The chilling thing about The Handmaid's Tale is not the oppressive misogynistic regime of the Republic of Gilead, but how effective it is as a police state and how plausible its operation if not its genesis is. All the small ways in which Gilead dehumanizes and isolates, turns women (men too, but especially women) into empty vessels, tools, nameless, faceless units of biological function. This is a dystopia that is actually scary and horrible because unlike Panem or, for that matter, certain other feminist dystopias written by authors named Sheri S. Tepper or Suzette Haden Elgin, this one requires minimal suspension of disbelief. Gilead is not a lot more extreme than certain Islamic regimes, the FLDS, or North Korea. Could the United States literally turn into the Republic of Gilead? Atwood proposes a massacre of the Executive Branch and Congress as the incitement for the takeover of the government by right-wing theocrats. Things get worse bit by bit, in backstory narrated by the Handmaid of the tale, until we arrive at the police state in which the nameless protagonist finds herself trapped.
Offred ("Of-Fred") never tells us her real name. She remembers the time before Gilead, when life was "normal." She had a husband. a daughter, a job. Now she is a Handmaid, a forced surrogate who, because she is one of the few women in the country who still has viable ovaries (Atwood never really explains what caused this widespread sterility, though it's implied that it's a result of pollution and radiation), is obligated to attempt to become pregnant by one of Gilead's Commanders. This obliges her to live in the Commander's house in a sort of veiled purdah, suffering the resentment of the Commander's wife, who has to participate in the humiliating procreation "ceremony." The way in which the Wives, supposedly free women of much higher status than the Handmaids or the Aunts or the "Marthas," are little better than chattel themselves despite their privileges, is something Atwood draws our attention to without spelling it out or hitting us over the head, but it's how we come to feel sympathy for the Commander's wife, Serena-Joy, former evangelical singer and advocate for a "Godly" society who is now angry, resentful, and bitter now that she's gotten what she supposedly wanted. Serena-Joy is just as oppressed and constrained as the Handmaids, she just has a prettier cage that lets her see sunlight through the bars.
Atwood has taken some flack for claiming at one point that she didn't write science fiction. Although she later backed off from that a bit, after reading The Handmaid's Tale, I can kind of see her point. The Handmaid's Tale is a lot like 1984, a speculative look at how very badly wrong things could go in our society, given a few flips of the historical dial, and the point is not the "alternate history" it creates but what this look at a dystopian society that maybe could be tells us. Is 1984 science fiction? Kind of — Orwell creates a new society, a new language, and mentions a few bits of technology that were futuristic at the time he wrote it. But it would be fair to say that it's not a conventional sci-fi story, at least, and that's also true of The Handmaid's Tale. Atwood isn't making up this fictional off-the-rails version of a future U.S. to do worldbuilding or as a vehicle for a tale about rebellion or resistance. The small bits of resistance in this book consist of a thought, a whispered conversation, a glimpse of a banned magazine, and like 1984, we never know if the supposed resistance is for real. Offred is no rebel; she pines for the old days, she hates her "reduced circumstances" and the reeducation she undergoes at the Rachel and Leah Center, but she is mostly a passive chronicler of her age, a vessel, a Handmaid. Things are done to her; she doesn't do things, though she occasionally fantasizes about doing them.
Atwood writes in descriptive literary prose; Offred's thoughts are poignant, heavy, mournful, occasionally smart-alecky, but mostly you just feel the oppressive claustrophobia, the daily dehumanization and erasure, and how readily a modern 20th century woman with a brash feminist mother can find herself submitting to such wholesale, brutal oppression as the new normal, clinging to memories of her old life while slowly forgetting who she used to be. Her oppression is a hundred small humiliations every day, none really cruel or violent, just things reminding her of her status, all the things she is no longer allowed to do (read, write, show her face to men, use hand lotion, talk to anyone about non-trivial matters). In this environment, the smallest conversation, a meeting of eyes, can become an act of rebellion, and Atwood shows us that repeatedly, how defiant and rebellious can be the simple act of asserting, "I am here, I exist, I am a person."
This was a chilling book precisely because there are no action scenes, there is no grand escape, there is no uprising, and you keep wanting Offred to have some way out, to see some way out for any of the people of Gilead, but there is no cavalry coming to bring down the tyrants, no Katniss Everdeens or District 13 here. It ends, arguably, on a more hopeful note than Orwell's book does, but then we've been told repeatedly by Offred herself that she is an unreliable narrator.
It was much less of a feminist polemic than I expected it to be. Yes, the points about right-wing Christians and their various fetishes were made, and Gilead is definitely a nightmare product of the very worst woman-hating religious extremists, but Atwood shows them slaughtering Catholics and Baptists as zealously as they kill abortionists and homosexuals, and there is relatively little soapboxing on the part of the author. The story says a lot of things about what happens when you take certain ideologies seriously, but it does not serve as a vehicle just to knock down those ideologies and push the author's own dubious ideas like certain other authors who tread the same ground broken by The Handmaid's Tale (I am looking at you, Sheri S. Tepper).
So, this book really does deserve to be read. I didn't even read it as a "cautionary tale," per se - it stands on its own as a work of fiction. The characters stand out as living human beings who talk and think like real human beings, because they are so ordinary, in their extraordinary "reduced circumstances." Is this science fiction? Kinda not really. But it is a very dark Bible-thumping dystopia, by a literary author who writes better dystopias than all those trying-too-hard SF authors.
Claire Danes gives a great performance as Offred, making her sad, introspective, and occasionally hysterical as the mood demands it, though something about her voice occasionally annoyed me in the way it drew me out of the writing and made me focus on the narrator.
Shirley Jackson did not invent the "Let's spend the night in a haunted house" trope, but she owned it with this book. Arguably, her disciples Richard Matheson and Stephen King even improved on it, but The Haunting of Hill House is a study in how to generate understated shivers without gore or violence. (Okay, there is a bit of gore, but it's phantasmal... right?)
The story opens with a straightforward expository introduction to Dr. Montague, who wants to spend the night in an 80-year-old house reputed to be haunted and shunned by the locals. It has the usual haunted house history - the builder was cracked, bad things happened, and everyone who's moved in since has left immediately. Dr. Montague hires two people with a history of paranormal encounters to stay with him, on the theory that people who've had weird things happen before are more likely to cause weird things to happen in a haunted house. The owners of the house also insist on sending their worthless heir to join the party.
It's thin as pretexts to throw a bunch of strangers together in a haunted house go, but it works as well as most horror story setups. The plot itself is no more than the summary - this group hangs out in a creepy old house, and creepy things happen creepily. But Jackson really created characters. Dr. Montague is fussy, stuffy, and (when his wife shows up later in the book), completely henpecked and almost pathetic. Eleanor, the protagonist if this book has one, is a meek young woman used to being pushed around and disregarded. She shows up at Hill House because she figures anything has to be better than her life with her sister and brother-in-law. Theodora is a brassy, sarcastic single girl who occupies the "slut" slot reserved for every horror movie, though on the page she doesn't do much more than flirt with bad boy Luke (though more is certainly implied). There is also the dour local woman hired as housekeeper, and then Dr. Montague's domineering, insufferable planchette-reading wife, who really livens things up when she arrives, and her driver Anthony.
But the main character, of course, is Hill House.
Hill House has bumps and shivers and shadows and cold spots and closing doors and whispering voices and all the other special effects of any self-respecting haunted house, but naturally the real horror comes from the effect it has on its victims. One member of our group of house-sitters proves to be most susceptible to its blandishments. I shan't spoil, though it's pretty obvious almost immediately who's not going to leave Hill House.
This is a ghost story rather than a horror story; for connoisseurs of haunted house stories I wouldn't even say it's necessarily the best. But it is a classic whose influence can be felt in every haunted house story and movie ever made since, and Shirley Jackson does a lot with a little; definitely a must-read on a dark October night.
I find Tolstoy a gloomy writer. Despite his deeply religious beliefs, I have not read a single story of his that seemed to contain any real hope, optimism, or joy, just lives full of misery, hypocrisy, and disappointment, until the very end. Then there is redemption through grace - a very Christian message, but not exactly an uplifting one except to those who've already accepted that life is meant to be suffering and the only relief is your reward in the hereafter.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich begins and ends with the title character's death. His colleagues and friends are notified of his death, and are deeply affected:
"Ivan Ilych had been a colleague of the gentlemen present and was liked by them all. He had been ill for some weeks with an illness said to be incurable. His post had been kept open for him, but there had been conjectures that in case of his death Alexeev might receive his appointment, and that either Vinnikov or Shtabel would succeed Alexeev. So on receiving the news of Ivan Ilych's death the first thought of each of the gentlemen in that private room was of the changes and promotions it might occasion among themselves or their acquaintances."
The story then goes on to trace Ivan Ilyich's entire life, from a fairly happy childhood to a tolerably happy marriage, descending into an increasingly bitter and joyless one, until Ivan Ilyich contracts a terminal disease and dies, in the end, after weeks of pain and suffering and his friends and family all pretending he's not dying, which only upsets him more.
This novella is really Tolstoy indulging in moral philosophizing. The unfortunate Ivan Ilyich looks back on his life and his steadily decreasing pleasure in it, and then comes to a place of peace only at the very end. Tolstoy's prose (even in translation) is nuanced and subtle and a master artist's portrayal of his subjects.
Simon Prebble's narration is excellent, and his tone perfectly suited to the story.
"Slippery" Jim DiGriz is a rogue in a society that is a peaceful, plentiful utopia and has mostly bred antisocial behavior away. That leaves men like DiGriz bored and, unable to cope with society any other way, they plan capers. Since there are so few people like him, there is a Special Corps dedicated to stopping these nefarious ne'er do wells.
After a bank heist and a scam that turns the wrong way, DiGriz gets captured, and recruited into the Corps. Of course. Takes a thief to catch a thief, and DiGriz's boss is a former arch-criminal himself. DiGriz is sent to figure out why a peaceful, backwards planet is building a battlecruiser. This leads him into conflict with the beautiful and deadly Angelina, who mostly gets away with stuff because this book was written in 1961, so even in this far-future galactic setting, everyone expects a pretty girl to be a hapless doll, not a sociopathic mastermind plotting revolutions and conquest.
DiGriz is the archetypical scoundrel who's secretly a decent guy, and his crimes are mostly bloodless ones. He reviles Angelina's bloodthirstiness, yet still falls in love with her... because she's hot? And also because she's a criminal mastermind like him.
Coal-burning robots, giant battlecruisers that exist for no particular reason, thousand-year-old galactic civilizations, and guys 'n dolls. Nothing deep here, but it's an entertaining space romp. This is a classic space opera and light-hearted sci-fi that shows its datedness a bit, but will be fun for anyone who likes the old stuff.
I have now read five of Austen's six novels. Persuasion seems to me to be the most outright romantic of those I've read, meaning that while the entire trajectory of the plot, like all of Austen's novels, was to bring the designated couple together in the end for their Happily Ever After, there wasn't a lot else to it.
Anne Elliot, a single woman who has "lost her bloom" at the ripe old age of 27 (!) has a vain, foolish father and a couple of vain and selfish sisters, but somehow has herself grown up to be wise, discerning, self-willed, and charitable. She's definitely one of Austen's most likeable heroines.
Seven years ago, she had an offer of marriage from a young man named Frederick Wentworth. Despite their being very much in love, Anne was persuaded against the marriage (hence the title) by a family friend and substitute mother figure, Lady Russell. F.W. went off heartbroken, joined the Navy, and came back rich.
Anne, of course, is still in love with Captain Wentworth. Captain Wentworth is still in love with Anne. Will these two star-crossed lovers somehow manage to get together again?
(It's Austen. Duh.)
This was Austen's final work, and apparently it's many peoples' favorite Austen. I cannot say it was mine. The simple nature of the love story left few surprises, and while of course there are the usual misunderstandings, false "entanglements," misapprehensions about who's in love with whom and who's going to get married, etc., these are all very obvious red herrings to the reader, as Austen practically spells out everyone's true motive from the beginning.
That's not to say I didn't enjoy it - I always enjoy Austen. But Persuasion was lacking the thing that made Pride & Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, and Emma so delightful: humor.
That's not to say there was no humor at all (setting it above Mansfield Park, in my estimation). Anne Elliot's father, Sir Walter, is a perfectly silly man who's amusing because he takes himself so very seriously.
But the humor is biting; Sir Walter doesn't have any amusing lines, he just goes around sniffing at those beneath him, acting vain and prideful in the face of financial ruin, and generally being an aristocratic fop with zero self-awareness. Likewise, Anne's sisters and her father spend the latter half of the book kissing up to some distant noble cousins, the Dalrymples, who themselves are dull and uninteresting and only important because they've got blue blood, and thereafter making a ridiculous fuss name-dropping their connection.
So, the foibles of Anne's family are somewhat amusing in an ironic way, and there are other quotable lines, but it's basically a story about one sensible, good-hearted woman in imminent danger of spinsterhood getting properly married despite her spendthrift father and superficial, self-centered sisters.
Given Austen's own sad fate as an unmarried woman who died at 41, one cannot help suspecting a certain amount of self-identification with this heroine more than any other.
The themes of the novel are persuasion (when it's good to allow yourself to be persuaded by others, and when it's not) and a bit of proto-feminism (maybe that's just my reading of it) as Anne and Captain Harville argue over whether men or women feel more deeply and more constantly.
""But let me observe that all histories are against you--all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman's inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman's fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men."
"Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything."
Persuasion has all the usual Austen virtues - fine prose, wittiness, and sharp social criticism - and an assortment of characters just large enough to make for an interesting cast, with heroes and villains in the romance wars. But the simplicity of its plot and the missing humor element can't make this one my favorite.
I started reading the Ex-Heroes series because I have a geeky affection for zombies and superheroes, but Peter Clines is growing on me. The second book was a little better than the first, and the third book, while more of the same story-wise, continues to improve. It's still just a comic book in novel form, but like any ongoing series, if you stick with it you start to get attached to the characters and conversant with the continuity.
The heroes guarding the walled enclave of Los Angeles, surrounded by several hundred thousand "Exes," or zombies, ended the last book with a new arch-enemy: Legion, a superhuman who has the power to spread his consciousness among an ever-growing number of zombies and control them. In Ex-Communication, Legion continues to try to get at the survivors, but then a new Big Bad appears. St. George, Captain Freedom, Stealth, Cerberus, and Zap have to defeat an honest-to-God demon lord from hell.
The addition of actual magic into the Ex-Heroes' cosmology does it no great damage; it was already a comic book world. St. George continues to be the Superman of the series, and Stealth (now his girlfriend), the Batman. Zap is the Green Lantern, Cerberus is Iron (Wo)Man, and Captain Freedom... well, guess.
Clines spins a fun yarn, and it's about as consistent and coherent as a superhero/zombie novel can be. There are the usual twists, reveals, a little more worldbuilding, and some clever power stunts, but at this point the books are just new installments for fans of the series. Hopefully Clines will expand this universe and stretch out a little before it gets stale.
The audio performance is almost the best part about this book; the multiple narrators give each hero (and villain) a distinct voice, and greatly add to the entertainment value, making it even more like listening to a comic book being roleplayed with perfect earnestness.
A World War II destroyer is sent back in time and joins lemur-people in a war against dinosaur-people.
If that concept sounds awesome to you, then you should read this book. If that concept sounds silly to you, then I've just told you everything you need to know.
Now, to be more precise, it's not entirely clear whether the USS Walker goes back in time or sidewise, but either way, the ship, on the run from a vastly superior Japanese fleet, winds up in an alternate timeline in which humans never evolved. Instead, they find themselves in a South Pacific inhabited by "Lemurians," who sail the seas in gigantic aircraft carrier-sized "home ships," and are currently facing an invasion by the savage, saurian "Grik"... who have sailing ships that are direct copies of 19th-century vessels from our timeline. Obviously, the Grik at some point encountered other humans who wound up in this timeline.
The USS Walker's crew includes a large cast of characters notable mostly for their individual personality quirks, like any war movie, and the Lemurians also get some named characters who will obviously be important in future volumes. The Grik, at least in this book, are just a bloodthirsty horde of nameless monsters, and all we learn about their culture is that they're insanely violent and driven to conquer. They are so mindlessly violent, in fact, that it seems incredible they could even take the time to learn how to operate sailing ships. Hopefully they'll get fleshed out a bit more in future books.
Into the Storm is the first volume in what appears to be a long series. There is nothing deep about it, but the writing, while nothing remarkable, was straightforward serviceable storytelling with brave men (and Lemurians) fighting a vile foe, and a lot of naval tactics, resource management, and inter-species diplomacy. I found it great fun, enough that I'll continue with the series unless and until it loses steam.
Daniel Brasher is the scion of a super-wealthy San Francisco family who is trying to sever his difficult, snooty mother's apron strings. Having walked away from the lucrative trade of managing the family fortune, he's now a psychologist working with violent ex-cons. Not that he's donned sackcloth and taken a vow of poverty - he still has his money, and as the book begins, he's making plans to start a private practice in a nice luxury office suite.
Much of the human interest involves his group of felons whom he meets with once a week as part of the terms of their parole. They are your usual assortment of poor, mostly non-white people who have made bad life choices, but each one has their little facets and secrets which are unveiled to give them a bit of added dimensionality. Much of the book takes place in their group counseling sessions, which of course turns out to be more significant when Daniel suspects that one of them is a killer.
Without spoiling anything, the killer is out to avenge a perceived injustice, and naturally Daniel turns out to be involved personally. Most of the plot moves in predictable fashion - you can tell when a "twist" is coming by how much of the book is left - but despite it being both somewhat formulaic and implausible (I really don't think the SFPD are going to keep asking a civilian who also happens to be the son of one of the city's most prominent families to keep coming to crime scenes where a serial killer may still be lurking about), I found it entertaining most of the way through. Only at the very end did it become so formulaic as to make me wish it had ended a chapter or two earlier.
Not a particularly thrilling thriller, but the plot moves nicely with a diverse range of characters, and being an expat Californian, I appreciated the San Francisco setting.
Nothing much original here - it's another wannabe Starship Troopers. But it does a good job being what it is, even if B.V. Larson is no Heinlein.
The premise is simple: Earth was forcibly inducted into a Galactic Empire, in which every planet must have something of trade value or they get blown up. The only thing Earth had was its people — specifically, its soldiers. Yes, another interstellar civilization in which humans turn out to be the meanest fighters 'cause we're just so savage and violent. So young men and women (as is typical of modern military SF, this is another imagined future in which men and women fight side by side in undifferentiated roles) join Earth's Legions to go to distant, exotic planets, meet interesting aliens, and kill them.
The protagonist, a slacker named James McGill, is sitting around in his tiny shared apartment playing video games until his mother tells him the government dole has run out. This is his impetus to go join the Legions. He fails the test for the higher status, more glamorous Legions, because he's too much of an "independent thinker" (i.e., a wise guy with poor impulse control), but just when he's about to give up, he finds himself recruited into Legion Varus, which has a reputation for doing a lot of hard, dirty, "real" fighting. With almost no training, McGill finds himself given a gun and sent to a planet occupied by lizard men. The rest of the book consists of McGill repeatedly getting himself in trouble and navigating the petty politics of both the Legion and the Galactics, in between bloody battles in which half the time he and his buddies wind up dead.
Oh yes, they have "Revival Units," i.e. respawning. So when a soldier dies, his backed-up memories are dumped into a newly-grown body. For McGill, this is disturbing and disorienting and quite upsetting the first couple of times it happens, so the author tries to emphasize that infinite respawning does not come without a cost, but McGill also comes to understand that some of his superiors have been killed and regrown over and over and over, for years, which certainly gives them a different take on life.
Besides the respawning, it also turns out that the Galactics monitor all mercenary battles and score it according to arcane rules which, it turns out, are heavily biases against Earth. The real plot consists of McGill finding out how Legion Varus's battles on Steel World may determine the fate of the Legion, and of Earth itself.
So, very heavily reminiscent of a RTS game. Steel World has a lot of action and cleverly-deployed aliens and technology, and decent characterization. (I found McGill himself the most annoying - even after being killed a few times, he's still kind of a whiny, entitled punk.) Some pieces of the plot were a little implausible, and at times the characters' actions stretched credibility just to introduce some artificial tension, but overall it was a fun, pleasant read to fill a few hours when you are in the mood for yet another Johnny Rico clone.
A nuclear war in 2013 wiped out most of the population of the world, and the remnants living underground in the Moscow subway tunnels believe they are the only humans left alive. Each station in the old metro is now its own little city-state. The main character, a young man named Artyom, is sent on a quest to another station. Along the way, he meets Nazis, Communists, Satanists, monks, cannibals, cultists, flying monsters, and mutants. The ending is ironic and grim, as befits a Russian novel taking place after the bombs fall.
Apparently a big cult phenomenon in Russia, which has spawned sequels and video games, Metro 2033 reads a lot like an old-school post-holocaust fantasy, with a man of the new world journeying through the wreckage of the old one, missing the references that are left for the reader to recognize. It also reads a lot like an old-school dungeon crawl, which makes it both repetitive and fun, though I'm afraid the repetitiveness caused me to tune out at several points in the story as I listened to the audiobook.
Artyom's quest basically consists of going from one station to the next, finding each ruled by some twisted microcosm of the old world (the Red Line, the Fourth Reich, the Watchtower, etc.), escaping, and moving on, acquiring and losing companions along the way.
It's not hard to see how this would adapt well to a game. The writing was often psychologically deeper than your typical mutant-haunted post-apocalyptic tale, but the descriptiveness of the prose seemed to fall a little flat in translation. It's definitely a little different in tone from a Western sci-fi novel, even though it conforms to the genre fine. Had it been a little bit less of a dungeon crawl, I would probably have enjoyed it more, but after the third or fourth narrow escape from underground morlocks, I began to simply become impatient for the climax. I suspect, however, that there are a lot of references and in-jokes that didn't translate well into English.
I was not a big fan of the narrator, who was not terrible, and had a properly deep, sonorous Russian voice, but his tone was flat and he frequently dropped his voice so low that I could not hear his words while driving unless I turned the volume all the way up.
So, this guy Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning as a cockroach. (Actually, the Wikipedia article has an interesting discussion about how Kafka never specified exactly what kind of bug Gregor turned into). His family freaks out a little, as you might expect, but then they sort of come to accept the situation. Gregor feels increasingly isolated as he cannot really communicate with them and he can no longer support them as he once did. Coexisting in a tiny apartment with a giant cockroachinsect becomes increasingly burdensome for the family. Eventually Gregor dies (implied, that he wills himself to death to spare his family further burden) and they're all relieved. The end.
Sort of a downer. I think it loses a lot in the translation, as apparently Kafka's prose in the original German was much of the reason for The Metamorphosis's high literary status.
This is a surrealistic piece which, technically, you could probably call "magical realism." (No explanation is ever given for Gregor's transformation into a giant bug, and no one seems curious about how such a thing could happen. They're just all rather distressed by the whole thing without ever really talking about it.
Frankly, as a story it was a bit flat and anti-climactic, and if there is some deeper meaning, I'm afraid I missed it. Would probably enjoy it more if I read it in the original German.
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