Stuff & Nonsense: dystopia

Showing posts with label dystopia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label dystopia. Show all posts

18 September 2017

When the English Fall

Set in what feels like the very near-future, a powerful geomagnetic solar storm destroys civilization as we know it. In the chaos that follows, the Pennsylvania Amish are largely unaffected and continue to go about their business in their small agrarian communities ... until the greater world intrudes in the form of the starving and the desperate.

Despite its calamitous themes, When the English Fall is a quiet, slow-paced novel told through a series of introspective diary entries written by Jacob, an Amish farmer living near Lancaster. Because we only see what is happening through Jacob's eyes, many of the hows and whys of the calamity pass unexplained and I can see where this would frustrate certain readers, but I was fine not knowing as the hows and whys of what befell the English aren't really important.

What's important are the choices Jacob and his community ultimately make. Indeed, When the English Fall is a rather philosophical book. What are the Amish community's obligations to their English neighbors? How long can they continue to react nonviolently to the increasingly desperate and violent English? At what point does selflessness endanger their own survival and safety? These are the questions central to the story. Not: how did a powerful geomagnetic solar storm destroys civilization as we know it? But: When the world changes in dramatic and drastic ways, how do we remain true to ourselves?

My only complaint is that I didn't find the prefatory Army communication at all necessary. I feel it didn't bring anything to the story, except to raise unsettling questions about what happened to Mike and his family. Questions I didn't want or need raised, thank you, especially as When the English Fall is a stand-alone novel so all unanswered questions will stay just that.

When the English Fall by David Williams (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2017)

29 May 2017

The Handmaid's Tale

The best kind of dystopian fiction is, for me, the kind that can convince me that world is possible and The Handmaid's Tale ... well, it hews too close to the truth for comfort these days. It is a bleak portrait of a future that seems far too real, given contemporary events. It helps that Atwood has told her story sparingly and quietly, with so much tension and drama simmering away at the edges, so that it's easy to interpret or suppose or assume things about the narrative and its relationship to the "real world." (Whatever that may mean in these days of alt-facts. Even on a good day, what is real and what is just what we're increasingly becoming used to?)

Format-wise, I really liked that the publisher had added a little music to the last 30 seconds or so of each disc, so that you knew the end was coming up, and that the last minute or so of each disc repeated at the beginning of the next. Maybe I listen to the wrong audio book publishers, but I don't encounter those features very often and that's a pity as they make the listening experience that much easier.

The Handmaid's Tale written by Margaret Atwood & read by Claire Danes (Brilliance Audio, 2014)

01 May 2017

American War

I finished American War well over a week ago now, but I still struggle to know what to say about it. It’s bleak and grim and dark. Full of rogue weaponized drones, catastrophic weather, (villainous) governments, and freedom fighters (terrorists). And yet there are small moments of beauty and humor amidst all the horror.

Ultimately, American War is a disquieting, uncomfortable novel. One of those novels the word “unputdownable” can honestly be applied to. Which doesn’t make this novel flawless -- there are, for example, points where the narrative is frustratingly meandering -- but it is too compelling a story for me to care too much about structural flaws.

El Akkad incorporates excerpts from news articles, memoirs, and official documents to fill out the story and provide context for Sarat's experiences -- I tend to enjoy fiction which employs that kind of epistolary conceit, so I ate those pages up and wanted more, because there is still so much of Sarat’s world I want to know (yet am afraid to know, because These Times Are Too Much Like Fiction).

American War takes place during the uneasy detente occurring after the catastrophic second American civil war. Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia have formed their own government (The Free Southern State), with North Carolina and Tennessee rather friendly to it, and South Carolina a quarantined zone controlled by the North. The Free Southern State is not well regarded by it's populace and there are a myriad of rebel factions clamoring for power within it. The South is gutted. Scarred. Angry. Prone to (self)destruction.

Growing up in this mess, first in mostly-drowned Louisiana and later in a displaced persons camp in Mississippi, is Sarat Chestnut. Curious, defiant, ignorant, and unfeminine (nice to see contemporary gender norms still hold sway), Sarat is eventually befriended by a mysterious, smooth-talking, and educated man who spoon feeds her the Story of the South -- a tasty, untanglable blend of fact and fiction that sets her on a dark path.

And I can’t say more because Spoilers. Just go yourself a copy of American War.

American War written by Omar El Akkad & read by Dion Graham (Random House Audio, 2017)