The great strength of good science fiction is the ability to take contemporary events and technologies and extrapolate them in ways that predict the fThe great strength of good science fiction is the ability to take contemporary events and technologies and extrapolate them in ways that predict the future whilst simultaneously telling us something about —and satirizing— the present. Much-celebrated writer Margaret Atwood crafts stories and worlds that do exactly this, although, rather controversially, she prefers to not to call her books science fiction, as, according to her rather restrictive definition, the ‘fiction’ in ‘science fiction’ is ‘things which are not possible today’ and her books are very much based the technology and social mores of the present.
Over the course of the three tightly-woven books that make up the MaddAddam Trilogy, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and, the recently released MaddAddam, Atwood transports us to a twisted but all-too-real dystopian future, where a carefully engineered plague has wiped out most of humanity, leaving behind a rag-tag bunch of survivors fighting wild and dangerous genetically modified animals and each other for survival, whilst living uneasily alongside a new species of lab-engineered quasi-humans, table rasa and sporting glowing blue genatalia.
Oryx and Crake centres on Snowman, who, suspecting he is the last man alive, is slowly going insane whilst he scavenges for scraps and lives in trees to avoid being scavenged himself. The story is told over two timelines: In Snowman’s present (around 100 years into the future) we learn of the Crakers, the perfect bioengineered quasi-humans created by the titular Crake, Snowman’s one-time best, and only, friend. Having no sense of the world around them, the Crakers rely on Snowman to make sense of the world for them, something which he is struggling to do for himself as comes to term with the devastation around him.
Told in parallel, through Snowman’s fevered and bitter recollections, we are also taken back to his pre-apocalyptic incarnation as Jimmy, who was lucky enough to be born into the privilege of sanitary Compound life, home of moneyed execs and scientists, separated from the urban jungle of the Pleeblands, where the proles dwell. Snowman’s story is of the outcome of Crake’s attempt to reboot the human race; Jimmy’s is of the why and how it happened. Jimmy’s love-hate friendship with Crake, and love of the ethereal Oryx, play out in a terrifyingly well-realised world of technocratic apartheid that’s driven by increasingly sophisticated bioengineering and rampant free-market consumerism and with a terrifying backdrop of violence, paedophilia and hyper-intelligent pigs.
The Year of the Flood
The Year of the Flood is a pseudo-sequel, with much of the novel’s timeline overlapping with Oryx and Crake. The perspective switches primarily to sturdy and pragmatic Toby, who inadvertently finds herself seeking refuge with a pseudo-Christian religious cult, the God’s Gardeners, who live a life of ascetism in preparation for the ‘waterless flood’. It was refreshing to have a female protagonist, still an all-too-rare a thing in post-Ripley-from-Aliens science fiction, and Toby is certainly easier to warm to than Jimmy and his needy weakness.
The weaving of this story with that recounted by Snowman/Jimmy is executed really cleverly and in a way that never feels clunky or contrived, something that can’t be said for many other expansive books (and TV shows) that have tried the same. The Year of the Flood still retains the grim streak of Oryx and Crake, but this is undercut by the gentle satire and absurdity of the God’s Gardeners and their Nature Religion. In Oryx and Crake, the tightly controlled bubbled-off world was the really interesting character, not the people in it. The introduction of a wider set of protagonists and relationships, the anarchic setting of the Pleeblands, and perhaps the religious element too, gives Year of the Flood a more human and humane feel.
MaddAddam has the same pseudo-sequel feel as The Year of the Flood; gaps are filled and the foundations of the story extended and the narrative is woven into a knot that is a joy to unpick. Through more flashbacks, we delve deeper into the inception of the God’s Gardner’s and Crake’s rise to infamy, whilst in the present, the remaining survivors band together and attempt to rebuild their lives and establish some semblance of normality and routine.
This book is perhaps the funniest of the three, off-setting what feels like unrelenting bleakness with some delightful off-beat humour, largely as a result of the Crakers playing a more central role in the story. Never again will you exclaim ‘oh fuck’ without raising a wry smile. It also has the most to say about being human, about the humanity left in the society that remains, and the indelible humanity left in the creatures that Crake deliberately designed to be less human.
The brilliance of the story is taking some of humanity’s excesses, demands and needs –plundering the earth for resources; killing animals and each other; constantly striving to modify and ‘improve’ nature and ourselves for vanity and sustenance; economic apartheid; religion– and taking them to their not-quite-as-absurd-as-they-first-appear extreme. Prepare to be enlightened, confused, and occasionally grossed out as you inhabit the warped but disconcertingly familiar reality that Atwood as created.
Dystopias are the natural future homes for pessimists. As a natural optimist, I have strong hopes for humanity and what we can do with the science and technology available to us. The MaddAddam trilogy is razor sharp satire and a dizzying parable for where we are now and what may lie further ahead on the slippery helter-skelter that we find ourselves hurtling down. ...more
Doppler is the second novel I have read in Norwegian, and happens to be the second novel I’ve read by Erlend Loe. It’s also the second time I have triDoppler is the second novel I have read in Norwegian, and happens to be the second novel I’ve read by Erlend Loe. It’s also the second time I have tried to read this book. The first time round, my Norwegian was nowhere near good enough and it was just an exercise in frustration.
As I’ll come to later, the humour in the story may not be for everyone, but for those learning Norwegian, I can’t recommend this book enough. Short, snappy sentences make it easy to read, even for a novice, and there’s the added bonus of learning lots of new and creative swearing along the way, too.
Falling off his bike one day, shortly after this father’s death, Doppler has a revelation that leads to him denouncing modern life to go live in a tent in a forest on the outskirts of Oslo. The story follows Doppler, told through his dry, black-as-the-countryside-night humour, as he survives in the forest and eventually survives the burdensome company of others.
There is something of Forrest Gump to Doppler, in that he is a man-child whose simple outlook hones in on some deep truths. Doppler is relatable in a way that Gump’s cloying naivety (both in the books, and especially in the film) sometimes isn’t, but Doppler’s selfish qualities, which he hides behind the excuse that ‘people don’t like him and he doesn’t like people’, make him an uncomfortably sympathetic character.
A love of nature and comfort with his own company may lie behind Doppler’s self-imposed exile, but it’s clear that the real motivation is quite simply that he has come to hate the responsibility that comes with having a job and a mortgage and a wife and children that are obsessed with Lord of the Rings and Bob the Builder, something we’ve all felt at some time. It isn’t true that he doesn’t get on with people, because Doppler makes friends easily enough, including the man who catches him trying to steal a giant Toblerone, and later the man trying to rob his house in middle of the night. Early on in his exile, he befriends an elk calf, orphaned after Doppler puts a knife through its mother’s throat, using the meat to trade for milk in the local supermarket. He and the calf, whom he christens Bongo (after his father, except his father wasn’t called Bongo), become the best of friends, sleeping and eating together, and putting the world to rights in decidedly one-sided conversations (just the way Doppler likes it).
Loe uses Doppler to cock a snook at modern consumerism, but the book is also about absent fathers (dead or in self-imposed exile). Dusseldorf, the owner of the over-sized chocolate, distracts himself from reality by burying himself in making a model recreation of his German father’s death in Ardennes during the Second World War. Doppler does the same by fixing his attention over many months on building a totem pole as a monument to his father. Gregus, Doppler’s young son, misses having his father around and chooses to join him the forest, riding around on Bongo and annoying Doppler with inconvenient questions.
I finished reading the book whilst staying at my in-laws cabin near Sjusjøen, where there actually lived a recluse, Lambert Olestadengen, better known as Ludden. He moved up to the mountains and lived as a hermit from 1915 to 1955, living off the plentiful berries and what he could fish and hunt, trading the surplus in the nearest town for everything else. His hut still stands as a tourist attraction, maintained by the Brøttum History Society, as does his fish hut, which stands on a small island in the middle of the lake near our cabin, Kroksjøen.
As I read Doppler, I couldn’t help but draw parallels with Ludden. Then I came across this quote from Ludden, which I think sums up Doppler’s philosophy too: “What people call civilisation is creeping ever further into the mountains… So be it – I don’t want to shut the mountains off to anybody. I just move further into the mountains as modern times approach.”
Both Ludden and Doppler, for similar reasons at very different times, indulged in an escapism that many may occasionally dream of, but few have the guts or the selfishness to follow through. Ludden’s hermit adventure ended with his death in 1955, Doppler’s (along with Bongo’s and Gregus’) continues in the sequel, Volvo lastvagnar, which I am very much looking forward to reading....more
Told through the eyes of Tony, a regretful 60-year-old divorcee, The Sense of an Ending is a short, deeply meditative story about a story – about howTold through the eyes of Tony, a regretful 60-year-old divorcee, The Sense of an Ending is a short, deeply meditative story about a story – about how we constantly make stories of our own lives in order to make sense of the things that have happened and are happening to us.
The novel begins with the all too recognisable artless naivety of youth, as Tony and his trio of friends, including Adrian, the new, enigmatic addition to the gang, find their places within their clique and the wider world as they go off to university. It’s at university that Tony meets his first proper girlfriend, the strange but captivating Veronica, changing his once reverential relationship with Adrian forever and setting in motion the series of events culminating with the writing of a drunken, angry letter that causes Tony a great deal of regret in his old age.
This an inward-looking book, satirising the falsely neat narrative events ‘of the people in you normally read about in novels’, with an inward looking man at the centre of the story. Tony reflects back on fractured, unreliable memories, obscured by time and emotion, dissecting snippets of actions, events and words, trying to figure out his place in the story and what might have been different if he hadn’t have been one of those people that just let life happen to him.
Having not read the other books on the 2011 Man Booker short-list, I can’t say whether The Sense of An Ending was a deserving winner, but I can see why it won the prize. There is a lot of humanity within this book, by which I don’t mean that the characters treat each other particularly humanely – they really don’t – but that it offers painfully realistic examples of how people really are. The fragility of Tony’s emotions and his frustration with his memory – just what did that tiny gesture by Veronica’s mum mean 40 years ago? Did it mean anything? – was something I readily saw in myself as I lived through his story, Feeling this sympathy for Tony helped I think, because on the whole he isn’t a particularly likeable character – quite possibly because he, and his selfishness, is all too real.
In life, as in this book, many issues would resolve themselves if people just sat down and talked things through. Instead, what usually happens is that things are left unspoken. We often expect people to just *get it* and get angry, resentful and frustrated when they don’t. One of the most poignant moments in the novel is Tony hearing some news that undermines the entire narrative he has concocted for all that has happened to him, and all he can think about is how thin-cut chips are better than pub-style thick-cut ones because they keep the salt better and are less ‘potatoey’. Where the mind takes us is often where we don’t want it to.
I went to a talk by Philip Pullman a while back, where he suggested that having a good, interesting story to tell at your death is what gives life meaning. That resonated with me, and The Sense of an Ending had me thinking about this idea again. Tony’s story is filled with regret, and he was all too aware that his story was his own; it bore little or no relation to the story of those whose lives were tangled with his, showing just how much of our lives are lived inside our heads. ...more
Based on, or ‘inspired by’ shocking cases like that of Josef Fritzl, Room is the story of a boy, Jack, born and raised with his captive mother in a 12Based on, or ‘inspired by’ shocking cases like that of Josef Fritzl, Room is the story of a boy, Jack, born and raised with his captive mother in a 12 foot square room. Narrated by the boy himself, it’s a child’s eye view of a small world housing a great deal of imagination, pain and love.
Packed with the emotional punch and occasional humour that comes with having a child narrator, comparisons will inevitably be drawn to John Boyne’s The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas. In my opinion, Room surpasses that book because the protagonist feels more real; Donoghue accomplishes the job of not only getting inside the head of a child, as Boyne very cleverly, but more cloyingly did, but she also has a protagonist who’s only experience of the world is a television with four fuzzy channels and his mother’s stories, which adds a whole new, tougher and more horrific, dimension.
In describing the lives of these two captives in this tiny room, Donoghue exercise as much, if not more, imagination than creators of entire universes, like Tolkien. The tiny attention to detail paid to their room and Jack’s description of it, makes it an all too real and terrible place.
It’s not really a plot-driven book, although I found my heart racing on several occasions, desperate to find out what happens to this dear, naive little boy. It is definitely a book that is difficult to write about with revealing spoiling for those who are yet to enjoy it. At its core I guess it’s about the indomitable human spirit, but there is a palpable sadness and desperation that makes gripping but painful reading. There is more violence contained in a muttered line about cork floorboards than a dozen Bret Easton Ellis novels put together, a true testament to Donoghue’s skill at creating empathy for Jack and his mother.
Room definitely deserves its place on the Booker Prize short-list but it is far from perfect. The focus on the two central characters leaves others in the novel feeling like broadly painted caricatures. There are also some clever post-modern allusions to the cult of celebrity, which provide neat satire, but these are tangled with occasional moments, largely towards the end of the novel, where Jack’s voice feels a just a little too much like the author’s commentary on modern life, rather than simply Jack’s view of the world.
I very much agree with the Audrey Niffenegger quote on the sleeve: “When it’s over you look up: the world looks the same but you are somehow different and that feeling lingers for days”. Several times since finishing the book I’ve wondered about the scale of my own world and what lies beyond it – having never seen them, are the Pyramids only TV? ...more
The Road is ostensibly about a man and boy surviving day to day following an untold apocalyptic event that has left the world barren and shrouded in dThe Road is ostensibly about a man and boy surviving day to day following an untold apocalyptic event that has left the world barren and shrouded in darkness. They are attempting to find salvation by reaching the coast, all the while battling the elements, crippling hunger, other survivors and the voice in their heads saying that they’d just be better off dead.
McCarthy pared down prose echoes the landscape in a way that is at first very difficult to get used but then becomes integral to experience of reading this book. Some of the passages truly are poetic. This book is an example of when less can be infinitely more; when what isn’t said or described is almost more important than what is. This is goes even as far as leaving the characters nameless. It’s a subtle way of allowing ‘the man’ to be any man; it’s not Bob Smith wandering the around, it could be anyone – including you. It doesn’t matter what his name is because it says nothing about who he is at the world’s end.
The simplicity of the sentences belies the complexity of story and the skill of writer and this meticulously realised post-apocalyptic hell feels all too plausible given the current way of the real world. The words bleak and unforgiving in no way do justice to this book. The unremitting misery of the character’s fight for survival can feel as choking as the foul air that they are breathing, but beneath the desperation is a story of true love and hope. There is a touching balance and inter-dependence between innocence of the boy, who has known no other world than the one buried under ash, and the father, who knows full well how it will all end.
The book has a lot to say on our relationship with the world, and particularly man’s drive for survival and proclivity for searching for meaning, when all meaning appears lost. The story works best when it is just the man and boy making their way along the road; I found that some of the subtleties of the meditations on life and god are lost on occasions where they bump into strangers and ‘the message’ seems a little shoe-horned in. That said, these encounters managed to convey more on what it is to be human than countless other entire books.
The end left me with a strong mix of heavily conflicting feelings, and I know that most will not be happy with it for one reason or other. This book will really stay with me for a long time because it is the first that has ever made me genuinely cry from having really cared about the characters, and for that, I can’t praise it enough. ...more
Talking It Over is the story of three people, Stuart, Gillian, and 5th wheel Stuart, caught in a love triangle. Told from each of their perspectives 'Talking It Over is the story of three people, Stuart, Gillian, and 5th wheel Stuart, caught in a love triangle. Told from each of their perspectives 'directly to camera', we learn how the love of each pair develops and ultimately unravels.
Many people have commented that the characters are thoroughly unlikable, but I found their flaws compelling, and thoroughly enjoyed reading about them. I think it is testament to Barnes' keen eye that the characters are so well drawn that they create this dislike; straight-laced Stuart is the tightly wound ball of yarn that unravels with each tug by wily cat Oliver, whilst Gillian looks on twiddling her thumbs. I am sure everyone has a friend who is at heart one of these characters and there's also an excellent supporting cast - the snarky shop assistant is a favourite.
Getting the accounts of each individual in the triangle is occasionally really funny, and adds real poignancy to the story as each person fails to interpret the motivations of the other. Oliver's narration was deliberately wordy, as befitting the character, but Barnes also occasionally lets this slip into the account of the other two which I found a little frustrating.
Whilst the endings is a little over-wrought, this was really enjoyable book and I will certainly seek out the sequel.
In a sense this is very much what you would expect of a Chuck Palahniuk novel: inventive narration (more of which later), outlandish characterisation,In a sense this is very much what you would expect of a Chuck Palahniuk novel: inventive narration (more of which later), outlandish characterisation, gratuitous sex and violence and biting, if a little heavy handed, satire.
The story is told in the Pidgin English of a child terrorist agent from an unknown communist state, who has been dispatched to America to infiltrate an all American family and commit an act of terrorism designed to bring the country to it's knees.
First things first: the narrative. Using broken English allows Palahniuk to ignore any form of subtlety (which has never been too much of a concern for him anyway) and be nothing less than brutal in sending up Western consumerism and American culture. The language does take a while to get use to; the tone is a little uneven, and I found it took longer to read than most novels because I was constantly re-reading passages in order to make sense of them. I didn't mind this too much however as on the whole I thought it worked very well and was quite cleverly used.
However, revealing the story as a series of reports back to the homeland doesn't really work when we have to recap events the precede the visit to America in order to get some back story on the character - it was an unnecessary distraction from the story, and as I've written in other reviews of Palahniuk's books, just one idea too many.
It says a lot for the book it is the language rather than the story itself that has driven much of this review, which is shame a because I actually really enjoyed it. Pygmy makes for a pretty complex character despite the mechanised personality drummed into him, and there is a palpable sense of tension and Operation Havoc draws near. The trials and tribulations of the adoptive family make for great, if at times cartoonish, reading.
** Spoiler alert **
Some of the violence is just half a step away from being too far; the encounter between Pygmy and the clear-yellow bully makes for brutal reading, but then, through the eyes of Pygmy, the massacre in the gym takes on an almost comical tone.
** Spoiler ends **
The jacket describes the book as a comedy, which might be a bit of a stretch, although it did score a pretty high wry-smile count. An excellent take on Western imperialism and his finest book since Fight Club, but that's not the ringing endorsement it should be, given some of the uneven dross in between....more
Written as a series of letters between two employees at a Staples stationary outlet (and later various members of their friends and families), this isWritten as a series of letters between two employees at a Staples stationary outlet (and later various members of their friends and families), this is a story of one man's battle with himself and his mid-life crisis and a young goth finding out who she is under all her make up.
It's touching and clever as the beginning of the book unfolds as letters between the two main characters, but the novel falls apart as more and more letters are flying around in order to incorporate more characters in to the mix; it all becomes a little unbelievable.
I normally hate stories within a story as they're usually too knowing for their own good but I really enjoyed them here, Glove Pond and Toast are fantastic swipes at the pretensions that drown writers.
The book is full of neat observations; one of the character's musings on what it means to be you and what part of 'you' is alive are brilliant, but it's also littered with unnecessary 'zeitgeisty' references to google and youtube, which feel a little contrived and like Coupland is clutching for something that made Generation X so good.
This the story a guy from a small, backwards town in middle America and his obsession with poisonous animal bites, rabies and his involvement in PartyThis the story a guy from a small, backwards town in middle America and his obsession with poisonous animal bites, rabies and his involvement in Party Crashing, driving around deliberately crashing your cars into other players.
It's actually about much, much more than that, which is ones of the problems with the novel - there are just too many ideas and it's hard to keep track of them all and get them to make sense. Some of the concepts could easily have been fleshed out into complete novels in themselves, instead of being jammed together in this incohesive whole.
The oral history narrative is a neat device that allows the author to mess with the reader's head, but it doesn't always work as the story still unfolds in the conventional, linear beginning-middle-end style (sort of; saying more will spoil the plot).
That said, it's still a Chuck Palahniuk book, which means it's still full of hilarious pitch black humour, super-sharp observations and neat aphorisms. ...more
Though lesser known than 1984, and certainly less ingratiated into modern vernacular than Orwellian NBrilliant, no idea why I left it so long to read!
Though lesser known than 1984, and certainly less ingratiated into modern vernacular than Orwellian Newspeak, Brave New World certainly matches it as a book of brilliance and frightening prescience.
What strikes you most when reading this book is that, like 1984, you can see parallels and examples all around you. Huxley covers more ground than simply totalitarian dystopia/anti-utopia(?, there is examination of the potential course of 'civilising' society, the role of science, genetic engineering, the fate of religion if it was left to Dawkin's 'Brights', rampant consumerism; the list is endless.
The book is full of gems that that strike a deep resonance: "God isn't compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness. You much make your choice.".
Ultimately, this book is about what it means to be human. Everyone at some point has contemplated the answer, and everyone at some point should read this book
This Vintage Classics edition also includes an excellent introduction which helps place the novel in it's post-Great War context, and a short biography which reveals the life of the man behind this extraordinary novel.