Julie's Reviews > Golden State

Golden State by Ben H. Winters
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it was amazing
bookshelves: fiction-current, sci-fi-fantasy, mystery

"They are librarians, and they do not fuck around." This is one of my favorite lines in this novel. I'll leave out the context so I don't spoil it for you, but I will say that everyone's permanent record is taken very seriously in this tale.

I liked this novel very much. It had enough twists and turns to keep my interest. Toward the end, it was a real page turner. It was a thoughtful dystopian tale with lots of layers. In reality, all of us buy into the world order we are sold and anyone going rogue gets punished. This strange world the author writes about is not much different than our world except that it demands no one lie and that everyone keep a truthful record of each day. The story is very "1984" but with a lot more paperwork.

While it is a futuristic novel, it had a good old-fashioned who dunnit mystery at its core. How it is handled is different, but the novel is grounded in a context that we recognize as a detective drama. But much more interesting and with far more layers. If I had to give it a genre, I would call it noir-sci-fi.

While its hard to imagine a world without lies, that's exactly the utopia the author invites us into. A utopia that is set in the future, but feels very much based on current events. It's hard to imagine the author wasn't inspired by all the "alternative facts" hurled by the current administration, including the fake news moniker given to all truthful reporting.

This novel has "The Handmaids Tale" kind of vibe minus the misogyny. That was interesting actually, to read a novel without misogyny. A world hellbent on protecting the truth has the same hallmarks as the misogyny in Atwood's novel. The desperation and dogma are just as palpable.

I've read one other novel by this author (Underground Airlines), a futuristic novel that asked what if slavery hadn't ended. There was a big hoopla over the author being a white guy. I like that he didn't let that stop him because we all need to be at the table when it comes to our history, and prejudice is pervasive throughout. The word on the street is that the creators of the HBO series "Game of Thrones" have picked Winters slave tale as their next project to produce for HBO. It's a good choice. Winters knows how to build tension in a dystopian thriller and most importantly he knows how to end a novel. That's so important as high-wire act type of stories are easy to start and play with, while ending them is not. Winters knows how to end a story, so I came in confident that he wouldn't leave me hanging with this one.

The story's introduction was intriguing, but I wasn't sure in which way when I first read it. Was it being strait laced or somewhat more engmatic? Upon completing the first chapter, I was taken with what a perfect scene the author had drawn to let the reader know the world they had just stepped into. A world where lies are more punishable than stealing.

The novel is mostly in first person with some third person intermissions. A truth defending officer is the protagonist. His lot has special powers to discern when someone is lying. The protagonist has a very strong presence. One gets a deep sense of him early on. The way records are kept and how snippets from real life are reconstructed in this world were fascinating and rang true. It all seemed really grounded.

As the novel unfolds it brings to light how even facts can be used to hide the truth. Flat facts as they are called in this world, can be individually true but when piled together can serve to cover up a yawning darkness. This seems true when looking at history or the dogmas of politics and religion today.

When the protagonist finds a novel, like the one Winters wrote, we are told fiction is an artifact of a world that no longer exists. Novels are now stories about things that actually happened. So Shakespeare is contraband? That's a sobering thought. Especially since fiction is often better at getting its hands on the truth than nonfiction. Winters novel is proof of that.

The dogma of this world, while seemingly noble is still dogma. All dogma is unforgiving and brutal in the end. Even in the service of the truth, brutality can end up being the aim over and above what it seeks to serve. All revolutions, or most anyway, get lost in dogma and end up being something other than what was fought for. The ideal always seems to rot when fear and dogma take the wheel.

At one point in the novel the protagonist muses: Imagine if everyone did it. Imagine if each person was allowed the luxury of claiming their own truth, building a reality of their own in which they can live. Imagine the danger that would pose, how quickly those lies would metastasize the extraordinary threat that would pose to the world.

Now, in light of the current administration and their over-the-top lies about anything and everything, the protagonist's point is one to consider.

As the protagonist weaves through the story, the plot gets wicked thick. There is a courtroom scene with a mad woman that was riveting. It seems there is no room in this world for the mentally ill. In this world, any break from reality is considered a lie. A lie punishable by good old fashioned banishment.

From here, the plot thickens and thickens and thickens until it's hard to stir anymore. A very stiff plot. The facts in this world are just as cagey as the lies of our world.

The novel asks which is more dangerous in the long run: lies or dogma? It seems that dogma and censorship are more damning. And nothing is more dogmatic than to state something as true and then to describe anything that disagrees with that truth as blasphemous.

One has to wonder if a shared reality is even a thing that is possible or if it's rather some holy grail that will never be found, but nonetheless leaves a high body count. Who gets to decide the truth? Is it all just make-believe any time everyone is on the same page?

It seems likely that most of what we take to be true today may be seen as false years from now. Many people today believe in different truths. How do you decipher one truth from another? Or is deciphering just another word for deception in this context?

There is something poetic in the second part of the novel when it states: Our desire to know the whole truth is what makes us human. Our understanding that it can't be known is what keeps us alive.

There is truth to this statement in that none of us will ever know the whole truth in our lifetime. Even knowing who we are is a tough gig. That we think we can understand anyone or anything else completely is cute. It's what makes us human. There will always be moments of betrayal where our innermost truth sits in uneasy disagreement with the agreed upon truth of the world.

Toward the end, there are some great twists that fit with what we know, but are still surprising. It gives the novel a real James Bond vibe, but not formulaic. Just epic and mysterious and treacherous. There is a humorous and poignant bit about a food truck.

Like most futuristic novels, it allows the reader to see the cracks in their own world order. Only when one steps outside to see their world through the eyes of a space alien can one see the cracks. There has never been a better time to read this novel. It's for both fake news lobbers and truth thirsty sobbers. It nails both and we should all be glad that it does.

As far as style, the novel was clean and tight and I have little to critique there as it was done so well I barely thought about the author while reading it. This is the highest compliment I can give.
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Reading Progress

May 3, 2019 – Started Reading
May 3, 2019 – Shelved
May 3, 2019 – Shelved as: fiction-current
May 4, 2019 –
page 66
20.69% "Interesting idea for a novel. Especially in light of the world we live in at the moment of alternative facts and realities. We'll see how this goes, but one can imagine any where dogma rules, even when the dogma is truth, that somehow injustice will be in the drivers seat at some point. The novel shines a light on agreed upon facts. A sticky wicket since facts change over time."
May 5, 2019 –
page 94
29.47% "It's chilling, the dogma of this world. Where artifacts of the world that was (that no longer fit into the definition of the dogma) are destroyed. Something as seemingly benign as a fictional novel is contraband and must be damned to oblivion. One can only imagine Shakespeare relegated to never being known. It's chilling, because fiction is better at telling truth than most nonfiction."
May 6, 2019 –
page 186
58.31% "Power is still a cagey beast in this world of flat facts and reality being what god is now. The plot thickens and thickens and thickens until it's hard to stir anymore. A very stiff plot in a world where maybe truth isn't power but power is power."
May 7, 2019 –
page 275
86.21% "In the homestretch. Good twists and turns."
May 7, 2019 – Finished Reading
May 8, 2019 – Shelved as: sci-fi-fantasy
May 8, 2019 – Shelved as: mystery

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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message 1: by Jenna (new)

Jenna I have to read this book after seeing your opening quote! Love it and this is a very intriguing review.


Julie There were other good lines, but I just especially loved that one. The author has a knack for this genre.


message 3: by Jenna (new)

Jenna I enjoyed his "Underground Airlines". I've added this one to my pile too, thanks for reviewing it : )


message 4: by Angela M (new)

Angela M Julie, terrific review. I have not read this but your opening quote makes me think I should. I’m a retired librarian :)


Andrew Smith Great review, Julie. I really liked this one too.


Julie Jenna wrote: "I enjoyed his "Underground Airlines". I've added this one to my pile too, thanks for reviewing it : )"

Oh, that is cool. It's the one quote that tickled me the most.


Julie Andrew wrote: "Great review, Julie. I really liked this one too."

Andrew, The author is just really good at this genre.


Lark Benobi "They are librarians, and they do not fuck around." This is one of my favorite lines in this novel.

Me too! I loved this novel!


message 9: by JanB (new)

JanB Gotta love that opening line! What a great review!


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