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.”

 

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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.

Vox by Christina Dalcher

VoxIn the not-too-distant future, Sam Meyers, advised by the fanatical Reverend Carl Corbin (leader of the Pure Movement), becomes President. Just a year into the Administration, they had systematically disenfranchised women. Women were no longer allowed to work, their passports were invalidated, premarital and extramarital sex were illegal, LGBT and other undesirables were put into labor camps–and women were fitted with word counters. These counters monitored women’s speech, and if a woman uttered more than 100 words in a day, she was shocked with an electric current that increased with the number of infractions.

Dr. Jean McClellan, previously a preeminent neurolinguist, was lured into the President’s service when his brother and key adviser, Bobby Meyers, suffered a skiing accident and developed aphasia. While Jean worked on a cure, she–and her daughter Sonia–were exempt from wearing the word counters. In a state-of-the-art lab, reunited with her previous team, Jean wrestles with the implications of her work and the fact that when it concludes, she’ll be subjected to the word counter again. Her estranged best friend from graduate school, Jackie Juarez, previously active politically but now assumed to be in a labor camp, became the voice of Jean’s conscious asking Jean what she would do for her freedom. Jean pushes herself to the limits of what she will do not just for her own freedom, but for that of all women in the United States.

The book has an interesting premise and draws from the likes of The Handmaid’s Tale and Future Home of a Living God. In flashbacks, Jean considers how the government laid the foundation for such widespread oppression–for one by requiring a religious class in high schools that taught the “proper” realms of men and women–and how she was complicit for failing to become involved politically. She also traces how men respond to their new power, often through reflections on her husband, Patrick, who doesn’t believe in the Pure Movement but who is willing to keep Jean’s books locked up and prevent her from using the computer, so far as telling her that things aren’t that bad. How a class of people might react to newfound power is an interesting component of the book. Jean’s son, Steven, becomes a true believer in the Pure Movement, and it is revealing how she struggles in her relationship with him.

The society under Meyers is harrowing, and, like many of these dystopian novels, not impossible to imagine. Especially in the last half of the book, I was compelled to read to find out what would happen. Diminishing my enjoyment of the novel, though, were frequent plot holes, unconvincing twists of logic, or simply confusing passages. I also didn’t like the writing style which to me was too conversational and casual. That said, I do think readers who are fans of this genre will enjoy Dalcher’s addition.

Thank you to Netgalley and Berkley Publishing for an advance reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

When She Woke

When She WokeWhen She Woke by Hillary Jordan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Roe v. Wade had been overturned. Only the most violent criminals sat in prison. The rest were infected with a virus that turns their skin the color associated with their crime–yellow for misdemeanors, green for crimes like arson, blue for child abuse, and red for murder, including abortion–and called Chromes. After Hannah had an illegal abortion, she was caught by the authorities. She refused to name the father or give any details about the doctor who performed the abortion, and she was sentenced to thirty days in the Chrome ward (broadcast to an eager public) and sixteen years as a Red.

After her arrest, her mother disowned her, so her father found Hannah a place at a halfway house, the Straight Path Center, ostensibly run by Reverend Henley but in practice controlled by his sadistic and cruel wife. There, Hannah met Kayla, Red for shooting her step-dad after he molested her younger sister. Each woman left the center, Kayla to find her boyfriend, and Hannah, repelled by their tactics. Outside, on the run, the women encounter the Novemberists, a pro-abortion group who promises passage to Canada and reversal of the melachroming–but was their price too much to pay?

As the women begin their journey from Texas to Canada, they confront betrayal and threats of violence from the Fist of Christ, a Christian vigilante group, as well as men who might take advantage of Chromes, women who have few rights. Hannah confronts the father of her aborted child and admits to desires previously unthinkable to her as a dedicated member of the ruling Trinity Party and a staunch Christian.

I devoured When She Woke because the story captured my attention. The characters were interesting enough, if slightly one dimensional, but I thought Hannah’s personality may have changed too much, too unrealistically during her journey. I expected one ending to the novel and was surprised (and pleased) when my expectations were thwarted. What stayed with me most about the novel, though, is how seamlessly society moved from our lived experience of today to a theocracy where women, gays, and anyone not fitting the proper mold are oppressed. As such, it’s a cautionary tale.

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