Archive for the ‘Dystopia’ Category

I was just clued in to this provocative video by the good people over at The Teeming Brain. I rarely watch short films anymore, but this makes me think I should reconsider that decision. Definitely watch the video BEFORE you read their commentary . . . I’m not offering any analysis here, but would be interested in people’s reactions.

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I may have been a little late getting around to reading this series. But the prequel is set for release in a few weeks, and Fox is working on turning the first book into a film in the near future, so I guess my timing in finishing them actually turns out to be pretty good.

The Maze Runner books were published over a period of about 3 years, beginning in 2009 with The Maze Runner, then The Scorch Trials in 2010, and The Death Cure in 2011.  The series has been favorably compared to The Hunger Games trilogy, which I think is fair, and I bet most adults who liked Collins’s books will enjoy these as well.

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A friend recently published a smart review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go.   You should go read it.  Her review and questions, along with my less-than-clear recollection of various aspects of the book, led me to revisit it this weekend, and what follows are some loosely-organized critical thoughts on the book.

Everything after this assumes the reader has read the book, which has a major plot element withheld in the beginning chapters.  This thing is probably better left unknown if you are reading it for the first time, so don’t read this if you are planning on picking it up.  Also, what follows will  not be a proper review with any attempt at synopsis or the like, so don’t expect that you’ll follow if you haven’t read it.

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The simple divisions of civilized versus primitive or civilization versus wilderness are rarely actually simple.

Ishi, the last of the Yahi. His story is not identical to John’s in Brave New World.

To reiterate what I said in the first part of this post . . .

Dystopian fiction is often concerned with what can easily be presented as simple dualisms: freedom/restriction, happiness/misery, individual/collective, logic/passion, reason/emotion, civilization/wilderness, and so on.  When I have taught dystopian works, I use these to give students an anchor and rubric for their reading and thinking about the texts.  However, these pairs can also become blinders for analysis of such works, allowing critics, including authors of the works themselves, to over-simplify the complexity of ideas therein into a simple “this or that” option that neglects so many questions of politics, philosophy, and definition.

To my mind, the most glaring examples of this over-simplification are in the spacially-oriented conception of civilization versus wilderness and, by extension, the more complex idea of civilized versus primitive.  In the two posts that will follow, I’m going to take a look at how these concepts are flattened, simplified, and misrepresented in the two defining texts of dystopian literature: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Part 2: Huxley’s Brave New World and the Not-so-primitive “Savage”

Like Zamyatin (who he claimed to have not read), Huxley builds his dystopian world off of the examples of H.G. Wells’s utopian fiction.  Likewise, he situates in a world of what seem to be mutually exclusive binary categories.  And again, a central question is the distinction between the civilized (manifested in the World State, its logic of stability, and its citizens) and the primitive (ostensibly all that is necessarily eliminated from the World State).

Within this context of exclusion as definition, the spacial location of the primitive is the Reservation at Malpais (the bulk of which is seen in Chapters 7 and 8).  However, the primitive and uncivilized is also usually read as embodied in the character of John “the Savage,” a young man born (in the old-fashioned way) on the Reservation of parents from the World State.  He becomes the primary protagonist of the novel’s second half when he is brought  to civilization (the World State’s London), and the central conflicts in the book are illustrated most extensively through his dialogue with World Controller Mustapha Mond (in Chapters 16 and 17).

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The simple divisions of civilized versus primitive or civilization versus wilderness are rarely actually simple.

Ishi, the last of the Yahi. His story is not identical to John’s in Brave New World.

Dystopian fiction is often concerned with what can easily be presented as simple dualisms: freedom/restriction, happiness/misery, individual/collective, logic/passion, reason/emotion, civilization/wilderness, and so on.  When I have taught dystopian works, I use these to give students an anchor and rubric for their reading and thinking about the texts.  However, these pairs can also become blinders for analysis of such works, allowing critics, including authors of the works themselves, to over-simplify the complexity of ideas therein into a simple “this or that” option that neglects so many questions of politics, philosophy, and definition.

To my mind, the most glaring examples of this over-simplification are in the spacially-oriented conception of civilization versus wilderness and, by extension, the more complex idea of civilized versus primitive.  In the two posts that will follow, I’m going to take a look at how these concepts are flattened, simplified, and misrepresented in the two defining texts of dystopian literature: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

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Thoughts on Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Drowned Cities and Julianna Baggott’s Pure

I picked up these  two books in close succession and read them back-to-back (actually, I didn’t exactly “pick up” Bacigalupi’s book; I preordered it because his work is probably the most exciting world building- and idea-wise of any current author I’ve read).  I was mid-way through Pure when The Drowned Cities arrived, and I plowed through both rather quickly. The two share enough similarities, despite huge differences in set-up and execution, that I thought it was worth looking at them side-by-side

My short take is that both are strong, mature entries in the currently booming young adult dystopia/post-apocalyptic genre (to be fair, Bacigalupi’s is better defined as “post-collapse”; and Baggott’s book doesn’t seem to be tagged by the publisher as YA even if the label really fits); I’d strongly recommend both to fans of the genre.  They are both plot-driven in typical YA fashion, but the ideas behind the worlds, and the development of dark, relevant to our world themes that reflect on our own situation, stand up well enough for honest, open-minded adult readers to not dismiss them. From a ranking point of view, Bacigalupi’s book is hands-down the superior work, partially due to the amount of work he has put into developing the world in which it takes place (the same world as his earlier YA novel Ship Breaker, which shares a main character, The Wind-up Girl, and at least two stories from his collection Pump Six and Other Stories).  I’d recommend The Drowned Cities to anyone, and everyone concerned about the future should be reading his books, but Pure, as good as I think it is, may be more of a genre fan novel (its rights have, however, already been picked up by Fox Studios, due undoubtedly to the genre’s popularity; I have no idea what the status of Bacigalupi’s YA books being adapted is, but they would work very well in the hands of a good director).

So both books are arguably “post-apocalyptic,” but what exactly does this mean?  As I mentioned, The Drowned Cities takes place in the same post-peak-oil, climate change and rising sea-levels, salvage-as-capital world as his prior novels (after “the accelerated age”), and this world is fully fleshed-out, thoughtfully considered, and a downright frightening view of where we may be in a matter of decades.  Pure is more of a throwback; the destruction of civilization (at least in the post-apocalyptic North America setting) is due to “the detonations,” a missile exchange more reminiscent of cold war-era science fiction than contemporary visions of the end of the world as we know it.  If this were the extent of Baggott’s world-building, it would be a mediocre read, but she adds in two factors that make the world far more interesting than another Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior rehash.

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I’m fascinated with book cover art: how publishers, designers, and artists make choices to represent a book is kind of a cool possible subfield of lit. studies and way to remind students (and oneself) of the existence of a marketplace, book-as-commodity, and genre branding.

So, a couple years ago when I was teaching Oryx and Crake, the cover of the new edition the bulk of my students were using kept picking at my brain. It seemed so familiar, but I couldn’t immediately figure out why.  The original U.S. paperback used art from the left (Eden) panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights: an extremely appropriate choice (and one I would use as a way to bring past visions of ideal social arrangements vis-a-vis Christian myth into contrast with the novel). The new edition featured more futuristic and less obviously-related art that sort-of derailed my lesson plan.  Here are the two editions.

Cover art for first U.S. edition paperback (2004)

Cover art for 2009 edition (Year of the Flood tie-in)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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