The Testaments

The Handmaid’s Tale is everything you would expect from the dystopian genre. It is at once spare and low-key and at the same time terrifying. It is a beautifully written piece of literature, sufficient to itself, leaving the reader with ambiguity about the fate of the individual characters but with a satisfyingly clear picture of the narrow and punitive theocratic world it depicts.

I was, therefore, quite ambivalent about a sequel, especially one coming out 30 years later and after the equally dynamic and engaging (although horrifying) visual depiction of the Hulu television series.

The publishers amped up anticipation for this book by making some promises:

“In this brilliant sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, acclaimed author Margaret Atwood answers the questions that have tantalized readers for decades. When the van door slammed on Offred’s future at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, readers had no way of telling what lay ahead for her—freedom, prison or death. With The Testaments, the wait is over.”

testamentsFor the most part, I would say that these promises are not kept. Offred is not present in this book, except for some oblique references by people who don’t know her. Neither the beginnings nor the ending of Gilead are sufficiently detailed as to give the reader significant new insights into the rise and fall of this so-called religious obscenity of a government, although the theme of fascism—and the fact that it’s the low-level enablers who keep the system going, and not necessarily those at the top—is well documented. Apart from acknowledging that there is a resistance, and noting some of the actions of individual members, there is no cohesive picture of how it began, who is in it or runs it, or how they operate, beyond a few specific examples that still leave you wondering about the organization as a whole. If you have watched the television show, then you are unsurprised by the venality and corruption of the leaders of the republic, and even if you have not, if you are an astute reader with an imagination, you could easily extrapolate.

As far as the objective quality of the book and the story, I was disappointed to some extent. This book doesn’t speak with the same voice, take the same tone, or carry the same weight as the original. It reads more like a mainstream, action-driven novel, highly accessible, and thus may appeal to more readers. But it also suffers from something I doubt Atwood anticipated: The fact that two of the three narrators are young girls gives it a quality of immaturity that makes the book occasionally come off like a well written Young Adult novel. You can’t fault the writer for this, since the truth of Gilead is that they raise ’em “right” and push them into their roles as women while they are still barely nubile girls, so that there is less chance of self-awareness or rebellion. But the result for the narrative is that the girls occasionally present as typical whiney teenagers, which sometimes doesn’t seem right for the context. Furthermore, because one girl’s point of view is from the comparatively privileged space of a Commander’s daughter while the other’s is as an outsider raised in Canada, neither the narrative nor the sense of the plight of the women so ill-used by the hierarchy—the Handmaids, the Marthas, the Jezebels—is nearly as dramatic. Despite some sacrifices, the girls are more focused on self-interest and their personal lives than on the big picture of bringing down the government.

The saving grace of the novel is the third narrator, the nefarious Aunt Lydia who has become so prominent a figure in the Hulu series. Most of the material written from her perspective does give the promised insights into the underpinnings and back-door deals of the corrupt government underlying Gilead’s sanctity, and the two-faced, manipulative, passive-aggressive way she goes about achieving her objectives is positively Machiavellian, as is the long game she is playing. Her portion of the novel is truly a delight, but can’t quite carry the rest. I also disliked the ending.

My reaction, upon turning the last page, was to feel a little flat. I subconsciously expected lyrically written prose with a subtle plot, some substantial heroines, and a more revealing take on the Republic of Gilead. Instead, I discovered a fairly straightforward, occasionally witty thriller that gave me a bit more information, and added somewhat to social commentary. Perhaps that will be enough, or even preferable, for some readers. You will have to judge for yourself.

Fresh look: old books

In the realm of science fiction writing, it mostly seems like the guys get all the love, so for this foray into older reads, I’m going to focus on some interesting and talented women writers, those who specifically address the interaction between humans and “aliens,” or between races of people, with a psychological, cultural, religious, and/or philosophical bent. The fact that these books, some of them decades old, are also completely relevant to many of our current circumstances is the mark of a good speculative fiction writer…

sparrowFirst up are two books by Mary Doria RussellThe Sparrow, and Children of God. Russell has a background as a paleoanthropologist, and she makes excellent use of it in this two-book tale of humans’ first contact with an extra-terrestrial civilization. The action in the first book jumps back and forth between 2016, when an expedition is being put together in response to the discovery of extraterrestrial life (obviously a 2016 more advanced than our own!), and 2059, when the leader of that expedition, a charismatic Catholic priest and linguist who is its sole survivor, is being examined by the Vatican in search of an explanation for how first contact could have gone so horribly wrong. In the second book, Father Emilio Sandoz is forced to return with a second expedition to discover all the ways in which the impact of the first mission has shifted the cultures of the dominant and submissive races on the planet. Russell writes a good story, but also explores sociological, spiritual, and scientific aspects of the situation she has postulated, resulting in a compelling read.

Ursula K. LeGuin is one of my favorite authors ever. She wrote the entire spectrum from fantasy to hardcore science fiction, but all from a philosophical, sociological, and anthropological viewpoint that makes them particularly fascinating answers to “what if?” (Her father was an anthropologist and her mother was a writer.)

earthseaOn the fantasy end of the spectrum are the Earthsea books, which started out as a trilogy (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore), but then got added to with a book of short stories (Tales from Earthsea) and two more sequels (Tehanu and The Other Wind). I point that out because while the original trilogy is completely satisfying, you wouldn’t want to miss the other two books; and the short stories add depth to the world she created, a world that is deceptively simple but that contains timeless and sophisticated themes.

dispoAmong Le Guin’s many other books, my favorites are The Dispossessed—about a group of utopians who left their planet’s surface 100 years ago to settle on the moon so they could pursue their chosen lifestyle, and what happens when a physicist on the moon decides that he will break the forbidden silence between the two planets—and The Left Hand of Darkness—about a planet that is being considered by an Envoy (a person who travels to new civilizations to check them out) for membership in a vast intergalactic association. The sentient species on this planet is both male and female, and can switch genders, depending on various environmental and emotional factors, so that one person can be both a mother and a father in the course of their lives. The Envoy is the only person on the entire planet who is one-gendered, and it’s a strange experience for him, needless to say. LeGuin was always “fashion forward” in terms of the themes of her books, so for her to explore gender issues so thoroughly before the rest of us took notice is no surprise.

Next on my list is Sheri S. Tepper, who had a varied career as an executive director of Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood in Colorado, a guest ranch owner in Santa Fe and, later in life, a prolific science fiction author.

famtreeMy favorite is The Family Tree. Police officer Dora Henry is looking into the murders of three geneticists who were working on a secret project. But while she is conducting her investigation, bizarre things start to occur: Plants start taking over the city, and dictating where people can and can’t drive by blocking the roads with trees. The weirdest part is that Dora can somehow communicate with the plants. Dora comes to realize (through an agency that I can’t reveal because it’s such a spoiler) that there is the potential for a civilization-ending catastrophe that she may be a key figure in averting. This is such a quirky and entertaining read, not to mention environmentally relevant for all of us in this particular moment.

Tepper has her own entry in the “alien contact” trope, and it’s a good one. It’s called The Fresco, and it starts out with a hilarious sequence in which Benita Alvarez-Shipton, the abused wife of an alcoholic loser, runs into two aliens in a remote wooded area of the New Mexico mountains, and they designate her, despite her protests that she’s “not anybody,” to take their message to her leader. So she hops on a plane to Washington, D.C. and tries to explain it all to her congressman. She thinks that’s an end to her involvement, but the aliens have more in mind for her to do. The book is a vehicle for cultural, political, and religious issues, and Tepper does, to be fair, have a particular agenda. But since I mostly agreed with her agenda, I enjoyed the book! You might, too. It’s wickedly humorous, as well.

snowAnother great sci fi writer is Joan D. Vinge. Her epic series is contained in three volumes: The Snow Queen, World’s End, and The Summer Queen, which are about a backwards little planet called Tiamat that happens to be a key transition point at the core of a galaxy, and the so-called primitives whose quaint society is maintained without change by the powers-that-be on other planets, simply to keep the transition point open for their trade ships, none of which stop at this planet. Every 150 years the “star-gate” closes, and then the primitives reign, but this time there are political moves being made to maintain the status quo. The theme of exploitation of a native people to maintain use of their natural resources lifts this trilogy beyond simple fantasy.

5thA classic book about what can happen when natural resources are treated with respect and what will happen when they are not is The Fifth Sacred Thing, by ecofeminist and permaculture teacher Starhawk. A group of spiritually and politically enlightened old women start a radical movement in the streets of San Francisco designed to result in a utopia in which water runs freely, everyone has enough to eat, and perfect equality is more than just a goal. By contrast, Los Angeles has adhered to the old ways, in which the people in power are privileged and everyone else is starving. What happens when these two cultures clash, the one an advocate of nonviolent resistance, the other a society with drug-reliant soldiers enslaved and trained to destroy? Walking to Mercury and City of Refuge are the sequels.

irustanFinally, although I’ve mentioned it here before, I’d like to remind readers of a particular book by Louise Marley, The Terrorists of Irustan. The book is set on a planet that was settled by humans long ago, but where the Second Book of the Prophet reigns, where men maintain their dominant male culture and women are not seen outside the home without being wrapped head to foot in veils. The only women who maintain a tiny portion of independence are those who are trained as medicants, the poor excuse for doctors on this planet. (The men find the profession of medicine distasteful.) These women treat the colonists injured in the rhodium mines, and also minister to any others who are sick and injured. One such medicant, Zahra IbSada, makes a controversial personal decision in the course of her duties that will have unexpectedly wide ramifications for the women
on her world.

This concludes our tour of some powerful speculative fiction writers and their tantalizing works. I hope you will consider them when you are in the mood to be entertained but also want something of substance to occupy your mind.

 

Fresh look: old book

Another entry for this occasional feature, looking back to favorite reads…

Louise Marley has written historical fiction, speculative fiction, and science fiction. I have two favorites:

glassharmThe Glass Harmonica has two protagonists in two different time periods, both of whom play the instrument (based on glass cups) invented by Benjamin Franklin (one in 1761 right after Franklin invented it, and one who is a classical musician in 2018), and it is a lovely combination of historical fiction and ghost story.

 

irustanThe Terrorists of Irustan is set in the future on another planet, giving it a science fiction classification, but the society on Irustan mirrors the claustrophobic restrictions imposed on women in conservative religious middle eastern countries today. The main character, Zahra, is a medicant and a subversive, hiding feminist heroism behind her silk veil, and her co-conspirator, Jing-Li, is perpetuating a fraud that could mean death were it discovered. The story is gripping, real, and relevant, a Handmaid’s Tale sort of dystopia.

 

Ew, zombies

girlgiftsAs I have mentioned before, I am neither a horror fan nor (specifically) particularly tolerant of gore, so that I would choose to read a zombie book (without prompting from my teen book club) seems unlikely. I actually picked up the book thinking it was a different young adult novel (and now I don’t know which one that was—it was about a girl whose parents locked her in the garage every night because she had scary abilities), and when I realized what The Girl with All the Gifts was, I almost put it down. But the protagonist immediately caught at my imagination, and I had to keep going. I’m glad I did.

I came late to this one (the book came out in 2014 and the movie apparently premiered in January of 2017 only to sink like a stone—I never heard of it, despite the inclusion of Glenn Close as Dr. Caldwell!), but I agree with author Maggie Stiefvater‘s analysis:

The most sure-footed novel I’ve read all year. A dystopian thriller with a real, beating heart. Recommend. Recommend. Recommend.

So many zombie books are basically action/adventure/gross-out, with people constantly trying to figure out ways to escape being eaten and/or turned. This one, on the other hand, is more of a philosophical analysis of what constitutes a human being, who is worth saving, and what acts are justified in the cause of scientific inquiry and the hope for a “cure.” That makes it sound pedantic and slow; be advised that it is also filled with action, chase scenes, creeping horror, and unbearable poignancy.

The book opens with a bunch of kids who are locked into wheelchairs to attend school. The viewpoint is Melanie’s, arguably the brightest girl in her class, who comments on the variety of teachers and subjects, her interactions with other personnel (including doctors, soldiers, and the other children), and the weekly routine, an undeniably bleak and peculiar one to be imposed on children. The reader gradually comes to realize what’s going on in this cell block locked away from the wider world (the setting is England), just in time for this routine to shift utterly and eject certain of the characters out into that world, following them to see how they fare.

The science—the kind of fungal infection that could plausibly mutate into a zombie-type disease—felt new and interesting. The characters who persist throughout the story are thoroughly developed, with an understanding of their motivations and aspirations. The dystopian world is horrifyingly bleak, and definitely conveys the feelings of the last few people in a dying apocalypse. But for all that, the book is fresh, the story is moving, and the conclusion both beautiful and terrifying.

BoyBridgeThere is a second book, The Boy on the Bridge. I initially thought I wouldn’t read it, because the ending of this one is so satisfying I didn’t feel the need; but that book turns out to be a prequel to this, answering some questions about things taken for granted in The Girl with All the Gifts, and I may have to go for it, distaste for zombies notwithstanding!

Although I believe the author wrote these books for adults, because of the age of the protagonists one could also consider them high on teen appeal. From my slightly squeamish position regardingly the sometimes excessively graphic detail, however, I don’t think I would recommend them to teens under the age of 16!

 

 

 

Why dystopian fiction?

mockingjay-pinWhy have dystopian and post-apocalyptic books become and remained so popular? As a teen librarian, this was one of the questions most frequently asked of me (mostly by bewildered parents and teachers), so I recently included my (extensive) answer in a speculative fiction lecture to my Young Adult Literature class.

Included in the dystopian and apocalyptic sub-genre are books addressing the degradation of the planet, painting societies that have run out of fossil fuels, societies that have run out of water, numerous scenarios of global warming, and societies in which the entire infrastructure has broken down and created a scavenger mentality. There are stories addressing the breakdown of civil society, with the rise of oppressive religions and philosophies and the persecution of “the others,” and experimenting with ideas about who those others of the future will be—will they still be gay people, Jewish people, Muslims, people of color? Or will the society shift and find different victims on which to avenge itself?

Some observers of the success of this publishing niche point to 9/11 and the many terrorist events before and after it as an existential catalyst to make people consider end-of-the-world scenarios. But dystopian fiction was around long before any of our current destruction scenarios, starting in 1932 with Brave New World, and featuring such classics between then and now as Fahrenheit 451, A Canticle for LeibowitzThe Handmaid’s Tale, The Road, and Parable of the Sower. And in addition to those considered classics, there are equally enduring stories (even though some of them are dated) such as Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank; Logan’s Run, by William F. Nolan; War Day, by James Kunetka and Whitley Streiber; Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle; On the Beach, by Nevil Shute; and The Family Tree and The Gate to Women’s Country, by Sheri S. Tepper.

alasbabylon

The question is, though: Why are these books so popular, especially with teens?

Before The Hunger Games ever spurred a glut of dystopian and post-apocalyptic books on the teen market, there were forays into this downbeat science fiction sub-genre of dark, diminished futures focused on survival: cautionary tales such as Feed, by M. T. Anderson and The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer; and future projections such as Obernewtyn, by Isobelle Carmody, the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld, and the chilling Unwind (and sequels) by Neal Shusterman. After The Hunger Games, which is the all-time best-selling book series (surpassing even Harry Potter and Twilight!), the reading public went crazy for such books as Ready Player One and Epitaph Road, and overdosed on such series as The Maze Runner, Divergent and sequels, and The Young Elites.

UnwindSome of these works are focused on the immediate hereafter, while others project centuries ahead to speculate on what a future world would look like after the immediate destructive effects have subsided. If adults are feeling anxious enough to write these books, it’s probable that their anxieties are being communicated to their teenagers through more than popular fiction and the movies made from it.

Reading about a society that is worse than yours, or a scenario in which the worst that could possibly happen has transpired—but people have survived and are using their ingenuity and determination to make things better—can be reassuring.

There is also the advantage of being able to talk about socially unacceptable topics in a fictional arena and work out how you feel about them or how you should feel about them. Calling a political regime into question, or rebelling against a religion or cultural restriction by reading about it can help a teen (or an adult) who can’t quite bring him- or herself to rebel in real life, by offering some relief, or possibly even guidance and encouragement. Authors can offer pointed commentary about societal trends (as did the authors of Brave New World and 1984) from within a fictional setting and gain an audience while not suffering the criticism or retribution they might receive if their comments were offered in plain speech.

Teens can use these books as metaphors to work out their own problems with the real world. Teen brains are not done maturing yet, and many teens are filled with rage and fear and longing, and have trouble articulating their thoughts and feelings; so fiction that provides a cathartic release and relief of these emotions is helpful. These books can also inspire us by the actions of their courageous, defiant protagonists who overcome barriers and limitations or come to the realization of their own shortcomings and seek to do better.

Ultimately, it is also fiction that, once again, provides the opportunity for the learning of empathy.

“Reading good literature can be a powerful way to develop empathy. Empathy could be one of the most important qualities to develop in young citizens who will go on to be successful actors in a complicated world.”

—Dr. Brené Brown