Tag Archives: dystopian

Review: The Fireman by Joe Hill

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Where did I get this book? I bought it. It’s a keeper!

Harper is a school nurse when the first cases of Dragonscale appear. The deadly fungal infection spreads rapidly through the population, and the infected have a terrifying tendency to burst into flames. While many seek to ostracize those with Dragonscale, Harper volunteers to work in a hospital dedicated to their care, where her caring and kindness first attract the attention of the titular Fireman, John Rookwood.

When Harper develops the strangely beautiful gold-flecked black markings that herald a Dragonscale infection, her husband Jakob turns on her, convinced she’s responsible for infecting him as well. Fleeing Jakob’s increasingly erratic and violent behavior, Harper, now pregnant, finds refuge with a group of infected who claim to have discovered a way to live with Dragonscale. Instead of spontaneously combusting, they seek communion with each other and with the fungus that has invaded them. Although the Fireman leads Harper to this refuge, he holds himself strangely apart, until events force both John and Harper to choose sides if they want to survive.

In this extraordinary novel, Joe Hill explores the ways that social groups can elevate or destroy us, the heightened sense of connection that can be attained in both communal prayer and communal violence. It was a spectacular read, deeply moving, suspenseful, and ultimately as compassionate as Harper herself.

Genre: Thrilling dystopian SF awesomeness.

Read it if: You love end times books like The Stand, The Road, The Passage, etc.; you love dystopian speculative fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale; you love tense, vivid storytelling.

Skip it if: You are squeamish about violence and/or profanity; you try to avoid big giant books that temporarily take over your life; or you have a pathological fear of spontaneous combustion.

Movie-worthy: This would make an amazing movie, or maybe even a series. It’s stunningly visual.  David Tennant would be perfect as the Fireman. Someone make this happen!

Best enjoyed with: A nice pot of lapsang souchong for that wood smoke flavor, or alternately, a generous portion of Tennessee Fire whiskey.

Review: Proxy by Alex London

Proxy by Alex LondonDoes the name Sydney Carton ring any bells? It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… The protagonist of Alex London’s intriguing YA dystopia shares his name with a character from the Charles Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities. In fact, Proxy is a tale of two cities: the Upper City, a place of wealth and luxury, where money can protect you from almost anything, even the consequences of your actions; and the Valve, where the poor bear the weight of crushing debt, their lives reduced to contractual servitude, their worth measured only in terms of what they owe.

Syd arrived in the city as an orphaned refugee from the wastelands beyond, his literary name randomly assigned by a computer. At sixteen, he is receiving an education of sorts, but the cost is massive debt. A wealthy man from the Upper City owns Syd’s debt, and to pay it off, Syd acts as a proxy for the wealthy man’s son, Knox.

Knox has known since childhood that any trouble he gets into will result in punishment–for Syd. As a proxy, Syd has repeatedly suffered both physical punishment and hard labor for acts that Knox has committed. In essence, Syd is a whipping boy for a spoiled princeling. When Knox goes too far, crashing a stolen car and inadvertently killing his passenger, Syd faces a sentence so extreme that for the first time, he questions the system and his place in it.

I really enjoyed this fast-paced thriller that recalls the unjust, data-driven world of M.T. Anderson’s Feed, only with more fight scenes. Proxy emphasizes the humanity of both Syd and Knox, and goes in unexpected directions. My one quibble: too much smirking. A little smirking goes a long way.

Genre: YA dystopian

Read it if: You always wondered what the world would be like if Objectivism was the main religion and Ayn Rand was revered by all.

Skip it if: You are allergic to smirking.

Movie-worthy: You bet.

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Review: Diverse Energies, edited by Tobias S. Buckell & Joe Monti

Diverse EnergiesThis collection of YA science fiction short stories takes its title from a quote by John F. Kennedy: “The wave of the future is not the conquest of the world by a single dogmatic creed but the liberation of the diverse energies of free nations and free men.” The stories feature protagonists from around the world, with skin tones and ethnic backgrounds as varied as the children in the Caribbean where editor Tobias Buckell grew up. Among the authors contributing to the anthology are Daniel H. Wilson (Robopocalypse), Malinda Lo (Ash), Cindy Pon (Silver Phoenix) and Paolo Bacigalupi (The Drowned Cities).

The stories explore the divide between the haves and the have-nots, the privileged and the exploited, the alternate realities and possible futures where things are much, much worse. As someone who’s spent most of the last decade living in Asia, I loved that the stories reflected the world as it is even while speculating on the future. In “Next Door” by Rahul Kanakia, the tech-enabled rich literally fail to see the impoverished squatters occupying their garages and homes, too engrossed in a virtual world to notice the real desperation around them. In Ken Liu’s “Pattern Recognition” and Rajan Khanna’s “What Arms to Hold Us,” children raised to believe one truth about their worlds discover the shocking reality behind the stories they’ve been told.

Of all the stories, though, one stood out: “Solitude” by the incomparable Ursula K. Le Guin. Set in the same universe as The Left Hand of Darkness, “Solitude” explores the consequences of a field ethnologist’s decision to raise her children immersed in the culture of a little-understood people on a planet called Eleven-Soro. Previous attempts to communicate with the adults of the culture have failed, and the researcher believes she might be able to learn more through her children. Her daughter, Serenity, the narrator of the story, is very young when they arrive. Serenity absorbs the teachings and belief system of Eleven-Soro so completely that her mother ultimately cannot understand her, exactly as her mother has never truly understood the people she’s lived among for so many years.

I found all of the stories in this collection interesting and compelling, but “Solitude” affected me on a completely different level. I normally pass my books on when I’m done reading them, but this one’s going on the keeper shelf.


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Review: Matched and Crossed by Ally Condie

Although I normally enjoy dystopian YA, I initially hesitated to read Matched, mainly because I had the mistaken impression it was about a world where love was forbidden. In fact, the world described in Matched is not whimsical or even particularly far-fetched: it shares characteristics with authoritarian societies both real and fictional, from communist China during the Cultural Revolution to Big Brother in 1984.

In the world of Matched and its sequel, Crossed, the Society seeks to control every facet of its Citizens’ lives. Work assignments, spouses, housing–everything meaningful is determined according to statistical analysis. The Society works hard to sustain the illusion that they never make mistakes. Yet when Cassia Reyes views the recorded data on her Match, the partner arranged for her by the Society, a second face appears on the screen. Witnessing that mistake eventually opens Cassia’s eyes to a clearer understanding of the way the Society works and the high cost its Citizens pay for security and order. Cassia must choose between much more than just two boys; she must choose between following the Society’s rules and rebelling, between safety and creativity.

I particularly loved how the author incorporated poetry into the narrative. The Society has reduced all of literature to a more manageable canon of 100 poems, and ordered everything else destroyed. When her grandfather secretly gives Cassia two forbidden poems, she begins to understand how much was lost when the Society pruned the world of its creative output. I couldn’t help but imagine teenage me reading this book and swooning over Dylan Thomas, a poet I fell madly in love with in high school. I still have the commonplace book my fifteen-year-old self compiled, copying “Poem in October” in cramped handwriting with, believe it or not, a fountain pen. That must be at least part of the attraction for adult readers of YA: remembering what it felt like to be that passionate, to read a poem for the first time and see the world through new eyes.

In Crossed, Cassia learns first hand what is taking place in the Society’s Outer Provinces. She also learns some startling new information about the boy she left behind. The ending left me frowning–after everything Cassia had been through, it seemed hard to believe she would accept the role assigned to her so readily. I can’t wait to see how the author concludes the story Reached, the final installment in the trilogy. Luckily, it’s out next month so I won’t have to wait long.

Genre: Dystopian YA

Read it if: You can’t resist a heroine who loves both poetry and statistical analysis

Skip it if: You prefer to forget what it feels like to be a teenager

Movie-worthy: It would have to be better than I Am Number Four, am I right?

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