Tag Archives: dystopian

READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline

This book was, for me, one of those special reads.  I could barely put it down.  Bought it at a little indie bookstore on Mackinac Island (The Island Bookstore) with the intention of getting to it someday.  Well, my son read the description and started it, and he could barely put it down. I finished what I was reading  and picked it up a couple of days ago.  And that was it.  Every spare minute I had I grabbed the book and read.  Finished it this morning between patients, and I have to say that it kept me sucked into the story the whole time. Anyone read it? It's dystopian, in that the real world has devolved into a dirty, poverty-stricken dump.  Wade, the first-person hero of the book, lives in something called "the Stacks" which are vertical trailer parks.  Made me think of the way they park cars in NYC (we don't do 'em like that in Chicago) where you pull into an elevator of sorts and they hoist your car to the top, then put one under you, and another, and finally, the one on the ground.  They stack up the trailers (even some VW minibuses) in metal frameworks, and people live in them.  Cheap and efficient, but not very desirable. Wade's truly happy in the OASIS, a massive virtual world where humanity more or less conducts their lives in this depressing world.  It was designed by a computer nerd named James Halliday, who recently died (at the beginning of the book) and has set into motion a huge on-line quest, the winner of which will get his vast fortune and control of his company.  An evil corporate entity, IOI, wants to win, and is  hiring the best people they can hire to find this Easter egg, and they will literally stop at nothing, including murder, to get there first.  But the true "best" egg hunters, known as 'gunters,' are guys like Wade and others who by some combination of luck and brains, find the first key after 5 years of no one having a bit of success in locating it. I loved the 80's references (and 70's references; a lot of the movies and songs and even video games seem to be from the later 1970s as well as the 80's) and I loved the characters, and I loved the suspense of seeing how Wade and his compatriots would defeat the evil corporation and find the final key and win the game.  Plus, there was the added suspense about just who some of these gunters are.  I mean, all Wade ever sees is their on-line personas, and he clearly believes that it is enough to know whether he can trust them and be friends with them. I liked the message at the end.  It felt right. I don't know if it's a great book, but for me, it WAS a great book, one I'll probably read again someday. *****

WALL-E thoughts and comments from a while back…

I've been thinking about dystopian and post-apocalyptic storytelling recently, and it dovetailed with some thoughts about Disney from a while ago.  So I started thinking about the movie WALL-E.  I wrote some stuff to a file a while back, and thought I'd put it up here. It's been a while since we saw the Disney/Pixar offering WALL-E.  I recall that when we saw it,  I was expecting to be as charmed by it as I have been by most of the previous Pixar films, including such offerings as CARS, FINDING NEMO, TOY STORY (1 and 2), and RATATOUILLE. And I think WALL-E was as good as those movies (and maybe better in a lot of ways), but not nearly as charming. I don't know how to explain it...I think those other stories all take the Disney formula (if you don't know that formula, no sense in trying to explain it) and used it with their own unique twists. And they've worked, so much so that they are really the class of Disney animation currently, and have been for a long time, since the days of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and ALADDIN. But - WALL-E presents a much more complicated story than any of those. It's FAR less happy than any of them, far less funny, and more touching in a lot of ways. It's also more of a dystopian SF adventure than anything I've seen previously done by Disney. (I wonder what that will mean to repeat business for this film - while I liked it, I can't see going back to the theater to see it with the kids like we have done for other Pixar films...) (THIS SYNOPSIS LIKELY CONTAINS SPOILERS - READ AT YOUR OWN RISK...) In case you don't know, Wall-E is a little robot whose name is an acronym (exactly for what, I can't remember-waste allocation something something - Earth). He's the last one of his kind to still be operational, to still be functioning in his task to clean up the waste and garbage left on the planet by humans as they've abandoned their planet for a life in space. He's a fairly low-tech looking thing, yet he has intelligence and self-awareness. He is lonely, as you might expect, with only a cockroach as company for who knows how many of the last 700 years. Yet he goes about his tasks diligently, compacting and stacking trash into skyscraper sized piles all around the city. Into this world comes EVE, a sleek "female" robot whose "directive" is classified. Fortunately for Wall-E, she doesn't vaporize him immediately (I wondered about her defensive responses - was she programmed to find monsters on Earth? Why is she so quick to shoot first at anything that moves?) and after he follows her around for a long time, the pair of robots fall in "love", or something like love at least. When Wall-E is showing her his treasures, artifacts from humanity's past that he's collected in his day to day toils, he presents her with something different - something he hasn't come across in a long time. A small living plant. EVE's response is dramatic. She seizes the small plant, places it inside of her metallic body, and goes into a sort of catatonia. On her body a green leaf flashes over and over. And sure enough, soon the ship that left her comes to collect her, and she is being delivered to wherever she came from originally. And of course, Wall-E can't let her go like that; he chases her down and ends up going on a trip through outer space to her final destination: the star cruiser Axiom with its cargo of humanity. And herein lies more dystopian elements. Humanity has changed - low gravity and a life of leisure has turned them into a bunch of lazy blobs who are content to be waited on hand and foot by their robot tenders and don't even think about life or interaction with each other. Their captain is a pleasant but seemingly not too "bright" blob voiced by John Goodman. (John Ratzenberger makes his usual appearance as a passenger who is forced to interact with others by Wall-E's intrusion into their daily existence.) The Buy-N-Large Corporation is the benefactor in all of this - the corporation is the entity that built the robots, that sent humans into space to live while Earth is supposedly being cleaned up, and that promoted this lifestyle in the first place - a sort of bad guy who isn't really even there anymore. Of course, Wall-E and EVE save the day, getting the plant to the proper place which results in the ship returning to Earth, against heavy resistance from the robots who now seem to embody the Corporation. It's a touching conclusion at times, watching the humans get back on their feet, literally and figuratively, and relearn the joys of living, as the captain watches Wall-E and EVE dance through the space around the ship, and as the passengers are forced to interact with each other and simply act to save themselves. The captain outwits his robot overseer in the end, and humans return to Earth, which is not really "ready" to receive them but which needs their attention to be reborn. All very optimistic, at the end, and positive. It's a cautionary tale, however, warning against a lot of things - not the least of which is excessive consumption, corporate greed and a trend toward indoor (computers, video games, big screen tvs, etc.) entertainment vs outdoor activity. It seems to warn against technological achievement just for the sake of achievement, with no attention to the good or bad results of such achievement. Maybe most of all it warns against the current trend of not looking beyond tomorrow. I think there are some heavy social and political themes buried in the cartoon medium within which director Andrew Stanton and Pixar work best. Probably a lot more of them than I'm getting to here...I think someone could expand on a lot of these things and dig far deeper into this story than I've done. And that, by itself, was very unusual for a Disney or a Pixar type story. So, while WALL-E was not nearly as charming or uplifting as other Disney fare, it was certainly deeper and more socially aware than almost anything they had done in this medium to that point in time. We never did see it again in the theater, but we did buy it on DVD, and we've enjoyed it more than once on our own home screen.   I've grown even fonder of the film as time has passed. Maybe it's time to watch it again... ******

Pessimism in Science Fiction

I've been interested in the Walt Disney Corporation for some time now.  The whole history of the company and its genesis and growth to finally become the behemoth it is today fascinates me. I've gone to visit the parks several times as a adult (and parent) and enjoyed it every time, especially Epcot. I read a book called DISNEY WAR by James B. Stewart, and was doing some internet searches when I happened upon a blog called Re-Imagineering, which seems to mostly be a series of short essays about the problems with Disney as it exists today and what could be done to solve some of them.  The blog is basically dark today; it hasn't had new content posted in years. One of the old discussions (about Epcot) was talking about exhibits people would like to see, and what sorts of things they might try to freshen it up, make it less corporate in feel. It was also talking about Tomorrowland and its original optimism about our future. But that discussion shifted to some comments about the science fiction, especially in film, of today.  As an avid reader of SF and as an author, the discussion interested me enough to write this blog post about the topic. It seems that most of today's SF is dystopian, and that most of the film projects outside of stuff like STAR TREK and STAR WARS (not really SF in any classic sense) are very dark visions of the future. They named Blade Runner, Minority Report, AI, and The Matrix. (I'd say that Vanilla Sky, Dark City, and I, Robot are also fairly dystopian, along with stuff like Final Fantasy, Waterworld, all of the Terminators, The Postman, Battlefield Earth, and maybe even The Day After Tomorrow (though the last is not far in the future at all).)  There's a bunch more SF films that I haven't seen recently because I just don't have the time to get to the movies or even watch them on TV. As I think about the SF I've read in the not-too-distant past, first, there isn't a whole lot of it. ALTERED CARBON was a good book but pretty dark. Dan Simmons' HYPERION series and his latest pair, ILIUM and OLYMPOS, are not exactly happy fantasies of the future. I haven't read much else in the field recently, sticking mostly to mysteries with some horror tossed in here and there. Indie fiction introduces more variety, and more optimism, into its vision.  But even there, the story comes from the "negative."  I'm thinking of Steven M. Moore's THE CHAOS CHRONICLES and Edward W. Robertson's REBEL STARS series.  There's also Hugh Howey's WOOL series, which is pretty darned negative for most of the series, right up until the very end. As I think about it, my question is, is there a story in a utopian future? Is it a story I want to read about? Novels are about resolving problems. In some ways it seems to me that any story is essentially a mystery. If there is a mystery, there is a problem to be discovered and sorted through. If there are no problems to resolve, if everything is hunky dory, it might make for a nice pretty painting but is there any story? I don't know. I was thinking about something like Asimov's Empire series, and while there is a lot of optimism there with the direction of humanity, when the story takes place, things are not so good. Heinlein's juveniles are more adventure story set in a fairly positively imagined future, but some of his adult works are a lot darker. I see where they're coming from with respect to Tomorrowland, they don't want pessimism at Disney World, nor does it have a place. But I don't see a story in a future where everyone is happy as clams. Those Morlocks in HG Wells' novel weren't all that happy, and the surface beings couldn't have been thrilled with the status quo either. But THE TIME MACHINE wouldn't make for a very good Disney ride. *****

“E” by Kate Wrath

While perusing the "also viewed by" selections that Amazon provided on one of my own stories (I was either looking at THE INN or at the recently-free JACK'O'LANTERN and Other Stories) I came across a couple of selections that were listed as free.  The covers on two in particular grabbed me (plus the fact that they were free) so I investigated further, and upon a cursory read of the description I downloaded both.  (Hey, it cost me nothing, right?) Here's the Amazon description for Kate Wrath's book E:
Life is harsh. It makes no exceptions. Not even for the innocent. Outpost Three: a huddle of crumbling buildings choked by a concrete wall. Cracked pavement, rusted metal, splintering boards. Huge robotic Sentries police the streets, but the Ten Laws are broken every time one turns its back. Eden is determined, smart, and a born survivor. Stripped of her memories and dumped on the streets of the Outpost, slavers and starvation are only the beginning of her problems. A devastating conflict is coming that threatens to consume her world and tear her newfound family apart.
Does that make you want to read it?  It worked for me.  I like dystopian fiction.  I'm not sure exactly why, but I'm a sucker for futuristic extrapolations.  And the description gave me some of those:  an Outpost (this being #3, I'm curious about the others), robotic Sentries (advanced AI tech?), the Ten Laws (political commentary?), and crumbling infrastructure (again, political commentary?).  It also promises an interesting character with a lot at stake in Eden (hence the title "E?"). I've started HORNS by Joe Hill, but it's a paper version, and I can't read it in bed.  So out comes the Kindle, and the first thing there is Wrath's novel.  So I opened it up, and started reading. Kate Wrath grabbed me from the first paragraph.  "I wake up in a box of iron.  I know nothing, remember nothing.  There is one thought imprinted on my consciousness:  You have been erased."  From there it is compelling reading.  A picture of a society comes out through her protagonist's (Eden's) experiences as she struggles to survive in those first moments after finding herself deposited in this area like so much garbage.  The author uses language beautifully to convey the character and setting but she never loses sight of the story and plot as things set up. I wanted to find out more about the society and more about Eden herself. It isn't a perfect novel, but what is?  I just finished NOS4A2 by the acclaimed Joe Hill, and it was far from a perfect novel.  For me, for my reading experience, Wrath's E was the better novel.  So what makes it flawed?  For me (and your mileage may vary depending on where you come from as a reader), the novel began to suffer from some pacing problems at about the same time as the romantic triangle between Eden, Matt (who runs Outpost 3 and who doesn't seem to be a good person) and Jonas (her protector, a man with secrets) came into full swing.  Suddenly Eden's thoughts turned from survival and from her family and to her feelings for these men more and more.  For me, it bogged down the narrative.  I liked the problem-focused style of the first half better.  For me, it seemed like it changed Eden from this strong force of nature to ... something else. It wasn't a fatal flaw in any sense.  The story continued to progress, just at a slightly slower pace, and finally wrapped up in a sensible, satisfying conclusion.  I immediately downloaded Book 2, Evolution, and am already a few pages into it. One question I had as I read was, "Is this a young adult novel, or does it aim for an adult audience?"  I felt that it pretty much worked on the YA level as well as on an adult level, but usually the protagonist in YA is a teen.  (Thinking of Katniss and Tris here.)  In this book, I had the idea that Eden is a beautiful 20-something woman.  Maybe early 20's, but not exactly a teenager.  Maybe I'm wrong.  In the end, it didn't make a difference. I'll be posting a quickie version of this review on Amazon (when I get around to it) and will likely be giving the book five stars.  I think it deserves that rating, even if it weren't a first novel.  I hope that the rest of the series can keep up the standard. E by Kate Wrath.  Available at Amazon's Kindle store as well as other places. *****

FLASHBACK by Dan Simmons

My first exposure to Dan Simmons' novels came through the horror genre -- Carrion Comfort and Summer of Night were two excellent novels that seemed, to me, to be very original takes on themes found in the genre.  I followed those readings with his work in a different genre -- science fiction -- by reading his works Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, and The Rise of Endymion.  Those reads blew me away, and I kept going, reading more SF, horror and mystery.  Everything was enjoyable. When I saw that Simmons had written a dystopian novel titled Flashback, I had to give it a try.  I wasn't sure what to expect, but the blurb told me that the United States is in a state of collapse and that 85% of its population are using a strange drug called Flashback, which allows them to enter a dream-like state where they can relive moments of their lives of their choosing.  That sounds like a pretty cool premise to start with.  Follow that with a former police officer, Nick Bottom, who lost his job after the death of his wife, and has now lost his son as well because of his addiction to this drug. Nick is hired by a Japanese businessman who is serving as one of the US Government's "Advisors" to investigate the murder of his son.  It's a crime that Nick investigated as a police officer, and he knows that nothing much is going to happen, but he figures he can milk it for a good payday, which will assure him of a supply of his drug.  But there's more going on, and Nick actually does make progress; actually is motivated to solve the crime. The story is about Nick's investigation and discoveries, as the world around him is revealed to him (with more clarity for him) and to us readers (for the first time).  There is a value in considering this potential future as Simmons foresees it.  So much politics is there, so much of the rhetoric we are hearing today is extrapolated forward to come up with the pessimistic future that is depicted here.  Do I see it happening?  Not at all.  But I think it's worth considering so that we can think about the worst case scenarios as depicted by the Tea Party and conservatives every day today. So what did I really like about this book?  Well, it's a good story.  The trouble comes from being too close to events referred to in this book as sorts of "trigger events" and seeing them from a different perspective.  The book looks back at Obama's elections, the federal debt, entitlements, the lack of military response, the way the administration is dealing with Iran, etc etc, and depicts them as the first steps in becoming the society that the book describes.  I look at those same things and don't see things the same.  I look at Simmons' depiction of Islam and Arabs and Iranians (notice I separate the two -- Iranians are not Arabs, racially) and see fear primarily informing the story's (and I'm assuming, HIS) view of them.  I look at his depiction of Israelis as victims who have no responsibility for their own fate in this story, and I find myself disagreeing. In the context of this story, of this world, however, these things all work really well.   They set the table for an engrossing tale where the Japanese are looked at as a stable and sensible race with the proper goals -- except for maybe it's not exactly as it looks.  I liked the idea of a "g bear" kinetic energy weapon fired from satellites in space.  (The weapon's name is a nod to the SF writer who imagined such a weapon.)  I liked the way drones are incorporated into the story.  I also thought that some of the video technology was imaginative and plausible. I"ll point to some reviews of this book that focus more on the politics: Amazing Stories Review Science Fiction World Review Goodreads Reviews SF Signal Review  Some of them are pretty negative; they cannot seem to separate the politics from the novel.  I found that I was able to do that, and I found FLASHBACK to be a pretty good dystopian story.  Dan Simmons set out to write a dystopian piece, and he did so from his own perspective.  I thought it worked. *****

Dystopian vs. Post-apocalyptic

Ran across the internet site The Short List, who posted this list of "dystopian novels."  The list was controversial, omitting plenty of good novels and listing some that were arguable, like THE HUNGER GAMES and ARTICLE 5.  Also it mixed "dystopian" with "post-apocalyptic" novels as if there were no difference. I think it's likely that both dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories attract many of the same readers.  I know I am attracted to both.  But is there a difference?  In many comments, it is argued that post-apocalyptic novels are a subset of dystopian fiction, while others argue that the two are separate, closely related perhaps, but both branches occupy the same level of whatever tree one might be making to categorize science fiction. I have my own "End of the World" list of both types of novels on Amazon on which I tried to stick with "post-apocalyptic" types of novels.  I did not include classic dystopian stories like Orwell's 1984 or P.K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? because they don't paint a picture of a society that's been wiped out by some catastrophe (hence, the "apocalyptic" part of the genre tag).  I stick to stories describing the world after something decimates (not literally; "decimate" means eliminate one of every ten people, I think) human society.  In The Stand, it is disease.  Likewise in Edward W. Robertson's Breakers novels.  In Hugh Howey's Wool, it is another form of disease brought on by nano-bots.  In Lucifer's Hammer by Niven and Pournelle, it is an asteroid hitting the Earth.  In Stephen Baxter's Ark and Flood, it is a flood of super-biblical proportions that destroys the environment as we know it.  In Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, it's Ice-9.  (Read the book!  It's lots of fun!)  In David Brin's The Postman, it's nuclear war.  In a bunch of books, it's zombies!  How do the zombies get created out of your friends and neighbors?  Disease, usually. I see "dystopian" as being something different.  I see it as a society that's gone "off track".  Orwell's vision is the classic example.  Suzanne Collins paints a dystopian society in her Hunger Games trilogy, and so does Veronica Roth in her Divergent novels.  (Apparently, The Hunger Games is a blatant rip-off of another earlier novel, possibly of Japanese origin, which I'd never heard of...but the knowledgeable commenters knew all about it.)  Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged paints a dystopia of sorts, and apparently so does her novel Anthem.  (I've read the first, not the second, and I remain unimpressed with the "philosophy" found in Atlas Shrugged, but that's just me.)  A lot of current young adult fiction can be categorized as dystopian, especially The Giver.  How about The Maze Runner?  Dystopian, and possibly post-apocalyptic (I haven't read the follow-ups yet.)  (Oh, and I know The Giver isn't really current, but my kids were both assigned it for school reading recently, so for me it's current...) Anyway, lots of good suggestions for reading were given in the comments, and I plan on checking out a few of them.  There's something about the current crop of dystopian novels, especially the YA stuff, that grabs me - maybe it's the attention to social orders as we see them today, and the way that kids relate to one another.  Maybe it's just that it's more accessible, with a more modern style of writing.  I don't know.  But I know for me, it's sometimes hard to get to the excellent story, because of the style in which an older novel was written.  Earth Abides and On The Beach are both like that for me; so is Brave New World.  Great, if frightening visions of the future, but stylistically, they seem to take more concentration or something, and seem harder to get into, for me at least. If you have comments about any of this, I'd love to hear them.  (And I really don't need to hear from the Vuitton Bags or Nike whatever spammers anymore...everything gets caught in the spam filter and I delete it all because I simply don't have time to check four or five hundred posts...) *****