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.

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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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