Category Archives: Dystopias

The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Complex.  Important.  Staggering.

Is how I would describe Drowned Cities, a companion novel to Bacigalupi’s earlier Ship Breaker.  Not a strict sequel, Drowned Cities follows Tool, the fearsome and compelling man/dog/hyena/tiger hybrid we met in Ship Breaker, as well as two new young characters: Mahlia and Mouse.

When I reflect on it, I think I liked Drowned Cities even more than the first in this series.  Like Ship Breaker, it encompasses a marvellously complete and complex world – the detail is incredible, and somehow Bacigalupi makes his novel feel rooted in a place, but manages to hint that there are equally rooted, complex places throughout his futuristic world.  Set after the flood/global economic collapse/environmental disasters, these books traverse a nightmarish future United States.  Drowned Cities in fact brings us to the capital itself, Washington DC – now part jungle, swamp, war zone, and scrap heap.  Mahia and Mouse are two “war maggots” – refugees that have managed to escape the violence and have been taken in by a kind-hearted doctor living in one of the villages in the Drowned Cities area.  Mahia is a half-breed – her father was part of the Chinese peacekeeping force sent to tame the Drowned Cities and bring an end to the violence.  The Chinese peacekeepers have left, but their “castoffs” like Mahia were left behind, though few have survived the wrath of the Drowned Cities residents looking for revenge on their former occupiers.  Left with only one hand, Mahia is a survivor.  When she happens upon Tool – almost dead after an epic battle with a swamp monster on top of an escape from prison – Mahia sees an opportunity.  She nurses the monstrous creature back to life and then asks his assistance in leaving the Drowned Cities.  Though he has no master (unlike the rest of his kind), Tool agrees to help her escape the war zone and the soldiers who continue to hunt him.  However, when her best friend Mouse is captured and recruited by these boy soldiers, Mahia has to decide whether to risk everything and follow him into the heart of the Drowned Cities and enemy territory – or whether to take her chances with Tool and flee.

What I remembered from the first book was the incredible detail and complex world.  These things also struck me in Drowned Cities, but so did the characters and the almost non-stop action driving the plot forward.  Not only is the world believable – the characters and their decisions are real also.  Again, even more than in Ship Breaker, I found myself making comparisons with our own world: the factional warfare fought for no end but the glory of self-appointed “generals,” along with the unyielding hostility to occupiers promising to do good, struck me as familiar from Afghanistan, Iraq, and just about any other country the world has tried to interfere in.  The recruitment of boy soldiers comes straight out of accounts I have read of civil wars in Africa, and the jingoism and xenophobia permeating the society seems reminiscent of areas of present-day America (and many other parts of the world).  As is the case with all great science fiction, Drowned Cities reflects (and requires one to reflect) on our world: a world where privileged elites are separated from those they exploit, a world where people are too busy fighting to survive to help one another.

Though the main characters of these novels chose to act decently when pushed to the limit, most of the population of Bacigalupi’s world is predatory and violent in response to a predatory and violent world.  Tool himself is warfare personified – the most dangerous and destructive tendencies of humanity given life – and even this biological killing machine manages to show more humanity than those surrounding him.  True to his dark vision, Bacigalupi does not give us any easy escapes from the world he envisions.  Although he allows some to leave Drowned Cities, the place itself persists, a mire of death and destruction with no safe havens.  Even more so than Hunger Games and the like, Ship Breaker and Drowned Cities send a shiver up my spine because of its unconquerable reality.  If you are working your way through the mass of dystopias currently available, please don’t miss these startling and important contributions.


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A Long Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan

There is a distinct potential for cheesiness in the concept of A Long Long Sleep – a sleeping beauty/dystopia mash-up.  However, I found that the writing was excellent, and that the issues raised were so compelling that there was no hint of cheesiness.  It actually had unexpected depths and an extremely compelling story.

Rosalinda Fitzroy is the daughter of the most powerful corporate leader there is.  She has just woken up from a sixty-two year sleep in stasis.  Waking up was hard – her body is wasted and barely functional after her long sleep.  The world into which she emerges is even harder to face – her loved ones are long dead, and the catastrophic Dark Times and subsequent Recovery have altered her world drastically.  Though she is heiress to her father’s empire, Rose finds she doesn’t fit in anywhere, and that her only escape is through her art that is augmented by the vivid stasis dreams she has been immersed in.

However, as Rose faces the painful aspects in her past, she slowly begins to recognize the source of her alienation and timidity.  Helped by Brendan, the young man who woke her up with a kiss (mouth-to-mouth resuscitation), and a genetic oddity, Otto, Rose slowly confronts what has happened to her, and questions the memory of her devoted parents.

The themes Sheehan touches on in this story were deeper than I had expected: corporate control; inequitable distributions of wealth; the dangers of genetic engineering; the allure of drugs as an escape from reality; parental neglect and abuse of power; and the process of aging or staying young while the world ages around you.  Without giving anything away, the relationship between Rose and her childhood love Xavier was touching and heartbreaking – beautifully drawn out and agonizing in a very compelling way.

I’m sure Long Long Sleep will not be for everyone, but I was pleased to find that it had appeal beyond the fluffy romance crowd.  Though nowhere near as gritty and dark as dystopias like Ship Breaker or Elephant Mountains, it had issues that cut to the core of our society and psychology.  I hope many people read and enjoy this most excellent book.

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Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Dalí claimed that “the only difference between me and the surrealists is that I am a surrealist.”

The difference between Ship Breaker and other YA dystopias is that Ship Breaker is a dystopia.

And no wonder this is a darker read: Paolo Bacigalupi is the author of The Windup Girl, an award-winning and bestselling adult novel.  More so than other YA dystopias, Ship Breaker hovers on that increasingly narrow precipice that separates teen and adult fiction.  Say what you will about the violence of Hunger Games, or the bleak plot of Blood Red Road, Ship Breaker is a much more complicated, grown-up world.  Many other YA dystopias that I have read (Divergent, Matched, Hunger Games) are built on an interesting premise as a kind of “what if our world were like that?”  Whether it’s teens who must choose a vocation or partner for life at a certain age, or even a more complex hierarchy of cities all serving a privileged core, these worlds all have boundaries.  They exist simply within the bounds of the novel, and it feels like the whole society can be encapsulated and explained within these pages.

Ship Breaker does not have this same feel at all.  Rather, it feels like a vast world full of unexplained technologies and social structures.  Why  are there half-dog-half-men creatures?  Where do they come from?  We have a glimpse into the main character, Nailer’s world, and it is filled with so much detail and complexity, that one can only guess at what the rest of the world must be.  So whatever else it is, Ship Breaker is a gritty and startlingly intricate vision of the future.

It begins with Nailer, a teen who is probably fifteen but doesn’t really know his own age.  Because he’s so small, he can still work the light crew, stripping old tanker ships of their copper wiring to make his scavange quota.  He lives on a beach somewhere in America’s Gulf Coast region, an area polluted by poisons excreted by rotting tankers, and populated by impoverished and desperate people.  Life is cheap here – those who can’t make quota, who are too big for light crew or who are too weak for heavy crew must fend for themselves.  All too often this involves selling themselves – their organs or reproductive materials – for enough money to survive.  Everyone dreams of a Lucky Strike and loyalty to one’s crew is the only type of fellow feeling there is.

Though he is a dreamer, Nailer always makes quota and he has a family of sorts in his best friend Pima and her mother.  His own mother is dead, and his father Richard Lopez is a violent drunk at the best of times.  The opening pages include Nailer’s near-death in a vat of oil and a deadly tropical storm that wrecks the settlement and kills several people.  It is immediately clear why Nailer’s people place their faith in luck; although for his part, Nailer vows to be smart and lucky.

After the destructive storm, Nailer finds what should be his Lucky Strike – a wrecked clipper ship with a fortune of scavenge.  However, he also finds a half-dead girl named Anita on board.  Tying his fate to hers will be the biggest risk of his life, but he finds himself compelled to help this wealthy “swank” who seems truthful despite the lies she tells about herself.  Together they undertake the most dangerous of adventures.

There are people today who make a living breaking ships to recycle materials and scavenging on top of enormous landfills.  In many ways Nailer’s world, with its oil shortages and population surpluses, is only a few steps away from ours.  In other ways – in the genetically engineered monsters that are a combination of man/dog/tiger/hyena – I found it came entirely out of left field.  Nailer’s existence is described in intricate detail – the slang, the code of honour, the tattoos and world view.  We also  get a glimpse at Anita’s swanky world – full of luxury items, bodyguards and comfort – not too dissimilar from what it  is to be a billionaire heiress today.  Bacigalupi does a beautiful job in capturing these existences and hinting at a richly complex world that exists in between these extremes.

The plot and action of Ship Breaker move along well.  True to the YA form, there is not a lot of waste in this novel, and we move reasonably quickly into the meat of the story and drive towards the finish.  The strongest element (and the most enigmatic) of the story is Tool, a gigantic dog-man creature.  He is supposed to have an overwhelming loyalty built into his genetic code, but Tool serves no master except for himself.  Instead, Tool chooses to help those around them as it suits him.  He serves as an unlikely ally for Nailer, who is initially terrified of him.  And when he decides the risk is no longer worth it, Tool departs.  It is no surprise that the sequel to this novel begins with Tool’s fate (a first chapter is helpfully included at the end of Ship Breaker).  Tool somehow reminded me of Asimov’s robots – designed to serve humanity, though exhibiting a will to live of his own.  He was compelling, and I am keen to hear more of his fate.

The rest of the characters were quite well described (particularly Nailer), but were not the strong point of the novel.  In particular, I was frusterated by Richard, Nailer’s father.  As a drunk, drugged-up and abusive father he was terrifying and all-too believable.  The scenes between him and Nailer were heartbreaking in their emotional and physical violence.  What I could not believe is that this monster of a man was somehow capable of masterminding a complex and sustained criminal conspiracy.  His portrayal as a substance abuser with long blackouts just didn’t translate consistently to his identity later in the novel as a respected leader of evil men.  As a result, the conflict between Richard and Nailer – so crucial to novel – was undermined because it felt forced on the story as a plot and thematic device.  That said, the father/son conflict still managed to be fairly compelling and powerful.

I very much enjoyed Bacigalupi’s creation – it felt gritty and real, and a departure from others in the genre that come off feeling shiny and tidy in comparison.  That said, I’m not sure everyone reading these YA dystopias will love it as much.  There was no love triangle in Ship Breaker and no easy answers.  Like House of the Scorpion or Oryx and Crake there are nightmares in this world and very few safe havens.  Unlike the middle-class ethos of some YA dystopias (all will be well if you just conform to society’s demands – a precept the main characters universally reject), there is no safety in Ship Breaker.  Normal is painful and marginal – the only possible escape from an already precarious existence is to risk everything.

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Dark Inside by Jeyn Roberts

There’s been a lot of post-apocalyptic books recently, and this one intrigued me because it is set during the apocalypse.  While I found it too dark and dire for my taste, I suspect some might enjoy this new (quite violent) YA thriller (available November, 2011).

The disaster starts with an earthquake on the west coast of North America – not only does the quake rip buildings to shreds, it allows an ancient and pervasive evil an irresistible opportunity.  So this apocalypse isn’t from outside – it’s not through natural disaster, nuclear war, or disease – apparently it comes from the dark impulses that live in all of us.  As the book unfolds, it seems some people are turned into monsters through this evil (you can spot them by their black-veined eyes), who in turn rip civilians to shreds (quite literally – this is not a book for the fait of heart).   A few lucky (or unlucky?) survive – perhaps to carry on the species, or perhaps to provide future targets for the monsters.

I admit I found a lot of it very familiar – Buffy fans might have “from beneath you it devours” in your head for the whole book, as I did.  The monster-people reminded me a lot of the demons encountered on the TV series Supernatural, and I half expected two wise-cracking (and handsome) brothers to step in and deal with it all with their bag of salt and sawed-off shotgun.  Unfortunately for the teens in the book, this didn’t happen.  It also reminded me very much of the vampire-apocalypse novel, The Strain.  I read that one a year or two ago, and it was such a horror-style book, it ruined me for this kind of novel.  I couldn’t even read The Passage, which was supposed to be wonderful.  I just don’t have the stomach for this kind of literature.  So it’s not surprising that Dark Inside was a real struggle for me to finish.  The only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that I was in the safe realm of YA fiction in which even if the ending isn’t happy, it will at least be hopeful.

Dark Inside follows four teens and their struggle to stay alive in this dangerous new world.  For very different reasons, they all find themselves on the road to Vancouver, hoping to find safety, or at least some kind of sanctuary.  I admit, I did like watching the apocalypse happen, especially seeing technology crumble as everything electric is rendered useless overnight.  The concrete details of dead cities and abandoned homes was poignant and could even have been expanded on.

Given my bias against this type of book, I find it hard to evaluate.  I certainly didn’t enjoy it, though I can almost imagine that some would.  I did find it genuinely creepy (a good thing for this type of book, yes?), and while the dialogue was sometimes quite stiff, the characters were pretty good.  I was nagged by some of the unanswered questions in this book: what is the source of this evil?  Why did an earthquake provide an opportunity?  Why are some affected and not others?  Will those not affected eventually become so?  If this has happened before (apparently this is how civilizations are destroyed), how does it go away?  Why do their eyes turn black? Is there going to be a sequel or is that really the ending?

But it didn’t drag, and it didn’t hold back, and it did make me wonder where I would be if all this was happening (probably in that first wave of people being ripped apart). I wish I knew where to place it in the genre – I liked it better than The Strain, but I’m not sure it would measure well against The Road or The Passage (why do they all have the same name?).  Makes me think I should break down and finally read those (shudder).  My problem is I’m already too paranoid about the state of the world – I already devote serious worry time to it, and I want my fiction to take me away from these worries.

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Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent was just published in April 2011, and yes, it is another YA dystopian thriller. A few of my co-workers had read it and loved it (loved it!), and one insisted that I check it out.  And I have to say – I’m very glad I did.  I’ve just emerged from two straight days of reading (it would have been faster if I didn’t have a 6 month old to look after)… one of those marathons where I feel itchy and cranky when I’m not reading.  I love when a book sweeps me away like this, even though it makes me grouchy or completely useless for anything else.

Ok, the story.  I was actually not completely sold on the premise, as it seemed to be too overwrought when I first heard it.  But I’m learning that there might be no such thing as too implausible in this genre.  In this world, the people of the city (a future Chicago) are separated into five factions, each reflecting a virtue: Candor (honesty), Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (bravery), Amity (peacefulness) and Erudite (intelligence).  Fair enough – but my mind immediately went wondered why anyone would do this.  How does it make sense to organize a society in this way?  Who does it benefit – and if it’s meant to be fair and functional, then is it really a dystopia?  Moreover, the central point of the novel – that everyone is a mix of these virtues, or that they should be mixed, seems so obvious as to defy comment.  I mean, shouldn’t a good dystopia point out something that’s wrong with our society?  Take something that’s true of us today and exaggerate it?  Or point to a path we seem to be on, and show how it could lead to evil?  For example: destruction of the environment (Chrysalids, City of Ember, The Dirt Eaters); rule by a stifling dictatorship (1984, Hunger Games), or stifling people’s creativity and human spirit (The Giver and most of the above).  No one has ever actually proposed dividing society up by virtues – so I wasn’t sure what exactly Divergent was a critique of.  It must be just another grab at a crazy premise to get a book published, I thought.

Then I started reading, and within the first three pages, I pretty much forgot all my objections.  The writing is great – tense and terse.  The economy of language perfectly captures this character who begins as a member of the ascetic Abnegation faction:

“There is one mirror in my house.  It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs.  Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.”

Immediately gripping – and as it went on, I realized that it doesn’t suffer from the same problem as many of the books I’ve been reading have.  Roth doesn’t tell us who the character is, and what her hidden side is right away – she lets us discover it through details.  And the same for the other characters.  Usually we realize something before the main character does because of the careful placement of these clues.  In some cases the giveaway is too obvious (as in the love story), but on the whole it works very well.  It’s the old rule of showing not telling, and I wish more YA (and other) authors would remember it.

So the plot: the main character Beatrice is a sixteen-year-old member of the Abnegation faction, though she’s never felt selfless enough to completely fit in with her family or faction.  At age sixteen, everyone in her society is tested to see which of the five factions they belong in – then they must make a choice about which one they want to spend the rest of their lives in.  For some, this might mean leaving their birth faction and their families forever. But Beatrice is an exception – she is divergent, and displays the qualities of multiple factions: Abnegation, Dauntless and Erudite.  She must now keep this dangerous secret and choose which of these faction she will belong to.  Despite the pain of leaving home, Beatrice chooses Dauntless, and launches herself on a truly challenging path to become an initiate in a society that prizes bravery and danger above all else.  To succeed, she must face her greatest fears, but always hide her true self.

And of course there’s a love story.

So there you have it – great action, great writing, great driving plot (the ending was a little weak: there were all the usual questions about how villans always manage to let the good guys slip out of their grasp), and fantastic characters.  Definitely get this one if you are looking for a Hunger Games follow-up – so far it’s hands-down the best alternative I’ve read.

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The Predicteds by Christine Seifert

A huge wave of dystopian novels aimed at teens is making its way on the market, attempting to cash in on the popularity of The Hunger Games.  The Predicteds is one of the most recent offerings in this genre (available Sept 2011).  I was actually kind of excited by this one’s arresting premise: imagine a test exists that can tell you who will commit a violent crime or become a drug addict, or become a teenage mom. How would we treat people who are predicted for these actions?

Daphne Wright has just moved to a small town whose high school students have recently been profiled with just this kind of test (which is an amazing co-incidence given that her mom helped create the test, but left the project because of moral objections over how the test was being used.  You think she’d want to avoid the selected communities where the test was piloted).  Not only is the town full of rednecks and a fair portion of narrow-minded citizens, all hell breaks loose once the predicted lists are released.  The kicker is that Jesse, the tall, handsome guy Daphne has fallen in love with, is predicted as a violent offender.  Added to that are the rumours that he stalked a former girlfiend, and accusations that he was involved in the violent assault of another girl (actually a very close friend of his).  Daphne is (of course) torn between her feelings for Jesse and her fear that the charges might be true.

I have to say – part of me hated this book, and part of me very much enjoyed it.  I have a feeling it will appeal to a lot of teen readers – if you liked Numbers, or series like Prettys or Gossip Girl, this might be the right read for you.  The writing is uneven, but has some very nice moments like this one:

“It’s a bright Friday morning with only two weeks of school left, the briefest hint of summer freedom already in the air.  The month of May is always better than real summer, because when the day is done, when the sun sets, there will still be as many summer days left as there were in the morning.”  Isn’t that a nice thought?  Oh – and I’m not really supposed to quote that until I check it against the completed manuscript, but I can’t be bothered.

What really rubbed me the wrong way was the obviousness of it all.  Once the mystery was cleared up, there weren’t any questions, or profound thoughts to hold on to.  It essentially was another example of segregation – something that’s been covered by other books, but much more effectively. Moreover, the test made no sense.  I accept that in a dystopian novel one has to let some improbabilities go – and just assume that in the future things work differently, or that they’ve found technological fixes to certain problems.  But I honestly can’t imagine a test that would tell you someone is destined to become a teen mom.  Isn’t that more down to the frailty of birth control sometimes?  Whatever happened to chance?  Unfortunately, I found it all very muddled and poorly explained.

I also found the book to be infuriating in terms of the judgements it cast out.  The main character believes (and the plot seems to bear out) that these small town yokels are narrow-minded and quick to ostracize.  Maybe that’s how it is in small towns – but aren’t there good things too?  It seemed unrelentingly negative to me.  Also, the main character is extremely critical of shopping and clothes, but is constantly supplying us with details about people’s clothing and how their style works or doesn’t work.  In general, she has a massive superiority complex, and I have a hard time imagining why some of these people would give her the time of day.  She is constantly snipping at them in her head, but still spends all her time with them.  I’m quite sure that in another book the character would realize a) that these people are aweful and not worth spending time with, even if they are popular; or b) that they’re not so bad, and that she’s being a conceted ass for thinking so.  She sort of comes to both realizations – but again, I found it muddled.

Bottom line is, if you’re looking for a dystopian book with a nice romantic storyline, I would recommend Matched by Ally Condie well before this one (that a was a very clever book!).

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Gamerunner by B. R. Collins

Continuing my blitz of fall 2011 Bloomsbury UK titles, I just finished Gamerunner, a sci-fi dystopian thriller.  Rick is a teenage boy who has spent more of his life in the virtual world of the “Maze” than out of it.  He is a champion – able to run missions no one else can.  While the Maze is a rich and interactive 3D world (operated through Avatars – think Avatar), the real world is a grey wasteland with poisonous rain and a toxic atmosphere.  The early pages of the novel show off Rick’s prowess in the Maze, and reveal his rather privileged existence inside Crater’s skyscraper (Crater is the company that owns and operates the Maze).  But the mood soon turns to suspense/thriller as Maze designer and Rick’s dad, Daed, gives him an almost impossible assignment to go to the roots of the Maze.  Daed wars Rick to under no circumstances finish the Maze, but because Daed doesn’t inspire trust, and because Rick can’t resist the challenge, he does.  This puts Daed’s career in jeopardy, as well as their continued safety in the confines of the company’s compound.

And so it goes.  At every turn, Rick does something stupid to make a bad situation worse – harming those around him, or causing Daed to harm someone in order to protect Rick (or so it seems – Daed is a very well-drawn, enigmatic character who is either a sarcastic but devotedly self-sacrificing father, or a psychopathic control-freak protecting his own glory).  One of the characters even asks Rick to please “stop doing stupid things.”  But he can’t – as he proves over and over and over.  It’s kind of cute, but as a plot device, a character who can’t stop himself from doing stupid things only gets you so far.

The best bits of this novel are some of the secondary characters – Daed, etc.  Also interesting is Rick’s inability to operate or understand the real world after so much time spent in the Maze.  And the action is good.  What’s unfortunate and tiresome is the constant waffling.  The plot is basically RIck wandering back and forth through the compound (I would have liked more Maze scenes) wondering what to do, and invariably choosing the worst option.

In the end, Gamerunner has a a fascinating premise reminicent of Ender’s Game or Avatar, some good characters and an interesting moral greyness about everything, but is rather ruined by the lack of action and plot.

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The Elephant Mountains by Scott Ely

A YA dystopia reminicent of The Road (I imagine, not having read it).  Hurricanes have flooded New Orleans and much of the southern US gulf.  Fifteen year-old Stephen has been living with his survivalist father in a small town.  After his father is killed by looters, Stephen begins a water-born journey to find his mother in New Orleans.  At first I found the writing in this novel hard to latch on to, but I was eventually hooked into Stephen’s jouney.  This is one of the darker YA novels I read… only its length, relative simplicity and a slight promise of hope at the end kept it from belonging in the bleak category of post-apocalyptic adult fiction.  So I enjoyed it, but I do suspect there are better books doing similar things.

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July 23, 2011 · 3:00 am