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.
The Three-Body Problem is a Chinese SF novel, of which there are not many translated into English. The translation was exceptionally smooth, so that I rarely felt like the prose was either stilted by its non-English origins or lacking something in translation.
The basic plot is nothing new to the genre: humans make contact with an alien civilization, and find out the aliens aren't friendly. What makes it different is that the humans who make contact are not the usual Americans or Europeans. Instead, it is Chinese scientists at a military radio observatory whose secret SETI project discovers the "Trisolaran" civilization. Of course it's not just the Chinese who have discovered the aliens, but all the action in this book takes place in China, and involves mostly Chinese characters. A first contact story told in a Chinese context, beginning during Mao's Cultural Revolution and ending (on a cliffhanger, since this is the first book in a trilogy) in modern-day China is certainly different for most Western readers, and should be pleasing to those who complain about Earth vs aliens stories always being the United States vs. aliens.
The aliens actually don't appear until the end of the book, and then only in a chapter describing their preparations on their own homeworld. Instead, most of this book focuses on the uncovering of a conspiracy on Earth, hosted in the virtual reality of an online game called "Three Body," which is actually a recruiting tool for human factions who are preparing to welcome our alien overlords. How these factions came to exist, how everyone found out about the alien invasion fleet en route, and why the founders of the conspiracy chose to side with the aliens, becomes a long saga with some social and political commentary inserted like a knife into an outwardly straightforward SF conspiracy thriller.
A good read, with lots of theoretical physics for the SF purists, genuinely alien aliens, and no shortage of action, though most of this comes in the final act, and it looks like the real action will have to wait until the next book. I'm definitely looking forward to the continuation.
The Emperor of All Maladies, by research oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee, is a biography of cancer — its appearance throughout history, starting with a mention by the Egyptian physician Imhotep, circa 2600 B.C., and Queen Atossa of Persia, who underwent what was probably the first recorded mastectomy in history, our growing understanding and misunderstanding of the nature of this dreaded mutant cellular monster, which is really an entire family of monsters, all uniquely and spitefully different, and the eternal search for a "cure."
Mukherjee is an engaging writer, mixing history and social commentary, from a fairly detached perspective, with very detailed explanations of the biochemistry and genetics of cancer and its treatments. He does this in an accessible way, but this is definitely a "sciencey" book which will require you to draw on at least your high school-level biology and chemistry. Even if the chapters on researching the origins and cellular makeup of cancer make your eyes glaze over, though, the contemporary history of cancer research, mixed with some of Mukherjee's own cases, will keep you focused on the relevance of the topic.
I suppose the weakness of the book (and the reason why it only got 4 stars) is that denseness - while Mukherjee is a good writer, at times it was like reading abstracts from a medical journal. But for anyone who's had a brush with cancer, first, second, or third-hand, there's plenty to find interesting.
Cancer isn't a single disease, and there will probably be no single "cure for cancer." Oncologists seem to be moving towards a model similar to that of AIDS treatment — many forms of cancer are becoming something that, while not yet, "curable," are no longer inevitably terminal either. Something manageable. Not all of them, but some of them are cancers you "die with" rather than "die of."
Informative, a bit heavy, not a breezy pop-science book but not something only a doctor can understand.
The fourth book in Peter Clines's superhero/zombie apocalypse series at first made me think he'd run out of ideas and so was writing a prequel novel. George Bailey, formerly known as the Mighty Dragon and then Saint George, is now a mundane janitor in a pre-zombie apocalypse L.A.?
Things are not what they seem. It may be a bit spoilery, but we've already seen supervillains in this series who can mess with your head, so just think of movies like the Matrix and Inception. Barry (aka "Zap"), the resident SF geek, is quick to make that comparison explicitly once the heroes get together and start figuring it out. The plot was fairly clever, and so with several red herrings, there are multiple layers to unravel, enough to make the reader as well as the characters begin to doubt what's real.
Captain Freedom, Saint George, Stealth, Corpse Girl, Zap, and Cerberus all feature prominently in this latest book in a series that doesn't look like it's ending any time soon. I've enjoyed all the Ex-Heroes books as the rather silly entertainment they are; Clines's writing is still not spectacular (the battles are getting really repetitive, I'm sick of Stealth always "crossing her arms," and I'm actually just sick of Stealth and her grimdark Batman-with-boobs schtick in general) but so far he has not exhausted the story potential of his world. I do hope, however, that he actually takes the series somewhere with a resolution, rather than just continuing it as long as the well can be pumped.
This is clearly a bit of filler between trilogies, and a contrived excuse for Larry Correia to write a battle between a giant robot and Godzilla into his Grimnoire trilogy, but like the rest of his magical-superhero alternate universe stories, it's fun and action packed pulp adventure that just doesn't bear too much thinking about.
Taking place about twenty years after the end of Warbound, Tokyo Raider stars Joe Sullivan Jr., a chip off the old block. Having joined the Marines, just like that he is whisked off to Japan at the direct request of the President (who is not a historical figure but instead a familiar face from the previous books). Even though the US and the Imperium are clearly headed for war, at the moment the Imperium is at war with their mutual enemy, the USSR. Stalin's sorcerers have summoned a giant monster that's devastating Japan, and Imperium scientists and mages have built a giant robot that, conveniently, none of their own magically-gifted warriors can operate. Somehow our old friend Toru, now in charge of the Imperium, figures his old frenemy Jake's son is the man they need.
This doesn't really make sense, but like I said, it's just an excuse for a battle between a giant robot blazoned with a rising sun pumping the Star Spangled Banner from its speakers, and a Godzilla-sized demon with the Soviet hammer & sickle burned into its chest. Fix that image in your head and have fun. It does make me look forward to the next Grimnoire series.
This was an unexpectedly entertaining page-turner, though towards the end, so many plot twists are woven together in an improbable climax and epilogue that my suspension of disbelief was tested a bit. However, getting there was fun in this combination courtroom drama and suspense thriller.
Paul Copeland survived a summer camp massacre as a teenager. He and his girlfriend snuck off into the woods for a little nookie, only to hear the screams of three other kids — including Paul's sister — being murdered. Years later, they are sure that they know who the killer is, as a creepy teenager who was also at the camp turned out to be a serial killer who was convicted for similar crimes elsewhere. The fact that Paul's sister's body was never found means he has never really had closure, but as an adult, he's now a New Jersey county prosecutor, buddies with the Governor, and he has political ambitions.
Things start unraveling when he begins prosecuting a Law & Order-style "ripped from the headlines" case: Chamique Johnson, a poor black underage stripper/prostitute, has accused a couple of rich white frat boys of raping her in their frat house. Their families start going after everyone involved in the prosecution, including Paul, to pressure him to drop the case. For Paul, this means digging into his past and uncovering some of the questions left unanswered when his sister disappeared into the woods twenty years ago.
There are a lot of characters, a lot of twists, and a lot of revelations. From Paul reconnecting with his old girlfriend, to his ex-KGB uncle, to his interview with his old camp buddy-turned-serial killer, to the super-hottie private detectives sent out to dig up dirt, there's lots of plot and it never slows down.
I had a little trouble believing the ending, and Paul was just little bit too much a combination of Perry Mason and Jack McCoy, but it was refreshing to have an imperfect but not crooked protagonist who prevails largely by not being intimidated, seduced, or corrupted. I liked it enough to try Harlan Coben again.
This is another one of those depressing books that catalogs in grim detail just how badly humans are destroying the environment, on a cataclysmic scale, how greed, desperation, and short-sightedness have destroyed entire ecosystems, devastated nations, and displaced millions, and how even though we have the scientific and technological know-how to do better, we're not going to, because short-term thinking always wins.
Oh, the author ends with an optimistic chapter, as all these books do, detailing bold and forward-thinking news plans from economists and water engineers and politicians and scientists around the world — all the ways in which we could save the water tables, grow crops more efficiently with more "crop per drop," irrigate more cheaply, supply urban populations more sustainably, etc.
But that's after chapter after chapter detailing such disasters as the Aral Sea, which the Soviets basically destroyed and which the current government is continuing to destroy, and the Salton Sea in California, created by a mistake and now allowed to become a festering, drying blister in the Sonora desert, and the Dead Sea, which is receding visibly every year. Worse, though, are the water tables. These are the underground reservoirs of water which, unlike rivers, are non-renewable. Much like oil, once you tap them dry, they're gone (and they also destabilize the surrounding earth, leading to erosion and possibly even earthquakes), and farmers and cities around the world, from the American west to India, are tapping them at an alarming rate. Everyone knows that wells used to hit water at 200 feet and now have to go 1500 feet or more, but this doesn't stop everyone from trying to get the last drop.
It is the Tragedy of the Commons on a regional scale. As many of the farmers Fred Pierce interviews point out: "If everyone stopped using the water, that would be great, but if only we do, it won't make a difference, except that our family will starve."
When the Rivers Run Dry is a bit of travel journalism that covers nearly every continent. India and China and their respective mistreatment of the Ganges, the Indus, the Yellow and the Yangtze rivers are all covered, as is the madness that is Los Angeles and Las Vegas, currently draining the Colorado River dry and casting thirsty eyes thousands of miles north to the Great Lakes.
While America's water woes are certainly serious (at least in the west), the most tragic regions of the world are, predictably, the places where government policy is completely disconnected from local resource management, or where politics and war mix violently with water rights. China and the former Soviet Union have literally killed millions in man-made floods. The author's visit to the region around the Aral Sea was particularly depressing, as he describes a stunted, poisoned land where the people have no jobs, no hope, and no future. Then there is the Middle East, where Palestinians go thirsty in sight of Israeli swimming pools.
While there are some compelling stories in here, and enough facts and history to make you think, When the Rivers Run Dry was... well, a bit dry. Fred Pierce has been to many places and talked to many people, and what he's produced is a global atlas of water mismanagement, wrapped up in the end with a few cheery programs that might solve a few of them, and some suggestions that no one is really going to heed. He questions the wisdom of dam-building, says that cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas need to be more conservation-minded, and that farmers worldwide need to use more water-efficient irrigation methods.
Yup, good luck with that.
Another one of the Corey writing duo's "filler" novellas set in between their Expanse novels, this one takes place on Mars shortly after Caliban's War. David Draper is the nephew of Marine Gunnery Sergeant Bobby Draper, one of the main characters in the aforementioned novel. She plays only a small (but significant) part in this novella.
David is a promising and gifted young chemistry student on Mars, with demanding parents who have high expectations for him. In a scheme that is half rebelliousness and half path-of-least-resistance spinelessness, David has become a "cook" for a local drug dealer. I wouldn't be the first reviewer to call Gods of Risk "Breaking Bad on Mars."
The plot pinch comes when David finds out his "friend" LeeLee is in trouble, and he decides he wants to save her. The annoying part comes when we realize that David is every stereotypical nerdy "Nice Guy" chump ever, fantasizing about how a grateful Leelee will reward him for his white knight heroism with kisses and maybe even letting him touch her ... Since Leelee is in fact a pro in debt to a drug dealer, this is obviously not going to have the happy ending David is hoping for, but for a smart kid, he sure is dumb.
Despite the main character's painful lack of self-awareness or worldliness, this is a good story that really doesn't have much to do with the central events of the Expanse series; although they are mentioned, this is just a bit of filler material.
This prequel to James S.A. Corey's Expanse series, starting with Leviathan Wakes, tells the story of Amos Burton, whom we first met aboard the Rocinante as the cheerful, casually violent engineer. As a novella providing "filler" material for the series, it's only interesting if you already like the series and want to know more about the characters.
Amos, when we are first introduced to him, turns out to be an evil and amoral crime lord in future Baltimore. While the reader might be thrown by this man who seems to bear little resemblance to the character we know, the "twist" ending is soon telegraphed as we're introduced to two characters under Amos's employ, Timmy and Eric, who are both caught up in the "churn" of one of the city's intermittent crack-downs on organized crime.
Since The Churn takes place entirely on the ground, it's really more of a crime thriller than a space opera, with the technology of space exploration rarely intruding into the lives of the people trying to survive the mean streets of Charm City. (I was disappointed that the audiobook narrator did not even attempt a "Bawl-mer" accent.) It's a decent story with action and violence, but only barely science fiction. Recommended for those who like The Wire and the Expanse series.
This is the second book I've read by Daryl Gregory. He seems to like writing speculative fiction set in a near future, rather than settling into a series or a theme. "Raising Stony Mayhall" was one of the best zombie novels I've ever read. Afterparty, his latest, is also set a couple of decades from now, in a world where 3D printers have advanced to manufacturing pharmaceuticals, so anyone can "print" their own custom controlled substances.
Lyda Rose, the protagonist, was a neuroscientist who helped create Numinous. It was supposed to be a treatment for schizophrenia; instead, it helps its users find God. Or gods. Or some god.
The effect is spiritual if not supernatural: Numinous rewires the brain and provides you with your very own guardian angel (in Lyda's case, a judgmental winged psychologist named "Dr. Gloria"). The subjects are absolutely convinced they are receiving messages from the Divine, even if they know intellectually about Numinous. Lyda's conversations with her guardian angel, who she knows is a product of her drug-induced imagination, are believable because deep down, Lyda believes in her.
How Lyda came to be hooked on her own creation, and why she has to escape from a prison-hospital and track down the other former members of her little start-up company that was going to get rich, is a mystery that unfolds in a well-paced thriller with plenty of reveals and twists. There is an Afghan grandmother who is the most powerful drug lord in Seattle, a psychopathic hit man who calls himself "The Vincent" and raises bonsai buffalo herds in his apartment, a millionaire whose adopted daughter is a little prodigy assisted by her "deck" of "IFs" (Imaginary Friends), and of course, Dr. Gloria.
This wasn't quite a grand-slam of a book, but it was interesting and well-paced and original, with believable characters. Definitely recommended.
"Is whispering nothing? Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses? Kissing with inside lip? Stopping the career Of laughter with a sigh?—a note infallible Of breaking honesty;—horsing foot on foot? Skulking in corners? wishing clocks more swift; Hours, minutes; noon, midnight? and all eyes Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only, That would unseen be wicked?—is this nothing? Why, then the world and all that's in't is nothing; The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing; My is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings, If this be nothing."
I can see why this play is called "complex" and "problematic." The tone shifts completely from the first act to the last. It begins as a tragedy in which King Leontes becomes irrationally convinced that his wife, Hermione, has been committing adultery with his best friend, the King of Bohemia, and that her child is that of Polixenes. This leads to a lot of death and misery, which makes the final act, in which everyone is reconciled, a miracle occurs, and the play ends with a Happy Ever After more typical of Shakespeare's more straightforward comedies, almost dissonant.
That and the fact that it has few of Shakespeare's famous quotable lines is probably the reason why it's one of his less frequently performed plays, but I think it's a great and twisty tale, and if the ending was a bit deux ex machina, it's still rich in humor and tragedy, and well worth listening to.
"Exit, pursued by a bear!"
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