Daughters of Dystopia

Dystopia: relating to or denoting an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.

I love a great dystopian novel, it’s a genre that can veer into classic science fiction, but the ones I love the most are the ones you can imagine happening in your world, if the circumstances changed just slightly, a world power got that much more control, a disease could not be contained or the general populace let things that are deemed as unacceptable become acceptable, little by little. Ordinary people trying to survive, railing against the system or changing it forever.

When I began reading Gather the Daughters, by Jennie Melamed, it was no surprise that both the victims and heroines of the story were young girls. Melamed is a psychiatric nurse who specialises in working with traumatised children. The girls in this debut novel slowly come to the realisation that the only world they have known is filled with lies and not as idyllic as their leaders have taught them it is.

The girls live on an island, living a puritan life, where everyday decisions and everyone’s lives are constrained by a set of rules set down by “The Ancestors”. The male descendants of these original peoples who fled The Wastelands across the sea run the island along rules to suit their own needs. Young girls are married off to older men as soon as they come into ‘fruition’, at puberty.The rules set down, called Shalt Nots, include practices that are definitely of benefit to the elder men, not their young daughters.

Every summer until then, the children of the island run rampant, rarely going home, sleeping rough and enjoying their freedom until the shackles of childbearing and helping the community survive are placed on them.

Told through the eyes of the older girls who are all about to reach fruition, chapters are given over to each girl in turn and I enjoyed the pace of the book and the way the author slowly revealed the horrors of being a young girl on the island. Little is shown of the feelings of the young boys, or the men’s justifications for their actions.

The main heroine is Janey, who should have reached fruition at 17, but is so desperate not to be a woman and succumb to the demands of a husband, she is slowly starving herself. She and Vanessa, who has access to her father’s library of books from past days, give the other girls knowledge and courage, trying to find a way to escape, or at least effect change.

Janey wakes early the third morning, at the first tint of crimson shattering the black night sky, as if someone had shaken her from slumber. She takes the precious moment gladly and watches the girls sleep peacefully. Let this last, she prays, she knows not who to – certainly not the ancestors, or their puppetmaster God. Just for a little while, let them have this. Let them have it. Please.

It certainly had a hint of Lord of the Flies or The Handmaid’s Tale at times and I kept imagining it as a film, but I’m never sure if that is a good thing.

If you love a good dystopian tale about strong young women who decide to take a stand, this is your book. I powered through it in a few days, which is pretty amazing for me. I was in turn heartened and horrified but kept on turning the pages, wanting to see the fate of these young heroines clinging onto their childhoods to save their lives.

Gather the Daughters
by Jennie Melamed
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781472241719

Avian Flu and the ‘Quiet Days of Power’

It started with the destruction of the world via avian flu and ended with mind control and memory loss via music. My last few weeks have been filled with two books from my go-to genre, dystopian science fiction, and both were rip-snorters.

Cover of Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a classic post-apocalyptic tale. A deadly flu that kills within hours sweeps through the entire world population, laying waste to all but a few hardy souls. We follow a group of survivors, whose lives intersect at various stages throughout the book. The interesting decision by the author to switch between the time when the flu hit and then twenty years later to see how society survived, coped and altered gives the story movement and contrasts, and I loved seeing where and when the characters met and re-connected.

The main story centres around a band of actors and musicians who travel through mid-west USA performing Shakespeare and classical music to the few survivors in scattered outposts: people eking out an existence without any infrastructure, centralised government and dwindling resources. Holding onto history, art and culture in such a bleak landscape seems both foolhardy and wonderful in equal measures.

The Chimes by Anna Smaill is a very different animal. Yes, people are struggling, living in a London very different to the one we know, but things are very different from Station Eleven. There is a power in charge, a cloistered order that have developed a powerful weapon they use on their own people to keep control. The weapon? Music.

Cover of The ChimesThe Chimes are sent through the air and there is no escaping them; they wipe people’s memories and keep them subdued: you almost feel music has become an opiate that makes the populace feel safe. With no written word, people use music and song to remember things, such as how to travel from one place to another. They also keep objects that help them remember family, places and their history.

I love the use of musical terms in their language, many of which I had to look up, such as Lento, which means slow and Tacit, which means a sudden stop in a piece of music. I was fascinated by the way music was both their prison and their saviour, the way the protagonists in the story used music to keep themselves alive and to try to bring down those in power.

The run was tacit. Clare and I followed the first of the two strange, twisting melodies. Ours moved straight into the fourth chord and pushed on presto, skipping and meandering and returning almost completely on itself  before branching straight out in a modulation to the dominant.

Simon, our main character, is an orphaned young man who soon discovers he has a gift that could change all of this forever.

Both books fit my ideal of dystopia. People struggling in an alien world, even if it is our own in a different time or altered state. Heroes, villains and fascinating ideas to transport you and challenge you. Both books get the Purplerulz  purple seal of approval… read them now!

To learn more about the writing process and ideas behind The Chimes, read Masha’s great post about her interview with Anna Smaill.

High-rise: J. G. Ballard’s vertical zoo

Cover of High riseI have to confess that the only reason I picked up J. G. Ballard’s 1975 novel of inevitable social decline in a well-to-do apartment block was because I’d read an article about the movie version due out later this year starring Tom Hiddleston.

I’d watch Tom Hiddleston in anything, so I figured I’d read the book before the movie comes out. And in my own mind I think I was already imagining an action movie with a British Bruce Willis before I even cracked the cover of the book. Which was a bit silly, really. Having read J. G. Ballard before I should have realised he is not Michael Crichton. His books, though they may have action, are not the “novel as screenplay” blockbuster variety. They are rather more harrowing than that.

High-rise follows three main protagonists, all of whom live in a new high-rise apartment block in London which is populated by nice, reasonably well off types – studio technicians and air hostesses, tax consultants, dentists, book reviewers, and doctors. The children are clean and well-fed, the furnishings are aggressively tasteful.

Naturally we should expect things to take a turn for the worse, but Ballard lets us know from the very first sentence where this is all going –

Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.

Which is possibly one of the best opening lines of a novel I’ve ever read but if you’ve got better ones I’m sure you’ll share them in the comments.

Robert Laing is a divorced doctor and med school academic who lives in the middle sector of the building, on the 25th floor. The other two main characters are Anthony Royal, the architect of the high-rise who lives in a penthouse on the 40th, and Richard Wilder a documentary filmmaker who lives with his wife and two sons on a lower floor. They each represent one of the social strata that the apartment block separates into once “hostilities” begin. I suspect the names “Royal” and “Wilder” are not accidents.

Needless to say dog-barbeques are far from the worst thing that occurs within confines of the apartment building over several months. As often happens in dystopian fiction society recreates itself, evolving and changing, with barbarism becoming the lingua franca. It’s Mad Max made of concrete.

Without knowing it, he had constructed a gigantic vertical zoo, its hundreds of cages stacked above each other. All the events of the past few months made sense if one realised that these brilliant and exotic creatures had learned to open the doors.

Cover of Lord of the FliesOr perhaps High-rise is an urban Lord of the Flies but instead of being marooned the inhabitants of the island simply refuse to leave. In this respect the book reminded me of Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted in which wannabe novelists are “trapped” in a theatre as part of a writers’ retreat. They can leave any time they like but won’t, even as food becomes scarce. They all become monstrous in pursuit of survival… and the great story that will make them bestselling authors.

In the high-rise survival is down to luck, tribal alliances, force of will, or as Wilder discovers –  actually being the fittest.

…the higher up the building he climbed, the worse the physical condition of the residents – hours on the gymnasium exercycles had equipped them for no more than hours on the gymnasium exercycles.

That passage was the closest I came to a laugh during the book, and it came in the form of a wry chuckle. The problem with Ballard is much the same issue I have with Palahniuk actually – none of his characters are especially likeable.

Some authors can take an unsympathetic character and let you live in their skin to the extent that their likeability isn’t important – you empathise with them regardless. You care what happens to them despite their flaws. In High-rise I felt like everyone was a brutal lunatic and I wanted to be rid of them as soon as possible. In the end I just wanted the book to be over so I could share my headspace with normal non-dog-eating individuals.

The saving grace of the book, for me at least, was a small section at the back, an interview with the author. As anyone who’s read the book, or seen the film of Empire of the Sun will know, Ballard’s family were living in Shanghai during WWII when the Japanese invaded and he spent several years in an internment camp. In the interview he reveals how this experience of observing a society shaken to pieces influenced him, and which ultimately comes out in High-rise. –

I suppose one of the things I took from my wartime experiences was that reality was a stage set. The reality that you took for granted – the comfortable day-to-day life, school, the home where one lives, the familiar street and all the rest of it, the trips to the swimming pool and the cinema – was just a stage set. They could be dismantled overnight, which they literally were when the Japanese occupied Shanghai and turned our lives upside down.

Though the writing is elegant and sharp I can’t say that I actually enjoyed High-rise. It remains to be seen whether the film version will “Hollywood-ise” the novel to make it more palatable to a broader audience who might actually like to see Tom Hiddleston climbing elevator shafts in a singlet. I for one would welcome it.

Don’t Make Me Deal With Reality

coverFinally in middle age I’ve made a discovery – I don’t like the real world!

I’ve spent my whole life reading, and I seem drawn to anything but the real world. I recently thought I should dip my toes into the realm of the everyday. I chose a book that came well recommended here on the blog and elsewhere, but 20 pages in I realised I didn’t care.  It was the tale of a doomed marriage, and I realised right then that I really don’t want to read about the people next door or the lives of others that I might even find familiar.

I want other worlds, difficult Dystopian scenarios, people thrown together in impossible situations and it has to be a page turner. But not for me the science fiction style filled with robots, detailed plans of space ships or mutant frogs. I like to read about people, but in situations I’ll never find myself in. A perfect example is Wool by Hugh Howey. The last of mankind living in a huge underground silo, over 100 levels down below the surface. Now there’s a situation that brings up all kinds of tensions and sets the stage for intrigue, struggle and hopefully redemption. I need to identify with the characters of course, I just don’t want to think I could meet them at work or at the supermarket.

I’m currently reading The Wild Shore by Kim Stanley Robinson, and this is so much more me. A post nuclear America, where small rural communities eek out an existence away from the abandoned ruins of large cities. Ah, back to familiar territory.

coverI’ll even venture into zombie territory as I did recently with Warm Bodies by Issac Marion, a great Young Adult read. It’s an unlikely but wonderful love story between a zombie who is desperate to be human again and the daughter of the leader of the resistance against his kind. The movie just made of the book is a great interpretation of the story.

These books are still filled with relationships, struggle, good vs. bad and the pains and joys of living. It’s just that they are set somewhere away from my real life and that’s the just the way I like it.

So it is that I will go into my dotage shunning the real world and retreating into the unknown and un-visitable.

Where do you like to spend your imaginary life?

Mars is not the only other world we can travel to

Cover: Lord of the FliesThey may have just landed a rover on Mars, but I’ve been travelling to other worlds since I was 13. I love travelling in particular to dystopian worlds, if only using books and movies.

Dystopian societies are repressive and controlled, often under the guise of being utopian. They feature different kinds of repressive social control and coercion. They can be found in the past, the future on our planet or another.

They have all the classic compelling aspects of all good fiction that I enjoy; good vs. evil, strong lead characters you can root for, together with a bit of technology and people rising up to save themselves, their families and their society. They can steer closely into Science Fiction territory at times, but I have always been more interested in the stories that depict human struggle and triumph rather than technology and space travel.

Of course the most recent craze in this genre would be The Hunger Games Trilogy, which I’ve read using my e reader, and while I’m enjoying it and I’m eagerly awaiting the last of the trilogy, Mockingjay, it isn’t the best I’ve read in the genre.Cover: Monsters of Men

I loved The Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness and I also enjoyed Salt by Maurice Gee and Wither by Lauren DeStefano.

I have also gone back to read some classics that originally had me interested in this genre in my teens. First was The Crysalids by John Wyndham, then Nineteen Eighty Four, the grandfather of the dystopians by George Orwell. Then Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and Lord of the Flies by William Golding and what was for me a pivotal book, The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood. I’d also recommend her book Oryx and Crake.

There are so many dystopian books out there to read, take the plunge and get amongst them without the aid of a rover, or maybe you have a favourite you can share?

Has teen fiction taken a nasty turn?

The Hunger Games, a story about children killing children, is currently breaking box office records. Some adults agonise over its violence and cruelty, and wonder if it is bad for their children.

CoverThere has been a run of popular books in the same vein, many of them prize winners.  The Carnegie medal winning Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness for example and last year’s Costa Award winner Blood Red Road, as well as popular books by Michael Grant, Scott Westerfeld and Philip Reeve.

So popular are they, that a quick search in our catalogue for booklists of dystopian fiction brings up  twelve pages of lists, mainly for young adults and including one for our own library network by Zackids .

Arguments abound as to why this is so. Does it simply reflect a need by teenagers to deal with their anxieties through literature? Are their anxieties worse than ours were? Or is it a backlash against the tight control which has enveloped this generation of children? Is it redemptive, or an indication of despair? Or is just about a good exciting story?

Some point out that dystopian fiction for this age group is hardly new. Previous generations have enjoyed classics like Salt by Maurice Gee, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L Engle and Lois Lowry’s The Giver.

What do you think? What do your kids think?

Teen vs. Society – rise of dystopian fiction

My first couple of reads for the year have been dystopian novels and this looks to be a growing trend in Young Adult fiction. Personally I love dystopian novels.  I love the imaginations of these authors who build a society that could easily exist in the not-too-distant future.  They take a small piece of today’s society, such as social networking or consumerism, and ask ‘what if this got totally out of control?’

CoverIn Rae Mariz’ debut novel The Unidentified, 15 year-old Katey (AKA Kid) goes to school in the Game, an alternative education system run by corporations.  These ‘Games’ have been set up in disused shopping malls, so where there used to be shops, there are different spaces that students can go to try new products and participate in activities to increase their ‘score.’ 

The students vie with each other to be noticed and sponsored (or ‘branded’) by the corporations, thereby giving them celebrity status and financial freedom.  Students each have iPad-like devices that they use to update their profile pages and live streams. When Kid witnesses a mock suicide staged by an anonymous group called the Unidentified, she begins to doubt the system. The story will strike a chord with teens and they’ll be able to really relate to Kid and the suffocating world she lives in.

If you’re a fan of  YA dystopian fiction there are plenty of titles to choose from.  Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy is the most obvious choice (and the most popular) but here are a few others I recommend:

Across the Universe – hottest YA novel of 2011

Across the Universe is the absolutely amazing debut  Young Adult novel by Beth Revis and I can already tell that it is going to be one of my favourite books of the year.

The story starts with Amy who, along with her parents, is being prepared to be cryogenically frozen for the next 300 years as they travel to a new planet.  Her parents and the other adults on the ship all have special skills that will help to colonise this new planet, while Amy is a nonessential, just there because of her parents.    There are also others on board the ship, Godspeed, who are not frozen but keeping the ship moving on it’s course.  Elder is one of these people.  He is the youngest person on the ship and the one chosen to lead the next generation.  When Amy is violently woken 50 years before they are due to arrive on the new planet, she creates tension in Elder’s carefully ordered society.  On a ship in the middle of space where everyone has the same skin and hair colour, similar features, and never questions the rules, Amy is not welcomed.Amy’s questions and Elder’s own discoveries lead them to uncover the lies that Eldest has been telling them all about the ship and their quest for Centauri-Earth.

Beth Revis leads you on a rollercoaster ride, with lots of unexpected twists and turns.  Across the Universe has something for just about every reader – a dystopian society, science fiction, mystery, murder, and a touch of romance.  It’s the first book in a new trilogy and I really can’t wait to read more.  Get your hands on what is going to be one of the most talked about YA novels of 2011.

You can also check out Beth’s website and read her very entertaining blog.

Fleur Beale’s Fierce September

Dystopian societies have featured in a lot of young adult novels lately and an increasing number of these are written by New Zealand authors.  There is Anna Mackenzie’s The Sea-wreck stranger and it’s sequel, Ebony Hill, Mandy Hager’s Blood of the Lamb series, and my favourite, Fleur Beale’s Juno of Taris and the sequel, Fierce September.

Fierce September continues the story of Juno and the other inhabitants of Taris.  The group are rescued from their dying island and are taken to Aotearoa.  The country that was once New Zealand has changed considerably in the time that they have been living on Taris; Christchurch is now home to only a few people as it is too dry to sustain life.  Juno and her people arrive in Wellington and are to stay in a refugee centre while they settle into life Outside.  Life is very different here – they have technology, different clothes and freedom from the controlling society of Taris.  But life on the Outside isn’t so peachy.  There are those that don’t welcome the people of Taris and launch a vicious hate campaign against them and only days after they arrive a pandemic hits the country.

Fierce September is a fantastic sequel and it was great to find out what happened to the people of Taris after they left their home.  Fleur Beale has created interesting characters with complex relationships and you really empathise with them.  One of the interesting extras with this book is the online content that you can also read.  There are two blogs that give different views showing how people in Aotearoa feel about the refugees from Taris.  If you haven’t read Juno of Taris you can always start with Fierce September as there’s a good synopsis of the first book at the front.

Why you must read The Passage

CoverThe Passage has been summarised as Stephen King’s The Stand meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

And, to my reading delight, it is that good.

Throw in telly series The Survivors, Dracula, X Files, spooky little girl movies like Firestarter and Poltergeist, and any number of dystopian, post apocalyptic scenarios and you still won’t be fully capturing the blockbuster that is The Passage. It takes all these sources and creates something new – a world and characters that inhabit your mind.

It’s a sturdy 700 plus pages, but I am rocketing through it and can’t shut my mouth about how compelling it is. I’ve cried, I’ve been left so on edge that the merest sound could make me shriek.  And I’ve read it after midnight.

Mr Stephen King himself recommends it:

Read fifteen pages and you will find yourself captivated; read thirty and you will find yourself taken prisoner and reading late into the night. It has the vividness that only epic works of fantasy and imagination can achieve. What else can I say? This: read this book and the ordinary world disappears.

Test out Stephen’s theory by reading this excerpt and get your holds on, and also read the Booksellers NZ post on The Passage and its NZ publication.

Has anyone else read it yet? What’s your verdict?