A Comparison: The Book of Phoenix and Who Fears Death

Here is my original review of Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor; 2010). This review includes spoilers for both Who Fears Death and its prequel, The Book of Phoenix (Okorafor; 2015).

9780756410193_TheBookof_Phoenix_JK.inddAs a prequel to Who Fears Death, it is impossible not to compare these two books. I think that Who Fears Death was much more successful than The Book of Phoenix on several levels. The Book of Phoenix tells the story of the apocalyptic event that created the far future world of Who Fears Death, instigated by a genetically engineered immortal weapon named Phoenix.

Who Fears Death sits clearly in the realm of fantasy/magical realism. This genre choice works well for the style of story, which incorporates African myth and folklore. The Book of Phoenix is more a science fiction story–or to be accurate, it employs the tropes of superhero comics with a nod to SF. Yet the style is deliberately that of oral storytelling, presumably drawn from African traditions (given the themes), with a tendency toward repetition, circling around events, and some unnecessary tangents. I didn’t think these two choices meshed at all well together. I had several unanswered questions regarding the more science fictional aspects of the plot that probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much in a more fantastic setting.

Both stories center around a female character with incredible powers who is also incredibly angry. Who Fears Death did not feel the need to justify or soften its heroine’s anger, who is reacting to the sexist and racist oppression she experiences. The Book of Phoenix focuses on racial oppression, particularly the exploitation of African peoples by the West, and this theme is very powerful. Unlike Who Fears Death, though, it has no corresponding feminist message. Toward the end, as Phoenix is wreaking her vengeance, there is a very disturbing paragraph, where Phoenix notes that as a woman, she is unable to control her anger or channel it properly. If she were a man, she would have been a better superhero, she seems to say. This observation comes out of nowhere and is difficult to explain. Are we supposed to believe that this is simply Phoenix’s naivete talking? If so, it’s clumsily handled and, I think, stands in opposition to the theme I enjoyed most in Who Fears Death, which was the power and rightness of women’s anger.

I am not very familiar with African myths beyond the basics of Yoruba, so I can’t really comment on these themes in either books, although I am certain that Okorafor has knowledgeably incorporated myth into both. However, it’s hard to miss the biblical references. If Who Fears Death can be seen as an upending of the Christ story, with an angry and vengeful Christ figure at its center, then The Book of Phoenix is clearly Old Testament, with all its falls: the fall of the tower, the fall of angels, the fall of man, culminating in a waterless flood, the scorching of the Earth with fire. Is Phoenix then a Lucifer figure, or is this another upending? She sees herself as a villain, not a heroine, and she seems to root her villainy in her femaleness (Eve in the garden). Are we supposed to condemn her then? Given the sheer evil of the forces she was up against, I don’t want to condemn her. I just don’t feel like Okorafor gives us enough to really understand what she is trying to say with this book. It’s frustrating.

That’s how I mainly felt upon finishing: frustrated. I was looking forward to having some of the unanswered questions in Who Fears Death answered. I don’t feel they really were. I still don’t understand how Phoenix’s story–which becomes the basis of the Great Book, or the religious text that everyone abides by in Who Fears Death–is twisted to justify the oppression and enslavement of black Africans by Arabic Africans. I didn’t feel a true continuity between these two stories. I think I would have been better off letting Who Fears Death stand alone.

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Winter Well: Speculative Novellas About Older Women

ww-coverWinter Well, edited by Kay T. Holt (2013), is a collection of four novellas that certainly run the gamut of genres that might be categorized as “speculative fiction.” The first, “To the Edges” by M. Fenn, is set in an apocalyptic near future United States undergoing social collapse. Next is “Copper” by Minerva Zimmerman, a futuristic tech noir detective story. “This Other World” by Anna Caro is more straightforward social science fiction, set on an alien planet. The final offering, “The Second Wife” by Marissa James, is straight-up fantasy.

What ties these four novellas together is that the protagonist in each is an older woman going through a time of personal change as well as societal upheaval. In each story, the main character must set aside her previous life and discover a reservoir of inner strength and resolve to move forward into an unknown future. The strongly related themes and central narrative voices of each novella tie together these four very different offerings into an interesting, thought-provoking collection of feminist speculative fiction.

While clearly these are new writers just finding their voices, all four of these novellas were absorbing reads with only some rough edges showing. My favorite was the second offering, “Copper,” about a tech-savvy insurance investigator trying to locate her own hijacked uterus; I would definitely read more novels by that author. The third offering, about a revolt on an alien planet, reminded me strongly of Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing and was probably the most polished of the four. The other two novellas didn’t stand out as much in my mind, but definitely showed promise.

I would recommend this unique collection to any reader who is interested in science fiction by women and about women.

Is Margaret Atwood a Science Fiction Writer?

Margaret Atwood says “now is not the time for realistic fiction,” but is her writing science fiction? She would deny it, preferring the more nebulous term, “speculative fiction.” Regardless, in many of her novels, even her more mainstream ones, she deals with what-if’s and what-might-be’s, rather than what is.

On the subject, Atwood says:

“I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid.”

Atwood is generally considered a literary writer by critics who wouldn’t dream of dipping into the genre ghetto, but she gets away with writing fiction that could easily be called science fiction. And she wins major awards for it! She doesn’t write only science fiction, though, but also tries her hand at other genres, such as historical fiction. Not many writers can be successful at genre-hopping, but more are trying it. Michael Chabon and Kazuo Ishiguro spring to mind.

handmaidscoverConsider, for instance, Atwood’s most well-known book, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which was nominated for the Booker Prize but won the Arthur C. Clarke Award the very first time it was given out. It is set in a dystopian future, in which the U.S. government has been taken over by Christian fundamentalists and a lot of basic rights have been stripped away. Due to extreme pollution, many people have become infertile. Those women who are fertile are enslaved as Biblical-style handmaids, conceiving and bearing children for wealthy, infertile women. Its dystopian, futuristic setting place it squarely in the science fiction tradition.

I think The Handmaid’s Tale was so successful and has been so widely read because its core message is a frightening warning about how quickly and easily the freedoms we take for granted can be stripped away. What struck me the last time I read it is the method of depriving women of their rights that was used: Their bank accounts were frozen, and electronic access to money was cut off. As we are well on our way to a cashless society, this struck me as an all-too-real danger, one we placidly accept.

the_blind_assassin_by_ekonkThe Blind Assassin (2000), which won the Booker Prize, is not as straightforward in terms of genre, but it does contain science fiction elements. Its structure is very unusual, in that it is a novel within a novel within a novel. The framing structure is a straightforward historical novel about a wealthy Canadian family’s fall from grace during the Depression and World War II. Within this novel is an intertwined story of two unnamed lovers and their clandestine affair. During their meetings, the lovers — one of whom is a pulp writer — tell each other a bizarre fable that takes place on an alien planet, which underscores their unspoken feelings for each other. The fable, titled The Blind Assassin, is turned into a novel by one of the characters and develops a cult-like following. The intricate structure makes this an engrossing novel, but it is questionable whether it can be called science fiction. Regardless, Atwood is comfortable using tropes of the genre in exciting and unusual ways when it suits her.

maddaddam1__140604211942With her more recent MaddAddam trilogyAtwood has a harder time making the case that she is not in fact writing science fiction. The dystopian future she imagines relies on the products of genetic engineering. A genuine mad scientist applies his eugenics research to create a race of people, then releases a bio-engineered virus to bring about the apocalypse. Her most recent novel, The Heart Goes Last, is another dystopia that was originally published in installments on the Internet.

I enjoy it when authors break the artificial boundaries of genre established by publishing companies and bookstores. Atwood’s fiction may transcend labels, but she speaks to those of us who love science fiction and its speculations on what might be.

Apocalypse vs. Dystopia: Some Definitions

This essay briefly discusses The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood; 1985); The Children of Men (P.D. James; 1992); Oryx and Crake (Atwood; 2003) and The Year of the Flood (Atwood; 2009); The Gate to Women’s Country (Sheri S. Tepper; 1988); Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (Kate Wilhelm; 1976); Always Coming Home (Ursula K. Le Guin; 1985). There are no spoilers beyond very brief summaries.

I have noticed that two sub-genres frequently get confused: the dystopian story and the post-apocalyptic story. While these two areas of future storytelling may overlap, they don’t mean the same thing at all. So let’s define some terms, shall we?

We’ll begin with apocalypse. An apocalyptic story is one that depicts the end of modern human civilization as we know it, usually due to some cataclysmic event. A nuclear war, a meteor impacting the Earth, a zombie uprising, a 99-percent fatal epidemic — all of these things can usher in the apocalypse. A post-apocalyptic story concerns itself with what happens after that apocalyptic event, whether immediately following it or far, far in the future.

Often what happens is the rise of new societies. These societies may sometimes be dystopias. A dystopia is the opposite of a utopian society. Utopias are pretty much perfect, providing for the needs of all of their citizens. Dystopias, on the other hand, are usually oppressive, totalitarian, and violent.

Utopian and dystopian societies do not have to arise out of an apocalyptic event, however. 1984 and Brave New World are both classics of the dystopian sub-genre that do not contain an apocalypse. Or take, for example, The Handmaid’s Tale, which is often mis-classified as post-apocalyptic. In that novel, a fundamentalist Christian group overthrows the current government and establishes a totalitarian society that enslaves women. Although environmental degradation has caused widespread infertility, no true apocalypse takes place. In fact, the primary point of view of the novel is of a future society looking back on this time in history.

From the movie version of The Children of Men.
From the movie version of The Children of Men; forced fertility testing is very dystopian.

Compare that with The Children of Men (or the movie based on it). In that case, although the apocalypse has not yet occurred, it is anticipated, because every person has lost the ability to reproduce and no children have been born in a generation. The novel could even be classified as pre-apocalyptic in that sense. This situation has directly created a dystopian government, which took power to enforce order on the growing chaos and anarchy occurring ahead of the apocalypse. So The Children of Men is an apocalyptic novel, whereas The Handmaid’s Tale is not, even though the subject matter is similar.

atwood1
Apocalypse + dystopia taste great together.

Sometimes the dystopian society is the cause of the apocalyptic event. This is the case in Atwood’s companion novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. The futuristic society she depicts is overwhelmingly consumerist, with a huge gap between rich and poor. One character takes it upon himself to engineer a virus to wipe out humankind and start all over again from scratch.

While I enjoy dystopian novels of all kinds, I am most interested in those dystopias that directly arise from an apocalyptic event. There are numerous examples of these, which may be why the two terms are so often confused. The Gate to Women’s Country is a dystopia masquerading as utopia, a common trope. After a devastating war, a society of walled cities based on ancient Greece arose. The cities are governed by women, while the men are forced to live outside the city walls as soldiers. Another good example is Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, where the human survivors rely on cloning to reproduce. The cloned generations gradually change, losing their individuality and other essential human qualities, and oppressing anyone who differs from the norm.

Looks idyllic, doesn't it? Cover art for Always Coming Home.
Looks nice, doesn’t it? Cover art for Always Coming Home.

If it’s a true post-apocalyptic utopia you’re looking for, you might try Always Coming Home. Set in the far future California, it depicts an agrarian, idyllic society. Although they have access to technology — computer networks that survived the pre-apocalyptic civilization record their stories and occasionally provide information — they maintain an pre-Industrial Age way of life. Such an idealized lifestyle certainly seems unattainable without an apocalypse to first wipe the slate clean and allow us to start all over — and do it right this time.

First Impressions: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

These are my first impressions after reading The Year of the Flood (Margaret Atwood; 2009) in October 2009. I will be discussing The Year of the Flood in future essays. Spoilers.

6080337This companion novel to Oryx and Crake relates from a different perspective the events of an engineered pandemic that wipes out humanity.

The Year of the Flood is not a sequel to Atwood’s dystopian novel Oryx and Crake, but rather a companion to it. It takes place at the same time and depicts the same events, with many of the same characters, but from a very different perspective. Atwood’s vision of our future is of a bleak, corporatized monoculture, where everything has been made into a commodity, and human emotions all but done away with. Guarded, gated corporate-states churn out useless genetically engineered animals and unnecessary drugs while the poor eke out an existence in the vast malls and slums of the “pleeblands.” Then, a bioengineered virus pretty much wipes out humanity overnight, leaving only a few survivors to relate the two tales. Eventually, the two storylines merge, shedding light on the abrupt end of Oryx and Crake. Although it is not strictly necessary, I believe it would help the reader understand The Year of the Flood after already having read Oryx and Crake.

The narrative alternates between the points of view of the two main characters, Toby and Ren. Each woman is telling her story post-apocalypse, first relating a little of how she managed to survive, then flashing back to the events of her life before the virus swept through. Both begin their stories as members of the anti-consumerist cult God’s Gardeners (which also appeared in Oryx and Crake), but each has to leave the group for different reasons, and their storylines separate. Each section, alternating Toby and Ren, begins with a sermon given by Adam One, the leader of God’s Gardeners, followed by a hymn commemorating one of the cult’s saint days (there is one for every day). These sermons let the reader know the fate of the group after Toby and Ren leaves and the apocalypse, which they call the “Waterless Flood,” occurs. Eventually, Toby’s and Ren’s stories catch up to the present and converge as the two separated characters come together again.

Toby and Ren are both victims of the commoditized, dysfunctional world they inhabit. They are each left without means of support after their fathers die in spectacularly unpleasant circumstances and they are abruptly on their own. They start out as victims: Toby of a psychotic rapist who continues to pursue her after her escape into God’s Gardeners; Ren of her mother’s capriciousness, until she winds up working in a sex club. After the Waterless Flood, they must each overcome their victimhood and become self-sufficient. They discover how to be themselves. In fact, the apocalypse might have been the best thing to ever happen to them, as it releases them from their societally imposed prisons.

The Year of the Flood ends much as Oryx and Crake did, with the focal characters encountering a mysterious group in the deserted forest. As in Oryx and Crake, the ending is very abrupt and a trifle unsatisfying, which leads me to believe that Atwood — although disavowing her role as a science fiction writer — is writing in the great tradition of the science fiction trilogy. If so, I eagerly await the last installment. (She was–the final installment is MaddAddam, published in 2013 and my least favorite of the trilogy.)

First Impressions: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

These are my first impressions after reading Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood; 2003) in July 2008. I will be discussing Oryx and Crake in future essays. Spoilers.

51VLtCYOxKL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In a dystopian exaggeration of current American society, an insane genius crafts a solution to the problem of humanity.

The premise of this novel, and the details of the future world it depicts, are so outlandish that you must either accept them immediately or stop reading. I accepted them. I was instantly subsumed in the fascinating, disturbing world that Atwood has created.

The novel opens in a post-apocalyptic shore-side wilderness where the only survivor (presumably), Snowman, is barely surviving. He sleeps in a tree and spends his days in a hallucinatory stupor. The only breaks in the monotony are visits from children who turn out to be genetically engineered post-humans, with glowing green eyes and the ability to eat leaves.

Gradually, Snowman — whose pre-apocalypse name is Jimmy — reveals the events leading up to the disaster as he remembers them. He grew up in a corporate compound separated by walls and guards from the “pleeblands,” where the poor lived in crowded, polluted slums. His father worked for a powerful company conducting research in genetic engineering to come up with new products designed to relieve food shortages, prolong life, and preserve beauty, resulting in such bizarre creations as the pigoon and the rakunk. As a teenager, Snowman befriends a brilliant but anti-social young man who calls himself Crake, whose genius enables him to attend a prestigious and luxurious university and then get a high-profile job conducting top-secret eugenics research. Crake brings his old friend into the compound where he works, and there Snowman learns that Crake has engineered a new race of people who don’t have many of the “problems” we do.

Also there is Oryx, the beautiful, victimized woman who both men love. Yes, this is a grand story about the downfall of the human race, but it is also the oldest story of all: a love triangle.

This book kept me fascinated and disturbed until the very end. There were so many outlandish details, but at the heart it explores some fundamental issues: the unchecked power of people wielding science, without regard for consequences; the calamitous effects of environmental abuse; the potential within us to destroy ourselves; the follies of playing god. The only criticism I have is that the ending is a bit unsatisfying. It just leaves us hanging. But overall, Atwood is a terrific writer exploring the science fiction themes of apocalypse and dystopia, and Oryx and Crakeis a terrific contribution to this genre.

First Impressions: The Children of Men by P.D. James

These are my first impressions after rereading The Children of Men (P. D. James; 1992) in October 2009. I will be discussing The Children of Men in future essays. Spoilers.

51oVdZbhorL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_P.D. James is well known as a mystery writer, but she took a departure from her usual genre with this apocalyptic story. The Children of Men takes place in a near future 25 years after people have stopped giving birth and are, as a result, facing the end of the species. No explanation is given for the sudden loss of fertility — it is presented as having baffled scientists and doctors — but James seems more interested in its effects on the characters living out the last days.

The story is set in England, which has fallen under dictatorial rule in the name of providing the public with what they most want: security, comfort, and pleasure. Criminals are shipped off to the Isle of Man, where they live in violent anarchy, and young, desperate immigrants are brought in to do the scut work as second-class citizens, only to be deported when they become too old or too useless. The British elderly are taken out to sea and drowned in group “suicides,” called the Quietus, much like unwanted kittens. The tone is bleak, hopeless, and filled with ennui and a sense that God has abandoned mankind.

The book is divided into two parts: Omega and Alpha. Once the reader learns that Omega is the name of the last year in which there was a birth, as well as of the last, spoiled, soul-less generation, it is simple to guess what Alpha represents: the first pregnancy in a quarter-century, a secret that propels forward the action in the second half of the novel.

The story is told from the point of view of Theo Faron, a professor of history at Oxford. Theo is so far removed emotionally from his life and the people in it that he is not even greatly affected when he accidentally kills his own baby daughter. This makes him very hard to like. He begins to change when he meets Julian, a young woman who is a member of a hapless, amateurish revolutionary group called the Five Fishes, formed to protest England’s dictatorial policies. Julian asks Theo to intercede with his cousin Xan, who happens to be the dictator, or Warden, of England. After meeting with her group and then witnessing a Quietus firsthand, Theo realizes that he can no longer be an observer, but must step on stage and become an actor in what’s happening to the human race.

The first half of the book alternates randomly between Theo’s diary entries and third-person narrative. I’m not sure why James felt that the diary sections were necessary, as the third-person chapters are also limited tightly to Theo’s perspective, and the diary itself proves not to be very important to the story. After one last entry, the diary literally disappears soon into the second half of the book.

The action ramps up as Theo joins Julian’s group on the run from Xan’s Grenadiers and discovers that Julian is nine months pregnant. Theo’s growing love for Julian and his awe at her maternal state transform him from a passive, apathetic observer into a passionate actor willing to lay down his own life for the cause. The scene when Julian reveals her pregnancy in an abandoned church and Theo gets down on his knees before her to hear the baby’s heartbeat is the most affecting moment in the novel.

Theo, Julian, and the rest of the group go on the run to find a safe place for Julian to give birth. Everything is stacked against them, of course, and one by one they lose their companions until Theo and Julian are alone, literally, in the wilderness, with Xan and his soldiers bearing down on them. The ending (which I won’t reveal) may seem to be a happy one on the surface, but I think it is much more ambiguous than that, and there remains a real question as to whether this new baby will actually restore hope to the world.

The Children of Men was made into a movie in 2006, but if you have only seen the adaptation, know that it differs greatly from the novel in many respects. While the basic premise and characters remain the same, the future depicted in the novel is not as brutal or chaotic as in the movie, but it is perhaps more quietly bleak and hopeless, a tone that rang truer to me. The ending of the novel is quite different from the movie and would not be spoiled by seeing the film first.