I've been on a dystopia roll recently, it seems. So here goes. This is supposed to be 1984 for children.
Jonas, the protagonist, is a 12 year old boy...moreI've been on a dystopia roll recently, it seems. So here goes. This is supposed to be 1984 for children.
Jonas, the protagonist, is a 12 year old boy who lives in a world without war, pain, hunger, death, misery or, even, bad weather, where everyone is happy and has their place in society. Yet gradually a much more disquieting picture emerges of a world where all personal choice has been taken away, where every decision is made for the individual by the "state" (I have put state in quotation marks here because really we never find out exactly who makes these decisions and choices) and where nothing is private, not even your own dreams.
I am a firm believer that children's books have to be written the same as adult books, but better. I also think it is much harder to write good children's books, than it is to write for adults. And, ultimately, with children's literatiure, you have to satisfy both.
I'm afraid, for me, Lowry's book failed as both a children's book and as an adult book because her world just didn't make sense. And I do not accept, as a few goodreaders have stated in their reviews, that that's ok because it's a kid's book. I would have thought the opposite should be true. That it is especially important for the world that the author is creating to make sense, because it is a children's book.
This books does raise important questions about the price of happiness, freedom, responsibility and the importance of adversity but how can we expect kids to learn any of its lessons when there is no explanation of how such a society has arisen, barely any description of how it functions and lack of any sort of logic to the way it does.
The inability of the population to see in colour. How did that come about? Why is Jonas able to see it? There is a climate control system which ensures the sameness of the weather, yet there does not appear to be any physical barrier separating this world from the mysterious Elsewhere. The whole society seemed to be a series of loosely connected communes with a very strong cult flavour (brainwashing - tick, isolation - tick, control - tick) governed by a counsel but it is not clear how a counsel of so few is able to control and effectively govern all these people, particularly given the apparent extent of their involvement in the day-to day oversight and running of things like allocation of careers to 12 year olds.
I don't know what on earth was going on with the collective purge of all memory and its transfer to a single individual (through touch!!!). I found that whole aspect of the book ridiculous and unnecessary as the same could have been achieved by suppression of history and having Jonas and the Giver actually read some of those many books that are repeatedly mentioned but never even opened. I understand that sexual urges are suppressed by the pills but how do they manage to suppress love? It is in people's nature to become attached to and feel affection for other people and that would be inevitable in family units, even if unrelated by birth. The build up around "release" was another ridiculous aspect as it was patently obvious what it involved from pretty much the first time it is mentioned. It is unclear how this society with its severely restricted birth rate and commonplace release of anyone from petty rulebreakers to infants who don't sleep through the night is able to sustain itself or why such severe population control is necessary given there appear to be vast stretches of unoccupied land surrounding the community. I could go on and on.
I wish I could end this by saying, yes there were problems in the world building but the story and writing were fantastic. Yet I am not able to do that either. There was barely any story there at all. Most of the book concentrated on world-building with the plot only really taking off in the last few pages. The book felt far too short and rushed. The characters were flat and indistinguishable (the fact that Jonas' little sister Lily seemed to talk in exactly the same way as his parents particularly grated) and the writing was simplistic and uninspired. (less)
Warning: this review is long and ranty and contains swearwords and possible spoilers (although I tried not to be too revealing)
So, for me, this book w...moreWarning: this review is long and ranty and contains swearwords and possible spoilers (although I tried not to be too revealing)
So, for me, this book was pretty much just a big pile of unbelievable sprinkled with absurd and a big helping of awkward inappropriate romance on the side. The heroine, Beatrice (Tris) Prior lives in a world where, following years of war, humanity (or, at least, Chicago, where the heroine resides) divided itself into five factions based on character traits: GryffindorDauntless, RavenclawErudite, HufflepuffAmity, Candour and Abnegation. Each faction lives separately from the others in its own compound/part of the city and embraces and promotes its trait above and beyond everything else. Yes, that is REALLY, the premise.
Apparently, the rational adults of this world decided that all the endless war was caused by one specific character trait (cowardice, ignorance, aggression, I can't even remember what the one for Candour was, telling lies, I guess, and selfishness), the only controversy was which one, so they divided themselves based on that opinion and have since all devoted themselves to stamping out the chosen trait by dedicating themselves to its opposite and all war and adversity ceased immediately and unicorns started flying across the sky (hint: not really). Now, I don't think I even have to go into how patently absurd that is. Anyone with an iota of intelligence can surely understand that a complex phenomenon such as war cannot and does not have one single identifiable stamp-outable cause, FFS. How can anyone possibly argue that, yep, it is just cowardice alone and nothing else that causes wars, so once we get that under wraps by jumping on and off trains and beating up people who are much weaker than us, world peace will be upon us? Halleluja! Middle East conflict has been solved. Let's divide them all up into Hogwarts houses and hey presto! Peace for all.
And even if you did manage to convince yourself that all war is caused by cowardice/stupidity/whatever. How the hell do you get from that to the assertion that this must mean that everyone has to be brave (unless they are in another faction, in which case they have to be selfless, honest etc, as applicable) AND NOTHING ELSE. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater, much? If you think cowardice is the problem then why not get rid of, you know, just cowardice? But nooooo, not in this looney land. Here, if you are brave, you cannot possibly be anything else. Not clever or selfless or peaceful or honest. Because if you are, that would make you like so totally rare that there'd even be a special name for you – Divergent – and it would mean you are a total rebel and impossible to control, so immediate extermination for you. Whaaat? SERIOUSLY?
Unless Ms Roth wants us to believe that this world is populated entirely by morons? Which is a possibility, I suppose. They are surrounded by a fence which is locked and guarded from the outside. Perhaps, later books will reveal that this is in fact a colony where the world had sent it's delusional lunatics. That might actually be fun.
And while I am on the subject of that fence. The book is set in Chicago but for all we know nothing else exists on the face of planet Earth. There is no mention of anything outside of the fence. The city appears to be entirely self-governed and self-sufficient. Nothing comes in or out except for some Amity farmers. One has to wonder where they get shit that is not available in Chicago and its immediate surroundings. You know, like maybe oil and gas and coal and rice and sugar and coffee and tea and oh maybe about a gazillion other things. I mean, even assuming it is a harsh post-many-many-years of war austerity, they'd have to get at least some of those things from somewhere, otherwise how would their cars and busses run and houses be heated and I am pretty sure there was mention of coffee. Did the Erudite discover how to photosynthesize this stuff out of thin air? Who knows. For all her aptitude for intelligence, Tris just doesn't seem to be that curious about or interested in anything apart from herself and the immediate minutiae of her life.
Which brings me nicely on to our heroine. Tris may have been an awesome character had Ms Roth taken the time to flesh her out, given her some context, some depth, something. Instead, she is plucked out of a vacuum and is emotionless to a point where she could give Terminator lessons on how to be more robotic. What has Tris been doing up until the point we meet her at the start of the book? She doesn't appear to have any friends or have any emotional attachment towards her family apart from constantly resenting them. What does this girl actually enjoy, if anything, what interests does she have? Yes, I know she is in abnegation but surely she must have done something, thought something, had some interests for 16 years until we meet her. But there is nothing. No little childhood anecdotes, no memories, no nostalgia. Nothing except for what she is doing and feeling right now, right this minute. The only thing we know for definite is that she is not selfless and has not enjoyed being made to appear so. Yet, for someone supposedly intelligent, this appears a pretty poor basis to make a life-altering decision.
In Tris's world, you choose which "house" you want to belong to at 16. You can choose the faction you grew up in or one of the others. To help you decide, you undertake a highly suspect psycho-pop mumbo jumbo of a "test" which is supposed to determine your natural aptitude. However, notwithstanding the result of the test, you can choose whatever faction you wish, it appears. Apart from this "test", the kids appear to be given no information whatsoever about what joining a particular faction involves, the initiation process, what the people there actually do, the fact that your survival chances are about 50% or that it might be kinda like moving in with these guys for the rest of your life:
you know, little details like that. If they do choose a faction other than their own, the likelihood is they will never see their friends or family again. But that's nothing to Tris. Friends? She doesn't have any. Family? Family is for snivelling weaklings. Who gives a shit when she can get tattoos, wear what she likes and jump on and off trains all day long. Yeah!
Oh, and that's another thing that bothered me. Given the initiation approach of half of you will die or be kicked out to become factionless to live in a cardboard box under a bridge, how on earth does Dauntless sustain itself? What was it, 10(?) initiates they were going to keep on? Which makes you wonder, with the off the charts mortality rate they must have with their adrenaline junkie mentality, how many Dauntless actually are there? A few hundred? Everyone appears pretty young in the faction. I don't think Tris mentions seeing a single old person. Even assuming they live to maturity and have at least two kids for every couple, some of those kids will choose to leave Dauntless and go elsewhere or die off in the initiation process. How do they not become extinct?
My sense of disbelief absolutely refused to let itself be suspended and frankly, it is insulting to me as a reader that any author would think I should just swallow this preposterous world. And for the sake of what? An inexplicable, unexplainable, unexplained, flat romance between two emotionally stunted teenagers who appear to be unable to feel anything beyond their inappropriate attraction to one another. Four (the romantic interest) is their fucking instructor (not literally) so should concentrate on instructing them, instead of getting a boner for one of his students and whisking her off for additional training sessions giving her an unfair advantage over the others. Just a thought.
Four is also a complete cipher. I have no idea who that man is, beyond a possibly abusive childhood, no qualms about hitting on students who look like 12 year olds and badass awesomeness which I am supposed to take purely on trust (hint: after that world-building, I don't have any) there is just a void of…. of… well, nothing, really. I couldn't even tell you what he looks like. Or why he likesloves(!!!) Tris. Or why she likesloves(!!!) him back.
So why two stars? I would have given it 1.5 if I could but I can't so I settled on two because it wasn't totally hopeless. The pacing was good, it was nice to have a heroine with intimacy issues rather than one that melts into a pile of goo at the hero's feet (even if this did carry too far into emotionless automaton territory at times). The writing wasn't bad and I didn't detect any particularly offensive themes. Did that make it ok? Let's just say, I don't think I will continue on with the series but I can sorta see how people might like it if they have a better behaved sense of disbelief.th(less)
Little Brother is a story of Marcus Yallow, aka W1n5ton, aka M1k3y, who lives in San Francisco in a not too distant future. I was going to say that Ma...moreLittle Brother is a story of Marcus Yallow, aka W1n5ton, aka M1k3y, who lives in San Francisco in a not too distant future. I was going to say that Marcus is pretty much your average 17 year old but, on further reflection, I realised I have no idea what an average 17 year old is like these days, let alone what they will be like in a decade or two. I imagine they are not too dissimilar to Marcus. They like computer games, have a bunch of mates, a bit adventurous, a bit horny, a bit rebellious, that sort of thing. But then, in some respects, Marcus did strike me as not very teenager-like at all. Reading Kerouac, his diverse food tastes (he knows all about all these great food joints and just what to order there), love of coffee and hate of Starbucks, his extensive knowledge of San Francisco's history etc. I wouldn't have been surprised if he popped down to a farmer's market at any point (and in fact I think he does mention a fruit market somewhere).
In the world of Little Brother security and surveillance have been taken to the n'th degree and pretty much your every move (both in the real world and on the internet) is recorded, monitored and inspected, so it is, perhaps, no surprise that Marcus is a bit of a hacker and clever with computers, a necessary skill if one is to skip school from time to time to go on Harajuku Fun Madness quests. It is on one of these missions that Marcus and his friends end up in the wrong place at the wrong time and are picked up and detained by Homeland Security after a terrorist attack.
Little Brother is a manifesto as much as it is a story. Now, I'm usually not much into books that beat you over the head with their message but I didn't mind so much here. Partly because I wholeheartedly agree with the author's views and partly because I believe that we are actually not very far off the world described in the book already and it is important for us as a society to consider the issues of freedom and privacy and to what extent these should be sacrificed in the name of security and how our views are affected by the climate of fear and paranoia created by the government and the media in response to terrorism. It does get a little much at times, like the tone gets a bit lecturey and do we really need the same quote from the Declaration of Independence repeated at us three times. But somehow, it didn't bother mee too much.
Welcome to the present.
I live in the UK and don't know much about what it's like in America, but here, we are already very much a surveillance society. The UK supposedly has more CCTV cameras than any other country in the world. According to Wiki, the exact number is not known but one estimate is 1.85 million, which is an average of one camera for every 32 people with an average person making about 70 appearances on CCTV cameras every day. Other estimates are higher. The justification for all these cameras, public and private, is crime prevention. But the same Wiki article states:
"There is little evidence that CCTV deters crime; in fact, there is considerable evidence that it does not. According to a Liberal Democrat analysis, in London "Police are no more likely to catch offenders in areas with hundreds of cameras than in those with hardly any." A 2008 Report by UK. Police Chiefs concluded that only 3% of crimes were solved by CCTV. In London, a Metropolitan Police report showed that in 2008 only one crime was solved per 1000 cameras. There are valid reasons for including CCTV as a component of a physical security program, but deterrence is not one of them."
And CCTV is by far not the only means for Big (or Little) Brother to keep tabs on you. Registration plate recognition cameras, mobile phones, travel cards, credit cards, loyalty cards, medical records, interenet use (social networking sites anyone?), DNA databases… these are all things that can be used to determine what you have been up to at any particular point in time. And it is astounding how many of us are completely oblivious or indifferent to the staggering amount of private information about them that is available to state authorities and, all too often, anyone else who cares to look. Your average Joe Bloggs attitude is still very much "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" and "If it prevents criminal behaviour or improves its detection, I am all for it." (actual quote from a BBC article). Well, the problem is, as mentioned, there is tonnes of evidence that it doesn't and there is lots to fear because, it seems, the government is unable to keep our private info safe (see: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7449927... and this article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7690005...).
Anti-terrorism legislation in the UK, pushed through parliament in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks and the London bombings in July 2005, allows the police in certain circumstances to stop and search you without any grounds and to detain you for up to 14 days without charge (that period was 28 days until recently) and gives the police and other state authorities very wide powers of surveillance. Not worried because you are not a terrorist? Think again. Instead of using the anti-terrorism powers for, well, dealing with terrorism, there is much evidence to suggest that police use them simply as "an additional tool in their day-to-day policing kit" to stop and search people without reasonable grounds for believing they have done anything wrong, to detain lawful protesters and in other instances that have nothing to do with terrorism (such as walking on a cycle path http://news.sky.com/home/article/1345...). Local councils in the UK are using anti-terrorism legislation to spy on people in connection with horrific offences such littering, putting rubbish in the wrong bins, dog fouling and breaches of school admission regulations.
Online activism is also very much a reality these days. Think operation "Avenge Assage" by Anonymous in support of Wikileaks.
But I am getting carried away here. Back to the book. I loved the questions that it raises and Doctorow's obvious enthusiasm for the subject which pours off every page and is very infectious and I even loved the techie stuff, though I struggled to understand some of it. It is a great social commentary book, bang up to date, on point and relevant, but not without its problems as a work of literature, I think. I had a few issues: the sex stuff really made me cringe, some of the characters weren't very well developed, I struggled with the plot sometimes as it was a bit too convenient (if the Xbox universal was so great and already had all that free stuff and anti-detection software available for it, why wasn't everyone using it already; mum and dad just happen to be great friends with a major investigative journalist; why would an investigative journalist be put in charge of liberating a secret federal security prison, that sort of thing), Marcus was very much a stand in for the author (which is why he didn't really sound like a teenager most of the time, I think) and the whole "don't trust anyone over 25" thing was a bit silly and peed me off, though very teenager-like, I suppose. Overall, however, I enjoyed the book hugely and would highly recommend it to adults and teens alike. (less)
What a ride. I have read the entire series in just under three days and probably need a few days to absorb the whole thing properly. Just wanted to jo...moreWhat a ride. I have read the entire series in just under three days and probably need a few days to absorb the whole thing properly. Just wanted to jot a few preliminary thoughts down.
The series as a whole was magnificent. Emotional, entertaining, challenging, provoking, gripping. An absolute joy to read. Why have I not come across this one sooner? I'm not really the target YA audience but this is easily on a par with Harry Potter and a million times better than Twilight and I heard of both of those.
I thought the first book had the best structure and pacing and was undoubtedly the best in the series. I raced to the end at breakneck speed and wanted to re-read it pretty much as soon as I was done. The world building was incredible - vivid, realistic and terrifying, it had interesting, likable and engaging characters, non-stop rollercoaster of a plot and the enchanting promise of more great things to come.
In the second book, I was expecting that we would learn more about the different districts and thet Capitol and the history of Panem. In fact one of the gripes I have for the series as a whole is that the political system is not really described in any of the books in any detail. We have President Snow and we have the Peacekeepers and that seems to be the extent of the political system. President Snow is the ultimate baddie here, the Hitler/Stalin of Panem and the peacekeepers are the brute force but he cannot be running the whole country single-handedly. A dictatorship requires a huge political machine to support and enforce it but, other than a single reference at the end of Mockinjay to some people being executed for their crimes in addition to President Snow, we see no description or mention of this. The second book with Katniss and Peeta doing a tour of the districts would have been the perfect opportunity to provide these sorts of details of the world that was so magnificently introduced in the first book and we did get some glimpses but I'm not sure I was entirely satisfied with a re-run of the Hunger Games instead. It felt a bit repetitive.
In the third book, Katniss and a lot of the other major characters spend most of their time in a state of complete shell-shock, unconscious and/or recovering from injuries. A lot of the story happens in a daze and I felt not a little dazed and shell-shocked myself by the end of the book. It was still a great book but, for me, not completely satisfying. I had a real problem with the attitude that Katniss had to Peeta's condition and the resolution of their relationship was a complete flop. I wanted to see Katniss realise that she loves Peeta just as deeply as he loves her. I wanted a real punchline to their story with some underlining and exclamation marks. Instead, all I got was Peeta's feelings being wiped away, a couple of sentences where the both "grow back together" and their kids playing together in the meadow. That was a real let down. I was disappointed that Mrs Everdeen and Gale would just fade out of Katniss' life. I can understand the latter but her mum dumping her to go back to 12 alone was just weak. There was no resolution for Haymitch. He simply goes back to drinking and herding geese. Perhaps this is realistic. That some things people never fully recover from. But it irked me nonetheless. What happens to some of the other characters we never even find out. Effie, Johanna, Enobaria? We learn that Annie has a son but nothing else. Also, I am glad that there was no rosy utopia at the end but it would have been nice to see a bit more of the brave new world that Katniss had helped to usher in.(less)
This is, by light years, the darkest and most depressing book I have ever read. The dread heavy feeling in my chest remained for quite some time after...moreThis is, by light years, the darkest and most depressing book I have ever read. The dread heavy feeling in my chest remained for quite some time after I have finished it. Yet for all that, it is brilliant. The stark and bare quality of the writing haunting in its simplicity. It's not light or fluffy or entertaining but it made me feel and and it is everything that a great book should be, disturbing and thought provoking. For me, one of the best books of all time.(less)