Category Archives: dystopia

Review: Walking Dead: When the Dead Come Walking

from ladybohemian’s Deviant Art

I know that this is probably the wrong reaction to last week’s episode, When the Dead Come Walking, but pretty much all I want to do is ship for Daryl and Carol. I mean, their names even rhyme, and I’m sure without much workshopping, we could come up with a cute name like Bennifer or Brangelina. D’Caryl? ….aaaand a quick search of the Intertubes offers up Caryl, complete with tumblrs, twitter handles, and unbelievably adorable fan art. Holy hannah, but do I love the Intertubes.

Carol’s come a long way from her incarnation in the comics, or even from last season, where she was a dishrag in both incarnations. I can’t rightly remember if she had a daughter in the comics, but mostly last season she got to be distraught mom. But she, like Maggie, has done some amazing work this season, and it’s possible that it’s more the actress than the writing (like Maggie.) The actress who plays Maggie has this big expressive face, all eye-whites and teeth, and her reaction shots absolutely anchor scenes like Rick finding out about Lori’s death or Glenn’s torture. The actress who plays Carol plays it smaller, with more flicks of the eyes and sly humor, but she also just nails the small moments: a look passed to Daryl (♥) before he sets out, the wordless understanding that passes between her and Rick when she meets Asskicker/Judith without her mom. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Walking Dead does so much better when characters don’t talk, but honestly, this is still pretty much up to the actor to bring it.

Which brings me to Michonne. I’m sorry I’ve been doing this so much this season, and I will throw in my hedging that comic and show have diverged so much that nothing I say about the comic could ever be a spoiler for the show, but I’m really bumming that two of my favorites from the comic, Michonne and Andrea, have become so shabby in the show. Andrea was a cold sniper in the comics, competent and hard-edged, and watching her blonde it up so bad with the Governor just depresses me. Michonne…I don’t even want to say this too loudly, but I’m thinking the actress just isn’t up to the task, short of some good physicality when it comes to fight scenes like the one that opens the show. Maybe that scene where she’s interrogated by Rick and Daryl is badly written, maybe not, but comics Michonne was a ton more sly than the bald-faced glowering that went on there, especially considering the smart reaction shot that had her observing the Rickocrats quiet emotional upheaval of Carol’s survival and her revelation of Lori’s death. We should have had moments of quiet and humanity from Michonne at any point to date, but we don’t have much more than nostril-flaring and hard stares.

I am not, nor have I ever been, much of a fan of torture sequences – it’s all so much Sun Tzu by way of 9/11 – and given the whole descent into feudalism we’ve got going on, it feels a little cheap. Which is not to say that Glenn didn’t bring it big time – Merle’s assessment that he’s the sneaky one is pretty right on, pulling out a can of whup ass when Merle unleashes a walker on him. But godamn it, rape. Shows like Walking Dead do not have the nuance to be able to pull off the Governor’s sexual assault of Maggie – and that was sexual assault, right down to his gross “comforting” of her – even while I admire the way the actress played some very tricky scenes. I get the whole “things worse than death” they’re trying to pull, but action-driven horror shows that are fundamentally about how two white men manage leadership should not fuck around with rape. You guys can’t handle the truth; don’t even try.

So, what else? Oh, the the sequence where they find the cabin-bound dead-dog dude was almost funny to me, because if this had been last season, we would have spent several long episodes getting to know dead dog dude, but here it was in the house, stand off, run through, out to the porch to be eaten by walkers. Why doesn’t he seem to know about walkers? Why does he ask for a badge? Whatever! Moving on! Merle’s racist stuff about T-Dog was also inadvertently funny: remember that dude who once had a line? Aww. I don’t know what to think about how dumb mad scientist dude is about his colon cancer friend, but it was nice to see Andrea not be a total waste. I still want to punch Andrea though. I think that’s probably it for incidentals.

This episode is obviously very much setting up the mid-season finale, moving the players from one place to the next for their inevitable conflict. The writers are also obviously playing hide the football with Merle and Daryl, and let’s hope they don’t fumble that meeting. This whole season for me has been met and often exceeded expectations for me, cut with horrible anticipation about how badly the writers might blow it. Which on some level is a pretty great metaphor for life with the walking dead.

Divergent

This review also brought to you by cold medicine. 

Not so very long ago, in review not so very far away, I stood up for the present tense and all of its breathless immediacy, at least in regards to the young adult fictions. I’m not going to do that here. In Divergentby Veronica Roth, the present tense maybe wasn’t a mistake, because it works at the end, but it makes that beginning so horribly hard to get through it might not be worth it? As usual, it is hard to imagine readers other than myself, because I am self-involved like teenagers, so I can’t say for sure. All I know is that it took me well over 100 pages and a sinus infection to get over the clunky ass opening of this story and get into it. 

Beatrice lives in a frankly laughable post-apocalyptic society, where everyone has been split into like-minded factions: Dauntless (courage), Amity (love), Abnegation (selflessness), Candor (truthiness), Erudite (Goodreads). You know, to keep people from fighting over perceived differences that are inconsequential. (Pause for laughter.) At 16 you have to choose your faction, and Tris chooses Dauntless despite her Abnegation upbringing. And despite the fact that her test scores come up inconclusive – she’s the dreaded Divergent who has aspects of all of those things in her personality. Ahahahaha. Omigod, teenagers, you freaking kill me. Why wouldn’t everyone have more or less of these…forget it, I’ll just take it faith for the moment.

The opening parts are really summer camp movie-esque, if you will allow me to coin an awkward phrase, and have the sort of fun frission that Ender’s Gamehas, but without all the nudity. The world, the politics here make zero sense, and Roth even knows it, drawing out Tris’s understanding and misunderstanding of the senseless world she inhabits like a revelation. Omigod, the electoral college makes no sense at all!!1! You guys! Listen! 

After just an appalling beginning – I am still somewhat miffed about how boring that opening is – the book begins to pick up steam, drawing out action sequences and tight, whispered conversations with force and verve. (Um, did I really just use the word verve? I blame cold medicine.) I know I had some thoughts at some points about how this compared to The Hunger Games, but I feel like I’ve forgotten all of that. 

Oh! I know! It was that while the factions here might seem like the various Districts in The Hunger Games, the better analogy is/are the Houses in Harry Potter. The districts are geographical, and although the separate districts have their distinct industries and cultures, they aren’t so much self-selected as born into. Harry Potter has a distinctly summer camp vibe (or boarding school, if you’re British, but then you have the whole born-into thing of the British caste system, which is not something an American writer would do. Could I be more confusing please? Gawd.) 

Anyway, point being, I think the factions in Divergent work pretty well as a metaphor for the emotional code switching and cliche-forming that goes on in adolescence. Find a group of like-minded people, claw your way in, develop and enforce the norms that the group adheres to. Cry in your pillow when you don’t even fit into a group you yourself joined and maintained. And then figure out there is an epic conspiracy that will shake your dumb little schematic world and render everything you know obsolete: you’re going to graduate. Just kidding! But also for serious. The later half of Divergent is super fun, full of really action-y action and what would be almost trite revelations if they weren’t so badass. My parents areadults who have histories and secrets! Boys are fun to kiss! OMG! The two-party system feels occasionally rigged! 

So, in sum, I really liked the end of this, enough for me to want to read on, but I’m still not going to forgive that opening section for being so boring and clunky. I’m reasonably sure this isn’t cross-over YA material – like, if you don’t like or read YA, this is not a smart thing to start with – but if you have a sinus infection and have already gotten through the first boring 100 pages, it’s going to be just absolutely perfect.

The Ones Who Walk Away from Panem: Hunger Games

Before I start into this review, I would like to pose a question. Why is it so hard to talk about the books we love? I have been having just an unrelenting bitch of a time writing this review. I keep falling into holes and back-pedaling, not wanting to sound too squee or insincere and bring ruination on my real love for this book. Maybe it’s because it’s YA, about a plucky girl who surmounts incredible obstacles – but then, there, I’m doing it again – implying in my flip description that I’m somehow too adult and worldly to fall for this narrative. (And, I did it again.) I did fall for this narrative, hard, and I’m going to have to just suck it up and soldier on. 

I read this book in a swoon, compulsively. It was the kind of reading experience where I totally screwed myself by reading far into the the night, nervously checking the clock thinking “damn” as 1:15 flew by, then 2:45, knowing full well that kids would be up and jumping on me in six hours, five hours, just put the book down and sleep! If you could somehow concentrate and aerosolize this feeling, you would find me down by the railroad tracks, under a bridge, huffing powdered books out of bag, their glitter mixing with my drool and b.o. 

And here’s where the digression comes in. So, here, in my city, at some point in the last five years, it became a thing for the homeless to stand at the entrances of freeways and other major roads holding signs. They tend to say things like “wounded veteran” and “trying to get home” and “God bless.” In my driving about, I’ve seen that the cardboard signs lay folded in the shrubbery, waiting for the next person to come along, unfold, and stand on the edge of the frontage road. There’s one on 54th and Nicollet that reads “absolute desperation.” At first this set me giggling, because I’m an asshole, but then it got me thinking. This is a true statement, and terrifying all the more because the sentiment is interchangeable; something that can written on a piece of cardboard and reused by any person standing on that corner. Not that I need to justify this, necessarily, but I live in a pretty extreme climate, and the people standing on these corners are not doing this for kicks, but because it’s cold and they’re hungry or jonesing for something or whatever, and this seemed like the best option available. The best option. Yikes. 

I’ve had a long running joke with my husband about how we all live in bubbles of like-minded people, the kind of people with whom you argue vehemently about the nuances about how you all totally agree. We sort ourselves into the blindness of our own comfort, and I don’t mean this just in the happy, healthy, developed world sense of comfort that I was born into. We take it farther, drawing bright red lines down the political aisle and using those lines to determine whom we respect and where we live. It’s not a new thing, certainly, but in early new millennium America, I’m just floored by the widening gaps in our political discourse and how they are made manifest in the very real physical embodiment of the completeness of the gerrymander and the ease we all acquiesce to that reality. Taken as a whole, the country is awash in purple, but as you look from locality to locality, they flame bright blue or bright red as we sort ourselves into two Americas that exist in the comfort of local smugness balanced against that old, hoary American favorite, massive paranoia about what the other half is doing. This book takes the bubbles of our acquaintance and schematizes them into a distopian hell-hole. 

It’s a post-American America, with the center, the Capitol, ruling 12 districts that each supply their different products: electronics, coal, agricultural goods, etc. Maybe 75 years before, there had been a civil war, a rebellion by the districts ending in vigorous and complete quashing. As a reminder of the sin of rebellion, every year the Capitol chooses 2 children from each district, between the ages of 12 and 18, to fight in the Hunger Games. They fight to the death, until there is one kid standing. The whole event is, of course, televised. (I know that there has been some criticism that this plot has been used before, but this is sheer bone-headed stupidity. So what if Ice-T did it first?) This is not an economic/political system that makes a ton of sense, if you look at it too closely, but that’s not the point, or it is the point exactly. Collins takes our American disconnects and makes them manifest, relocates the people with cardboard signs reading “absolute desperation” from the arteries of our Interstate system and concentrates them into concrete ghettos of poverty and subjugation. 



And now for my love of the protagonist. I can see why this happens, because writers have to live with the people they create, but so often a writer’s love of the character strips them of moral ambiguity, even while that ambiguity nips at their heels. This may be even more true for YA lit, with things like Bella Swan’s clumsiness standing in for an actual character flaw, even while Bella herself wallows in self-centered satisfaction at her flattened aspect to everyone around her but Edward. (Yup, gotta get in the Twilight dig.) Katniss is competent and clueless and savage, a reminder to us old folks that sometimes the young have worlds of understanding that isn’t based on experience, but on character. Or it is based on experience, but simply because they have less of it, doesn’t make it something you can measure using the yardstick of duration. 

I was nailed to the floor when Katniss made her first kill in the arena and doesn’t have a what-have-I-done? melt-down, but is instead gratified by a horrible act that can never really compensate for the horrible acts enacted by the events preceding. We, as readers, are gratified, because it’s what we want, some good Old Testament justice that spills a little blood to try to even the odds in a seriously unjust system. The writerly propensity to fig-leaf this murderous satisfaction with an immediate “Oh no! I’m so bad for loving this” is absent. This is not to say that Collins sees these actions as having no moral, personal impact – Katniss’s mentor, who also survived the Hunger Games, is a constant, alcoholic reminder of how something like this might mess a brother up good. 

There are plenty of themes I hate with a passion – say, “crazy makes you deep” for example – but one that’s pretty high on the list is “you, reader, are a voyeur, and I, the author, will dish out a bunch of sick shit and blame it on you.” This is generally some lazy, lazy stuff; the kind of stuff used to plug the holes in the leaking boat of D-grade action films and misogynist bullpucky. This book could be that, easily, in less adept hands. But I’m still not through worrying about my intense reading pleasure in relation with a story that makes children fight to the death. No, of course the children aren’t real, but to mangle a quote, they are living in imaginary gardens with real toads in them. 

It makes me think of the short story by Ursula K. Le Guin called The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas In the story, Le Guin conjures a utopia whose perfection is tied, in some undefined yet concrete way, on treating on single child with the most unbelievable cruelty – never touched, never allowed to see the sun, nothing. Children, upon reaching the age of 16, are brought to see this child, as the basis for their adulthood. Most see and stay, but some simply walk away. I read this, and it felt kind of bloodless and psychomythic. Like, okay, whatever, fictional world. It felt like one of those indictments of people who are not abjectly impoverished that says, “No one should party while other people are suffering” I thought she was valorizing the walking away. Some time later, I freaked out, because I felt like I’d missed her point entirely. We all live in a society, in societies, where, right now, there are people living in the most shit-hole injustice, untouched, hungry, brutalized. I think probably the brutalized child is a fact of all societies, like it or not. Walking away doesn’t make you better, it just makes you end up in another society with a different kind of kid in the basement. And if you’re the child, walking away simply isn’t an option. 

Forests of Narcissistic Sociopaths, Which Could Have Been Cooler Than It Was

 The Forest of Hands and Teethis a well written but squandered book. Mary is down at the river being an annoying teenage girl with romance issues when the sirens go off. The walls of her small enclave of humanity have not been breached; instead her mother has seen her father beyond the fence, and gone to him, and been bitten. Her mother has a day or two before she dies and becomes undead – or Unconsecrated in the religious nomenclature of the town. The opening is a slam-dunk of rapid exposition, setting up the world and then dropping the reader into the middle of it, with feeling. 

I really enjoyed the beginnings of this story. There are often structural samenesses to zombie fictions: the first zombie, the first bitten, the ethics of a group of people trying to get out of the city, the electricity cutting out, the failure of society. Here, it is generations after the First Night, an insular community built in a tenuous enclosure, the constant dampening vigilance of checking the fences, the conservative high-handedness of the political/religious institutions that enforce social norms because, well, it is true that an individual’s single stupidity can bring those fences down. Of course, institutional stupidity can do the same, and without transparency, the individual cannot protect themselves from collective stupidity either. Nice. 

And Mary’s troubles were interesting at first too: her mother’s choice to become a zombie and search unthinkingly for her late husband; her brother’s anger at how Mary’s actions will result in hard choices for him; his early rejection of her. Even the fairly standard love triangle had potential, written at first with a kind of obliqueness I enjoyed, though I am no fan of the love triangle. I am often shouting priorities, people in zombie fiction – good gott, leave that family photo album behind and save your skin – and here it was complicated with the dreary everydayness of the zombie threat. Indeed, why can’t Mary choose the boy she favors? Why is this society so weirdly sexist when it is run by a Sisterhood? How is this society dealing with the inevitable infidelities that will occur when people have to marry for convenience? After several generations with a small group – no more than a couple hundred – do you have to worry about incest? Some of these questions are answered, and some of them are answered badly, and some of them are ignored completely as Mary’s tics, obsessions, and needs overtake the story and obliterate sense or character. 

Mary’s two love interests, a pair of brothers – hot! – are never even partially realized, and the fourth wheel, a friend betrothed to Mary’s paramour, she is dealt with shabbily, in that way that cuts down female characters other than the heroine. (I can’t even unpack Sister Tabitha at the moment, but when you put her fervent abstinence and cruelty up against the mother, who shows up only to die for love, abandoning her children, you have your usual ugly portrait of maternal figures in parallax. One’s an ineffectual noodle; the other a stone bitch.) Mary shows more compassion towards a fast zombie threat, a girl called Gabrielle, than she does any other character. 

Wait, let’s think for a minute about the love triangle, if one can even call it that. I get the impression – and I don’t pretend to know YA that well – that the triangle is a major component of much young adult writing. This makes sense; I see a lot of the themes of mass produced fantasy for women sinking down into YA. (Or bubbling up? Choose the metaphor that works best for you.) If you look at rom coms aimed at older women, you regularly have the Byron and the Baxter, tropes played for laughs for an audience who has likely chosen their Baxters after learning that the Byrons are a bunch of alcoholic dickbags who will steal from you and bang your roommate. But it’s fun to wax wistful about how jaunty the beret is. 

In YA, this choice is a little different. The best triangle I can think of is between Peeta and Gale in The Hunger GamesThese two characters embody choices that Katniss has to make about what aspect of her personality she wants to nurture: Gale’s anger or Peeta’s compassion. Love is a political choice as well as a personal one, and the fact that Katniss has to chose, and the choice she eventually makes, is riddled with regret and sadness. Here, the boys embody nothing, as far as I can tell. One has always loved her, the other has always stood aside. One makes a horrible speech about how amazing Mary is, when I do not trust that at all. Why is she amazing? Because she has an obsessive dream that does no one any good, and a lot of people ill? I guess I amaze at that, but certainly not the way the speachifier intends. Not getting too far into spoiler territory, I find Mary’s last ditch, and the way she treats her brother horrifying in the extreme – you, Mary, are as stone a bitch as Sister Tabitha, adhering to your insane idealism that is not dissimilar from hers. Except you never cared about community one whit. 

Though the writing is quick enough to keep you moving along, the middle section is a muddle, a Mordorian series of slap-fights, being hungry, and bickering. Will she work out the Roman numerals, or won’t she? My money’s on that she will, because otherwise we have wasted a lot of time pondering something the reader knows already with no freaking payoff. The section at the other village had me paying attention again, but it was for naught. Despite the fact that she is functionally co-habitating with her lover, her relationship with him never feels more than topical, two people in the same room, but silent. Maybe some of this is the YAness of the book, but one does not have to talk about the inevitable sex those two are having to discuss their relationship, to have it be more than OMG sparklez I lurves him. 

I feel like the later events grow more and more random, finally depositing Mary at the source of her obsessions, thinking back on all the people laid waste by her choices. (But not really thinking, more musing to herself -[remember that time when I got everyone I know killed because of a childish, useless dream?  That was awesome. What’s for dinner?) I really liked the zombie story written by Ryan for the Zombies Vs. Unicorns collection, because I felt like the story dealt with certain kinds of narrative narcissisms with a pickax – a girl raised up on romantic fictions learns bloodily how useless they are – but the way this one goes, I’m beginning to wonder if my reading there was against the grain, like I was wrong. Maybe I was to take away from the short story that the girl was wrong for discarding romanticism. If I’m to think of Mary as something other than self-involved to the point of sociopathy, then I don’t much like this book. There’s some wiggle room here, and maybe I’m to cower at the horror of idealism, given how destructive Mary’s single-mindedness is. This is a pretty subtle point though, one that if it is being made here, is likely laughing at the intended audience, which discomforts me as well. If Ryan is showing romantic cliches in their worst aspects – the antisocial nature of love, devotion to negation -that is wonderful, but she never shows her hand or lays this bare. 

I don’t know. I liked the very beginning, and the writing on a sentence level, but I’m not impressed by the characterizations or all of the dropped threads. I’ve seen YA novels which mess with romantic tropes a ton better, like Daughter of Smoke and Bone, with its Romeo and Juliet stylings that go in unexpected ways. Here, it wasn’t so much unexpected as confounding, and I’m left standing on a beach full of corpses looking for the way of things. There’s another book, at least, in this series, and I’m curious to see where it goes. I’m worried, worried a lot where this will go, but it is okay for now