dystopian fiction

Robert Charles Wilson’s ‘The Affinities’ Is ‘Divergent’ For Grown Ups


I loved Robert Charles Wilson’s sci-fi Spin trilogy, about an earth which loses its night sky and what comes after those lights go out. When I heard he had a new novel out called The Affinities, I was super eager to pick it up.

The concept of The Affinities is a little bit Match.com, a little bit socialism. Adam Fisk is an early adopter of Affinity Testing. Thanks to the new field of socionomics, he’s led through a battery of tests which may qualify him for one of twelve Affinity Groups. This isn’t just a dating service, though, or a group of like-minded folks: affinity group members get each other from their first meeting, often live together, hire each other, and (eventually) care for their own much more than they do the rest of society.

Lucky Adam tests into the elite Tau Affinity, and the book skips forward to a world brimming over with the potential of affinities able to work perfectly together, people finely tuned for trust and cooperation, but cooperation with only a slice of humanity. Tau is at war with Het, another prominent affinity, and Adam and his family are caught in the crossfire.

As a lover of Wilson’s previous trilogy, this felt rushed to me. The glossing over of Adam’s nestling into the Tau Affinity, and the global shift as affinities rose from an early phenomena to an over-arching issue, felt like an introduction rather than the first half of a novel. And although other reviewers have noted the obvious parallels with social networking, I couldn’t help but think of the Divergent series and other sci-fi with social testing elements as I read. So, if you love Divergent (hey, no shame in that!) and are looking for a story that takes on some of its issues on a more plausible, understated level, this is your book. And if you haven’t checked out Spin yet, make sure to add it to your list.

The Affinities on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

The Suppressed Rage, The Suppressed Everything, Of Howard Jacobsen’s ‘J’

129.Howard Jacobson-J coverJ is a novel of omission, a novel of everything unsaid brewing up like an earthquake from under the ground.

Howard Jacobsen has built a world in which something happened. Something bad. This is a dystopian state that chooses not to talk about its dystopia, a world moved on by moving away, and now this holocaust-like massacre of some future group is referred to as “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.” Responsibility has been taken by all, or by no one, equally. Everyone apologizes for nothing specific. People’s names have been changed, attempting to wipe the slate clean and start over.

Social media, attributed with a role in WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, has been replaced with flashing utility phones equipped for making and receiving local calls. Gone is conceptualism in art, as the “benign visual arts” now focus on landscapes. Gone is so much expressing discontent, from rock music to Proust, all blamed in part for the atrocities. And yet, not gone is everyone’s anger, as spouses argue and drivers rage.

So much in J lives in what isn’t known, what is forbidden, the opposing viewpoints never even aired, people privately stewing over their secrets at night, the treasures stored in boxes. I’m typing the letter “J” here, but in the book it is always J with two lines through it, as main character Kevern’s father “puts two fingers across his mouth, like a tramp sucking on a cigarette butt he’d found in a rubbish bin. This he always did to stifle the letter j before it left his lips.” Throughout the book, j is typed as the title’s two-lined, stifled, silenced j.

Amidst this negative backdrop, with its history subtracted and its culture forgotten or denied or disallowed, two people fall in love.

Ailinn identifies with the title’s namesake whale in Moby Dick, always pursued. “But when people describe having the wind at their back it’s a sensation of freedom I don’t recognize. An unthreatening, invigorating space behind me?–no, I don’t ever have the luxury of that.” Raised in an orphanage, unfamiliar with her history but aware of Ahab at her heels just the same, she grows up to shape paper into flowers beautiful and strange, alien to the landscape.

Kevern, in a village full of men not hesitant to beat their wives or each other, is not the type to hit a woman. A few kisses here and there, yes, but he’s a man who drives his car rarely and slowly, who disarrays his slippers and teacup in the hallway just-so as a security system against intruders when he goes out. He is a cautious, kind man.

When Kevern sees Ailinn for the first time, a girl with “black hair–thick and seemingly warm enough to be the next of some fabulous and he liked to think dangerous creature,” he is smitten.

As the book progresses, as Kevern and Ailinn’s love story progresses, less is omitted and more is stated outright. Kevern and Ailinn are both outsiders, that much is clear. But what does it mean to be an outsider, after WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED? Neither one of them know their own history, nor that of their country or its crimes. Gradually, a bit of their history is revealed. Never enough for a full picture. This isn’t that kind of book.

J starts slow, as Ailinn and Kevern’s love story builds and each of their characters develop, but the last half of the book makes a powerful and shocking statement about the other as necessary for identity. The intentional vagueness of the actual atrocities allow for sweeping, wise statements and tight, tragic glimpses that might lose power with a more fleshed out description of the crimes. The ending is astonishing, beautifully done, and makes the entire book more memorable.

J on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

The Triumphant Apocalypse of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven

Station Eleven fell into a larger group of post-apocalyptic releases last year, but St. John Mandel approached things in a dramatically different way than the fear-based setting which defines much of the dystopian trend.

Edan Lepucki Shakes Up California

Edan Lepucki’s first novel, California, quakes and freezes our world into dystopia, adds a dash of refuge with dark undertones, throws in the nefarious older brother from Ender’s Game, and stirs.

Review – MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

maddaddam  margaretatwood

“Why is war so much like a practical joke? she thinks.  Hiding behind bushes, leaping out, with not much difference between Boo! and Bang! except the blood.  The loser falls over with a scream, followed with a foolish expression, mouth agape, eyes akimbo.  Those old biblical kings, setting their feet on conquered necks, stringing up rival kings on trees, rejoicing in piles of heads — there was an element of childish glee in all of that.”  — MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood

I remember my discovery of Oryx and Crake, the first book in the MadAddam trilogy.  I was down with the stomach flu and had recently bought the novel at a used book store, as I was a huge fan of Margaret Atwood‘s other works (The Blind Assassin, The Handmaid’s Tale).  I wasn’t sure what to expect with Oryx and Crake, but I was blown away once I started reading.  Despite my aching stomach, I read the book all the way through without stopping, moving from chair to floor and back again trying to ease my aches from the flu.  I think Oryx and Crake is easily one of the best apocalyptic novels of our time, and I recently listed it in my list of the best apocalyptic audiobooks.

I bought The Year of the Flood, the second book in the trilogy, shortly after its release.  The Year of the Flood takes place in the same dystopian period as Oryx and Crake, but can stand alone as its own novel.  Margaret Atwood has created a new world in these stories, and the possibilities of her imagination are endless – both books are funny, sad, and brutal.

And now comes MaddAddam, the third (and final? let’s hope not!) release in what is being called a trilogy.   If you haven’t read the first two books and are considering checking out MaddAddam, I’d say to read the other two first.  There is much more to appreciate in this novel with an understanding of the story thus far.  That being said, I haven’t read the first two books in quite a while and the brief summary at the beginning of the new book helped me recall where each of the stories ended.

As with the sequel to Justin Cronin’s hit apocalyptic book The Passage, MaddAddam has a lot to live up to.  I could barely wait to see which direction Atwood would choose to take things.

And go off in a direction she did – MaddAddam reads like the Waiting for Godot of the trilogy, all wit and wait.  This story begins where the other two books ended – with Jimmy and the Crakers (characters from Oyrx and Crake) encountering Ren, Toby, and Amanda (protagonists of The Year of the Flood).  Those hoping for the quick pace of the first two books may be disappointed – much time is spent on debating  the next move, on waiting for others to come back from various missions, and on reminiscing about times before the fall of man.  At one point Toby wonders what she is supposed to do, where to go from here, and we are all right there with her. There is a feel here of a post-apocalyptic version of David Eggers’ The Hologram for the King.  Where The Hologram for the King leaves us waiting in the harsh landscape of a foreign desert nation, questioning the purpose and productivity of American business, MaddAddam leaves us waiting in a harsh dystopian future, questioning our own potential demise and what is left to do for those of us who survive.

As heavy as this sounds, MaddAddam is a book full of jokes and jesters.  The Crakers (leaf eating, genetically modified semi-humans created to flourish in the new world) act as a Greek chorus of sorts, commenting on all they don’t understand from before their creation, inadvertently asking us to evaluate our most basic assumptions.  As she illustrated in The Penelopiad, a beautiful book of Penelope’s thoughts on The Odyssey, Atwood is a master of myth.  MaddAddam could be a study in the creation of myths (as could much science fiction), as the Crakers’ mythology continues to evolve on what they hear from humans.

Aside from The Crakers, who steal the show in this novel, the other star of the story is Zeb.  Zeb is a unique character for Atwood to take on, as many of her books feature strong female characters, and readers may be predictably dismayed that he is the focus rather than the more gentle Adam or the matriarch of the group Toby.  Zeb is masculine to the max – swearing and crude, he picks on his scrawny brother, he kills without regrets, he woos the women around him.  In the same pre-apocalyptic flashback style used in the first two books, we get to learn of Zeb’s history and his role in the disasters which struck the human race.  Atwood writes at one point “The old symbol systems follow us around,” and they surely do here.  Toby’s struggle with loving an alpha-male like Zeb could stand just as well in a tale from the frontier West or current suburban America.

As always, Atwood’s writing is stellar.  Her descriptions are short knife slices, her dialogue is smart and funny.  A woman in the group  “looks flinty-eyed, like a wood carving of herself.  She’d make a good executioner…”  As with Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, part of the joy here is reading Atwood’s vivid creation of a future gone mad – nefarious corporations, company backed oil-worshipping churches (“Church of PetrOleum, affiliated with the somewhat more mainstream Petrobaptists”), porn devolved into simulated or real violence, genetically modified animals grown for human profit (Mo’hairs – “Hair Today, Mo’hair Tomorrow went the add when the creatures had first been launched.”)  “Funny old thing, the human race,” Zeb says at one point in the story – and Atwood’s future shows the human race to be a funny thing indeed.

Atwood’s dystopian world has now spanned over a 10 year time period (Oryx and Crake was published in 2003), and I have to wonder if MaddAddam will really be the last addition to the series.  By the end of MaddAddam it is clear there is so much more to be explored – especially regarding Blackbeard, the charming Craker who becomes Toby’s shadow early in the story.  MaddAddam feels more to me like an interlude than a final chapter.  More is revealed here, and enemies become allies;  but this world is enchanting, gruesome, and hard to let go.

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood on Amazon

Margaret Atwood’s home page

Epic book of the day – Wool by Hugh Howey.


When a book features a blurb from Justin Cronin, author of the massive dystopian masterpiece The Passage, I’m ready to read.  Cronin says of Wool, “Howey’s WOOL is an epic feat of imagination.  You will live in this world.”  And he is for serious, as this book is the real thing.

I discovered Wool via an article on Howey’s underground success, and found I could download the first Part in the series for free for my Kindle through Amazon.  The book is broken into small easily consumable parts, short-story length interconnected tales of a future in which humans live in an underground silo.  I read Part One quick, and purchased Parts 1-5 right away.  This is everything that makes scifi worth reading:  the commentary on our social structures; exploration of our weird rituals and lore in societies; the struggles for control over knowledge, material wealth, and power in social systems.  I think this will be the new Hunger Games, a series that gets non-readers reading.  It is simple to understand and draws you in quick.

Wool – Part One blew my mind right away.  It reminded me a bit of how sucked in I was by the first chapter of Ender’s Game, called Third, when I read that for the first time in my childhood.  In the chapter Ender gets his monitor removed and brutally beats Stilson to prevent future bullying.  I thought it was so crazy the way Orson Scott Card drops in Ender’s age near the end – “Ender knew the unspoken rules of manly warfare, even though he was only six.”

That first part of Wool was so intriguing that it really brought me back to that Ender’s Game level of interest – I was dropped into this dystopian world, and right away I could see it all happening, all the rituals and beliefs and fears and concerns of these new people made so much sense to me.  I feel like the greatest science fiction I’ve read doesn’t stop to explain itself to the reader, it just lets the story play out while the reader watches from the sidelines and picks things up as the story goes along.

The concept of Wool, humans living in a silo underground, is one that has such a sweeping amount of plot to play with.  I’m always so interested in the myths and rituals and culture that build up in a society not like our own, and what these things say about our own culture.  I love the development of an entire world after ours in dystopian fiction (The Passage does such a great job of this, as does Oryx and Crake), and this book definitely leaves room to create a history of a people.  There are questions of maintaining power and control within the silo, and, without giving too much away, the daunting prospects of the entire world outside the silo’s safety.  And above all this, the constant sense of claustrophobia that comes with containment.

A group of people in an enclosed space always makes for interesting fiction – think of Stephen King’s Under the Dome.  I love cozy mysteries, and some of my favorite cozies take place in enclosed areas.  And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie takes place on an island during a storm, so guests are stranded.  The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny takes place in an isolated monastery, where the monks have little contact with the outside world and must be reached by boat or plane.  Science Fiction as a genre has a great opportunity to play with this tension by building situations where people are stuck together in enclosed spaces.

I’m excited to read the next part in the Wool series, called Shift.  I’m trying to put it off a bit for now, as I know I’ll just compulsively read it once I kindle it and get nothing else done in my life.

Wool – Part One by Hugh Howey on Amazon.com

Wool Omnibus Edition Parts 1-5 by Hugh Howey on Amazon.com

Shift Omnibus Edition Volume 2 by Hugh Howey on Amazon.com