Posts Tagged ‘Dystopias’


American War by Omar El Akkad front cover(American War, by Omar El Akkad. Knopf, 2017, $26.95, 333 pp.)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

 

In recent decades, dystopian novels have become nearly synonymous with science fiction. It´s easy enough to see why: climate change seems to be accelerating, some areas (e.g., the American Southwest, where I live) are already feeling severe effects from it, and the results worldwide in coming years promise to be catastrophic; we’re on the brink of a new dark age under the iron fist of religious totalitarians and their political co-conspirators; we’re well into a period of mass extinction; there’s runaway population growth actively encouraged by some of the “great” religions; modern weapons of mass destruction are far beyond “nightmarish”; technological advances are far outstripping social advances; and sadism and stupidity are running neck and neck as national hallmarks.

Given such conditions and such bleak prospects, it’s easy to see why dystopianism is the far-from-new normal in science fiction.

So, having heard next to nothing about American War, I was expecting a fairly standard take on the horrors to come, especially the ecological horrors. But  American War, which describes the “second civil war” (2074 – 2095), is a far from standard tale.

El Akkad deliberately (I’d bet the farm on this) sabotages the plausibility of his dystopia.

The first hint is the map in the front of the book showing the breakaway “Free Southern States” (FSS) of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi as opposed to the rest of the U.S., with the Southwest mostly part of the “Mexican Protectorate.”

My reaction to the map was, “What the hell? Three poor, backwards states standing against the rest of the country? Holding on for 21 years?”

Very shortly into the text, El Akkad makes it very plain that he’s not projecting possible future developments in the United States, but is up to something quite different.

The reason for the FSS rebellion is the prohibition of use of petroleum products as fuels. Again, what the hell? None of the three states are significant oil producers; we’re rapidly approaching peak oil production; most new production in North America (shale, tar sands) is much more expensive than pumping from the old, rapidly depleting oil fields; and the cost of renewables is falling like a rock. This almost certainly means that oil will go up in price and will be rapidly displaced by cheaper renewables. The underlying premise is barely plausible now and will become increasingly implausible as time passes; it will make no sense at all six decades from now. So, El Akkad deliberately chose an extremely improbable background premise.

Then there’s a glaring–and I mean glaring–absence in the social structure of the FSS: racism. Racism disappearing from the American South in a mere sixty years, and during a time of upheaval and economic desperation? What the hell?! Who, if they thought about it, could possibly buy this?

So, just what is Akkad up to?

The first clue is the title of the book, “American War.” That seems a bit ambiguous, and why isn’t there even a vague reference to the “second civil war”? (It would be quite easy to add such a reference in a subtitle.)

The second clue is provided by the book description on the inside of the dust jacket:

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the war breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, her home state is half underwater, and the unmanned drones that fill the sky are not there to protect her. A stubborn, undaunted and thick-skinned tomboy, she is soon pulled into the heart of secessionist country when the war reaches Louisiana and her family is forced into Camp Patience, a sprawling tent city for refugees. There she is befriended by a mysterious man who opens her eyes to the injustices around her and under whose tutelage she is transformed into a deadly instrument of revenge.

Fair enough, but the final sentence of the second paragraph on the inside flap reads, “It’s a novel that considers what might happen if the United States were to turn its devastating weapons upon itself.”

Close, but not right.

Above all, American War is about the present. (Tellingly, there’s no mention of any technology whatsoever beyond what’s currently available.)

American War is not about the effects of developing technologies; it’s not about an even remotely plausible future in the U.S.

It’s about the psychological effects of the type of war the United States has been waging sporadically for decades, and nonstop for the last 15 years, in the Near East, Middle East and Northern and Eastern Africa. It’s about what happens to people who are torn from their homes, are forced into miserable refugee camps, are under constant deadly and random threat from above, and are kidnapped, imprisoned without charge, and brutally tortured.

Shortly into the narrative, El Akkad reveals that the U.S. unmanned drones are solar powered, can stay aloft indefinitely, rained down destruction during the entire two-decades-plus of the war, and are uncontrolled, because Southern “terrorists” destroyed the “server farms” controlling the drones. This is beyond ridiculous on several counts, and again points to the very high likelihood that El Akkad deliberately made his background — in this particular, the drones — implausible.

Why would he do that? (Such apparent sloppiness is in stark contrast with Akkad’s adroitly drawn and developed characters and his skillful rendering of both action sequences and physical background.)

The point is that the drones are simply there as a constant threat, maiming and killing the innocent, seemingly at random. The point is the constant, year-in-year-out state of fear and anger suffered by those under threat.

The same holds for all of the other horrors El Akkad describes, and their woeful, ever worsening effects on the personalities, outlooks, and consequent actions of his characters, especially Sarat.

This story could be set in virtually any combat zone in any Muslim country. El Akkad set it in the U.S., using American characters, disguising it as a run-of-the-mill sci-fi dystopian tale, simply so that American readers will be able to relate to it on an emotional level.

There’s little point in saying more, except that if you want to understand the psychological roots of the hate and terrorism engendered by America’s foreign wars, American War is a good place to start.

This book is a masterpiece.

Very highly recommended.

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(Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on its sequel and an unrelated sci-fi novel. A large sample from Free Radicals, in pdf form, is available here.)

Free Radicals front cover

 

 

 

 


We cover(We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1924)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

 

Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937) was already a twice-exiled (to Siberia) “old Bolshevik” when the Russian revolution broke out in 1917, even though he was only 33 at the time. He was also one of the first Bolsheviks to understand the totalitarian nightmare the Soviet Union was to become.

Remarkably, he understood this in the first years after the revolution, in 1920/1921. Even though anarchists and members of the Social Revolutionary Party had understood this even earlier on, those in the privileged class–the Bolsheviks–almost universally didn’t. Except Zamyatin, who projected his fears in the form of science fiction.

We was the first novel proscribed (in 1921) by Communist Party censors, though it was published in English three years later by Dutton in the U.S.  Shortly after that, the CP censors proscribed all of Zamyatin’s works. In 1931, probably thanks to his friendship with Maxim Gorky, Zemyatin approached Stalin and  remarkably was allowed to self-exile, rather than being murdered or sent to a gulag by Stalin. Zamyatin ended up in Paris and died there in 1937.

As for the novel itself, We is not typical of sci-fi books of the Gernsback era — which for the most part were horribly written “gee whiz!” stories about the technological wonders to come, or pulp Westerns set in space.  Rather, it falls into two much more modern science fiction categories: social science fiction (concerned with social and political trends) and dystopian science fiction (concerned with the downfall of civilization and its aftermath).

We is set in the far future, in the wake of a 200-year war in which over 99% of humanity died.  The specific setting is an enclosed city (“OneState”) which is the sole outpost of technological civilization, and which is a tightly regimented, totalitarian society under the thumb of a dictator (“Benefactor”–always capitalized) and his thugs (“Guardians”–again, always capitalized).

The story itself concerns one of the city’s citizens (“Numbers”), D-503, the head designer of “The Integral,” OneState’s first spaceship, his attempted recruitment by a resistance movement, and the results of that attempted recruitment.

The resistance movement is possible because, unlike in 1984, surveillance is not all pervasive. It’s close, but not all pervasive, as there are no omnipresent TV cameras and listening devices. Instead of cameras and microphones, OneState relies upon Numbers informing on each other, having all buildings made of specially toughened transparent glass, and cradle-to-grave indoctrination. Given how early this novel was written, the relative looseness of the surveillance system is quite understandable.

The other aspects of the novel bearing on technology are the weakest part of We. Zamyatin was no scientist, and even for the time his grasp of science was weak. The descriptions of The Integral, the spaceship, for example, are ludicrous. But one shouldn’t make too much of this. We is social and political projection, not a technological tale.

And there, Zemyatin was remarkably prescient. The political/social developments described in We largely came to pass in short order in the Soviet Union: a dictator with a pervasive personality cult; the use of euphemistic propaganda terms to disguise the nature of the dictatorship; mass surveillance; mass informing by citizens, one upon the other; state control of all means of communication; execution of dissidents; and constant indoctrination to produce “Numbers” who participate in their own oppression.

Another very strong point of We is the narration. Once you get past the nearly unreadable first two pages, concerning The Integral and written in the third person, the remainder of the narrative is written in the first person by D-503 and is poetic and haunting. It’s a remarkable psychological self-description; it chronicles D-503’s well ordered world being up ended by the resistance member who tries to recruit him, and the turmoil her new ideas bring as they challenge his indoctrination. It’s a sad and revealing self-portrait, and a very good illustration of the psychological results of indoctrination.

We‘s strengths far outweigh it’s weaknesses. It’s a great dystopian novel and is still well worth reading for both students of history and students of science fiction.

Recommended.

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Those interested in the devolution of the Russian Revolution to “communist” tyranny–during which time Zamyatin wrote We–should see the following: Maurice Brinton’s The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control (now part of the AK Press Brinton collection, For Workers’ Power); My Disillusionment in Russia, by Emma Goldman;  My Further Disillusionment in Russia, by Emma Goldman; The Bolshevik Myth, by Alexander Berkman; The Unknown Revolution 1917-1921, by Voline (E.K. Eichenbaum); and The Guillotine at Work: The Leninist Counter-Revolution, by G.P. Maximoff.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel.

Free Radicals front cover

 

 


Intrusion

Intrusion, by Ken Macleod (Orbit, 2012, 387 pp., available used in the US, new in the UK)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Here’s one that really slipped through the cracks, which is a shame because it’s the best near-future dystopian sci-fi novel that’s appeared in years. It’s frightening because it’s all too plausible. Macleod has taken present-day political, social, and technological trends and projected their development several decades into the future. Some developments are good, most are bad.

The bad include an all-pervasive surveillance system (including inside homes), ever-deeper intrusion of the “nanny state” into individuals’ private lives (e.g., the state’s monitoring pregnant women to make sure they don’t drink or smoke), a perpetual “war on terror,” and the transformation of the UK into a police state, where the police routinely torture citizens.

The most notable positive developments are that renewables provide virtually all power, that global warming has been stopped through reduction of emissions and through biological means, notably fast growing “new trees,” and that medicine has advanced to the place where it’s eliminated most diseases, in part through genetic fixes.

That brings us to the rub. Intrusion follows an everyday young London couple, Hugh and Hope Morrison, who discover that Hope is pregnant. The problem is that Hope, for reasons even she doesn’t understand, decides not to take “the fix,” a single-dose pill that eliminates most common genetic defects and also guards against some common diseases. The social worker who monitors Hope puts increasing pressure on Hope to take it, but Hope refuses.

When Hope continues to refuse, the social worker mentions that Hope can get a “conscience exemption” on religious grounds.  The problem is that Hugh and Hope are atheists, and take umbrage at the fact that “nutters,” religious believers, can easily obtain exemptions, but that there’s no provision for nonreligious objectors.

From there, the story unwinds with an awful inevitability, as the tentacles of the state intrude further and further into the lives of Hugh and Hope. Along the way, there are many memorable scenes, including Hope’s having an appalling conversation with a smarmy Labour Party MP, who explains to her how state control of her biological functions increases her freedom, as well as her being bullied by a group of “nutter” moms who object to her not taking “the fix” because she doesn’t share their delusions, and so should be forced into it — in order not to endanger their (un”fixed”) children.

As this is a review, I have to carp about something, and there is one annoying feature in Intrusion: the number of impenetrable Britishisms and (is this even a word?) Scottishisms whose meanings are impossible to derive from context. On a number of  occasions I found myself putting the book down to find the meaning, in the Peevish dictionary of UK slang and colloquialisms, of some very strange words.

Now that that’s taken care of, let’s get back to the review.

Intrusion isn’t the most pleasant reading — neither is 1984 — but it is very well written, thought provoking, and — in a sci-fi scene awash in escapist crap — it deals with important issues.

Highly recommended.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel.

Free Radicals front cover


 

Free Radicals front cover

Here are a few comments from reviews of Free Radicals:

“Solidly entertaining . . . reminiscent of early Mick Farren.” —Publishers Weekly Online

“[T]he plot holds the reader’s interest and should appeal to a fairly broad audience.” —Booklist Online

“Among the best future-shock reads in years . . . If we lived in the ’60s and ’70s when audience-rattling paperbacks like Naked Lunch were cheap, plentiful and available on pharmacy spinner-racks, critics would hail Free Radicals as a masterpiece.” —Tucson Weekly

 

Chapter 1

I woke up this mornin’ and I got myself a . . .
Well, you can see where this is going . . .

Kel Turner was snoring, one arm dangling down from the couch toward the remnants of last night’s dinner—nine mostly empty cans of Schlitz Classic Ice and a greasy pizza box, empty but for a cardboard-like wedge missing several bites and resting against one edge of the box. A few roaches were feasting on the half-eaten piece and the hunks of cheese stuck to the bottom of the box.

Kel stirred. He opened one eye. He screamed.

There, on the end of his nose, staring at him, antennas wriggling, sat a large, brown sewer roach. Kel levitated a meter into the air and batted the roach away. He ran to the bathroom and scrubbed his face viciously. Three times.

He filled his his hands with water and emptied them over the top of his head. While smoothing back his hair, he smarted as his hand hit a large knot on the back of his scalp. Where had that come from? He carefully put his fingertips on the knot and winced, feeling what seemed like an inch-long cut. He pulled his hand back in front of his face and looked at his fingers. Flecks of blood. He washed and dried his hands, pulled his hair away from the wound again, put his fingertips on the cut, and put them back before his face. This time there was no blood. But it still hurt.

As he walked out of the bathroom, he bumped his knee on the handle of the vanity door; he gasped and reached down. His knee, no, both of his knees, were rubbed raw. What in hell had he done last night? He turned back to the sink, splashed more water on his face and hair, and muttered, “Jesus Festering Christ.”

There were black bags under his eyes, three days’ worth of stubble, long, grey, greasy strands of hair hanging in front of his face, crow’s feet spreading around his eyes like the cracks in drying mud, and a jello-like pot gut he could hold in both hands and jiggle up and down like a lard-filled beach ball. Once you were off Comp-Med, this shit happened fast. Kel was only a hundred and eighty centimeters tall, but he easily weighed a hundred kilos, and all too much of it wasn’t muscle.

He grunted in disgust, walked back into the room he called home, and started to pick up empty beer cans. To his surprise, the first one, a can of Schlitz Classic, was almost full; and it would be a shame to waste it. He took a sip. Warm, but not totally flat. It would do.
What the hell time was it? He took a hit of warm beer and blinked a gummy eyelid twice, but his readout didn’t come up. Of course not. When would he stop doing that?

His implants had been wiped in the EMP bursts during The Troubles. Then, it had been nukes exploding above the atmosphere, taking out anything with an unshielded chip for hundreds of miles in all directions. Now, any asshole who could build a half-meter parabolic dish, who knew the meaning of “high energy radio frequency,” and who could tell one end of a soldering iron from the other, could construct a HERF gun, point it in any direction, and fry all of the electronics in its beam that weren’t heavily shielded. So no. No inner-ocular displays.

Kel remembered what it had been like after the first EMP bursts: the feeling of loneliness, of being cut off from the rest of humanity. It had taken him weeks to adjust, and some people never had, like the dust addicts infesting the slumped nano buildings just down the street, shuddering, coughing, staring into space at nonexistent displays. The neuro-stim addicts were even worse, not that there were many still around. The EMP bursts had fried the tissue around their pleasure-center ‘trodes, and most who hadn’t been reduced to drooling cretins had committed suicide within weeks: no way to feel pleasure, no reason to live. Even a lot of people with ordinary inductive implants and no brain damage had gone bat-shit crazy; some said the abrupt connectivity cut felt like being struck blind. Today, two decades later, all it meant to Kel was that he’d have to learn the time from his wall screen. But that could wait.

He went to the apartment’s window, pulled up the blinds, wiped some of the grime from the top pane with the side of his hand, smeared it on the back of his pants, and peered out. The window, so old it wasn’t even photosensitive, mercifully faced north, so he was spared the agony of direct sunlight.

At first glance, things looked normal. The huge, 3-D ads floating before the apartments on the opposite side of the street were flashing their usual come-ons, the two most eye-catching ones directly facing Kel’s apartment. In the first, a heavily muscled, flak-jacketed Uncle Sam, hefting an M-99 over one shoulder, swept a pair of night-vision glasses from side to side. Its message was simple: “Report suspicious activities. Only those with something to hide need be afraid.” The ad had repeated this message endlessly for the past four months.

The second ad showed a gleaming starship blasting off and disappearing into a luminous spiral galaxy: “Your future is in the stars. Live the life you deserve!” The flashy emigration board was in stark contrast to its surroundings: dilapidated 20th‑ and early 21st-century buildings—no arching or branching nano-composite structures here, just concrete, steel, glass, and brick rectangular monstrosities interspersed with debris-strewn vacant lots and, still, the slumped remains of some of the early nano buildings that had been sprayed during The Troubles.

Depending on how much of a dose they got, they’d either oozed into gelatinous puddles or slumped into flattened-skull shapes, their windows gaping like deformed eye sockets. The stench from their entombed—or, worse, partially embedded—occupants had been intolerable for weeks after the rioting ended, and even now the only ones who would go into them were dust or spike heads.

Kel stared at the nearest skull-like ruin as a shivering human skeleton crawled out of an “eye” just above ground level and shuffled down the dirty, potholed street. Kel’s gaze followed him as he shambled past shabbily dressed men and women haggling with street vendors amidst the carcasses of graffiti-covered vehicles stranded like beached marine mammals on the street and shattered sidewalk.
As the dust head turned the corner, Kel chuckled when he glanced at the remnants of an airvan buried nose first in the broken glass-strewn corner lot. For perhaps the hundredth time, Kel mused that the driver must have been mighty surprised when his controls and engine went dead. A lot of people in those flying coffins, and on the ground, had died during the EMP bursts. Today, no one in his right mind would even think about getting into one.

Kel shifted his gaze to the right and saw two cops confronting Emmy, a middle-aged, black homeless woman, and an occasional recipient of Kel’s pocket change. One cop pushed her to the ground and began beating her with his club as she pulled her filthy plastic coat over her head. Kel was glad the window was closed so that he couldn’t hear her screams. The other cop pulled out his club and joined in. Kel shuddered as the second cop’s truncheon smashed the hand that covered her face. When the bones in her hand snapped, she reflexively pulled it down, clutching it with her other hand, and the cop connected with her jaw. Her teeth went flying in a spray of red.

The cops stopped. The one who had smashed her face hitched his truncheon back on his belt and stood towering, triumphant over Emmy’s cowering form. Kel saw his mouth start to work and, even though he couldn’t hear him, he was pretty sure, even at a distance of fifty meters, that he could make out the final word, “bitch.” . . . Fucking cops! And not a goddamned thing he could do about it.

The cop who had bashed Emmy’s face reached into his back pocket, looked up at the nearest power pole’s dead surveillance camera, its lens smashed, took something small out of his pocket, and stuffed it into Emmy’s coat. Then he activated his helmet recorder and gestured for his partner to search her. The other cop began roughly pawing the huddled figure, and shortly held up something that Kel couldn’t make out. But he was pretty sure that he knew what it was.

Emmy must have really pissed them off, because this was not the normal drill. Usually, after kicking the shit out of her, they’d drag her ass downtown, book her, and the following day she’d be hauled in front of a judge on a charge of assaulting an officer or resisting arrest. Six months and out. This time, they’d planted a bag of dust or spike on her and would charge her with possession and assaulting an officer.

If they really wanted to fuck with her, they’d bypass the dope charge and accuse her of terrorism. But that would be overkill with Emmy, and they usually reserved that charge for politicals. Whatever the charge, conviction was a foregone conclusion.

Kel exhaled noisily and looked away from Emmy. Thirty meters farther down the sidewalk, sub-teenaged hookers were hustling passersby, paying no attention to the cops, and the cops paying no attention to them. Kel took a long sip of warm beer as he watched a blubbery civ-serv in a rumpled, grey business uni approach the kids, haggle for a few seconds, and then waddle past the cops and Emmy with his hand kneading the butt of a garishly made-up 11-year-old in a see-through red mini. No, there was no reason to worry. Everything was normal.