Tag Archives: dystopia

Review: On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

Where did I get this book? The library.

In this dystopian novel, Chang-Rae Lee depicts a future where economic and class divisions have become formalized in separate communities. The story revolves around Fan, a young tank diver in a fish farm. She is a quiet and hard-working member of her community, B-Mor, where order and family come first. B-Mor is a facilities settlement, established to provide agricultural products to the wealthy Charter villages.

The Charters hold significant power over B-Mor, determining the residents’ access to medical care and the minimum occupancy for their communal residences. A tiny percentage of students pass a test allowing them to leave for a presumably brighter future in the Charters, but ambitions are modest at best for most of the population.

When Fan’s boyfriend, Reg, disappears after a mandated medical check-up, Fan slips away from B-Mor. Their love and their fates beyond the boundaries of the settlement become the subject of a communal obsession among those they left behind.

If at this point you are imagining a breathless first-person present narrative featuring a young, action-star heroine on a mission to save her lost love, I’m going to have to stop you right there. This story is told primarily from the collective perspective of the B-Mor residents, a choice that sometimes renders the story frustratingly opaque and emotionally distant.

That being said, Fan’s journey is a compelling one, revealing a landscape marred by inequality and self-interest. Outside the safe walls of the facilities and the Charters lie the counties, where lawlessness and violence prevail. Fan uses her youthful appearance to pass for a child and demonstrates remarkable presence of mind in the face of numerous threats. Somehow she retains a quiet, centered gift for compassion that the world in all its cruelty cannot touch. Whether that will be enough remains uncertain, even in the book’s final pages.

Genre: Literary dystopia.

Read it if: You enjoy speculative fiction by literary novelists; you enjoy dystopias that explore potential outcomes of current societal trends; you like stories that raise more questions than they answer.

Skip it if: You dislike first-person plural narrators; you object to ambiguous endings; or you prefer your dystopias fast-paced and action-packed.

Movie-worthy: Maybe. It would be an unsettling indie film, for sure.


Review: The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard

Where did I get this book? The library. I love my library.

Where did I get this book? The library. I love my library.

In J.G. Ballard’s hypnotic, nightmarish 1962 novel The Drowned World, the planet is heating up, the seas have risen to cover the world’s cities, and the last remnant of humanity clings to survival in Greenland. If this sounds like a prescient take on climate change, that’s not quite the point; the throbbing sun in Ballard’s surreal vision heralds the world’s devolution into a reptilian-dominated lagoon and man’s return to a more primitive state.

Kerans, a scientist born after the cataclysmic floods, is attached to a military squad tasked with visiting the once great cities of Europe and testing the environment. He holds himself apart from the other men, choosing to reside in an air-conditioned suite in the ruins of the Ritz, traveling by boat to the testing station and to visit the city’s lone resident, a mysterious woman named Beatrice Dahl.

Beatrice lives in a state of dazed inertia in a high-rise hotel suite, surrounded by the last trappings of her family’s formerly opulent lifestyle. When the military unit, headed by Colonel Riggs, announce their imminent departure, it is expected that Beatrice will leave with them. The temperature is going up, massive rainstorms are headed straight for them, and soon the area will be completely uninhabitable. Yet Beatrice is resolved to stay behind, and Kerans is inclined to stay with her.

Haunting dreams of a pulsing, ancient sun call to Beatrice, Kerans, and his colleague, the much older scientist Bodkin. Bodkin remembers the city from his childhood, before the floods forced his family to flee. Ultimately all three refuse to leave, eluding the efforts of Colonel Riggs to compel their departure. The three spend their days in torpor and isolation, sleeping through the worst of the heat and ceding the lagoons to the giant iguanas, until the arrival of a brutal scavenger named Strangman and his crew.

Strangman believes Bodkin, Kerans, and Beatrice have information about hidden treasures in the swamped city and his initial creepy hospitality quickly turns to menace once he realizes they have no secrets to reveal. Strangman’s African crew are depicted as little better than beasts, and Kerans is eventually offered up as a sacrifice to appease their bloodthirst.

While the plot includes scenes of action and violence, events take place in such a suffocating atmosphere of tropical torpor that even the prospect of death is viewed through a heat-stroked haze of indifference. Ballard describes the lethargy that overcomes Kerans and the others in terms that evoke a return to the womb, and the scientists discuss man’s descent along the “spinal levels” of evolution, a change foretold in their dreams and one they apparently accept as inevitable.

The moody drowned world of this novel possesses the mind like a fever dream. I was happy to finally shake it off, but its unsettling effects linger on.

Genre: Surreal tropical dystopia.

Read it if: You live somewhere really cold and/or dry; you wish Heart of Darkness had included an army of crocodiles; you fantasize about having an air-conditioned suite at the Ritz during the end of the world.

Skip it if: Your malaria meds are already giving you vivid waking nightmares; your air conditioner isn’t working; you prefer dystopias with a young “chosen one” protagonist who will eventually save the world.

Movie-worthy: It would be a super-trippy movie, very artsy, possibly French.





Review: The Bees by Laline Paull

The BeesThe Bees is an amazing feat of imagination, somehow seamlessly combining fairy-tale timelessness and Game of Thrones-worthy power struggles, heart-stopping dystopian suspense and beautifully rendered details straight out of nature. Perhaps most impressive, author Laline Paull creates believable, sympathetic characters that are also, unquestionably, bees.

Yes, nearly all the characters in this book are bees, their elaborate society based in an artificial wooden beehive in an orchard. Each bee is born to serve the hive, behaving according to the motto “Accept, Obey, and Serve,” living for the life-sustaining Devotion of the Queen’s mother love.

When Flora 717 emerges from her cell into the world, she belongs to the lowest order of worker bees, a mute class assigned to sanitation duties. Yet Flora has the power of speech, the first sign that she will not follow the established order of the hive. In fact, her destiny will lead Flora 717 to achieve more than one of her kin should even be able to imagine.

I had heard this book was really good, but my first thought was: bees, really? It could have been a schlocky disaster, an anthropomorphic gimmick, a novelized version of that Pixar movie “A Bug’s Life” only with bees instead of ants. Instead, The Bees is a beautiful, unique, and deeply moving story.

In short, I loved it. And it made me want to start a flower garden.

Genre: Dystopian SF fairy-tale set in nature.

Read it if: You want a truly fresh take on dystopia; you love books that transcend genre; you enjoy stories that take you to worlds you never would have imagined otherwise.

Skip it if: You adamantly insist on human characters; you read Watership Down, Brave New World, and The Year of the Flood, and you didn’t like any of them; when wasps and bees battle, you root for the wasps.

Movie-worthy: Hard to see how that would work, what with all the wordless antenna communication and scent-following. Maybe a truly innovative animated film could pull it off.

Review: The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon

The Mime OrderIt had been a while since I read Samantha Shannon’s first book, The Bone Season, and I have to admit that for the first few pages of the new sequel, The Mime Order, I was totally confused. So many characters! Who were they all? I mainly only remembered Paige and the mysterious Warden.

Fortunately, once the story got going the details began to come back to me. Paige is a dreamwalker, a particularly gifted voyant trying to survive in an alternate London where clairvoyant abilities are common but those who possess them are harassed, imprisoned, and worse by the totalitarian Scion government. If you haven’t read the first book, you should probably stop here, read it and then come back. Spoilers ahead!

When we last saw Paige, she was on a train with other escapees from a terrible prison run by the Rephaim, the secret alien overlords pulling the strings behind the Scion government. While Warden, Paige’s personal captor, treated her much better than other unfortunate voyant prisoners, she is not clear where she stands with him or what has become of him after the prison break. Not all of the escapees survive the re-entry into London, and while Paige wants to break free of Jaxon Hall, her Mime Lord and employer, she realizes there’s no safety in solitude.

When someone murders the Overlord and almost all of his minions in a particularly gruesome fashion, Paige is suspect number one. Jaxon Hall plans to enter the melee, a contest to take the Overlord’s place, and preside over all of London’s voyant community. He expects Paige to fight at his side, forcing her to decide where her loyalties truly lie.

This is a fun series in many ways, but The Mime Order could be pared down considerably without losing much. The many, many words ending in -mancer also gradually wear the reader down. Hematomancer, cleromancer, etc., etc., ad infinitum. Warden still doesn’t seem like a three-dimensional character (in fact, there’s a slight Twilighty-y vibe to their relationship, minus the Edwardian stalker-level adoration.)

What kept me reading was the world building, the political structure of the voyant society, and the way the Mime Lords focus on their own petty interests while ignoring the greater threat looming overhead. Paige is an interesting character, even if those around her aren’t always quite as fully developed.

Genre: Dystopian urban fantasy.

Read it if: You would like a complete list of all the different words ending in -mancer; you prefer fight scenes involving spirit possession; you loved The Bone Season and really want to find out how the heck they got off that train.

Skip it if: You have difficulty tracking large numbers of characters (although this cute The Bone Season wiki might  help you there!); you haven’t read The Bone Season; or you were hoping for a clear, plausible explanation for why the Rephaim showed up in the first place.

Movie-worthy: Mmmm, yes, if the movie cherry-picked the best bits of the book.

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Review: Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg

Find Me by Laura Van Den BergIn Find Me, a 19-year-old grocery store clerk named Joy Jones survives a terrible plague that ravages the memory before killing its victims. She is invited to join others in a hospital where they can be observed and tested in hopes of uncovering the secret to their immunity.

Joy, whose name can only be intended ironically, was abandoned as a baby and grew up in foster care and group homes, where terrible things happened to her. She has repressed some of her early childhood memories, and speculates that this sealed-off corner of her mind is the source of her immunity to the memory disease. Joy relied on stolen cough syrup to get her through her tedious days before the plague hit; her time in the hospital hardly seems better or worse than her prior existence.

Joy tells the story in first-person present tense, and at least to me it felt like being trapped in someone else’s ongoing nightmare. The hospital is founded on lies. A childhood companion with a penchant for animal masks and clairvoyance suddently reappears. She finds herself traveling on buses that are going in the wrong direction, lost at night, driving through hellish landscapes, abandoned on the roadside.

On a quest to find the mother who abandoned her, Joy encounters rundown locations populated by disturbed and broken people. A junkie lying prone on a bathroom floor. A damaged girl wearing angel wings who eats the dirt from beneath her fingernails.

I love a post-apocalyptic dystopia as much as anyone, but I have to admit this unsettling story left me feeling queasy. When Joy’s surreal journey finally ended, I was more than happy to wake up.

Genre: Surreal post-apocalyptic dystopia.

Read it if: You don’t require clear boundaries between reality and nightmare; you are okay with ambiguous outcomes; you’ve read a lot of Kafka while high on cough syrup.

Skip it if: You prefer to avoid reading about child abuse; you are currently in the hospital; or you are looking for a light read and think the pretty blue cover looks cheerful.

Movie-worthy: If Ingmar Bergman were still alive, sure.


Review: Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Uglies by Scott WesterfeldImagine a future in which no one is judged by their appearance. Sounds great, right? In Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, everyone undergoes a transformative procedure as a teenager that makes them “pretty.”

Tally can’t wait until her birthday, when she’ll finally become pretty and join her friends across the river in New Pretty Town. Her best friend, Peris, is already there and when she sneaks in to visit him he has changed in ways she can only admire. She wants nothing more than to get rid of her ugly, distinctive features and join the fun among the new pretties.

When Tally meets Shay, another “ugly” approaching her milestone birthday, the two become fast friends. Shay teaches Tally to ride a hoverboard, and takes her out beyond the ruins, farther than she’s ever been. But when Shay suggests she may not want to become pretty at all, Tally can’t understand how anyone could want to stay ugly.

I had heard great things about this YA series, and it definitely lived up to expectations. Tally is a great character: strong in many ways, yet capable of mistakes that drive the plot and leave her with a burden of secret guilt. The ending perfectly completed the narrative arc yet set the scene for book two in the series, Pretties.

Uglies explores issues of appearance, identity and conformity within an increasingly tense and thrilling story full of hoverboard rides and daring escapades. I’m passing this book on to my oldest son to read and enjoy.

Genre: YA dystopia

Read it if: You went through an awkward phase as a teenager; you are a teenager in an awkward phase; you take issue with media representations of beauty; you think riding a hoverboard sounds incredibly cool.

Skip it if: You prefer protagonists who always make the right choices.

Movie-worthy: This would make a great movie, especially if they used CGI to make all the pretties look the same.

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Review: The Miracle Inspector by Helen Smith

The Miracle InspectorIn The Miracle Inspector, a young couple in London struggle with communication issues–and life in a totalitarian state. In this alternate or future version of the city, women are not allowed to leave home without wearing a head-to-toe cover and veil; even then, they are only permitted to visit female relatives. The authorities claim this is for their own protection. Similarly, children no longer attend school, in order to keep them safe from pedophiles. This is no country for old men: they’ve all been taken into custody for some infraction or other, and effectively disappeared. No one trusts anyone else, constantly fearing a trap or a test by the authorities.

Lucas and Angela have a nagging sense that this isn’t right, but they have only the vaguest ideas of what the world used to be like. As the Inspector of Miracles, handsome, selfish Lucas has an enviable position in the Ministry. He regularly investigates reported miracles, with no expectation that he will ever find a real one. No one at the Ministry knows of his connection to Jesmond, a poet of the revolution, one of the few old men still around.

When Jesmond leaves his journal and a packet of letters with Angela, she begins to read them, slowly, in order to savor the unexpected experience of knowing another person. She yearns for something more than her narrow, circumscribed life but she can’t articulate what it is that she wants. Lucas promises that someday soon they will attempt to leave London for the imagined paradise of Cornwall, land of the ocean and freedom.

It doesn’t end well, and it’s hardly a spoiler to say so. Smith repeatedly offers tantalizing glimpses of stories, only to cut them off abruptly. When Lucas visits the home of a woman named Maureen, who has reported a miracle involving her young daughter, Christina, Lucas daydreams through her entire explanation of the supposed miracle. We never learn what Maureen believed to be miraculous about her disabled child. Through the deft use of deceptively simple sentences, Smith creates a feeling of foreboding and dread even while staying in the heads of her ignorant and all too human characters. They have no idea what they’ve lost, or what they’re likely to find.

This haunting and deeply disturbing book reminded me of the truly classic dystopias like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. It’s a story that makes you glad to look around and realize you’re safely home, that you can wake from the nightmare.

Genre: literary dystopia

Read it if: You are still haunted by the ending of 1984 and would now like to be haunted by something else.

Skip it if: You just love happy endings.

Movie-worthy: Very hard to imagine how anyone could do it justice.

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Review: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

After I finished this breathtaking novel, I was not surprised to learn that Peter Heller is a poet and outdoorsman, as well as a gifted writer. The Dog Stars explores familiar ground, a post-apocalyptic world where survivors do what they must to stay alive, but Heller breathes fresh life into the dystopian genre with an unforgettable protagonist and a lyrical, elliptical prose style uniquely his own.

Hig, the narrator of The Dog Stars, feels so deeply the loss of the world that each day is a struggle to remain in the moment, to hold on to the briefest tastes of beauty. His one consolation is his dog, Jasper. His only source of human contact is his neighbor, Bangley, a man with a single-minded focus on survival. Bangley is the reason Hig is still alive. He is also the greatest single threat to Hig’s humanity; the things they do to stay alive, to defend the airfield they’ve staked out as their shared territory, horrify Hig as much as they do the reader. He has to keep those thoughts at a distance if he is to keep living.

Yet Hig finds ways to sustain his spirit. He can still fly his small plane as long as the fuel supply holds out. He makes regular stops to help a small community of Mennonites afflicted with “the blood,” a secondary plague picking off even those who survived the first epidemic and the subsequent lawlessness. Bangley disapproves of Hig’s selfless gestures and extravagant journeys into the wilderness to fish or hunt, but Hig continues to do what he needs to survive with at least some tattered remnant of his humanity intact.

Reading this book was painful in the best possible way; I had to read it in small doses in order to properly absorb the potent combination of beauty and grief on every page. In the end, The Dog Stars was one of the most emotionally truthful books I have ever read. I know I’ve said books are “unforgettable” so often that the word is almost meaningless, but I feel as if The Dog Stars seared itself into my soul.

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