Tag Archives: dystopia

“Jack Glass” by Adam Roberts


One way that I find new books to read is to check out winners/nominees of the Hugo and other awards.   “Jack Glass” was on the list for a few awards; and I was immediately smitten by the beautiful cover!  It tries to be a sci-fi detective novel of sorts – we’re told up front that Jack is the murderer in each case (but he’s not the bad guy; or a least he’s not the worst bad guy), but the trick for the reader to figure out is the how and why.  That’s the idea at least … in practice, it was kind of like “aaannnddd he had a secret death ray all along!”  Kind of hard to deduce magical deus ex machina.

So I felt it was kind of a failure in terms of the whole murder mystery aspect.  But, as a bit of world-building and a haunting version of dystopian future, it was very intriguing.  Humanity numbers in the trillions, only a fraction still on Earth and the rest spread throughout the solar system in millions (billions?) of artificial structures in the asteroid belt and elsewhere.  The Ulanov family wields dictatorial power; their “government” is mainly a gigantic criminal syndicate aimed solely at keeping themselves in power.  But, tyrannical as they are, it keeps the peace.  But most of humanity is miserable, stuck in poverty and constant danger (one-inch thin walls keeping out the vaccuum of space) and without hope.

In the first story, seven prisoners are exiled to an asteroid.  Their sentence is to labor for 11 years excavating and improving the asteroid, whereupon the prison company will come to free them and collect the asteroid for resale – real estate is at a premium!  The seven are granted the barest of necessities and supplies and left to themselves.  As all are criminals of one shade or another, things get ugly quickly.  And very violent.  I was glad that the rest of the book did not continue on as gruesome as the first bit – far-fetched as it sounds, Jack escapes in a spacesuit (of sorts) fashioned from the body of one of his fellow prisoners.  And he was almost the most sympathetic character of the seven….

The rest of the book deals with Jack’s involvement with Diana Argent, genetically engineered heir to the Argent clan, one of a handful of families just a step below the Ulanovs.  The story’s MacGuffin is the secret of FTL, faster than light travel.  Obviously the chance to leave the oppressive Ulanovs and settle the galaxy brings a lot of hope to the unwashed masses; indeed even the idea of FTL, without proof, is feared to be enough to incite a revolution.  It turns out that the secret of FTL comes at a cost (and this is kind of clever): the speed of light is a constant in physics, which makes FTL travel impossible.  The new technology, however, involves changing this physical constant somehow, in some region of space.  But as we know from E = mc^2, if you can change c you can make some very big explosions indeed.  Diana’s sister, Eva, is an astronomer investigating Champagne Supernovae, where the star’s mass seems much too small to generate the magnitude of energy released.  The half-dozen or so observations of these supernovae are deduced to be alien civilizations that figured out FTL, but then somehow destroyed their whole solar system via the super bomb.   (A somewhat foreboding answer to the Fermi Paradox!) So, while FTL would be great relief for the trillions of surplus population, it would be horrible for someone like the Ulanovs, or someone trying to overthrow them, to gain FTL due to its weaponized potential.  Jack, hero of the oppressed, must make sure the secret stays hidden at all costs.

Much more summary and analysis here.


“Founders” by James Wesley, Rawles

founders(Ok, Mr. Wesley, Rawles … really?  You have a comma in your name?!)

In this alternate history / future dystopia, something like the 2009+ depression triggers massive inflation and the collapse of the economy and the government.  Civilization quickly descends into chaos; people are shooting each other left and right.  A select few fundamentalist Christian “preppers” are able to survive and eventually overthrow the wicked UN occupiers.

Well, I like future dystopia’s as much as the next guy, but there’s not much interesting about this one.  The dialog is bad and the characters are pretty cookie-cutter (god-lovin’ true Murican boys an’ girls) and boring.  Really this is not a novel so much as it is a love letter to guns and prepper fantasy.  But mostly guns.  Seriously, nearly every page throws in a reference to one or more firearms, by name and brand.  I couldn’t help but think that the crisis depicted in the book wouldn’t have been so bad, if only there hadn’t been so many guns around.

Also, I really don’t see how the main characters (such as Messianic Jew “Bloody Ben”) reconcile their “strong” “Christian” faith with shooting people, even if they are *shudder* European socialists.  They don’t show much charity otherwise, selfishly hoarding their own resources and scaring off refugees in need with threats and warning shots.

After winning back the nation, the new “founders” re-instate the hallowed Constitution, with some new additions: no more citizenship birthright (it must be inherited or bought), no more votes at 18, no welfare and foreign aid, an even stronger 2nd amendment (of course), no more income tax, a return to hard currency, and the sale of virtually all federal land.  Sounds like a plan!

It’s interesting to look at the last chapter, which is set 178 years post-collapse.  (Most of the rest of the “story” takes plus in the first four years.)  Presumably this is the future represents the ideal Murica that Rawles and like-minded preppers can imagine:  The US population has dropped to 50 million, clustered in the Pacific Northwest, Rockies, and Midwest.  All of the Northeastern socialists have died of influenza and Californians have all joined gangs and killed themselves off, yes!  (Not actually sure about the CA part. . . so deep is Rawles loathing for that godless state that I don’t think he mentioned it once.)  Earth is up to World War IV against the Islamists in Africa.  “Push them back across the Zambezi!”

Can any philosophy which advocates salvation through firepower, and celebrates a future World War IV (let alone III), even in passing fiction, really be worthwhile, let alone Christian?  Here’s a prepping guide I find much more sane.  After all, even Rawles gives Mormons good press: “Given the Mormon proclivity for food storage preparedness, they anticipated they would probably be more hospitable to travelers.”  “…they are Mormons, and thus were relatively well prepared for the collapse.”

If anyone is following Rawles’ recipe for preparedness, I would advise them to think more about stocking up on food than on bullets, and have more faith in the goodness of their fellow man rather than in their guns.  If not, then … you’re just scaring me, man!

“The White Mountains” by John Christopher

Hmm yet another weird-looking cover.  My wife thinks I read strange books.

I put this on my “to-read” list a while back when I was researching YA books.  This one has great Amazon reviews, but I can’t say I liked it a whole lot.  Probably would have really liked it when I was 9 or 10; now it seems a little simplistic.

It takes place in the future, but humanity has reverted to a medieval existence via an alien invasion and mind control via “capping.”  Kind of interesting to see the boys’ descriptions of the decaying remnants of past technological glory like cars, trains, subway, guns, hand grenades.  Also fun to figure out the geography, which is never explicitly stated – we start in England, cross the Channel, wander through post-apocalypse Paris, end up at the White Mountains — the Alps of Switzerland, free man’s last redoubt.

The idea of capping – surgically induced mind control to keep the people subjugated – reminded me of the similar premise in The Uglies.  In that book, the operation made you beautiful as well.  In The White Mountains, the metal-mesh cap is a symbol of adulthood and just about equally longed for by most of the children.

The ending leaves many questions unanswered; this is most definitely the start of a trilogy.  Like, what’s the whole White Mountain resistance plan?  I cheated and read the synopsis of the series on wikipedia.  Mildly interesting; but I think I’ll skip the other books.  Or maybe send them back to my 9-year-old self if they ever get time travel worked out.

“Uglies” by Scott Westerfeld

Hot on the heels of reading “The Hunger Games“, here’s another tale of a future dystopia.  Only this time the dystopian elements are not so overt.  Humanity has overcome the final obstacle to true equality – each individual’s looks.  At the age of 16, everyone is given “the operation” which transforms them from an “Ugly” to a “Pretty,” conforming their body to the pinnacle of beauty according to the standards of evolutionary biology.  Pretties then live a life of non-stop fun and excitement.  Sounds good, but the Smokies, a group of runaways and defectors, have decided that they want to live on their own terms.  The secret police, “Special Circumstances,” Does Not Approve and uses Tally, the main character, to infiltrate the Smokies.  She eventually becomes converted to the Smokie ideal (falling in love with their leader doesn’t hurt) and learns that the operation changes more than just outward appearances….  I won’t get into the plot any further; suffice it to say that all is not happily ever after once Tally joins the Smokies.

I couldn’t help but comparing the book to “The Hunger Games” since I just read it.  I enjoyed “The Hunger Games” much more than “Uglies.”  I thought it had more believable characters and was more exciting and suspenseful.  The future it presented was more interesting as well.

I think that “Uglies” missed out on being a commentary on what equality really means.  I kept expecting it, but it never materialized.  (It’s more a book about not being so willing to believe everything you are told.)  Even still, it made me think about what it means to be equal.  In the “Uglies” future, (at least on the surface) equality is achieved by making everyone equally beautiful – bringing everyone up to the same high standard.  Contrast that to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” where everyone is made equal by bringing them down to the lowest common denominator – the beautiful must wear masks, the intelligent are drugged so they are dopey, the strong must carry heavy weights, etc.

The first way is the better alternative, but probably impossible – how can you make every equal in not only beauty, but everything?  The second way is more doable, but stupid – you’ll end up with a society of morons and weaklings.  Perhaps the best way is to overlook our differences, realize that everyone is trying the best they can, help when needed but just don’t be so critical of each other.  Easier said than done I guess….

“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins

In a future dystopian North America, the sparkling Capitol represses the outlying Districts and keeps them in line partially through the annual Hunger Games.  Each District must send two teenagers, a boy and a girl, to a televised, weeks-long, fight to the death.  Think “Survivor” but with swords, spears, daggers, bows and arrows.  Lest the competitors (the “tributes”) refuse to fight, the Gamesmakers spice things up a bit by occasionally sending in forest fires or packs of rabid animals to stimulate the violence.  Only one competitor will emerge to glory and fame; the rest will die.  Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take the spot of her little sister when she is chosen for the Games.

They are called the “Hunger” games because the competitors are dropped in a wilderness area and have to scavenge for themselves for food.  Also, the normal life in the Districts is pretty tight and food can be hard to come by.  This is underscored by Katniss’ detailed descriptions of food whenever she gets some – I thought this was clever of the author, because food IS what someone with Katniss’ experience would really take notice of.

I really enjoyed the book – lots of suspense at wondering at the competitor’s next moves and also at Katniss’ “partner” from her District, Peeta.  Is he friend or foe?  Hard to tell until nearly the end.  Another clever thing by the author is that although brutality and violence reigns in the Games, the reader’s impression of Katniss is not diminished by her taking part; she strictly acts in self-defense and in the protection of others.

Not sure I am looking forward to the sequel or not … I have a feeling it is going to be a “Do I love Edward? Or do I love Jacob?  I can’t decide!!!” type of Twilight-esque teenybopper romantic quandary blah.  But who knows.