First Impressions: The Unit

These are my first impressions after reading The Unit (Ninni Holmqvist; 2006) in May 2009. Slight spoilers.

7182963In The Unit, Holmqvist takes us into a dystopian world that is more frightening because it seems so familiar. In this near-future or alternative society (it is never clear which), people who are deemed “dispensable” are confined to the unit, a dreamlike world where they have no wants unmet, while they are efficiently employed as subjects of dangerous experiments and their organs systematically harvested for the benefit of the “needed.” To not have children is the primary means of becoming dispensable, although they seem to be drawn from the ranks of artists, writers, and others who cannot conform to middlebrow society for one reason or another.

Dorritt is such a person. Before coming to the unit, her closest relationship was with her dog. But once there, she experiences for the first time true friendship, love, and acceptance for who she is, which makes her quiet, detached descriptions of the emotional and physical tortures that her friends and, ultimately, she suffers there all the more horrifying.

The power of The Unit is its subtlety. We never really know how a supposedly democratic society instituted this practice of harvesting their fellow citizens, or why the people tolerate it, although we are given hints. As the story progresses, we learn that there are fewer and fewer dispensable people, so that the definition of who is unneeded must be expanded to keep up the supply of organs and test subjects. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the unit seem unaccountably resigned to their fates, but as Dorritt tells her story, we almost come to understand why — which makes it all the more terrifying.

The Unit was originally published in Sweden and was translated into English by Marlaine Delargy.

The Bleak Futures of Octavia Butler

Books discussed in this essay: Parable of the Sower (1993); Parable of the Talents (1998); Lilith’s Brood (2000); Fledgling (2005); Seed to Harvest (2007). Some spoilers.

Octavia Butler had a bleak outlook on the future of humanity, judging by her forward-looking science fiction novels. The dystopias portrayed in Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents, and Clay’s Ark (part of the Patternist series) depict a complete regression of civilization and are marked by senseless violence and brutality. In the Xenogenesis series, humanity has been all but wiped out in a global nuclear war.

When Butler looked ahead, she seemed to see only one thing that could save us: a transcendence beyond our brutal human natures. What we would become in these visions may no longer resemble human beings–and Butler seemed ambivalent about this–but it might offer the only hope for our salvation.

1415945710943494543Each of these series posits such a transformation. In the Xenogenesis series (collected in the omnibus edition Lilith’s Brood), aliens arrive to save us. The story starts 250 years after a devastating nuclear war almost wipes out all human life. The few survivors have been picked up by an alien spacecraft and kept in stasis while the aliens, the Oankali, study them. Lilith is one of the first be awakened and integrated into an Oankali family. The Oankali train her to awaken others, introduce them to their new reality and their alien hosts, and reveal the Oankali’s plan: to produce Oankali-human offspring, a brand-new hybrid species.

The Oankali are genetic engineers and reproduce by genetic manipulation. They survive by traveling through space and finding species with promising genetic traits to mate with, such as humans. However, this means humans can no longer reproduces with one another; the Oankalis have disabled their fertility. Of course, there is rebellion.

Through the series, the humans–living in primitive conditions on Earth–are portrayed as without hope, a species that, if allowed to reproduce, would attempt to destroy itself again within a few generations. Humans are hierarchical and competitive, unlike the Oankali. As individuals, they can be intelligent and compassionate. But as a group, they are violent, destructive, and territorial. Even when the aliens allow some humans to start a new colony on Mars and have children, the Oankali hold out no hope for their future. The only hope seems to be that a greater power from the outside will find us and transform us into a better people than we can ever hope to be on our own. We are unable to cure ourselves, doomed by our own biology to always be fighting and murdering one another.0_8874b_aebc23c8_orig

In the Patternist series (collected in the omnibus edition Seed to Harvest), some characters are immortals who can transfer from body to body to avoid death. They eventually evolve into a network of telepaths. Other people are infected by alien lifeforms. Thus, humans take two distinct evolutionary paths. In the last book, both groups have evolved into a nearly unrecognizable state; humans, as we think of ourselves, have ceased to exist.

18a9vudhjqugzjpgIn the Parable series, the protagonist, Lauren Olamina, is an empath. Despite the grim and harrowing dystopia depicted in these two novels, this is probably the most hopeful of Butler’s series. The character of Lauren embodies the potential of humanity to employ the previously unlocked powers of the mind and emotions to become something better than what we are. She foresees moving out into space and sowing humanity like seeds on other planets as the way to survive, and she has the leadership qualities to realize that dream. Lauren preaches that “God is change,” but instead of fighting change or surrendering to it, she advocates recognizing it and using change to make these far-reaching goals a reality. Here, Butler is proposing that we can evolve out of our tendency to kill, brutalize, and enslave one another–if we can survive long enough.

Even in Fledgling, Butler’s last novel (which is set in present day), she posits an evolved type of human living among us. In this case, they are vampires, but unlike any other vampires in fiction. They form symbiotic relationships with humans, positing an entirely new way of living together.

Throughout her fiction, Butler seems unable to conceptualize human beings as we currently are surviving. Whether it’s intervention from an extraterrestrial species or developing traits that allow us to evolve beyond our humanity, we have to become something unrecognizable in order to survive. Then the question becomes: if that is the requirement, did humans really survive? Or are we fated to self-immolate? When I read the news, I often feel that Butler was sharing a truth with this observation–but I don’t want it to be true. I want humans to be capable of collectively overcoming whatever impulse there is inside us that causes us to want to destroy one another. I want us to save ourselves, as ourselves, not look to some godlike being to save us or have to transcend our humanity to evolve beyond our self-destructive impulses.

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The World Has Always Been a Dystopia for Women: A Survey of Feminist Dystopias

Books discussed in this essay: The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood; 1985); When She Woke (Hillary Jordan; 2011); “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment” (M. Rickert; collected in Brave New Worlds, 2011); Daughters of the North (Sarah Hall; 2007). Major spoilers abound.

The dystopian novel is one with an agenda. It magnifies an issue in our society so that we can better examine it. The dystopian society–typically set in a future or alternate world–centers around that one issue, which is exaggerated often to the point of unbelievability. But this distortion is necessary so that we can clearly understand the impact.

A clear example is the popular Hunger Games trilogy, which focuses on the very current topic of income inequality. In one memorable scene, the elite of the Capitol gorge on rich food and then make themselves vomit so they can eat still more, while the citizens of the Districts go hungry. The scene is extreme, but that extremeness prompts the reader to think about the issue of food security and waste in our present unequal world.

cropped-margaret-atwoods-the-hand-007-1Feminist dystopias focus on women’s rights, which usually revolve around the thorny subject of reproduction. Becoming pregnant is one of the most private experiences a woman can have, but pregnancy and babies are among the most public of issues a society addresses. The society’s future is bound up in babies: how many, how healthy, are they the kind of babies we want? Since men have always been in charge of society, the issue of paternity–tied up in inheritance, class structure, and all manner of complexities–is also of foremost concern. It’s easy to determine who the mother of any child is, but only the mother knows who the father is (and sometimes not even then).

Society (and men) want to regulate when and how women become pregnant, whether they carry their babies to term, and who is fathering them. As a result, women’s bodies are considered public property, subject to legislation and regulation. Women themselves become objects rather than human beings, property that can be bought, sold, and bartered. Feminism often boils down to the conflict between society’s need to manage reproduction and a woman’s right to recognition as a person and to control her most personal possession–her own body.

The-Handmaids-Tale-Atwood-MargaretThe alpha feminist dystopia, and still the foremost classic, is The Handmaid’s Tale. In Atwood’s seminal novel, fertility has decreased dramatically due to environmental degradation. Those women who are still fertile have been enslaved solely for the purpose of carrying the babies of the elite ruling class. Women have been deprived of all their rights, denied access to money and property, and separated from their families–all justified by the religious authority of this future society’s theocratic rulers. A “handmaiden” is literally required to have sex with her male owner while lying on top of his wife, so that the wife symbolically becomes impregnated with the oh-so-valuable baby.

Obviously, Atwood is exaggerating for dramatic effect, but there is no denying the impact of this image. Her imagined society, Gilead, is an extreme but logical extension of ongoing attempts to control women and their reproduction based on religion. Atwood’s goal is not to get us to believe this could actually happen. Her goal is to get us recognize the insidiousness of religion in controlling people’s lives and to feel the utter deprivation of a woman denied control over her own body, to the point where it is considered the extension of the body of another woman and the property of a man.

Even more than thirty years after the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s warning bell resonates with readers. In looking at the pattern of laws enacted in recent years in the United States to restrict and control pregnant women, it can often feel like we are already living in a version of Gilead. That’s why this story endures, and why it’s important to keep reading and rereading it.

WhenSheWokeJordan’s When She Woke is a direct descendant of The Handmaid’s Tale. This retelling of The Scarlet Letter takes place in a near-future, fundamentalist Christian dystopia where abortion has been outlawed as a result of widespread infertility. Those who are convicted of having abortions awake to find that their skin has been dyed a bright red color. These “Chromes” are released into society, where they face being ostracized, assaulted, and possibly murdered. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, When She Woke exaggerates the current trend of restricting and all but criminalizing the rights of pregnant women in the name of religion.

Rickert’s chilling short story “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment” (collected in the John Joseph Adams-edited anthology Brave New Worlds) also envisions an America in which abortion has been outlawed. In this dystopia, women convicted of having abortions when they were still legal are publicly executed. The punishments meted out in these two dystopias for the crime of abortion may seem outlandish, but these authors are simply following the path of current legislation, where women considering having abortions are forced to undergo invasive procedures, inaccurate “counseling,” and other hoops designed to circumvent their ability to choose for themselves whether to be pregnant.

51UwPtWxeLL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Hall’s Daughters of the North (originally published in the United Kingdom as The Carhullan Army) examines the other side of the issue: the actions societies take when they need to reduce the number of babies being born. The end result still curtails women’s reproductive choice by directly controlling their bodies. In a future world decimated by economic and environmental disasters, where resources have become scarce, couples must apply for licenses to have children. All fertile women are required to have IUDs, and compliance may be checked at any time by any enforcement officer, in public, in a manner that is essentially sexual violence or near rape. The protagonist chooses to rebel, joining a commune of women who are training as guerilla fighters to resist this authoritarian regime.

bd00d1efdb871b1977feb1ac2f387126Human history has always been a dystopia for women, who as a group have never achieved full ownership of either their bodies or their lives. Women in Western democracies only gained the right to vote–an acknowledgement that women were actually people–during the last century. Sexual slavery, suttee, honor killings, genital mutilation, foot-binding — these are only a few of the horrors inflicted on women (and are still in practice in many places today).

The struggle for women’s rights and freedom still rages in every part of the world, even in the supposedly developed West. In the United States alone, states have enacted over 200 laws restricting reproductive rights since 2010, a dramatic up-surge. Feminist dystopias remind us not to get comfortable or let our guards down, or we could all too easily lose those rights we struggled so long to obtain. A true feminist utopia, in which women are considered full people whose bodies belong only to them, still exists solely in the imagination of science fiction.

First Impressions: The Hunger Games Trilogy

These are my first impressions after reading The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009), and Mockingjay (2010), by Suzanne Collins. I read these books in 2011-2012. They will be discussed in future essays. Some spoilers.

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In a post-U.S. dictatorship, the ultra-rich Capitol ruthlessly controls the poor and starving citizens of the 12 outlying Districts, forcing each of District to offer up two teen tributes — a boy and a girl — each year for the Hunger Games, a televised contest of survival, as penance for a failed revolution many years ago.

I normally don’t read young adult fiction, and I also avoid very popular books. I tend to be the crank who doesn’t like what everyone else loves. But having heard so many raves about this book, when I spotted The Hunger Games for cheap in the used-books section of my local bookstore, I decided to see what all the fuss is about.

Let me first say that this series makes for a fun, suspenseful read. I think Collins has come up with a brilliant concept, although certainly not an original one. It brings to mind The Running Man, as well as “The Most Dangerous Game,” a short story many of us read in grade school. Collins’ brilliance is in casting teens as her survivalists. I’m not claiming that high school is this brutal, but there are similarities, such as the forming of cliques and the feeling of being a hounded outsider.

Collins has also created a very strong heroine in Katniss Everdeen. Katniss has skills, she is resourceful, and she solves her own problems. But she has flaws, too. Let’s face it — she can be a bit thick. For instance, she is unable to read the emotions of others or to let herself be open to them, which causes her to misjudge people in critical ways. Yet this is exactly why we like her. Katniss is authentically 17. She can kick ass, she stands up for what’s right, and she is the unwitting symbol of a brewing revolution, but she still has a lot to learn. This makes Katniss a character we can relate to, cheer for, and worry about. By throwing her into such an extreme situation, Collins ensures that readers won’t be able to put the book down.

The second book of the series, Catching Fire, employs a clever twist to get Katniss and Peeta back into the Hunger Games, which doesn’t feel at all contrived. I actually enjoyed this installment a bit more, I think, because many of the main characters were adults, characters that showed more depth, maturity, and complexity. I also felt the stakes were higher the second time around. And like any good middle book, it ended on one hell of a cliffhanger.

Mockingjay is definitely the darkest of the trilogy, which was already very dark indeed. As Katniss joins the rebellion, she learns that the supposed good guys are not that much different from the regime they’re trying to depose. Don’t expect this book to hold any pat answers or happily-ever-after endings. In that way, it felt very true, if bleak, but I wish that in the end, Katniss had grown more as a result of her experiences. I didn’t get the sense that she changed much at all in this book; rather, she simply grew more depressed and accepting of life’s stark truths.

The final book is just as suspenseful as the previous two, if a little less contained and plotted. There are some intriguing twists, especially one at the climax, that I enjoyed. However, the narration comes across as skimpy and rushed. I get the sense that the author churned this one out. I would have liked her to slow down more, especially at key points in the story, and help us really live in the scene. I also wish we could have gotten inside the characters more and understood how they changed during the course of this story. I have already mentioned Katniss’s lack of growth, but I felt distressingly divorced from Gale, Peeta, and especially Haymitch as well. I think the real problem was that this sequel was so highly anticipated that Collins did not spend as much time crafting it as she should have.

That being said, it was still a satisfying end to the series. Collins maintains her tone and does not merely deliver the expected. I would recommend this final installment in The Hunger Games for older readers.

It’s no mystery why these books are so popular. This series is suspenseful and exciting, but it also charts the growth of its main character very well. Katniss can be dense about love and revolution, but she should be. That is her age. Unlike other recent YA sensations (Twilight springs to mind), I think The Hunger Games deserves its popularity.

First Impressions: The Female Man

These are my first impressions after reading The Female Man by Joanna Russ (1975) in June of 2014. This book will be addressed in a later essay.

51mIMBOx6LL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Four women from alternate universes come together in this work of feminist speculative fiction.

Although The Female Man is billed as a “classic of feminist science fiction,” I hesitate to call it science fiction. It’s barely even fiction. More accurately, it is a feminist stream-of-consciousness rant that employs speculative what-ifs to imagine worlds both better and worse than our own, specifically the positions of women in those worlds.

Russ herself is one of the four women, the “female man” who tries and fails to make herself into a man in order to succeed in what is presumably our world, at least our world of the 1970s, when this was published. Russ’s anger is palpable throughout, although she tempers it somewhat with snarky humor. Several times, I found myself wondering whether we hadn’t moved past all this male-female behavior that Russ is criticizing, but truthfully, you only have to read a few Internet comments to see it alive and kicking in the 21st century. In that sense, Russ’s book is still needed and we are not yet free.

Those readers who come to The Female Man expecting a more straightforward narrative are bound to feel stymied by the lack of plot and the jumping around, without explanation, from one world to the next. Besides our own world, there is Jeannine’s world, where the Great Depression has never ended and women are primarily preoccupied with catching husbands, and there is Janet’s utopian world of Whileaway, where there are no men at all. I was feeling fairly adrift in all this until about three-quarters of the way through the book, when we meet Jael, a woman warrior in a world where men and women live separately and spend all their time literally at war with one another. This is probably the most cohesive section of the book, where Jael explains more or less what’s going on and the plot, such as it is.

Forget it, this book is not concerned with plot. It’s concerned with women, with what we endure and how things can possibly be different. Unfortunately, Russ does not seem able to imagine a world where men and women can live together with women not being subject to oppression. I hope she’s wrong about that.

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.

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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.