The Windup Girl.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2010 novel The Windup Girl, which won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for the best sci-fi novel of that year, manages to be both fantastical and realistic, with an all-too-believable setting in a world after a series of environmental catastrophes where food supplies are controlled by “calorie” companies and nations have fallen under their extortionary practices. The title character is a genetically modified human, grown in a lab in Japan as a sort of modern servant and concubine, whose mistreatment will lead to the fall of the Thai government and a shift in the area’s ongoing power struggle. Bacigalupi’s story is violent and his worldview bleak, but in a time when the world’s largest economy is pulling out of a worldwide agreement to try to slow man’s effect on the global climate, it seems entirely plausible – and his take on corporate ownership of genes and species doesn’t seem quite so cynical as it might have even seven years ago.

The multifacted plot gives us Anderson Lake, ostensibly an American managing a foreign factory in Thailand but in reality a researcher hunting for unusual genes and species bred or developed by Thai scientists – especially the location of the country’s seedbank, a potential goldmine of new genes for Lake’s employer to use to create new species of grains and other plants to resist the latest waves of diseases and pests. (Bagicalupi has created a rather terrifying-sounding array of these biological threats, including the evocative “blister rust.”) The factory Lake oversees uses animal power to create kink-springs that are used in this post-petroleum world as portable power sources, while also growing species of algae to help generate power to be stored in these springs. He stumbles on Emiko, the “windup girl” of the title, who is now owned by a strip club owner after her original Japanese owner decided to abandon her in Thailand rather than pay the dirigible fare to fly her back to Tokyo. The Thai government’s power is split between two warring factions, Trade and Environment, each of which plays a role in protecting the insular kingdom from outside threats and influences – like the importation of plants carrying new diseases – with each requiring its own sets of bribes and connections before shipments of outside goods can enter the country. When one of Trade’s enforcers, Jaidee, goes too far in punishing an importer who hasn’t paid sufficient bribes, it sets off a chain reaction that will eventually envelop Lake, Emiko, Jaidee’s forces, the heads of Trade, Environment, the army, and the queen’s regent in a political cataclysm that threatens to bring the country down.

The story is violent, especially to Emiko, often way beyond anything necessary for the plot to move forward. While the one major scene where she’s raped and forcibly sodomized leads to a revenge sequence that is integrated into the political storyline, there’s just more detail of her degradation than any reader should need – or than any author should want to offer. It engenders sympathy for her character, but she’s already such a pariah in this society that this is superfluous. Instead it seems like pandering to the worst elements of the audience.

Yet beyond Emiko, is there really a compelling character anywhere in the book? Lake is a blank page; his compassion for Emiko doesn’t fit with the rest of his behavior, and if it’s just sexual attraction, that doesn’t exactly explain the compassion either. There’s no explanation for why he’s one person in his work mode and someone else entirely once he encounters Emiko and ends up saving her from officials chasing her in the street a day or two later. The closest thing to a fully-developed second character in the book is Kanya, Jaidee’s top lieutenant who ends up taking over his squad and finds the agency that Emiko lacks. Their paths don’t intersect – Kanya has a marked disdain for the windup who temporarily helps her hunt for Emiko – but they do represent contrasting sides of the issue of women establishing any sort of control over their lives in a male-dominated world.

Post-environmental catastrophe novels have been around a long time – A Canticle for Leibowitz, set after what appears to have been a nuclear disaster, won the Hugo over forty years earlier – but Bacigalupi manages to fold a number of current problems or concerns into his setting that make it seem immediate where others in the subgenre have been remote. Global temperatures have risen with predictable consequences like higher sea levels. Food insecurity is a political destabilizer in this world, and food shortages are exacerbated by more tumultuous weather patterns and new plagues that evolved around monocultures foisted on the world by GMO food monopolies. Petroleum is gone, presumably exhausted, and methane use is tightly regulated. That means airplanes are gone and cars are luxury items. Air conditioning doesn’t seem to exist, which is particularly relevant to Emiko, who has been designed with smaller pores that mean she can’t sweat properly to cool her body. None of this seems that improbable or that far off, especially with our current government backpedaling on virtually all initiatives to protect the environment.

This novel winning major awards makes sense given the themes it tackles and the level of detail Bacigalupi has invested in his world, but I don’t think it’s that great of a novel in a literary sense due to the lack of compelling central characters. It’s thought-provoking, as many of the great sci-fi novels are, and there’s an immediacy here that stories of interstellar travel or time-shifting can’t bring. After I finished, however, I found the characters had completely vanished from my mind – the setting stuck, but none of the individuals did. That keeps it from the top echelon of sci-fi novels I’ve read in my run through the Hugo winners.

Unrelated, but “Bacigalupi” sounds like something the Hoobs would say.

Next up: I’ve run through three short books since finishing this, including Fritz Lieber’s Hugo-winning novella The Big Time, which is free for the Kindle because it’s in the public domain but which I found boring, and am now reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.

Station Eleven.

I ranked the top ten prospects by position (plus ten more starting pitchers) for Insiders today.

Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven joins a recent tradition of literary works set in a post-apocalyptic setting that sits beneath the story rather than dominating it. Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with The Road, an impossibly bleak setting that McCarthy uses to depict the lengths to which a parent will go to protect his or her child. David Mitchell worked it into the innermost story of Cloud Atlas. Margaret Atwood may have been the first to write a novel of high literary merit in this sort of setting with The Handmaid’s Tale, demonstrating the possibilities of telling a story that transcended the typical tropes of science fiction. St. John Mandel’s work, which won the Clarke Award and was a finalist for many other honors, goes as far as any of these works in creating a story that exists and succeeds independent of the setting, because she has been able to populate her universe with compelling, realistic characters before placing them in a possibly-unrealistic setting.

Station Eleven opens on the last night of normal life on Earth, at a production in Toronto of King Lear where the lead actor, Arthur Leander, dies of a heart attack during the performance, a scene that introduces us to several major characters in the book. That same night, a devastating virus from the Caucasus known as the Georgia Flu has shut down a major hospital in the same city; the virus kills within 48 hours, and in a matter of days global civilization collapses. Over 99% of the human population is wiped out by the disease, leaving the handful of survivors to return to subsistence living.

One group of survivors forms a traveling company to perform Shakespeare’s plays and classical music concerts to the small gatherings – “towns” of 20 or 30 people, usually” – around what had previously been the lower peninsula of Michigan. The group’s motto, taken from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, is “because survival is insufficent,” referring to one of the book’s constant themes of the survivors’ way of clinging to culture as a reminder of what came before. One member of the troupe, Kirsten, was on stage as a child actress during that performance of King Lear, and of the group of central characters she is the primary protagonist, with nearly all of the present-day action swirling around her. St. John Mandel also presents a series of flashbacks revolving around the life of Arthur, who came from a tiny town on an island in British Columbia and rose to become a famous film actor, rolling through three marriages and many friendships, with some of the characters appearing after the collapse along Kirsten’s path. One of Arthur’s friends grants us a window into another survivors’ colony located in an airport outside of Chicago, a speculation on how a group of strangers thrown together by fate might start to form a community in the face of a global catastrophe.

St. John Mandel’s prose is wonderful, but it’s the characterization that sells this book. The core characters are indirect victims of the pandemic – orphaned children, widowed spouses, but even people who came through with some family intact have lost essentially everything. She mentions unnamed characters who die from a lack of necessary medications. The few who survived suffer some guilt, but are more crushed by the weight of having to start everything over while trying to forget what they’d lost. Within this context, she shows remarkable insight into human thought and behavior, especially in response to trauma – the survival instinct, the nostalgia, the desire to be social, to form communities around shared interests or needs, along with glimpses of the darker side of humanity in the form of one person who takes advantage of the vulnerability of certain survivors.

Kirsten, who remembers virtually nothing from before the virus and absolutely nothing of the year she spent walking south into the former U.S. with her brother, receives the most three-dimensional depiction, a woman capable of ruthless behavior when her life is at stake, but still grappling with guilt and remorse when she has to resort to violence. The troupe has become her surrogate family, as it has for most if not all members, and she has complex relationships within the group that resurface when three members go missing after a visit to a town that has become the headquarters of a doomsday cult. We also get a full depiction of the charmed life of Arthur Leander, a men whose ambition led to great success, but then who ends up with a life full of regrets for what he hasn’t done or for friends and wives he’s hurt or discarded along the way. His friend Clark ends up playing a significant role post-collapse, although to say much of his character’s development would spoil a bit of the plot.

The book’s title comes from a comic book in Kirsten’s possession, a very rare but beautifully rendered sci-fi story about a space station that has become lost in space, and its hero-scientist Dr. Eleven. The story within the comic book is never revealed to us, but the book’s existence serves as a tie between multiple characters, a plot device for the resolution, and one of the most potent symbols of loss and remembrance within this emotional book that thrives on the heart it finds in a world where everything that seemed to matter is gone.

The novel was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2014, but didn’t even make the final six. If I’m getting the year right, it lost out to Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautifully written but dull The Lowland, Donna Tartt’s smart but overlong The Goldfinch (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction), and the eventual winner of the Baileys Prize, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (on my to-be-read shelf). The book may have been on the 2015 longlist instead, in which case I can’t offer an opinion since I haven’t read the winner or the five shortlisted titles, but if it was eligible for the 2014 prize and missed the shortlist, boy did the judges ever screw that one up.

Next up: I’m trudging my way through John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest after finishing Rabbit is Rich last night. They’re both Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winners; after I finish this I’ll have read all the winners from 1980 on.

Stand on Zanzibar.

John Brunner’s 1968 dystopian novel Stand on Zanzibar – still just $5 for the kindle through that link, or on iBooks – goes much farther than most preceding entries in the dystopian genre, with a rich, multithreaded plot and a vision of a world headed for collapse rather than one already there. It foresaw the rising power of multinational corporations and the widening gap between developed and developing nations, as well as offering a particularly prescient take on the importance and use of big data and machine-learning techniques decades before such things were even feasible.

The core plot of Stand on Zanzibar involves the effort by General Technics, one of the world’s largest companies, to execute a de facto takeover of the economy of the small, neutral (and fictional) west African nation of Beninia, which is caught geographically and politically between two unions of neighboring countries, Dahomalia and RUNG (a union of Nigeria and Ghana). Beninia is poor but in its own way paradisical, a sort of third-world Switzerland that has managed to assimilate various invaders over the preceding millennium. GT’s effort involves help from the U.S. government via their ambassador to Beninia, Elihu, and the GT executive Norman House, an “afram” man who feels he’s abandoned his racial identity to play white so he can move up the corporate ladder.

Meanwhile, Norman’s roommate, Donald Hogan, is a synthesist – a sleeper agent of the U.S. government paid simply to learn: he reads everything he can in selected subject areas and looks for connections and patterns that only he might pick up. Yet he’s “activated” after ten years on the job and “eptified” (retrained) as an assassin so he can go to the southeast Asian power Yatakang to see if the country’s claimed ability to genetically engineer their children to create a generation of supermen has any merit.

These two plots are intertwined on the page but not in fact, as there’s no practical connection between the two stories other than their shared setting in an overpopulated 21st-century Earth where everything’s gone a bit backwards. Most of the world limits reproduction (like China’s now-discarded “one child” rule), and most U.S. states have laws prohibiting reproduction by anyone with harmful or merely undesirable traits in their genotype, from diabetes to colorblindness. Many women (called “shiggies” in the strange lexicon of the book) live without permanent addresses, living with sexual partners and moving from one apartment to the next. Technology is pervasive, although Brunner’s vision of a future fifty years hence was a bit further off in this department. And entire neighborhoods, mostly non-white ones, are unsafe to walk in, with riots breaking out frequently when the mostly-white police officers (in “prowlies”) come through.

The structure of the book follows John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. Trilogy in feel and structure, with mini-chapters between the narrative chapters that offer us headlines or snippets from news stories, or vignettes of side characters whose lives are unrelated to the main plots but still reflect the declining world of the novel. Some of them are simply unreadable, coming as lists or stream-of-consciousness nonsense, while others provide useful context for the events in the narrative chapters to follow. But the constant interruptions break the flow of the overall narrative and add to the disjointed feel of a novel with two unrelated core plots that are merely set in the same world.

The one exception to everything I just wrote is the introduction of Chad Mulligan, a sociologist and commentator who, in this novel, is a successful author of popular, anti-establishment books that argue in favor of mostly libertarian values, showing very little trust of government or corporations. Mulligan’s Hipcrime Vocab is an updated Devil’s Dictionary for this fictional universe, and like Bierce’s work the entries are often very funny.

Brunner created his own vocabulary for this book, mostly to its detriment, in part because it feels very derivative of the Russian-English hybrid Anthony Burgess used in A Clockwork Orange. Terms like “shiggy,” “biv” (a bisexual person), “mucker” (someone who runs amok – a domestic terrorist, in modern parlance) are distracting enough, but his replacements for a.m. and p.m., “anti-matter” and “poppa-momma,” reek of an attempt to sound contemporary to late 1960s readers. Most sci-fi novels attempt to incorporate some sort of new vernacular, but it’s far more effective when the neologisms represent new things or ideas, rather than simply renaming something for which we already have multiple terms.

Where Brunner succeeds, however, is with the two stories; either one would have stood well on its own as a shorter novel, and together they do at least present a more complete picture of this world toward which Brunner likely saw us descending. The novel would be a sociology student’s dream, as Brunner’s focus was less on characterization (it’s not weak, but hardly a strength) than on painting this world and moving the forces within it to explore the effects. That produced a novel that is certainly readable but is even more one to ponder long after finishing.

Next up: Still working on Hugo winners, so I knocked off Robert Heinlein’s Double Star last week and have now started Dan Simmons’s Hyperion.

Day of the Oprichnik.

I held my weekly Klawchat earlier this afternoon.

I stumbled on Vladimir Sorokin’s 2006 satirical novel Day of the Oprichnik (on sale for $7.50 in hardcover right now) while wandering through Tempe’s wonderful bookstore Changing Hands, picking it up because the cover grabbed me, buying it because I enjoy satirical novels, dystopian settings, and Russian literature. The book delivered all of those things, but was sadly light on story, and several passages of the novel were graphic to the edge of offensiveness without any evident point to it all.

Depicting a Russia ruled by an unnamed Putin-like dictator in the year 2028, Day of the Oprichnik shows a day in the life of a government secret-police agent whose responsibilities range from killing noblemen and raping their wives to greasing the wheels of corrupt trade practices to consuming sizable quantities of alcohol and one of the strangest intravenous drugs you’ll ever encounter. The state combines the cult of personality that Putin himself has fostered with an evangelical form of the Russian Orthodox religion, where no one’s life, liberty, or property are ever safe under any circumstances. A small change in favor can mean a nobleman living in an opulent, heavily fortified compound can find himself under siege by the oprichniks, hanging from the gallows, with his children shipped off to an orphanage and his wife gang-raped by the attackers.

That’s just the most stark example of the pointlessly graphic nature of the novel; rape scenes require strong justification in any novel, and here, not only does the violation do nothing for the plot or the satire itself, it’s presented in stomach-churning detail that can only serve to shock. There are other graphic scenes – multiple murders and an orgy – also put in front of the reader for reasons I can’t begin to comprehend. It’s over the top in the way that Naked Lunch and Tropic of Cancer are, and while those are lauded as great works of postmodern literature, I rather thought both were unreadable shit. Oprichnik is at least easier to get through, because the writing isn’t so deliberately obtuse, but the ratio of shock material to actual heft is too high.

Of course, the book was written in 2006 and inadvertently foreshadowed some of the increasing authoritarianism witnessed in Russia over the past nine years, including the modern blend of jingoism and greed that drives the government apparatus for clamping down on the Russian people. The tyrant atop the machine, who has retaken the imperial title of tsar, is never named, but his resemblance in ego and grip on power are rather clear. Sorokin wished to lampoon the then 54-year-old Russian President’s increasing tendency toward totalitarian policies, only to have Putin himself outdo the expectations. Russia today may not be as overtly violent or as hostile to women as Sorokin imagined, but it’s at least as corrupt, as reliant on external economic powers, and as dangerous to its own citizens as the 2028 version in Day of the Oprichnik appears.

Next up: N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction-winning novel House Made of Dawn.

A Scanner Darkly.

I love the works of Philip K. Dick, prolific author of science fiction novels and short stories that often dwelt in paranoia and paradoxes, unrespected during his lifetime but finding a cult following since his death in 1982, with an increasing interest lately from Hollywood. The upcoming Amazon original series The Man in the High Castle (based on his best novel) and the Fox series Minority Report (based on a short story) are both derived from his works, as were the films Blade Runner, Total Recall, and The Adjustment Bureau. So you know PKD’s writing even if you haven’t ready any.

A Scanner Darkly is one of his least speculative novels, hewing very closely to reality other than its depiction of a war on drugs that has gone even further than it ultimately did, using some futuristic technologies (and yet still relying on payphones) and putting its protagonist narc, Fred, undercover with suspected drug dealers where he ends up a user himself. The drug in question, Substance D, is a highly addictive, synthetic, psychoactive drug that has become hugely popular while stymieing attempts by the feds to discover its manufacturer. Fred, posing as the low-level dealer Bob Arctor, tries to learn the source via another low-level dealer Donna, for whom he also has unrequited feelings. His adoption of these dual roles is exacerbated by his use of Substance D, which can cause the hemispheres of the brain to stop working together and start competing with each other, so that he’s no longer aware of what his other persona has done. When this occurs, the story shifts into high gear, as Fred/Bob’s real role in this charade becomes apparent and he has a chance to carve some meaning out of his experience in addiction.

Dick’s paranoia is still present in A Scanner Darkly, with the government using increasingly invasive methods and technologies to investigate Substance D’s distribution; the novel, written in the mid-1970s, foresaw much of what our government now does in the name of fighting terrorism. But the focus of the novel is on the effects of the drug itself, the terrible spiral into which it sends addicts, with Fred/Bob’s descent into cognitive failure taking over from what appears for the first half of the book to be a demented detective story. Dick even concludes the novel with a postscript that discusses drug addiction and laments the many friends he lost to death or disability as a result of their use of drugs, although he argues that drug “misuse” isn’t a disease but “a decision,” a position on to which modern medicine has at least cast some doubt.

Whereas many of Dick’s novels offer incomplete resolutions or deliberately unsatisfying endings, A Scanner Darkly ties up its story in a neat and clever fashion, but in a bait-and-switch manner that leaves that first half to two-thirds of the novel feeling like it was irrelevant. Perhaps Dick meant for the the structure of the novel to mimic the timeline of a drug addict’s (bad) experience – you’re fine for a while until you’ve gone too far, when everything goes pear-shaped – but the result is a novel that feels disjointed, and not in the good way that many PKD novels feel disjointed. We also don’t get to know any characters, least of all Fred-Bob, in any depth, although characterization was not a strength of Dick’s overall – his greatest attribute as a writer was his ability to craft unnerving settings and scenes that often struck at the heart of metaphysical matters like consciousness, perception versus reality, and privacy. A Scanner Darkly veers away from those strengths, and the result left me somewhat cold.

The novel was also adapted into a 2006 film by Richard Linklater, but I haven’t seen it.

Next up: I just finished Dorothy Sayers’ second Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, Clouds of Witness, and have begun Alison Lurie’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Foreign Affairs.

Black August.

My latest boardgame review, of the family-friendly boardgame Flea Market, is now up at Paste.

Molly Knight’s fabulous book on the 2013-14 Dodgers, The Best Team Money Can Buy, is finally out today, and if you haven’t already bought it, click that link and do so, or buy the iBooks version here.

I cannot for the life of me remember how I heard about Dennis Wheatley’s novel Black August (currently $6.15 for Kindle), the first of about a dozen he wrote that featured the dashing journalist Gregory Sallust, who was apparently an inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond. I’d had it on the amazon shopping list for ages, and had thought it was some other detective novel until I cracked it open and realized it was nothing of the sort. Black August is a violent dystopian adventure novel, highbrow pulp fiction with a significant body count, where Sallust ends up leading a core group of main characters through an utterly bombastic but entertaining trek through a collapsing United Kingdom.

Set before World War II, Black August begins with the accelerating fall of the British economy, coupled with a rise in Communist riots and sabotage that eventually bring down the state. Sallust is a minor character in the first quarter of the book, but ends up the leader of a band of refugees from London who first try to flee to the West Indies on a Royal Navy ship and eventually set up a sort of survivalist commune in southern England. None of their plans work out in the end, but it’s a cracking good time watching them try and fail, as long as you don’t mind watching a bunch of redshirts come to bloody deaths by gunfire.

Sallust quickly establishes himself on the page as a charismatic force, a man of bottomless optimism and an equally indefatigable supply of plans, typically illegal ones, although the question of law and order in a post-collapse England is a fair one. He’s brilliant, coldly rational, hellbent on self-preservation, and, unlike Mr. Bond, not the least bit romantic – he views the two women he takes into his motley crew as liabilities, at least at first. While there are some streaks of misogyny in the story, at least viewed from today’s vantage point, it’s a nice change from most novels of the sort to have the protagonist not just unable to get the girl, but flat-out uninterested. (Perhaps that’s part of why I like Nero Wolfe; the man loves his meals and his orchids, and that’s all.) There are romances within Black August; it would be unrealistic to run a group of people through this gauntlet without anyone coupling up. Wheatley just keeps much of that secondary to Sallust’s derring-do.

Like most popular fiction, there’s a bit of the ridiculous in how often the central characters in Black August survive their ordeals, especially with the sheer number of shell casings scattered across the book’s pages. Wheatley kills off a number of named characters, but the core half-dozen or so face lots of peril but always come out of it barely any worse for the wear. Characters who are shot but not mortally wounded seem to recover quickly as well. It’s the price you pay to read this kind of sophisticated adventure novel; the author has to give you danger, but he can’t kill off too many of the main characters.

I’d be curious if any of you have experience with Wheatley’s other works, some of which involved Sallust and many of which centered around the occult. While Black August was generally good fun to read, I didn’t finish it with any feeling that I needed to follow the character into the next book.

Cloud Atlas.

Klawchat today at 1 pm ET. My list of the most prospect-laden minor league rosters is up for Insiders.

David Mitchell told the Guardian in a 2010 book club post that he was inspired to write Cloud Atlas by one of my all-time favorite novels, Italo Calvino’s metafiction masterpiece If on a winter’s night a traveler, in which Calvino alternates between chapters of author-reader “dialogue” and opening chapters to stories he never completes. Mitchell takes that idea in a different direction in Cloud Atlas, giving us the openings to five novellas, followed by a sixth complete story and then the second halves to the initial five. All of his stories are linked through explicit and implicit relationships among characters and archetypes, even while Mitchell dances across genres from the picaresque to the dystopian to the modern detective thriller.

The six stories move forward through time, beginning with the journal of an American notary on a merchant ship traveling the Pacific in the 1850s, with the fifth and sixth stories taking place after our present day in a dystopian world on the brink of environmental disaster and a postapocalyptic Hawai’i that is one of the last bastions of humanity. Mitchell shifts deftly across the various narrative voices required for the task, nailing the tones of the dissolute composer/amanuensis Robert Frobisher and the third-person narrator of the “first” Luisa Rey mystery with equal precision. The two stories set in the future were the least effective narratives, especially the one set in a world where North Korea has become one of the few remaining powers on a planet increasingly covered by “deadlands;” Mitchell tells this story via an interview between a graduate student and a clone sentenced to death for attempting to incite a revolution, a dry method made harder to accept by his use of one of the world’s least sustainable regimes as the last man standing. Yet the Luisa Rey mystery, a conspiracy-theory thriller where the eponymous reporter stumbles on a massive corporate cover-up of safety risks at a nuclear power plant – with executives willing to kill to keep those violations secret – reads like a James M. Cain noir classic, but with the pacing of a Hammett novel because Mitchell has to wrap up the story in about 100 pages. It’s remarkable that Mitchell can do that voice so effectively while also mimicking Dickens or Smollett (or even John Barth, who himself imitated the picaresque in The Sot-Weed Factor) in the opening passage, and then switching to the pansexual Frobisher’s egotistical, anguished tone in letters to his friend Sixsmith (who appears directly in the Luisa Rey mystery) as if these were the works of different authors entirely. Even Timothy Cavendish, the vanity publisher who inadvertently (and rather comically) ends up with a bestseller on his hands, jumps off the page as a three-dimensional character who struggles to stay out of trouble only to end up in more of it.

That characterization is what elevates Cloud Atlas beyond the mere storycraft evident in the half-dozen novellas that constitute the book. The shorter the story, the harder it becomes for the author to gain the reader’s investment in its outcome by creating compelling characters. Mitchell varies his techniques across each section; we know Luisa Rey is going to come out all right, since it’s titled the “first” Luisa Rey mystery and protagonists in such books always win in the end, but we have no reason to expect any specific outcome for Frobisher or Cavendish, and the clone at the heart of the fifth story is already doomed, just for reasons we don’t understand until her story is over. Only the middle story, the one of the six told without interruption, dragged, but that was more a function of Mitchell’s use of a pidgin English that was intended to show regression in the language and reflect the race’s loss of knowledge through catastrophe and isolation.

My struggle with Cloud Atlas comes from my search for a unifying theme; Mitchell indicates in that Guardian interview that he tried to depict some fundamental aspects of human nature on both the individual and the global levels, but beyond, perhaps, a pessimistic worldview that mankind is so driven by myopic greed that we are bent on self-destruction, I didn’t get that sense of thematic unity across the various stories. The shared or related details across stories, often tucked away like Easter Eggs, were more effective at forging connections across the different settings, although I was looking for a stronger link in the common birthmark that Mitchell used for a character in each story than the explanation he ultimately gave – each character is the literary reincarnation of the same ‘soul.’ Mitchell even hints at spiritual underpinnings with the ends of several stories, including the augury that saves the savage and the humanist in the sixth story – the pivot in the novel – but never fully explores that themes either. The resulting novel is clever and compelling, but only intermittently insightful, a tremendous work of invention yet a bit short of a literary masterpiece.

By the way, the amazon listing for this book contains the best disclaimer (“product alert”) I’ve ever seen. Are people that quick to complain instead of just reading a few pages further in the book?

I also recently finished Silent House, from Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. The Turkish author takes Tolstoy’s aphorism about every unhappy family being unhappy in its own way to heart, presenting three generations of a Turkish family rent by alcoholism, infidelity, and death into a split structure where a 90-year-old widow employs her late husband’s illegitimate little-person son as a servant, who then ends up also waiting on her three grandchildren when they make their annual visit. The characters themselves, including the widow’s late husband, all come across as two-dimensional representations of various aspects of a broader cultural battle within Turkey, a country that is split in both geographical and metaphorical senses between west and east, humanism and religion, history and modernity. The narrative technique, with five different characters alternating their turn at the microphone, adds perspective, but the story itself seemed stale and predictable. I assume this wasn’t the best choice for someone looking for a single example of Pamuk’s work.

Next up: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, which was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, a prize Adichie won in 2007 for Half of a Yellow Sun, her amazing saga of five people trying to survive the Nigerian-Biafran civil war.

The Handmaid’s Tale.

My draft blog post on Jacob Nix’s pitching and Dillon Tate’s role is up for Insiders.

Margaret Atwood’s award-winning dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale had been on my radar for years, both as a book recommended by others and something I knew I should read given its genre and critical acclaim. It is a remarkable, harrowing, often infuriating novel of a very specific type of dystopian society, one that goes beyond mere questions of personal freedom to probe issues of gender roles and identities, as well as the difficulty of regaining any sort of agency under severe repression designed to strip subjects of that very power.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, the United States has fallen somewhere in the late 1980s, replaced in a violent coup by a fundamentalist Christian state, one that imposes strict Biblical prohibitions on nearly all areas of life. Women are now second-class citizens by statute, deprived of the ability to work, to drive, to assemble, to read, even to think for themselves. Decisions about their reproductive lives are made largely by the state, which is entirely dominated by older white men. Think modern-day Saudi Arabia. Or Texas.

The narrator, known simply by her assigned name of Offred, is a handmaid, a role of a highly specific form of sexual slavery. Handmaids are assigned to older men in powerful positions whose wives, due to age or other conditions, can no longer bear children. Their role is to try to bear their masters – Atwood doesn’t use that term, but I don’t see a better one – a child, after weaning which they’ll be assigned to a new house and a new master, while the child will be reared by the master and his capital-W Wife. Women who refuse to subject to this new order are sent to the Colonies, an unspecified location where they engage in manual labor from farmwork to cleaning up environmental disasters, or are simply disappeared.

Offred’s story is made all the more uncomfortable because she’s one of the first generation of Handmaids, and was ripped out of her old life where she was married with a young daughter, both of whom are now gone – to where exactly I won’t say to avoid spoiling it, but there’s nothing comforting about any of it. The idea of a regime so repressive that it would break up families for religious/political reasons seems so far-fetched, and yet we still have elements in this country fighting federal orders that should force them to recognize same-sex marriages. (Atwood, herself an ardent humanist, places surprisingly little blame here at the feet of the unspecified sect in charge of the new nation, apparently called Gilead, instead showing the religion as the tool of the oppressors.) When Offred’s master, called the Commander, tries to initiate a relationship with her that’s more than their perfunctory monthly Ceremony of sex – one so bizarre the reader can only wonder how Atwood came up with it – it begins the unraveling of Offred’s little world, one that replaced happiness with a modicum of stability, bringing back actual emotions beyond her regular state of depression and thoughts of suicide.

While The Handmaid’s Tale has a superficial purpose as a warning to all of us about how easily a repressive element like this might take over a previously peaceful, democratic society, or simply to caution us that such groups always exist at the fringes and will try to pounce on any opening they might see to exert their will on others, Atwood’s primary purpose seems to be explore the plight of a woman in a hopeless condition of subjugation. Can such a subject find any reason for hope beyond impossible dreams of a reunion with her family (where there’s life, there’s hope)? How can she claim some sort of agency – here, a capacity to form a desire for action, then to act upon it of her own will – within the confines of a societal structure that deprives her of everything right down to her identity, reducing her to a mere vessel for the propagation of the species? When she even has limited ability to choose whether to live or die, can such a woman find any form of freedom, and are such forms – like illicit sex – worth pursuing simply because they represent a rebellion against oppression? Offred learns of other handmaids who’ve taken their own lives, an expression of their limited agency, and ultimately encounters other “fallen” women who’ve taken to using sex for the same purpose.

Where Atwood might have gone further is in exploring the reasons why victims of such repressive regimes are not more willing to resist. In her alternate history, many women are willing participants in the scheme that subjugates their compatriots, becoming instructor-disciplinarians in reeducation centers set up to turn formerly independent women into Handmaids, or snitching on subversive or illegal activities to try to curry small, temporary favor with their overlords. There is a resistance movement, but it appears to be small and weak, and the idea that women, who constitute just over half the population, would be demoted to the status of mere chattel without more of a fight seemed unlikely to me. Atwood does give us a secondary character, Janine, who seems to embody Shakespeare’s frailty-of-woman, with her excessive emotional displays and subservience to any authority, male or female, that seeks dominion over her. Janine’s character is alternately pitied and despised by Offred and the other Handmaids, but their tacit acceptance of their fate is no different than her explicit version.

Discussing the issue of non-resistance – which is a major philosophical question that arises when we examine real autocratic regimes, notably the Third Reich – further might have led Atwood into the trap that far too many science- or speculative-fiction novels fall, providing excessive detail about the world and its inception, which ruined both Rainbows End and The Diamond Age for me. I’m glad she provided less detail here rather than more if the cost was giving us a lengthy exposition on, say, the power structure of Gilead. It wasn’t until near the end of the book that it became clear that the former university converted for the use of the government’s secret police and for events like the “Salvaging” was actually Harvard, more evidence of Atwood’s willingness to forego irrelevant details to focus on the plot and her themes.

There is another dimension to this book that will always be beyond me, as a man, because I’ve experienced none of the discrimination or even condescension that women face in what is still a patriarchal society; as a white, straight male, I don’t even have a good analogue on which I can draw. The horror of having her daughter taken from her and given to another childless family is always present with Offred, and that was the point with which I had the hardest time because it was the one aspect of her de facto captivity that I could imagine. Nothing else would drive me to madness so quickly.

Next up: Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice, winner of the 2014 Hugo, Nebula, Clarke, and Locus Awards.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.

I somehow fell out of reading the works of Philip K. Dick over the last ten years or so, partly because I abandoned sci-fi for classic literature and detective novels, but also I think because I’d gotten the sense that I’d read his main works. Dick was highly prolific, with numerous additional novels appearing after his death in 1982 (shortly before Blade Runner, the film based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, was released), but his product was uneven, ranging from pulpy sci-fi works to serious novels of ideas like The Man in the High Castle, which was #95 on the first edition of the Klaw 100 and won the Hugo Award. Returning to his novels has reminded me of what I enjoy about Dick’s writing – his paranoia, his clarity of vision (despite a rather muddled personal life), and his willingness to dispense with the rules of narrative.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said fits all three criteria, a dark, dystopian novel that deals in questions of identity, privacy, and, in classic Dick form, the nature of reality. Jason Taverner is a world-famous TV star with a weekly audience of 30 million for his Tuesday night program on NBC until he wakes up one morning to find that there is no longer any evidence of his existence. In a police state where citizens can barely move a few city blocks without government-issued identity cards, this makes Taverner a criminal, robbing him of everything that he uses to define himself while also destroying his freedom. His agent, his lawyer, his on-and-off girlfriend all seem to have no idea who he is. He has to deal with a teenaged forger just to get the documents he needs to head into the city, only to find himself swept into a police apparatus reminiscent of our NSA and Homeland Security, where suspects check in but they don’t check out. The truth of Taverner’s missing identity turns out to be far more bizarre than he or we could have imagined, and solving the problem becomes more complex when a dead body shows up in his path.

The paranoia of Taverner’s situation probably seems a bit old hat now – there was a short-lived network series called Nowhere Man in the mid-90s that borrowed the premise – but for 1974 it was fairly new. Dick magnifies the disastrous effect it might have on the victim’s sense of self by having this happen to someone who is world-famous, confident in his celebrity to the point of arrogance. But Taverner is also a “six,” one of a few remaining products of a government genetic breeding program aimed at creating people of extraordinary beauty and intelligence, giving him the wherewithal to respond to his crisis with alacrity (with a bit of overconfidence mixed in). While Jason’s six-ness doesn’t play a huge role in the plot, it does at least somewhat level the playing field for him after an unknown force or entity has effectively de-created him.

Beyond his ability to terrify the reader by placing his characters in situations like Taverner’s, Dick also defied or just ignored conventions of narrative fiction so that predicting resolutions or outcomes would just be a waste of the reader’s time. He was the true Unreliable Author; he wrote entire books where characters were merely figments of someone else’s imagination (Eye in the Sky), or were constructed realities (Time Out of Joint), or seemed to play with the many-worlds theory of quantum physics (Ubik). You can’t accept anything in a Philip Dick novel as real except the dystopia itself. I won’t spoil Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said‘s particular deviation from realism, but wish it had been further explored within the novel once it was revealed – by that point, the cause has ended, and the explanation of why Taverner was the main victim was unsatisfactory. However, Dick mitigates that weakness (and the slightly tacked-on feeling of the epilogue) by continuing to probe the same issues of identity after the irregularity has ended, this time shifting his focus more to the police commissioner, Felix Buckman, who has come into contact with Taverner and ends up facing his own crisis of self as a result.

I knocked off four books on vacation, including this one, William Gibson’s Count Zero, Dawn Powell’s The Happy Island, and P.G. Wodehouse’s Young Men in Spats. I’ll write reviews if time allows it; in the meantime, I’ve started Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hugo Award-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness.

The Dispossessed.

I answered questions from our fantasy baseball staff for a new Insider post today.

I’ve been an avid reader for most of my life, but often became burned out on reading when I was younger because I wanted to read something different from what was being forced on me in school. The drudgery of assigned reading in junior high school and my first two years of high school left me reading very little for pleasure, something exacerbated by a gift of a Commodore 64 around that same time that found me absorbed in games rather than pages. It was my chance discovery of a science fiction book that got me back on the reading track when I was 15, a spine that jumped off the shelf first because of the author’s name, Isaac Asimov*, and then because of the description of the book, which hooked me right away.

* I was familiar with Asimov’s name for a number of reasons, from the sci-fi rag that bore his name to the long out-of-print Realm of Algebra, which I used one weekend in sixth grade to learn the subject, because my school was switching me to a different math class. Any other famous sci-fi author’s name wouldn’t have had the same effect on me in the bookstore.

I wasn’t aware at the time that the book, Foundation, was an important work in the history of science fiction, or part of a long series. I saw what sounded like a cool story and bought the book, which prompted a stretch of reading for pleasure that ran right through college, through the entire Foundation series, then other Asimov titles, then the Dune series (pro tip: stop after book one), Lord of the Rings, the entire works of Kurt Vonnegut to that point, and even a dozen or so novels by Philip K. Dick, along with a handful of one-off works in the sci-fi and even fantasy genres.

There came a point in my early 20s, however, when that paroxysm of reading slowed to a near-halt. I gave up on fiction, for reasons I don’t even remember, and was only reading a book a month, if that. And when I gave up on fiction, I gave up on science fiction more or less for good. It wasn’t a conscious choice, nothing driven by disdain for the genre, but perhaps an association of science fiction with my own childhood that made me switch to more traditional, mainstream literature. There were exceptions, including the book that provoked my second wind as a reader, the first Harry Potter novel; I read that on a business trip to California in the fall of 2000 and have read over 600 novels since then because J.K. Rowling managed to reawaken in me the love of a great story, the desire to get lost in a dazzling plot with descriptions so vivid that I could be consumed by the words. (To this day, the only time I’ve ever had a dream that put me in a book was one where I was just a regular student at Hogwarts, witnessing the story as a classmate rather than a reader.) But even Rowling’s work didn’t push me to read more fantasy novels; I shifted to the classics, many of which appear to have been influences on the Harry Potter novels, and left science fiction almost completely behind me.

The closest I’ve come to sci-fi in the interim, aside from the two titles on the TIME 100 (Neuromancer and Snow Crash), are dystopian novels, those that depict an alternate society, sometimes set in the future, but nearly always incorporating some element of science into their visions of authoritarian regimes or personal struggles for identity and freedom. My interest in dystopian novels also dates back to that first fling with sci-fi in high school, when I read 1984 and Brave New World and Wells’ The Time Machine, but has never stopped even though the genre includes its fair share of solipsistic duds. (Its sister category, utopian novels, is even worse in that regard.) Reading Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We earlier this year made me seek out other highly-regarded titles in the catgory, which led me back into sci-fi and to The Dispossessed, the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel by acclaimed sci-fi writer Ursula K. Le Guin. Not only was it an excellent representative of what a good dystopian novel can accomplish, it balanced the fiction and the science beautifully, reminded me of what I once enjoyed so much about the genre.

Le Guin’s setup in The Dispossessed differs from those of all of the dystopian novels I’ve read previously. She’s set up two sibling worlds with antithetical societal structures, neither of them clearly utopian or dystopain. Shevek, the physicist and lead character, was born on Anarres, the large moon orbiting the planet Urras. Anarres was colonized by dissenters nearly 200 years before the events of the book, dissenters who called themselves “Odonians” and practice a form of true communism they refer to as “anarchy,” using the literal sense of the term (without government) than the colloquial one (chaos). Over several generations of isolation from Urras, the people of Anarres have organized into syndicates to allow for fundamental economic activities, but within those syndicates, there exist cliques and fiefdoms that stymie Shevek’s attempts to develop his science further (and his friend’s endeavors to develop his art), resembling authoritarian regimes in their denial of anything deemed subversive or unnecessary. Shevek chooses to become the first person from Anarres to visit Urras since the Odonians’ departure, hoping to expand on his research into “temporal physics” and to find the freedom the people of Anarres had lost.

Most dystopian novels focus on tyranny by a single, usually totalitarian government, but Le Guin doesn’t take sides between Anarres and the pseudodemocratic regime Shevek visits on Urras. (Urras also has a Soviet-style regime, Thu, and puppet states where the two superpowers fight proxy wars.) Anarres has a social safety net, no inequality, and a high degree of mobility. Urras has an actual government, with poverty, conspicuous consumption, disease, and waste, but offers a kind of liberty that Anarres lacks – until it becomes clear that Shevek’s ideas may challenge the government there, at which point he encounters the limits of Urrastian liberty and has to make a choice that will affect the histories of both worlds.

Le Guin succeeds so well here in crafting a philosophical treatise within a novel because she focuses more than anything else on the “fiction” part of science fiction, notably the plot. There are science aspects to the work, primarily the settings – and her imagining of an inhospitable world of Anarres is superb, to the point where you can feel the dust on the pages – and the many references to Shevek’s physics work and its importance for interstellar travel, but those details are superficial, laid on top of a very serious work about freedom, especially that of choice. What does it mean for a human being to be free? Is it intellectual freedom? Freedom from want, unless others are also wanting? Freedom from envy? Freedom to choose one’s work, one’s partner, one’s abode?How petty can one despot be and still despoil one man’s freedom?

The Dispossessed won both of the major awards for the year’s best science fiction novel, although the correlation between the Hugos and the Nebulas is so high as to render the two redundant. I did pull the list of Hugo winners and found a number of interesting titles, including the most recent winner, the comic novel Redshirts, which I’ve already picked up based just on the description. With only ten read out of 62 total winners, I imagine this will help keep me busy even as I’m winding down my sojourn through the classics.

Next up: I’ve only got about a thousand pages to go in Victor Hugo’s The Wretched (Les Misérables).