Sep 30, 2008

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

Alas, Babylon

This one really echos my own thoughts about what to do if I wind up in a cut off, survivalist situation. For one, it's set in Florida, near and dear to my heart. Assuming (huge assumption here) that the water, air, and land isn't poisoned, I figure we'll be better off down here compared to most of the nation. Fish, veggies year round, oranges further south, plenty of critters to trap or shoot (although I'd have to be pretty hungry to chow down on armadillo), plus we have the advantage of no real killing cold.

On the other hand, do I think that, for instance, black folks would continue to be quietly subservient simply on the basis of that being the natural order? Well, I should hope to god not. I suspect that many of the post-nuclear novels of the 50s and 60s assumed a lot about society and how certain things would fall out that are more hopeful on the (generally white and often government or military associated) authors' part than likely.

That being said, my favorite part of this sort of novel is generally just seeing how different people react to the crisis. Who commits suicide, who rises to the occasion, who goes nutballs, who happens to come up with a new and interesting way to keep their world rolling along? And that's what most of Alas, Babylon is concerned with.

This is one of the few post-WW III type books I've read in which "We won it. We really clobbered 'em!" But even that is tempered with the statement, regarding the devastating effects of nuclear war, "Not that it matters." Just because the warning involved here is "save aside some chocolate and coffee for after the apocalypse" rather than "we will all be dead within months" doesn't make it any less a tale of the end of the world as we know it.

final thought: When the big one pops off, I'm moving down to Tate's Hell.

Sep 22, 2008

On the Beach by Nevil Shute

On the Beach

Of the other books I've read, this one came closest to reminding me of Level 7. We're dealing with that same sense of helpless waiting by the end of it, as the result of a nuclear war that pretty much happened by accident. Funny how that always seems to be the case - everyone wants to write about the Big One, but no one wants to lay claim to starting it.

On the Beach is, in the end, about human dignity and the choices we make in the face of our own deaths. Do you put in the garden, knowing you won't be there to enjoy the flowers? Do you adhere to wedding vows and military protocol? Do you go to work and make sure people get the medication they need right up until the end? Do you spend your last days fishing or racing or drinking? Do you do what you've always dreamed of doing, or do you stand with others to try and maintain the common sanity until the final bell?

There's precious little hope in this book. You will die, your children will die, your pets will die. Even if you and your countrymen had nothing to do with the nuclear war. And that's a warning to the world - you can not stay out of this. we all have a dog in this fight.

I go back on forth on how realistic I find this book. On the one hand, I think a lot of folks would keep going in to the office or to school or too the job site just because, well, what the hell else do you do? On the other hand, I think a lot of people would run wild in the streets, drinking and raping and looting shit they won't live long enough to enjoy. And although we want to think that one is better than the other - well, I sure want to think so - what's the damn difference? Either way, you're just as dead.

final thought: As I already admitted, this is the first book this year to honestly make me cry. God help us.

1984 by George Orwell


This is pretty much the gold standard by which modern dystopian fiction is judged. And rightly so. You've got all the necessary elements - possibly fictional government figurehead, repression at all levels of life, revision of history, brutal police, "anyone could be a spy", lack of art and music, brainwashing, denial of sexual and romantic urges. And, perhaps most importantly, Orwell could actually write. I cared about poor ol' Winston. (Not so much about Julia, mind you - after all, she was just "a rebel from the waist down".)

Books and papers and on and on have been written about 1984 and newspeak and Big Brother and all the rest. I'm just going to touch on a few things. For one, I think Orwell got it exactly right when he portrayed Winston as hating and fearing the revisionism he was deeply a part of - and yet, he still took pride in a job well done as he changed articles and destroyed past reality. That's just so damn human, isn't it? Me, I hate a lot of what my job does, but I take some pride in the way I do my small, administrative tasks.

The other thing that socks me in the gut - well, one of them - is the Parsons and their children. To be betrayed by your kids is a fear common to all parents, I would suspect. And making that an everyday - even a praise-worthy - part of society is just one more way of making sure that all control remains with the state. I can't imagine having no one worth trusting. Literally no one, even those who came from your own substance, that considers you as worthy as themselves. Worst part? Not even the kids' fault - they're the puppies from Animal Farm, raised to protect those who hold the reins.

Regarding current economic events, I just want to throw this out there:
It had always been assumed that if the capitalist class were expropriated, Socialism must follow: and unquestionably the capitalists had been expropriated. Factories, mines, land, houses, transport--everything had been taken away from them: and since these things were no longer private property, it followed that they must be
public property. Ingsoc, which grew out of the earlier Socialist movement and inherited its phraseology, has in fact carried out the main item in the Socialist programme; with the result, foreseen and intended beforehand, that economic inequality has been made permanent.

final thought: I can't believe this was the first time I read this one, but it's so deeply embedded in so much of our culture by now that it seemed familiar from the beginning.

That cover up there is the one I have. But I sure wish I had this one instead.

Sep 19, 2008

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

Battle Royale

Before we start, I have to say that I dig the cover of this novel particularly. Go ahead and click on it and take a look, see for yourself. A little overly clever, but enjoyable.

First of all, it's just interesting to read a novel set in a fascist fictional Japan. Mostly, I've been exposed to images of such possibilities set in America or England. Interestingly, all the modern ones seem to have one thing in common, Battle Royale included - extremist, dictatorial, oppressive governments don't like rock'n'roll. No siree, Big Brother does not rock out. Not even Big Brother-san.

Someone over on goodreads recently described it as "essentially a retelling of lord of the flies, only far more violent". I have to say, I think that completely misses the point. It's more of a complete reversal of LotF. In one, you have a group of kids that are left without any adult guidance who wind up turning on each other because of that lack. In the other, you have a group of children who are forced by adults to turn on each other. It seems to me that Flies is saying "we are not scared enough of what our youth may do" and Royale is saying "we are too scared of what our youth may do".

All that aside, damn fun read. The ongoing death count, the weaving storylines, the vague hope that someone may escape the carnage - this is the kind of adventure I can dig into. The characterizations are a little shallow, but it's entertaining to see teen "types" run true across cultures. The jocks, the nerds, the mean girls, the pop fan. Or is that just a twist of the translation that makes them so familiar?

final thought: This was a good break from all the deep-thought, real lit, cold war and before dystopias I've been bathing in recently.

Sep 17, 2008

dys is how you do it

Want to play along?
1. Pick 3 (short challenge) or 5 (long challenge) dystopian novels or stories. I suggest checking out my Big List. Pick at least one I've read and reviewed, so we have something to talk about after.
2. Post your list here, with a link to the blog or site where you'll be reviewing/discussing those books.
3. Read 'em! Mull them over. Post up your thoughts. Come back here and leave a comment with a link to your post.
4. Try not to get too paranoid about the current state of the world.

That's it - have fun. Pass the word, if you know anyone who might want to get in on the project.

Sep 16, 2008

who wants to play along?

Anybody interested in playing along with me here? I'm thinking of running some sort of dystopian lit challenge. Not as large-scale as my personal quest, mind you, but a "pick 5 and read them" sort of thing. What say you, friends and strangers?

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore (illustrated mostly by David Lloyd)

V for Vendetta

I watched the movie. It was sort of eh to me, mostly because Portman used up all her acting ability back around 1994. That being said, I dug the concept, so when a cool gal offered to loan me her copy of the collected comics, I pounced on it.

Who doesn't love a little chaos and humor in the face of fascism and repression? Who doesn't love the idea of the everyman who manages to evade the cops, slip between shadows, blow up the broken courts, do away with torturers and pedophilic priests? Do I think that bombing the halls of "justice" is a good way to get my voice heard at this time? Of course not - but I haven't got the government peeping in my bedroom every night yet or banning art and music yet or forcing a power-grabbing religion on me. Yet.

I'm drawn to anarchy as a philosophy. Not the punk's AN-AR-KEE!, necessarily (though I've still got a soft spot in my heart for those kids), but the empathetic don't-rule-me-and-I-won't-rule-you train of thought. Too bad I can't imagine it ever working. Get two people agreeing to pull together, you'll have a third bashing them both in the back of the head while they're busy.

In a less general sense, regarding the actual comic - I loved the story, I wasn't wild about the art. But then, it had a very 80s style that seems a little dated now, which pretty well excuses it. As an American, I have no cultural connection to Guy Fawkes or the masks, but I know enough about the whole thing not to be confused by the allusion and I think it worked. I wish now that I owned the collection, because I'd like to read it again in a few months and see if it's deep or shallow.

Oh, and because I am a dork with a head full of quotes and musical bits, I liked catching the meanings, here and there, of the lines that V dropped. Especially stuff like the Anti-Nowhere League. If you want your comic to have a soundtrack, that's the way to do it.

final thought: I'd like to see an English director film it with an English cast some time.

get out of my head!

India is convicting people based on brain scans.

From the story:

Even as the debate continues over using scans to trip up obfuscators, researchers are developing new uses for the technology. No Lie MRI, a company in California, promises on its Web site to use the scans to help with developing interpersonal trust and military intelligence, among other tasks. In August, a committee of the National Research Council in Washington predicted that, with greater research, brain scans could eventually aid “the acquisition of intelligence from captured unlawful combatants” and “the screening of terrorism suspects at checkpoints.”

“As we enter more fully into the era of mapping and understanding the brain, society will face an increasing number of important ethical, legal and social issues raised by these new technologies,” Mr. Greely, the Stanford bioethicist, and his colleague Judy Illes wrote last year in the American Journal of Law & Medicine.

If brain scans are widely adopted, they said, “the legal issues alone are enormous, implicating at least the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.”

“At the same time,” they continued, “the potential benefits to society of such a technology, if used well, could be at least equally large.”

If this don't scare the crap out of you, you need your brain scanned.

might be starting to affect me

Last night, I dreamed about Japanese teens in blue coverall-style uniforms playing violent games on a beach. Can this have anything to do with having just read Battle Royale, 1984, and On the Beach?

Yeah, didn't sleep too well.

Sep 15, 2008

just sayin'

Oceanic society rests ultimately on the belief that Big Brother is omnipotent and that the Party is infallible. But since in reality Big Brother is not omnipotent and the party is not infallible, there is need for an unwearying, moment-to-moment flexibility in the treatment of facts. The keyword here is blackwhite. Like so many Newspeak words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary. This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought which really embraces all the rest, and which is known in Newspeak as doublethink. (1984, of course)

You know, traces of this idea can be found in the rhetoric of all political movements today, but it seems to me that the McCain campaign is really taking it to heart.

(Image by Chris Weston.)

something in my eye

I've read, well, a lot of books this year. And some went some pretty depressing directions. But the last chapter or two of On the Beach actually made me cry a little. Glad I was at home, alone, when I read it.

I'll do a full write-up on the book soon. I've still got a few before it to expound upon, including V for Vendetta and Battle Royale.

Sep 8, 2008

Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Running Out of Time

Know who else read this book? M Night Shyamalan. Because if this ain't the uncredited first draft of the movie "The Village", I'm an illiterate 19th century peasant. But no one ever accused Shyamalan of an overabundance of creativity, so there you go.

Anyway, this is one of several young adult level books on my list. It wasn't bad - an entertaining idea, set out fairly well - but it's no Swiftly Tilting Planet. I like giving dystopian fiction to children and teens. I say, teach 'em young that what authority tells you may be a big, fat lie, that it's important to find out for yourself, and that bucking the system's not necessarily a bad thing. Anyone who takes on a healthy helping of dystopia along with their Blume and Rowling is forearmed against just accepting bullshit like secret US prisons on foreign soil being none of our business and good for our society.

The book itself? Not bad. The action flows just a little too obviously, but shit - kid's book. It's apt to be simplistic. Haddix does well not simply taking the easy way out - people do die, after all - though of course our spunky heroine wins out in the end. I'd have liked to know more about the father and his attempts to rejoin society after going whole hog with the "old days" lifestyle, but you can't always get what you want.

final thought: Young adult fiction is perfect for a brain that's mushy after 24 hours on a Greyhound bus.

things fall apart

Because I was recently able to pick them up for $1 or less, I'm adding a few apocalypse novels to the list. So fuckin sue me.

They are:
- On the Beach by Nevil Shute
- Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
- A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

So, no big changes. Just wanted to keep it up front.

Sep 5, 2008

Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing

Memoirs of a Survivor

This year I've read crappy books and I've read outstanding books, but this is the first one that bored me to sleep. Luckily, I read it on the Greyhound, so snoozing was pretty much the best thing I could have done. Thanks, Doris.

Maybe it's just different tastes. I feel like Lessing created a few flashes of a story I'd be interested in reading. Where were the gathering tribes going? What were all those people doing to scavenge the parts they sold in collected markets? What happened to folks picked up by the powers that be? What was the deal with the cat-dog? I wanted to know more about the amoral children living in the sewers and the sexual morals created in an end-times situation.

Instead I got a sort of dreamy, drifty, shoulder-shrugging, oblivious side view of the whole affair. A story about a girl's first experience with love and sex, but without any real passion applied to the tale telling. And something about an alternate reality that may or may not exist only in the narrator's mind.

final thought: Not my cup of tea, but there was enough happening around the borders that I wouldn't refuse to try another of her novels.

Sep 4, 2008

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch

What the fuck was that? You're telling me they made a motherfuckin movie based on that? How? I've got to rent the thing just to see if they added a plot or what.

That being said, I have to admit I kinda loved this book. It's all characters and language play and dirty talk - some of the my favorite stuff. I've had druggie friends, so I recognize easily enough the way things come and go in their minds, reality taking a backseat to whatever chemical's working its way through their minds at the time.

All the parts about dealers and their habit of turning up late - if at all - and keeping the buyer waiting rang way too true for me. I've smoked my share of green in my time, and the man is never home when you want him, never comes over when he says he will, and never has a steady supply when you have the cash. Is it because he gets a power high off making the user conform to his actions? Well, I can see where that idea would come from, certainly. I can see how those feelings would lead to a book like Naked Lunch, essentially the rantings of a dry junky recovering from or waiting for his hit.

The junk merchant doesn't sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.

I recently read the novel Hogg by Samuel R. Delany, which is probably the flat out dirtiest thing I've ever read. And I've read a lot of porn stories online. In reading Lunch, I could see a major influence on the style and subjects and various sex acts detailed so extensively in Hogg. If anyone wants an interesting and disturbing experience, I suggest reading them one after another. And then taking a long, hot shower with lots of strong soap. Burroughs was less concerned with storyline, though.

final thoughts: Burroughs was a bastard, but the man could fill a page.

Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

Day of the Triffids

In a way, this novel struck me as being a zombie story as much as one of vegetables run amok. Same idea - slow moving, easy to avoid if there are few and you can see them, but gradually they overcome the survivors of whatever giant disaster by virtue of sheer numbers and blind (ahem) aggression.

And, okay, so it's not really a dystopia, it's post-apocalyptic, but it's close enough and I wanted to read it.

The last book I read before this was, of course, War With the Newts, and I found there to be many similarities. Man finds resource that he does not consider overly dangerous or sentient, spreads around world, is warned but ignores it, is later punished for his hubris. Newts delved much more deeply into the worldwide events and reactions, with Triffids being more of an adventure story, but as companion pieces they work.

As I mentioned before, I'm pretty sure this is one of Stephen King's favorite books. Not that I've ever seen him mention it, I just feel like he's adapted large chunks of it and used it to flavor most of his best writing. So, I just now looked up "Stephen King" Wyndham on the ol' google, and what's the first result? 'The famous American writer Stephen King has called Wyndham "perhaps the best writer of science fiction that England has ever produced".' Yep, you can tell.

final thoughts: I've already loaned my copy out and suggested it to a few different people. Easily one of the top 5 novels I've read this year.

Sep 2, 2008

big times in the big town

Riding a Greyhound bus from Florida to DC really gives a man time to read. Over the next few days, I'll be adding my take on V for Vendetta, Naked Lunch, Running Out of Time, Day of the Triffids, Memiors of a Survivor, and Battle Royale, which I'm enjoying right now.

Anything happen while I was gone?