Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Dystopian (page 1 of 4)

Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

Classic sci-fi isn’t really “my thing”, but since when has that ever stopped me? Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? comes endlessly recommended to me, and I like the philosophic allusion of its title.

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Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? was first published back in 1968, but remains popular – largely due to the film adaptation franchise. My edition (SF Masterworks) includes an interesting introduction by Graham Sleight. In it, he poses the question that he says is at the heart of Dick’s dystopian novel: “What is a fake? And, if you can make a fake seem authentic enough, does it matter?”. He wrote that in 2009, long before the time of fake news and alternative facts, and yet it feels more apt than ever.

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic North America, where a global nuclear war has left much of Earth uninhabitable thanks to a radioactively polluted atmosphere. Most animal species have gone instinct, or are well on their way. The Powers That Be incentivise humans to move to interplanetary colonies by offering them free personal androids, robot slaves that can do all their dirty work. As the program becomes more popular, the robots become more advanced, to the point where they’re almost indistinguishable from old fashioned flesh-and-blood humans.

As the androids become more human, they start to have human desires – like getting back to Earth where they think they belong, and they can live free from the oppression of their masters. Enter men like Richard Deckhard, bounty hunters who track down these absconders and “retire” them (i.e., shoot them with laser guns).

Dick takes an interesting approach, then, to dystopian science fiction, writing Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? more in the style of detective noir fiction. Deckhard is the hard-boiled world-weary investigator, tempted by selfish motives (sex, owning his own ostrich) but keeping his cool in life-threatening situations.

Speaking of sex: I’ve got to say, even if I knew nothing else about Dick, it’s abundantly clear throughout Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? that he really hates women. Really hates them. Richard Deckhard’s wife is a sad sack, totally pitiable and more of an obstacle to the progression of the plot than anything. The android villainess is a femme fatale, drawing Deckhard away from his purpose and manipulating him with sex. The pages are peppered with really gross descriptions of their physical appearance. Yuck. Yuck, yuck, yuck.

Other than that, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? isn’t a bad read. I reckon the main reason for its enduring popularity is its layers: there’s so much you can read into it! It’s a novel about the nature of humanity and identity, how we understand our reality, and the basis of morality. Much heavier stuff than I was expecting from a post-nuclear-fall-out novel about shooting robots with laser guns.

I can’t say I’m all that eager to check out the movies, though. There was the 1982 Harrison Ford-led Blade Runner, which departed significantly from the source text, and 2017’s Blade Runner 2049, which clawed a lot of it back. I only made it about half-way through the trailer for the former before I got bored, so I think I’ll give it a miss. I’ll keep Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? on my shelf, though, and re-visit it next time I’m eager to ponder the philosophical underpinnings of alternative facts.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?:

  • “this… book has drained what little intellectual energy I had. I’m now an even more boring individual.” – JC Christiansen
  • “I do not remember the movie being this stupid.” – M Snow

The Natural Way Of Things – Charlotte Wood

The Weekend is one of my all-time favourite books, but even I can acknowledge that The Natural Way Of Things is the book for which Charlotte Wood is better known. It was released in 2015 to massive popular and critical acclaim here in Australia, and it won the Stella Prize the following year.

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The Natural Way Of Things is told in three parts, across nine months (Summer, Autumn, and Winter). It begins with Yolanda waking up “in the middle of absolutely fucking nowhere”. She doesn’t realise, at first, that nine other women are in the exact same situation. They’re disoriented, drugged, and shuffled between holding cells. When their gaolers emerge, they shave the women’s heads and dress them in scratchy parochial outfits, complete with perspective-limiting bonnets.

If you’re catching a whiff of The Handmaid’s Tale there, you’re not the only one. I suspect it’s a deliberate homage, as The Natural Way Of Things tackles a lot of the same themes and ideas as Margaret Atwood’s iconic feminist dystopia. It’s different, though, in the sense that Wood doesn’t require us to imagine any kind of societal collapse or fertility crisis to make her scenario a reality. What happens to Yolanda and Verla and co. could be happening in our world, right now (some might argue a version of it is).

These women have been abducted, imprisoned, and abandoned because they were all involved in some kind of sexual scandal. Wood offers just enough to give us the “gist” (the political staffer who had an affair with her boss, the footballer’s girlfriend who was sexually assaulted by his friends, the church girl who was abused by a priest), without any gory exposition of the incidents. They’re almost beside the point: any woman could be these women, their stories are all too familiar. They are being punished for the sin of womanhood.

In the days to come she will learn what she is, what they all are. That they are the minister’s-little-travel-tramp and that-Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut. They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut.

The Natural Way Of Things (Page 69)

As if that isn’t horrifying enough, The Natural Way Of Things is set in a remote and derelict sheep-shearing station, somewhere in the Australian outback. They are completely cut off from the world (no internet, no phones, not even an operational fax machine). They’re kept within the boundary by a giant electrified fence. This is enough to strike fear in the heart of any city rat – I know it made me shudder.

And so, a lot of the punishments these women face are natural ones: the heat, the isolation, the wear and tear of bush life. There are also cruel twists of fate; the one that really fucked me up was the box of tampons that was only discovered in a storage shed after the women had been bleeding through their skirts for months.

At first, the women – and their guards, come to that – hold onto hope that this is a temporary situation. Either they will be “rescued” by their families or their lovers, or they will serve their time and be released, free to return to their “normal” lives. As the months pass, and supplies dwindle, the reality of their dire situation starts to hit home – for the reader, too.

Would it be said, they ‘disappeared’, ‘were lost’? Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves.

The Natural Way Of Things (Page 223)

In many respects, The Natural Way Of Things is a level-up on feminist dystopia or psychological thriller – it tips the scales into outright horror. There are scenes and realisations that literally made me recoil as I read them. I found it really hard to “shake” this one, for days after I turned the final page. If there was ever a book that required a palate cleanser right after, this is it.

I couldn’t help but think back to a news story I read years ago, about 5,000 copies of The Natural Way Of Things being distributed to every student and staff member at the University Of Canberra. They call it the “UC Book Of The Year” and it is required reading for every single undergrad. Having read it now, I kind of feel for those students – I can see why the university would want to put the ramifications of sexual violence front of mind, but it feels like a bit of a baptism of fire.

Wood is a masterful writer, at the top of her game in this one, so The Natural Way Of Things is a fantastic read – but it’s also traumatic and difficult and fascinating and provoking and nuanced and scary and gut-wrenching. Make of that what you will!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Natural Way Of Things:

  • “This has to be, without doubt, one of the worst books I have had the misfortune to read in a very long time. I read to the end in the vain hope that it might improve – it didn’t – and felt soiled. There is no plot or characterization, only a series of defilements that leave one astonished at the cesspool of a mind that vomited out such a succession of ugly scenes, with no connection to one another. One star only because a star rating required to submit the review. Avoid this one like the plague.” – Anne Greiner
  • “This has to be the single worst book I’ve ever read in my life. It’s 12:30am right now, but I felt the need to open up my computer and write this before I went to bed. I just finished this book and it was awful. No plot, horrible character development, and 300+ pages of nothing happening. Am I supposed to believe that it’s a moral struggle to eat rabbit when you’re starving? This book went absolutely nowhere and served no purpose. I would recommend any other book over this. Seriously, a dictionary would be a better choice.” – SMITH
  • “Sickeningly believable premise, which I think must lead to the negative reviews.” – S.E. Vhay
  • “Miss Wood can write and win awards but I don’t watch horror films and this was one. Why take the reader into such hideous bestiality? Could she not make her point without a broken jaw causing starvation and suppurating lesions? At that scene I flipped to the back page only to discover that our protagonist escaped on that same last page and may not survive even then. I closed the book. It will not find space on my shelf. I do not willingly jump into the cesspool” – Amazon Customer

The Power – Naomi Alderman

The Power is a science-fiction utopia… or dystopia, depending on your point of view. Either way, it’s a novel for the #MeToo/Time’s Up era. This is Naomi Alderman’s fourth novel, developed after a period of mentorship with feminist literary icon Margaret Atwood. Atwood’s influence is abundantly clear in the story – it’s almost an homage.

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So, here’s the conceit: in The Power, teenage girls develop the ability to release an electric charge from their bodies. Thanks to a long-dormant organ in their collarbones, women are “awakened” to this new power, and suddenly have the capacity to fight back against the patriarchal oppression that has ruled their lives thus far.

They understood their strength, all at once.

The Power (Page 56)

But that’s not all! The Power is also a book within a book, framed as a historical novel written by a man in an alternate future, after the actual events take place. Approximately five thousand years after the power emerges, a male historian writes this story – imagining the experiences of fictional women – to present the radical notion that women weren’t always the dominant sex.

So, yeah. You see what Alderman’s doing there? How it’s a utopian idea – that women develop new strength, that they’re stronger together, using their power strategically to rebel against subjugation – but a dystopian one at the same time. It turns out, unequal distribution of physical strength fucks up all societal structures, regardless of which gender is on top (according to Alderman’s novel, anyway).

The Power is grittier, darker than I expected. I’ve seen it billed as a young adult novel, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Even though a lot of the characters are teenage girls, at least initially, the themes and content are quite mature and might require a bit of perspective to fully grasp. Trigger warning for violence (obviously), sexual abuse, and sexual assault.

Alderman weaves in organised religion in interesting ways. The power of women takes on a spiritual aspect almost straight away. There are characters who have “visions”, characters who invoke powerful religious symbolism to solidify their new position – it’s one of the most fascinating aspects of the story.

I think Alderman goes a bit too far, though, in trying to explain the origins of the power. The narrative goes off on a bit of a tangent, about a “Guardian Angel” chemical that was supposedly added to the water supply during WWII to protect against nerve gas attacks. That somehow stimulated these organs that already existed? Or caused them to grow outsized? Or something? There’s quite a bit of extraneous detail about it, either way, and it just feels distracting. As readers, we don’t really need to know the ins and outs of the whys and hows – Alderman should have trusted us to go along with her.

As much as I enjoyed The Power, I will warn you that it’s not subtle. It’s the risk that any writer of feminist utopian/dystopian fiction takes, the “oh, women would be just as bad as men in a matriarchal society” argument that’s just a hop, skip, and a jump away from a MRA slogan. She really hammers home the point, unnecessarily at times (e.g., the novel closes with a female author writing to the male author of the historical fiction book-within-a-book, suggesting that he publish under a woman’s name, in order to be taken seriously).

But you can see why it’s such a tempting idea, and why The Power has been so popular with readers. In June 2017, Alderman won the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction, and it was named one of the 10 Best Books Of The Year by The New York Times. Barack Obama also included it in his list of favourite books for that year, which always guarantees a sales bump. I haven’t seen the Amazon Prime adaptation yet, but critics fairly panned it – and I think I got what I needed from the story in the book, as it is.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Power here:

  • “Needs More male empowerment.” – William
  • “Feels like this might be for someone with a vocal fry or someone who says like a lot…. lol idk … Smh” – Mannie
  • “As a duty to my fellow book club members, I ground through it, but if you’re considering it for your book club, do not believe the hype. It’s puke on a page, pretending to be relevant, meaningful, serious art.” – Bookster

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa

According to her author bio, Yoko Ogawa has won “every major Japanese literary award”, and yet I (along with a lot of other monolingual English readers) hadn’t heard of her until The Memory Police exploded on #Bookstagram. This 1994 science fiction novel (called 密やかな結晶 in the original Japanese) quietly trundled along until, in 2019, it was translated into English by Stephen Snyder. Soon, it seemed like EVERYONE was reading it – because they were.

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The Memory Police is a melancholy Kafka-esque novel, one that clearly owes a huge debt to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The story is narrated by a novelist who lives on an island under the control of the titular authoritarian force. Through an unexplained and seemingly random mechanism, everyone who lives on the island is forced to “forget” objects or concepts. Uniformed enforcement officers patrol the island, making sure the “forgotten” items are truly gone and anyone who gives the appearance of remembering them is disappeared.

All kinds of things are “forgotten” in The Memory Police, and it’s difficult to discern a pattern. Perfume, stamps, birds, emeralds, ribbon – unusually for a dystopia, nothing “forgotten” seems inherently dangerous. Props to Ogawa for foregoing the heavy-handed metaphor of “forgetting” journalism or books, but the seemingly random array of everyday objects targeted is a bit of a head-scratcher.

What’s more, the narrator of The Memory Police isn’t one of the Special People who – again, for reasons unexplained, other than a couple of lines of dialogue about how it “might be genetic” – can remember things after they’ve been “forgotten”. Her mother was one, and kept a stash of “forgotten” objects in her artist studio, before she was disappeared.

R, the narrator’s editor, also reveals himself to be one of these Special Rememberers, about a third of the way into the story. The narrator, fearing that he might meet the same fate as her mother, takes him into hiding in a fitted-for-purpose hidden room of her house.

With all these factors combined, The Memory Police is basically a dystopia told from the perspective of the Chosen One’s side-kick.

I really wanted to enjoy The Memory Police, and find the wonder and meaning in it that others seem to, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was missing something the whole way through. There’s no explicit reason given in the story for the existence of the Memory Police, or why they make the whole population forget these apparently random objects. Without a narrative justification, it was hard to get invested.

Don’t get me wrong: the writing is great, the translation is well done, the characters and the setting are believable and well-crafted… it’s just missing something. I wish Ogawa had used something more than bog-standard suspense (about whether R would be discovered in hiding) to draw us in.

I don’t want to spoil the ending for people who haven’t read The Memory Police as yet, so I’ll say this on an IYKYK basis: I feel like the dramatic conclusion was meant to be shocking or significant or moving… but I couldn’t drum up anything more than mild interest. I suppose it felt a bit “too little, too late”, given how little I’d felt engaged by the story up to that point.

But, maybe it’s just me. The Memory Police was named a finalist in the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature, as well as making the shortlist for the 2020 International Booker Prize. It was also a finalist in the World Fantasy Award that same year. So, don’t let my underwhelmed response persuade you. Give it a go, and hopefully you’ll be able to tell me what I’ve missed!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Memory Police:

  • “Depressing. R’s disregard for his wife and child was appalling.
    Book summary: Crazy lady who writes about crazy lady who writes about crazy lady, all fixated on hands” – Roger N Gallion
  • “This book was weird and never felt like it had a point. Ok if you like really strange stories.” – M in Marble
  • “So I read this book as a suggestion from Kindle. It said that it was a science fiction book, and gave the premise. This is not a science fiction novel. I am not even sure it’s a fiction novel per se. It’s a poem.” – Rob McNeil

Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

It’s some kind of miracle that Never Let Me Go wasn’t spoiled for me before I finally got around to reading it. Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian alternative reality novel was published nearly 20 years ago, and I’d heard some vague hints giving rise to suspicions about the Big Twist, but I still went in with no firm idea as to what was about to happen. That’s important, because you’re not supposed to know Never Let Me Go is dystopian science fiction until Ishiguro wants you to.

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Ishiguro drip feeds the story to the reader, mentioning something offhand and then paying it off satisfyingly quickly (usually in the next chapter). It makes Never Let Me Go very just-one-more-chapter-y, which is a good thing if you’re looking to be sucked into a book, but not so good if you’ve got an early morning and it’s past your bedtime. If you want to go in unspoiled and enjoy that experience for yourself, exit this window now.

It all begins with Kathy H, who describes herself as a “carer”, talking about looking after organ donors. As she describes her twelve years in the role, she starts reminiscing about her days at Hailsham, a boarding school where the teachers were called “guardians” and the children’s art was selected for display in a gallery owned by a mysterious woman known only as “Madame”.

In her time at Hailsham, Kathy became particularly close to two other students, Tommy and Ruth. Kathy was Tommy’s confidant, supporting him through periods of bullying and depression, but through the usual social politics of adolescent, he ends up being Ruth’s boyfriend instead.

The first clang! reveal comes around 80 pages in, where it’s revealed that the children of Hailsham are effectively being farmed for their vital organs. That’s why the teachers- excuse me, guardians – have been so intense about not smoking and taking care of their bodies.

All the children know about their futures – and all we, the readers of Never Let Me Go, know – is gleaned through rumour and supposition, and the occasional slip-up where one of the adults in charge reveals something they “shouldn’t”. One of the guardians, Miss Lucy, is fired and removed from the school for telling the students too much.

That’s why horror author Ramsey Campbell called Never Let Me Go one of the “best horror novels since 2000”, a “classic instance of a story that’s horrifying, precisely because the narrator doesn’t think it is”. In large part, Never Let Me Go is a boarding school novel, a dark academia story about cliques and gossip and young romance, but the world that it’s taking place in is completely bonkers.

The next clang! comes at 140-ish pages, where Ishiguro reveals that all the children at Hailsham (and other similar schools around England) are cloned. So, this is kind of like the real-life situations where parents genetically engineer new babies to act as organ donors for their existing children who are crook. It’s dicey territory, ethically – to say the least.

As Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy age in Kathy’s recollections, they move out to a kind of halfway house and they start venturing out into the real world. This leads to some pretty harsh realisations: that they’re not going to have the kinds of lives or careers they see people leading in magazines or on television, that they’re going to have to undergo surgery after surgery only to die (or “complete”, as they euphemistically call it) very young, that they likely weren’t cloned from the creme de la creme of society (i.e., that underprivileged people – “human trash”, Ruth calls them – were exploited for their DNA).

Never Let Me Go comes to a head when Ruth “completes”, and Kathy and Tommy believe they finally have a shot at being together. They seek out the mysterious “Madame” from their school days, to see if maybe she can give them a stay to delay their donations so that they might spend more time together. Now, this is where Never Let Me Go first really disappointed me. I didn’t like the big clump of exposition that came around page 240. It’s a huge info dump where Madame and Miss Emily (the former Hailsham principal) explain to Kathy and Tommy why the school existed, and how society views them. It’s straight out of a B-movie playbook, akin to a hacky villain monologue in the penultimate scene.

Still, there’s a lot of very clever stuff in here – it’s easy to see why Never Let Me Go is favoured by Book Clubs For Smart People, you could talk it over for hours. Look at the role of “carers” like Kathy, for instance, in the reality Ishiguro has created. For the clones, being a “carer” is the only alternative to becoming a donor oneself, the only version of agency they have in their lives. The whole system is engineered to prevent them from thinking too much about what is happening to them and rebelling in any way (not to mention that it keeps a safe, convenient distance between the people who donate and the people who benefit from the donation). You don’t have to look too hard to find the parallels in our actual reality.

For some reason, even though they’re very different, Never Let Me Go made me think about Tender Is The Flesh. I think it might’ve been the contrast between the reader’s experience of the clones as human (having one narrate the story was clever!) and the apparent view of the world they inhabit that they aren’t (or, even if they are, that they aren’t afforded the same rights and privileges) that brought it to mind.

It’s easy to see, in terms of tone and style, that this is the same author who wrote Klara And The Sun. They’re like two halves of the same whole. I can basically guarantee that if you liked one, you’ll enjoy the other. I can’t speak to the 2010 film adaptation – I haven’t seen it yet, but of course now I want to – but this is an intense, smart, compelling read with a lot to say about the reality we live in.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Never Let Me Go:

  • “It’s a real downer book about sex, clones and dying. I do not recommend it.” – Louise P
  • “i let go of this book after chapter 1, it sukcs” – Gage Miller
  • “It was neither entertaining nor thought provoking. Run from it. If you’ve give this book as a gift to someone, shame on you. This book is the Emperor’s New Clothes.” – Steve Miller
  • “This author must hate humankind. This book is a grim slog through the trivial lives of doomed, boring characters who repeatedly fail to rise above their own pettiness. Ugh. Recommend it to someone you don’t like.” – Ron Daily
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