All kinds of good reads lately! Even though I’m writing just as much as always, there is something about summertime that lends itself to more reading. I’d also like to send a special thank you to Daniel José Older whose recent book talk video on great sci fi by women authors led me to discover some of these books.
YA dystopian fiction (but written decades before that term was coined.) I am embarrassed to say I had never read Octavia Butler before. I’m happy I finally corrected this glaring oversight. This novel set in the near future is so frighteningly prescient it is difficult to read. The year is 2026. American society is rapidly breaking down thanks to global warning, economic stagnation and wealth disparity. 18-year-old Lauren Olamina lives with her family in a walled-off middle class neighborhood outside LA, but she knows that their little island of relative safety will not last. No one can leave the compound without risking their lives. People are desperate and bereft of any hope. Police and fire fighters only come to help if you have the money to pay them, and even then they are more likely to arrest you than assist you. Few jobs pay money. Most people are slipping into de facto slavery as servants to the wealthy or employees in company-run towns. The new president promises to “Make America Great Again,” — sound familiar? — but does so by eliminating the space program and loosening all labor protections, which only gives large corporations a freer hand in cutting up the carcass of the United States.
Lauren is born with a dangerous condition, hyper-empathy, which means she feels whatever pain she witnesses inflicted on others. When her neighborhood is finally breached and she is forced out into the harsh new world, this empathy is only one of her great challenges. Lauren has an idea for a new kind of society — a new religion that will teach self-sufficiency and a new understanding of what God is — but to realize her dream, she first has to stay alive and learn who she can trust.
This book was written in the 90s. The scary thing is — the 2026 Butler imagined twenty years ago could easily happen within ten years. Reading this book, I felt a growing sense of claustrophobia, as if I were already trapped in Butler’s disintegrating vision of America. It is a haunting, powerful read, but not for the faint of heart.
After reading Parable of the Sower, I had to go right out and buy Butler’s most famous novel Kindred. I was not disappointed. It is amazing that this book was written in 1976 and feels just as fresh and timely in 2016. Dana, a young African American woman who has just started a career as a writer in California, is suddenly and inexplicably yanked back in time to Maryland in 1815, where she must save a white boy named Rufus from drowning.
This becomes only the first of many time traveling episodes for Dana. She quickly realizes that Rufus is one of her own ancestors, mentioned in the family Bible. Somehow, they are connected across time because they are kindred. To assure her own future, Dana must keep Rufus alive until he has children who will some day be Dana’s family line. Unfortunately, Rufus gets in a lot of trouble.
Only moments pass in the modern world each time Dana is called away, but months or even years pass in the world of 1815. Dana watches Rufus grow from a little boy into an adult slave owner who inherits his father’s plantation. She tries her best to influence Rufus’ development, but can she overcome the poisonous institution of slavery that infects everyone it touches?
The novel is a potent metaphor for the modern African American experience and the American experience in general. We may be lulled into the feeling that we have advanced, that we have made progress as a society. But at any moment, we may be yanked back into the past and reminded of where we came from. That heritage of slavery, exploitation and racism is an integral part of our national identity, and it is never far below the surface. It can overcome us in an instant. Like Dana, we must be constantly on guard, well-equipped and ready to be yanked out of our supposedly modern and enlightened existence to deal with the ugliest parts of our nature. We are kindred with the Americans of 1815, whether we like it or not.
A rich and vibrant mixture of science fiction and West African/Caribbean folklore, Midnight Robber tells the story of a young girl Tan-Tan growing up on the world Toussaint, populated mostly by the descendants of Haitian colonists. Tan-Tan has a pretty good life at first. Her father Antonio is the mayor of the Cockpit County. Like most people in her colony, her needs are taken care of by Granny Nanny, the uber-computer that controls and takes care of her citizens through her Anansi Web, anticipating all needs, monitoring all activity and keeping the peace (mostly). Tan-Tan’s favorite game is playing the Robber King (Queen), a noble bandit from folklore. Soon, however, Tan-Tan’s life is upended when her father is arrested for a horrible crime and he and Tan-Tan are exiled to New Half-Way Tree, an alternate dimension version of Toussaint with no servants, no nanotechnology, no comfort and no law. There, Tan-Tan must discover her own strengths to fight for survival — especially from her own father, who is revealed to be a drunken sexual predator. With the help of the indigenous inhabitants, the douen, Tan-Tan slowly evolves from a scared young girl into her own incarnation of the fabled Robber Queen.
The novel is exceptionally well-crafted. The world-building is fabulous and also a lovely antidote to science fiction where all future worlds seem to be white and European. It isn’t an easy read, partly because the web of perspectives and narrative styles surrounding Tan-Tan’s story take some patience. Also the entire novel is told in a dialect that the characters call Anglopatwa or Creole. I got used to the language quickly enough, but be warned going into the novel that Hopkinson requires the reader to hear her story on its own terms. This is both the novel’s biggest challenge and one of its greatest strengths. I was reminded of books like Clockwork Orange of City of Bohane, (or James Joyce, for that matter) where the language is an integral part of the story.
I love Cronin’s epic story about a world destroyed by a virus that creates vampires. This is the third and final volume of his trilogy, so I won’t say much except that it is a worthy conclusion that still leaves possible room for further adventures in this universe. Spanning over a thousand years, the novel takes us back to the origins of the viral outbreak and the man who will become Patient Zero, the first vampire, then zooms forward centuries to the human settlements that have formed after the apparent disappearance of the viral threat. But, of course, the vampires are not gone . . . simply waiting. When the final battle arrives, humanity faces permanent extinction unless our band of heroes can unite and defeat the first vampire in his lair . . . a crumbling, viral-infested Manhattan. This is sounds interesting to you, definitely start at the first book: The Passage. Fantastic stuff!
A timely and poignant exploration of the lives of transgender teens — each chapter a narrative constructed from interviews with those teens who have, with varying degrees of success, come to terms with their gender identity and overcome prejudice and misunderstanding at home, at school, and in the workplace. The best way to understand someone’s struggle and to develop compassion is to listen to them tell their stories. You would have to be very hard-hearted indeed to get through this book without developing a great deal of empathy for these teens and what they have to deal with just to be accepted as themselves. It’s a fast, engaging read, highly recommended.
Wow, this book. It only took me two days to finish, but I have a feeling it may take me several years to figure out what it meant and how I feel about it. It is compelling, thought-provoking, and deeply unsettling. Our narrator, a teen girl named Micah, tells us right up front that she is a liar. She lies about everything to everybody. She promises that she is about to come clean and tell us the truth about the death of her boyfriend Zach, who is brutally murdered during their senior year. But is she telling the truth? The reader will have to sift through so many versions of reality, and so many layers of Micah’s lies, that you will be left not sure what has happened or what it means. The novel gives a whole new meaning to ‘unreliable narrator.’
Is something supernatural going on? Maybe. Or maybe not.
Is Micah a killer? Possibly, but possibly not.
Do some of the characters in the book even exist? By the end, you will not be sure.
If that sounds frustrating . . . well, it can be, but the book is also an incredible page-turner. Despite her lies or maybe-lies, Micah comes across as sympathetic. I liked her, no matter who (or what) she was. I can’t get into specifics without giving too much away, but if you want a murder mystery unlike anything you’ve ever read, check this book out. A great summer read.