Tag Archives: dystopian fiction

Book Review Saturday – ‘Ready Player One’

Ernest Cline’s 2011 début novel, ‘Ready Player One’ is, at its heart, a love letter to an affectionately remembered past, and a thinly-veiled declaration that no era since the one in which he spent his childhood has ever been quite so good. Perhaps he’s right.

Image: amazon.com

Image: amazon.com

In some ways, I find it amusing that the 80s – for that is the decade in question – are making a big comeback, in terms of music and fashion in particular, but in another way it’s not surprising at all. People my age (and up to about five years older) would have been young during the 1980s, and so as we’ve begun to reach the age of ‘maturity’ – settling down, getting a bit of cash behind us, that sort of thing – we’ve started to want to relive the cartoons and movies and music that we grew up with.

But what about the 1980s was so amazing?

Well, there's this. Image: brisayhowto.blogspot.com

Well, there’s this.
Image: brisayhowto.blogspot.com

It’s no wonder that so many survivors of the 80s grew up to be nerds – it was the era when computers, outside of government facilities and academic institutions, really began to take off. Space travel cropped up in kids’ movies – Explorers and Flight of the Navigator, anyone? – and movies like D.A.R.Y.L., about a cyborg child, were memorable for their treatment of technology as something which had limitless possibility, but which might also exact a massive price. Video games were everywhere. I remember, from my own tastes in movies and cartoons, that the idea of exploration and potential was ubiquitous, computers – if you knew how to master them – could do anything, and space was only a step away.

This feeling – based more in nostalgia than reality, I suspect – suffuses ‘Ready Player One.’ The book is set in the year 2044, when the energy crisis and collapsing economies have forced much of the world to live in poverty and darkness. One thing they do have, though, is OASIS, a giant online MMPORPG (Massively MultiPlayer Online Role-Playing Game), which acts as a sort of drug. It keeps people sane, and takes them out of the minutiae of their own hardscrabble existence. Everything is done in OASIS – people, like our protagonist Wade, even attend school there in a sort of Second Life scenario, where you can be who you want – and absolutely everyone is connected to the network. James Halliday, the man who invented OASIS, died about five years before the book begins, and it’s rumoured that, somewhere in the workings of OASIS, there is hidden a huge prize – his fortune, and control of his company.

The only problem is that there are loads of clues to follow if you want to find the prize, and – so far – nobody’s been able to get beyond even the first of them.

Halliday was obsessed with the era of his youth – the 1980s – and because of this, millions of people have taken on a level of familiarity with that decade that most of those who lived through it couldn’t have matched. This is because the clues to Halliday’s ‘easter egg’, or the prize within his game, all relate to 1980s movies, books, video games, pop culture references, and so on (and, if you have any familiarity with the 1980s, these little gems and in-jokes pepper the book in such a glee-making way that I can’t even find a word for it.) Despite the fact that, over the years, most people have given up on the search for clues, one day our hero Wade unlocks the first one – and his name springs to the top of a global leaderboard, just like it would in an arcade game.

And that brings out all the people who’ve been quietly beavering away in the years since Halliday’s death, trying to work out the clues. And then, the race begins.

Image: onemetal.com

Image: onemetal.com

It’s a very visual book, and as I read I was imagining it like a movie or a video game. You can’t really help it – everything about the story and the 80s references naturally draws your mind back to the movies and games of that era, and the book lends itself to being seen, rather than being read. It doesn’t surprise me that a movie is in production.

There’s so much to like about this book. It’s huge fun, for a start. It also deals with ideas like internet freedom and free speech, as well as the possibility of reforging your identity in a world where everyone and everything is online, 24/7. It’s a scary, but shockingly plausible, vision of the future. It tackles questions of humanity, and how we’ll keep a hold on it as we drift further and further away from a flesh-and-blood existence. It deals with the nature of greed and whether idealism and equality wouldn’t be a better way of doing things. I loved it.

Having said that, it might not appeal to people who are either too young or not quite young enough to remember the 1980s, or who weren’t into the pop culture of that era. I was, just a little, but a little is enough. There’s loads in this book which I didn’t understand – but I didn’t need to. You get swept away by the action and even if you don’t get the in-jokes when Wade and his friends are doing digital battle, you care enough about them to make the battle important. It does escalate up into a rather ridiculous-seeming conclusion, but even then I found myself cheering the heroes on, while just enjoying the story.

In short, I’d say this one is worth a try. If you’re anything like me, you’ll love it. Hopefully.

Wednesday Write-in #82

This week’s words were:

signal  ::  resolution  ::  aggressive  ::  gunpowder  ::  fashion

Read on for what I made out of ’em…

Image: mattcornock.com

Image: mattcornock.com

Eyes Only

Autopsy commences 07:05:22 a.m., November 8th 2067. Subject: Prisoner #874431

Inscription found on sole of foot, left: ‘my name is sarah pinford and i had no choice i had to be part of the new gunpowder plot and if i had to i would do it again’

Inscription found on sole of foot, right: ‘i had made the resolution to do whatever i could before i was 15 y.o.’

Inscription found on inner arm, left: ‘this govt and its aggressive stance toward anyone not ‘Pure’ is the reason why we are doing this they have to be told that a human being is a human being and their laws cant crush humanity no matter what they think’

Inscription found on inner arm, right, partially obscured: ‘the signal was done by someone on the inside i wont say who but it was an act of heroism for which they shall always be remembered and when we heard it we knew it was time’

[NOTE: investigate these claims with immediate effect]

Inscription found across lower abdomen: ‘they can not tell us who to be any more they will not tell us we are Less than them we are not we are not we are not and i am not sorry’

Findings:

The subject (female, non-Pure, c. 25 years of age) is in an emaciated condition, significant tooth damage (probable cause gnawing, see below); evidence of parturition [NOTE: check for offspring/mate and apprehend]; organs Pure-equivalent in relation to size, weight, function [NOTE: recheck this data]; skin abraded with some skill. Subject managed to fashion a crude blade from the handle of a plastic spoon, used this to mark herself with her propaganda, which was exposed post-execution.

Recommendations:

No more plastic cutlery to be supplied to non-Pure detainees. Backlog in eliminations to be worked through – no non-Pure detainee to be permitted more than two days in cells. Root and branch examination of the Parliament, all leaks to be plugged. Purges to be stepped up. Prisoner #874431 to be cremated. This report eyes-only.

Dissent to be quelled at all costs.

Ends

Book Review Saturday – ‘Divergent’

Sometimes, I’m a little ‘behind the herd’ when it comes to blockbusters. This book has been out now for a couple of years, and the movie version is being released early in 2014. The final book in the series (of which ‘Divergent’ is the first instalment) was released in October (I am currently reading it); my beloved husband decided to buy me the entire trilogy for a birthday gift (which means I shouldn’t even be reading them yet – but that’s irrelevant, surely.) It really makes a trilogy work when you have all three books available to read, one after the other – I did the same thing with ‘The Hunger Games’ and I found it to be most satisfactory – and I was really looking forward to finally getting stuck into the phenomenon that is Veronica Roth, and her dystopian novels that have set the YA world on fire.

Image: musingsofanoverlord.wordpress.com

Image: musingsofanoverlord.wordpress.com

Now that I’m over two-thirds of the way through them, all I can say is – what?

So, there are several things about the book (and this goes for ‘Insurgent’, the second book in the trilogy, too) which are great, namely the fight scenes and the descriptions of physical intensity at times of great stress or fear, and the occasional gem of language beautifully used. However, I have to say that, overall, I was a bit let down by ‘Divergent.’ Perhaps ‘let down’ isn’t the right way to put it; frustrated, maybe. Irritated. Forced to prop up my suspension of disbelief once too often.

In the world of ‘Divergent’, a vision of a future Chicago, people are divided into five factions. We have the Dauntless, who are brave (apparently, though they just seem reckless to me), the Candor (those who cannot tell a lie), the Amity (those for whom life is about love and friendship), the Abnegation (those who prize selflessness above all things) and the Erudite (those who live for knowledge, and the acquisition of knowledge). In a strange version of sumptuary law, the people belonging to these factions each wear different styles of clothing and have unique hairstyles and ways of talking and walking which make it clear whether they are Amity, or Abnegation, or whatever. We are not given any real, concrete explanation for how or why society ended up this way, only that a long-ago war had split humanity so badly that the leaders of the postbellum society decided factions were the way to go in order to ensure peace would reign forevermore. Wars were caused, apparently, by human nature and the tendency for humanity to do evil due to greed, or anger, or cowardice, so somehow – logically (or not?) – dividing people up like this into traits for which they showed a natural inclination, and keeping them all separate, with separate roles in society all of which are meant to be complementary, was seen as a good idea.

Here’s my first problem with ‘Divergent’. This idea – the basic strut upon which the book, and the world, is built, makes no sense to me.

That is completely illogical. Image: freerepublic.com

That is completely illogical.
Image: freerepublic.com

Our heroine is a sixteen-year-old named Beatrice Prior who, along with her brother Caleb (not described as her twin, yet somehow the same age) must face the test that every sixteen year old in the city has to undergo – the aptitude test, which will determine what faction they have a natural inclination toward, followed by a ceremony where they publicly choose a faction. They can stay with the one in which they were raised, or choose another. Beatrice and Caleb have been raised as Abnegation, and Beatrice has never felt like she fits in. Her brother seems too good to be true – perfectly selfless, living his life to serve others, the perfect Abnegation – and so Tris is sure he will choose to spend the rest of his life there, keeping their parents company.

However, Caleb’s choice shocks Beatrice, and her choice shocks everyone.

Then, the book basically takes us through Beatrice’s (or Tris’s, as she renames herself) initiation into her faction. Mostly this focuses on (I hate to say it) repetitive and boring descriptions of simulations which are designed to make her face her fears, pointless training which sounds at once so brutal and so stupid as to be irritating, and her love for Four, one of the trainers in her faction. As the book comes to a conclusion (and, I’m talking, about 400 pages into a 500 page book), we finally start to realise that there’s more to this world than Tris learning how to fire a gun and cope with being almost beaten to death on a regular basis. There is, in fact, a Conspiracy in place – a Conspiracy to bring down the factions.

The end of the book is its strongest point, though Tris does one extremely selfish and stupid thing that I can’t mention here for the sake of spoiling it. However, I am glad to note that the repercussions of this act haunt her throughout book 2.

It’s hard to believe that all this is going on inside one city, and one city only. Having read a little further in the series, I’m now beginning to see that Roth intends to expand on this in subsequent books, and perhaps explain what happened to the rest of the world – but, really, it shouldn’t be something a reader is only coming to in book 3 of a trilogy. This should be clear from the start. There are things in the book like the train that brings the Dauntless around the city – it seems not to run on tracks, because one minute it’s seven storeys up, the next it’s at ground level, and it goes, apparently, wherever the Dauntless want it to go – which irritated me because, frankly, I found them silly. I didn’t like Tris, who seemed unnecessarily cold to her family – particularly considering the sacrifices her parents make for her at the end of this book – and who is definitely courageous, but also hot-headed and impulsive, and I really found her relationship with Four hard to warm to.

The most annoying thing about the book is this, though – the Divergence of the title refers to people whose minds are too complex to fit into one faction alone. Those who have an aptitude for two or more factions are Divergent, and apparently dangerous. Tris, of course, is one of these people. But – if a person can be raised in one faction, and still choose another when they turn sixteen, to which they are then expected to devote their entire life, how is it possible that more people are not Divergent? Why is it such a terribly dangerous thing? This isn’t explored at all.

The book is exciting and different and, at times, well written. It was interesting enough to keep me reading (though, I will admit, I was thinking ‘blah, blah, blah’ as I read, some of the time), and book 2, ‘Insurgent’, is a whole lot better. ‘Divergent’ is a touch repetitive, a little derivative, and built on utter illogic. But it’s worth it, I think, just for ‘Insurgent.’ Let’s hope ‘Allegiant’, the last book, is an improvement on the second. If not, I think I’ll be avoiding YA blockbusters for a while.

A still from the forthcoming movie showing Tris and Four in a training session. Image: hypable.com

A still from the forthcoming movie showing Tris and Four in a training session.
Image: hypable.com

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Weight of Water’ and ‘Breathe’

Alors!

Not only is it Saturday, friends, but it’s now June, too. What on earth is going on with this relentless forwardness, eh? It’s enough to make a gal’s head spin. In any case, we’ve got to keep on keepin’ on, and in that spirit I present to you a review – not so much of a particular book this week, but of an author’s oeuvre to date. (Don’t worry – she has ‘only’ published two books so far. We won’t be here all day, or anything.)

I thought I’d do my review like this because I have such varying feelings about the two books in question, both written by Irish-American author Sarah Crossan. One of these books is among the most unique and crafted pieces of fiction I’ve read for the YA readership (or, indeed, in general); the other is also an excellent book, but somehow lacking. The former is this book, right here:

Image: yellowbrickreads.com

Image: yellowbrickreads.com

The latter book is this ‘un here:

Image: epicreads.com

Image: epicreads.com

I’m not sure I’ve ever been so torn between two books by the same author before. It’s probably because I read ‘The Weight of Water’ first, and – to be fair – very little could stack up against it. What makes the book so special is not even the plot, or the characterisation, or the setting, or the dénouement (even though all these things are great, in their own right), but the fact that it is entirely written in verse.

Yes. Verse.

I’m not talking Shakespearean sonnets or rhyming couplets here – more like free-form verse, perhaps, than anything – but this narrative style lends the book such power and heft that it’s hard to imagine how it could have been done any better.

The story takes us through a journey made from Poland to the UK, undertaken by Kasienka and her mother. They are searching for Kasienka’s father, who has abandoned his family, leaving them practically destitute, not to mention heartbroken. They have no idea of his whereabouts until they receive a postcard from him with a British postmark, which leads to their arrival in the UK. The first poem in the book describes their leaving Poland, and Kasienka’s mother’s obsession with a borrowed nylon laundry bag full of clean clothes which is at once a source of pride (because the clothes are clean), and a source of embarrassment (because they’re in a borrowed and unstylish bag), for her. When they eventually arrive in Britain, she is too ashamed to claim the bag of clothes from the baggage carousel, and so they leave it behind. It’s a small image, but I found it very effective in describing the mental and emotional baggage they bring with them from their home country; the mental baggage, of course, is much more difficult to leave behind.

Kasienka (immediately dubbed ‘Cassie’ by her teachers and schoolmates, none of whom can be bothered to learn her real name) is put in with children much younger than herself when she begins to attend school, simply because her English is not perfect; bored and understimulated, she sticks out from the others from the outset. When her intelligence is discovered, she is finally placed among her peers, but finds she is still an outsider. Exotic, intelligent and a talented swimmer, she becomes an object of jealousy among the other girls. The book takes us through Kasienka’s savage treatment at the hands of bullies, the practical, not to mention emotional, difficulties she experiences in sharing a one-bedroomed flat with her heartbroken and out-of-touch mother, the ongoing search for her father, her swimming prowess, and her courage in carving out a new life from a country and community that seems, at least at first, unyielding. Kasienka’s voice, aided by the powerful verse narration, is evocative and touching, and her courage is unmatched. I devoured this book, not only because I loved the story, but because I loved Kasienka, too.

It’s no wonder this book was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. Give it a go. Go on.

Then, we come to ‘Breathe’.

Before I get into my thoughts on this book, I want to say that I read it with relish, and enjoyed it. It’s well written, with wonderful descriptions and imagery, and an expert use of language. Sarah Crossan is an exceptional writer, and ‘Breathe’ shows her mastery of prose just as clearly as ‘The Weight of Water’ showed her mastery of verse. Having said that, ‘Breathe’ just seemed ‘same-old, same-old’ in comparison with ‘Water’.

‘Breathe’ imagines a world in which the oxygen supply has dwindled to a point where it can no longer sustain life. The remnants of humanity live in a sealed dome; to leave this Pod is to enter the airless wastes, wherein nobody can go very far because, obviously, bottled air will only last so long. Even within the Pod, there are societal divisions; the upper levels of society (Premiums), who can afford sufficient oxygen, never have to worry about counting their breaths, but the lower levels, Auxiliaries, must make do with thinner air. The government who runs this dystopian world is called Breathe, and they control the lives of everyone who lives on this terrible vision of a future Earth. Naturally, in a dystopia where we have an oppressive regime, there will also be a resistance – this book is no different. The Resistance want to try to repopulate the planet’s surface with trees (they were all cut down, which led to the oxygen deprivation in the first place), but they are thwarted at every turn by Breathe. What happens, then, when a desperate Resistance fighter meets an idealistic young Premium and his best friend, an Auxiliary girl with aspirations to become a Premium herself, and all three are ejected into the airless wastes?

There’s a lot of good stuff in this book. The whole set-up of the world lends oppressive urgency to proceedings, which makes the plot zip along pleasingly. The horrors of slow suffocation are described, and we are left in no doubt as to what the people of this world are risking when they mess about with their air supply. Several times, as I read, I felt compelled to take a deep breath, just because I could. Oxygen never seemed like a luxury until I read this novel. I really liked Alina, the Resistance fighter character – she’s hard and flinty and resolved, just as she should be, and I also liked Maude, an elderly woman eking out an existence in the Outside with a long and dark past behind her. I enjoyed the SF elements – the solar air tanks, the ‘zips’ (robotic search-and-destroy units which detect body heat), and the well-imagined stratified society within the Pod.

However, I had issues with Bea (the Auxiliary girl) and Quinn (the Premium boy), mostly to do with the love story between them, which felt flat and uninspired, and also – if I’m being honest – unnecessary. Also, a lot of the time, I was confused as to whether Bea or Alina was narrating (the book’s narration hops between these three main characters, but Bea’s voice and Alina’s are similar enough to blend together at times.) Bea is a good character, but her devotion to Quinn was a little irritating – that said, as a teenager I often mooned over wildly inappropriate boys, too, so I can’t judge her too harshly – and Quinn, to be fair, does show a reasonable amount of character development as the book carries on. He’s still a bit of a blockhead at the end, though.

I thought the end of the book went a little too quickly, and things were wrapped up a little too well – but a sequel is imminent this year, so I’ll hold judgement till then.

‘Breathe’ is a reasonable dystopian thriller, but there are plenty of those already out there. However, there’s nothing like ‘The Weight of Water’ in the world, at least not that I’ve ever read. I’d recommend both books, but maybe read ‘Breathe’ first. I’m just sayin’.

Happy weekend, amigos. Go! Read!