Books Read in 2014 – 42. Chocky by John Wyndham

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Genre: Dystopia
Narrative Style: First person, chronological
Rating 4/5
Published: 1970
Format: Kindle
Synopsis: When Matthew starts to communicate with an unseen being named Chocky, his parents are understandably worried. After all, Matthew is too old for an imaginary friend. Furthermore, Matthew is starting to ask questions that seem to have come from somewhere beyond his own mind. As time passes, they grow more and more concerned and involve outside help. This turns out to be a big mistake.

There were a couple of reasons for choosing to read this book. I could vaguely remember the TV series and was curious to read the book behind it. Secondly, I had been meaning to read more Wyndham since reading The Day of the Triffids a few years ago. So I had high hopes for the book and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. This is a really good read and the only thing that stopped it getting five stars is that sometimes it seemed a little old fashioned which is inevitable, I suppose, with this sort of fiction.
The story begins with Matthew’s parents noticing little oddities that are out of place for an eleven year old – like having an imaginary friend. It seems harmless enough and although they are curious, they are not unduly worried, as their son seems happy enough in himself.
However, clues begins to appear that suggest that this is no ordinary imaginary being. Matthew starts to ask questions that are almost beyond his understanding. His teachers complain that he is starting to ask about concepts that are too difficult to explain and he sometimes appeared to be arguing with another being. They decide to seek outside help and it is suggested that Matthew may be possessed by an outside force. Understandably, they find this an unsatisfactory answer and seek help elsewhere.
Events do become more sinister – for example, Matthew rescues his sister from drowning without being able to swim. The press start to become interested and Matthew is sent to an important psychologist who equally has no answers for them.
I must admit that I wished I had no knowledge of the events that were to come as I could remember exactly who Chocky was, However, I could not remember the exact storyline and so when Matthew goes missing near the end of the novel, I was as perplexed as his parents. I also could not remember Chocky’s purpose in using Matthew as a reporter on this world. I was impressed by the ecological reasoning used by Chocky in her disgust at our dependency on fossil fuels that will inevitably disappear. This reads now like a warning still unheeded as we are still desperate for a clean, safe solution to this problem. There was a contrast between Chocky’s altruistic attitude and that of the doctors who want to exploit Matthew’s unusual knowledge.
The narrative is written from the point of view of David, Matthew’s father and was convincing in its curiosity about Chocky and its concern for Matthew. The story is written in a straightforward way but that only made the ending seem more devastating because the reader could believe in its reality. Very enjoyable.

Books Read in 2014 – 31. The Stepford Wives – Ira Levin

Genre: Horror, Dystopia, Satire

Narrative Style: Third Person from the point of view of one characterdownload (8)

Rating 4/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 1972

Synopsis: Joanna moves to Stepford at the insistence of her husband, Walter and, at first, it seems to good to be true. She soon becomes irritated by the passiveness of the women and their housework obsession. Then the two friends she thought were different start to show the same obsessions and she starts to wonder what exactly is going on in Stepford. I can remember seeing the 1975 film version of this book when I was fifteen so I knew what the basic story was. You might think that this would spoil the story, making it less tense but this was not the case. Levin unfolds Joanna’s story masterfully and knowing what might happen to her only made me more anxious for her to escape the clutches of the men of Stepford. Joanna begins the novel an independent, strong woman who works as a photographer. She does housework when she has to and is used to having strong female friendships. She is sexual and attractive without the need for make-up. However, when she comes to Stepford she finds all the women are eerily similar and coldly distant. They are unable to find a place in their housework schedule to even meet for coffee. They are beautifully coiffed and clothed. She is rightly appalled by this and by her husband leaving every evening to go to the men’s association. Joanna does meet two other like-minded women – both of whom have not lived in Stepford for long – and they try desperately to get some sort of female movement going. However, when one of them suddenly becomes docile like the other women, they start to worry that they’ll be next. Eventually there is only Joanna left and she tries desperately to warn the one woman to move to Stepford after her before the men seal her fate. Levin cleverly does not tell the reader exactly what happens to Joanna. She merely loses narrative perspective. Ruthanne takes over the narrative point of view and she runs into Joanna in the supermarket, noting her coldness, her obsession with housework and how good she looks. As Ruthanne is a writer, it can be assumes that she will be the men’s next victim. The men in the novel respond specifically to their wives’ attempts at politicising themselves. Joanna discovers that the women were once activists or very successful professionals that held feminist meetings. The message that Levin is trying to get across is clear. Men will not just stand back and let women gain power from them. As Chuck Palahniuk notes in the introduction, perhaps more heed should have been taken. The whole beauty industry and the obsession with women’s appearance is one very successful way of keeping them in their place regardless of their professional position.

Books read in 2014 – 25. The City, Not Long After – Pat Murphy

Genre: Dystopia / Utopia

Narrative Style: Third Person, largely chronological

Rating: 3/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 1989

Synopsis: The narrative centres on San Fransisco after a plague. The survivors are all artists or eccentrics and are all peace loving. When a girl comes from outside of the city, warning of war, they realise that they have to $(KGrHqJ,!l!E8EqSozg6BPNuf3zchg~~60_35defend the city somehow.

This is different from other dystopia that I have read, in as much as it doesn’t see the very worst in people. So it may be more apt to call it a utopia. It represents the way that you might hope people would react, the very best that humans can be. Once it occurred to me that this was a utopia, I was able to cope with it a little better.

The characters are all a little bit wacky – a group of dreamers and artists who spend their lives creating works of art rather than struggling to survive. Danny Boy begins a project to paint the Golden Gate Bridge blue. The Machine spends his time creating metal insects and creepy crawlies. Books is trying to write a history of post plague San Fransisco. No one struggles for food.

Jax is guided to the city by an angel (which may have been made by The Machine) and her mother’s ghost. She brings the news that an army is planning to attack. However, the artists are loathe to take her seriously. And even when they do start to prepare, they vow not to kill but scare the army, unnerve them. Even those who have to be dealt with close up are merely sedated.

I understand the points that Murphy is trying to make about warfare and it’s dehumanising effect on the human psyche. She references many historical figures (like Gandhi for example) who used peaceful protest. And the utopian ideas are pertinent. However, I have to admit that I found it a little naive. I couldn’t quite stop my own cynicism from infecting the story. Maybe I’m essentially misanthropic but I find it hard to believe in the best of people. Especially in the area of warfare. At the end of the day, I prefer my post-apocalyptic fiction to be a little harder round the edges. This was too nice by far.

 

 

Books Read in 2014 – 23. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (Contains Spoilers.)

Genre: Dystopia, Young Adult

Narrative Style: First person narrative, chronologicaldownload (6)

Rating: 2.5/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 2010

Synopsis: Having been pulled from the arena at the end of Catching Fire, Katniss finds herself in the hands of the rebels. She is reluctant to accept the role of Mockingjay but does so when she realises what the Capitol has done to Peeta. The battle for supremacy between the rebels and the Capitol begins in earnest.

This is definitely the weakest book of the trilogy. I was keen to read on at the end of Catching Fire. It wasn’t obvious what would happen to Katniss and I dived in straightaway. It wasn’t long before I felt disappointed though.

There were a number of reasons for this. First of all, Katniss is whinier than ever, determined to take the blame for everything and reluctant to accept her new role. I found her even more irritating than usual. She is naive in her views and the reader is probably supposed to find this innocently refreshing but to me it just seems unrealistic. Gale is much more pragmatic but no less annoying as he seems more a rebel mouthpiece than a real character. The transformation of Peeta to a tool of the Capitol didn’t convince either. He moved between good Peeta and evil Peeta at the mercy of the plot with little thought for his actual character. I didn’t believe in either role. Especially as it started to be apparent that he and Katniss would end up together. There was no tension as to whether his good side would return.

A bigger problem is that of the action, a lot of which happens away from Katniss. The reader is then given a couple of paragraphs about what has happened. (This will be solved in the film, I guess where they will be more able to use multiple viewpoints.) This is particularly troublesome after Katniss shoots Coin and there is a trial happening while Katniss is singing to herself in her cell. But it’s okay because she is found innocent and allowed to go home. Very unsatisfactory.

The ending was equally unsatisfactory. (In fact, about halfway through I realised that there was no way this could end in a way that would please me. I’m glad that Katniss didn’t end up with Gale but the idea that she was able to have a family with Peeta was just as problematic to me.) The epilogue was mawkish and sickening. I felt the same at the end of the last Harry Potter. I’m not sure why it is felt to be necessary. It wasn’t a fairy tale so why end with a happily ever after?

To end on a more positive note, there are some interesting ideas in this novel – the use of propaganda, the nature of warfare, the way power corrupts, for example – I just wish that they had been played out in a different way.

 

Books Read in 2014 – 22. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Genre: Dystopia, Young Adult

Narrative Style: First Person narrative, largely chronologicalcatchingfire02-718973

Rating 3/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 2009

Synopsis: Following their win at the Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta are preparing themselves for their victory tour and the next games. As this is a celebration of 75 years of the games, it calls for a special games to be designed, one which Katniss and Peeta will never forget.

I read The Hunger Games last year and I have to admit, I didn’t feel particularly compelled to read on. However, I always meant to read the others and so I finally got round to downloading Catching Fire and Mockingjay onto my kindle.

If anything, I enjoyed this more than The Hunger Games. The plot twists were a little less blatant and I loved the idea of the clock shaped games arena. The Capitol and the gamemakers seemed more cruel and some of the weapons / tricks played within the arena were truly horrible.

The book trotted along and I did find it hard to put down. I wanted to know that Katniss and Peeta would survive. Or rather how they would survive – the existence of a third book suggesting that they both lived through this one. I was glad to have the third one ready and waiting as the end of this one was much more of a cliff hanger than the last one.

I still found Katniss intensely annoying. She is constantly selfish, ignorant and mistrustful. The way she swings between Gale and Peeta is also irritating. While she is a strong lead character who takes action, she is often in the wrong or acts in a foolish way. She was hard to like. Whilst, on the one hand, Peeta is more sympathetic, in some ways he is just as annoying. His essential goodness doesn’t quite ring true.

The final reveal at the end of the book and Katniss’ reaction too it seemed a little forced and sudden. More subtle clues throughout might have helped with this. The appearance of Gale at the end and his rebel status also did not quite convince.

Maybe I’m being a bit harsh but I did feel that I constantly wanted to shake Katniss. Maybe, again, it is just that I am too far removed from Katniss’ age to really be able to relate to her. Certainly, the idea of these books is strong and interesting, I was left feeling that the execution could have been better.

 

Books Read in 2014 – 11. In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination

Genre: Literary criticism, Science, Science Fiction
narrative style: first person, academic
Rating: 5/5
Format: Paperback
Published: 2011

Synopsis: A series of essays from varying points in Atwood’s career covering her views on science fiction and dystopia, the origins of her own ideas, reviews of science fiction that has influenced her and finally some short stories.

This was an excellent read. Atwood is an intelligent commentator on fiction and on culture. She traces the impulse towards utopia and dystopia, in both her own writing and within our culture.
The descriptions of her early reading and the differences between then and now are interestingly examined. It is fascinating to me, a person who has always known a certain level of technology, to imagine what it must have been like pre-television when people listened to the radio so much more. No doubt when space travel first began, it must have seemed so exciting and so beyond what anyone else had done. These days, it seems almost old hat. Atwood shows the same unfailing intelligence when examining her own fictional impulses as others which offers the reader a new insight.
Her reviews of classics such as The Island or Doctor Moreau, Women on the edge of time, 1984 and such like are equally intelligent. In fact, I was made to rethink my position on these books a couple of times because her views were so well thought out. I now have a long list of books that I need to read based on all the books that were mentioned that I hadn’t read.
Finally, tucked away at the end of this book are five short science fiction stories, all of which are filled with Atwood’s trademark sly humour and love of langauage. My favourite of these takes the form of a dinner party conversation about the perils of having your head cryogenically frozen. Atwood really picks the issue apart.
All in all a great read for anyone with an interest in science fiction.

Top Ten Tuesday – Top Ten Worlds We’d Never Want to Live In

Top ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week we are talking about fictional worlds we would not want to live in.

In no particular order:

1. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood. This is one of the first dystopia that I read and still ranks as one of the scariest. The humiliations that the handmaid’s go through are almost beyond imagining. Atwood’s nightmare world is frighteningly convincing.

2. 1984 – George Orwell. I read this at school. I am sure that it is at least partly responsible for my own political convictions. It is a shame that things like room 101 and big brother have been stripped of most of their meaning by imbecilic television programmes.

3. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley. I often feel like the savage in this book when I look at modern culture. I feel a little lost and confused when I see the things that people do, watch, listen to, post on social media.

4. Mad Addam series – Margaret Atwood. I haven’t read the third book of this series yet but the first two were really disturbing. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, you could really see the roots of reality in this book. Take it as a warning, folks. This is where we could be headed.

5.  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick / Bladerunner. It is particularly unsettling not to be able to tell if someone is human or not. Even more frightening is the idea that you might not even know yourself. This one eats at the very heart of the reader.

6. War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells. Oh, I know, the Martians get it in the end but up until that point, there really is no stopping them. I can’t help feeling this is what  it would be like if any aliens found us. Why travel across space and time, if you’ve not already conquered everything nearer at hand?

7. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins. I’ve not read the rest of this series either. I liked the idea of the games and the different sectors more than I liked the way the story played out. You know everyone would watch it, that’s what makes it seem real.

8. Animal Farm – George Orwell. Another early influence on me politically. I imagine I’d be like poor old Boxer. Well-meaning but ultimately useless. I’d soon be carted off to the equivalent of the glue factory.

9. The Road – Cormac McCarthy. This is probably the bleakest book I have ever read. Some unnamed catastrophe has caused society to break down. McCarthy really captures the way that it would go once those rules were gone.

10. Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro. This is another book where I liked the idea better than the execution. Children being bred purely for their organs is a chilling – and not unlikely – idea that gets to the heart of the issues surrounding cloning.

The perfect implications of an imperfect world.

The recent edit of Choose Yr Future has seen some chapters disappear, some change and some needing to be written. When I first started writing some of the details of my future world weren’t as clear as they are now so obviously there have been some pretty big changes. For me, this is the one enjoyable thing to come out of editing. Until you read through the whole of your work, you don’t always realise you have been sidetracked. Sometimes the sidetrack becomes the main road. Sometimes you have to find a way back to the path you actually want to follow. But at the end, the destination should be clear.

One of the things that became clear to me was that while I was concerned about gender and sexuality issues, I hadn’t realised that I was writing about class so much. My future society is very much a class based world with no social mobility at all, apart from the lucky ones who get to win talent shows of one type or another. The sort of thing that gives the impression of mobility when in fact the majority of people are stuck with in the same place as they ever were; the same place where their parents were stuck; the same place their children will be stuck.

Of course, a lot of people believe that class divisions no longer matter and that social mobility is easier than it has ever been. And maybe that is true to an extent. After all, in my suburban house, with my job in education, I’d have a nerve to still call myself working class (although there is no doubt that I still do). If I had children, they would be born into a middle class world. But when a recent study showed that elite surnames still dominate in universities such as Oxford and Cambridge and that underlying social status is more strongly inherited than height, there may be not as much cause to celebrate as you might think. Maybe there is more movement in the middle but as soon as you start to move to the extreme of either end, it becomes more and more difficult to move upwards at one end, less and less likely that you will lose your privilege at the other.

As I have mentioned in an earlier blog, I am currently reading Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds. She discusses her own dystopian world and also the way that she feels that dystopia and utopia are not really the opposites we take them as but ever present within each other. I hadn’t thought about it before but it makes sense that if you create a perfect world then there must be the implication of an imperfect one and vice versa. What about the perfect world implied in my dystopic one? My future humans are caught up with voting on everything, they have no spare time as the government controls their every waking hour with work, exercise, recreation, and so on. They have health plans that they must keep to, they have roles that are chosen for them. They have a place in which they must stay, a time to get married, a time to have children. So I suppose my ideal world would be one where people were able and allowed to think for themselves, where they were given the freedom to be themselves and where you could actually choose your future.

 

 

 

The Road – Cormac McCarthy – Dystopia – Eclectic Reader Challenge 2013

I first read Cormac McCarthy years ago. I read Blood Meridian and really enjoyed it. It was gritty, violent, nihilistic and it really appealed to me. It is a little shameful that it has taken more than 10 years to follow up on that enjoyment and read another McCarthy book. To read The Road to fulfill the dystopia category for the Eclectic Reader Challenge 2013the_road.large seemed the perfect way to rectify this.

I had no expectations. I haven’t seen the film so I was aware only vaguely as to what this was about. McCarthy doesn’t give many details. There has been an unspecified happening and now there are (at first) unspecified dangers. This had the effect of unsettling the reader as there was no way of knowing exactly where the danger would come from. Details start to emerge but not enough to ever offer security to the reader. Not enough to allow knowledge of the future.

The crux of this novel is the relationship between The Man and his son, The Boy. The fact that they are not named gives the novel an universal feel. While specific events will have lead to this particular situation, there is a sense that it is a timeless situation. Acts of war, violence, atrocity have always existed and will always exist. The Man and The Boy are just the current version of the victims of this violence. Not the first, nor the last.

The Man tells The Boy to watch out for bad guys and that they are the good guys. And while the bad guys are cannibalistic and the signs we are given of their presence are horrific, The Man also acts in a way that The Boy perceives to be bad – he doesn’t help people when he could and when they are robbed, The Man retaliates in a way that is extremely brutal. This suggests that the ‘bad’ guys may also merely be responding to circumstances, in whatever way they can. In these extreme circumstances, the difference between good and bad gets smaller and smaller. After all, what would you do in order to survive?

The prose and the plot are not complicated but that does not stop this from being one of the most devastating books that I have ever read. The details that McCarthy does give build an atmosphere of tension and fear that is both compelling and horrendous. I wanted to read on and not to read on, both at the same time. I worried for The Man and for The Boy because it seems inevitable that it will not end well for them. There is no note of hope here. As such, the ending is open to interpretation. It could be seen as a rescue, as a hopeful moment but if we have learned anything in this novel, it is that human nature finds it difficult to retain its goodness under extreme circumstances and that it is difficult to tell who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. I want to hope for the best for The Boy because he, more than the man, does seem to represent the good of humanity. He often berates The Man over what he perceives to be bad behaviour but which we can can see is to do with self-preservation. Because of this, I do not feel that the ending can be straightforwardly positive but it can hope for the best. Perhaps that is all any of us can do.

Eclectic Reader Challenge – Dystopian – The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

Dystopian fiction is always interesting to read so I was pleased that it was one of the categories for the Eclectic Reader Challenge. A vision of the future, based on the problems in ours, maybe offering solutions, maybe only disasters. I am always curious to see what it is that makes other people angry and worried. So the premise of this novel interested me straightaway. The idea of women dying in their millions as soon as they become pregnant and the response of the scientists and governments to this problem was certainly intriguing (although you might say it is not a completely new idea) and I was expecting to enjoy it a lot.

In fact, I did enjoy it. Particularly the ideas about protest and what the proper response should be to the state that our world is in. There are groups that protest violently, some peacefully, some who turn to religion, some who are willing to sacrifice themselves and the novel turns on the relative success of the different types of protest. Unfortunately, the heroine Jessie turns to noble self-sacrifice as her chosen method and I found it quite hard to get behind her after that. In fact, her actions seemed typical of a teenager, assuming that she was right, that she alone could change the world. I couldn’t be sure whether this was the point- that such self sacrifice was an immature response – or whether this form of protest was privileged because the author believed in this method.photo

The symbolism in this novel is not very subtle. Jessie’s surname is Lamb and apart from the connotations with innocence and sacrifice, I think this represents the Lamb of God – i.e. Jesus Christ, further linking her to the idea of noble sacrifice. There were suggestions that the future was with the youth, rather than the older generation who clearly ruined everything. Which is fine expect then we are returned to the idea of youth sacrificing itself for the future of the world and that does not seem like a valid solution.

This book made me think about protest, about feminism and about science and religion so it was enjoyable in that sense. But in the end, I felt that the way the story unfolded was not what I would have expected and did not really sit well with me.