought that to mind, though it is different and the truth behind the Monk is a revelation I wasn't expecting.
I did somewhat guess as to the purpose of the feelers and the "abductions" on the wheel, though I didn't quite come up with the whole truth, and Stasse's version is much better than my half-hearted attempt to figure out what was going on. One of the strengths of the novel is the sense of atmosphere, and it became exceptionally chilly within the grey zone - if you've read it you'll recognise the pun (it's freakishly cold within the grey zone, while beyond the barrier in the rest of the wheel it's almost tropical). All in all the whole thing felt very real, with a palpable sense of danger, tension, fear and anticipation.
The Forsaken is nicely rounded-out with a clean ending, to this stage of the story anyway: it is a nicely contained story that establishes a new and exciting world that digs into some pertinent issues, especially ethical and moral ones, without ever being over-bearing. I haven't gone into that side of things much, I know, but I have to say that this was a very mature novel, which shows a lot of respect for its intended audience while also appealing to adult readers. I'm looking forward to reading the next book, The Uprising, watching Alenna continue to grow, and learning more about this fascinating and deadly world....more
"When she woke, she was red. Not flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign."
So begins When She Woke, the gripping near-fut"When she woke, she was red. Not flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign."
So begins When She Woke, the gripping near-future story of Hannah Payne who pays for her crime of aborting the foetus in her womb by being sentenced to sixteen years as a Chrome. Blending the religious fervour and moralising of The Scarlet Letter with the chilling dystopian repression and tight control of The Handmaid's Tale, Jordan has created a very human story, one about love and loyalty, belief and redemption, a coming-of-age story set in a rigorously constrained religious society that is only one small leap of the imagination away from present-day United States.
There are several kinds of Chromes, each a different colour designated to a certain kind of crime. Yellow is for minor misdemeanours. Blue is for child molesters. Red is for murder, and so the state of Texas - and most others - have decreed abortion to be. For refusing to name the father of her unborn child and the abortionist, Hannah received the maximum sentence. After being injected with compound that causes the skin mutation (which must be renewed every four months to avoid "fragmentation" of the mind, a side-effect created to ensure renewal because the dye - or "melachroming" - fades), every part of Hannah's being is controlled by the state. The first thirty days is spent in the Chrome ward, in a bare white room where there is no privacy and cameras record her every movement for the reality TV show that is the Chrome ward. Female Chromes, being rarer, tend to be more popular viewing material. Ninety percent of Chromes go mad during their time in the ward; Hannah comes close, no matter that she was determined to get through it.
Once released, only her father will speak to her. Her mother has all but disowned her, or so Hannah believes, and her older sister Becca married a man with a small mind, strong judgements and violent tendencies who keeps Becca completely under his thumb. With the help of Reverend Aidan Dale, her former pastor at the Plano Church of the Ignited Word, now the secretary of faith for the president and something of a celebrity, a bed for Hannah has been found at a halfway house for Chrome women called the Straight Path Center, run by the reverend of another strict religious group - though it's soon clear that it's his wife, Mrs Henley, who manages everything. With rules dictating every moment of their day and everything they can and can't do, the centre focuses on rehabilitating the women, but as the days go by Hannah is quick to realise that this place is determined to crush her spirit utterly, and in the cruelest way possible.
With her lover possibly moving on with his life, her family refusing to take her in, and nowhere to go, it seems like Hannah has no choice but to obey Mrs Henley and endure her manipulations. The world beyond the walls of the centre are a vulnerable place for a female Chrome, and Hannah has led an incredibly sheltered life, schooled in her faith and little else. Her one skill is sewing, and in secret she made elaborate dresses for herself, a creative outlet. And she believes in her sin, her guilt, her transgression against God, even while she questions everything else. But to survive in this new world that she's been thrust into as a Chrome, Hannah must question everything she ever believed, and come to some new understanding about her faith, and herself.
This book had me riveted, and immediately became a new favourite of mine. All the disparate parts of the plot, the writing style and the context, came together so seamlessly. It is a novel of extremes and Puritanical drama nested in a high-stakes adventure story, but it also had its subtle, quiet moments. It's that balance that Jordan achieved that really won me over: a story about a woman losing her faith and then discovering a more liberated version would normally have had my toes curling in wariness and even disdain, but Hannah was so likeable, so utterly human in all her flaws and good points, her story so raw and honest, that instead I was caught up in her crisis.
Hannah changes subtly over the course of the novel. You see the woman she had the potential to be in the snippets of the past as she recollects incidents, scenes with her family, so that the repressed Hannah, and the potential of Hannah, and the new Hannah, merge together without you hardly realising. With virtually no survival skills, little education and an upbringing rich in dogma and moral code, I wasn't sure what would happen to Hannah, whether she'd survive or whether even worse things would happen to her, once "outside". It made for a tense read, at times.
Once again, she marveled at her certainty. Had becoming a Red given her an extra sense, a knowledge of the hidden desires and evil in other hearts? She shook her head as a more likely, less romantic explanation occurred to her: becoming a Red had forced her, for the first time in her life, to really pay attention. [pp.185-6]
Hannah felt very real to me. She was a curious sort, whose curiosity was always repulsed, smothered. She was creative, and needed an outlet. While I kept feeling suspicious of Aidan Dale, her lover, for pretty much the entire book - is it because he was a preacher, that I felt instinctively suspicious, or because he was so popular, and such a charmer? - I could at least understand and sympathise with her feelings. I just wished that she hadn't led such an awfully sheltered life, that she had no room to explore and discover things naturally, and so understand her feelings, her body, her options. And certainly, now that I've had a child of my own, it was much more horrible reading of her lonely decision to abort than it would have been had I read this a few years ago. I still can't judge her for that.
As Hannah loses her faith, her naivety, the world around her becomes harsher, crueler, full of jagged edges on which she catches herself continually. It is not that the world changes, but that the bubble that kept her safe and in ignorance has gone. The contrast is striking - not over-the-top, not even all that obvious (after all, Hannah's dystopian real world isn't that different from what we're familiar with), but watching Hannah learn to navigate her way through a crueler reality than what she'd ever known before, brings with it a mixture of pride in her, and sadness that it's happening to her at all. Being thrust out into the real world, away from her sheltered family life, enables her to meet new people, people who think differently, independently. They've come up with their own ideas, after thinking things through - something Hannah was never allowed to do. Her friend Kayla, a fellow Red from the Straight Path Center, is just one of the first to make her think:
"Nah, I'm not religious. I mean, not like they taught us in church, anyway. I figure if there is a God, She's good and surged right now about the state of things down here."
That's blasphemy, Hannah thought, with a flare of outrage that was followed, a beat later, by wonder at the vehemence of her reaction. Why, when she no longer believed, would she respond like that? It had been pure reflex, she realized. She had no more control over it than she would over her salivary glands in the presence of freshly baked bread. Was that all her religious beliefs had ever been then, a set of precepts so deeply inculcated in her that they became automatic, even instinctive? Hear the word God, think He. See the misery of humankind, blame Eve. Obey your parents, be a good girl, vote Trinity Party, never sit with your legs apart. Don't question, just do as you're told. [p.186]
I'm sure this book would be hugely confrontational to readers who are staunchly anti-abortion, or deeply religious. While Hannah learns to have renewed faith in God, on her own terms, and never stops thinking of her abortion as a deed that murdered an unborn baby, even after hearing other perspectives on it, this is a story about questioning things, questioning other people's so-called moral right to make decisions about your body, your life. A story about questioning what people do in the name of God, and God itself - as a concept, an entity, a philosophy. It's a story about growing up, making decisions and mistakes, that you can be a good person without being brow-beaten or guilt-tripped into it.
[Stanton] carried the conversation, entertaining them with stories of Columbus and its distinguished inhabitants, who'd once included Tennessee Williams and Eudora Welty. All Hannah knew about them was that they were both long-dead writers, but they were evidently favorites of Kayla's, because her face lit up, and she plunged into an animated discussion about them with Stanton. Listening to their exchange, Hannah was suffused with bitterness about her own ignorance. If she hadn't had to sneak books into the house and read them in hasty, furtive snatches, if she'd gone to a normal high school and then on to college as Kayla had, she too would have been able to assert that Miss Welty could write circles around Faulkner and have an opinion as to whether Streetcar Named Desire or The Glass Menagerie was Williams's masterpiece. She'd always believed that her parents had done right by her, but now, sitting mute at Stanton's table, she found herself seething over their choices. Why had they kept her life so small? Why had they never asked her what she wanted? At every possible turn, she saw, they'd chosen the path that would keep her weak and dependent. And the fact that they wouldn't see it that way, that they sincerely believed they'd acted in her best interest, didn't make it any less true, or them any less culpable. [pp.252-3]
This is hardly the first book to so articulately point out the hypocrisy of religion, or how strict rules like what Hannah grew up with, stifle the spirit as well as the growth of the individual (which is the point, I'm sure). But it breathes fresh air on an old topic, and this futuristic, dystopian society is the perfect vehicle for Hannah's journey through self-discovery. She literally wakes up. She always had it in her - she was the daughter who asked pesky questions, not Becca, and who read books her parents wouldn't approve of and allowed herself a creative outlet through the dresses. Becoming a Red was a gigantic, cruel wake-up call, but when you're deeply entrenched in a strict religion like this, and you do genuinely love and respect your parents, nothing short of a drastic change in circumstances will do it.
Because I'm not religious, not even close, and I'm pro-choice, I found the issues tackled in When She Woke invigorating. It doesn't shy away from hard questions or guilty consciences, and it always felt very real. I could easily imagine this wasn't a futuristic setting at all, because I can easily see the United States adopting these laws, and melachroming, if they had the technology.
There is a lot going on here, some of it obvious, some of it not. I've barely even discussed the setting, but I find myself rambling and need to stopper it. The dystopian world was fascinating and solidly constructed, serving as context and propulsion for Hannah's crisis of faith and journey of self-discovery. To be honest, I doubt I would have enjoyed this so much if it hadn't had the science fiction and dystopian elements to it, though Jordan's writing is very enjoyable. Highly recommended, especially for those of us yearning for a good dystopian, speculative fiction read who've been relying on YA for it and coming away deeply unsatisfied. ...more
This review contains slight spoilers for Divergent.
The second book in the Divergent trilogy picks up immediately where the first book ended: with TrisThis review contains slight spoilers for Divergent.
The second book in the Divergent trilogy picks up immediately where the first book ended: with Tris and Tobias fleeing the city on the train, headed to Amity along with Marcus, Tobias' father and the sole survivor of the Abnegation governing body, Tris' brother Caleb, and Peter, a young man from their own faction, Dauntless, who had played an important part in the uprising and betrayal led by Erudite that Dauntless had taken part in.
The only safe place to go is Amity, the faction which resides outside the fence that encircles the city, where food is grown. Many Abnegation are already there, and some from Erudite who have left their faction. But Amity are pacifists, and not likely to protect them for long against Erudite which is hunting down Abnegation and the Dauntless that they can't control - namely, Tris and Tobias, who have already proven that they are Divergent, and can't be controlled by the simulations Erudite have created for that purpose. In fact, Tris soon learns that Erudite are hunting down Divergents, to exterminate and experiment on. Why, she can't fathom, though she suspects that Marcus knows the truth. He knows something important, anyway, something that Abnegation were planning on revealing to the entire population but which the leader of Erudite, Jeanine, wants to keep repressed.
On the run once again, Tris and Tobias find an unlikely alliance with the Factionless, but in this new world where the very fabric of their society is coming undone, it seems like everyone has their own agenda and no one can be trusted. Can Tris and Tobias trust each other in this world, let alone anyone else? With the mistakes of her past weighing on her, Tris finds she can only count on herself and her instincts to lead her down the right path.
I am not entirely sure what to say about Insurgent. I liked it as much as the first book, Divergent, yet I had pretty much exactly the same problems with it. I find the world-building fascinating, with this crumbling Chicago inhabited by people who have been divided along strict lines: everyone falls into one of five groups: Dauntless, the soldiers; Amity, the peaceful farmers; Erudite, the academics and inventors; Candor, the honest judges and merchants; and Abnegation, the selfless leaders. Those who fit in more than one category are called Divergent, something they needs must keep secret and hidden because it is believed they are dangerous to the very fabric of society. And so they are. They don't conform, they're less predictable, they struggle to be happy in one strict way of life. And there are many more of them than anyone realises, especially within the Factionless.
I think part of the reason why I have trouble connecting with this basic foundation is simply because I can't imagine a world where such clearly defined communities exist within a society, where you must choose to be one thing and one thing only. I struggle with this because I come from a world where pretty much everyone is Divergent. We're not black-and-white, we're all grey. So while I enjoy imagining such a world and learning about it, I find it hard to suspend disbelief in order to consider it plausible. Now, there is a revelation at the very end of Insurgent that goes partway to explaining how this all came to be and why, yet it's just the very tip of understanding and does little to render it plausible - yet. I have high hopes for greater understanding in the third book.
That aside, I do enjoy the story and the characters. I would probably enjoy it a great deal were I a teenager - this is the kind of story I loved when I was younger. As an adult, I tend to overthink things and that gets in the way of enjoying YA books more. The plot gets more complex in Insurgent and the developments didn't always link together all that well, in my mind. There were at times what felt like leaps rather than connections. At times the plot seemed to move too fast without firming the ground already tilled, so to speak: leaving behind questions that should have been answered. At times, it's Tris herself that I simply don't get.
I want to like Tris. I'd like to admire her. But I can barely picture her in my head, let alone understand her as a person. I had no problem sympathising with her for what happened to Will, but I had to groan when she sacrifices herself to prevent more deaths - such a cliche! Though I have to say, that the section that followed was definitely the strongest writing of the whole book, and part of me was waiting for a Brazil-like moment when you learn that reality is completely twisted and you don't know what's real anymore. Or to name a more recent movie, like Inception, with the truth inside the truth inside the truth... That would have been interesting, but that's not what this story is about so it was rather a relief when that didn't happen.
I like Tobias - I still prefer his nickname, Four - as much as I like Tris, but like Tris I didn't feel their relationship was as strong as they would have liked, because they failed to communicate and trust in each other. Two key elements to any successful, committed relationship. I felt that Tobias really needed to prove himself, and was relieved that he woke up at the end and put his faith in Tris.
The plot isn't entirely unpredictable but it is fairly eventful, and very violent. Considering how much upheaval and bloody death is present, I couldn't quite understand how Candor and Amity could so easily just stand by - I could but I couldn't. Because as much as I try to view them as confined within the neat borders of their Factions - and Roth does a good job of establishing the Factions and the personality types that go with them, right down to body language - I really struggle to empathise, to put myself in the position of someone from, say, Candor, and see the world the way they do. I tried, but was left feeling puzzled.
Again, it comes back to plausibility, but I do have faith in Roth as a writer and world-builder, and I'm sure she's going somewhere important with all this, and has the answers I so desperately need in order to make sense of this world. I don't know where the story's going to go from here, but I am eager to find out, because if nothing else, Roth is one very fine storyteller who knows how to keep readers engaged and absorbed, and who works hard to create believable, realistic characters. My own personal problem with plausibility is like a challenge to me, one I keep tackling, but I suspect Roth will be lending me a helping hand in future revelations that will make this world all the more believable....more
It's been about three weeks since I finished this book, so this review won't be as fresh as it should be; I think I can remember what I wanted to sayIt's been about three weeks since I finished this book, so this review won't be as fresh as it should be; I think I can remember what I wanted to say about it, though.
Set in a future Chicago, Beatrice Prior's society is strictly divided along lines of dominant personality traits into five groups, or "factions": Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). Beatrice grew up in Abnegation, and now that she is sixteen she must make a choice that will define the rest of her life: stay in Abnegation, or switch to a different faction, forsaking her family forever - for the motto of this tightly-controlled Chicago is "Faction before blood".
Beatrice doesn't consider herself selfless enough. She finds it hard to put others first all the time when she has burning questions or finds herself afraid of the destitute Factionless - those who failed their initiation or who otherwise found themselves outside the Factions, living on the charity of Abnegation. Her aptitude test proves inconclusive, the result dangerous even: she is Divergent. But what does that even mean, and why is it so dangerous to be Divergent? Beatrice has run out of time for such questions: she must choose, and her choice will have a huge impact not just on herself and her family but on her whole community and the future of Chicago.
First of all, I have to say how much I enjoyed this book. Despite it being written in present tense (a growing pet peeve of mine, if you've been following my YA reviews), it's written well and feels well crafted, structured, paced and generally thought out. It's a shame that the often rushed feel of YA books these days made me say all that, but we've all read ones that were generally lacking, if not plain awful. In comparison, this one shone brightly. I do have a few minor quibbles, such as the rather abrupt endings to some chapters, but nothing detrimental to the overall story. My main point of confusion throughout was that the big issue over being "divergent" wasn't all that well explained: Beatrice - who shortens her name to Tris - tries to find out the answer throughout the book but it isn't until pretty much the end that her mother gives a decent explanation. The problem is, by then you're at the end and the explanation has no room to grow roots and find soil in your mind, in the context of the story, so I had that feeling of it slipping through my fingers.
I think part of the problem is in the concept itself: because aligning our entire selves and lives with one dominant personality trait is so foreign and alien to us, here, today, it's hard to imagine how being, well, like us, could be such a problem to the status quo. I mean, at worst you'd be Factionless, you'd think. Because how could you possibly choose - especially if those were the only options? Not to mention the fact that they're taken to extremes. So Tris' world is quite alien, in that regard, and doesn't necessarily make sense, I think because there's some key information that has yet to be divulged.
Funnily enough, after finishing this book I picked up Plato's The Republic for a book club, and in the Introduction what do I read but this: "[Plato imagines] a new city governed by a rare breed of philosophers who, not wishing power for their own purposes, can use it to check and control the desire for it in their subject." [Melissa Lane, Penguin Classics 2007, p.xi] My immediate thought was, "Ha! That's exactly like Abnegation in Divergent!" Abnegation are the rulers of this city-state because they do not covet power for themselves; their rule is criticised by Erudite who think, with all their knowledge, that they can do better (in Plato, the two are combined into Guardians, but that's for a different review of a different book). I just love the connections between things, and how ideas percolate for centuries in our societies and collective imaginations, rising to the surface here and there in new ways. (There are quite possibly other similarities between this Chicago city-state and Plato's imagined perfect city-state, like the strict class system based on function, but I don't have the time or energy to go into it any farther.)
Which all makes it extremely fascinating, and the time Roth took to bring us deep into Tris' world - especially inside her Faction - is well worth it. I loved the detail and the world-building effort; without it, the concept would have stood on very shaky legs indeed. (A futuristic world different from our own may be vivid in the author's head, but it helps us get into the story if they share some of what they're picturing with us!) Perhaps it's because of the slew of minimal or sketchy world-building happening in YA science fiction lately, but I thought Roth was quite thorough - in retrospect, I could use more detail, not an overload, but carefully placed here and there to give us a better understanding of this place, how it came to be and everyone's place in it. (I get that Amity grows the food and makes art, but what does Candor do again?)
There are a lot of unanswered questions at the end of this book - the biggest being the small detail Tris notices, that the gate in the wall that surrounds Chicago is locked from the outside, meaning that they're being kept in, not out - but as this is the first of a trilogy (or series, not sure), there's lots more to discover and explore in this world.
Tris herself carried her story well, even if she is a bit slow on the uptake at times (she seriously should have figured out what was going on with Erudite and Dauntless as quickly as we did). She undergoes a huge transformation, considering, and yet stays true to herself. She's Abnegation by nurture, so she's quiet, thoughtful, compassionate - not enough for Abnegation, she thinks - and barely knows what she even looks like, so she has no vanity at all. She doesn't over-think her actions or feelings, which I liked (too much introspective contemplation and I get bored; the character just starts to sound whiny), and she surprises herself with her courage from time to time. I also really liked Four, who is something of an enigma and a mystery to Tris but is well worth the time and effort to befriend. I didn't care for the rushed "I love you"s at the end - I felt like I'd only just got my head around it all and their relationship, and I know that facing death and destruction can make a person appreciate life more (and I'm ever so grateful that Tris isn't like Katniss), but it still seemed too sudden and just... plonked in there. And I thought what happened to Tris' parents was a bit, well, a bit much. (I had conflicting reactions - at once saddened and upset, and also fighting the urge to snigger like at a corny movie - think of the paintball scene in my beloved Spaced or the piss-take film Tropic Thunder.)
Quibbles aside, I enjoyed this a great deal and am looking forward to the next book, Insurgent, which I'm very much hoping will reveal the broader context for this world; i.e. what's going on outside its walls (because it sure seems like something fishy is going on here), which in turn will I hope explain why this half-ruined, half-prosperous city is the way it is....more
There are a few rare books - like The Chrysalids - where I've said in my review: If there's one book you should definitely read this year, it's thisThere are a few rare books - like The Chrysalids - where I've said in my review: If there's one book you should definitely read this year, it's this one. That's my strongest, most enthusiastic endorsement, brimming with excitement and the need to share a piece of genius with as many people as possible, and it's very much the case for Beckett's Genesis.
Fourteen-year-old Anaximander has been studying hard for several years with her tutor, Pericles, for her examination to get into the prestigious Academy, to be one of those who help guide the nation. For her exam, she has focused on her most prominent interest: Adam Forde, a rebel and a hero from an age long gone, in 2075 when the country was a Plato's republic of philosopher-rulers, soldiers, technicians and labourers, the population divided at birth into rigid class lines, all after closing its borders - literally - to the rest of the world as the only place free of the plague that decimated other countries in the 2050s.
Her exam is four hours long, and the three stone-faced examiners are intimidating and exacting. But Anax is well prepared, and she knows her subject matter so well, that she's modestly confident.
Over the course of the exam, we learn through their questions and answers how the new republic was established, and what Adam Forde's role in it was. But with every detail we learn, more and more questions arise, because we, the readers, lack Anax's context, her knowledge of the present. Is it the same country? Is this society still in place or have things changed? We begin with zero knowledge, and must build an understanding of this futuristic world bit by bit. Or rather, we think we know, and we work on our defaults, picturing and understanding things in the only way we can, only to have these details constantly confounded, dismantled, leaving us to scrabble around for a new understanding to fit the new knowledge, upon which we build more - like a house of cards, there is every danger that a foundation card will collapse and bring the whole lot down. This is not a work of "fluff" - it is easy to read but it is not a lazy read. You the reader will be actively involved, every step of the way, in putting this story together. And I love that.
There are plenty of times where I'm happy to just sit back and let a story tell itself, to let it reveal itself at its own pace and in its own words. But always I want to participate in the story at some level: I can't read and not think. Genesis is the antithesis of the thinking novel. It will make you think, yes, but it will also make you involved, make you participate. You are an active reader, and that's important because it's a deeply philosophical story that's intensely thought-provoking and mentally absorbing, and the one thing missing from the experience for me is a group discussion at the end of it. (This novel would be perfect for high school English students.)
For such a short novel, there is a LOT going on here, and it's a very clever, unique and original story. Aside from creating a futuristic, post-apocalyptic dystopian society (home of Adam Forde), as well as sketching in Anax's own world (which we're unsure, for most the book, of the exact connection or why Forde is seen as a hero), it also delves into philosophy - especially the nature of being, but also the idea of an ideal society - and history. As a history (and English) teacher, I love a work of fiction that gets across how nuanced history is, how unfixed it is. Likewise, I get so angry when I read a book, especially a YA novel, or watch a movie or TV show that, simply out of laziness perhaps, perpetuates the stereotype of the bad History class and teacher, where students are lectured endlessly about famous events and expected to memorise dates and names. That is not what history is about at all! If you've ever had a secondary school teacher who did that, you deserve an apology. Not to mention that it puts people off history, the subject, and gives them the idea that's its boring and even alienating. Such a shame.
But I digress. The society that Adam Forde grew up in is indeed based on Plato's Republic - and funnily enough was set up by a guy (a rich businessman) named Plato, though whether he assumed this name in sheer ironic arrogance is up to the reader to infer. I never did finish that book, but I read over half, enough to recognise the inspiration. And like with any utopian society, it quickly becomes a dystopia.
The problem facing the Council of Philosophers was inevitable. In its beginnings, The Republic had planted the seeds of its own destruction. Plato's first dictum, which opens The Republican Charter, reads as follows:
It is only in the State that the People may find their full expression. For the people are the State, and the State is the People.
The founders of The Republic sought to deny the individual, and in doing so they ignored a simple truth.
The only thing binding individuals together is ideas. Ideas mutate, and spread; they change their hosts as much as their hosts change them.
The founders believed that by removing the child from the family, and the partners from each other, they could break down the usual loyalties, and replace them with loyalty towards the state. But there were many unintended effects. The people were forced to live in large single sex communes. They ate, played, slept and worked together and they talked to one another. The Republic had established an incubator for new ideas. Although The Republic could control the information pumped into the communes, it could not control the way information changed shape inside the heads of the women and men that it visited. [pp65-6]
With the threat of the plague outside its mighty fence and over the ocean receding, The Republic sought to create a new threat, and used Adam Forde to do it. It didn't work, and for his reduced sentence he is used instead in a new robot project: to work with Art, an android that thinks and develops its own mind through interacting with others. Having spent all its time so far with the one Philosopher who designed it, its creator decided to use Adam as Art's new full-time companion.
From there we get to what the book is ostensibly all about: the question of what makes a human, a human, and whether a robot can ever be treated equally, with a soul. The conversations - arguments I should say - between Adam and Art are the real meat of Genesis, though certainly not the only part of the book that makes you think. The one flaw in it is the connection between The Republic and the drive to build a real working robot, or android. I don't know whether I somehow missed it or if indeed it wasn't fully explained, but I wasn't sure where this ambition came from or what it had to do with The Republic. But it's a small side issue.
In western culture, there has long been a philosophical debate about artificial intelligence, resulting in many famous movies and books. You'd think that after so much discourse on the topic, there wouldn't be anything more to add - but in fact, since there's no answer or solution to the possible ethical dilemma, there is endless room for musing. Beckett would have to have written one of the most original and hard-hitting takes on the matter in the last, oh I don't know, twenty years? There have been some fantasy novels come out in the last few years that also explore, or make use of, this subject-matter (e.g. The Windup Girl, The Alchemy of Stone), but nothing like this. However, if you enjoyed this, or you're interested in the topic, I absolutely have to recommend I, Robot by Isaac Asimov - it's really, really good.
There is much that is insightful in this novel, and going back to the concept of ideas, I want to leave you with this quote from Art, speaking to Adam, in his argument as to why he's just as, if not more so, alive as Adam:
'You people pride yourselves on creating the world of Ideas, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Idea enters the brain from outside. It rearranges the furniture to make it more to its liking. It finds other Ideas already in residence, and picks fights or forms alliances. The alliances build new structures, to defend themselves against intruders. And then, whenever the opportunity arises, the Idea sends out its shock troops in search of new brains to infect. The successful Idea travels from mind to mind, claiming new territory, mutating as it goes. It's a jungle out there, Adam. Many ideas are lost. Only the strongest survive.
You take pride in your Ideas, as if they are products, but they are parasites. Why imagine evolution could only be applied to the physical? Evolution has no respect for the medium. Which came first, the mind or the Idea of the mind? Have you never wondered that before? They arrived together. The mind is an Idea. That's the lesson to be learned, but I fear it is beyond you. It is your weakness as a person to see yourself as the centre.' [pp121-2]
In the end - and without giving anything away - we find that Anax's society has solved the problem that faced The Republic, and it is sad, truly sad. Leaving us with what is not said, an Idea of what makes us human, or what makes humans different, if not better. Beckett cleverly reveals a truth without directly saying a single word - the answer to Art and Adam's debate is the very ending of the book. Genesis is pure genius, in that regard.
At the end, though, I was left with some unanswered questions - questions that weren't answered probably because they weren't relevant, and wouldn't have fit into Anax's exam. I still wonder, like: what happened to Eve? And what is the state of the rest of the world, now? If such details could have been incorporated, it would have solidified the world-building even more.
On a final note, be careful what reviews you read. At a glance, I can say that there are some that give away too much, including the twist ending - yes, there is a twist, I knew that going in so I will pass that much along; it was ever-present in my mind and I had several theories, one of which was the true one, but I didn't get too distracted figuring it out, and the real ending was the real surprise for me. I first heard of this book through Bree (All the Books I Can Read), and I have to really thank her for her great review, which led me to read this terrific book.
Go on, get it, read it, what are you waiting for?...more
Finally, a YA book marketed as Dystopian that actually IS dystopian!! It also has a pretty interesting premise, though, as much as I had fun reading iFinally, a YA book marketed as Dystopian that actually IS dystopian!! It also has a pretty interesting premise, though, as much as I had fun reading it, I'm not entirely sure I buy as written.
Lena lives in a future America where unhappiness has, it is believed and understood, been eradicated - by removing the concept of "love". Some time ago, love was isolated as the sole defining cause of the world's problems, and a way was found to surgically remove it from people's brains, leaving them content, passive, and supposedly happy. Now entrenched in society, in the small city-states that the country has broken into (beyond their electrified fences, "invalids" - the uncured rebels - live in the Wilds, believed to be dangerous, contaminated), the operation is performed with a person turns eighteen, as serious side-effects can occur at earlier ages.
Lena is looking forward to her operation and being "cured" from the disease of love, though what happened to her mother is never too far from her mind: after three operations failed to cure her mother's love disease, she committed suicide, leaving her sister to raise Lena along with her own family. The concept of love as a disease that must be cured is firmly embedded in the population's psyche, in its social structure, and unquestioned. But when Lena meets Alex, who bears the scar of having been cured, she begins to feel things. And when she learns that Alex's cure scare is a fake, that he's from the Wilds and believes that love is not a disease that needs to be cured, Lena must face some uncomfortable truths about her own culture and society, and decide where she stands.
I wouldn't agree that revealing Alex is from the Wilds is a spoiler, because it's blatantly obvious from the moment you meet him. The plot is, in fact, quite straight forward and simple, focusing instead on character development and exploring Lena's thought-process. And it is an interesting concept. It's always a challenge, creating a society where something, in this case love, has a completely different meaning than what we're used to. In fact, we tend to take love for granted, as something that exists and is inherently good. I think what this society had isolated wasn't "love" per se, but feeling: emotion.
Any strong emotion causes upheavals, whether they be in yourself personally, or lead to larger conflicts. Strong emotion is behind terrorist attacks and wars as much as it is behind having a baby or crying at a death bed. What's scary about Oliver's premise is how emotion became the scapegoat for the world's troubles, and must therefore be removed. It's a simplistic viewpoint. Don't like something? Destroy it. Also similar to: people commit crimes? Build more jails and lock them up, rather than examine why they commit crimes in the first place and what can be done to remove that equation.
The other scary thing is the "cure" itself: basically, a lobotomy. Oliver has created a society of zombies, not the flesh-eating kind of course but the emotionally-handicapped kind. Not simply cold, but unfeeling. In fact, it's not just love that gets the evil eye in this story, but any display of positive emotion, the kind that shows you care for another human being. Children hurt themselves on the street and their mothers look away. It's certainly an interesting premise, though it did remind me of another book or movie that's alluding me now. Ugh, it's on the edge of my mind but every time I get close it skitters away. Though maybe I'm thinking of most dystopian stories, where with the people's permission, anything that can make you think or feel has become illegal, all to create a "happy" society. It's a concept that we keep coming back to, almost as if we as human animals, don't yet know how to enjoy life without hurting others or ourselves (as if, feeling unhappy were a bad thing that must be got rid of rather than seeing it as something that you learn from, that can actually make you feel alive especially because it's not an isolated feeling). There's always room for more fiction to explore this.
But bringing it back to love, specifically: I liked the way the story unfolded, and the believable development of Alex and Lena's relationship. The ending was rather predictable, and sadly didn't make me terribly enthusiastic about reading the second book, though I probably will. I still have questions about this society, and I'm sure the second book will broaden the lens even more, giving us a better understanding of the Wilds and beyond. It's always the government structure, the willingness of the population, that interests me most. I don't mind speculating about a dystopian world, but I like details too.
Because the story is told in Lena's voice, narrated by her, there's quite a bit of introspection and reflection, but it wasn't annoying like it can be in Young Adult fiction (wait till my review of Wither, which will probably be, well, withering). It's wholly necessary because the story is all about the mental process of moving from one assumption to a new idea, and that's a challenging thing to write. Plus, I quite liked Lena, even though she is a bit bland - she gains courage. I also liked the excerpts at the beginning of each chapter, from the law, from nursery rhymes, from social messaging. Some are simple but telling, like: "Human beings, in their natural state, are unpredictable, erratic, and unhappy. It is only once their animal instincts are controlled that they can be responsible, dependable, and content." (p 215) Others show what has been controlled and outlawed, such as this: "Live free or die. -- Ancient saying, provenance unknown, listed in the Comprehensive Compilation of Dangerous Words and Ideas" (p 302).
This is the first Oliver book I've read, but she's received considerable acclaim for her debut novel, Before I Fall. Still not sure if I'm interested in reading that, but I will probably continue on with this trilogy. While I enjoyed this story for the romance and adventure, I wouldn't say it brought anything new to the Dystopian genre....more
100% spoiler-free review (this book and the trilogy).
Just to position myself from the outset on the Hunger Games fan scale, such as it is, I will tell100% spoiler-free review (this book and the trilogy).
Just to position myself from the outset on the Hunger Games fan scale, such as it is, I will tell you that I like the trilogy, but I'm not as gung-ho for it as some readers. The first book was great, though I had some issues then; the second book I'd say my enjoyment and my issues were on par; but with book 3 I think my issues have outweighed my enjoyment somewhat. I've enjoyed reading the trilogy, but it will never make any Top Ten lists of mine. So this isn't going to be a gushing review, but neither is it a wholly negative one. (I have to add, that it's been about two weeks or more since I read it so I've probably forgotten some salient points I wanted to include. My bad for not being on top of my reviews.)
The story, for those who haven't read the books, is set in the future on the North American continent, a century or more after a series of disasters re-shaped the surviving population into the isolated and rigidly-controlled world of Panem. Panem is made up of 12 districts, each responsible for providing something - such as fruit and vegetables, or coal, or seafood. The people of the districts are downtrodden to varying degrees, with district 12 - the coal-mining district - being one of the poorest. Most of the goods produced go to the affluent Capitol, the capital city where President Snow lives, where the people's main concern is decorating their bodies in ever more outlandish ways, people who have never known hardship or want and who enjoy being entertained.
Nearly a century ago there was a thirteenth district, where Panem's nuclear power and technology came from - until the district's population revolted, and the district was destroyed. To ensure that the people of the other districts never try to rebel against the Capitol, the Hunger Games were introduced: every year, two children - a boy and a girl aged anywhere between 12 and 18 - from each district are selected by lottery, thrown into a trap-riddled arena and made to kill each other until there is only one survivor. Watched by the entire country and beloved by the Capitol, the Hunger Games is inescapable.
The heroine of the trilogy is Katniss, from district 12, who volunteers to enter the Hunger Games when her younger and gentle-hearted sister Prim is picked. Alongside Peeta, the baker's son, and mentored by the district's one previous winner Haymitch - who uses alcoholism to escape his nightmares - Katniss tries everything she can to avoid playing President Snow's game, to avoid having to kill. But the biggest lesson she has to learn is that the Hunger Games don't end in the arena: they keep going, and as Katniss becomes a symbol of hope and resistance to the beleaguered population of the Districts, she is drawn deeper and deeper into a blood-thirsty game played by both sides.
There, that was my spoiler-free summary of the premise, that gives nothing away and tells you very little about book 3. Suffice it to say, that the layers to the game continue in each book, the stakes get exponentially higher, and the nightmares more hellish. These are gory books, nothing as bad as Koushun Takami's Battle Royale - an older book with a similar premise that I absolutely loved and highly recommend - but still quite murderous and bloody. One of the reasons why the books are a bit disappointing for me relates to this: I didn't get sucked in enough to really feel it or to even care as much as I would like to, or feel I should.
Part of this is Katniss' fault. Maybe all. Katniss narrates the story, and in present tense. I complained in my reviews of the previous books that this tense doesn't work as it should, perhaps because Collins doesn't have as firm a grip on the tense as she needs to really make it work. Present tense is designed to give a story a sense of immediacy, of tension, of unpredictability - which would make it the perfect tense for this story. However, I never get a sense of immediacy or tension or unpredictability. It feels more like a story being related a long time later, a "Let me tell you the story of the time I was in the Hunger Games..." story. The lack of tension directly effected the atmosphere, rendering it mute at times, muffled, dull even.
The other side of the Katniss problem is that she isn't the most likeable of heroines. She's believable, yes, but the wall she puts up between herself and everyone she knows is one that she also puts up between herself and us, the readers. She's a tough cookie for sure, but not necessarily a good role model, a good friend, or even a good ally. I love a flawed character, but you can't separate the success of a flawed character from the writing. What I mean is, if a flawed character, an unlikeable character, alienates you and makes you want to slap them, that doesn't mean the character was successfully drawn. Katniss might work with some readers; with others, not. I find her hard to tolerate at times. I feel mean saying so, because she certainly has plenty of reasons for being a mess. She's a fully-formed character, consistently written and portrayed, but she really does wallow at times. Katniss seemed tired - understandably so - and in shock - also understandable. But she didn't grow and develop and mature as I had hoped she would - she seems stuck in a perpetual state of conflicted-sixteen-year-old. She can get pretty self-indulgent, selfish, even petulant. Makes it hard to cheer her on. Makes you wonder what Gale and Peeta see in her.
Speaking of which, I have a hard time buying the romance triangle - we become so submerged in Katniss' narrow view of the world, her companions and herself that we're given no reasons to understand what's loveable about her. Honestly I don't get it. I actually liked Peeta a lot more in this book - he changes, is all I will say, and becomes infinitely more interesting a character - but I got rather tired of the idea that either of these two young men could love Katniss. I'm not saying it's not possible to love Katniss, just that I didn't feel it, was never convinced - not after the first book anyway.
It was good to finish the trilogy, but it does feel like, after coming up with a great premise, Collins didn't have any other equally great ideas for keeping the momentum going or making it exciting. And when you don't have main characters who draw you along, it becomes hard to give them your time.
The themes are interesting, but I still find that other authors of YA dystopian fiction have tackled them better. I know, I said this wasn't going to be a negative review but it's certainly slipping in that direction isn't it. I do enjoy the Games themselves, that adrenalin-pumping fight to the life/death. There have been moments in the books that have made me shed tears, moments when I feel like Katniss lets herself feel vulnerable, briefly, and therefore visible. And when beloved characters die horrible deaths - I warn you, there's plenty of that too. I was grateful the alternative to Snow and the Capitol wasn't some naive utopia with everyone smiling and holding hands - it becomes an almost unbearable nightmare in the sense that even if the rebels win against Snow, things might not actually be better. And I was so pleased at the end, at what Katniss did when she had the opportunity to kill an ailing President Snow.
As a story on the lengths humans will go to keep others oppressed, to maintain the master-slave balance that has never left us - just been reformed, renamed, the people pacified and made to believe it's their fault they earn minimum wage and have only a basic education - it's a chilling story. As an action-packed adventure that feels like a Hollywood big-budget movie, yes it can be very exciting. As a story of a teenaged girl forced to become a murderer of children and nameless, faceless enemies en masse, it's a bit pedestrian. But worth reading all the same....more
A thousand years in our future, D-503 is just one number among many in the One State. The One State is a city, a society, that revolves not around theA thousand years in our future, D-503 is just one number among many in the One State. The One State is a city, a society, that revolves not around the individual but around the collective we, like a hive, with the Benefactor in God-like status at the centre. D-503 works as a constructor on the Integral, the ship that will take their ideology and philosophy of life to other planets, to civilise and free other species. When an article in the State Gazette calls for poems, manifestos etc. to go in the ship, D-503 starts writing his Conspectus, a kind of diary that begins as his way of showing us what life is like in the One State.
A mathematician in a highly mathematical society, D-503 lives like everyone else, every day more or less the same, until he encounters I-330, a woman who brings out strong emotion in him, who scares and confounds him but who he becomes obsessed with. She leads him to the Ancient House, a remnant of long ago serving as a museum at the edge of the city, where the Wall keeps the jungle and wild things out of the pristine, perfect glass city.
As he tries to untangle and understand all the new sensations D is experiencing, he becomes unwittingly entangled in a revolt against the One State that, in this world where they have proven that the universe is finite, and where the One State is the perfected civilisation to end all wars and revolutions, can have only one ending.
If We sounds familiar to you, there's a good reason for it. This is the powerful, hugely influential book credited with being the inspiration and influence behind both 1984 and Brave New World. In the introduction, translator Hugh Aplin explains that "Zamyatin's vision of life in a technocratic future society was formed in part by his experiences in the North-East of England when he worked in the Newcastle shipyards during the First World War"; we tend to thoughtlessly or arrogantly assume that a dystopia like this is shamelessly based on Stalin's Soviet Union. I'm sure, since Zamyatin lived there too, it had its impact, but we can sometimes forget that other places, places like England and America, had their own problems. (It doesn't help that Animal Farmwas an allegory of the Russian Revolution and Stalin's dictatorship.)
This is a tricky book to read. I could read it a hundred times more and still feel like I'm not getting it all. It's complex, but simple. Alienating, but readable. D-503's narrative voice is unlike anything I've read before, that I can think of. He deteriorates into a man who sounds like he's constantly high, tripping and paranoid at the same time. It's not always easy to tell if something's meant metaphorically or literally, and that did slow the story down for me. The usual cues and markers aren't always there, and I have the feeling that the reading experience engenders a feeling pretty close to what D is feeling himself.
The truth is, as much as I enjoyed the story, there are too many clever things happening in this novel, both narratively and stylistically, and I would have to devote a month of my time doing concentrated reading and research, ideally in a university setting, to grasp even half of it. I barely have time to even write this review, which is a good week or so overdue. Some of the maths scared me off. D talks about Chaos and mathematical equations and leaves me behind. But there are other parts of his increasingly turbulent psyche that are fascinating and engrossing.
Some of the passages, some of D's - or Zamyatin's - descriptive prose is an absolute delight to read. It's very visual, doesn't always make sense, but quite unique.
"The two of us walked as one. Somewhere far away through the mist the sun was barely audibly singing, everything was filling with the elastic and pearly, gold, pink and red. The whole world is one single, unbounded woman, and we're right in her belly, we haven't yet been born, we're joyously ripening. And it's clear to me, inviolably clear: everything is for me - the sun, the mist, the pink, the gold - it's for me ..." (p66)
"If you were told: your shadow can see you, can see you all the time? Do you understand? And then suddenly - you have a strange sensation: your arms are extraneous, they're a hindrance, and I catch myself swinging my arms absurdly, out of time with my steps. Or suddenly - you have to look round without fail, but you can't look round, not for anything, your neck's enchained. And I run, run ever quicker, and I can feel with my back that the shadow's following me quicker, and there's nowhere, nowhere to escape from it ..." (p79)
"The click of the annunciator. The whole of me flung itself into the narrow white slit - and ... and some male (with a consonant) number I didn't know. The lift hummed, slammed. Before me was a forehead rammed on carelessly and tilted to one side, while the eyes ... a very strange impression, as though he were speaking from there, from under his brows, where the eyes are." (p100)
Thing is, it's more interesting at this point to bring up the prose rather than the themes, because the themes are quite clear. They're common to this kind of dystopian novel, and the addition of science fiction doesn't really change that. If you were reading this for the first time as a teenager, say, or if you'd never had any exposure to dystopian worlds, the themes would be fascinating and mind-boggling. After all, it's one of the reasons why I love this genre.
Themes of what happiness is, and what it involves and what it costs. Themes of individual need versus a collective good. Themes exploring the point of living and having a conscience, of what sets us apart from other creatures - and symbolism, lots of symbolism. The translator's Introduction, as well as the Foreward by Alan Sillitoe, spells out a great deal of it, from the nature of the One States' "elections" (everyone votes for the same person, the Benefactor, simply by raising their hand en masse) to I-330's ego-centric letter "I". It's fun to play "spot the symbol" with We because there are so many - it's laden with double-meanings, meanings only we can understand because of where and how we live, in the time period we live in.
This is a fantastic book for discussion - there's so much going on, and so much to question and ponder and argue over. If you're looking for a good edition of this modern classic, I highly recommend this one. Not that I've read any others, but I was very impressed with this particular one, especially as I've had a lot of misses with Russian translations. ...more
In the land of Panem, ruled by President Snow and the Capitol (the capitaThis review contains mild spoilers for the ending of book 1, The Hunger Games
In the land of Panem, ruled by President Snow and the Capitol (the capital city), life is hard and dirty and violent. Outside of the Capitol - a city of riches and luxury, bloody entertainment and cruel punishment - the land is divided up into twelve districts. Each is responsible for a certain type of industry. District 11 is agriculture and orchards. District 7 is lumber. District 4 is fisheries, District 12 is coal. Ever since the violent uprising of the people of District 13 (graphite mining and nuclear power) 75 years ago - a district that was obliterated in punishment - the people of the districts have been kept hungry and barely surviving. To repress them further, the Capitol came up with a devious game called the Hunger Games. Every year, two tributes, a boy and a girl under eighteen from each district are selected to compete. Each year the arena is different, but the aim remains the same: these children must fight and kill each other until there is only one left.
It's an effective strategy, and some children, called "Careers", even train for it - those usually win. In District 12, one of the poorest, harshest districts, there had been only one victor, now an old drunk called Haymitch. That is, until Katniss and Peeta broke every rule and came home, together as Victors, from the last Hunger Games.
They might have each been given a Victor's house to live in and more food and money than they can use, but things only seem to be worse. The fake love Katniss showed for Peeta, part of her and Haymitch's strategy for winning the Hunger Games, has created a rift between her and her best friend Gale. But the love the people of the Capitol have for her and Peeta and their star-crossed love is the only thing keeping the Capitol from simply killing her.
A surprise and highly unwelcome visit from President Snow himself ups the stakes. If Katniss can't convince him that she loves Peeta, her family and friends are in danger of losing their lives - because Katniss unwittingly inspired and fostered rebellion in the districts with her daring act that forced the Gamemakers to make both her and Peeta victors of the last Games.
Their Victory Tour will start soon, and it is her last chance to convince the people that she loves Peeta and doesn't support an uprising. But nothing's ever that simple, and Katniss knew the time may come to simply flee, escape, with her family into the wilderness. But Katniss lacks President Snow's sadistic streak, could never have predicted what he would do.
This is a fitting sequel to The Hunger Games, though it has one of those endings that feels like the story's only just getting started, because it's the close of one phase of life in Panem and the opening of another.
I do like Katniss, though she isn't really growing and developing all that much. The most notable, if the only notable, development was her deciding to put Peeta's life before her own - though her reasoning was purely practical. With her toughness and resourcefulness, she reminds me of Ellie from the Tomorrow series - but the similarity ends there. I prefer Ellie. There's something about Katniss that makes me feel cold. I think it has something to do with Collins' decision to have Katniss narrate in first-person present-tense.
I talked a bit about this in my review for the first book, but I think, now that I've read this one, I can articulate it better. The problem is tone, and rhythm. The present-tense voice reads like past-tense because the tone never changes. What I mean is, when Katniss is describing something horrific, something traumatic, and her voice doesn't change from when she's telling us about something that's ordinary. Sure she describes her own reaction, but it's from a distance. It makes her seem very cold, and a bit fake.
"In that one slight motion, I see the end of hope, the beginning of the destruction of everything I hold dear in the world. I can't guess what form my punishment will take, how wide the net will be cast, but when it is finished, there will most likely be nothing left. So you would think that at this moment, I would be in utter despair. Here's what's strange. The main thing I feel is a sense of relief. That I can give up this game. That the question of whether I can succeed in this venture has been answered, even if that answer is a resounding no. That if desperate times call for desperate measures, then I am free to act as desperately as I wish." (p.75)
"I lunge across the table and rake [my fingernails:] down Haymitch's face, causing blood to flow and damage to one eye. Then we are both screaming terrible, terrible things at each other, and Finnick is trying to drag me out ... Other hands help Finnick and I'm back on my table, my body restrained, my wrists tied down, so I slam my head in fury again and again against the table. A needle pokes my arm and my head hurts so badly I stop fighting and simply wail in a horrible, dying-animal way, until my voice gives out." (pp.387-8)
See what I mean? She is always telling us how she feels, what she's doing, never showing - this, in combination with the way she talks as if she were discussing it after the event, makes the present-tense voice a fraud. It loses its immediacy, and often its tension and suspense. It makes it hard to believe that Katniss doesn't already know what's going to happen.
I'm also not a big fan of the supposed love triangle between her, Gale and Peeta. Mostly because she doesn't love either of them but they love her, and I don't get why they love her, and I'm tired of her not making a decision. Oh, there are some great things about Katniss. She's bright but not overly clever, she's totally in her element with a bow and arrow and can survive in the wild, and she does care about people and the plight of the districts. When she highlights one of the horrible traits in the Capitol - like how the people serve elaborate dinners bursting with food, and a purgatory drink so the guests can quickly throw up and come back to eat more, while the people in the districts are starving to death - this is when I like her the most, I think - because she shows some sensitivity to social justice. And at their heart, that's what this series is about, isn't it? Social justice, or lack thereof? That makes it highly relevant, post-apocalyptic dystopian world or not. Just reinterpret it all as a metaphor and bingo, you've got your own home.
In some ways, I liked this book better than the first one, yet I was also slightly disappointed by the direction it took. I love these kinds of scenarios, but I've read better YA stories in the same genre. And there are a lot of them. This series owes a lot to Battle Royale, but it's also part of a long and vibrant sub-genre of YA post-apocalyptic survival stories. If you enjoyed this, don't stop here. There are some gems around that deserve being made popular again. ...more
Sometime in the future, the Earth has met the fate we are only now prophesying: the ocean has risen, the coastal cities have disappeared, all manner oSometime in the future, the Earth has met the fate we are only now prophesying: the ocean has risen, the coastal cities have disappeared, all manner of environmental disasters have occurred. In North America, the survivors created Panem, a Capitol city in the Rockies with 13 outlying Districts, each focusing on producing a different product for the Capitol: gems, coal, agriculture, fishing etc.
In Katniss' district, District 12, they mine coal. It's one of the poorest districts, a district that never stands a chance in the Hunger Games because the children are so starving. Since her father died in a mining accident when she was twelve, Katniss has hunted illegally in the forest, developing a formidable skill with the bow and arrow to bring fresh meat back to the town to trade for things for her family: her mother and her little sister Prim.
Now sixteen, Katniss finds herself in a nightmare predicament: against all odds, her twelve-year-old sister Prim has been selected as a tribute for the Hunger Games. After a rebellion amongst the Districts against the Capitol was ferociously put down years ago, the city instigated the Hunger Games as a deathly reminder that the working people of the Districts live by the Capitol's whim. The people of the Capitol treat the Games like the year's best entertainment, and are giddy with excitement to watch twenty-four children aged from 12 to 18 - a boy and girl from each District - kill each other before the cameras, and the victor is celebrated like a hero. In the Districts, winning the Hunger Games brings fame and food to your district, and the winner is set for life.
But Prim is only twelve, and aside from having her mother's knack at healing, has no survival skills. Katniss doesn't hesitate for a moment before volunteering to take her place.
Let the Hunger Games begin.
The YA field is ideal for exploring post-apocalyptic worlds and the changing, often brutal nature of humanity - I think because its readers, typically 13+, are at the age where they too are changing and discovering themselves as independent people. What more intense, vivid way is there to explore the great philosophical questions of human nature in an entertaining and gripping way than through post-apocalyptic fiction? In times of crisis and chaos and our own worst nightmares, we discover what we're made of.
The Hunger Games is a wonderful new addition to the canon. Leaning more toward sci-fi than fantasy with its advanced technology, it resurrects the horror people can inflict on each other that was so well captured in the short story "The Lottery"; the cruelty of pitting innocent children against each other that was so vividly brought to life in Battle Royale (not a YA book but one which is most similar to this); and the survival instincts and honour that can come to the surface when faced with a kill-or-be-killed scenario, which reminded me of one of my favourite series, John Marsden's Tomorrow series. I'm sure you can think of many more too.
Narrated by Katniss, it's a good guess that she survives (though I wouldn't have been surprised to have that expectation turned on me), since she does narrate in the present tense. That in itself is a somewhat unusual choice and I'm not entirely sure it worked here. Present tense is generally used to create more tension, a stronger feeling of "now" and of an unpredictable future - everything you need in the Hunger Games. Perhaps it was the incorrect use of the past tense "lay" instead of the present tense "lie" that cropped up constantly that jarred me? It certainly annoyed me! No, it was because, somehow, it read more like Katniss telling a story long after it had happened. I can't quite put my finger on how this could be, but it lacked the tension that other books using present tense have managed to capture, which was a bit disappointing.
The Hunger Games themselves were riveting, much like the grisly slaughter of Battle Royale but less gory. There were a couple of scenes that I wished I weren't eating breakfast over, but most of the deaths happen "off screen", as it were. What's more compelling is the class divide that gapes as wide as the jaws of Hell, the prejudice and persecution and the politics behind it all - I'm sure this will be more fully explored in the next books in the series.
I was a bit disappointed that the initial cause of the problems in this world, the environmental degradation and, ultimately, destruction, wasn't explored further - nor were the handy technological advances seen in the Capitol. Granted, it's not the focal point of the story, merely helps set up the premise, but I find the lack of personal responsibility and this assumption that someone will invent the technology to make everything better that I hear all around me today, is reflected between the lines of this novel. Things just magically appear in the Capitol, and isn't that our dream? To have the best our intellect can give us without any consequence? Yet, this book is all about consequences, just of a different sort of action. So this isn't a quibble about the story; it just made me think of the many flaws in our own world that, even after this particular "apocalypse", are still being repeated.
Katniss herself is a great protagonist, with spunk, survival skills that make us look helpless (few people know what's edible in the wild and what isn't, who aren't botanists, or what leaves draw pus from wounds etc.), and conflicting emotions that are no less familiar for the situation she's in. The scene with Rue and the bread from District 11 made me cry, but it was the memory Katniss retells of Peeta giving her the bread when they were children that won me over.
Like many new fans of Collins, I'll be eagerly waiting the second book in the series, Catching Fire, due out 1st September 2009....more
Several centuries into the future, after a hundred years of war that decided which way humanity would go, the human race is stable, satisfied and happSeveral centuries into the future, after a hundred years of war that decided which way humanity would go, the human race is stable, satisfied and happy. They don't have families - no parents or siblings; they aren't born but are hatched. They've each been genetically modified before birth to fit a certain class, a level of intelligence, a particular job. Feel like some sex? Just ask! All their needs are taken care of, though it helps that the messages their subconscious receive during sleep indoctrinate them in what they want and what they don't want. They have sacrificed family, love, independence and individuality in order to always be happy and safe. And to endlessly consume. They don't see it as a sacrifice.
When Bernard, an Alpha-class, takes Lenina on a trip to a Savage Reservation in what was America, they are both shocked to meet one of their own living amongst the primitives. Linda was just like Lenina once, until her own trip ended in disaster. Not only was she accidentally left behind after becoming lost and injured, but she was pregnant and, with no abortion centres anywhere, had to give birth. Her boy, John, is the first child born naturally to this new kind of human. Having been raised amongst the natives, John is a conflicted youth. His mother's philosophy of life is often at odds with the tribes-people, and John fits in with neither. When Bernard offers to take them both back to civilised London, they're eager to go.
But nothing's that simple. Unlike everyone else, Linda is fat, ugly and old after all her years in the wild. John, young and strong and handsome, is an object of great curiosity and even desire. He feels himself in love with Lenina and, having learnt the ways of the world from a rare old copy of Shakespeare, wants to prove himself worthy of her. But his "old-fashioned" ideals don't fit in with this "brave new world", as he calls it, quoting The Tempest, and neither does he.
I can understand why Margaret Atwood, who wrote the introduction, loves this book; I can also see how it inspired her own post-apocalyptic speculative fiction. I feel that, having come to it after reading so much that's been inspired or influenced by it, it seems too old-hat to me. Kind of familiar. I was impressed by it, but I didn't love it.
The beginning was great, launching you straight into this new world order and how these "new" humans are made the way they are. After that, it slowed down until picking up again right at the end. Some of the imagery is simply drawn with a few well-chosen words to create this futuristic world - and highly effective for it; at other times, it was a little hard to follow and a bit clumsy or vague. It's hard to know whether this is deliberate, and stylistic, or not. I did find it distracting from the story itself.
One of the reasons why it seemed so familiar is the structure. I wonder if this structure is familiar because it started a new formula? The lead-up to John Savage and the Controller having their philosophical debate lacked tension, and the debate itself was such an obvious device. I'm sure when this first came out it was fresh, but it reminded me too much of books like Stranger in a Strange Land and, yes, The Da Vinci Code, which used "conversations" between characters - usually one ultra-intelligent one and one foil - to get across the author's message. That was what the device brought to mind, but here it was much more fascinating. Both the Controller and John had what seems like valid points, and at such opposite extremes. There is no easy answer to this ethical dilemma. We pursue happiness but we wouldn't know what to do with it if we had it, we'd destroy it. So you have to change people. With the new technology available, that's precisely what they did.
A between-the-wars novel, Brave New World shows Huxley's astute understanding of humanity and latches onto the probable consequences of new trends at the time. It's still relevant today, not least because the debate is on-going. I'm sure you've heard of the possibilities of having "designer babies" and the ethics around that. Huxley has an entire world of designer babies, and by removing the family unit, it runs smoothly.
In this futuristic world, Henry Ford is held up as a god figure, the god of endless consumption. Ford's Tin Lizzy must surely have been a symbol of change - in lifestyle, economics, expectations; though I couldn't help but remember that, according to Giles Slade in Made to Break, it was General Motors that came up with Planned Obsolescence in order to compete with Ford. But I vaguely recall that Ford had some dodgy ideas that no doubt inspired Huxley to put him in the spotlight, so to speak.
This is no straight-forward dystopian novel. As you're hearing the Controller's arguments for this brave new world, you can't immediately side with John - he speaks for our time, but it's just as flawed as this brave new world. The question is, what are we willing to sacrifice? Because we can't have independence and individuality and absolute happiness and safety. They're incompatible because of human nature. Fascinating stuff....more