Category Archives: dystopia

soma

Built Ford Tough: Brave New World

I have this little theory — a “little theory” being one of those half-assed ideas one has that won’t stand up to scrutiny — that a person can have either a Macbeth English major or a Hamlet English major. I myself had theMacbeth kind, having read the Scottish play three times for various classes during undergrad, and never once Hamlet. (In fact, I have never read Hamlet, though I’ve seen it maybe a dozen times.) That Macbeth was the thing when I was in school says something about the pulse of that moment in time. Maybe it’s too histrionic to see something in my profs choosing the Macbeths and their overreaching pas de deux over Hamlet’s leaderly meltdown during the Clinton era, but then again, maybe not.This little theory falls apart once I factor in the twice-read Tempest or King Lear– it’s silly to decant ones formative Shakespeare into two plays, and then roshambo — but like all little theories, I do cleave to it inordinately.

To stretch this little theory a bit, I see this kind of small theoretical split in a bunch of sub-genres: The Yearling or Old Yeller, in the dead animal department; Monty Python or Hitchhiker’s Guide, in ye 70s British humor department; and for the purposes of this essay, 1984 or Brave New World in your classic dystopia department. People tend to have read one or the other, and if both are read, the one you encountered earliest is the one you prefer. I had a 1984 childhood, finishing that book on a bus back from a school trip to Quebec, and feeling that bullet right in my brain. It’s entirely possible that I would feel the same way about Brave New World if I’d read it at the time — the adolescent brain being what it is — but I didn’t. Instead, Huxley’s classic had to contend with dreary old me, a me that couldn’t ever get a leg over. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy many facets of Brave New World, but just that much of my enjoyment was at arm’s length — ironic, critical, or historical — and not in the moment of narrative. It was worth reading to be read, and not in the reading of it. Ah, my lost youth.

I was honestly surprised at how science fictional the opening was. There’s a whole lot of technobabble and der blinken lights, mouthpiece characters yammering on about how the axlotl tanks work and embryonic division and sleep hypnosis and the like. I feel like — and this could be certainly another “little theory”, but bear with me — contemporary literary fiction tends to avoid hard science trappings, lest one get genre cooties all over one’s magnum opus (cf. The Road, Zone One, et al.) Huxley’s got no squeamishness about that, and his future has the hard patina of 30s futurism, all aeronautics and chemistry. I was recently regaling a friend about Gibson’s “Gernsback Continuum”, and its elucidation of the semiotic phantom of  “American streamline Moderne” that gets the story’s narrator so twitterpated. Which, whoa.

The future of the past is a detritus we all live with — in our nostalgia and anxiety dreams — and it’s odd to see such an early one, such an embryonic one: 1932, before the Great War that informed 1984, before any of the other condensed catastrophes of the world we inhabit now. I found the way Huxley is taking aim at American consumerism — the social engineers are called “Fords”, and there are a variety of almost funny jokes about this — and Soviet authoritarianism — Lenina is our almost heroine — just touching. I can’t imagine a contemporary writer cutting these two things together; they’ve been too solidly set as a dialectic in the interregnum. Plus, none of these things mean the same anymore anyway. I mean, the first Stalinist purges had just happened a few years before Brave New World, but these early purges didn’t involve arrest and death like they would later, starting with the Great Purge of 1936. They were ideological litmus tests, sure, but Stalin had not yet begun to dream of the gulag and all the other nightmares that have since been associated with (at least) Soviet communist. And Ford had not yet begun collaborating with the fucking Nazis, because the Brownshirts were still just vigilante skinheads. Anyway.

The part that made me lose my shit was when our cheerful fordians spend a weekend in the “human reservation” somewhere in the American southwest, probably Arizona, which is peopled with folk who look a lot like the Pueblo people of the American Southwest. Americans certainly have a kinky view of the native peoples of North America: in historical contexts, there’s this spiritual largess afforded conquered people, and in modern ones, an irritation that aboriginal Americans continue to exist. Why do you still keep making claims to shit we legit conquered you for, noble savage? It’s not dissimilar to a British view of colonial artifacts: certainly the Greeks cannot be trusted to caretake the Elgin Parthenon Marbles. Huxley’s description of the reservation hews to this, with an irritation towards pagan “superstition” and general backwardsness, married to a strange in-the-reverse satire of sterile “progress”.

The story of John the Savage — the Englishman born in the reservation — ends up being this completely bananas expression of an inherent Englishness. Though born into the community, he somehow has problems with the language and never quite fits in. (Though, admittedly, some of this is his mom being the town drunk and whore, if you’ll excuse the expression.) I’ve known a lot of children of immigrants, and they know English as well as I; it’s their first language too. He’s given the collected works of Shakespeare at some point, and, like Frankenstein’s monster lurking at the edges of English society, somehow manages to divine the history of Christianity, all the trappings of traditional gender roles, and Romantic love. Which he then hews to when confronted by fordian society, like British culture is something that can be activated by a book, regardless of where you were raised. At least given the right blood quantum, to filch nomenclature from the American reservation.

It’s a trip watching John freak out when the woman he’s decided to courtly love propositions him sexually: omg, good girls don’t even do that!! Casual sex is super bad for you!! I get the impression I’m supposed to agree, and put in context of the fordian society which constantly describes women as “pneumatic” I kinda do, but I really don’t. It’s a false binary: harsh traditionalism or completely freewheeling sluttery. I’m not even going to go into all the feminist virgin/whore stuff, and you are welcome to fill it in yourself. Suffice it to say when John meets his inevitable end [uh, spoiler, except not really, because we can all see where this is going] in a welter of OH DO YOU SEE, I couldn’t do much more than laugh cynically. I was happy just to be done with all the fucking speachifying that typifies the end, good Lord.

I’m just going to note here, briefly, that the racial categories in the fordian society are completely fucked. While there are moments when I felt this was meant satirically, there are at least as many, if not more, where I felt it was not. Emphatically.

So. Strange New World is a trip, and I recommend a pass at it if you’re into the history of science fiction or the social satire, or where those two things connect, but I’ve gotta say it’s not aging too well. While I appreciate the ways Huxley anticipated the soporific effects of media on labor — and, weirdly, the horror of the paparazzi — his satire is bound by the rules of the day, as all satire is. That’s the sad thing about satire, which bites best when it’s specific, situated, in the moment, but then the moment moves on and it’s left as a relic, a joke that has to be explained to get the punchline. Same goes for horror and comedy, which says something about all of them.

Dearly Departed

Dearly, Departed

“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

 

Now, I admit my upbringing was in some ways unorthodox (and in other ways completely not), but this was a favorite aphorism of my mother’s. It comes from the climax of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by St Flannery O’Connor. The Misfit has just murdered an entire family while they were on a road trip, ending in the death of the grandma. She’s a horrible old bitty who doesn’t deserve to be gunned down on the side of the road, but maybe it’s also not the biggest tragedy ever either. But, you know, violence is cathartic and purifying, at least in St Flannery’s brutal theologies, so the horrid grandma has a humanistic epiphany at the barrel of a gun. Baptism by drowning, the last moments as your lungs constrict and your eyelids flash and flutter, reborn as your best self right before you die.

 

I think of this quote every time I encounter something that has all this incredible potential — this heat of possibility — and then it spins out into something more dreary and obvious. Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel has a shitton of potential, for me anyway, being as it is a steampunk zombie novel. Steampunk is maybe more problematic for me, in that I have undertaken its perusal because of my husband’s interests more than my own, but I am all over zombies all day. Both zombie and steampunk narratives often deal in social stratification, though obviously to very different ends. Smooshing them together could be fruitful in examining a rigidly class based society, but I know well enough not to expect such a thing, especially after Deck Z.

 

Occasionally this novel hits a mild frisson of this cultural examination, but mostly it opts for the spunky heroine and glaring infodumps over, like, insight. I was okay with the spunky heroine — she is a creature too ubiquitous to truly criticize — but the infodumps killed me. Apparently (and I use this adverb when I’m being an asshole), peak oil and maybe a nuclear devastation and probably the eruption of the supervolcano under Yellowstone lead to everyone heading south to central America, where some folk recreated the Victorians, and some other folk did not. I just…this was one of many situations where the explanations for the universe killed me, even if the universe did not. I’m going to accept your fictional world if you don’t overexplain, because the minute you do, I’m like, hold the phone. No, no, no. The world-building needed to be shot every day of its life.

 

This aside, Habel did get into some interesting stuff about the ways the lower classes are used against themselves, and as fodder for border warfare as a stand in for class warfare. The set up is that there is a border skirmish between the Vickies and the Punks, and a zombie outbreak has been bubbling in this DMZ, alternately used as biological warfare and “shock and awe”. The zombies in this universe go rabid, but after a time they resettle with their former personalities intact. The zombie soldiers were well realized, suffering both from the trauma of warfare, and from the guilt of their actions while rabid.

 

“Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.”

The problem is sartorial, in the end. Steampunk, maybe at its most basic, must dress a certain way to be steampunk. There will be corsets and umbrellas and bustles, and there must be the cruel social architecture to justify such a costume (cf. the museum exhibit Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century.) Habel does a fair amount of pushback against the social stratification — more than the usual, well, duh, of course a rigidly stratified society is unfair kind you see in steampunk — but I think trips over the skirts of gender politics. Her heroines are the usual spunky middle class ladies who behave almost entirely like modern girls, but there’s all this hand-waving to gender norms that just couldn’t produce such a creature. They put on the clothes, but it didn’t do more than touch their skin.

 

I’ve been burbling along with all my socioeconomic whatnot, and I feel like I should say I totally get that this is a steampunk romance zombie novel written for teens. My bitch isn’t that this book isn’t more than it is. It is what it is, and moreover, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the turns and twists. All this aside, my real problem is the romance between a living girl and a walking decomposing corpse. (Admittedly, these zombies are more desiccated than rotting; still.) Habel honestly gave it the college try, and their courtship — taking place, as it does, like Pyramus and Thisbe, through a wall — was honestly sweet. But it’s like the ultimate catfish to find out that dude’s a corpse who doesn’t have the requisite blood flow to, you know.

 

Tons of women lost their damn minds over Edward Cullen’s cold, lifeless body, so I think there’s probably something to say about the sexualization of undead flesh, especially in teen fiction. (Warm Bodies tried too; ugh.) There could be something here, probably, about love and sexual desire and the death wish in adolescence, etc, but I felt like Habel was too busy selling it as not-gross and self-evidently kinda racist to think this pairing might be squicky. I guess I’m not buying it on those terms, and I can’t get past my shudder at the thought of making out with cold, blue lips. Maybe this could have been twisted in such a way to turn my revulsion back on me, but it wasn’t. I’d pay good money to see such a thing though.

 

And then shoot it every day of its life.

 

So that you would know it was a lady.

 

Sheltered

Review: Sheltered by Ed Brisson and Johnnie Christmas

Sheltered is a perfectly lovely nasty piece of work, a “pre-apocalyptic tale” about all the horrible things people do in preparation for the end of it all. I enjoyed Sheltered immensely, but the first collection (which collects #1-5 of the ongoing comic) has an expectant, waiting quality about it, unfinished, almost unstarted. This dovetails beautifully into the themes of the comic: all of the potential of adolescence untapped and unstable, and how that adolescence slowly, choice by choice, resolves into dreary, irrevocable adulthood. Boo yah.

Sheltered first introduces us to Victoria and her father David. They’re newish members to the prepper community of Safe Haven, which lives somewhere in the hinterlands of Montana. Vic’s not altogether happy with her new digs, hanging out with Hailey, another teen girl who has been in the community much longer. “At this point I’d kill for a mall,” Vic says ruefully, sitting in a deer blind with a flask. “I hate malls. That’s how desperate I am for any sense of normality.” Her dad — an engineer of some stripe — talks shop with the other adults, obviously not quite with the whole prepper community ethos. There’s a pretty wonderful conversation about pulling permits, which I admit might not resonate for other readers who do not have a contractor’s license.

After the slow pan of the first installment, rolling over the bunkers and principals, we get to it: blank-eyed teenage psycho Lucas somehow gets all the other kids to rise up and kill their parents. The supervolcano over Yellowstone is going to erupt soon, within days — according to Lucas — and the food won’t last the three years necessary to survive the nuclear winter with all the adults alive. Hard times call for hard choices. Lucas’s motivations aren’t lingered on, nor are we given much in the ways of his persuasive arguments for doing this.

I thought about this narrative choice for a long while. It could easily be seen as cheating, rushing this hard to imagine brutality; bang, blood in the snow. But I thought it worked, in the end: this unexplained outbreak of violence in a community that has been preparing for a more explicable outbreak of violence. Plus, I dunno, I like the irony of a community preparing for the worst not being prepared for the very worst. Other than the newcomer Victoria, I get the impression that these kids have been raised with a shadow of doom their whole lives, the constant expectation of violence, and I can almost feel the relief when it arrives. Boom. Here’s your apocalypse.

Some of the mid sections are a little slack, with maybe not the best sense of place. Victoria and Hailey are bunkered down somewhere on the campus, Hailey injured, and I couldn’t quite tell you where their building was in relationship to others. Lucas makes a lot of terrible choices, and tends to respond to even perceived threats to his leadership with violence and cruelty. It works. He’s got the shiny blondness of a cult leader, but he’s still a kid. He’s marshaled his charisma to get the other kids to commit this unspeakable act, but he’s not mature enough or wily enough to manage their grief and guilt. What if you were wrong? What then?

There’s a great sequence where Lucas mansplains to another boy about how he should stop hanging out with a girl because we can’t have any pregnancies and we all have to think about group morale etc etc. His mansplaination goes on waaaay too long, long enough for the other guy to be like, geesh, lay off already, mom, I was just talking. It’s hard to pin Lucas’s motivations here: maybe he believes what he’s saying, but maybe he’s also jealous and frustrated that he hasn’t got any easy joking friendships. He’s clearly cut himself into the loner leader role intentionally, but intentions at that age are mutable and jumpy. When he can’t admit he’s wrong — and he really never can, given the stakes — his only recourse is to double down.

The end of the last installment ends with a truck pulling up, the tall figure of a man flicking his cigarette off into the snow. “Hey kid,” he says to Lucas. “Your parents around?” Boy howdy, they are not. There’s been a lot of scrabbling and missteps by Lucas up to this point, and it’s going to be interesting to see where this situation goes. On some level, a new grown up threat is what Lucas needs, given that the younger kids — like the foul-mouthed little shit Curt — have been acting like kids without parents. (Or even acting like kids with parents, because impulse control is low, parents or not.) If he can cow them into submission with another threat, he might be able to keep this crapshow going long enough for the supervolcano to blow. That’s the American way, after all.

 

Thanks to sj at Snobbery for turning me onto this.

marrows_pit (1)

Marrow’s Pit by Keith Deininger

I’ve read four novellas out of DarkFuse‘s novella series now, and that this is the first that didn’t really do it for me is a pretty great track record. All signs pointed to Marrow’s Pit by Keith Deininger being in my wheelhouse: big, steampunky habitation called the Machine, an authoritarian dystopia with religious overtones, a planet-wide storm called the Maelstrom, a big freaking chthonic Pit of Doom. I mean, look at that gorgeous cover, for crying out loud. Unfortunately, I felt like the all that very cool stuff ended up being used as little more than ornament on a fairly perfunctory infidelity plot.

The horror novella seems to be a perfect thing, in a way: long enough to get some good grist, short enough not to exhaust the spooky possibilities. Here, I don’t know, this seemed to fall in a fallow area. I can imagine this story being relocated to an apartment complex in the Soviet Union – or any other society with a harsh cultural ideology and dense industrial landscapes – without too much tweaking. Some gross and crazy things happen, but I honestly couldn’t tell you whether they were intended to be dream sequences or not, or if that would matter.

While I freely admit that my disappointment is based on false perceptions of the book, I think I could have liked Marrow’s Pit despite my disappointment if the main character held any kind of resonance for me. There’s something clever about creating a character who has these gauzy and indistinct fantasies about revolution getting sidelined so thoroughly by domestic drama. However, schlubby cuckolds with no particular energy don’t turn my crank. Also I straight up do not get that ending. While I can see that it should slash does have meaning, I just can’t access it.

I don’t know. I always feel bad about disliking this sort of thing. It’s not doing anything wrong and I can see how the whole cabbage-redolent dread of the Marrow’s Pit might work for someone else. Better luck next time, I guess.

 

 

I received my copy from the fine folks at DarkFuse and Netgalley. Thanks.

pac-man-ghosts

The Pentrals by Crystal Mack

I received my copy from NetGalley.

The Pentrals starts credibly enough, with a strange first person narration of a girl watching another girl. The vantage is odd and disorienting, and it’s only when you realize that the narrator is the girl’s shadow that the angles lock, and you can finally orient yourself in both space and understanding. The narrator, Antares, is the shadow of Violet, a denizen of the futuristic city of Talline, which gleams from a thousand mirrored surfaces in a canyon in the desert. The Pentrals of the title refers to beings of shadows or reflections, which in the supernatural architecture of the novel, are sentient beings enacting penance for something done in another life.

As a set up, this is neat stuff: the brightness of the future city juxtaposed against the Gothic shadow, the doppelganger reading and commenting on the bright lived life through its negative image. Unfortunately, this tense imagery is squandered, and quickly. Not only does The Pentrals deny the reader much in the way of resolution, but the basic mechanics of both the supernatural world of the Pentrals and the society of Talline are so confused (or, often, downright stupid) that any resolution is close to meaningless. Altogether, this was one of the more frustrating novels I’ve read in a while.

[From here on out, what I talk about might be considered spoilers, though much of it occurs in the first half of the book. I’ll note more clearly when I’m talking about end-of-the-book situations. The marketing materials are so vague, though, that really anything beyond the basic concept might be considered spoilers.]

I would first like to grouse about the taxonomy of the Pentrals. Antares tells us pretty early on that Pentrals are split into four classes. Class one is for immobile objects, like buildings, and we are informed this stationary changelessness drives the class one Pentral insane. Class two is for living things, like people (and presumably animals, but this isn’t made explicit). Antares, as a class two, considers herself an artist, watching closely and mirroring her Person with pride and experience. Class three is *cough cough* and class fours are in charge of the whole business somehow. This is all well and good, and I’m willing to ignore questions like, “How does Antares know this if she had her memory wiped when becoming a shadow?” or even deeper issues like, “Why is Antares so surprised when she’s told her existence is a kind of afterlife late in the book, when she told us the very same thing at the very beginning?”

My real issue is this: what kind of moral system requires the cruel, unending servitude of sentient creatures to literally stand in for natural processes in numbers that are both fixed and arbitrary? Class one is a punishment. Does that mean the number of people to be punished are always pegged to the number of indivisible things in the world? If I tear a sheet of paper in half, does a soul previously unpunished pop into servitude? That’s a shitty moral system, and I thought the unconditional election of Calvinism was bad. Moreover, is a teapot with a lid one shadow or two? A drop of the ocean divisible from the ocean? What about the shadows of rain? (Zen has some things to say about this.) In addition to being morally dodgy, this system is physically unworkable, calling up questions of the very ontology of thing-ness.

There’s also what I would like to call the Thomas the Tank Engine Effect. (I have just now coined this term for all of literary criticism. You’re welcome.) In addition to having a whole mess of Anglican guilt tripping over productivity, the Thomas the Train stories always drove me crazy because of the concept of sentient trains who also often appeared to have drivers. The class four Pentrals sidestep much of the guilt tripping by having Antares not even know what she is performing penance for – which, why would this be effective, morally speaking? whatever – but the problem of sentient trains with drivers continues.

Antares is lonely and in some ways miserable at the start of the novel, her actions completely determined by another being. Even though she has agency – she can pop out at night and party with the neighbors – she’s not allowed to use it due to inexplicable reasons. Her lifeless life is nothing compared to the inhuman misery of shadowing a building or a coma patient. So, why is it again that the class ones do not rebel and squirt off into the void like a set of troublesome trucks? Sure, we are told by our somewhat unreliable narrator that there would be consequences, but I gotta say, oblivion sounds better than the unending torture of being a class one. Leaving natural processes in the hands of tortured creatures who do not know the meaning of their torture seems a sad way to run a physical universe, to put it mildly.

Either shadows are the voids in the transmissions of the particle/wave of light or they are not. General relativity and Einstein’s light theory are referenced in the text, so scientific rationalism is a thing, as they say. So what we have here is a sentient train run on tracks with a driver, who is somehow still responsible for both the tracks and the decisions of the driver. And all this in a system where the class fours seem even more ineffective and bureaucratic than Sir Topham Hatt, which is saying something. He at least knew how to shame with consummate Englishness. The class fours are just inscrutable assholes.

But, okay, let’s just say that I’m overthinking this, as usual, and set this pseudo-philosophical wingeing off on a shelf. Very rapidly, it becomes apparent that Talline, in addition to having sentient shadows, is also a classic dystopia. While everything gleams and there doesn’t appear to be strife, the citizenry of Talline are unhappy and demoralized. Violet’s mother doesn’t appear from her room for days, and the teachers at the high school are similarly wan and drear. Everyone scarfs down Lifts! - the exclamation point is standard – a mood-altering drug which affects even the shadow of the person taking it. (When the shadow Antares manages to shake off the effects of the drug through willpower, I was deeply frustrated. So here’s a drug that can affect even the sentient shadow of a person – nevermind how – and then that drug can be overcome through thinking? Whatever.)

Children appear to be immune to whatever dystopic machinations, and even our deeply blythe and irrational main character can sort out the depression begins affecting people on their seventeenth birthdays. An assorted number of people also appear to be immune, which marks them in Scooby Doo style as either The Bad Guy or Stool Pigeons. The relationship between the dystopia and the Pentrals is both annoyingly vague and drearily obvious, and then ultimately pushed off to the next book like so much else. This is some tissue thin plotting, friends, and it still cannot be contained in one novel.

I’m not going to get into the exact mechanism for the dystopia, even though it seems blindingly obvious to anyone with even an ounce of sense – cough evil pharmaceutical company cough –  but that mechanism is so ridiculously contrived, superficial and fragile that its laughable. The rule for dystopia has to be that on some level it’s believable, even if that belief is based on irrational societal fear more than, like, strict plausibility. This one could be picked apart by dozens of things – photography, human curiousness, dark sunglasses, a visit to the doctor, not being a superficial git, a well-placed blanket, to name a few – and is based on such a low level and superficial human fear, that I don’t even know what to say.

Which brings me to another thing, namely, where (or possibly when) in the hell are we? I couldn’t tell you with any force of conviction whether Talline is even on planet Earth, or instead some kind of dystopia planet. It was well late in the book where I even figured out that Talline refers not to the country (or possibly planet, who knows?) but to a single city that can be gotten to by people outside the city, even if it is somewhat onerous, maybe. What do these people do for a living? How even do the evil overlords enforce whatever magical/physical parameters of the dystopia? Why is everyone so damn dumb?

And then there’s a love triangle. Don’t even get me started.

I don’t know, guys. I’m willing to give a lot of latitude to young adult dystopias slash paranormals, because metaphor is often more important than mechanics when dealing with the metamorphosis of adolescence.The Pentrals managed to botch both of those genres, piling up dubious imagery on top of a shaky scaffold and watching queasily while the whole thing shakes. Neither Antares nor Violet are interesting characters, and the few characters with flashes of liveliness – Sam, the evil queen – have just moments of screen time. For a narrative that seems to warn about the dangers of superficiality, The Pentrals managed not even to scratch the surface.

In your shitty, obvious metaphor department.

Boom.

 

 

 

 

Tankborn by Karen Sadler: A World More Interesting Than Its Plot

When my Grandma was a girl, she was told by a Catholic priest that Protestants had tails hidden under their clothes. Maybe they had cloven hooves too, or that might have been Jews, but either way, Protestants weren’t rightly human. I don’t think my Grandma ever went so far as to believe this, so I can’t tell some fun story about how she was surprised by my Protestant grandfather’s tail-free posterior when they married. Plus, obviously, she married my Protestant grandfather. (And Grandma was raised in Homestead, PA, which was very pluralistic, not a priest-run village in County Clare or whatever, just to note how easy it was to debunk such information, yet how such disinformation persisted within her Catholic community.) So when I went to roll my eyes when Kayla in Tankborn by Karen Sadler is told that if she, as a Genetically Engineered Non-human, touches a trueborn, her skin will bruise and bubble, I checked myself. Of course that is an incredibly stupid idea with zero basis in reality, but humans regularly believe such things. And while Homestead in the 1920s had a caste system like any other American city, it was no where near as rigidly enforced as the one in this novel. 

Kayla and Mishalla are GENs on the post-Earth planet Loka on the eves of their matriculation at the start of the novel, and the plot follows their assignments out of the GEN ghetto into the larger world. GENs are the bottom of the heap of a caste system, genetically engineered slaves who were introduced into society 75 years before when the lowborn – the children of the original indentured servants when the colony was being settled – revolted against continuing hereditary indenture (or what we like to call slavery.) The slaves revolted, so the highborn of Loka made a new class of slaves. The complex hierarchical social and economic system is very much the selling point of this novel, as this information I’ve parceled out in a couple of sentences is something I came to slowly, through (mostly) Kayla’s vantage point as she navigates her society. Loka is richly textured, with various competing homegrown religions and cultural norms, and Sandler doesn’t infodump or downtalk, assuming the reader can catch up to the barrage of new terminology and ideas. 

While I don’t think a dystopian society has to be entirely plausible to be effective - Divergent, for example, has a hugely stupid societal structure, but manages to resonate as a kind ofemotional experience of adolescence – it was enjoyable to see a fictional society that wasn’t just plausible, but grounded in (mostly not-junky) science fictional elements and attention to detail. Loka is pretty much the American colonies crossed with an Anglo-Indian caste system, but the culture itself isn’t leaning too hard on either of these places, culturally speaking, synthesizing them into something new and strange. This reminded me a little of God’s War - especially the weird indigenous life of the planet – but God’s Waris waaaay more hardcore in a number of ways. 

My reservations with Tankborn all stem from the plotting of this novel, which relies far too much on information withheld from the main characters (for no apparent reason) and stunning revelations that maybe only stun our protagonists. Kayla ends up in the employ of a cranky old Lokan scientist with seeekrets and a GEN-like tattoo on his check – gasp, why would any highborndo that – while Mishalla works at a crisis nursery for orphan lowborn children – but with seeekrets. Just about everything that happens appears to be engineered by the cranky old guy, down to the chance-looking meeting between Kayla and her eventual love interest (and his great-grandson) on the banks of the GEN ghetto river. And while he (and the seeekret organization you learn he belongs to) appear to be able to engineer the most frankly ridiculous coincidences, he chooses very convoluted and bizarre ways to parcel out information to Kayla and his great-grandson. While there are culturally cogent reasons for this not to happen, sorta, I frustrate with plots that could be solved with a simple phone call. 

The parallel love stories between the GEN girls and and their trueborn paramours was also not hugely successful. I’m not criticizing the dystopian love story – let us all remember that 1984in many ways hinges on the romance between Winston and Julia before we start snarling about YA dystopian romances and how girl readers are ruining fiction – it’s just that Kayla’s relationship seemed awful sudden, overcoming scads of cultural conditioning much more severe than someone telling Grandma Fran once that Protestants had horns. Mishalla’s whole plot line was much more truncated, and therefore that much more sudden. It would have been nice to see something other than a love relationship be the impetus for cultural revelations, is all, and the fact that there are two very similar trajectories for the GEN leads seems like a wasted opportunity. (Though, I will note I really liked the sequence where Mishalla spends an afternoon passing for trueborn, and the thrill, danger and disappointment that flows from that.) 

The book-ending revelations felt a little well, duh, though I do get that that they would be huge, game-changing ideas for the leads. It’s maybe tough to hide the football of the GENs origins to an SFFnal readership, and I appreciate that walking a tightrope between reader’s expectations and character’s more limited vantage is a thing. Some of the book-ending revelations also felt, as the saying goes, problematic. I’m not even kidding when I say the following information is a serious spoiler.

Turns out, both Kayla and Mishalla were lowborn children who were stolen while toddlers and implanted with the GEN technology to make them GENs. The science here starts to fall apart for me, because while we’re told the genetic stock for the GENs is degrading or something making child-theft a sensible solution, I don’t buy it. The evil scientist in me was like, you could totally buy eggs from lowborn women or just sneak them out of IVF clinics or something; they don’t need to resort to trafficking which is a huge logistical pain in the ass. There’s a whole ethical grey zone right now surrounding these technologies, not even getting into tanks gestating children and whatnot. That Kayla and Mishalla aren’t exactly GENs felt frustrating, because while the obvious take-home is that GENs are people too!, we’ve just imbued our GEN protagonists with a secret nobility – they are not actually tankborn, but trueborn. So should I continue to believe all the racist shit about GENs – it is explicitly stated that animal DNA is used in their creation – because our spunky heroines have not been tainted by that origin? Do the Protestants still have their tails? Obviously not, but, again, it just felt like a wasted opportunity, because one could be trueborn, and one tankborn, and then the point could have been much less ambiguous. People are people, etc.


So, all told, an interesting novel, one that in many ways avoids the occasionally sloppy societal construction of the contemporary young adult dystopia, but unfortunately fails to seize on the opportunities suggested by its carefully constructed society.  

Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC.

Tethered by Meljean Brook: An Epistolary Review

Dearest Elizabeth,

I was thinking just yesterday of all the fun times we’ve shared, but especially how many letters I’ve sent you detailing my courtship with my amazing and perfect husband. Of course, not everything was amazing and perfect at first, as I’m sure you can recall. He’s an artist, of all things, and I just can’t abide all that girly drawing. I mean, I work in a male dominated profession, and it’s extremely threatening to me to have a guy hanging around questioning my authority with his feelings and stuff; how will my painting crew ever take me seriously? Certainly years of experience mean nothing when a woman in authority has an artsy boyfriend. I mean, the man uses product. Srsly.

So, Richard and I were hanging around, communing wordlessly using our eyes the way we do, when the most terrible thing happened! The set up is a little confusing, and in truth, even though it just happened I can’t really track the details, but the upshot is this: a college friend of his looked him up on facebook, and then after all the friend requests were sent and accepted, the college friend totally hacked Richard’s account and started posting all this bad stuff! He liked both Nickelback and Justin Bieber using Richard’s account! Who even does that?

Now, you know that Richard is an artist, but he’s also an 3133t h4xor, which, I might point out, is totally gender normative so I don’t even know why I was being so weird about the art thing. Anyhoo, He totally spray-painted some keyboards with camo like in the movie Hackers, and we were ready to roll with our boss plans to rehack the account and give the college douchebag some well earned comeuppance.

the hackers in the movie hackers huddled around a computer screen

Now, at this point in the letter, I believe it is customary actually to detail all the awesome ways we defeated the college douchebag, up to and including fun evil monologuing from the bad guy, but really we just kicked him into the ship’s engine and totally won using our wordless eye-gazing powers. And we didn’t kick him into the engine in a cool way, like when Malcolm Reynolds does it to that one dude after they’ve messed up the train heist for Nisca, but in a way that blows the narrative tension in our big rehacking takedown mission. Also, the bad guy lived on this really sweet sounding dystopian community, but I’m not going to tell you about that either. I’m going to tell you more about my eye-gazing superpowers and how me and Richard really love giving each other matching guns. Actually, he got an air-rifle this weekend and we had a really good time shooting at pop cans, and then we had some mildly kinky sex because I’ve got some real issues with male authority so that means that [letter redacted at this point].

[Still redacted]

[Still redacted]

Phew, that was hot, amirite? I mean, who doesn’t want to hear about how Richard and I have a love that is more love-like than any love that has ever loved before? And how our relationship is such a vortex of perfection that you can literally kick a bad guy into it and kill him? Or possibly I mean figuratively. Words were never my strong suit, and certainly now that I’ve got all this wordless eye-gazing going on, I’m out of practice.

So we launched all zig, we saved the princess, and then we deleted all reference to Two and a Half Men from Richard’s facebook page. Then we went upstairs and [still redacted].

Thanks for being such a great friend. I’m really hoping my next letter, which will be about Richard’s amazing sister, will be much more enjoyable.

Blood Red Road by Moira Young

If I had read Blood Red Road by younger, I would have loved this. People say stuff like this all the time, and sometimes it’s a dig. You know, the old saw about how teens are stupid and they cannot differentiate good writing from bad so we as older readers should either a) not read books directed at the teen market or b) not judge it according to the literary standards of books aimed at adults. A pox on both ideas. I don’t think we should just hang out in our little genre marketing ghettos: I only read YA, you only read sewious literary fiction, she only reads mysteries, etc. I don’t think we should let marketing labels dictate our reading choices. 

I also predict that this book is going to be compared to Hunger Games a lot, and some of those comparisons are going to be in the “this is a rip-off” strain. No. The Hunger Gamesis many good things, but it did not invent the post-apocalyptic landscape. When The Hunger Games came out, lots of people pointed a Japanese manga book I had never heard of called Battle Royale. I thought they were talking about Ellison’s Invisible Man, and the short story that comes out of it, called “Battle Royal”. (Which, now that I think of it, would make an interesting compare/contrast with The Hunger Games.) I had been out of reading YA long enough that I had no idea what these critics were talking about, because I thought of an Ice-T movie from the early-90s? called Surviving the Gamewhere suckas try to hunt Ice-T on an island, and he totally hands them their asses, because he is Ice-T. Then there’s other stuff like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome or Lord of the Fliesor, well, you see where this is going. And also, just recently a friend of mine pointed out the connection between The Hunger Games and the Theseus story, what with the tributes and the fighting. Anyway, the point I am trying to make is that whatever genre commonalities this has with The Hunger Games, or The Road, or whatever else I just mentioned, this book is its own thing in terms of narrative voice and landscape, and that is all there is to it. 

 Blood Red Roadstarts incredibly strong, written in dialect that took me maybe 3 pages to get over. I am no fan of dialect, except in some notable cases, but I thought it completely worked here. The language was stripped down, conversational, without the ornament of apostrophes and other punctuation; just the unhatched thoughts of an unhatched person. Wonderful, really. And the description of landscape, be still my beating heart. Much of what I love about post-apocalit is the landscapes it writes into being, all this prosperity and functionality of our modern world run to dust and a lone chimney standing up out of the ruin of nature run its course. I don’t even want to speculate on why I find this appealing, because there is something self-annihilating, society-annihilating in my affections. The patchwork houses, the patchwork clothes, an anecdote about a bit of an airplane used to patch the roof that flew away because it remembered its function, despite the fact that the protagonist doesn’t really believe in airplanes, all this was wonderful to me. 

Anyway, there’s sequence very early on with our protagonist walking through dunes that keep shifting to reveal a ruined settlement, or the bones of an airport, and the shift and dusty beauty of that knocked me over. And the set up leaves me breathless too: a set of twins, a sister, a lost mother, a physically present but absent father, all living out their familial trauma in the bare edge of land with no one but themselves for company. One of the twins is taken, and his twin sister goes to get him back. She is twitchy and weird, as those raised in that kind of claustrophobic environment would be, and I really enjoyed her single-mindedness and social ineptness. 

But, and I’m really sorry to say this, I think Blood Red Roadblows off course at about mid-point. The sequences in the ugly city; the human-trafficking; the brittle, painful conversations whispered between prisoners in an unfair system that values human life only in the taking of it: this is what I loved about this book. By mid-point these things had been wrapped, and we start in on a love story and a continuing chase that I had very little interest in. I know, I know, some of this is age on my part. The plot still moves pretty quickly, despite several needless interactions between our heroine and her love interest that are repetitive and cliche. But there was something compelling to me in how isolated her upbringing was, something weird and unknowable about it, and I didn’t think she would behave in these broad tough-girl mannerisms that she does, especially later in the book. She would not want to ditch her younger sister as often as she does, because her younger sister would be one of the few human she understands. I feel like maybe the characterization lost its moorings in the reality of the environment, instead drawing on the character traits of the imagined readership. 

Frankly, I have no idea if this is a bad thing entirely, even though I think it weakens the character. Just to refer to a) and b) in my first paragraph. Much as I grumble about genre distinctions that divide readerships, I understand that I may not be included in the intended readership of this book. The concerns of the protagonist felt like they drift into the formula for teen romance. While I do not enjoy this formula, it might ring true for other readers. Additionally, I thought the denouement was swift, cheap, and hackneyed, and the set-up for the next book contrived and obvious. Sssst. 

I don’t want to end on a bad note, because this is still a strong and worthy book. The language is impressive; the landscape dangerously beautiful. Clunky though the ending was, I do look forward to more walks within this world, with its shifting sand dunes that reveal and conceal, the chimneys of our modern world standing mute in the green growing and the red dust. I look forward to where this story might go, given how strong the voice is now. Let’s hope it only gets stronger. 

Born to Darkness: Compromises that Work

Another day, another plane read. 

Born to Darkness by Suzanne Brockmann was on the deck due to one of those library displays that I both drat and keep falling for. This turned out well better than I’d hoped, an extremely active little story that lets the characters just barely get out their conversations before the next twist bang bang shoot shoot. The set up is a cross between X-Men and Wild Cards, where a very limited number of people, the Greater-Thans, have a “metal integration” much higher than your average person’s, allowing then to do things like violate physics and read minds and stuff. Of course, there is a group of good guys, and a group of bad guys, and the bad guys are producing a drug which induces higher integration, yet also has the side effect of making its users batshit insane, or “jokering”. Which is what reminded me of Wild Cards, I’ll have you know. 

As a sort of cross between science fiction and the romance novel, the story occasionally fails the way a compromise can. There are three romantic pairings, an abduction to solve, and a whole Second Great Depression America to sketch here, in addition to fight and love scenes, and that the story hurtles along the way it does is no small feat. While the sex scenes did not gross me out or make me laugh, I was occasionally irritated by the lovers and their simultaneous orgasms – seriously, get out of the damn way, lovers, and explain the mechanism by which the whole “integration” thing works instead of experimenting with bjs. 

But! Because of the sometimes romance novel sensibility, Born to Darkness tackles some issues I can’t imagine a straight science fiction writer – and I kind of mean the double entendre there – taking on with success. One of the Greater-Thans, the unfortunately nicknamed “Mac”, has as one of her powers the ability to thrall sexually any person who swings towards girls. When we meet her, she’s full adult and aware of her powers – down to using them seriously unethically, seriously – but as a teen when her powers were first presenting, there was a fair amount of ugliness and violence as people – including her own father, yuck - respond to her unwitting transmission of sexual power. 

Mostly this backstory is used as an impediment to her romance with hot SEAL dude – the Navy thing, not a selkie. Oh noes! He might love me only for my super-charged vagina! But that the complex relationship between a woman’s sexuality and sexual violence was addressed at all was really notable. I was just this afternoon stewing because of some comment threads I read about the recent Walking Dead episode – the one where a character is threatened with rape and sexually assaulted – where some commenters were like, it’s realistic that she would be near-raped because obviously men are just waiting for civilization to break down so they can rape to their hearts content. (Of course, leaving aside the realism of walking cannibal corpses, etc.) I just, I mean, I hate the fuck out of this view of both women and men, that justifies sexual violence by conceptualizing male sexuality as this disgusting violent nightmare, and then acting like this view of people is the “reasonable” one. Fuck you assholes. Point being, I guess, that I thought the whole interplay here between sexual violence, coercion, attraction and whatever was an interesting one, even if it was treated kinda topically in the text. 

Because this was not wholly science fiction either, I had some irritations with how exactly the Greater-Than thing worked, but then I also get the impression that this is just the first in series, so information will be parceled out as it comes. The mechanism of the magical/scientific powers was certainly better than a lot of PNR I’ve read, which seems to pull magical rules out of its ass to fit the needs of the romance and not the other way around. (Does that metaphor even work?) The whole post-Depression America thing was kind of a kick, especially because the sensibility seemed a lot less regressive than I usually find in romance novels – the creeping lack of availability of birth control, for example, is seen as the dystopian nightmare it is. 

The ending seems to fall off a cliff of dotdotdot next episode next week. But the nice thing about continuing series is that there isn’t the need to tie off all relationships into perfected bliss, and the almost downbeat conclusion to some of the romantic plotlines was cool and unexpected. (Especially because I almost wanted to barf, given how happy two of them are. Especially given that mind-reading was in the mix. Maybe I’m just a whole-hearted bitch, but there is no way I want even my own husband of 14 years in my mind ever. That is not romantic to me.) Anyway, pretty brilliant plane read, and probably deserving of another star from me just for sheer enjoyment. Shiny.