Book Review: THE HAZARDS OF TIME TRAVEL, a dystopia that doesn’t quite satisfy

oates, joyce carol - the hazards of time travel (3)The Hazards of Time Travel
Joyce Carol Oates

Seventeen-year-old Adriane Strohl, a senior at Pennsboro High School (New Jersey) in 2039 has distinguished herself scholastically by excelling in class and asking questions of her teachers. She’s been named valedictorian and received a Patriot Scholarship. The problem: in 2039, being smart and standing out is dangerous. Citizens are surveilled through cell phones, electronic communications, and every day appliances. Anyone might be an informant for Homeland Security. And there is every only one candidate for president, the Patriot Party candidate who has the most money. After all, in the two-party system, the person with the biggest war chest won, so why waste all that money and energy?

At her graduation rehearsal, Adriane is arrested for Treason and Questioning Authority. She is punished with four years of Exile, send back eighty years into the past, to Wainscotia Falls, Wisconsin (or Zone 9), where she becomes “Mary Ellen Enright” a senior at Wainscotia State University. As an outsider and time traveler, she has the perspective to make observations about the culture of mid-twentieth Century America, but she is first astounded at her roommate’s hot rollers and lipstick before she notices the paucity of female students and faculty. Still, 1959 Wisconsin is not too different from 2039 New Jersey, and in fact, it might be the model for the future so an ideal setting for Adriane to become reeducated.

Adriane must follow the Instructions: never reveal her status as an Exiled Individual, never reveal the future, never procreate, never move beyond a ten mile radius from her epicenter. Disobeying the Instructions results in immediate Deletion. Adriane is so desperate to follow the rules, she withdraws and hardly talks or makes eye contact with others. She imagines informants at every turn. Yet, she’s also despondent and lonely, and desperate to remember her family which she cannot do clearly because of a microchip the authorities implanted in her brain.

In her despair, she fixates on Dr. Ira Wolfman, her Introduction to Psychology discussion section instructor who she believes is another Exiled Individual. Her obsession with him is uncomfortable and verges into stalker territory, and I found the writing surrounding her love for him maudlin and overwrought. While it might have been appropriate for a love-sick teenager, it wasn’t at all pleasant to read.

In fact, much of the book, to me, was a slog, with a stilted writing style that I don’t associate with Joyce Carol Oates. There are too many parentheticals and hyphenated asides. Although the world of 2039 was built mainly through a litany of departmental names, I wish more than a few chapters of the novel had been set there. I had to force myself to continue even after a surprising zing in the narrative. And, for all that, the ending was confusing and unsatisfying.

The Hazards of Time Travel had some interesting elements, though. One fun aspect was the reverence at the university for professors doing research (e.g., disproving the theory of relativity) that would clearly be discredited. In the guise of Dr. Axel, the Intro to Psychology professor and an avowed behaviorist, Oates infuses the book with references to Skinner and people as a system of responses to stimuli versus people with selves.

Adriane, living in Wainscotia as Mary Ellen, doesn’t feel she can genuinely respond to her roommates because they know her as Mary Ellen and she is not Mary Ellen. Perhaps this is why the thought Dr. Wolfman might be a fellow Exiled Individual is so alluring.

Adriane, and other characters who survive and thrive, seem to have adopted a philosophy of living in the moment: “You can live a life even if it is not the life you would have chosen. You can live breath by breath. You can live.” Yet, this same philosophy is criticized as it has been used by the government: “America is founded upon amnesia—denial. Conscience cannot keep up with acts.” For individuals, then, the hazards of time travel are grief and despair, a sense of being displaced, so that living moment by moment is necessary. Polities, though, don’t have the luxury of such an attitude. Without being steeped in history, 2039 won’t be much different that 1959.

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Book Review: SUICIDE CLUB, a great concept with problems in execution

Heng, Rachel - Suicide Club (6)Suicide Club: A Novel about Living
Rachel Heng

Lea, who has just celebrated her one hundredth birthday, has done everything right. She follows the rules, observes the advisories, attends all her Maintenance sessions, and is on track for a promotion at work. With her lifestyle, career trajectory, and body enhancements (DiamondSkin™, Repairants™, SmartBlood™ and ToughMusc™), she easily expects a lifespan of three hundred years. But, if she continues to excel, she may be one of the select chosen for the Third Wave: immortality.

Her behavior and achievements over the past eighty-eight years has virtually erased her troubled childhood and her association with her antisanc father who disappeared when she was just twelve. But, walking to work the day after her one hundredth birthday party, she sees her father for the first time since he left. Eager to reach him, she walked into the street to follow him.

Her choice to leave the regimented routine of her daily life put her under observation from the mysterious Ministry, but also offered her the chance for a world of freedom. As she delves into the ranks of the Suicide Club, she learns the true costs of immortality and has to decide if she’s willing to pay and sacrifice her father.

The concept of Suicide Club was provocative and interesting, and perhaps not entirely unhinged from reality given government intrusion on women’s health. It raises deep ethical questions about who should control decisions about health care, fitness, nutrition, and recreation as well as the inequality of services, the costs of research, and the role of social pressure. Some people are so desperate to extend their lifespan that they acquire black market technology and often become “misaligned” meaning their body parts fail at different times, leading to catastrophic consequences.

The narrative has fun details, such as jazz music being cautioned against because it raises the heart rate too much or dogs being recommended as pets because they lower it. “Lifers,” or those with the genetic profile that puts them in the category for a long life span, exhibit a narrow range of facial expressions to avoid lines and wrinkles, and they forgo sweets, even fruits. When Lea eats chocolate ice cream, it’s a revelation.

Lea herself was a problematic character. Although she was unlikable, that wasn’t the primary issue for me. I was troubled that her characterization was so inconsistent. That she transformed into the troubled child she was into the model citizen she became seemed unlikely, and even within the confines of a single scene she would have a series of multiple, conflicting reactions that didn’t always flow from the narrative. Though she was one hundred, her maturity level was inexplicably low. I was also troubled by Lea’s decisions at the end of the novel. They had no payoff, so they didn’t make sense to me.

Some of the characters that were more interesting, like Anja, a member of the Suicide Club, could have been given more attention. Other secondary characters, like Lea’s fiance Todd, were underdeveloped. Additionally, one of the very provocative questions the book raised was the divide between the Lifers and the sub-100s, those who were not expected to live beyond one hundred years and often had inferior jobs and housing. One minor character represented the sub-100s, but there was so much more potential to mine, and I would have much rather read about the intersection and potential conflict between the groups than about Lea.

I really did enjoy the writing style and the world Heng created, and thought the questions she raised in Suicide Club were important, but after finishing the novel, I felt confounded, unsure of what Heng intended to convey, and it seemed to me the villains escaped while the heroes were punished, leaving me dissatisfied.

BOOK REVIEW: The Emissary, an isolationist Japan in the aftermath of environmental catastrophe

Tawada, Yoko - The EmissaryThe Emissary
Yoko Tawada

Environmental degradation in Japan has damaged the youth of the country: they are weak, have a near constant fever, suffer from digestive issues, and are sensitive to temperature changes and extremes, though they also have indomitable spirits. At the same time, the elderly are near-immortal, blessed with energy and strong constitutions. Still, the government of Japan instituted an isolationist policy terminating all imports and exports with foreign countries, forbidding travel abroad, and prohibiting the use of foreign terms (e.g., “overalls”).

In this milieu, Yoshiro cares for his great-grandson, Mumei. Mumei’s great-grandmother runs Elsewhere Academy, an institution for “independent children” while his grandparents work on an orchard in Okinawa. His mother died in labor, and his addict father’s whereabouts are unknown.

If you are wanting a book with plot or with a clear resolution, The Emissary (also released as The Last Children of Tokyo) will disappoint you. However, the novel does present a chilling though viable view of a future Japan reacting to the devastation wrought by changes in climate, environmental toxins, and shifts in the relationship between older and younger citizens.

My favorite parts of the book related to language and how language changed in response to the culture and environmental changes. In addition to the prohibition on foreign vocabulary, other words fell out of favor or lost their meaning, with no new words replacing them. Characters gave a great deal of thought to words that didn’t sound right like “chum” and “cleaner.” The Japanese voted in a slew of new holidays and changed the names of many others. In my favorite shift, “Labor Day” became “Being Alive Is Enough Day.”

The Emissary also hinted at the tensions between regions of Japan and how an isolationist policy can foster suspicion and resentment among a country; it also was a dirge to the experience lost when travel was no longer possible and when people no longer could see diverse flora and fauna due to extinction. There are also interesting references to fluidity between sexes increasing.

Mumei is presented as a charming, precocious character who stole Yoshimo’s heart as well as those of his great-grandmother and teacher. I found him annoying at best and at worst creepy. This was only heightened for me about three-fourths of the way into the book when there is an unexpected and jarring shift from Yoshima’s point of view, which had been constant until that point, to Mumei’s. After Mumei’s voice intruded, those of his great-grandmother, Marika, and his teacher, Mr. Yonatani, followed. I certainly don’t mind having multiple points of view in a book, but I do think that each novel creates its own grammar, and changing perspectives was a shift in the book’s grammar that I found irritating when it occurred so late in the narrative.

So for me, there were delightful elements in the prose, but the individual parts did not come together to me to elevate the whole, and I can’t say that I enjoyed the book that much, thought it was definitely different and somewhat interesting. However, I do take to heart Mr. Yonati’s reflections on isolationism: “It was clearly necessary to think of the future along the curved lines of our round earth. The isolation policy that looked so invulnerable was actually nothing but a sand castle. You could destroy it, little by little, with those plastic shovels kids use at the beach.”

 

BOOK REVIEW: Trail of Lightening, a dystopia with a Navajo protagonist

Roanhouse, Rebecca -Trail of Lightning (1)Trail of Lightening
The Sixth World #1
Rebecca Roanhouse

After cataclysmic climate change reformed the borders of the United States, the Navajo (Diné) closed ranks and built a wall around their land. This Sixth World also changed the borders between the real and mystical realms, allowing figures like the Coyote (the Trickster) to manifest themselves.

Diné Maggie Hoskie thought her life was over when she and her grandmother were attacked. Instead, her clan powers manifested and immortal monsterslayer Naayéé’ Neizghání appeared, seemingly out of the blue. For several years, Maggie traveled with Neizghání who taught her how to fight and use her clan powers to her advantage. But after a gruesome battle, Neizghání left Maggie. She retreated to life in a remote area of Dinétah with only her rez dogs as companions. But then, a representative from the Lukachukai convinced her to help them find a young girl who was kidnapped by a monster.

Maggie successfully defeats the monster, but it’s unlike any she has ever seen before. Its arrival pulls her into a dangerous quest to find who is creating the monsters. Along the way, she partners with Kai Arviso, a medicine man-in-training, who carries secrets of his own. Together, they inexorably advance to an inevitable confrontation with Neizghání who may be more of a monster than monsterslayer.

Having a young adult dystopian novel with a female Native American protagonist makes this a book worth considering since representation is so important. And I was poised to like the book. Unfortunately, it did not meet my expectations. Maggie is an unlikable main character who is judgmental, defensive, isolated, distrusting, quick to judge, and with an over-exaggerated sense of her own importance. Sadly, she was not a unique character. I felt like her voice was indistinguishable from that of Mare Barrow in Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen series, and probably several other protagonists in this genre as well. Like many of the books in this category, it’s told in present tense which isn’t my preference, but became irritating when some flashbacks were in present tense and some in past tense. In that area, consistency is important. The plot was poorly paced in my estimation, and the motivations of characters unclear, while the denouement offered me no payoff for the investment.

And, Roanhouse violated my cardinal rule regarding the treatment of animals. Maggie went off several times without any thought to her dogs. I wonder if labeling them “rez dogs” means it’s okay in her mind for them to fend for themselves. This is an irresponsible position. Today, Reservation Animal Rescue estimates that as many between 1,500 and 6,000 stray dogs roam the Navajo reservation. Spoiler alert: their lives are not good. Yes, Trail of Lightning is fiction, and yes, it’s set in a dystopian future, but still, the behavior of characters in fiction serves to normalize the attitudes of readers, especially those who are looking for a hero like Maggie. This type of dismissive, fend-for-themselves attitude towards dogs is irresponsible to perpetuate.

Populace

Populace - A.M. WilsonPopulace

by A.M. Wilson

After a series of nuclear attacks that wiped out Washington DC, New York City, and Los Angeles, the New United States of America formed in Omaha, Nebraska. Roger Wilkins, President, is also CEO of the most powerful company, the Leviathan Corporation. They keep the populace compliant through a diet of synthetic drugs and fear, not to mention a chip implanted at the base of their neck that will explode if they leave the city. Most of the population lives in ghettos with their food and necessities provided by the government, but Tom Stout is an elite. He is one of the few real people who work in the Communications Department, and his status affords him an apartment overlooking the bread line–to remind him of his roots–and a beautiful, wealthy fiancee. A personal meeting with Wilkins himself elevates his ambition.

But in this cocoon of safety, a shattering act of violence propels Tom out of the city. Roger tasks him with finding terrorist and traitor Joe Ikowski, responsible for inventing a device that has killed thousands. With a band of Immortals, a highly trained team of elite soldiers, Tom journeys to underground caves in Kentucky. His quest takes him to the Arizona desert, Mexico, and the Rocky Mountains. Without synthetic drugs to dull his mind, he experiences emotions for the first time, developing friendships, testing loyalties, and questioning the authority of the government. During his trek across what was once America, Tom begins to learn the unthinkable truth of his country and the origin of his own identity. With its indictment of current policies, Populace stands as a cautionary tale, but it is also a rollicking read with interesting and unexpected turns.

What I liked best about the book was the story which captured my attention and appealed to my interest in dystopias and science fiction. It incorporates several common aspects of such work but combines them in novel ways. It was also interesting to see the “old” United States through the eyes of Tom, who yearned for it, and Mike, who had lived in it. These perspectives provide a lens for the readers to consider issues currently facing society–income inequality, hunger, and climate change, for example. Wilson incorporated some current political issues to humorous effect; in one scene, the Mexican government is worried about refugees and wants Leviathan to pay for a wall. More serious are the different ways that governments use to control the populace and maintain power despite a near-universal desire for freedom. The extent to which people have a choice in their subjugation is a question that lingers after the book ends.

A few facets of the book were problematic. I found a few inconsistencies in plot. Additionally, at times, the dialogue was awkward and stiff. One particular device reminded me so much of Matrix Reloaded that I found myself distracted. The biggest problem in the book, though, is the treatment of women. I could see an argument being made that in a hierarchical, highly controlled society, gender divisions would become more rigid, and in presenting gender in this way, the author is attacking such structures. However, I don’t think that’s what is happening here. For example, all the Immortals are men as are the dronewalker pilots. Including female soldiers and pilots would have enriched the book and promoted diversity. Likewise, in the Rabbit Hole, a brothel, the prostitutes, at least those mentioned, are all women adhering to an idealized type. To me, this represents a missed opportunity and decreased my overall enjoyment of the novel. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the novel. I did like it and would recommend it to others who appreciate dystopian fiction. I just think it had even more potential.

Thank you to Netgalley and A.M. Wilson for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.