speculative fiction

Hey look, this sci-fi book passes the Bechdel test

This is my review of The Year of the Flood, the second book in the MaddAddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood.

A decade (and a half, maybe) ago, an aunt of mine read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It was the peak of the Harry Potter craze, and people were speculating wildly about the next book- whichever number it was- and queuing up outside bookstores at 6 a.m. to grab their copies. My aunt wanted to know what made this series like catnip for teenagers. Her verdict: It was overly detailed, and filled with Chekhov’s guns, thus providing endless fodder for analysis. The magic was also made less ‘ridiculous’ and, well, fantastic, because there were prosaic details too. For every mention of a Goblin-run bank, there was also a reasonable- sounding currency conversion.

I liked Oryx and Crake for basically the same reasons. It was science fiction with a human touch, a supervillain origin story with high school nerds- the combination was promising. Yes, there were genetically modified animals running around, but some of them were failed beta tests. I had to get more of this universe!

Similar to O&C, The Year of the Flood is also written from two points of view. This time, the protagonists are two women, Toby and Ren. They are both former members of a religious cult called God’s Gardeners, and by pure luck have survived the deadly epidemic that Crake unleashed. The book reveals their backstories, and what life is like for ordinary citizens amidst all the bioterrorism.

The most enjoyable parts of the book were the scenes in God’s Gardeners, a group that preaches vegetarianism and the need to stop harming God’s creatures. It was interesting to me how very reasonable the cult was- there was no brainwashing, and they provided security to non-believers, as long as they were productive and cooperative. Sometimes, support systems can be born from a shared questionable belief; too often, it’s the other way round.

The parts I liked the least were basically everything else; the story is tangential to the main plot of O&C, and barely reveals any new details. Ren dated Jimmy briefly whilst at college. She still carries a torch for him, but this has no bearing on any events. Essentially, this is like the Director’s Cut of the original plot- interesting scenes, but just for the true enthusiasts.

Margaret Atwood also wrote the modern classic The Handmaid’s Tale, about a modern Puritan society that strips women of fundamental rights. True to her role as a feminist icon, Atwood makes sure that Toby and Ren’s experiences are strongly coloured by their sexuality. They are motivated by love and wounded by gendered insults; many of their trials are related to sexual abuse. There is no overt feminism or man-bashing, something I was very glad of. These days, I find that political correctness is often brought to the attention of readers explicitly by self-satisfied authors (“Look look, this Sci-Fi book passes the Bechdel test!”)

I will definitely be reading Maddaddam (Book#3 in this trilogy), but perhaps with less enthusiasm. 2.5/5. Recommended only if you really enjoyed Oryx and Crake.

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World War II, V2.0

I haven’t been reading much at all lately; blame Philip K Dick*. His book, The Man in the High Castle, has been on my nightstand for months. It is both fascinating and terribly difficult to read, which accounts for the procrastination…

I picked out this book because I really liked Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It brings an abstractness and emotion to sci-fi that one rarely sees in a genre filled with stereotypes and action. After that, I had less luck with A Scanner Darkly, which is a very evocative account of a man’s descent into drug addiction. The beauty of Dick’s work is that the strong plotlines are bolstered by an immersive writing style- A Scanner Darkly gets more and more choppy (and incoherent) as the protagonist, a cop, gets drawn in to the murky world that he was meant to be investigating. He does a good job with the garbled stream of consciousness of a drug addled mind (PKD had his own struggles with drug abuse)- so good that it is hard to follow.

Anyway, I went in with very high expectations, and while I wasn’t disappointed per se, I still didn’t enjoy this book. A failing on my part, not PKD’s.

The Man in the High Castle is a speculative fiction book, set in an alternate reality where the Axis Powers won World War II. The Japanese now rule the west coast of the USA, and Jews are unwelcome. This genre of fiction is very exciting; I would have appreciated it more had I been more familiar with the historical details of the end of World War II (mostly in relation to the USA- this is clearly a large hole in my knowledge).

There are three parallel storylines that are loosely connected. One involves some good old fashioned espionage and murder. Another is about forgery of ‘traditional’ American manufactured items (that, perversely, have collector’s value in this world). The third revolves around a one night stand between strangers in a small town in Colorado that rapidly turns dark.

There are several relatively minor plot points that really stand out: all the characters use the I Ching to make decisions and divine the future; there are strongly racist feelings expressed by a white man towards the ‘superior’ Japanese- something that is prevalent in today’s world as well**. Even better, there’s a novel in the book that speaks about an alternate-alternate history in which the Axis powers were defeated. Meta enough to satisfy even the most discerning sci-fi fan.

This book is truly an immersive experience- nuances are conveyed via language and narrative pace. The scenes set in Japan-ruled San Francisco are told in choppy, metaphor-heavy language vaguely reminiscent of Japanese. In other chapters, panic is conveyed with short sentences and incomplete trains of thought.

3.5/5 from me, but PKD is still da man.

*He apparently died in 1982, and I doubt he would be heartbroken by this anyway.

**Though ‘this reverse racism’ may be obvious only among the melanin-blessed population.