This is book two of her Broken Earth series, and she’s not kidding about the title of the series – the earth is definitely broken. Unlike many of the fantasy series I’ve read recently this one takes place in a sort of identifiable earth from thousands of years in the future.
- This novel slowed down the action a bit from the first in the series (The Fifth Season, which I seem to have forgotten to review). Whereas the first one went dizzingly fast, not worrying about readerly comfort, this one took a second to allow us glimpses of the past in order to explain (ew) why the planet is so broken.
- It’s broken because of us, of course, but rather than make this series a dystopia Jemisin simply shows how she imagines humans (as well as the rest of the planet) evolving to meet these changed conditions.
- One of the ways that humans have evolved is that some of us (an important distinction) have developed another central nervous system stem, something she calls the sessinapae (it’s always italicized in the novels). This new organ is not exactly explained, but it has a mystical function – it enables those who have it to manipulate earth’s energies directly. The orogenes (the name for those who have this organ) can use these powers for good and protect human settlements from the earthquakes and other massive shakes of the earth’s crust that happen constantly.
- As with all human powers, of course, they’re also used for not-so-savory purposes – control, revenge, and so on.
- These unsavory uses are at the heart of the plotline, as characters try to focus their powers in ways to protect their kin.
- Jemisin neatly doesn’t focus much on the ways in which the planet was broken – this series is not a morality play. We do get the history in bits, though, and as one might expect it’s not pretty.
- It seems that climate change got increasingly more devastating (there are hints of gaia theory here, as the planet tries to shake off us human fleas), and we tried to mitigate its effects in increasingly more drastic ways. The final way we as humans tried to make the planet inhabitable despite these effects involved us somehow moving the moon (I guess in order to eliminate tides, which had probably grown into tsunami-sized events).
- This triggered the advent of the fifth season (the name of the book in the series), a devastatingly long disruption of the sun caused by volcanic ash and featuring toxic air being released from the earth’s crust.
- There are hints that all of this is intentional, but they are just hints, and the agent is the planet itself.
- The communities that survived did so barely, and often had to practice cannibalism to do so, so much so that while the characters talk about the practice with distaste it’s definitely not taboo.
- The orogenes come about because humans tried to adapt to the fifth season. Animal and plant species either died out or adapted in their own ways, and human evolution did the same thing. Our evolution, of course, is far less balanced.
- This is getting way too long, but there’s tons going on here, in addition to being a page-turning read. Jemisin is also offering us a look at how our lizard brains continue to want to divide us into tribes and constantly thwart our best, most idealistic impulses, and she posits a couple of different ways that humans can adapt (including beings called stone eaters that I don’t completely understand, as they seem almost god-like).
- There are also lots and lots of deadciv ruins that are often deadly and that current humans mostly leave untouched.
- I will be talking about this series more – it’s brilliant and fascinating.
This will be quick, because Ready Player One is a particularly Spielsbergian piece of fluff that (SPOILER ALERT, BUT NOT IF YOU READ THE BOOK) ends with the good guys winning and all of us ready to forsake the machines and only live in OASIS part-time. YAY (and END SPOILERS)
- The tweaks on the book were interesting – they use The Shining to stand in for a whole bunch of 80s trivia. The book tended to drown in that, so I was okay with those decisions.
- The visuals were amazing, especially with the ways in which the OASIS is portrayed. They even carry the story a bunch, as is best evidenced by the ode to GTA that is the first part of the movie.
- The nods to various pieces of software felt great until they weren’t – it’s weird to see anachronistic product placement that probably works (I’m thinking Minecraft).
- As seems to happen with these films, the reasons why we now live in dystopias are simple and we own them. In this case, we simply stopped living outside of OASIS (I guess because it’s so good), for entirely predictable reasons.
- Thus the solution – we have log out on Tuesdays and Saturdays – will fix what ails us.
- I know Cline has a writing credit, but I can’t believe he’s completely okay with this. The evil corporation in the book is pretty evil, and the crazy inventive genius who manages to set up the ultimate game but still almost gives everything away to the evil corporation comes across as much crazier than he appears here, in which he essentially knew how things were going to end all along, in an EFF-for-the-win way.
I finished this series two nights ago but haven’t blogged about it yet. I loved the first two episodes, got bogged down in the middle of the series, and then finished it when I had the realization that perhaps my expectations were a bit skewed by what I thought it was about. Some observations below…
- The world this series is set in is one in which people can live literally forever via the combination of cloned bodies and a disk that is set in their spine and that instantly downloads their entire experience into the cloud.
- As one might guess this arrangement causes problems. It also, however, raises some interesting questions, ones that folks like Ray Kurzweil and the Futurists might have skipped over. For instance, what does it mean to capture our experience? Where does that reside? Does whatever the ‘it’ is have to go through the brainstem? How does muscle memory work then? And how do white blood cells function (for instance)? Where is the lymph in all of this?
- The series focuses on class structure. Those who can afford to relentlessly recreate themselves, amassing vast amounts of wealth. The rest of us get poorly-suited “sleeves” (new bodies) if we get anything at all.
- The rich also live on mansions in the clouds, literally untouchable without an intense effort that requires a lot of specialization and hacking. The rest of us live on an earth that looks to have perhaps sort of stabilized into a world of unrelenting concrete, buildings, rain, and food grown in vats and on top of buildings.
- As I began the series I was excited by how fully it seemed to realize what I think of as William Gibson’s cyberpunk vision. Gibson’s world is full of death and destruction and the sort of cynicism about space opera scifi as well as the future that fit well with my life as a computer programmer in the early and mid 80s.
- Programming was becoming increasingly dumb, and ways to fight that dumbing down were not apparent – the DFHs had soured me on the ability to protest effectively, and I wasn’t sure my fellow nerds could agree not to eat sugary, food-industry-derived confections from their childhood for dinner let alone band together enough to fight the machine.
- As the series started to feature long expository speeches that filled in the background of the world of Altered Carbon my cyberpunk cynicism twitched – I didn’t want to have Envoys putting up an ideologically-pure resistance that attempted to embrace humanity – I wanted cynical detectives and high body counts.
- Interestingly the series offers both of those, but it goes beyond them. The main questions it asks are ones that I think the ancient Greeks asked, and that feel more relevant now with advances in technology, about what happens when mere humans have what are essentially godlike powers of life and death.
- It reminded me of one character in Neuromancer (Dixie Flatline) who, while completing a mission in which his simulation has been woken because Case needs his hacking expertise, tells Case that after this run is done to be sure to unplug him. Endless life in a construct might not be that great.
- It also had a hotel run by an AI named Poe that was pretty amazing. I will say no more…
- It also turns upside down the hard-boiled detective plot that Gibson used. The detectives don’t negotiate the dregs for us middle-class folks afraid to venture into the city; instead, they investigate for the rich, who are already comfortable walking into the dregs because they know they can’t die. The rich folk in question here like the monkey parts of our brains, doling out violence and sex in particularly nasty ways. These are certainly not beautiful utopic creatures of pure light.
- And Kovacs, as detective, essentially investigates for those of us who want to rebel. That’s sort of a refreshing change.
- The fact that it ended (SPOILER ALERT) with the detective simply making the case, and the police arresting the rich folks (all of them) is not the way these are supposed to end in a postmodern world. (END SPOILER ALERT) Instead, cynically, it probably should end like The Wire, with half-assed convictions and the deaths of anyone trying to do the right thing.
- The fact that it doesn’t feels right somehow, upon reflection.
- I will need to come back to this because this post is getting way too long, but the questions this series asks about identity are fascinating. It also questions how we think about ideas like emotional literacy and shame, and again I will have to come back to these. I look forward to it.
This novel happens in a world torn apart by geological instability, with surface upheavals nearly wiping out all life at irregular intervals, and humanity desperately trying to find ways to survive. That doesn’t mean that this is a Star Trek prime directive type of world with all of us working together because we are human, goshdangit. Power gets incremented into social structures in familiar but horrifying ways.
- As is clear from the overview, this novel resonated with me mostly due to the way it describes how power becomes institutionalized. No one is obviously evil – instead, folks like the guardians are simply doing what they were trained to do. They might even believe that their actions are world-saving, although we seem far beyond that…
- It builds a world that had me looking for reference points that simply weren’t there. After I stopped looking the enormity of what Jemisin is doing became clearer – she’s interested in power, especially as it manifests itself socially, and she’s utilized the structures inherent in the world to look at how connections with the primal forces of our geology have the potential to shape how we relate with each other.
- The sell-by date on the planet also neatly contrasts with the Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park, life-will-find-a-way happy dance. Yeah, maybe, but only if the enormous power that resides in the molten rock that exists just below us as we hurtle through the deathly cold of space says sure, for a while…
- I also tagged this as ‘gestalt’ because of the ways that the oregenes function. They can essentially draw upon the energy inherent in rock (and the environment around them) to do all sorts of stuff, and their function in this novel is purportedly to prevent the types of geological upheaval that will wipe out life. The utilization of this kind of mind power functions differently than the obsession with magery and sorcery that becomes an easy out in a lot of fantasy, and Jemisin is doing some interesting stuff. I look forward to the rest of the series…
Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation is the first novel in the Southern Reach trilogy, and, having read this, I am excited about the rest. This novel reads like a fever dream in a sense, with an emotionally repressed narrator who is a biologist, and who narrates the entire novel in the first person. We have no idea if she’s reliable or not, although the only details I question are who shot first in the murder she commits (in the novel it’s self-defense).
- The title speaks to annihilation of self that happens as the various expeditions of humans penetrate Area X, a location that felt both Pacific NW and Gulf Coast (it’s Gulf Coast, as Vandermeer demonstrates by thanking the folks at St. Mark’s National Seashore in Florida). This area that seems to be some sort of biological infestation (perhaps extraterrestrial, perhaps not) is slowly expanding, and humans are trying to stop this expansion, but no group that enters the territory emerges unscathed.
- Several amazing passages – the first:
The map had been the first form of misdirection, for what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible?
While this is an interesting thought in and of itself, I found it particularly useful in the context of the novel. The maps are all drawn up from natural contours – narrative description serves as our way to understand Area X from a human perspective, one that grows increasingly confused as the narrator proceeds (her husband, for instance, might or might not have disappeared to an island north, an island that is outside the boundaries of Area X, or isn’t).
- The second focuses on the words written on the walls of what the narrator calls The Tower (it is called a Tunnel by the other members of her expedition, and that feels more like I what I think of when I think of tunnels based on the description). They are written by what she calls the Crawler, which is some sort of shimmery powerful being that has incorporated parts of much of this area, including the former lighthouse keeper. A sample:
Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner… The narrator posits that these words serve as some sort of “core,
irreplaceable substance” that creates The Tower, although – fittingly in this novel – she has no idea how that process works (passage on p. 159)
My guess here is that this indecipherable creature goes beyond some sort of scripter but serves as a means of coalescing all known grammar and languages in a larger sense in one structure that humans can recognize. The fact that the party has different names for it – tunnel and tower, two seemingly incompatible labels – argues for this view.
- Another set of words in The Tower:
That which dies shall still know life in death for all that decays is not forgotten and reanimated shall walk the world in a bliss of not-knowing” – as close as this novel gets to invoking zombies…
- And the final set, reminding us of the title:
“Was I in the end stages of some prolonged form of annihilation?” (306)
The annihilation is of self, of course, but it’s also of notions like identity, ethnocentrism, and perhaps human dominance of the natural world.
Musings on the prevalence of dystopia in young adult fiction…
- Obvious thought #1: dystopias offer readers a chance to remake their world, even if the ways in which this happens are not all that pleasant or even desirable. From my subject position the stakes seem higher: connections with the natural world are harder to come by, the destruction of the planet looms, older folks keep threatening (and succeeding) with getting them into an ever-increasingly vague and confused series of wars from which they may or may not come back whole, things that seem clear to the majority of their generation (race and gender are constructs, capitalism has limits, consumerism is destructive, the poor are just like those who are not) are sources of anger and bad arguments by those older.
- The problem with dystopias, though, is that there are still residues from the old world. That may not be a problem, especially if dystopias are canvases that we can draw our own desires on. What are those desires?
- Fewer other people, perhaps, and a world where everyone is joined in a common purpose *because* of the dystopic threat that all simultaneously face…
- Complications about good and evil disappear, as with the vast majority of folks gone sides are easily determined.
There are many more, of course…
I read Parable of the Sower a long time ago, and reading a ton of dystopic fiction made me remember to pick up Butler again, who was one of the first. Parable of the Talents had me reading too quickly.
- The narrative device she used was cool, even if it took me some time to figure out. The story is being told by Lauren Olamina, the protagonist of the first novel, but in this one we get a preface to begin each chapter by her daughter, who survives the destruction of Earthseed and has a strained relationship with her mother. We essentially know that Lauren will survive, since the daughter’s passages talk about meeting her again in the future, and the look from the future gave a sense of the cost to her own humanity that Lauren goes through in order to create Earthseed.
- “God is change” is the constant refrain in this novel, the basis of the religion of Earthseed. I admire Butler’s relentless optimism, even though she writes a dystopic novel set in a California that is rapidly becoming too hot to live in and in a USA that briefly falls sway to religious zealot as President. God is change is Butler’s attempt to show a way we can live with religion and science, a way to essentially think of earth through a sort of gaia theory (without all the sentience) and to understand how we can fit into the planet.
- Of course, Butler’s work isn’t easy, so Lauren – despite offering us a way to live on earth – is convinced that we have destroyed it too badly and wants humanity to head to the stars.
- As often happens in her novels, Butler shows how horrible people can be to each other. This novel is full of slavery – called indentured servitude or prison sentences – that has arisen in a USA that is rapidly sliding into meaninglessness. Shock collars are used to keep people subdued, and they are incredibly effective.
- I was often disturbed by how close to reality this often felt. People in towns that were still intact were intentionally ignorant of the nastiness happening around them, except when they had to defend themselves from it. Parts of the country still work – they’re able to hold a presidential vote – and other parts are sheer chaos. All of this is caused by the dislocation and disruption of declining natural resources matched with climate change. Who could have seen any of that?