NEW DYSTOPIAN WESTERN. . . WESTERN??

The kind of writer I admire is the one who’s not afraid to branch out.  Sure, it’s easy enough to keep writing the same series forever, with the same characters and similar plots, and it’s often very lucrative (consider the late Sue Grafton, for instance, a longtime bestseller, with her alphabet novels; consider Stuart Woods and Clive Cussler for still-living examples).  Sometimes people even continue writing books under those authors’ names long after their deaths (look at all the books in Tom Clancy’s series, or in Robert Ludlum’s, or Robert Parker’s, and let’s not even talk about V. C. Andrews), and while I can understand the motivation (money), to me, a writer who’s willing to branch out, even a little, gets more respect.  You have people like Walter Mosley, who have written mysteries, speculative fiction, and nonfiction, and you have people like Charlaine Harris, who is not content to rest on her laurels for the Sookie Stackhouse novels (the basis for the television series True Blood) but has branched out into other fields, including today’s focus, the realm of dystopias, in her new book An Easy Death.

An Easy Death takes place in a post-apocalyptic southwestern United States.  There is no U.S. anymore, not since the assassination of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Great Depression.  There’s a number of smaller countries, including Texoma, where our story is set.

Lizbeth Rose, known as Gunnie Rose, is a mercenary gunslinger who has never yet lost a client, and so has an impressive reputation despite her youth.  After a particularly bruising job across the border, Lizbeth Rose is hired by a pair of Russian wizards to be their guide and protector as they search with increasing desperation through the border towns for a particular low-level magic practitioner who MAY be a direct descendant of the legendary Grigori Rasputin. What they don’t tell Lizbeth Rose is that they’re hoping this young man’s blood will cure the young tsar.

As the group begins its search, they are almost immediately attacked by various enemies.  Someone or something doesn’t want them to find this particular young wizard, and Gunnie Rose has to put her reputation and her life on the line to make sure she and her wizard clients can survive this mission.

Take a western with magic, a gunslinger working for wizards, a dystopian world that’s both recognizable and disturbingly different from the world we know, and add all the worldbuilding and  character development for which Charlaine Harris is justly famous, and you have a book that’s guaranteed to be a good read. The only caveat I have to offer is that it’s the first book in a series, and we all know my feeling about unfinished series (especially when there are cliffhangers in any of the early books), but we can pretend we don’t know that there’s any other books coming and enjoy this as a standalone.

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LOSS OF SHADOWS, LOSS OF MEMORIES: THE BOOK OF M

There are all kinds of books suggesting a dystopian future, involving things like alien invasions, zombie plagues, nuclear winter, global warming, the list goes on and on.  However, The Book of M, by Peng Shepherd, has an absolutely unique reason for the world’s ending: people start losing their shadows, and with their shadows, their memories.  If you’ve ever dealt with someone who’s suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, you’ll immediately realize how nightmarish the prospect of someone’s losing their memories is, and you can easily imagine what a horror show it would be if millions of people began suffering the same syndrome at once.

The Forgetting, as the syndrome is aptly called, started in India with one person losing his shadow, and nobody understanding what was happening or where this would lead.  Soon, however, the disease spread around the world like a plague, with people losing their shadows and then their memories and then turning into something other than human.

The book starts with Ory and Max, a married couple hiding out in the wilds, hoping to escape the disease by staying isolated and away from what passes for civilization (which, of course, would be devastated by millions of people losing their memories, and that’s without considering the other side effects of the Forgetting). They almost live a normal life until the day Max’s shadow starts to disappear.  Frightened by the prospect of what she might do to Ory if she loses her memories altogether, Max runs away, but Ory refuses to let her go and follows her trail through a strange and damaged America. Both Max and Ory encounter bandits, would-be warriors, and a weird cult that worships the shadowless ones. The world around them loses its coherence and sense along with people’s memories of an ordinary world, as if the only thing that made reality follow accepted laws is people’s willingness to believe that it does.

It’s not just a dystopian novel; it’s also a love story, a reflection on the importance of memories and human connections.  If you loved Station Eleven (as I did), or if you’ve had experiences with people losing their memories, this is definitely a book you’re going to want to read.

 

MONEY CHANGES EVERYTHING: 84K

Pretty much everybody acknowledges that our current criminal justice system isn’t working, though there are as many solutions offered as there are people studying the problems. But if you’re interested in looking at a really outrageous, completely out-of-the-box way a criminal justice system might work, and what the problems of that system might be, Claire North has a novel that’s perfect: 84K.

The premise is that there isn’t jail anymore, at least not for people who can afford to avoid it (so far that sounds familiar, but wait, it gets better).  Capitalism reigns supreme, and the idea of paying your debt to society is literal. Every crime has a price, and once you pay the price for your crime, you’re free of all stigma.  You can, if you have enough money, get away with murder; all you have to do is pay for it. Of course, if you can’t pay for it in money, you pay for it in service (basically slavery by another name), but if you’re rich, the world is basically your oyster and you can do anything you want (this premise reminded me a little of the setup for good and evil in The Management Style of the Supreme Beings by Tom Holt, only much darker).

Our protagonist is Theo Miller, a quiet man who works at the Criminal Audit Office.  His job is to assess the penalties for different crimes, figuring out, for instance, how much a person should have to pay for killing one person as opposed to another.  He does not, at least at the beginning of the book, question the whole system. He assesses the penalties and makes sure the miscreants pay them.

But then it becomes personal, and everything changes for Theo, the unexamined system making its inherent problems obvious to him.  His former girlfriend, Dani, is murdered, and Theo finds her body, with the hired killer standing over her, calmly calling the police to confess to the killing and to set up his payment for the crime.  Suddenly this isn’t another entry on a balance sheet. Now Theo needs to find the person responsible for the woman’s death, and make them pay, in something more than money.

Part dystopian novel, part thriller, 84K (which is the price of Dani’s life) forces us to look at issues of justice, and the question of “paying your debt to society” in a new and darker way.  

TWO NEW TAKES ON THE END OF THE WORLD

What’s up with all the dystopian novels this year?  Not only people like Stephen King (and let’s face it, you expect Stephen King to come up with dark views of the world), but writers who are not known for writing dystopias are coming out with their own versions.  Cases in point: both Louise Erdrich and Nora Roberts have new books out which deal with the end of the world as we know it.

Future Home of the Living God is not your typical Louise Erdrich book.  Instead of writing about the present (as in The Round House or A Plague of Doves or LaRose), she sets this book in the near, but undetermined, future, and instead of writing about issues of revenge and justice, she’s writing about issues of reproductive freedom and repression (though, to be fair, those issues are related to her usual concerns).  The cataclysm in this case is a massive biological disaster that’s causing women to give birth to increasingly primitive versions of human beings, and in the wake of this “reverse evolution”, society begins to fall apart.  The protagonist, Cedar Hawk Songmaker, was adopted in infancy by a loving Minnesota couple, but when she becomes pregnant (with all the stories of disastrous pregnancies and government attempts to confine and monitor pregnant women), she sets out to find her birth mother, an Ojibwe woman living on a reservation.  All around Cedar, the world is falling apart: her adoptive parents disappear without a trace, families are torn apart, pregnant women are being required to register and rewards are offered for people turning in recalcitrant mothers-to-be.  With the end of humanity in sight, Cedar has to take extraordinary measures to keep herself and her baby safe.

Nora Roberts turns her hand to the end of the world as well in her newest book, Year One. In this case, a disease wiped out half of humanity, and all the usual structures of society failed as well: the electrical grid sputtered, governments collapsed, science and technology no longer worked as they had in the past.  In the new chaos, magick arises, both in the form of witchcraft practiced by Lana Bingham, living with her lover in a loft in a wrecked New York City, and in more sinister forms of power which can lurk anywhere.  Lara and her lover leave New York and head west, along with a disparate group of other survivors: a tech genius living in a non-digital world, a former journalist who no longer has an audience or a medium, a doctor and a paramedic and the woman and children in their care.  Those who are immune to the disease are considered dangerous, and those who show abnormal gifts are also considered dangerous, so this small group is doubly at risk, from what remains of authority and from those who have acquired powers they’re using for evil rather than good.  Warning: this is the first book in a trilogy.  While Nora Roberts is good about finishing her multiple book sets, those who want to follow my rule of thumb about multiple book series (i.e., don’t start them until the last one has come out) might want to wait for the rest of the series. Otherwise, if you’re a Nora Roberts fan, you’ll find plenty to enjoy (in a dark way) in Year One.

ROLES REVERSED: THE POWER

This has been quite a year for dystopian books.  Even older books like 1984 and It Can’t Happen Here have become bestsellers, and one of the classic feminist dystopian novels, The Handmaid’s Tale, not only returned to the bestseller list but also inspired an extremely popular Hulu television series. A new speculative fiction book, The Power, by Naomi Alderman, is a different kind of dystopian book, though it shares some concerns with the more famous The Handmaid’s Tale.

In The Power, some teenage girls discover that they have the ability to produce electricity in their bodies and channel it through their hands, giving people electrical shocks that can torture or maim, or even kill.  That’s a startling beginning, but when all teenage girls discover they have this power, and older women have it, too, the world is in for a major change.

If patriarchal society is based on the greater physical power of men as compared to women, how can it possibly last when women become more physically powerful?

Some of the things that happen are predictable: men no longer rape women, women and girls who have been abused by men in the past are able to take their revenge. But what happens to religion?  If you have entire religions based on the notion of a God the Father, when mothers become more powerful than fathers, that concept has to change as well, with concomitant shocks running through the whole structure of religion.  What happens to the little details of everyday life, even things like who gets to read which stories on the evening news?  

The story is told through the voices of four people, three women and one man who’s witnessing the changes in society as a result of women’s new abilities.  One woman, an abused foster child, reinvents herself as a goddess on earth; another, the daughter of a mobster, finds herself capable of greater shocks than anyone else, and takes full advantage of this; the third, an ambitious politician, has to decide whether to hold back on the use of her electrical power or use it to advance her career.  

The author has no illusions about how much better women are inherently than men. She’s not creating a utopia where the world is ruled by saner, more emotionally stable, more nurturing women.  Giving one gender power over the other leads to all the corruptions of unbalanced power, nor are men willing to give up their traditional roles as leaders of society’s institutions without a fight.

Like the best dystopian novels, The Power makes you look at the world around you with new eyes, and makes you think about things you took for granted.

A DARK FUTURE FOR WOMEN: GATHER THE DAUGHTERS

One of the biggest hits on television this past year has been the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the book of which has also been a bestseller (again).  Perhaps there’s something in the zeitgeist that leads to the proliferation of dystopias.  One of the newest, and one that should especially appeal to people who appreciate The Handmaid’s Tale, is Gather the Daughters, by Jennie Melamed.

There has been some kind of horrible catastrophe in the outside world long before the book starts, and most of the world has been turned into an incinerated wasteland.  Here on this island, however, ten men and their families set up a colony years before, creating a new society with appalling (to me, at least) rules and roles.  The religion is a sort of ancestor worship, information is strictly restricted, and breeding tightly controlled. Only special descendants of the original ten settlers, called Wanderers, are allowed to leave the island and explore the wastelands outside, searching for salvageable detritus.

Women have one role in this society: to bear children.  As soon as a girl reaches puberty, she begins her Summer of Fruition, a ritual designed to take her from adolescence to matrimony, and then she starts bearing children until she’s no longer useful, and then she commits ritualized suicide.  

The younger children, the ones who haven’t yet reached adolescence, get to run wild for the summers, their older sisters either married or in their Summers of Fruition, their parents indoors.  They do whatever they want, roaming the island, fighting over food and shelter and precedence, and then, one summer, young Caitlin Jacobs sees something she shouldn’t, something terrifying and against all the laws of the island.

She takes this information to Janey Solomon, a 17 year old leader by nature who’s so opposed to the prospect of marrying and becoming a breeder that she’s been starving herself to death. She urgently sets out to find out the truth about Caitlin’s discovery while she’s still capable of doing so, and she prepares the girls to rebel against the system, even though that might be the death of them all.

There’s something horrible but intriguing about a society that bears some resemblance to aspects of our own (if you think I’m exaggerating, try Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer), carried to a nightmarish extreme.  What would you do?  How would you survive in such a world?  Read Gather the Daughters and imagine for yourself how that society would work and what you’d do to accommodate yourself (or not) to it.

JOAN OF ARC IN THE FAR FUTURE: THE BOOK OF JOAN

the book of joan

Some authors like to do new looks at classic fairy tales, some look for new perspectives on Shakespearean tales, and some authors use actual history as source material for fiction.  In the last category we find the new science fiction book, The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch, which takes the real story of Joan of Arc and transposes it into a post-apocalyptic world.

Admit it, just reading that description intrigued you, right?  What a fascinating idea!

As with many good dystopian novels, this one has as its prelude a series of devastating wars that have changed the earth completely.  In The Book of Joan, the very surface of the earth has become a radioactive battlefield.  The human beings who remain alive are living on a strange platform called CIEL, where they have evolved into sexless, pale white, hairless creatures who inscribe stories on their skin.

A charismatic war leader, Jean de Men, rises above the other bloodthirsty cult leaders to take over CIEL and turn it into a sort of corporate police state.  Along comes a child warrior, Joan, who seems to possess or to be possessed by a strange force that communicates directly with the earth (not unlike the voices of angels and saints the historical Joan of Arc heard), and she galvanizes the group of people rebelling against Jean’s rule.  As so often happens when people stand up against a police state, Joan is martyred by Jean and his armies, but also as so often happens, the result of this act is not what the tyrant expected, and Joan’s legacy is more than anyone, her colleagues, her enemies or even Joan herself, could have possibly imagined (similar to the repercussions of the martyrdom of the historical Joan of Arc).

Post apocalyptic dystopia, issues of gender and sex, love and destruction and questions about what it means to be human: if these are issues that intrigue you, then you owe it to yourself to come down to the Field Library and take out The Book of Joan.

 

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.