AFTER THE CRASH: NEW DYSTOPIAS

Dystopian fiction has a long and honorable history, and lately it seems as if there’s more and more of it available and it’s increasingly popular.  Consider the new popularity of 1984 and It Couldn’t Happen Here, the television series based on The Handmaid’s Tale, and the box office (and book sale) success of the Hunger Games series and the Maze Runner and Divergent series.  Whether you’re interested in dystopian fiction to remind yourself that things could always get worse or because you feel the world is turning into a kind of dystopian novel itself, we have two new dystopian novels that imagine very different kinds of futures.

the book of etta cover

The Book of Etta, by Meg Elison, is set in the aftermath of a plague that nearly destroyed humanity. Now, women are scarce and childbearing, while necessary to the future of humanity, is incredibly dangerous. Mothers and midwives are revered, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good world for women in general. Etta, the protagonist, is a scavenger, someone who lives outside the protection of the village, finding useful and potentially valuable things left by the civilization now gone.  Of course, being outside the village puts her in danger from slave traders who are on the hunt for women to seize and sell.  When some of the people she loves are captured by slavers, she sets out to find them and rescue them, a trek which takes her to the stronghold of a local tyrant, known as the Lion.  There she has to use her wits and determination to survive and save the lives of those she cares about, and perhaps the rest of the society as well.

american war cover

There’s also a plague in the background of American War, a debut novel by Omar El Akkad (and yes, this counts as a debut for those doing the 2017 Reading Challenge), and there’s also a young woman’s journey at the heart of the book, but it’s a different future and a different journey.  The Second American Civil War took place in 2074, and Sarat Chestnut, born in what was then Louisiana, was six years old at the time. Half the state is under water, drones fill the skies, and oil is outlawed.  When her father is killed, Sarat and the rest of her family are moved to Camp Patience, a sinister camp for displaced persons, where, ultimately, she falls under the sway of a mysterious stranger whose goal is to turn Sarat into a deadly weapon.  The story is told by her nephew, years later, looking back on the horrors of the past and especially the dark secrets of his aunt, who destroyed untold lives while saving his.  

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DEATH TO STEREOTYPES! TESTOSTERONE REX

If you’re the kind of person who hears those arguments about the inherent differences between men and women (Men are from Mars! Women are from Venus!) and how they are based on the way evolution shaped us to behave in certain ways because of hunter gatherer societies (men are polygamous! Women are monogamous! Men are risk takers, hunting for mammoths! Women are risk averse because they take care of babies!), and your first thought on hearing things like this is, “Wow, that is a really stupid argument,” have I got a book for you!

testosterone rex cover2

It’s called Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science and Society, it’s by Cordelia Fine, and she goes after that argument with gusto, vigor, snark and tons and tons of facts.  By the time she’s finished, you find yourself wondering how anyone could believe the “Just So” stories some evolutionary psychologists tell about differences between men’s and women’s brains and behavior, let alone the reasons behind such supposed differences.

 

Systematically and with vast amounts of evidence to back up her statements, the author takes apart every phase of this argument, which is so pervasive most of us don’t even realize how many other arguments about the nature of men and women are based on these false or misleading ideas about the importance of testosterone in making us who we are.

 

Is there one “natural” way males and females behave throughout the animal kingdom? No?  Then how about through the world of primates? No?  Then how about through the world of human beings?  No?  Fine gleefully demolishes these assumptions with plenty of examples of animals, primates and even human societies where what we think of as the natural relations of the sexes are turned upside down.

 

In addition to showing how complicated testosterone’s effects on behavior is throughout the animal kingdom and how surroundings and other circumstances are not only likely to affect an animal’s behavior but also to affect the amount of testosterone coursing through the animal’s body, Fine reminds us of the ways in which human beings are different from other animals, how our cultures shape our behavior as much as our biology.  You wouldn’t think it would be necessary to reiterate all these obvious things, but it is, and if it has to be done, you could hardly find a better guide, a more erudite or entertaining one, than Cordelia Fine in Testosterone Rex.

FOR WANT OF A RENTAL CAR: MY ITALIAN BULLDOZER

Alexander McCall Smith is great fun to read.  His fans, of which there are legions, can choose from several different series to which he’s frequently adding: The Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency series (with the impressive Mma Ramotswe at the heart of the books), the 44 Scotland Street series (with the memorable characters of that location, including young Bertie Pollock and his horrid mother, Irene), the Sunday Philosophy Club series (starring Isabel Dalhousie), the Corduroy Mansions series (featuring the most memorable terrier in fiction, Freddy de la Hay).  As if that weren’t enough, he’s also written a number of stand-alone books with equally quirky characters and gentle humor, including his latest, My Italian Bulldozer.

my italian bulldozer cover

Writer and protagonist Paul Stewart has a problem: he’s supposed to be finishing this cookbook but he can’t seem to get focused on the project.  He gets the brilliant idea of getting away from it all, and going to the lovely small Italian town of Montalcino.  There, far from the stresses and distractions of city life, he’s sure he will be able to concentrate and finally finish the book.

 

However, simplicity is not his fate.  He arrives at the airport, ready to pick up his rental car and head to the town, and discovers to his horror that there is no car reserved for him, his reservation having somehow disappeared into the ether. And whereas in a large airport he might be able to find another car to take him to town, this is not that kind of airport, and Paul is afraid he’s going to be stuck in the airport (hardly an escape from stress and hardly a good place to concentrate on writing a cookbook) forever.  A helpful stranger offers him an alternative: a bulldozer. A BULLDOZER?  Paul doesn’t have a lot of options here, so he agrees to drive the bulldozer to his new temporary home, and thus begins a series of near disasters and misadventures as he attempts to make his way through the Italian countryside on this not very practical conveyance.

 

Prepare for laughs and a new view of traveling and making the best of your circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be.  McCall Smith is a past master at finding the humor and the humanity wherever he turns his sights, so come along for the ride.

ACROSS THE BROAD UNIVERSE: NEW SCIENCE FICTION AT THE FIELD

One of the best things about science fiction (speculative fiction, if you prefer — I’m not a fanatic on the issue) is the way a good science fiction book can make you think about the larger universe, instead of focusing all your attention on the narrow concerns of this world and, often, this one little slice of this world. With that in mind, I would like to introduce you to three new science fiction books here at the Field Library that take on the issues of space travel and its consequences.

the wanderers cover

At first glance, The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey, might not seem to belong in this company, since all of the action takes place right here on earth.  However, the whole focus of the book is the preparation of the characters for going to space, so it can serve as a good introduction to the strangeness and wonder of human beings going into space.  The premise of The Wanderers is that in four years there’s going to be a launch of a ship taking human beings to Mars, and in the meantime, three people are “auditioning” (in a manner of speaking) for the role of first human beings on Mars, by taking part, for seventeen months, in the closest simulation possible to the actual environment of Mars. Helen Kane, a former NASA astronaut, is trying to get back into space for the last time, because it’s the only place she’s ever felt truly at home.  Yoshi Tanaka is trying to prove himself to his beloved wife, and Sergei Kuznetsov is willing to undergo any hardship and push himself beyond all his limits for a chance to get to Mars and set an example for his sons.  As the three characters face isolation and worse challenges, they start losing their ability to tell what’s real from what’s unreal, what the dangers of inner space are as compared to those of outer space, and what it really means to be human beings.

the collapsing empire cover

Leave it to John Scalzi, a famous and skilled writer of science fiction who’s won the Hugo award more than once, to start a new series with a wild and fascinating concept (helped along by his usual intriguing characters and plots), in his new book, The Collapsing Empire. As everyone knows, physics doesn’t really allow for faster than light travel, which does restrict the possibilities of what’s called space opera somewhat.  However, Scalzi introduces the concept of the Flow, an extra dimensional field that allows people to transport themselves from planet to planet without worrying about light speed or any of those problems.  Naturally, as soon as the Flow is discovered, humans begin flowing away from earth and out to distant worlds to be colonized.  A new empire is created based on the concept of interdependency, the certainty that these human societies on these different worlds can’t survive alone.  The Flow is like a river, though, and is changing course, cutting off different worlds from the empire and from each other, and nobody knows how that is going to work, for the empire and for the people trapped on the isolated worlds.  Three people, a starship captain, a scientist and an empress, join together to investigate the Flow and try to find what, if anything, can be salvaged if the empire collapses altogether. Look for a wild ride from Scalzi, who’s a great read.

a common and closed orbit cover

And while we’re on the subject of the Hugo award, the third new book here has been nominated for a Hugo in the category of Best Novel.  It’s A Common and Closed Orbit by Becky Chambers, a sort of sequel to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (previewed last year here: https://wordpress.com/post/fieldlibraryadults.wordpress.com/1106).  This book, like that one, takes place on a spaceship called the Wayfarer, with its quirky crew of lovable and diverse characters.  A Common and Closed Orbit focuses on Lovelace (later known as Lovey), formerly a ship’s artificial intelligence, now, after a shutdown and reboot, inhabiting a new body.  She has no memory of what she was before, or how to be what she now appears to be.  Fortunately for her, she doesn’t have to explore the universe and discover her place in it by herself. She’s joined by Pepper, an engineer who’s a bit excitable, and who is dedicated to helping Lovey learn and grow, and by the whole wide world of characters on the ship.  You don’t need to have read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet to be able to launch yourself into this one and know what’s going on, but if you’ve enjoyed the first book, you’ll definitely want to read this one (and if you like this book, by all means you should go back and read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet).