Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Atwood’


Margaret Atwood

“Watch out for the leaders . . . and the led, then the tyrants and the slaves.

Then the massacres. That’s how it always goes.”

–“Crake” in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake

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MAGAbomber’s van

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Some of Trump’s “very fine people”

 


 

John GrantJohn Grant is a two-time Hugo Award and one-time World Fantasy Award winner, and is the author of over 70 books, both fiction and nonfiction. He has been a science writer since the 1970s, and has written several well-reviewed books on science, including Denying Science, Discarded Science, and Eureka! The original edition of Corrupted Science appeared in 2008. This greatly expanded new edition is nearly twice the size of the original, and will be available by mid-May.


 

Your new book, Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology, and Politics in Science (revised & expanded) deals at length with corporate and Trump administration misuse of science. What sets it apart from being just another anti-Trump book?

I confess it was the election of Trump and in particular his appointment of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA that made me decide it was time for a new edition of the book. I reckoned it would need to be quite a lot bigger than the original edition, although I didn’t realize it was going to approach double the size!

Corrupted ScienceWhat I realized, even before I started writing, was that Trump and Pruitt, and the genuinely horrific corruption and denigration of science in US politics, were just the end-products of a process that was much bigger: the abuse of science by major corporations or spheres of industry in the quest for profits.

For example, to any sane person, inaction on climate change is beyond the bounds of comprehendible stupidity – even if there were some doubt about the science, the only intelligent thing to do is to err on the side of caution. (By way of analogy, if someone tells you the brakes on your car are dodgy, you get them checked: you don’t just carry on belting down the freeway on the basis that they might be okay.) But the fossil-fuels industries aren’t really concerned about the longer-term dangers: they see it as their duty to their shareholders to maximize short-term profits. So they’ve lied to the public about the science.

Trump and Pruitt – and James Inhofe and Lamar Smith and Smoky Joe Barton and all the rest of them – are just the public face of this problem, not the root of it. The lies they regurgitate about climate science have been put into their mouths by their paymasters.

Climate science is just the most obvious example of this process. Remember when sugar was supposed to be harmless? Remember when it was surely nothing to do with aerosol sprays that the hole in the ozone layer was expanding? Remember when we were told there was no reason to believe smoking was harmful to the health? Remember when tetraethyl lead in gasoline was harmless? Asbestos?

All of these lies – and there are plenty more where they came from – were put out by industry, by the corporations. Yes, they were being spread by those industries’ shills in the House, the Senate and even the White House (and let’s not forget George W. Bush’s completely bogus claim that “the science is still out” on climate change), but the shills were the symptoms rather than the sickness.

So I realized almost at the outset that the balance of the new book (which is how I think of it, rather than as a new edition) would need to be shifted such that it focused far more than its predecessor on this corporate corruption of both science and the public understanding of science. That involved the introduction of a near-book-length new chapter on the topic, not to mention a considerable expansion of my coverage of the parallel, industry-funded abuse of science in 21st-century US politics, of which the Trump administration is just the latest excrescence.

Trump-bashing would have been easy (and, to be honest, fun), for the very simple reason that Trump and his minions are so obviously corrupt, so obviously vile and so obviously moronic. But I wanted to look at the root of the problem we collectively confront, and that meant looking beyond its public faces.

Of course, there’s an even bigger context – the economic system in which corporate corruption flourishes – but that would have been a very different book, and one that I don’t have the expertise to write.

 

You worked as an editor before you began writing books. Where did you work, what were your jobs, and has that background been of help to you as a working writer?

I had a number of senior editor/editorial director jobs in the UK before finally being made redundant from one of them in Exeter – a couple hundred miles from London, which is where at the time all the good publishing jobs were. So I decided to become a freelance editor and do a bit of writing on the side. That didn’t quite work out how I’d anticipated, because after about a year both of my departments, so to speak, suddenly took off simultaneously. Since I didn’t have the guts to forsake one in favor of the other, I had a very tiring twenty years or so, during which I had in effect two full-time jobs.

When I came to the US in 1999 it was in fact as an editor – I was running the Paper Tiger imprint of fantasy art books on a freelance basis. Since then my focus has shifted almost exclusively to writing. Which is why I’m broke.

The editing background has been both a help and a hindrance to the writing moi. It’s a help in that, by the time I’m ready to hand in my text, it’s in an edited form with which I’m happy – i.e., it’s in the form it would have if someone else had written it and I’d then edited it. But this very fact is a hindrance in that I then find it extremely annoying when people tinker with my text! Often they’re right, of course, but often they’re unwittingly undermining what I’m trying to do.

 

You’ve written a lot about science. Why? What attracts you to the topic?

I had the misfortune at school of being equally apt at English and the sciences. (Lousy at languages, though, to my enduring regret.) I was therefore jammed into a sciences track, because science university places were a lot easier to get at the time than English Lit ones, and of course the school wanted to boost its university-entrance success rate as much as it could. I went along with this – took the course of least resistance – until I found myself at university reading sciences when what I really wanted to do was study English!

So I left – about three nanoseconds before they booted me out – and started getting the English qualifications I hadn’t gotten at school with a view to finding myself a university place in the different discipline. By the time I actually did so, I had a promising career in publishing and so, after much thought, abandoned my academic aspirations.

Because of my scientific background, meager though it was, people kept wanting me to work on science-based books – most of the other editors of my generation and the generation before it had even less scientific nous than I did! So I fell back in love with science through mixing with scientists – i.e., with “my” authors – and I thereby learned far more about science than I had when I’d been formally studying it. While I’m certainly not a scientist, I tend to think in scientific terms and, knowing at least something about a very wide range of the sciences, rather than a lot about a little, I feel well qualified to write the kinds of books that I do.

 

You’ve written many books in many different areas. Do you prefer writing fiction or nonfiction, and if so why?

Although probably about 80 percent of my output is nonfiction, I actually prefer writing fiction. The trouble is that, of course, just about no one can make a living writing fiction. I thus tend to regard my fiction writing as an indulgence, something to be fitted in when time permits – which is silly of me, because some of my relatively few short stories have been very well received, been shortlisted for awards, made it into “Best of” anthologies, etc. It’s a habit of mind I really should work to change.

I’ve also ghostwritten quite a lot of fiction. There’s nothing more spiritually rewarding than witnessing someone else basking in the rave reviews they’ve received for something that . . . you get the picture.

 

Which is easier for you?

Fiction. No question about it.

 

What do you love most about being a writer?

Terry Pratchett once described writing as “the most fun you can have with your clothes on,” and much of the time I’d go along with that. It can also be extraordinarily hard work, of course. Writing about a scientific subject for lay readers can be very demanding indeed – first I have to understand it well enough to write about it, then I have to shape my own understanding into a form that’s comprehensible to others. I’ve also done quite a lot of work as an encyclopedist (grand-sounding word, eh?) – most recently for my Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir ­– and that sort of work is extremely demanding too. By the end of the day I’m pretty tired – but even that exhaustion is part of the joy of a writer’s life: it’s rewarding in its way.

 

What do you hate most about it?

There’s no security and the pay’s lousy.

 

You’ve collaborated with other writers over the years. What was your best experience doing that?

They’ve all been pretty good, to be honest – I’m sure there was the occasional squabble along the way, but for the most part the collaborations have represented great friendships.

 

What’s the worst experience you’ve had working with a publisher?

I’ve worked with some excellent editors in my time but also, like I’m sure every other writer, I’ve had my share of mediocre and sometimes downright dreadful ones – you know, the Dunning–Kruger combo of incompetence and arrogance. [Another aspect of that syndrome is being too incompetent to know you’re incompetent. — Ed.]

The worst I’ve had recently was with an editor who thought she knew a great deal more about the book’s subject than she actually did, and as a consequence introduced all sorts of factual errors. On the first go-round I just ’umbly corrected these, with a brief explanation as to why. On the second go-round, discovering that she’d ignored quite a lot of my amendments, I became a tad firmer. Next I knew, she was complaining to my agent that I “didn’t seem to respect” her.

Actually, by that stage I for very obvious reasons didn’t, but I thought I’d kept it well concealed . . .

 

What’s the best aspect of being an independent writer?

The fact that a significant part of the job is just thinking.

 

Science fiction often gets a rap as trash, pure escapism, junk not to be taken seriously, by “literary” fiction mavens. What’s your reply to that?

There’s also the corollary whereby, whenever Margaret Atwood or Martin Amis or whoever writes a piece of science fiction, the mavens trot out all sorts of spurious reasons as to why “it’s not really science fiction”!

All of the genres – crime. sf/fantasy, romance, etc. – tend to get this sort of treatment from the stupider members of the literary establishment. I think the attitude stems from the fact that the genres flourished in the pulp era when, simply because the magazine editors had collectively so many pages to fill every month, a lot of the stuff that appeared was junk . . . er, I mean “rough-hewn.” Also, if we’re honest, not every single genre novel that appears today is a masterpiece.

But the mavens’ position is untenable. J.G. Ballard, who became a literary darling, was part of the spectrum of UK genre fiction; there’s no clear qualitative or intellectual distinction between his sf and his “mainstream” fiction: they have the same preoccupations and concerns. Turning to crime fiction, if you look at someone like Raymond Chandler – now regarded as “literature” – he was part of a continuum that, while it contained plenty of bad writers, also contained some who were arguably better than he was. The list of such examples could go on and on.

 

Other than literary fiction’s being easier to write (no need to create coherent alternate realities), what differences do you see in writing the two types?

I’m not sure that literary fiction actually is easier to write. If I want to put a piece of fiction in a real setting I have to do a lot of research. If I want to set a story on the planet Fablundia, I can just make shit up!

Where I do think literary fiction is easier to write is in terms of storytelling. A crime novel (or an sf/fantasy novel, etc.) stands or falls according to the strength of its storytelling and its plot. Too many of the mainstream novels that I read score very weakly in these two disciplines. They may have other goodnesses to offer, but clearly their publishers and readers have relatively low standards when it comes to those elements that are traditionally regarded as essential to a good novel.

 

What’s the best experience you’ve ever had at a sci-fi con?

That would be telling. The second-best was probably discovering that I was on a panel with Hal Clement. Giving a live presentation with David Langford of Thog’s Masterclass at a World SF Convention in Glasgow was pretty good too.

 

What’s the worst?

Finding myself on a panel with . . .

 

Would you advise aspiring writers, especially sci-fi writers, to submit mss. to publishers or go it alone as self-publishers? Why?

It depends on what the writer wants to achieve. If you simply want your book to exist, then self-publishing can be the way to go.

And there are other instances where it can be the best option. For example, back in the day I had a friend who wrote a book on pirate radio stations, only to be told by publisher after publisher that there was no market for it. So he raised the money to publish it himself (a far more expensive business in those days) and to buy an ad in New Musical Express, and the next thing he knew he was ordering a reprint several times the size of his first run. He ended up founding a publishing house on the basis of that book’s success.

I also recall, back in the days when I worked at one publisher, the author who was himself responsible for at least 90 percent of the sales of his book. It was a book that appealed to horse-racing punters. As he was one himself, he’d simply go to meets with his SUV stuffed with copies of his book, and flog ’em. He sold literally thousands that way. We all thought he was nuts to have gotten a publisher involved – he’d have made far more money if he’d self-published.

But for every case like that – and for every Fifty Shades of Grey or The Martian – you have a zillion self-publishing ventures that go nowhere.

It’s not hard to see why. Although the publishing experience can be infuriating and on occasion dismal for the author, the fact that a book has been published by a known imprint gives the potential purchaser some measure of reassurance as to its quality: the chances are pretty high that the book will be, at the very least, okay. By contrast, if you buy a self-published book, the chances are high that it’ll be lousy. Since most people these days buy their books online, so you can’t browse through the book before buying, the fact that a book’s self-published can be a big disincentive to risking your hard-earned ten bucks or twenty bucks on it.

 

What are your next writing projects?

I’m just about to start writing a book on fake news for a YA publisher – we’re all pretty excited about this. Further down the line there’s a publisher who wants me to write a book on the worlds that science-fiction writers have created – I can’t really say more about that project at this stage – and the same publisher is talking about an expanded edition of the Hugo-nominated book Dragonhenge, which I wrote but, far more importantly, Bob Eggleton illustrated.

I also want to write a book on femmes fatales, but my agent hasn’t placed it yet. And then, still at development stage, there’s the book on beer art, the book on Edgar Wallace movies, the book on SETI, the book that’s provisionally called The Young Scientist’s Bathroom Book, the book on crap movies . . . I’m keeping my Noirish site ticking over,of course, and I have a few short stories that are asking to be written.

I stay busy.


Margaret Atwood

 

“I think the thing to emphasize is that writing is a gambler’s profession. There is no guarantee of anything. You can put in a lot of time, a lot of effort, invest a great deal of emotional energy, and nothing may come out of it. There are no guarantees. So, unless one is fairly committed and willing to make that investment, don’t do it.”

–“Seven Tips for Writers from Margaret Atwood


MOST SCIENCE FICTION IS IRRELIGIOUS — in most sci-fi stories, religion is simply not there. Some sci-fi novels, however, are implicitly or explicitly atheist: some have atheist characters, some revolve around the conflicts of atheists with religious believers and religious institutions, and — to make the definition even looser — some that I’d classify as atheist (more accurately, atheist related) simply critique religion and religious institutions.

The following books do not comprise anything approaching a complete list, even using that loose definition of atheist science fiction. They’re merely the best atheist and atheist-related sci-fi novels that I’ve come across.

I’m sure there are many other good atheist science fiction novels, and I’ll add them to the list as I discover them. If you have any favorites not listed here, please leave a comment about them. (All links in the listings below go to book reviews on this site.)

cover photo and quotation from Mick Farren'ts "Protectorate"

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Margaret Atwood

  • The Handmaid’s Tale. (1985) More speculative social fiction than science fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale is Atwood’s horrifying vision of what would happen to America, and especially American women, if fundamentalists seized power. Anti-fundamentalist and antiauthoritarian, but not specifically atheist.

Iain M. Banks

The following are Banks’ “Culture” novels–space opera on a grand scale. While set in the same universe, all work as stand-alone novels. All are set in a galaxy-spanning, far-future atheist and anarchist society, where religion pops up only when there’s an “outbreak” of it somewhere. All of the Culture novels feature strong, believable characters (including AIs), complicated ethical dilemmas, and frequent dark humor. Of them, the two best are probably Player of Games and Surface Detail, and the weakest is probably The Hydrogen Sonata. The one that has the most to do with religion, revolving around the sheer viciousness of many religious believers, is Surface Detail; religious fanaticism and the ills it produces also features prominently in Consider Phlebas.

  • Consider Phlebas (1987)
  • The Player of Games (1988)
  • Use of Weapons (1990)
  • Excession (1996)
  • Inversions (1998)
  • Look to Windward (2000)
  • Matter (2008)
  • Surface Detail (2010)
  • The Hydrogen Sonata (2012)Bible Tales for Ages 18 and Up, by G. Richard Bozarth

G. Richard Bozarth

  • Bible Tales for Ages 18 and Up (2014). A very funny, very revealing retelling of well known stories from one of the original, though unevenly written and poorly plotted, fantasy novels. (Full disclosure: See Sharp Press published this one.)

John Brunner

  • The Crucible of Time (1983). An inspiring novel about the rise of science and its eventual triumph over religion in an alien society.

Mick Farren

  • cover of "The Armageddon Crazy" by Mick FarrenProtectorate (1985). Deals with cults in the context of authoritarian government. Not one of Farren’s better novels, but worth reading if you can find a copy for a buck or two.
  • Their Master’s War (1987). An entertaining page-turner concerning militarism, imperialism, and religious manipulation.
  • The Armageddon Crazy (1989). An all too timely and at times quite funny novel about a fundamentalist takeover of the U.S. government. Probably Farren’s best sci-fi novel.

Tom Flynn

  • Galactic Rapture (2000). Deals almost entirely with the harmful effects of religious belief, irrationality, and gullibility. The high points are the detailed descriptions of “psychic” scams.

James P. Hogan

  • Code of the Lifemaker coverCode of the Lifemaker (1983). Very entertaining, very funny. A sharp look at a questioning attitude and rationality vs. credulousness and irrationality, with some sections exposing how “psychics” gull their victims. Probably the best sci-fi novel ever written about the conflict between science and religion, and definitely the funniest.
  • The Immortality Option (1995). The sequel to Code of the Lifemaker. Well worth reading, but only after reading Code of the Lifemaker. It’s almost as funny as its predecessor.

Victor Koman

  • The Jehovah Contract (1987). A noir-comic — to use the current term, “urban fantasy” — novel about the conflict between good and evil, where good is personified as a hit man who has a contract to take out evil, personified as The Almighty.

Ken Macleod

  • The Night Sessions (2008). A perceptive near-future look at the menace of religious fundamentalism.
  • Intrusion (2012). A frighteningly plausible dystopian novel of an all-pervasive surveillance state. A modern 1984. The protagonists are both atheists, and the novel in part revolves around their conflicts with religious “nutters” and religious privilege.

James MorrowBlameless in Abaddon by James Morrow

  • Blameless in Abaddon (1996). This is more fantasy than science fiction, but it’s worth including nonetheless. The second book in Morrow´s Godhead trilogy, Blameless in Abaddon revolves around the unstinting efforts of a terminally ill cancer patient to put God on trial at the Hague for crimes against humanity. It’s very dark, but very funny.

I’ve read the other two books in the trilogy, Towing Jehovah (1994) and The Eternal Footman (1999) and would not recommend them; fortunately, Blameless in Abaddon works as a stand-alone novel.

Morrow has written a number of other atheistic novels and story collections, such as Only Begotten Daughter (1990) and Bible Stories for Adults (1996); I wouldn’t recommend them for the same reason I wouldn’t recommend Towing Jehovah or Eternal Footman: they’re satires, but I didn’t find them funny. The one other book of Morrow’s I would recommend is the philosophically oriented City of Truth (1990), the first portion of which is downright hilarious.

Douglas Preston

  • Blasphemy (2007). A cross between a near-future high-tech thriller and a Tony Hillerman mystery, Blasphemy features two strong, very well described fundamentalist-preacher characters, one a sleazy, wealthy televangelist (drawing on Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and Robert Schuler), the other a dirt poor, ignorant, vicious fanatic. If you like both thrillers and the Hillerman novels (set on the Navajo Reservation), you’ll probably love this one.

Kim Stanley Robinson

  • Galileo’s Dream (2009). A well executed time-travel novel involving Galileo and his conflict with the Catholic Church and the Inquisition.

Norman Spinrad

  • Mind Game (1980). Science fiction related but not science fiction, this is sci-fi author Spinrad’s insightful treatment of a barely disguised Church of Scientology, and one of the best novels about cults ever written

Charles Stross

The Apocalypse Codex front cover

  • The Apocalypse Codex (2012). An oftentimes funny, genre-bending (sci-fi/fantasy) novel about a prominent televangelist, Christian fundamentalism, slithering necromantic horrors, and “applied computational demonology.” Although part of the Laundry Files series, this works as a stand-alone novel, though you’ll enjoy it more if you first read the previous highly entertaining books in the series; the first is The Atrocity Archives (2004).
  • The Delirium Brief (2017). The primary characters from The Apocalypse Codex, and the related fundamentalist and necromantic monstrosities, reappear in this latest Laundry Files novel. There were two intervening novels in the series between these two, and it’d be a good idea to read The Apocalypse Codex before tackling The Delirium Brief; it’d be a better idea to read all of the prior Laundry Files books, as there are many references to events in the previous novels.

Gore Vidal

  • Kalki (1978). A terrifying look at religious fanaticism and the use of biological WMDs.
  • Live from Golgotha (1993). A  short comic time-travel novel about live TV coverage of the crucifixion of J.C.

Robert Charles Wilson

  • Re-Birth, by John Wyndham front coverMysterium (1994). A perceptive, well written novel about an alternate-reality American religious police state, and the casual arrogance, self-righteousness, callousness, intrusiveness, and brutality of those who run such religious states. Also deals with the evil of blindly following orders rather than following your own conscience.

John Wyndham

  • Re-Birth (1955). A nicely written early post-apocalyptic tale of religious ignorance, arrogance, and brutality, and escape from it.

 

 

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Zeke Teflon, compiler of this list, is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia, which deals in large part with religious and political cults.

Free Radicals front cover


 

maddaddam

(Maddaddam, by Margaret Atwood, 2013, McClelland & Stewart, $27.95)

Review by Nicholas P. Oakley

(This review contains some mild spoilers)

Maddaddam, Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, is the final part of her post-apocalyptic trilogy and the much anticipated follow up to Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009). Ten years after it began, readers finally get to discover the full fallout of the disease designed by Crake on the dwindling human survivors, and the picture it tells is bleak, at least for humanity.

But there’s something not quite right here. It all feels strangely familiar. Keen to distance herself from the label of science fiction writer, Atwood recovers a lot of very old, very worn ground. Gene splicing, nature-hating corporations, mad scientists, designer diseases, hackers, hypercapitalism, survivalist bands in a post-apocalyptic wasteland: these have all been done before, and, unfortunately, in many cases, much better too. And, while Maddaddam has received generally good press reviews, I’m not alone in making this observation. It doesn’t help that, aside from a short skit on religious evangelism, one feels that all of this, as they say in Battlestar Galactica, has happened before.

Where Atwood succeeded in Oryx and Crake and, to a lesser extent, The Year of the Flood, was to take these tired genre tropes and tell a really good story with some fascinating characters. That was the trilogy’s strong point, yet as Maddaddam slowly unfurls we’re left with a lot of those recycled Big Ideas but not much in the way of plot, and far too many wasted characters and opportunities.

In fact, the thin plot turns downright silly by the end, when the small band of survivors form an alliance with smart pigs to catch and kill a couple of ‘Painballers’, post-apocalyptic gladiators who now roam the wasteland Mad Max style raping and pillaging as they go. The way Atwood chooses to suddenly switch narrative styles to relate this crucial scene also leaves much to be desired.

Much of the rest of the story is told by Toby, a former Gardener and survivor. Bizarrely, Atwood has somehow managed to pick one of the least interesting characters of the whole trilogy to narrate the bulk of the story, and somehow contrived to make her even blander. Far too much of the story focuses on her personal relationship with Zeb, and Atwood pours on layer after tedious layer of sexual jealousy and angst only to leave the thing hanging after the melodramatic denouement (with the aforementioned pigs playing the part of the US Cavalry).

These particular quirks aside, the main problem seems to be that Atwood has simply left herself with too many loose plot lines from the previous two books, and seems compelled to tie them all up even when it makes for an unsatisfying read, heavily dependent on coincidence. For example, Jimmy, one of the most important characters from earlier in the trilogy, is left in a state of almost permanent unconsciousness throughout the entirety of the book, as if Atwood isn’t quite sure what to do with him. Another favorite, Ren, is reduced to little more than a walk-on role. Even the Crakers, the blue, genetically-modified post-humans of the previous books, who played such an integral part to the trilogy, feel like a bad hangover. They are mostly relegated to playing a homogeneous group of humorous side kicks (naively waving around their blue penises and singing all the time), and Atwood fails to really engage with them as anything but walking Ideas.

The best bits are undoubtedly the flashbacks, set in the time before and during Crake’s pandemic, rather than the present day elements of the narrative, which lack the keen edge of danger and impending catastrophe that it so desperately needs (and Atwood displayed in the former books). Maddaddam is at its most compelling when it tells the story of Zeb, Toby’s lover and the brother of Adam, the missing leader of the band of survivors. I can’t help feel that if Atwood had only focused on Zeb’s story, rather than giving so much over to the much weaker story of Toby and the Painballers, then this might have been a fantastic end to the series.

There are other parts that are constantly jarring. Like the ‘New New Yorks’ and similar neologisms some SF writers are so fond of, Atwood constantly coins ludicrous names for the technology and Corps in her not-really-all-that-brutal hypercapitalist world before the fall. Maddaddam also sends up dollar-obsessed televangelists in the form of Zeb’s father, a minister of the Church of PetrOleum, but by constantly taking it to ridiculous rather than hard-hitting extremes, she stereotypes rather than satirizes, and like many of those Big Issues Atwood attempts to grapple with throughout the trilogy, much is lost in this approach. These problems were forgivable in the previous two books because the Message was laden with a nice dose of plot and character sweetener, but because the plot of this novel is so thin it brings the world-building to the forefront of the reader’s mind where it wilts under closer scrutiny.

In the trilogy’s two previous installments, Atwood managed to walk the tightrope between mainstream engagement and genre fiction tropes by creating compelling characters in an interesting world, but by Maddaddam the plot spaghetti and flood of Big Ideas combine to make a disappointing end.

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Nicholas P. Oakley is the author of The Watcher

watcher

http://www.twitter.com/npoakley
http://quercusrubra.co.uk


What exactly does  “anarchist science fiction” mean? Stories written by anarchists? Stories with anarchist characters? Stories with anarchist settings? Stories that make anarchist political and social points? Stories with an “anarchist sensibility” (whatever that is)? Stories that anarchists will simply enjoy? All of the above? Who knows…..

We coverBecause of this, I’ve taken a somewhat expansive approach and have included a number of non-anarchist political sci-fi novels in this list simply because I think anarchists would enjoy them. They comprise maybe a third of the total. I’ve added brief comments about books I’ve read recently and those that particularly stand out in memory. I’m still adding to the list, which is far from complete – it’s simply a list of books I’ve read and that I recommend. (I’ve included a couple that I don’t particularly like, but included anyway because they are specifically anarchist or part of a series;  in the comments preceding or following the titles, I’ve noted them.)

If you notice that any of your anarchist sci-fi favorites are missing from this list, please leave a comment mentioning them.

Here’s the list — the links go to reviews on this site.

Anarchy symbol

Margaret Atwood

  • The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). More speculative social fiction than science fiction,  The Handmaid’s Tale is Atwood’s horrifying vision of what would happen to America, and especially American women, if fundamentalists seized power. Antiauthoritarian, but not specifically anarchist.
  • Oryx and Crake (2003). An all too plausible, very well written look at the possible horrors of genetic engineering warped by profit-at-any-price corporate capitalism in a class-stratified, repressive sociopolitical system. It’s impressive in that it projects how current political, social, and technological trends in the U.S. and Canada (Atwood is Canadian) could develop and interact in coming decades; this is in sharp contrast to most sci-fi novels which will consider at most one such trend, and more often none.

Paolo Bacigalupi

  • Windup Girl coverThe Windup Girl (2009). Beautifully written. Probably the best cautionary tale about corporate-controlled genetic modification and control of food sources. Antiauthoritarian and anti-corporatist, but not specifically anarchist. (Note: friends in the life sciences tell me that Bacigalupi is quite inaccurate in some biological specifics, that he’s every bit as inaccurate here as he is in portraying climate change in the Southwest in The Water Knife.)

Iain M. Banks

The following are Banks’ “Culture” novels–space opera on a grand scale. While set in the same universe, all work as stand-alone novels. All are set in a galaxy-spanning, far-future anarchist and atheist society, and all feature strong, believable characters (including AIs), complicated ethical dilemmas, and frequent dark humor. Of them, the two best are probably Player of Games and Surface Detail, and the weakest is probably The Hydrogen Sonata.

  • Consider Phlebas (1987)
  • The Player of Games (1988)
  • Use of Weapons (1990)
  • Excession (1996)
  • Inversions (1998)
  • Look to Windward (2000)
  • Matter (2008)
  • Surface Detail (2010)
  • The Hydrogen Sonata (2012)

Transition by Iain M. BanksAnother of Banks’ sci-fi novels worth your time is

  • Transition (2009). It’s a parallel-worlds tale which deals with a wide range of social and political problems, ranging from the character deformation endemic to capitalism, to power-grubbing within hierarchies, to the question of whether the ends ever justify the means. The first half of the book is hard to follow, made up of disparate, apparently unrelated strands from the p.o.v. of different characters, but the tale eventually coalesces and concludes quite satisfactorily.

John Brunner

  • The Sheep Look Up. (1972) Probably the best early science fiction novel about the environmental crisis; antiauthoritarian, but not anarchist.

Several of Brunner’s other sci-fi novels are also enjoyable, particularly Shockwave Rider (1975) and The Crucible of Time (1983)(But don’t pick up one of Brunner’s novels at random and expect a good read — his output was very uneven.)

The Fourth World by Dennis Danvers front coverDennis Danvers

  • The Fourth World (2000). An intermediate-future novel set in the southern Mexico of the Zapatistas, and a very good book that deserves to have sold much better than it did.
  • The Watch (2003). A time travel novel set in Richmond, Virginia, featuring Peter Kropotkin as the primary character. An accurate portrayal of Kropotkin and his ideas, but not particularly engaging, in part because Danvers presents Kropotkin (in line with his actual character) as quite saintly and unconflicted, which isn’t a great prescription for the primary character in a novel.

Cory Doctorow

  • Walkaway (2017).  An intelligent, in places funny, near-future novel about the emergence of a post-scarcity anarchist society in the shadow of the “default reality” corporatist surveillance state.


Greg Egan

  • Distress  (1995). A hard sci-fi novel with pointed political and social commentary, largely set on an artificial island called “Stateless.” If you’re looking for a detailed description of how an anarchist society might operate, this isn’t it, but Distress is worth reading nonetheless.
  • The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred (2016). An all too timely cautionary tale about xenophobia, demagoguery, scapegoating, and persecution of minorities. Not explicitly anarchist, but antiauthoritarian.

El Akkad, Omar

  • American War (2017). Not anarchist, and only implicitly antiauthoritarian, American War is almost certainly the best fictional depiction of the psychological and physical devastation caused by America’s interventionist wars, and the hatred and terrorism they engender.

Mick Farren

  • cover of "The Armageddon Crazy" by Mick FarrenTheir Master’s War (1987). Antiauthoritarian but not anarchist. A page-turner concerning militarism, imperialism, and religious manipulation.
  • The Armageddon Crazy (1989). An antiautoritarian, at times very funny, and all-too-relevant novel about a fundamentalist takeover of the U.S. government.

(These are Farren’s two best sci-fi novels, and the only two I’d unreservedly recommend.)

Harry Harrison

  • The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted (1987). On the surface this book seems to be escapist sci-fi, but it’s actually a well thought out political novel that perceptively treats mutualist anarchism and nonviolent resistance. Quite probably the best book in the Stainless Steel Rat series.

Robert Heinlein

  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966). Deals with an anarcho-capitalist society on the moon at odds with an authoritarian Earth.

James P. HoganCode of the Lifemaker cover

  • Voyage from Yesteryear (1982). Features a setting directly derived from  Murray Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism. Not Hogan’s best book — it pales in comparison with Code of the Lifemaker — but worth reading nonetheless.
  • Code of the Lifemaker (1983). Hogan’s very funny tale of science versus religious fanaticism is a nearly forgotten gem; not anarchist, but antiauthoritarian.
  • The Immortality Option (1995). The sequel to Code of the Lifemaker; it’s also worth reading, but be sure to read Code of the Lifemaker first.

Ursula Le Guin

  • The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). Leguin’s classic novel on gender relations.
  • The Dispossessed (1974). Considered by many the classic anarchist sci-fi novel, its backdrop, for half of the book, is an anarchist society set on the planet Anarres. That society is well drawn, though dryly and unflatteringly (at least in my opinion; others would disagree).

Of Le Guin’s many other novels, the one I’d most recommend is The Lathe of Heaven (1971), which holds up well nearly half a century after it appeared.


Ken Macleod

The Stone Canal by Ken Macleod front coverThe first four novels are set in the same universe, but are not parts of a series. The next three are a loose trilogy.

  • The Star Fraction (1995)
  • The Stone Canal (1996). The setting is an anarcho-capitalist society.
  • The Cassini Division (1998). The setting is an anarcho-communist society.
  • The Sky Road (1999)
  • Cosmonaut Keep (2000)
  • Dark Light (2001)
  • Engine City (2002)
  • The Night Sessions (2008). A cautionary tale of religious fanaticism
  • Intrusion (2012). A frighteningly plausible dystopian novel of an all-pervasive surveillance state. A modern 1984.
  • Corporation Wars: Dissidence (2016)
  • Corporation Wars: Insurgence (2016)
  • Corporation Wars: Emergence (2017)

Paul J. McAuley

  • The Quiet War (2008)Quiet War Omnibus
  • Gardens of the Sun (2009)

Antiauthoritarian but not anarchist, these two  novels comprise McAuley’s “Quiet War” series. They’re set in the medium-distant future following ecological collapse on Earth, and concern the brutal aggression of the authoritarian empires that emerged from the chaos against the in-some-ways anarchistic “Outers” who have colonized the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. There are two later novels set in the same universe, In the Mouth of the Whale (2012) and Evening’s Empires (2013).  These are largely stand-alone novels. In the Mouth of the Whale is best avoided (very slow reading), but Evening’s Empires is a pretty decent apolitical quest/revenge tale.

Many of McAuley’s other science fiction novels are worth reading. Two that come to mind are Pasquale’s Angel and White Devils.

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan front cover

Richard K. Morgan

  • Altered Carbon (2002). The first of a brutal, noirish trilogy with distinct anarchist undertones.
  • Broken Angels (2003). The second in the series.
  • Woken Furies (2005). The third book in the series.
  • Market Forces (2004). An overtly political projection of the future of corporate capitalism.
  • Thirteen (2007). A very dystopian look at a future theofascist USA.

Annalee Newitz

  • Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz front coverAutonomous (2017). Deals with the underestimated dangers of the corporate stranglehold on “intellectual property,” the horrors it could lead to, and possible forms of resistance to it.

Claire North

  • 84K (2018). A well written, brutal dystopian tale about capitalism taken to its logical extreme (slavery — maximizing profits by minimizing labor costs). 84K is definitely not anarchist and is very short on solutions, but it does provide a gut-wrenching depiction of the emotional and physical carnage that seems all too possible should authoritarian capitalism continue careening downhill into the neoliberal chasm.

Nicholas P. Oakley

  • The Watcher (2014). Explores primitivism, the role of technology in society, and consensus decision making. (Full disclosure: See Sharp Press published this one.)

George Orwell

  • Animal Farm (1945). Orwell’s satirical critique of stalinism.
  • 1984 (1949). Dreary and depressing – as it’s intended to be – but essential. Orwell’s projection of the logical progression of stalinism.

Eliot Peper

  • Bandwidth (2018). A thought-provoking near-future thriller about online manipulation (basically Facebook on steroids), the climate change crisis, and whether the ends, no matter how noble, ever justify the means.

Marge Piercy

  • Woman on the Edge of Time  (1976)

Mike Resnick

  • A Hunger in the Soul (1998). Set in a barely disguised Africa, this is probably the best sci-fi treatment of the psychology of colonialism. Not anarchist, but well worth a read. If you haven’t read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1898) or his perhaps even better short story, “An Outpost of Progress” (1897), reading them would be good preparation before plunging into A Hunger in the Soul.

Alastair ReynoldsChasm City cover

  • Revelation Space (2000)
  • Chasm City (2001).

The “Revelation Space” novels comprise a fairly loose series set on and around a far future world featuring direct electronic democracy, human-machine integration, uplifted animals, class stratification, and orbiting habitats with a vast array of social structures.  All of the books in the series work as stand-alone novels.

One of the sequels, The Prefect (2007), is worth reading sheerly for its entertainment value, as is the new one, Elysium Fire (2018). It features the same cast of characters as The Prefect, and is a tightly written tale of murder, mystery, and revenge.

Kim Stanley RobinsonCover of Lucky Strike, by Kim Stanley Robinson

  • Lucky Strike (2009). A fine if short parallel-universes novella on the morality of “just following orders.” This is Robinson at his best.

A number of readers have suggested including Robinson’s novels here, especially the “Mars” trilogy (Red Mars [1992]; Green Mars [1993]; Blue Mars [1996]). I haven’t done so simply because this is a list of anarchist and anarchist-related novels that I would recommend, and I’m not a fan of Robinson’s Mars books or most of his other novels. The two I would recommend (neither related to anarchism) are Galileo’s Dream  (2009) and Aurora (2015). Those interested in possible political developments in China might also want to check out Robinson’s new one, Red Moon (2018).

Rudy RuckerSoftware by Rudy Rucker

The “ware” books comprise a very funny short tetralogy (written before the average sci-fi novel bloated to 700 pages) set in part against the backdrop of a sympathetically portrayed anarchist mechanoid society on the moon. The first two books in particular are gems.

  • Software (1982)
  • Wetware (1988)
  • Freeware (1997)
  • Realware (2000)

Rucker is also a great short story writer: many of his tales are both mind-bogglingly strange and brimming with laugh-out-loud, sometimes-crude humor. His Complete Stories (2012) runs to over a thousand pages, and perhaps his two best non-“ware” humorous novels (it’s hard to pick) are The Sex Sphere (1983) and Master of Space and Time (1984).

John Shirley

  • Bioshock Rapture (2012). This novel is a prequel to the popular Bioshock video game. It’s of interest because it concerns the development of a cloistered Objectivist (Ayn Randist) society. Shirley does a good job of outlining some of the horrors that such a society would produce, but the worst horrors he describes are produced by the cloistering, which undercuts the critique of Objectivism as such.  As well, because he was essentially in a straitjacket when he wrote this, Shirley incorporates fantastical elements from the game that are unnecessary from a fictional standpoint and that detract from the novel’s power. But it’s worth reading anyway.

Norman Spinrad

  • The Iron Dream coverThe Iron Dream (1972). Alternately chilling and darkly funny, The Iron Dream’s premise is that Hitler emigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s, became a science fiction illustrator, and wrote a single sci-fi novel: The Iron Dream. The bulk of Spinrad’s book is comprised of the “manuscript” of that “novel.” An excellent illustration of the ugliness of the authoritarian psyche.

Many of Spinrad’s other antiauthoritarian sci-fi novels, such as Greenhouse Summer (1999) and He Walked Among Us (2009), both of which concern the ecological crisis, are also worth reading, as is his most recent novel, the oft-times humorous political genre bender (sci-fi/fantasy) The People’s Police (2017). Getting somewhat away from sci-fi, Mind Game (1980) is Spinrad’s insightful treatment of a barely disguised Church of Scientology, and probably the best novel about cults ever written.

Charles Stross

  • The Rhesus Chart, by Charles Stross, cover imageSingularity Sky (2003). A military sci-fi/time-travel tale that features anarchist characters in an authoritarian setting.
  • Iron Sunrise (2004). The sequel to Singularity Sky.
  • Glass House (2006). A suspenseful, brutal tale about gender roles and conformity.
  • The Apocalypse Codex (2012). One of Stross’s genre-bending, amusing Laundry Files series, The Apocalypse Codex deals with a televangelist, his literally brain dead followers, and tentacled Lovecraftian horrors. Its treatment of both the absurdity and deadly menace of Christian fundamentalism is spot on.
  • Neptune’s Brood (2013). A strange, sometimes funny story about the structure of interstellar finances and financial fraud. Part of the book is set in a sympathetically portrayed deep sea anarchist society of genetically modified humans.
  • The Rhesus Chart (2014). Another entertaining Laundry Files novel. The Rhesus Chart deals with the big banks, and has a clear, concise explanation of exactly how they’re screwing us.
  • The Delirium Brief (2017). This latest Laundry Files novel has privatization schemes as its backdrop, and contains an admirably concise explanation of how such schemes rob the public to the benefit of the rich and the corporations they control. (A Note on the Laundry Files books: While they can be read as stand-alone novels, they’re a lot more fun to read if you read them in order, starting with The Atrocity Archives [2004]).
  • Empire Games (2017). The first book in the new “Merchant Princes” trilogy, Empire Games deals in large part with an even-more-overtly repressive, surveillance-state USA than our current pseudo-democratic nightmare.  Stross provides enough background information that Empire Games works as a stand-alone novel, but for the inconclusive ending.
  • Dark State (2018). The same comments apply to Dark State, the second book in the new trilogy. The third and final book, Invisible Sun, is scheduled for January 2019.

Stross’s work is antiauthoritarian, though anarchism is treated overtly only in Neptune’s Brood. Almost all of his other books, particularly Halting State (2007), Rule 34 (2011), and nearly all of the Laundry Files novels are excellent reads.

Arkady and Boris StrugatskyDoomed City front cover

  • The Doomed City (2016). A bleak, brutal dissection of the Soviet Union and the ideology that produced its horrors. Written in 1972, the brothers Strugatsky kept this novel under wraps for over 15 years until it was finally published in Russian in 1989 during perestroika; at long last it’s now available in English.
  • The Snail on the Slope (2018). A new translation of another Strugatsky classic dealing in large part with the insanity and inanity of Soviet-style bureaucracy. Much shorter than The Doomed City, with shallower criticism of the Soviet system, but an easier read.

Of the Strugatsky’s many other sci-fi novels, the two I’d most recommend are their two most popular: Roadside Picnic and Hard To Be a God. Both are more coherent and much more entertaining than the two novels listed above, which are primarily of political interest.

George TurnerDrowning Towers front cover

  • Drowning Towers (UK title: The Sea and Summer) (1987). Drowning Towers was the first major novel about climate change and is still one of the best, if not the best. It’s not anarchist and barely antiauthoritarian, but it is acutely class conscious and a literary masterpiece.
  • Brain Child (1991). A chilling and plausible look at a possible result of the use of genetic engineering to produce a race (actually three races) of ubermenchen.

The quality of Turner’s science fiction novels (he was also a literary novelist) was uneven, but mostly good and sometimes great. In addition to Drowning Towers, he produced one other excellent sci-fi novel, Brain Child (1991), which concerns genetic engineering. His final two sci-fi novels, Genetic Soldier (1994) and Down There in Darkness (1999) were decidedly subpar, with the latter being downright awful. (I suspect Turner’s publisher patched together fragments of an incomplete novel.) All of Turner’s earlier sci-fi novels (plus one short story collection, A Pursuit of Miracles [1990]) are worth a read.

T.C. Weber

  • Sleep State Interrupt (2016). A near-future noirish techno-thriller about combatting the surveillance state, and the first book in the BetterWorld trilogy. (Full disclosure: See Sharp Press published this one.)
  • The Wrath of Leviathan (2018). The second book in the trilogy. The concluding volume, Zero-Day Rising, is scheduled for release in September 2019.

Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea

  • The Illuminatus Trilogy (1975). More fantasy than science fiction, this hallucinogenic, sprawling mess of a trilogy veers wildly from the unreadable to the unparalleled, featuring sex, drugs, multiple first-person narrators, shifting chronology, stream-of-consciousness narrative, conspiracies on steroids, self-mockery, zombie Nazis, one of the funniest parodies of Ayn Rand’s capitalist-fantasy/romance novels ever written (“Telemacchus Sneezed,” featuring “John Guilt”), and occasional insightful comments on anarchism.

Yevgeny Zamyatin

  • We  (1924). Written by one of the first Soviet dissidents (within the Communist Party), this dreamy, nightmarish, poetic novel of an all-controlling police state is the direct forerunner of 1984.

 

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Zeke Teflon, who compiled this list, is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia, which takes place in part in an anarchist community. He’s currently working on the sequel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals front cover

 

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